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Cog Sci video goodness at UQAM
July 3, 2012 2:16 PM   Subscribe

When, where, how and why —since the origin of life on Earth about 4 billion years ago— did organisms' input/output functions become conscious input/output functions?

This week there's a who's who of cognitive science meeting at the The Evolution and Function of Consciousness conference at University de Québec à Montréal (scroll down a bit for the massive speaker list). The conference is in commemoration of the Turing Centenary (previously). And the best-of-the-web thing is: all of the videos (and discussion threads) are or will shortly be available on line!

A few highlights (direct video links, random formats; unlinked talks not yet available):

Dan Dennett (Tufts) A Phenomenal Confusion About Access and Consciousness

Antonio Damasio (USC) Feelings and Sentience

Shimon Edelman (Cornell) Being in Time

David Edelman (NSI) The Octopus as a Possible Invertebrate Model for Consciousness Studies

John Searle (Berkeley) Consciousness and Causality

But there are many, many more worth checking out.
posted by mondo dentro (46 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite

 
This looks to be a fabulous resource, thanks for posting. Sadly, their server seems overloaded right now.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 2:39 PM on July 3, 2012


Oh - it was just streaming that was slow. Downloading the file seems fine...
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 2:41 PM on July 3, 2012


No Thomas Metzinger? Really?
posted by rr at 2:50 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder if this will be the first conference that becomes aware of its own existence...
posted by Aquaman at 2:55 PM on July 3, 2012


That's an interesting question! When, where, how and why do you think organisms' input/output functions became conscious input/output functions?
posted by hincandenza at 2:57 PM on July 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


That may be the most unanswerable question around which a conference has ever been organized.
posted by IjonTichy at 3:17 PM on July 3, 2012


Omnia animata (everything thinks).—Spinoza
posted by No Robots at 3:20 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


To phrase my response in the most positive way I can: hopefully this attention to what constitutes thought, consciousness and learning in machines will spill over into improving the miserable state of education of children.

Because studies in human education are pretty much deliberately ignored.
posted by Twang at 3:23 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


hopefully this attention to what constitutes thought, consciousness and learning in machines will spill over into improving the miserable state of education of children.

...? The conference seems to be about consciousness in humans and other animals, not machines.
posted by IjonTichy at 3:31 PM on July 3, 2012


What makes us think that humans are conscious?
posted by cmoj at 3:37 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's actually at UQAM (University de Québec à Montréal), one of the two flagship French universities here (and which has an excellent cog sci programme; some of the students from it came over to my university (Concordia) to take some of the philosophy classes on AI & cog sci (Pat Churchland was one of our main text sources) that I also took, and they were very well informed going in), not at McGill, but it is in English. The for-credit course that these public lectures are part of is administered by UQAM and open to anyone enrolled in one of the universities here (or anywhere else, I think.) The four main universities (2 French, 2 English) here collaborate a lot on conferences. All four's philosophy departments have hosted the Philopolis conference where undergrads and grads give papers, for instance.

I attended the Dennett & Damasio talks on Friday; missed the film on Turing, unfortunately, as I had other business to attend to; both talks were excellent. Damasio's in-depth neurological research into what he calls "feelings" (a broad category, but well-explicated), and their role in organisms' homeostatic functioning, and ultimately in consciousness, was impressive.

Glad they will (all?) be available for review. Looking forward to the Searle talk, especially since I feel that his Chinese Room thought experiment's basic point still stands.
posted by Philofacts at 3:38 PM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


What makes us think that humans are conscious?

Whatever makes us think anything at all, I guess.
posted by saturday_morning at 3:39 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, fantastic. Really looking forward to digging into this.
posted by nev at 3:40 PM on July 3, 2012


I don't believe that consciousness has squat to do with evolution. I'm one of those that believe that consciousness just 'is' and 'was' and 'always will be' and whatever happened here on Earth by way of evolution has little to nothing to do with consciousness. If we can grasp it at all, a conference of academics would be the last place to acknowledge it unless they could see it as a theory in a PowerPoint presentation. I'm somewhat of a New Mysterian when it comes to this whole business. Colin McGinn (surprise!) isn't on the list of invited speakers.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 3:47 PM on July 3, 2012


Are there transcripts anywhere for these? I didn't see any in a quick browse but maybe someone saw something I didn't. I want to watch the Dennett video but the sound quality is not great and he has a beard. (Makes lip reading hard.)
posted by newg at 4:03 PM on July 3, 2012


That may be the most unanswerable question around which a conference has ever been organized.
posted by IjonTichy


I think it's pretty short-sighted to declare this topic 'unanswerable'. Unanswered? Sure! But unanswerable? Why on Earth would that be the case?
posted by lazaruslong at 4:07 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Great resource, many thanks!
posted by carter at 4:16 PM on July 3, 2012


I wonder if the Center for Consciousness and this group are rivals. Hameroff and Penrose are considered outliers in the studies looking for a quantum theory of consciousness. I can't help but wonder that someone/thing has to open the box and produce the eigenstate.
posted by pdxpogo at 4:42 PM on July 3, 2012


I don't believe that consciousness has squat to do with evolution. I'm one of those that believe that consciousness just 'is' and 'was' and 'always will be' and whatever happened here on Earth by way of evolution has little to nothing to do with consciousness.

Well, then maybe we can rephrase things. Assuming you believe that individual humans have this thing called consciousness, and assuming you believe that single-celled organisms do not have this thing called consciousness, and assuming that you believe in a theory of evolution in which all forms of life have evolved from single-celled organisms through the adaptive selection of random mutations, then I guess you could take them to be asking at what evolutionary point this thing called consciousness -- whether you want to give it god-like always-everywhere traits or not -- accrued to animal life?
posted by nobody at 4:49 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


The octopus can also be used as an excellent model of what consciousness tastes like.
posted by bicyclefish at 5:23 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


No Robots: I love that Spinoza quote. Thanks.
posted by mondo dentro at 5:44 PM on July 3, 2012


It's actually at UQAM (University de Québec à Montréal)

I apologize for the blunder. Is there anyway for me to fix that?
posted by mondo dentro at 5:47 PM on July 3, 2012


[Fixed the school name in the post.]
posted by cortex at 6:12 PM on July 3, 2012


...and assuming you believe that single-celled organisms do not have this thing called consciousness, and assuming that you believe in a theory of evolution in which all forms of life have evolved from single-celled organisms through the adaptive selection of random mutations, then I guess you could take them to be asking at what evolutionary point this thing called consciousness -- whether you want to give it god-like always-everywhere traits or not -- accrued to animal life?

Is your username perfect for this discussion or what? "nobody" instead of "someone"...kinda like "something" instead of "nothing" which is the essence of consciousness in this context.

Yes, I believe in evolution, but don't accept that single-celled organisms are necessarily not conscious. Probably not, but who knows? I mean, for god's sake, we can't even really describe consciousness to where there's anything close to a consensus! Awake? Aware? Sentient? How the hell do we know if a plant doesn't love it every time we select a particular Pandora channel? It's fine if they want to kick it around at a conference, but I still don't think evolution fits into the mystery. I certainly don't mean that in any "religious" sense at all. Not me - I'm a non-believer in a personal "God"...

Chalk me up as one of the people who believe that consciousness is the single greatest mystery after the great universal 'why' question.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 6:33 PM on July 3, 2012


I think that in order to transverse the barrier necessary for anything to be considered 'input' or 'output' you'd have to have an awareness of the barrier, no?

The whole idea of an outside to anything's inside implies consciousness of the difference, right?

I'm pretty confused, though, so. (And I look forward to digging into these lectures, so thanks!)
posted by carsonb at 7:10 PM on July 3, 2012


I think it's pretty short-sighted to declare this topic 'unanswerable'. Unanswered? Sure! But unanswerable? Why on Earth would that be the case?

It's not exactly in the fossil record, is it?
posted by IjonTichy at 12:37 AM on July 4, 2012


Alternatively: a more reasonable goal would be to achieve a glimmering of agreement as to what consciousness actually is, first.
posted by IjonTichy at 12:39 AM on July 4, 2012




Gerard Sorme, a lot of these people are neurologists or psychologists interested in the question of how people (or animals) are conscious of things. Why isn't necessarily an answerable question. We can answer can questions about 'why' in terms of goals or reasons. (Why did I fix myself a ham sandwich? — I was hungry. — Why a ham sandwich? — There was ham in the refrigerator. — Why was there ham in the refrigerator? — I bought some yesterday. — Why did you buy ham? — I like ham. — Why do like ham? — I don't know, I just do.) We may not be able ask questions like this about the universe. But how people are conscious of things is a neurological question, and we can ask how nervous systems do this. It's a difficult question, because brains and nervous systems are very complicated things and very hard to study, but unlike 'why', it's not an inherently unanswerable question.
posted by nangar at 9:37 AM on July 4, 2012


I don't believe that consciousness has squat to do with evolution. I'm one of those that believe that consciousness just 'is' and 'was' and 'always will be' and whatever happened here on Earth by way of evolution has little to nothing to do with consciousness. If we can grasp it at all, a conference of academics would be the last place to acknowledge it unless they could see it as a theory
That's because scientists and other 'academics' care about what you can prove, not what random people on the internet happen to "believe"
posted by delmoi at 11:12 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I didn't have anything to say about 'why' concerning consciousness (though it's an interesting question). Looking at the 'how' of consciousness - as a strictly neurological question - is precisely the debate over the issue. It has nothing, again, to do with "God" but everything to do about what we cannot fathom. But what is it that we use to fathom or not fathom? Something that we believe resides in the brain. Remember, no autopsy has ever found a 'mind.'

That's because scientists and other 'academics' care about what you can prove, not what random people on the internet happen to "believe"

Sorry, scientists aren't going to prove anything about consciousness for a very long time - if ever; much like we can't prove a lot of things (but pretend we can). Notice in medicine how many drugs are handed out everyday with real science sorely lacking. How many times do we read, "We really don't know how it works, but we believe..."

Consciousness is tricky to discuss, yes. If we could all agree on what it is - that might be a good start. But unfortunately it's a circular discussion and there are not two corners, or three, or four, but dozens to place yourself in. Don't get me wrong, these conferences are always fascinating. There's no question about that. But we have to remember that many who attend these things are so rigid in their own positions for no good reason other than "belief."
posted by Gerard Sorme at 1:59 PM on July 4, 2012



Sorry, scientists aren't going to prove anything about consciousness for a very long time - if ever; much like we can't prove a lot of things (but pretend we can)
Well, a proof will never be convincing to someone who can't understand it. There is nothing you can do about that.
posted by delmoi at 3:18 PM on July 4, 2012


Gerard Sorme: "

Sorry, scientists aren't going to prove anything about consciousness for a very long time - if ever; much like we can't prove a lot of things (but pretend we can)."


How do you know this? You'd have to be both incredibly well-versed in the absolute latest in neuroscience research, and at the same time somehow possess an aggregate quantifiable measure of how all science will perform for a 'very long time' or possibly forever.

Dude at the local pub in 1900 would probably say the same thing about your phone. We don't have the long-view of progress. I think science stands a fantastic chance of thoroughly understanding the brain and consciousness. Might not be while we're alive, but then that ain't that long, eh?
posted by lazaruslong at 3:21 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


And good science is the opposite of rigid. You're own anecdata notwithstanding, we both know science is all about the error correction and fluidity of knowledge based on further evidence.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:23 PM on July 4, 2012


That's because scientists and other 'academics' care about what you can prove, not what random people on the internet happen to "believe"

Sorry, scientists aren't going to prove anything about consciousness for a very long time -


I tend to agree that the mind-body problem, now apparently renamed the hard problem of consciousness, is not solvable. At best, we will be able to find the fundamental neural correlates of consciousness. The correlates should be provable. I can imagine scientists discovering an exact set of essential physical states that occur in a brain when the subject reports seeing the color red for example. I can't imagine what any proposed "solution" to the mind-body problem would look like or how it could be proved. I also don't understand why scientists these days seem to conflate the evolutionary development or history of a biological mechanism with an explanation of it. If I want someone to explain the function of a car engine, I'm not looking for a type of explanation like "first there was a horse and carriage, then there was a steam engine, and now we use an internal combustion engine because it is cheaper, lighter, more powerful, and more fuel efficient." I'm looking for an explanation of how an internal combustion engine actually works (compression, ignition, exhaust, blah, blah).

In this talk by Metzinger, he brings up an excellent mind-body problem thought experiment. Mary is the best neuroscientist that mankind has ever had. She understands all of the neurophysiology of the visual part of the brain that there is to understand. She knows all of the physical facts about what causes consciousness of color in the brain--the exact mechanisms in the retina, which neurons are involved, exactly what is happening in every synapse, etc. She knows everything there is to know about consciousness of a color, like red. However, she has never seen the color red herself because she has been color blind all her life and sees everything in gray scale. So, does she really know everything there is to know about the color red?

Well, a proof will never be convincing to someone who can't understand it. There is nothing you can do about that.

Likewise, if someone is unable to see that they haven't truly understood a problem let alone solved it, there is nothing that can be done about it.
posted by Golden Eternity at 3:49 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't believe that consciousness has squat to do with evolution.

IIRC, one of the the talk topics is "Is Consciousness a Spandrel?" So I think the possibility that it's a side effect is being discussed here.
posted by Philofacts at 4:31 PM on July 4, 2012


Something I wrote a few years ago in a similar discussion about the New Mysterians and the hard problem of consciousness:

I'm reminded of Pat Churchland's criticisms of the New Mysterian approach to consciousness, in her book "Brain-Wise". A note of mine from the class (Neurophilosophy) in which I read her book:

"1) Churchland's main beefs with the Mysterian stance are a) that it is essentially pessimistic to the point of being defeatist, b) that it quickly retreats to a supernatural (“or at least beyond the physical” - p. 128) explanation in the face of difficult questions, and c) that it has not offered any positive research programmes (see her discussion of dualism's failure in this regard on pp. 123-124; her comment that it hasn't explained anything or even come up with any testable hypotheses would seem to apply here as well. BTW, her ref to a successful “research program” brings to mind Imre Lakatos' characterization of this as the central aspect of scientific theorizing – not just the forming of a theory but of an ongoing and fruitful process of hypothesis formation and testing under its aegis.) "

posted by Philofacts at 4:37 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, a large part of the problem with the "mind-body" topic, with all of the dualisms it seems to engender, is that we use a convenient word - "mind", which is a noun, which thus reifies what is not an object but a process (thinking, cognition, etc.), an activity engaged in by objects (the brain and the electro-chemical brain-body system), and thus are in constant danger of committing what Gilbert Ryle termed a "category mistake": of imagining that minds & bodies are two kinds of "things" within a larger general category, just made out of different "stuff": material body-stuff and immaterial mind-stuff. It's like saying that breathing is a kind of "stuff" (I'm not referring to the air which is pushed in and out, but the activity itself) that exists in a duality with the lungs or that seeing is a kind of "stuff" that exists in a duality with the eyes. Thinking is not a thing made out of any kind of stuff.

I'm of the opinion that the word "mind" ultimately belongs on the same scrapheap as the luminiferous ether, phlogistons, Aristotle's "quintessence" (and the other four "elements"), and the four humours.
posted by Philofacts at 4:54 PM on July 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


I guess I agree. It seems like language problems cause so much misunderstanding. Perhaps it is better to use words like experience or consciousness, and it is especially useful to refer to a simple experience like a color or a sound. I tend to think it is today's computational theories of consciousness that will end up on the scrapheap along with the luminiferous ether and the four "elements."
posted by Golden Eternity at 5:17 PM on July 4, 2012


The whole idea of an outside to anything's inside implies consciousness of the difference, right?

Not exactly. It only necessarily implies that some observer, not necessarily the thing itself which has an inside and an outside, is conscious of the difference.

Is a (traditional) thermostat "conscious" of the changes in expansion ratios of its bimetallic strip? If you say yes, then I submit that the definition of "conscious" is so watered down as to be meaningless.
posted by Philofacts at 5:19 PM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Philofacts just blew my brain. Fuckin' fantastically expressed ideas in those three comments. Wowzers.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:10 PM on July 4, 2012


I really don't know how anyone is supposed to tell whether another organism is conscious of what's going on around it. I mean, not to sound all sophist or anything, but how do we know that everyone around us isn't just reacting in a complex but ultimately mechanistic manner, without the phenomenon of "consciousness" entering the process? How does one tell the difference? Consciousness doesn't really seem necessary, you know? Are ants conscious of their behavior? Are ant colonies somehow aware of what is going on around them in some kind of diffuse, chemical way? They react as if they are, but how the hell are we supposed to know?

Just because we can see some neurons firing on an MRI screen doesn't mean that they are conscious of anything. I seriously regard the phenomenon of consciousness to be a really weird and mysterious thing. I have no idea why this particular collection of matter suddenly "woke up" one day and started observing the world around it. I regard this as a question more properly in the domain of philosophers and theologians than of the hard sciences. We in the sciences can surely shed some light on the workings of the mind, but I can't see how we can ever conclusively prove that said workings constitute the operation of a self-aware organism rather than simply a complicated biochemical machine, or really what the difference is and where the line is to be drawn between mechanistic reaction and conscious decision.

That's all a bit of a mess but then so are my thoughts on the matter. It's a thorny problem indeed.
posted by Scientist at 7:58 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I mean, not to sound all sophist or anything, but how do we know that everyone around us isn't just reacting in a complex but ultimately mechanistic manner, without the phenomenon of "consciousness" entering the process?

The "philosophical zombie" (or p-zombie, for short) problem, yes. Well, the usual first push-back against solipsism is to note that one certainly feels oneself not to be a zombie, that, quite to the contrary, one feels oneself to be aware; and then to note that one is unlikely to be so profoundly different from all other people as to be the only aware human being; thus one can and should grant them one's assumption that they, too, are aware.

The other alternative is to tell oneself, no, actually, I'm not aware, I'm just fooling myself, and I'm just a zombie like everyone else. Does that second possibility work for you? Could that actually work for you?

(Maybe you know the joke about a particular behaviourist stance on first-person vs. third-person POVs - that only third-person POVs are "real": One behaviourist meets another and each says to the other, "Hi, how am I? You're good.")

I tend to think it is today's computational theories of consciousness that will end up on the scrapheap along with the luminiferous ether and the four "elements."

It's interesting to note, as Pat Churchland, among others, has, that these theories have tended to track whatever the leading tech of the time was (e.g., clockworks for Descartes), and that Churchland has criticized the computation model - at least the "mind is software, brain is hardware" version - as simply a new form of dualism; a materialist dualism, but a dualism nonetheless. (Our consciousness is so embodied, so tied to our particular biochemical makeup, that to speak of that scifi trope of "uploading your consciousness" into some other vessel is naïve at best.)
posted by Philofacts at 6:02 AM on July 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


In this talk by Metzinger, he brings up an excellent mind-body problem thought experiment. Mary is the best neuroscientist that mankind has ever had. She understands all of the neurophysiology of the visual part of the brain that there is to understand. She knows all of the physical facts about what causes consciousness of color in the brain--the exact mechanisms in the retina, which neurons are involved, exactly what is happening in every synapse, etc. She knows everything there is to know about consciousness of a color, like red. However, she has never seen the color red herself because she has been color blind all her life and sees everything in gray scale. So, does she really know everything there is to know about the color red?

This is indeed an excellent thought experiment. (It came up several times in the various philosophy of mind classes I took.) It points out the essential role of first-person experience - that is to say, phenomenological experience - in knowledge. Mary does not know everything about red.

We materialists (as Dennett might say) are often caricatured as being out-and-out reductionists about first-person experience, but only some are actually so.

But to say that phenomenological experience is hard to explain - to say that qualia are hard to explain - is not to say that it is impossible to explain. This is where I and many others differ with the New Mysterians. It's too early to give up, at the very least.
posted by Philofacts at 6:32 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it's the sense of giving up that bothers me the most. I really hate it when people say "this is unanswerable" and then the conversation stops. I mean, really? Come on! The whole fun is trying to answer tough questions, eh?
posted by lazaruslong at 7:40 AM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is a really good discussion of the "mind/body problem" or "explanatory gap" amongst philosophers here.

I liked Bernard Baars' presentation on his "Global Workspace Theory" which I'd never heard of, though the theater metaphor begs the question who/what is the audience?
posted by Golden Eternity at 3:09 PM on August 1, 2012


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