Has Consciousness Lost Its Mind?
June 12, 2018 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Is This the World’s Most Bizarre Scholarly Meeting? What would Noam Chomsky, Deepak Chopra, a very friendly robot, plus a bevy of scientists, mystics, and wannabe scholars do at a fancy resort in Arizona? Perhaps real harm to the field of consciousness studies, for one thing. (SL Chronicle of Higher Education)
posted by crazy with stars (62 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 


Honestly, I'd knee-jerk expect that a "consciousness studies" conference would be a buffet of crackpots.
posted by thelonius at 12:03 PM on June 12 [11 favorites]


Meanwhile, a company offered demos of a brain-stimulation device that had to be inserted way too far up one nostril.

At the beginning of the 20th century Harry Houdini single handedly wiped out the egregious business of mentalists and fortune tellers. A certain kind of con man just grows like weeds and is really harmful to part of the population. We need a next gen houdini to weed the current garden of the worst of the Chopras, crystal herbalists, homeotopists.
posted by sammyo at 12:05 PM on June 12 [18 favorites]


This feels like something that might appear in an episode of Billions. Fully expecting Axe and Taylor to show up and hatch some plan to bilk people out of their money for shady investments.
posted by Fizz at 12:17 PM on June 12


"Toss in a bunch of psychologists, mathematicians, anesthesiologists, artists, meditators, a computer programmer or two, and several busloads of amateur theorists waving self-published manuscripts and touting grand unified solutions. Send them all to a swanky resort in the desert for a week, supply them with lots of free coffee and beer, and ask them to unpack a riddle so confounding that it’s unclear how to make progress or where you’d even begin."
Gee, I remember when Burning Man was cool.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:29 PM on June 12 [28 favorites]


In an ideal world, Chomsky would have appeared on the same panel with Sophia the Unconditionally Loving Robot.

Heh heh heh.

There are Deepak Chopra necklaces and Deepak Chopra aromatherapy candles and the wireless Deepak Chopra Dream Weaver 3.0 light-and-sound machine that helps users "reach a variety of interesting and beneficial states of consciousness." The Dream Weaver can be yours for $199, plus shipping.

So a few years back, a guy named Deepak Chopra was appointed CEO of Canada Post, and I was momentarily quite alarmed when I saw something in the news about it.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:41 PM on June 12 [7 favorites]


>attendees could also take a gong bath

I think this should be a new expression. To take a gong bath: to be hoodwinked, esp. by mystics. "Remember the time that Pyramid Energy guy found out about Mom's annuity? We took a real gong bath on that one." I think it's got a, uh, a ring to it. So to speak.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 12:46 PM on June 12 [32 favorites]


We need a next gen houdini to weed the current garden of the worst of the Chopras, crystal herbalists, homeotopists.


We already had him: James Randi, magician and debunker extraordinaire!

But he’s retired now, so it’s definitely time for the next hero to rise up...
posted by darkstar at 12:48 PM on June 12 [23 favorites]


Hilariously, Chopra offered a counter-prize to Randi’s a couple of years ago.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:04 PM on June 12 [3 favorites]


The TSC Abstract Book and Conference Program, and this picture (though there were also panels with women in them it seems?) kinda make me wish I'd been there to observe (especially considering how mind-numbingly bored I was at the beginning of April).
posted by ipsative at 1:39 PM on June 12


Here's the conference website I took all that from.
posted by ipsative at 1:40 PM on June 12


(not old women though)
posted by glasseyes at 2:22 PM on June 12


I think this should be a new expression. To take a gong bath: to be hoodwinked, esp. by mystics. "Remember the time that Pyramid Energy guy found out about Mom's annuity? We took a real gong bath on that one." I think it's got a, uh, a ring to it. So to speak.

I'm reminded that the term gong farmer refers to a laborer in the olden days whose job was to empty overflowing cesspits and privies. So when I hear "gong bath," I have a different image in my head that is not altogether inappropriate for this context.
posted by Edgewise at 2:31 PM on June 12 [6 favorites]


i have one rule : if it has deepak chopra in it, it has zero scientific, academic or logical credibility

period

seriously

anyone that shares a platform with that charlatan deserves to be excommunicated from their discipline


reads more: OH GOD CHALMERS WHYYYYYYY OH GOD NOAM WHHHHHHHYYYYYYY

----

also: money quotes


There’s something about the topic of consciousness that, unlike other scientific fields of inquiry, inspires an unearned feeling of expertise.


this is becoming, sadly, less and less true every day

and

It’s tough to imagine what ended up in the reject pile

posted by lalochezia at 2:35 PM on June 12 [8 favorites]


I look and look at "gong bath" and can't force my mind not to read it as "bong bath," which sounds about as pleasant and health-promoting.
posted by ga$money at 3:15 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]


So that's what a branch of science looks like when it completely surrenders to the woo.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:26 PM on June 12 [4 favorites]


Science can neither explain nor dismiss consciousness. It cannot explain it because it is, by definition, non-physical, and science can only explain phenomena in terms of matter. It cannot dismiss it because it is the core of our perception of ourselves. And so we have a situation where the singularity of our own consciousness is exaggerated and left unexplained in its essence, and the possibility of consciousness outside of our own is deemed unresolvable and irrelevant. All this produces is an exaggerated human egoism and anthropocentrism, with consequent indifference to the damage caused to the other components of the biosphere. Perhaps it is time to invert our understanding and assert that consciousness is the general property of nature, of which mankind’s particular consciousness is merely one of its infinite forms, and is governed by the same determinism as the rest of the universe.
posted by No Robots at 3:44 PM on June 12 [2 favorites]


it is, by definition, non-physical

It is not.
posted by Panthalassa at 3:55 PM on June 12 [15 favorites]


Some people say they're not married, but consciousness and the brain sure do spend a lot of time together.
posted by clawsoon at 4:08 PM on June 12 [11 favorites]


What would Noam Chomsky, Deepak Chopra, a very friendly robot, plus a bevy of scientists, mystics, and wannabe scholars do at a fancy resort in Arizona?

I'm going to assume there's a murder and Noam teams up with the robot to solve it.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:28 PM on June 12 [16 favorites]


Trying to explain consciousness in terms of matter is like trying to explain circles in terms of squares: you're bound to wind up with something irrational.
posted by No Robots at 4:35 PM on June 12 [4 favorites]


Unlike squaring the circle, it hasn't yet been proven impossible. The problems are greater for dualists.
posted by Panthalassa at 4:45 PM on June 12 [4 favorites]


If it's immaterial, why do anesthetics work? Is propofol made of the immaterium somehow?
posted by hleehowon at 4:51 PM on June 12 [10 favorites]


reads more: OH GOD CHALMERS WHYYYYYYY OH GOD NOAM WHHHHHHHYYYYYYY


be a connectionist, they're too busy earning money to attend this bullshit
posted by hleehowon at 4:52 PM on June 12


Why do anesthetics work on plants, though, man?
posted by clawsoon at 4:53 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]


The problems are greater for dualists.

I am a true monist.
When absolute thought slows down, it becomes light; and, when light slows down, it becomes matter. Thus we see that light is only an intermediary state between absolute thought and matter.--A true monistic philosophy v. 1, p.57 / Harry Waton
If it's immaterial, why do anesthetics work?

There are different states of consciousness, including what we call the unconscious.
posted by No Robots at 4:54 PM on June 12


I would venture to say that consciousness is an emergent property of physical matter arranged in a particular way, undergoing particular biochemical processes.

Sort of the way “acceleration” is an emergent property of physical matter, undergoing particular physical forces and displacement in space time. True, acceleration isn’t “matter”, but it can be explained in terms of it.

You can define emergent properties as epiphenomenal, if that makes it feel better, but it seems a dodge. Just so long as you don’t introduce woo to describe the fundamental principles, when straightforward science will do.

Besides, if consciousness required some magical thinking, the Singularity wouldn’t be possible, and then how are you going to explain Skynet?

With magnets?
posted by darkstar at 4:56 PM on June 12 [7 favorites]


I think this should be a new expression. To take a gong bath: to be hoodwinked, esp. by mystics. "Remember the time that Pyramid Energy guy found out about Mom's annuity? We took a real gong bath on that one." I think it's got a, uh, a ring to it. So to speak.

Next up: Dr. Oz starts pushing "gongwater enemas."
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:59 PM on June 12


I asked him whether he was, in effect, running a fantasy camp for presenters who want to pretend they’re academics so that their registration fees ($550) can be used to bring in big-name speakers, who not only don’t pay registration fees but whose travel and amenities are covered by the conference. "That’s a fair criticism," he said.
well there you go!
posted by spbmp at 8:29 PM on June 12 [7 favorites]


When absolute thought slows down, it becomes light; and, when light slows down, it becomes matter. Thus we see that light is only an intermediary state between absolute thought and matter.--A true monistic philosophy v. 1, p.57 / Harry Waton

That... is some grade A horseshit right there. Thoughts operate through biochemical processes. Thought is just what the brain (or the brain and rest of the body together) does. Just because we don't understand 100% of that system, does not mean the answer is some pseudo-mystical handwaving nonsense. It just means we don't know.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:04 PM on June 12 [7 favorites]


Furthermore, you can measure the speed of thought, and it's a hell of a lot slower than light...
posted by kaibutsu at 11:23 PM on June 12 [4 favorites]


Consciousness is a story we tell ourselves to explain the things our bodies have just done a few milliseconds ago.

Or something like that, maybe.
posted by Foosnark at 5:40 AM on June 13 [6 favorites]


Taken on its own, "consciousness is an emergent property of matter areanged in a particular way" is a totally circular definition. It might be a good start at trying to explain how consciousness comes about, but it says absolutely nothing about what the experience of being conscious actually is, why we have an experience with perspective and internality and all that. It doesn't say why it is that we are anything more than an extremely complex collection of matter that happens to behave in a certain way, and yet we patently are more than that.

At least, I am. Not so sure about all the rest of you, but then I'm sure you'd say the same.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:16 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


There’s something about the topic of consciousness that, unlike other scientific fields of inquiry, inspires an unearned feeling of expertise.

Yup!

Personally I've lately been leaning towards a non-binary pan-psychism based on algorithmic complexity rather than material embodiment, but that's just, like, my opinion, man

What is it like to be a bat bubble sort?
posted by ook at 7:30 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


It doesn't say why it is that we are anything more than an extremely complex collection of matter that happens to behave in a certain way, and yet we patently are more than that.

... Why are we patently more than that, exactly?
posted by PMdixon at 9:05 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


If I treat you as if you were nothing more than an extremely complex collection of matter, but treat myself and perhaps a few others as though we were essentially thought, where would that put me ethically? Does the materialist need to compel everyone to be a materialist? Westworld is a good show for dealing with some of these issues.
posted by No Robots at 9:13 AM on June 13


Didn't you just say the universe is deterministic?
posted by XMLicious at 9:23 AM on June 13


If I treat you as if you were nothing more than an extremely complex collection of matter, but treat myself and perhaps a few others as though we were essentially thought, where would that put me ethically?

Ethically it makes you an asshole. Philosophically it makes you a deeply uninteresting solipsist, because if you are the only thing with Sophia you can only discourse with yourself. If you reject materialism as applies to you, you are on pretty shaky ground restricting that rejection to your self.
posted by PMdixon at 9:33 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


Didn't you just say the universe is deterministic?
Yep. I am determined to see the world as thought in essence while living among those who see the world as matter in essence. How do we get along?

Ethically it makes you an asshole. Philosophically it makes you a deeply uninteresting solipsist, because if you are the only thing with Sophia you can only discourse with yourself. If you reject materialism as applies to you, you are on pretty shaky ground restricting that rejection to your self.

But I am just treating you in accordance with the way you see yourself. What's the problem? Perhaps I do see you as, like me, thought in essence. But if you persist in beating me down for this view, how can I defend myself expect by doing a bit of turn-about?
posted by No Robots at 9:37 AM on June 13


But I am just treating you in accordance with the way you see yourself

Uh. Ok please tell me how you draw a straight line from ontological materialism to any particular ethical claim. The only way that it can be meaningful that you really think and I don't is if an asymmetry in duties is thereby induced. I have a hard time envisioning that you understand that that asymmetry means that you have more duties to me than if I really thought - and I am not going to sign off on the idea that you have fewer.

But if you persist in beating me down for this view, how can I defend myself expect by doing a bit of turn-about?

Saying you are silly and your ontology indistinguishable from solipsism is not "beating [you] down."
posted by PMdixon at 10:09 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


Why does being made out of skyhook stuff create extra moral obligations, anyway?
posted by thelonius at 10:16 AM on June 13


Saying you are silly and your ontology indistinguishable from solipsism is not "beating [you] down."

I beg to differ. I know that I stand in good company in asserting the ontologic primacy of thought. The sneering dismissal of this by materialist science boosters is a serious threat to the well-being of mankind and the rest of the biosphere.
posted by No Robots at 10:23 AM on June 13


(I mean I would say that some combination of the harm and precautionary principles says that even if I am almost absolutely certain every other human being is a p-zombie (and that I have no ethical obligations towards p-zombies, which is another can of worms) I'm still obligated to treat them as if they were of equivalent moral standing to me.)
posted by PMdixon at 10:26 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


The sneering dismissal of this by materialist science boosters is a serious threat to the well-being of mankind and the rest of the biosphere.

You've got a little bit of a problem here in that you only know that the biosphere is under threat because of information disseminated by the evil materialists. If they're wrong about something so basic as thought how can you rely upon the facticity of any of their statements?
posted by PMdixon at 10:30 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Rocks, while also conscious, are a bunch of jerks, so their well-being is of no concern.

materialist science boosters

This does tie into the conspiracy-of-biologists-to-create-a-master-race thing, doesn't it? For a second there I was starting to think they were unrelated lines of inquiry.
posted by XMLicious at 10:36 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


even if I am almost absolutely certain every other human being is a p-zombie ... I'm still obligated to treat them as if they were of equivalent moral standing to me.

How about other life-forms? How about rocks?
posted by No Robots at 10:43 AM on June 13


This does tie into the conspiracy-of-biologists-to-create-a-master-race thing, doesn't it?

Evolutionary biology is entirely about building the master race.
I have been favoring positive eugenics as far back as I can remember.--Ernst Mayr to Francis Crick
posted by No Robots at 10:48 AM on June 13


trying to explain consciousness in terms of matter is like trying to explain circles in terms of squares: you're bound to wind up with something irrational.

We call that an integral, and study it usually in the second semester of an intro calculus course. In mathematical terminology, that would be called transcendental rather than irrational. But as technical terms, those both have specific meanings that are quite different from general English usage.
posted by eviemath at 10:59 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]


And may the biologists say what they please, what the Bible tells us is absolute. - Harry Waton
You'll forgive me if I don't base my ontology on explicitly anti-empirical intra-war Jewish mysticism, if we're arguing from quotes by random people.
posted by PMdixon at 11:02 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


Taken on its own, "consciousness is an emergent property of matter areanged in a particular way" is a totally circular definition.

"Emergent property" is also a technical term, but loosely means a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I'm not really seeing the philosophical difficulty here?
posted by eviemath at 11:04 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]


In mathematical terminology, that would be called transcendental rather than irrational. But as technical terms, those both have specific meanings that are quite different from general English usage.

It was a joke about Pi. Nevermind.

You'll forgive me if I don't base my ontology on explicitly anti-empirical intra-war Jewish mysticism

You'll forgive me if I do. From the same work you quote:
Study the thousands of books that were written on biology by the Aryans, and in all of them you will not find a single statement as to what life itself is. For instance, Spencer defines life to be a continuous adjustment of inner relations to outer relations. Is this a definition of life? This only tells us of a function of life, but what is life itself that makes this adjustment? Spencer himself admits that he does not know. And in all cases in which the Aryans come to the ultimate aspects of existence, they draw down the curtain on which is written: The Thing in Itself, Nihil Ulterius, The Unknowable. And ask no further questions.
It's one thing for empiricism to not have answers. It's another to deny that there are answers, and yet another to obstruct efforts to find and disseminate answers.
posted by No Robots at 11:16 AM on June 13


How about other life-forms? How about rocks?

To the extent I can infer anything about their preferences and what constitutes harm to them I should take that into consideration, but my right to self defense appropriately generalized makes it unclear what that means in practice. For things that seem like me and seem to communicate in the same way I do, it is much easier to reason about their preferences and what they would consider harm (starting from a set of assumptions that go along similar lines as the Here is One Hand argument), so I should be less uncertain about what discharging my duties towards those things means.
posted by PMdixon at 11:17 AM on June 13


but my right to self defense appropriately generalized makes it unclear what that means in practice

Well, exactly. And for me, how to defend and disseminate my essentialist views in the face of the opposition of the materialists is likewise unclear in practice. Mouthing off in an online forum seems relatively harmless.
posted by No Robots at 11:21 AM on June 13


It was a joke about Pi. Nevermind.

While pi is an irrational number, it is also a transcendental number, and the particular property that you're referencing is related to its transcendentalness (defined as a limit of other things) rather than its irrationality (not a ratio of integers). But I indeed did not catch the joke the first time around, my apologies!
posted by eviemath at 11:22 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


It's one thing for empiricism to not have answers. It's another to deny that there are answers, and yet another to obstruct efforts to find and disseminate answers.

I don't disagree about the obstructionism, but what about incompleteness theorems?
posted by eviemath at 11:25 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Evolutionary biology is entirely about building the master race.

I'm unfortunately about to go to bed and I'm too addle-brained to go through the last thread where you described this and get myself back up to speed on all your statements, but I am genuinely interested in how it might relate to the broader things you're saying about consciousness and materialism and science here.
posted by XMLicious at 11:42 AM on June 13


This article reminded me of my issue with zombies:
If you engage a zombie in a discussion about consciousness, what would they say?

This strikes me as very much like the Turing Test, which I think is completely misunderstood in the popular version -- the point of the Turing Test was never to deliberately fool a human (which is almost trivially easy, and is all about employing various psychological tricks and nonsense that has nothing to do with "intelligence") but rather that, in the absence of some other obvious explanation, the appearance of intelligence is most parsimoniously explained by the idea that there is actual intelligence.

Similarly, if you are having a conversation with someone, and they mention the "problem" of consciousness and how difficult it is to explain, I don't see how you can justify the idea that the person is a zombie, except by invoking some other non-zombie entity feeding this response to the zombie. Because why would a zombie have anything at all to say about consciousness?
posted by bjrubble at 12:23 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


I don't see how you can justify the idea that the person is a zombie, except by invoking some other non-zombie entity feeding this response to the zombie.

This is structurally the same as the argument that consciousness is an epiphenomenon that has no causal power - if that were the case it would be quite the coincidence that we speak about consciousness and we experience a thing called consciousness with no causal connection.
posted by PMdixon at 12:39 PM on June 13


Er. To avoid abuse of the edit window, I mean the argument that the claim that consciousness is an epiphenomenon is self-refuting
posted by PMdixon at 12:42 PM on June 13


No Robots: Evolutionary biology is entirely about building the master race.

Many evolutionary biologists have been about that, unfortunately, yes. The discipline (and the facts) about evolutionary biology aren't necessarily, though. A lot depends on the specific species and its environment; is it possible for the species to evolve toward a fixed maximum, like the cheetah and the antelope both pushing each other to be faster? Often it's not possible. Many species don't have a fixed hill to climb on an evolutionary landscape; instead, they have to spread their bets on a constantly-changing evolutionary seascape. There's no permanent maximum to be found. The mastery required keeps changing.

My own career has been a good example. If I had been born to one of my peasant ancestors a few centuries ago, my wandering-off-in-all-intellectual-directions would have been a distinct liability. (Would I have died first because I failed to tend my crops, or because I offended the local authorities with unconventional ideas?) But now I have a pretty good job doing software development which has been directly served by my tendency to keep learning and trying new things. And in a few hundred years from now, who knows? Perhaps it will be a liability again. It's hard to build a master race on the basis of natural selection or eugenics or whatever you will if you can't know what to select for.
posted by clawsoon at 1:42 PM on June 13


This is structurally the same as the argument that consciousness is an epiphenomenon that has no causal power

Yes, exactly. If that were true, this conversation certainly wouldn't be happening.
posted by bjrubble at 3:04 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Science can neither explain nor dismiss consciousness. It cannot explain it because it is, by definition, non-physical, and science can only explain phenomena in terms of matter.

If you start from a position where you draw a hard and fast dividing line between matter and its behaviour, so that you conceive of matter as physical and its behaviour as non-physical, it should be no surprise to find yourself unsatisfied by descriptions of one in terms of the other.

Personally I draw no such line, and am happy to take the view that what I feel and how I think is the behaviour of the matter of which I am composed, and that such behaviour is inherent in the way that that matter is organised. This makes it very difficult for me to perceive the hard problem as uniquely Hard. I see consciousness as a pattern of behaviours, not as a quality; I perform a lot of it and rocks perform none.

In other words, I think that the Philosophical Zombie is an oxymoron. It seems to me that trying to engineer a system that implements the kind of general-purpose pattern recognition and representation that human brains achieve would be quite daunting enough without the added constraint of ensuring that no qualia emerge willy-nilly inside it.

I see no reason to assume that there will remain an irreducible disconnect between mind and matter if we ever manage to acquire sufficient engineering expertise to implement, on an engineered substrate, a mind capable of arguing convincingly for its own right not to be switched off.

Also, having spent many years being astonished by the sheer variety of unanticipated ways in which half-implemented software can fail to fulfil its design intent on much simpler hardware than the human body, I don't think we need to invoke quantum weirdness or microtubules or any of that gubbins to account for the spontaneous and unpredictable behaviour of our own consciousnesses. I do think we need to recognise that much of our own inner working consists of behaviour that we are unable to account for because there has been no reproductive advantage to a world-modelling system with more than the fairly minimal introspective facilities that ours have got.

To wax metaphorical for a moment: not only do we not have source code, we don't even have any reasonable way to examine the object code. We have precious little understanding of the instruction sets and we can't even hook up anything close to adequate in logic analysers. And none of the hardware is, as far as we know, even clocked in any reasonable fashion. It's an asynchronous massively parallel fractal mess of ad-hoc amendments to non-designs, and that means it has to be rife with bugs and race conditions and general unreliability. The fact that we know so little about how we actually work should be completely unsurprising.

So although I don't see consciousness as a Hard Problem in philosophical terms, I certainly do see it as a complete bastard of a thing from an engineering point of view. I don't expect to interact with an engineered consciousness within my lifetime. Strong AI has been ten years away since I started paying attention to it forty years ago, and this seems unlikely to change before I'm forced to stop. The more we learn about the workings of systems such as the one responsible for writing these words, the more raw complexity we discover inside them and the more amazing it becomes that these weird-ass meatbags actually work at all.

Natural selection is a hell of a methodology. It remains to be seen whether engineering can beat it at this particular branch of its own game. I'm not holding my breath.
posted by flabdablet at 12:49 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


« Older Taj Mahal of Spain   |   "Do you know that queer people are allowed to have... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments