Daniel Dennett
March 25, 2017 1:41 PM   Subscribe

"As I spent time with my mother, I found that my intuitions were shifting to Dennett's side of the field. It seems natural to say that she 'sort of' thinks, knows, cares, remembers, understands, and that she is 'sort of' conscious. It seems obvious that there is no 'light switch' for consciousness: she is present and absent in different ways, depending on which of her subsystems are functioning. I still can't quite picture how neurons create consciousness." Joshua Rothman on Daniel C. Dennett. [SLNewYorker]
posted by wittgenstein (93 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
Unsurprising that Wittgenstein would post this.
posted by tummy_rub at 2:33 PM on March 25, 2017 [10 favorites]


I'm going to favorite this for now and come back to read it later. It got sort of dense (or more dense than my brain wants right now) and I want to read it because it sounds fascinating. But just not right now.

Thanks for posting! (in advance!)
posted by hippybear at 2:45 PM on March 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


Arrgh! For a second I thought this meant he died. Then I remembered 20-fucking-16 is over (knocks on wood).
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 2:48 PM on March 25, 2017 [10 favorites]


For a second, I almost started to read this New Yorker article as a slow-burn horror mystery, set at the philosopher's residence. The philosopher at its heart has a friend/colleague who says he does everything better than he does, the compliment delivered seemingly jovially but... Then the philosopher discovers there's no dial tone at his house. The philosopher is a bit short of breath; he has previously had a heart attack and it has somewhat diminished him. We gradually realize that a colleague is indeed plotting against him, even over the course of this interview—let's see you figure this one out, Daniel! You think you know how to survive in the harsh Massachusetts winter, Daniel? Well we'll see about that, old buddy old pal! Let's see you save your own life with that special-tined fork, DANIEL!!!! Write a science-fiction story about this one, DANIELLL!!!! Let me know how it ends!!!

Um. But yeah, no, this was a very interesting read. Also: This was one of the most New Yorker stories I've read in a long time.
posted by limeonaire at 3:15 PM on March 25, 2017 [10 favorites]


It has always seemed to me that they really play for blood in philosophy of mind....very harsh polemics are routine. Perhaps the materialist vs. mysterian divide really is religious at bottom? But Chalmers, as I understand, isn't arguing for dualism - perhaps consciousness is a completely natural process, but he thinks that even so, we have no way to really understand it by scientific research.

The article points to a major problem with trying to do serious philosophy: what happens when it comes down to a conflict of competing intuitions?
posted by thelonius at 3:50 PM on March 25, 2017 [6 favorites]


Oh gods, I was with kleinsteradikaleminderheit there for a sec, worried he had passed. Had just heard one of my own profs passed, and was nosing around here to take my mind off it. Gah.

And thelonius, it seems that way to me in a lot of the big names of philosophy - it is one of the reasons I left the field for history.
posted by strixus at 4:05 PM on March 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


It has always seemed to me that they really play for blood in philosophy of mind....very harsh polemics are routine

Well, so very little is at stake in a material sense that they can afford to engage in aggressive rhetoric. I don't mean to condone it-- there's definitely a "macho" streak in philosophy which rewards scoring points against your opponents over advancing knowledge. But because (currently) philosophy of mind has effectively no policy implications, there's likewise few consequences for stating your positions as forcefully as you can. There's no reason to qualify or hedge if your positions are not going to translate into real world actions.
posted by Pyry at 4:43 PM on March 25, 2017 [5 favorites]


Wittgenstein posting a New Yorker article about Daniel Dennet would have been a lot cheaper than my undergraduate philosophy minor.
posted by srboisvert at 4:54 PM on March 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


philosophy seems to have the most toxic and unpleasant culture of any academic field. at the same time it seems, to an outsider, that pretty much all philosophy being done today is of a very high standard -- pretty much everything is a real contribution, there's not much mediocrity or CV-padding. i worry that these are somehow connected.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:08 PM on March 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


I personally come down firmly on the "panpsychism" side of the debate and am glad to have a great philosopher to back me up with logic and reason. It sure seems like Dennett is willfully misunderstanding or assuming away the zombie issue raised by Chalmers.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:09 PM on March 25, 2017


vogon_poet- Dennett has written so much on that topic from every angle. Here's a good place to start-
The Unimagined Preposterousness of Zombies
posted by bhnyc at 5:20 PM on March 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


yeah, i mean, it's all very persuasive, but I think it comes down to this:

"Supposing that by an act of stipulative imagination you can remove consciousness while leaving all cognitive systems intact--a quite standard but entirely bogus feat of imagination--is like supposing that by an act of stipulative imagination, you can remove health while leaving all bodily functions and powers intact. If you think you can imagine this, it's only because you are confusedly imagining some health-module that might or might not be present in a body. Health isn't that sort of thing, and neither is consciousness."

which seems, to me, to be either willfully misunderstanding or assuming away the issue they're trying to raise.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:32 PM on March 25, 2017


I loved this article and read it all the way through (don't always with The New Yorker, though it's the one magazine I subscribe to), and saved it to re-read later. I've always had trouble with the idea that there's a firm line between the beasts and man, or that one side of the line had a "soul."
posted by Peach at 6:19 PM on March 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


"Supposing that by an act of stipulative imagination you can remove consciousness while leaving all cognitive systems intact--a quite standard but entirely bogus feat of imagination--is like supposing that by an act of stipulative imagination, you can remove health while leaving all bodily functions and powers intact. If you think you can imagine this, it's only because you are confusedly imagining some health-module that might or might not be present in a body. Health isn't that sort of thing, and neither is consciousness."

I routinely interact with people at various ages, and various states of mental and physical health. This is the clearest expression I've seen of my experience with consciousness. Thanks, vogon_poet! It's odd but quintessentially human and mefi that we can see this and have such opposite opinions.

By chance, do you have any such clear expression of the dualist perspective?
posted by Emmy Noether at 7:15 PM on March 25, 2017 [10 favorites]


Dennet's views, as presented in the article, make perfect intuitive sense to me. Which makes me think I must somehow be misunderstanding them. Surely if I understood them properly I'd find them terribly difficult to understand, no? Where can I read more to understand them less?

(Words are a Play-Dough hammer when it comes to nailing down consciousness...)
posted by Diablevert at 8:03 PM on March 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


I was introduced to the concept of qualia, more or less 'the sensation of experiencing something as a conscious individual' and the philosophical zombie in a Philosophy course, and still find it enraging. It was as if I was in a university classroom, listening to someone with an advanced degree talking about souls or spirits or motive force. I will first admit I haven't studied this in detail. So I may be missing some brilliant and subtle point about the concepts. But really I couldn't help but think it boiled down to: "If consciousness is a physical process it is not special. If my mind is not somehow special. I will be sad. Therefore let I will assert that my mind is special somehow."
posted by Grimgrin at 8:22 PM on March 25, 2017 [10 favorites]


This pretty much sums up the Dennett--Chalmers thing [SLExistentialComics].
posted by runcifex at 8:25 PM on March 25, 2017 [5 favorites]


For a second, I almost started to read this New Yorker article as a slow-burn horror mystery, set at the philosopher's residence.

This other bit works as the first few minutes of a James Bond film, or maybe part of a version of Watchmen with an even weirder end:
A few years ago, a Russian venture capitalist named Dmitry Volkov organized a showdown between Dennett and Chalmers near Disko Island, off the west coast of Greenland. [...] Now he chartered a hundred-and-sixty-eight-foot schooner, the S/V Rembrandt van Rijn, and invited Dennett, Chalmers, and eighteen other philosophers on a weeklong cruise, along with ten graduate students. Most of the professional philosophers were materialists, like Dennett, but the graduate students were uncommitted. Dennett and Chalmers would compete for their allegiance.
Anyway, I've tried to follow the Dennett/Chalmers argument before and I've never found Dennett's side remotely convincing. Unless I'm misunderstanding him, Dennett seems ultimately to be a kind of dualist - he sees consciousness arising from the *function* of a system rather than from the actual physical processes involved. That function - call it a metaphor, or whatever - *is* the ghost in the machine that he claims does not exist.

Chalmers' position seems to be consistent with spritual dualism but also (as mentioned in the article) with pan-psychism or pan-proto-psychism (all matter has the potential to be conscious; there's something about the physical structure of the brain that allows that property to emerge). He hasn't solved the zombie problem, but I find him a lot more plausible than Dennett's idea of function-as-ghost.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:34 PM on March 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


I take it to be less purely about function than about irreducible complexity arising from the interaction of simpler systems, analogous to how the notes in a chord work together as a unitary whole at another level of abstraction to create a chord. Nobody argues the existence of notes disproves or somehow diminishes the reality or beauty of particular chords. Function is only one aspect of that higher level of organization built up out of the lower order physical subsystems of the brain.

However, I'm a mathematical realist, and a bit of a naturalistic idealist: to me a chord isn't simply an epiphenomenon of a collection of notes. It has not only its own unique functions but other unique describable features and even causal potential that exists in a way that can be meaningfully understood and described only at that higher level of abstraction.

Consciousness is similar: it's not a ghost in the machine, the ghost is a product of the machine and it's not really a ghost, but it's still something more than a simple sum of the parts.

The real mystery is what the hell is natural reality really, apart from the simulations we construct, and yeah, how does the experience of subjectivity arise and how on earth could you simulate it.

I can't remember the term for this position, but I sometimes wonder if there isn't something unique to the specific electrochemical processes within brains, or at least human brains, that couldn't really be reproduced to create an experience of consciousness embodied in software running only on electrical hardware. My intuition is there's some specific kinds of complex chemical interactions involved in the subsystems that generate the first person impression of the subjective experience of reflecting consciously on mental representations of external stimulus.

In other words, I'm not sure digital computers provide the right kind of hardware to do anything more than model consciousness.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:16 PM on March 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


irreducible complexity
I've only ever heard this phrase from creationists, and it drives me straight up the wall. A simple thing is irreducible; a complex thing is—by definition—a whole comprised of simpler parts.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 10:06 PM on March 25, 2017


here is my new thought experiment: zombie salt

zombie salt is just like table salt except there's no chloride in it. it's just the sodium. but other that that it's exactly like table salt, behaves exactly the same way. it is impossible to detect any difference between zombie salt and table salt.

what does this tell us about chloride?

answer: absolutely nothing, because this whole exercise is based on pretending chloride doesn't do anything.

which is almost as ludicrous as pretending consciousness doesn't do anything.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 11:04 PM on March 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


A Thousand Baited Hooks: He's certainly not a dualist, he's devoted a lot of his career to arguing against dualism. He doesn't believe there is anything other than the physical processes, but the reason consciousness seems magical to us is the complexity of the system made of simpler parts. He's leaning on whole "function" thing to explain that to people who's immediate question is "but a bunch of neurons can't do all this, where's the *special* part".

Chalmers is much closer to the dualism side, with the requirement that some type of "mysterion" exists.

Grimgrin: Yeah, this was always my view as well. Either "But then I'm not special" or "But I can't intuit now that works" is at the base of this. We've been through this exact argument once already. About "life" and the various vitalism theories (because just matter can't be enough, life is *special*). Same arguments, same process of slowly gathered evidence all coming down on the materialist side. And it ends up being all more interesting than the magical essentialist explanation.
posted by Infracanophile at 12:21 AM on March 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


If it’s easy for you to imagine a conscious robot, then you probably side with Dennett. If it’s easier to imagine a robot that only seems conscious, you’re probably with Chalmers.

Whoa now, there are people who can't imagine a conscious robot?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:30 AM on March 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


Honestly the biggest problem I have for Chalmers' argument is that if it's true, then no statement of the form "I am conscious" can possibly be causally related to whether the being making the statement is conscious. That is to say, if I say "I am conscious" then there could be a philosophical zombie just like me who would utter "I am conscious" not just exactly as I do, but for exactly the same reason I do. Therefore the reason that I say "I am conscious" literally cannot be that I actually am conscious, because whatever caused me to say it also caused my equivalent zombie to say the same thing.

That would be an awfully big bullet to be biting even if it was the only game in town!
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 1:06 AM on March 26, 2017 [4 favorites]


Chalmers wears a black leather jacket over a black T-shirt. He believes in the zombie problem and is the lead singer of a consciousness-themed rock band that performs a song called “The Zombie Blues.”

If these are the players, it's just harder to take the game seriously...
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:49 AM on March 26, 2017


Runcifex, that comic is everything. I Kant even.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:51 AM on March 26, 2017


0 days without a Kant/can't pun
posted by a car full of lions at 3:53 AM on March 26, 2017 [10 favorites]


I never can get into these contretemps. Wasn't it established eons ago in systems theory or something that complex systems can display emergent properties, properties that no examination of a system's parts could've predicted? Hydrogen has no water properties, neither does oxygen, but put them together in a certain ratio and you get water.
posted by Chitownfats at 3:57 AM on March 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


A Thousand Baited Hooks: He's certainly not a dualist, he's devoted a lot of his career to arguing against dualism. He doesn't believe there is anything other than the physical processes, but the reason consciousness seems magical to us is the complexity of the system made of simpler parts. He's leaning on whole "function" thing to explain that to people who's immediate question is "but a bunch of neurons can't do all this, where's the *special* part".
Well, he certainly doesn't think he's a dualist; maybe I'm being mischievous by calling him one. But consider his response to the Chinese room problem, which I understand to be: the person in the room may not understand Chinese, but the system consisting of the person, the files, the room etc *does* understand Chinese. To an observer this system is indistinguishable from a system with an actual conscious understanding of Chinese, and so (here's the leap I disagree with) in principle it amounts to the same thing. (There's an exchange between Dennett and Searle here where Searle points this out; I don't think Dennett has much of an answer).

The dualism lives in the split between the physical existence of the room and the observer's appreciation of the room's conscious understanding of Chinese. This isn't exactly what people usually mean by "dualism", of course, but I think the term fits.

Alternatively he's a nihilist, but I don't think he'd accept that either.
Chalmers is much closer to the dualism side, with the requirement that some type of "mysterion" exists.
I was thinking of his tentative acceptance of panpsychism, but you're right that he is much more of an explicit dualist.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:17 AM on March 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


It's still my wish that after all the empirical evidence, when we're ready to tackle the hard problem of consciousness the hard way, it turns out the Buddha was not far from it all along, and there is no I.

I think I'm going to pick up where I left Miri Albahari's Analytical Buddhism.
posted by runcifex at 5:33 AM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's a fantastic profile. But the fact remains, as far as I can see, that Dennett is asking us to accept that consciousness is an illusion, when consciousness is obviously the precondition for any kind of illusion to pertain in the first place. Otherwise, who or what is being deceived when it falls for an illusion?

"If consciousness is a physical process it is not special. If my mind is not somehow special. I will be sad. Therefore let I will assert that my mind is special somehow."

It seems to me that mind (not "my mind" particularly) is obviously and self-evidently special, though. It is the only thing of which I have direct experience, all else being known only through it. From where I'm standing, it is also the precondition for anything in the universe meaning anything. No other item that I can find in my experience has any of these characteristics. Consciousness seems utterly unlike anything else that there is – including insofar as it is the precondition for anything "seeming" like anything.

To deny this specialness because it doesn't comport with current scientific understanding of the nature of reality seems outrageously upside-down to me. Scientific understanding is one of the pre-eminent achievements of mind; if it currently meets its limits when it comes to understanding mind itself, that's no reason to just assume that the answer must lie within those limits.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:59 AM on March 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


Also I confess to getting a bit wound up by Dennett's stylistic presentation of his approach as down-to-earth, magic-dispelling, unromantic-but-them's-the-facts, etc.

He is apparently claiming that in some combinations, purely physical matter attains a first-person perspective, even though none of our scientific understanding of matter in any other context provides any reason to believe that this might be the case! Let's at least agree that this is vastly, vastly weirder than panpsychism, which merely asserts that there is one more kind of fundamental thing in reality that we haven't got our heads around yet, something that's been the case for other kinds of fundamental thing at many points in the history of science.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:08 AM on March 26, 2017 [4 favorites]


I can't think of any position on consciousness that could possibly be weirder than the contention that any reason I say I'm conscious can't possibly in any way be causally related to the fact that I actually am conscious. That no matter what it is that causes David Chalmers to assert his position on the hard problem of consciousness, Zombie David Chalmers would assert exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 6:22 AM on March 26, 2017 [4 favorites]


I guess the compromise position here is crazyism. We aren't going to solve the problem of consciousness without accepting something that seems absolutely intolerably weird.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:27 AM on March 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


He is apparently claiming that in some combinations, purely physical matter attains a first-person perspective, even though none of our scientific understanding of matter in any other context provides any reason to believe that this might be the case!

none of our scientific understanding has helped so far with this whole "consciousness" question, that's kind of the whole problem here

Let's at least agree that this is vastly, vastly weirder than panpsychism,

no?

which merely asserts that there is one more kind of fundamental thing in reality that we haven't got our heads around yet

okay, so, how is it that panpsychism is that thing, but consciousness arising from physical structure is not that thing?
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 6:34 AM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


Dennet's views, as presented in the article, make perfect intuitive sense to me. Which makes me think I must somehow be misunderstanding them. Surely if I understood them properly I'd find them terribly difficult to understand, no? Where can I read more to understand them less?

Yeah, I feel the same way. The idea that consciousness is an emergent property, arising from the interaction of many complex systems within the human brain, seems perfectly reasonable to me. Those systems are notes; when combined, we're the music. There is no music without the notes, and no individual note can be pointed to as the thing that makes the music.

It also seems perfectly congruent with theories about how animal minds work: they are either less conscious (by the standard set by the human mind) or conscious in different ways from us, because they have different sets of complex systems, from which different emergent properties arise.

(also I love that the article mentions Westworld, because Westworld's presentation of AI consciousness being very different from human consciousness but still being consciousness was wonderful and well-done and thoughtful.)
posted by nonasuch at 7:15 AM on March 26, 2017 [12 favorites]


(also, the idea that philosophical zombies must exist because we can conceive of them is... very baffling to me? Like, we can conceive of all sorts of things that don't exist! Zombies-- the brain-eating horror-movie kind-- are already a concept that doesn't really exist! Either I am Bad at Philosophy or I'm missing something. Either way, I think it's only fair that we get philosophical dragons and philosophical mermaids as well.)
posted by nonasuch at 7:19 AM on March 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


oliverburkeman: Yes. That's why this concept of qualia still grips tight. But why is it more reasonable to say that 'because my feelings are so intense, they cannot be the product of a physical process, no matter how complex and subtle'? Why is it more reasonable to say that there must be something else happening?

nonasuch: I'm a philosophical zombie. It occurred to me that I must be during this discussion. Also, the fact that there's no way to prove otherwise kinda goes to how useless the concept is as a starting point for an argument about consciousness.
posted by Grimgrin at 7:33 AM on March 26, 2017


The idea that philosophical zombies must exist because we can conceive of them is... very baffling to me? Like, we can conceive of all sorts of things that don't exist!

Perhaps this article might make clear what propents of the philosophical zombie concept are asserting? The section "The Possibility Manoeuvre" explains the argument for why merely being logically possible seems to carry weight.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 8:03 AM on March 26, 2017


Well, I'm not a creationist and may be using the term "irredicible complexity" wrong (don't much care who else uses the term) but all I meant is both the parts and their specific arrangement into a complex structure create something at a higher level of abstraction that viewed/described as an atomic unit is unique from just an aggregation of parts. A bicycle is something distinct from a bunch of bicycle parts jumbled up in a sack, and that has consequences. If that's not a correct use of "irreducible complexity," I'm probably just misunderstanding that term.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:38 AM on March 26, 2017


Oh, and lest anyone think I was mischaracterizing the Philosophical Zombie position above, making it look stranger than it is, here's Chalmers in his own words:
Think of my zombie twin in the universe next door. He talks about conscious experience all the time--in fact, he seems obsessed by it. He spends ridiculous amounts of time hunched over a computer, writing chapter after chapter on the mysteries of consciousness. He often comments on the pleasure he gets from certain sensory qualia, professing a particular love for deep greens and purples. He frequently gets into arguments with zombie materialists, arguing that their position cannot do justice to the realities of conscious experience.

...

Any explanation of my twin’s behavior will equally count as an explanation of my behavior, as the processes inside his body are precisely mirrored by those inside mine. The explanation of his claims obviously does not depend on the existence of consciousness, as there is no consciousness in his world. It follows that the explanation of my claims is also independent of the existence of consciousness.

To strengthen the sense of paradox, note that my zombie twin is himself engaging in reasoning just like this. He has been known to lament the fate of his zombie twin, who spends all his time worrying about consciousness despite the fact that he has none. He worries what that must say about the explanatory irrelevance of consciousness in his own universe. Still, he remains utterly confident that consciousness exists and cannot be reductively explained. But all this, for him, is a monumental delusion. There is no consciousness in his universe--in his world, the eliminativists have been right all along. Despite the fact that his cognitive mechanisms function in the same ways as mine, his judgments about consciousness are quite deluded.
Which is to say, that if Chalmers is right and Dennett is wrong about consciousness, it can literally only be by some happy coincidence, it can't in any way depend on the true nature of consciousness, for he'd make an identical argument regardless of the true state of affairs.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 8:41 AM on March 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


Well. It's completely unclear, I think, that it's "logically possible" that a human-like creature physically identical in every way to a standard human could show every expected behaviour, but not be conscious. You can say that you are conceiving of such a thing, sure, but you only asserting it (since you possess no actual representation, in detail, of all the neurology working exactly the same but producing no inner experience), and it seems ridiculous in the extreme to then maintain that your thought experiment shows that physicalism can't be true.
posted by thelonius at 8:45 AM on March 26, 2017 [4 favorites]


...and doesn't that kind of argument from conceivability also work against , say, pan-psychism? I am conceiving of a Universe that is non-physically identical to ours, in particular all the pan-psychical forces are just the same.....but there is no consciousness in that universe! It's logically possible, so, pan-psychism can't be true.
posted by thelonius at 8:51 AM on March 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


i guess to me, the crux of the zombie argument is, conscious experience doesn't actually explain anything, there's no need for it. it's kind of a side issue whether there's a soul, or a mystical psychic force suffusing the universe, or just pure materialism. you do need all the intelligence and introspective functions and all that, but the conscious experience doesn't actually do anything.

like, i don't have conscious experience of lots of people's lives. the universe could get along fine if i had conscious experience of one less person's life, i.e. if my life were a zombie life.
posted by vogon_poet at 9:22 AM on March 26, 2017


Proofs and Refutations, thank you for the (eponysterical) link but I don't think that cleared up my main objection to the concept. If a philosophical zombie existed, how would it work? Why would its brain fail to produce consciousness from the same set of parameters as its counterpart in the universe next door? Why would its actions be identical to a conscious person's? The only reason I can spot so far is 'because I said so, for the purposes of this thought experiment' and that's not really a satisfying answer.
posted by nonasuch at 9:30 AM on March 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


conscious experience doesn't actually explain anything, there's no need for it

What evidence do you have for that extraordinary claim?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:35 AM on March 26, 2017


Blind sight proves only that it's possible to have some access to visual information without generating a conscious impression. People with blind sight in fact don't function exactly as normally sighted people do. There are differences in how their form of sight works for them and what they can do and recognize. They don't function exactly like normally sighted people.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:38 AM on March 26, 2017


I wondered when we were going to get to Watts
posted by pickinganameismuchharderthanihadanticipated at 9:42 AM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


I wonder if anyone is working on programming up some artificial consciousness. As opposed to AI, AC wouldn't need any ability to recognize images or correctly parse language. All it would need would be a subroutine that ran repeatedly to affirm being awake, and a randomly called query of that subroutine to check whether it was in fact itself awake. A user interface would be bonus, but would allow me to also ask "are you conscious" any time I wanted. The output would be an occasional line "I'm awake!" that appears at random intervals, plus the answer to my user-generated queries--"Yes, I'm awake!" Of course that seems silly, but now add vocabulary until it approaches that of a toddler, and some goals, like gaining affirmation from the user, and maybe some rudimentary parsing that lets the program learn to choose words that might help it reach those goals. (Of course "goal" just means that it runs until it reaches that state, like the chess program trying to win.) I'm sure this has been done--time to search a bit.
posted by TreeRooster at 10:01 AM on March 26, 2017


...and the answer is yes: Lots! Maybe the question has already moved on to the ethics of how these beings should be treated.
posted by TreeRooster at 10:05 AM on March 26, 2017


I like the music analogy because it removes some of the mysticism of minds and souls...but doesn't it just map the problem of consciousness onto another problem of aesthetics? What is it that separates notes from music? Or more generally any emergent thing? What is it about some group of parts X that, taken together, make thing Y? Is it merely that we focus too much on the elements but forget their interplay? That is, the edges are as important or more important than the nodes in a graph, and when there are too many edges we just give up or lose sight of them?
posted by delicious-luncheon at 10:13 AM on March 26, 2017


The Possibility Manoeuvre

we know of no way to physically detect the presence of consciousness, therefore there definitely IS no way to physically detect the presence of consciousness and we can therefore assume etc etc

the physical world is limited by our understanding of it

i'm sorry i missed the day when lord rayleigh published his findings on light scattering and the sky turned blue
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 10:52 AM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


Models of consciousness aren't consciousness--the map is not the territory. If it takes some specific biochemical electrical processes to achieve the effect of subjectivity, just dummying up a computer to say it's aware of itself doesn't create within the machine any real impression of interiority. That's why I worry digital computers might not have the right hardware to generate consciousness, if it's a very specific kind of natural effect. I can write a program that consistently "tells" itself it's alive in signs that don't really mean anything to it, but I doubt that's all consciousness is.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:09 AM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


I mean, consciousness isn't just a lie--it's some kind of complex natural process that occurs that's distinct from and shouldn't be mistaken for "reality," but it's real at least in a certain sense, I think. That seems intuitive to me anyway.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:15 AM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


The music example begs the question, because it assumes properties that only consciousness experiences.

Traditional Western music theory would have you believe that it's using mathematical operations and the properties of simple waves to describe how music works, but it's trivial to show that it cuts corners, and can't become coherent without a model of a human being and its perceptual system and consciousness as part of its design.

As one tiny example, our traditional concept of "pitch" uses a framework of ratios (and a claim that simpler ratios are more consonant than complex ones etc.) but this version of "ratio" isn't a mathematical ratio - for example 440.0 hz mixed with 440.001 hz is a beautiful unison, despite being a much more complex ratio than 440.0 mixed with 450.0 which is considered ugly and dissonant.

If you study the human ear, you find that we have a limited resolution of perception of difference in frequency, and that resolution changes at different center frequencies and varies somewhat between individual listeners. Which means that mechanically, in the mechanism of the ear, 440.0 and 440.001 are not distinguishable, and when combined are percieved as a single input (yes, the phase cancellations are heard, but they are heard as a separate modulation of amplitude, not as an interval as other frequencies can be).

Point being that language around music theory pretends at mathematics but its games don't follow well defined mathematical rules, and it relies on properties experienced by human ears and minds but not present in the sounds and wave behaviors themselves. I've picked a biomechanical example, but there are other psychoacoustic phenomena that establish that memory and framing change how we experience music (and I could just point to the universally experienced fact that your least favorite pop song gets worse and worse the more times you hear it in a row).

To use music as an example here, you need to account for human perception and consciousness, which means you've established nothing and are still looking at the initial problem.
posted by idiopath at 11:46 AM on March 26, 2017 [4 favorites]


Well, I meant it metaphorically. But a bag of bicycle parts isn't a bicycle and can't be ridden down the street. That's only about consciousness in the sense that everything is, so it's a tautological criticism that could apply to anything, much like the "I can conceive zombies argument." I can't conceive a zombie me because I do experience things.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:30 PM on March 26, 2017


If you introduce me to someone who can honestly report they are philosophical zombies, then I'll believe that thought experiment is meaningful.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:32 PM on March 26, 2017


I think it's actually a little worse than that, idiopath.

See the reason why 440.001 Hz sounds the same as 440 Hz is not just a property of the ear. It's because frequency is only perfectly well defined for a note held for an infinite amount of time. This, obviously, is impossible to manage in real life. The difference between 440.001 Hz and 440 Hz is only going to start mattering over periods of time that start to become close to 1/0.001 = 1000 seconds. You'll have to sit around for minutes before things really start to get out of phase. And notes are seldom held for nearly that long. Whereas a 10 Hz difference is going to matter at 1/10 of a second or so, and since notes are usually held for longer than that, the ratios there are extremely noticeable.

But the whole reason we have music on those timescales is because it's the timescales we interact with the universe in. So the human-ness is already baked into what we even can notice as music in the first place.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:33 PM on March 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


..just dummying up a computer to say it's aware of itself doesn't create within the machine any real impression of interiority..

Agreed, probably. How about a looping stimulus-and-response program that randomly asks for affirmation from the user with noises (like a baby) and adds weights to its neural-network paths when it gets responses? Then we add another looping routine to check whether its internal loop is still cycling and a third that not only checks on the second but writes a fourth loop to check on itself...how far does this have to go before it is really awake?
posted by TreeRooster at 12:45 PM on March 26, 2017


Talking about how our ears perceive frequencies kind of misses my original point, thought. A song sung off-key is still a song. The difference between between any given note or sound in a piece of music, and the piece as a whole, is the important bit: that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

It's also not all that binary: there's a gradation. A note is not a song. A scale is not a song. But 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' is a song, and so is a Bach concerto, though one is vastly more complex than the other. And there's a place somewhere between a single note and a simple melody where there's room for argument.

Really, a symphony's not a bad metaphor for consciousness: in both you have a whole bunch of complex elements that, by interacting, produce something that no one part could produce on its own.
posted by nonasuch at 12:48 PM on March 26, 2017


See the reason why 440.001 Hz sounds the same as 440 Hz is not just a property of the ear. It's because frequency is only perfectly well defined for a note held for an infinite amount of time. This, obviously, is impossible to manage in real life. The difference between 440.001 Hz and 440 Hz is only going to start mattering over periods of time that start to become close to 1/0.001 = 1000 seconds. You'll have to sit around for minutes before things really start to get out of phase. And notes are seldom held for nearly that long. Whereas a 10 Hz difference is going to matter at 1/10 of a second or so, and since notes are usually held for longer than that, the ratios there are extremely noticeable.

This is true but also - a 1Hz difference or a 10Hz difference will be perceived as beating, but not necessarily dissonance. If you increase the difference over 10Hz it starts to be perceived as a dissonant interval - I don't happen to know what interval really represents the peak of dissonance - and then eventually starts to approach a consonant interval again. Anyway the point (I think) is that the location of this peak has to do with the properties of the human auditory system, and isn't explained by the simple version of the mathematics you get in an introductory music theory class.
posted by atoxyl at 1:00 PM on March 26, 2017


If you introduce me to someone who can honestly report they are philosophical zombies, then I'll believe that thought experiment is meaningful.

Can't be done. By the defining property of being indistinguishable from a non-zombie, no-one can have an "honest" opinion on whether they are one or not. Whatever opinion anyone has on the matter is necessarily shared by by the relevant zombie (or non-zombie as the case may be) counterpart. Furthermore the counterpart also shares the same reason for holding that opinion.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 1:14 PM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


Philosphical zombies are too high level to be an illuminating thought experiment, I feel. Inverted qualia arguments are a lot more vexing.

In particular, suppose we manage to build a conscious artificial neural network hooked up to a black and white camera and some output system (text, speech, whatever). As input, the network takes in an image (pixel array) where a value -1.0 represents black, and 1.0 represents white, with values in between being shades of gray. Then we train it up and convince ourselves that it is conscious: we ask "is the sun bright" and it says "yes" and we ask "are you a conscious thinking being" and it replies "I suppose so" and so forth. We can ask "what color are chicken eggs normally" and it'll say "well actually they come in a lot of shades but I suspect the answer you want is 'white'".

Now, if we are committed to physicalism, we must presume that in principle we could build a network like this that would have the same kinds of visual experiences that we have, that it would actually visually experience black and white like we do.

Then, while the network is running, we pause the machine. The network is ultimately a function N(Image) -> Output; by just changing the activation functions in the network we can produce a negative version of the network N_neg(-Image) -> -Output. That is, we have modified the network to work on negative images where 1.0 is black and -1.0 is white. This modified network will, on a negated input, function identically to the original network, except that all the signs of the intermediate values it is passing around are likewise negated, and its output is negated.

Then we unpause the machine, and feed in negative camera images, and likewise negate its output before feeding it to the terminal or speech synthesizer or whatever. Behaviorally this network will be completely identical to before: we can ask "is the sun bright" and it will continue to say "yes". We can ask "what color are chicken eggs" and it'll once again say "you just asked me that, and the answer is still white". We can ask "did you notice any perceptual change just now" and it'll be confused and answer "no".

Question: has its visual experience of black and white actually inverted?
posted by Pyry at 1:24 PM on March 26, 2017


True. So I stand corrected. There's no way I can conceive of philosophical zombies at all. Might as well ask me to imagine a round square because my experience of subjectivity is right here in front of me and just calling it a lie doesn't explain much of anything. It's not the reality it seems to represent, but it's something and that something is a real phenomenon on it's own terms unless you just go to full-blown solipsism, which is inherently unfalsifiable but what isn't when we're allowed to completely dismiss the evidence of our senses?
posted by saulgoodman at 1:31 PM on March 26, 2017


I used to think I was a philosophical zombie. Now I'm not sure.
posted by night_train at 1:43 PM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


afaik we do have evidence for physicality of memory. so if a p-zombie is physically identical to their conscious counterpart, and the conscious person remembers being a conscious person, so does the p-zombie. so where did the p-zombie's memories come from? what process caused this p-zombie to make up and store all those engrams for something it never experienced?
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 1:45 PM on March 26, 2017


Question: has its visual experience of black and white actually inverted?

Huh? Why would it have? For someone like Dennett who believes such a machine would be conscious it's the pattern of calculation that gives rise to the "qualia", not the precise numerical values of some constant. The underlying pattern doesn't change when you add a level of indirection like that. It's entirely possible after all that something like this happens when regular humans recover some particular brain function after a stroke -- because the function is being learned anew the brain just happened to invert some signal in a way it hadn't previously.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 1:50 PM on March 26, 2017


Furthermore the counterpart also shares the same reason for holding that opinion.

This depends on whether one is an externalist or an internalist about experiences, reasons, and the like. If one is an externalist about reasons, then one will deny that the zombie and the non-zombie have the same reasons for asserting, "I am not a zombie," since for the externalist, a reason is not identical with its subjective part. The idea here is similar to disjunctivism in the philosophy of perception, externalism about semantics and mental content, and externalist replies to brain-in-a-vat skepticism.

What remains true -- and might be just as bad anyway -- is that neither the zombie nor the non-zombie can tell which she is from the inside.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:10 PM on March 26, 2017


Interesting and timely for me because I'm in a state currently in which my ADHD/PTSD are actively growing more acute due to life circumstances and occasionally I can feel myself slipping into disorganized thinking patterns that are very familiar to me from previous experience, like just now when I couldn't handle the spatial reasoning to assemble a marble run course with my daughter even though that's usually not difficult for me.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:11 PM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


And I do kind of experience it as a diminishment in consciousness, kind of like a weird, uncomfortable blind spot where I'm used to being able to see clearly. It's very frustrating for an experience I'm not really having, FWIW.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:24 PM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


If one is an externalist about reasons, then one will deny that the zombie and the non-zombie have the same reasons

You're right, I'm not a philosopher and I was being imprecise in my language. It would have been better for me to say they have the same causes, in the sense that whatever causes my zombie counterpart to assert it is conscious is exactly the same thing that causes me to assert it. Nothing about the fact that I *actually am* conscious (if indeed I am) can have any causal role.

Even for an externalist about reasons that seems a huge issue.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 2:31 PM on March 26, 2017


It would have been better for me to say they have the same causes, in the sense that whatever causes my zombie counterpart to assert it is conscious is exactly the same thing that causes me to assert it. Nothing about the fact that I *actually am* conscious (if indeed I am) can have any causal role.

I think you're going to run into the same worries here, actually. An externalist is going to say something like this: The non-zombie's claim to be conscious is caused by (among other things) some conscious physical states X, Y, and Z; whereas, the zombie's claim to be conscious is caused by (among other things) some non-conscious physical states X*, Y*, and Z*, which are identical in all physical respects but not identical simpliciter.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:47 PM on March 26, 2017


But the fact remains, as far as I can see, that Dennett is asking us to accept that consciousness is an illusion, when consciousness is obviously the precondition for any kind of illusion to pertain in the first place.

Not an illusion, but an experience. My sense is that he's saying there's nothing there and meaning it literally, there is no thing. The music metaphor resonates for me (ha!) because it frames consciousness as I experience it, and observe it around me: as a verb, not a noun. In this thread, as in most material I've read about human consciousness, there is inconsistency about describing consciousness as both an experience and a thing; those are profoundly different. My own sense and experience agrees with Dennett's descriptions, that my consciousness is an emergent property of my organism, and is a temporal phenomenon created by its complex processes and interactions. (This also helps me understand my dogs' consciousness a little bit, so distinct yet so different from my own, because while their organism is a bit simpler, and their minds are fundamentally informed by a very different balance of sensory input, we are on a spectrum together.)

Though I know it is mostly my own ignorance and misunderstanding, I am consistently vexed when reading philosophical texts and arguments, that so many seem to ignore the fundamental importance of temporality. Yes, we need to conceive of many phenomena as things in order to think about, discuss, study, understand them, but this does not make them--or us--things; we are verbs. Every aspect of every single living thing (!) is affected by its temporality, that it must act and act and act to continue to exist as living. We are all verbs, much moreso than nouns. I just am not convinced that there could be any such thing as consciousness, because I don't know how to imagine a verb being reified as a concrete object.
posted by LooseFilter at 4:03 PM on March 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


It's not a thing, it's a process. That's a clearer way to put how I see it, too. I'm not convinced you can trigger that process in a digital simulacrum anymore than you could trigger a thunderstorm that brings real rain using only a digital analog that mimics some features of the process in a representational form. Models are just a very precisely refined kind of descriptive language, aren't they?
posted by saulgoodman at 6:51 PM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


One last observation related to what LooseFilter said above about temporality as it applies to the problem of identity in the philosophical sense: even a seemingly perfect copy of a particular physical object doesn't really become identical (again, in the philosophical sense) to whatever physical object it's a copy of precisely because the two always differ at least in their spatiotemporal orientation, and those differences, too, have consequences. So as much as I like Philip K. Dick's novels, I think his ideas about simulation and identity are basically a muddle, almost a throwback to older modes of magical belief like sympathetic magic that imagine you can harm a real person by manipulating a symbolic representation of them. Of course sympathetic magic doesn't really work; sticking a pin in a voodoo doll doesn't actually hurt the person the doll's made to resemble (try it yourself if you doubt me; I did as a kid!) because the real person isn't in any way connected to the copy. Spatiotemporality is fundamental to physical identity. Sorry for hogging the thread; last point I wanted to make.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:34 PM on March 26, 2017


No shout outs to Antonio Damasio?
He covers both the "conscious ish" standpoint as well having isolated portions of the brain that make the difference between vegetative state and locked in syndrome. One of the rare Ted talks that is actually useful.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:18 PM on March 26, 2017


Surely that's a reductio of that externalist picture of reasoning. I mean, on alternate Tuesdays I can see the appeal of externalism about warrant. And on the equinox about anti-individualist semantics for things like "water." But I've not a clue as to how that sort of reasons externalism is supposed to go.

But JL, even the most Cartesian individualist intermalist would say zombie me and I have different reasons for saying "I'm in pain." At least if one takes seriously the role of qualia as constituents of reasons and reasoning.

Btw, great to see all the new hires in your dept! I hope they turn out to be good colleagues in all senses of the phrase.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:02 AM on March 27, 2017


Surely that's a reductio of that externalist picture of reasoning.

I don't know. I really don't. I'm not sure whether to like externalism or not. In some cases, like in philosophy of statistics, it looks really inviting. In other cases, like semantics and perception, it seems to do interesting work, but it looks like a trick. For what it's worth, the present case feels like a trick to me. But lots of people think it's a good move to make, so I thought it was worth pointing out.

But JL, even the most Cartesian individualist intermalist would say zombie me and I have different reasons for saying "I'm in pain." At least if one takes seriously the role of qualia as constituents of reasons and reasoning.

That's interesting. Would a zombie even count as having reasons on such a view? It seems not. But then, how can either of them tell whether they have reasons or not? It seems that they cannot tell. Not from the inside. This is more or less the way I was thinking about internalism here: If an epistemic agent cannot tell whether X or ~X is true, then the agent doesn't have internal evidence favoring X over ~X. There seems to be a kind of externalism in your internalism. It is only from the outside that we can say the non-zombie (but not the zombie) has a reason for saying, "I'm in pain." The presentation of pain -- or whatever there is instead of a presentation for the zombie, which leads to the utterance, "I'm in pain" -- does not seem to provide internally satisfactory evidence for the claim that she is not a zombie. And if having pain-qualia is required in order to count as having pain, then it isn't even internally satisfactory evidence for the claim that she is in pain!

Put another way: To say that the two have different reasons (or that one has reasons that the other lacks), since one has qualia and the other does not, seems to me to be exactly the externalist line that I was offering earlier.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 3:42 AM on March 27, 2017


I will never trust the impulse to convert any discussion of something simple like seeing a color or into technical issues about "qualia" but that's the characteristic analytic philosophy move.
posted by thelonius at 4:15 AM on March 27, 2017


Not an illusion, but an experience.

The rest of your comments about thing-vs-verb are fascinating and feel extremely relevant, but I don't see how this illusion/experience distinction avoids the circularity problem that I raised earlier. For something to be an illusion presupposes a consciousness that can be deceived; for something to be an experience presupposes a consciousness that can experience it.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:26 AM on March 27, 2017


Really, a symphony's not a bad metaphor for consciousness: in both you have a whole bunch of complex elements that, by interacting, produce something that no one part could produce on its own.

…and the music analogy should put us on guard, I think: it involves comparing consciousness itself to a thing that can only be experienced in virtue of consciousness. I suppose this doesn't automatically mean it's a bad analogy, but it's a hint of potential difficulties, at least.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:34 AM on March 27, 2017


Thank you for sharing this! I love Daniel Dennet for two reasons:

1) He suggested that our conscious thoughts have to compete with other thoughts before we acknowledge them, so that what we take to be our "stream of consciousness" is actually just a series of thoughts that "won" against competing ideas. Even if this isn't true, it opens up a lot of possibilities that I really really really like in terms of how we talk about the relationship between thought and behavior.

2) He is responsible for the quote: "There is no polite way to suggest to someone that they have devoted their life to a folly." The part of me that is still young and stupid, despite creeping up on middle age, loves the resonance that has when it's used to describe other people's preoccupations. The part of me that is growing up whether I like it or not understands that the true wisdom of that quote comes when you apply it to yourself.
posted by Mr. Fig at 7:19 AM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


for something to be an experience presupposes a consciousness that can experience it.

You're talking as if consciousness were something in back of experience, a homunculus that sits inside our brains having our experiences for us. But consciousness consists of those experiences. It is the knitting-together of experience by the brain.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 12:28 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


It is the knitting-together of experience by the brain.

If the claim were simply that my "knitted-together" sense of conscious awareness as being something unitary and unified is in some sense an illusion, that might be fair enough. But it wouldn't get us very far, since it would still be necessary to explain how a first-person perspective could arise from the physical brain in all of those experiences that are then knitted together. Or, if the argument is that the first-person perspective arises from the knitting… then how?

Dennett wants to explain consciousness by telling us that it is not what it seems to be, when the seeming itself is the very thing that needs explaining. He insists that consciousness is not what it feels like, but consciousness is precisely "what it feels like" – that's the whole point!
posted by oliverburkeman at 1:36 PM on March 27, 2017


Or, if the argument is that the first-person perspective arises from the knitting… then how?

As I recall, Dennett makes a pretty convincing case for this in Consciousness Explained. The self is something like the center of narrative gravity that persists through the brain's multiple-draft revisions of processed experience. But it's been well over a decade since I read the book, so I won't try to summarize his argument here.

Dennett wants to explain consciousness by telling us that it is not what it seems to be, when the seeming itself is the very thing that needs explaining. He insists that consciousness is not what it feels like, but consciousness is precisely "what it feels like" – that's the whole point!

I thought it was a strength of Dennett's position that he does account for "what it feels like," takes it seriously, and reconciles it with what scientific investigation tells us about the mind. Perhaps consciousness is not what it seems to be according to certain philosophical theories, but that's not the same as saying that consciousness is not what it seems to be to us in our everyday pre-theoretical experience. Dennett might say that it's a mistake to talk about the experience of redness in terms of qualia, for example, but he wouldn't deny the experience of redness itself.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 3:53 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


That's exactly how I understand Dennett, too, and that's how I see it as well. The seeming is a real phenomenon that has real consequences on it's own terms, even if it's not the underlying "reality"; otherwise he'd just be another epiphenomenalist. And that's why our stories matter.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:01 PM on March 27, 2017


the music analogy should put us on guard, I think: it involves comparing consciousness itself to a thing that can only be experienced in virtue of consciousness

Doesn't anything, or possibly everything? The fulcrum of every analogy, every simile, every metaphor is consciousness: To recognize the same experience, the same quality, or qualia, in two apparently dissimilar things. When we say It is like... or It is as if, consciousness is the it.

I admit to not being a trained analytical philosopher, but there's something that feels suspiciously gimcrack about philosophical zombies. Any argument about consciousness is plagued by the "unlock the box with the key you will find inside it" issue; but I still don't get why the idea that it is possible to imagine a p-zombie is supposed to be the "I refute it thus" thunder-stroke. It is possible to imagine many things that can't exist in our universe, J.K. Rowling made a billion doing it. It seems to me tantamount to arguing that because consciousness is not necessary, yet it exists, it must be magic. A crack in the airlock to let meaning back into an otherwise arid universe. But if one accepts evolution, the existence of life itself is just happenstance, not requirement; why should consciousness not be the same? A fluke that stuck, matter arranged in a particular pattern producing an unanticipated effect? If by chemistry (Hoffman floating on his bicycle) and physics (Poor Phineas' spike) my consciousness can be shaped and altered, is not the natural conclusion that it is also by them generated?
posted by Diablevert at 8:13 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


I thought it was a strength of Dennett's position that he does account for "what it feels like," takes it seriously, and reconciles it with what scientific investigation tells us about the mind.

Whereas my (amateur!) readings of Consciousness Explained left me with the sense that he has constructed a highly plausible account of how information works in the brain, but no reason at all for why this account should be accompanied by a first-person perspective. This strikes me as not less "magical" than the panpsychist notion that consciousness is one more fundamental in reality to which we're eventually going to have to reconcile ourselves.

There's a strong impulse to say that surely consciousness must be reconcilable with current fundamental scientific understanding – science has explained so much, why on earth should we arrogantly assume ourselves to be special, etc? (Dennett enjoys psychologizing this, implying that weaker minds just can't tolerate the idea of being no different from the rest of reality.) But modern empirical science is an edifice built entirely on a decision to bracket consciousness; to assume that our experience offers a roughly trustworthy picture of reality; to set aside for now the puzzle that the existence of first-person experience seems utterly unlike anything else in reality in any way at all; and to see how far we can get on the basis of that assumption. The answer turns out to be: a very long way! But I can't see any reason to assume that an edifice built like this must be able to explain consciousness without some completely fundamental revision. That just seems like a prejudice.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:06 AM on March 28, 2017


but no reason at all for why this account should be accompanied by a first-person perspective.

I don't think that consciousness and first-person perspective should be used interchangeably, as you're doing here. There is a fair bit of evidence that first-person perspective has a strong likelihood to arise if consciousness is complex enough, but does not appear to be a necessary component of consciousness. Self-awareness develops gradually and is not unique to human beings, though it's clearly most developed among human beings (there are many ideas as to why, one of the more compelling to me is that it follows development of language and the first-person pronoun, whose repeated use actually builds upon a nascent sense of self and hones it into the formal, first-person "I" that we experience inside our heads, as we initially acquire language).

for something to be an experience presupposes a consciousness that can experience it.

Well, no it doesn't. Consciousness itself is the primary experience, and it is the experience that creates things described as 'qualia,' an idea that distinguishes between, e.g., sound (pressure waves traveling through the air) and hearing (the sensation of perceiving that sound and the meaning that your brain assigns to it). 'Hearing' is created by our consciousness, from the raw materials of our sense input--and we know that our conscious perceptions do not match that raw input. So to distinguish between 'consciousness' and 'hearing', and say that you have to have the former to experience the latter, is to separate a single experience (IMHO).
posted by LooseFilter at 8:10 AM on March 28, 2017


no reason at all for why this account should be accompanied by a first-person perspective

I am intrigued by your use of "should" here. Why is a should required? Why can't we just start from "it does." Why isn't is sufficient to say, "matter when arranged in this way produces consciousness," just as we say, "two hydrogen atoms arranged in a certain way with an oxygen atom produces water," or another pattern of carbon atoms and salts produces a chocolate chip cookie? You put the elements in the right order via the right method, a cookie happens. Consciousness happens. Why should two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom produce water? I can't think of any reason why they should. This changes nothing about the fact that they do.
posted by Diablevert at 8:19 AM on March 28, 2017


(also, as a postscript, it occurs to me that 'for something to be an experience presupposes a consciousness that can experience it' is a pretty clear statement of the conceptual assumption that Descartes also made, which fatally undermines his famous proposition.)
posted by LooseFilter at 8:42 AM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


But if one accepts evolution, the existence of life itself is just happenstance, not requirement; why should consciousness not be the same? A fluke that stuck, matter arranged in a particular pattern producing an unanticipated effect?

right exactly. i think this would be, i guess, the panpsychism, or pan-proto-psychism, position, that chalmers holds?

i wish i understood these arguments better, because sometimes it seems like the two sides are just angrily agreeing with each other. on the other hand, actually studying academic philosophy is one of those unpleasant tasks for which, fortunately, we can pay professionals.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:51 AM on March 29, 2017


right exactly. i think this would be, i guess, the panpsychism, or pan-proto-psychism, position, that chalmers holds?

I took him to be speculating rather that consciousness is a fundamental force or component of the universe, not something that's emergent from physics or biology.
posted by thelonius at 9:08 AM on March 29, 2017


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