How Impossible Becomes Possible

active nerve cell in human neural system


Scientific materialism explains a lot about how the brain creates consciousness, but hasn’t yet fully accounted for subjective awareness. As a result, the “hard problem” of consciousness remains unsolved, and we’re alternately urged to either concede that the human brain just isn’t ready to figure itself out, or conclude that reality is ultimately determined subjectively.

Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor Michael S. A. Graziano isn’t ready to do either. He thinks the “hard problem” label is itself the problem, because it cuts off further inquiry:

“Many thinkers are pessimistic about ever finding an explanation of consciousness. The philosopher Chalmers in 1995, put it in a way that has become particularly popular. He suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems. One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What it meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable. Again, calling it the hard problem is a euphemism, it is the impossible problem.

“The hard-problem view has a pinch of defeatism in it. I suspect that for some people it also has a pinch of religiosity. It is a keep-your-scientific-hands-off-my-mystery perspective. In the hard problem view, rather than try to explain consciousness, we should marvel at its insolubility. We have no choice but to accept it as a mystery.

“One conceptual difficulty with the hard-problem view is that it argues against any explanation of consciousness without knowing what explanations might arise. It is difficult to make a cogent argument against the unknown. Perhaps an explanation exists such that, once we see what it is, once we understand it, we will find that it makes sense and accounts for consciousness.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. by Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

I.e., if science is going to explain consciousness, it needs to reframe its inquiry, so that what is now an “impossible,” “scientifically unapproachable” problem becomes a “technically possible problem” that can be solved “given a lot of scientific work.”

Technology and innovation writer Steven Johnson describes how he thinks the impossible becomes possible in Where Good Ideas Come From — available as a TED talk. book, and animated whiteboard drawing piece on YouTube. In his TED talk, he contrasted popular subjective notions with what neuroscience has discovered about how the brain actually works:

“[We] have to do away with a lot of the way in which our conventional metaphors and language steer us towards certain concepts of idea-creation. We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration. We have … the flash of insight, the stroke of insight, we have epiphanies, we have ‘eureka!’ moments, we have the lightbulb moments… All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it’s something that happens often in a wonderful illuminating moment.

“But in fact, what I would argue is … that an idea is a network on the most elemental level. I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea — a new idea — is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is, how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form?”

Johnson expands on the work of biologist and complex systems researcher Stuart Kauffman, who dubbed this idea the “adjacent possibility.” Adjacent possibility is where the brain’s neural networks (top picture above) meet data networks (the bottom picture):  neither is a static, closed environment; both are dynamic, constantly shifting and re-organizing, with each node representing a new point from which the network can expand. Thus the shift from unknown to known is always a next step away:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

Vittorio Loreto and his colleagues at Sapienza University of Rome turned adjacent possibility into a mathematical model which they then submitted to objective, empirical, real world testing. As he said in his TED talk:

“Experiencing the new means exploring a very peculiar space, the space of what could be, the space of the possible, the space of possibilities.

“We conceived our mathematical formulation for the adjacent possible, 20 years after the original Kauffman proposals.

“We had to work out this theory, and we came up with a certain number of predictions to be tested in real life.”

Their test results suggest that adjacent possibility is good science — that impossible doesn’t step out of the ether, it waits at the edge of expanding neural networks, ready to become possible.[1] As Steven Johnson said above, that’s a far cry from our popular romantic notions of revelations, big ideas, and flashes of brilliance. We look more at those next time.

[1] For a nerdier version, see this Wired piece: The ‘Adjacent Possible’ of Big Data: What Evolution Teaches About Insights Generation.

Zombies and the Consciousness Hard Problem

              night of the living dead                   Walking Dead

                      Poster from the 1968 movie

Philosophers and psychologists call human traits like feelings, conscience, and self- awareness “qualia,” and believe that, if zombies can lack them but still look and act like us (on a really bad day), then locating consciousness entirely in human biology (“physicalism”) can’t be right.

“Physicalism allows us to imagine a world without consciousness, a ‘Zombie world’ that looks exactly like our own, peopled with beings who act exactly like us but aren’t conscious. Such Zombies have no feelings, emotions or subjective experience; they live lives without qualia. As [philosopher David Chalmers][1] has noted, there is literally nothing it is like to be Zombie. And if Zombies can exist in the physicalist account of the world, then, according to Chalmers, that account can’t be a complete description of our world, where feelings do  exist: something more is needed, beyond the laws of nature, to account for conscious subjective experience.”

I Feel Therefore I Am, Aeon Magazine Dec. 1, 2015

To physicalists, says the article, “those are fighting words, and some scientists are fighting back”:

“In the frontline are the neuroscientists who, with increasing frequency, are proposing theories for how subjective experience might emerge from a matrix of neurons and brain chemistry. A slew of books over the past two decades have proffered solutions to the ‘problem’ of consciousness. Among the best known are Christof Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (2004); Giulio Tononi and Gerald Edelman’s A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (2000); Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999); and the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s bluntly titled Consciousness Explained (1991).”

Of particular interest in that battery of academic firepower is Daniel Dennett, who has a unique take on Zombies and the consciousness “hard problem”:

“Not everybody agrees there is a Hard Problem to begin with – making the whole debate kickstarted by Chalmers an exercise in pointlessness. Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness.

“Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on.

“To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with.

“This is the point at which the debate tends to collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking: neither camp can quite believe what the other is saying. To Dennett’s opponents, he is simply denying the existence of something everyone knows for certain: their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions and the rest. (Chalmers has speculated, largely in jest, that Dennett himself might be a Zombie.)

“More than one critic of Dennett’s most famous book, Consciousness Explained, has joked that its title ought to be Consciousness Explained Away  Dennett’s reply is characteristically breezy: explaining things away, he insists, is exactly what scientists do… However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do.”

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery Of Consciousness? The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2015)

Zombies also appear in another current scientific inquiry:  whether artificially intelligent machines can be conscious. “Who’s to say machines don’t already have minds?” asks this article.[2] If they do, then “we need a better way to define and test for consciousness,” but formulating one means you “still face what you might call the Zombie problem.” (Oh great — so a machine could be a Zombie, too, as if there weren’t already enough of them already.)

Suppose you create a test to detect human qualia in machines, and weed out the Zombies, but who’s going to believe it if it comes back positive?

“Suppose a test finds that a thermostat is conscious. If you’re inclined to think a thermostat is conscious, you will feel vindicated. If sentient thermostats strike you as silly, you will reject the verdict. In that case, why bother conducting the test at all?”

Consciousness Creep

And if conscious thermostats aren’t enough to make you “collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking,” then how about finding consciousness in … insects? Turns out, they, too, have a Zombie problem, according to this article, co-written by a biologist and a philosopher.[3]

What happened to science that it’s tackling these issues, and with a straight face? I promised last time we’d look into that. We’ll do that next.

[1] As we saw last time, David Chalmers defined the “easy” and “hard” problems of consciousness.

[2] Consciousness Creep:  Our machines could become self-aware without our knowing it. Aeon Magazine, February 25, 2016

[3] Bee-Brained;  Are Insects ‘Philosophical Zombies’ With No Inner Life? Close attention to their behaviours and moods suggests otherwise, Aeon Magazine (Sept. 27, 2018)

The Greatest Unsolved Mystery

sherlock holmes

Academic disciplines take turns being more or less in the public eye — although, as we saw a couple posts back, metaphysicians think their discipline ought to be the perennial front runner. After all, it’s about figuring out the real nature of things”[1] and what could be more important than that?

Figuring out the human mind that’s doing the figuring, that’s what![2] Thus neuroscience’s quest to understand human consciousness finds itself at the front of the line as the greatest unsolved scientific mystery of our time.

“Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, [David] Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today.

“I think it is possible that, compared with the hard problem [of consciousness], the rest of science is a sideshow. Until we get a grip on our own minds, our grip on anything else could be suspect. The hard problem is still the toughest kid on the block.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science, Aeon Magazine Oct. 9, 2013

“Hard problem” is a term of art in the consciousness quest:

“The philosopher [David] Chalmers … suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems.

“One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What is meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

Solving the “easy” problem requires objective, empirical inquiry into how our brains are organized and wired, what brain areas and neural circuits process which kinds of experience, how they all share relevant information, etc. Armed with MRIs and other technologies, neuroscience has made great progress on all that. What it can’t seem to get its instruments around is the personal and  private subjection interpretation of the brain’s objective processing of experience.

“First coined in 1995 by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, this ‘hard problem’ of consciousness highlights the distinction between registering and actually feeling a phenomenon. Such feelings are what philosophers refer to as qualia: roughly speaking, the properties by which we classify experiences according to ‘what they are like’. In 2008, the French thinker Michel Bitbol nicely parsed the distinction between feeling and registering by pointing to the difference between the subjective statement ‘I feel hot’, and the objective assertion that ‘The temperature of this room is higher than the boiling point of alcohol’ – a statement that is amenable to test by thermometer.”

I Feel Therefore I Am  Aeon Magazine Dec. 1, 2015

Neuroscience does objective just fine, but meets its match with subjective.

“The question of how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience, the so-called ‘hard problem’, is a conundrum so intractable that one scientist I know refuses even to discuss it at the dinner table. Another, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland, declared in 1989 that ‘nothing worth reading has been written on it’.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

Recently though, neuroscience has unleashed new urgency on the hard problem:

“For long periods, it is as if science gives up on the subject in disgust. But the hard problem is back in the news, and a growing number of scientists believe that they have consciousness, if not licked, then at least in their sights.

“A triple barrage of neuroscientific, computational and evolutionary artillery promises to reduce the hard problem to a pile of rubble. Today’s consciousness jockeys talk of p‑zombies and Global Workspace Theory, mirror neurons, ego tunnels, and attention schemata. They bow before that deus ex machina of brain science, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

Impressive, but are they making progress? Not so much.

“Their work is frequently very impressive and it explains a lot. All the same, it is reasonable to doubt whether it can ever hope to land a blow on the hard problem.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

The quest to map and measure the “personalized feeling level” of consciousness has taken researchers to some odd places indeed — as we saw in the video featured last time. Zombies also feature prominently:

“All those tests still face what you might call the zombie problem. How do you know your uncle, let alone your computer, isn’t a pod person – a zombie in the philosophical sense, going through the motions but lacking an internal life? He could look, act, and talk like your uncle, but have no experience of being your uncle. None of us can ever enter another mind, so we can never really know whether anyone’s home.”

Consciousness CreepAeon Magazine, February 25, 2016

More about Zombies and other consciousness conundrums coming up, along with a look at what made consciousness shoot to the top of the unsolved scientific mysteries pile.

[1] Encyclopedia Briitanica

[2] We’ll see later in this series what made illuminating the human mind so critical to science in general, not just neuroscience in particular.