Peter Sjöstedt-H on Mind, Panpsychism, Philosophy and Psychedelics
February 22, 2019 7:42 PM   Subscribe

The foundation of Western philosophy is probably rooted in psychedelics. "In the 1960s, intellectuals such as Aldous Huxley were fascinated by the effects of LSD, but today most professors are far too worried about respectability and tenure to investigate psychedelics themselves. Which is somewhat ironic, given that the field of Western philosophy has a huge debt to psychedelics, according to Peter Sjöstedt-H, a philosoph[er] who has written a book on the philosophical significance of drugs. In fact, one of Plato’s most-cited theories may have been a direct result of hallucinogenics."
In Plato’s Phaedo, the philosopher says he was inspired by the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient religious ceremony where participants took kykeon. It’s widely believed (thought cannot be definitively proven) that kykeon was a psychoactive substance, which would explain the visions that participants experienced during the ceremony. Sjöstedt-H notes that Plato references the Mysteries and “seeing that his body is but a shell, which one can escape through these experiences,” before he introduces his landmark notion of substance dualism: Namely, the idea that body and soul are distinct.

“Under psychedelic experience, you can completely lose the link between ‘you,’ yourself as a body; and ‘you,’ yourself as the person that you think you are, including your memories,” says Sjöstedt-H. “There’s this loss to the self, and the self is often associated with the body, so I can certainly see why a psychedelic experience would incline one towards a more dualistic view of the world.”

If the Mysteries did indeed involve psychedelics, Sjöstedt-H says we can credit them with inspiring some of the greatest and most influential thoughts in history.

“[Alfred North] Whitehead famously said, ‘Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.’ If Plato was inspired by psychedelics, then the whole of the Western canon is unwittingly inspired by these experiences,” Sjöstedt-H adds.

More than 2000 years later, Sjöstedt-H believes that it’s absolutely essential to understand psychedelic experiences in order to develop a thorough philosophy of how the mind functions. “You haven’t fully explained the mind until you’ve explained all facets of it,” he says.
Peter Sjöstedt-H: The Hidden Psychedelic History of Philosophy: Plato, Nietzsche, and 11 Other Philosophers Who Used Mind-Altering Drugs
Philosophy itself often arrives as a mind-altering experience, a new mode of perception unto our cosmos, at times so radical as to be hazardous. Thus can philosophy be seen as a psychoactive substance—yet the place of psychoactive substances in philosophy is not apparent. In this mildly chronological overview we shall shed light upon the history of the notable western philosophers who took psychedelic chemicals and how this may have influenced their thought—how psychedelics influenced philosophy.
Sjöstedt-H did a TED Talk last month: Consciousness and psychedelics
Philosopher of mind Peter Sjöstedt-H discusses the hidden impact psychedelics have had on philosophy and asks if such extreme, altered modes of mind could help give us answers to some of the big questions facing the philosophers and scientists of today. Peter is an Anglo-Scandinavian philosopher of mind and author. He lives in West Cornwall and is engaged in his PhD with the University of Exeter, where he also teaches philosophy modules and writing skills. Peter is the inspiration behind the inhuman philosopher Marvel Superhero, Karnak.
Peter Sjöstedt-H's serious interest in psychedelics is a rare thing for a professional philosopher these days. Not surprisingly, his other philosophical specialty is not widely pursued in academic philosophy, namely the philosophy of panpsychism.


Sjöstedt-H's recent piece on panpsychism: Panpsychism: 3 Reasons Why Our World is Brimming with Sentience
The word panpsychism is a Renaissance compound [2] of Ancient Greek pan (all) and psyche (mind, or soul). It is thus the doctrine that minds exist fundamentally [3] throughout all of actuality [4] – from humans, to hawks, honeybees through to trees, down to bacteria, mycelia, molecules, and the subatomic below these. All of matter includes minds. Panpsychism is, in itself, a secular doctrine unlike pantheism (that nature is God) and unlike animism [5] (that rivers and winds, etc., each have a spirit). It is generally unlike idealism in that it takes matter to be real [6] rather than ideal (as mere projection of the mind); it is generally unlike dualism in that it does not take mind to be separate from matter, but rather takes mind to be a part of matter; [7] and it is unlike physicalism as understood to imply that most matter be insentient. [8]

Panpsychism differentiates within the suffix psyche a vast variety of states of sentience, and it mostly attributes sentience to autopoietic (self-systematic) entities such as organisms and molecules, rather than to aggregates thereof, such as rocks and radiators. In the hierarchy of states of mind, ‘consciousness’ is an uncommon complex crown of sentience. All has mind though not all has consciousness, let alone self-consciousness. Even Plato acknowledged such distinctions, stating that:
‘The plant … is without belief or reason or understanding but has appetite and a sense of pleasure and pain.’ [9]
As it stands, panpsychism bears a proud history of eminent thinkers – from the very beginnings of western philosophy via thinkers such as Thales and Heraclitus, through to great Renaissance figures such as Patrizi (who coined the term panpsychism) and Bruno, to the mind-matter cognoscenti of the modern era: Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, William James, A. N. Whitehead, and arguably Bertrand Russell to name but a small number. [10] The last few decades have brought a renewed interest and advocacy for the theory from the likes of Thomas Nagel, Galen Strawson and David Chalmers.

It was Chalmers who renamed the mind-body, or mind-matter problem as the ‘hard problem of consciousness’,[11] and it is perhaps the renewed interest in this problem that has fueled re-interrogation of panpsychism as its solution. The mind-matter problem, the problem of understanding the relation between mind and matter, has brought human understanding to an impasse. The question is how something describable in physical, spatiotemporal terms, such as neuronal activity, can relate to something that cannot be described spatiotemporally, such as pain or curiosity. We know that mind and matter can be correlated, but we do not know the nature of that correlation. Psycho-neural identity theory asserts that a mental state simply is its correlated brain state, but a problem therewith is multiple realization: a mental state such as hunger can be correlated to a human brain state but also presumably to, say, an octopus brain state[12] – thus indicating that the mental state cannot be identical to a human brain state. A more popular proposed solution today is emergentism: that mental states emerge from physical states. The problem here is that there are no known ‘bridge laws’ that could describe how such emergence takes place (how physical movement could transition into that which is not physically describable), not to mention the problem of mental causation, as we shall see below. There are other more extreme proposed solutions to the mind-matter problem, such as physicalist eliminativism which denies the existence of mind, and its contrary subjective idealism which denies the existence of matter. Though the first appears oxymoronic, and the latter darkly solipsistic, whatever the solution to the problem is, we know it will be radical. From this background map of mind-matter cul-de-sacs, panpsychism begins to be seen as a potentially clear exit road which may lead to a more comprehensive and parsimonious view of reality. But let us navigate through three [13] arguments for panpsychism to decipher it as a route to truth.

These following arguments – briefly: that the mental cannot emerge from ‘matter’, that ‘matter’ is but an abstraction, and that the brain is not a necessary condition for mentality – will be elucidated by combining and augmenting the thoughts of various thinkers. Thereafter certain reasons for the rejection of panpsychism will be considered – reasons histrionic, philosophic, cultural, and historic. Ultimately my intention is not merely to inform the reader as to what panpsychism is and why it is held, but to instill in the reader the cognizance that this mind-matter theory is not only an option that is serious, but moreover, the option most plausible.
Audio version of Panpsychism: Ubiquitous Sentience

Interview with 3:AM Magazine: the noumenaut: psychedelics and philosophy
Peter Sjöstedt-H is an Anglo-Scandinavian philosopher who specialises in the thought of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Whitehead within the fields of Philosophy of Mind and Metaphysics – especially with regard to panpsychism and altered states of sentience. Here he discusses psychedelics and the hard problem of consciousness, panpsychism, why psychedelics is no safe harbour, the link between psychedelics and Bergson, why using the word spiritual makes him uneasy, psychedelics and Nietzsche, consciousness and hallucination, A.N. Whitehead and mysticism, the influence of psychedelic drugs on philosophy, whether psychedelics are cognitive enhancers, and the ethical issues of psychedelics. Freak out…
A podcast discussion between Peter Sjöstedt-H and Adam Robbert: TSV Episode 6.
As you might expect, we had a wide-ranging and I think very worthwhile conversation. We touched on the relation of mind and matter, metaphysics, and the so-called hard problem of consciousness. We talked about the work of Alfred North Whitehead and panpsychism, the role of method and intuition in philosophy, and we took a walk through Peter’s experiences with psychedelics, the role of psychedelics in ancient Greek culture and philosophy, and Peter expounded a bit on what he calls psychedelic phenomenology. Peter brings an important level of rigor to his work in these areas, and I think you’ll appreciate how he’s bringing together the wiles of psychedelic exploration with the discipline of philosophical inquiry.
Sjöstedt-H's ideas on nihilism were an influence on comic book writer Warren Ellis for his Marvel comic book series KARNAK: "I am therefore immersed in the viewpoint of various strains of speculative realism, tending towards the nihilistic frames of Peter Sjostedt-H and Eugene Thacker..."

Here's a short interview between Warren Ellis and Peter Sjöstedt-H.

Peter Sjöstedt-H earned his PHD in January.
posted by homunculus (84 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
 
Speaking of Schopenhauer, today is his birthday.
posted by homunculus at 7:44 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


PKD-on-DMT (P. Sjöstedt-H) You gotta like this guy.

I'm also a big fan of panpsychism as a solution to the "hard problem of consciousness," even though its New-Agey nomenclature and the idea that it is just passing the buck from the neuroscientists to the physicists are problems for many.

Regarding the larger influence of psychedelics on society: I hope the myth that hippies turned into yuppies has died. My wife and I, early experimenters in the 60s, like most of the hippies I knew, ended up in low-paying public service. (Teacher and Public Defender in our cases. Now retired.) Psychedelics tended toward turning people towards helping others, as far as I can tell. Whether this is still the case, I wouldn't know. This is anecdotal historical testimony. Seems like MDMA would have helped people turn towards the public good as well. I wouldn't know.
posted by kozad at 8:10 PM on February 22 [16 favorites]


The philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead is one of Peter Sjöstedt-H's primary interests. Here's a piece on Whitehead's process philosophy:

The Philosophy of Organism: Peter Sjöstedt-H introduces Whitehead’s organic awareness of reality.
The philosophy of organism is the name of the metaphysics of the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Born in Kent in 1861, schooled in Dorset, Alfred headed north and taught mathematics and physics in Cambridge, where he befriended his pupil Bertrand Russell, with whom he came to collaborate on a project to develop logically unshakable foundations for mathematics. In 1914, Whitehead became Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College, London. However, his passion for the underlying philosophical problems never left him, and in 1924, at the age of 63, he crossed the Atlantic to take up a position as Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1947. His intellectual journey had traversed mathematics, physics, logic, education, the philosophy of science, and matured with his profound metaphysics, a complex systematic philosophy that is most comprehensively unfolded in his 1929 book, Process and Reality.

The philosophy of organism is a form of process philosophy. This type of philosophy seeks to overcome the problems in the traditional metaphysical options of dualism, materialism, and idealism. From the perspective of process philosophy, the error of dualism is to take mind and matter to be fundamentally distinct; the error of materialism is to fall for this first error then omit mind as fundamental; the error of idealism is also to fall for the first error then to omit matter as fundamental. The philosophy of organism seeks to resolve these issues by fusing the concepts of mind and matter, thereby creating an ‘organic realism’ as Whitehead also named his philosophy. To gain an overview of this marvelous, revolutionary, yet most logical philosophy, let’s first look at what Whitehead means by ‘realism’, then at the meaning of its prefix, ‘organic’.
And here's another piece:

The Great God Pan is Not Dead: Alfred North Whitehead and the Psychedelic Mode of Perception
posted by homunculus at 8:18 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


Even if it didn't contain psychedelics, κυκεών's ingredients list of wine, barley, and grated goat's cheese has always seemed to me gross enough to induce an altered mental state. Like ayahuasca, but just the barfing part.
posted by XMLicious at 8:42 PM on February 22 [14 favorites]


I don't know....this reminds me of the "Jesus and his disciples were a mushroom cult" stuff one of my weed buddies in college used to promulgate....it's a neat story, but is there really any good evidence for it?
posted by thelonius at 9:32 PM on February 22 [7 favorites]


The thing about psychedelics is that while you are on them, it seems very profound, almost a shortcut to enlightenment. One feels as if one has experienced deep mysteries and that if everybody could experience this, then it could maybe even change the world. It seems as though a great peace is within your grasp and if the people would but listen, a new utopia might come into being. One feels almost privileged, as though you are in on the secrets that holy and wise men have struggled towards throughout the ages.
Then you get older, and you realize that the people you shared these experiences with turned into Trump voters and that any profundity was mere illusion.
posted by ambulocetus at 9:33 PM on February 22 [20 favorites]




Not surprisingly, his other philosophical specialty is not widely pursued in academic philosophy, namely the philosophy of panpsychism

In fact I think it’s quite a popular topic and has had a lot of discussion over the last few years, most recently championed by people like Philip Goff and Hedda Hassel Mørch.
posted by Segundus at 11:11 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


In fact I think it’s quite a popular topic and has had a lot of discussion over the last few years, most recently championed by people like Philip Goff and Hedda Hassel Mørch.

Then count me happily corrected! Actually it was stupid of me to make a pronouncement like that; I don't really know what's going on in philosophical circles these days.

Thanks for the references.

Hedda Hassel Mørch

Philip Goff
posted by homunculus at 11:54 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]




I'm reading lots of "as many believe" and "as some believe" with regard to Plato's use of psychedelics. Seems like a real weak foundation to build the claim that all Western philosophy is based on psychedelics.
posted by runcibleshaw at 1:15 AM on February 23 [8 favorites]


That first article begs the question harder than anyone since Kenneth Grant. In defense of Peter Sjöstedt-H, journalism reporting on academic scholarship usually gets approximately everything wrong, but there’s a huge chain of “wouldn’t it be neat if…” in this narrative.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:23 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


I suppose the thing about psychedelics is that it’s not what you experience that matters, but how you write it up. Hundreds (thousands?) went through the Eleusinian mysteries, but only one of them produced Plato’s dialogues.

(Fun fact; ‘Plato’ was actually a nickname, approximately equivalent to ‘Tubby’.)
posted by Segundus at 3:06 AM on February 23 [14 favorites]


I am not joking when I say I treat small children as if they are psychadelic. They are spigots of profound absurdity that daily refresh my views. And you can do them every day for years!
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:29 AM on February 23 [8 favorites]


Finding pharmaceutical-grade small children is hard, though, and “street” formulations are often cut with with all sorts of things. If you’d ever seen a Daniel Tiger overdose, well....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:14 AM on February 23 [19 favorites]


(Fun fact; ‘Plato’ was actually a nickname, approximately equivalent to ‘Tubby’.)

I thought it was a nickname from “Platon” meaning “broad” (as in “wide-shouldered” from his wrestling days) not “fat.” You’re right though about it being a nickname: his birth name was Aristocles (“the best-est”)!
posted by Barack Spinoza at 5:38 AM on February 23 [7 favorites]


If you’d ever seen a Daniel Tiger overdose, well...

Pfft. Daniel Tiger and other anthropomorphized animal shows are just gateway Tugs. Soon they'll be into the hard stuff, like talking letters and numbers and triangles and beans, and then it's a short step from Sesame Street before you've got Neo-Pythagoreanism all over again.
posted by XMLicious at 5:43 AM on February 23 [7 favorites]


I mean, the analogy of the cave is kind of the archetypal “have you ever really looked at your hands?” riff.
posted by gauche at 5:44 AM on February 23 [8 favorites]


And the use of music in The Republic is, um, compatible with this theory as well.
posted by gauche at 5:50 AM on February 23


I thought it was a nickname from “Platon” meaning “broad” (as in “wide-shouldered” from his wrestling days) not “fat.”

I’m relying on my old Latin/Greek teacher who, if I’m honest, generally preferred the most amusing permissible interpretation, though I guess most translators look for the most complimentary. “Bomber” or “Tank” would have been equivalents for a big-not-fat chap when I was at (British) school; I’d rather read Tubby’s chats than Bomber’s.
posted by Segundus at 7:09 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


(No, it’s great. I’m going to steal it for my students!)
posted by Barack Spinoza at 8:00 AM on February 23


For me, this is strongly reminiscent of an infamous class I took in undergrad on classical mythology which is best summarized as "everything in antiquity was either a phallus or a [psychedelic] mushroom, often both."
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 8:22 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


We have a tendency to perform this aggressive "theory-expansion" into the real world. Here's another one.

Try this: read or listen to Peter Sjöstedt-H and replace every "mind-like" term with a "computer-like" term. Computational phenomena also have a problematic relationship to physical objects.

For example, I can execute the same algorithm on my phone and on a laptop. The same algorithm is then "running" in both places, but we have some hope of establishing a "bridge" between execution transcripts to demonstrate that this is so. It seems harder to map between octopus and human mental states.

Anyway, taken to the limit, we end up with a pan-computational universe along with a panpsychic one. Is this desirable? Maybe; arguably ant colonies are computers. How would a panpsychic philosopher respond? Perhaps they would say that computation is just a restricted theory of mind, and my laptop/iPhone do indeed have very limited mental states that I can reason about using theory of computation.

Does anyone know a reference for how to avoid this proliferation of pan-* philosophies describing a variety of "non-physical" phenomena, or how to argue that this is fine?
posted by kitten_hat at 9:19 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Then you get older, and you realize that the people you shared these experiences with turned into Trump voters and that any profundity was mere illusion.

I'm calling bullshit on the depth of cynicism put forth here. My experience of very many psychedelic fellow travelers over the decades is that yeah, some of them evolved into people I no longer care to know, but most have just kept on keeping on, trying to live in accord with internal directives that were at least partly formed by their psychedelic experiences.
posted by philip-random at 9:46 AM on February 23 [6 favorites]


[Plato's] birth name was Aristocles

"So what do you call this philosophy?"

"THE ARISTOCLES!" ٩( ᐛ )و
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:05 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


When you take a desk calculator and type "1+1=" then read "2", there's really no problem with working up "here is how a transistor works" to why the calculator's LCD display now has particular segments darkened. The problem where those segments might have an interpretation seems to remain confined to the part of the system with a mind, i.e., you. Whether that combination of segments stands for the integer two itself, "two apples", "two pounds of flour", "2 miles per hour", etc., isn't intrinsic to the calculator at all.

Now, of course, to make the explanation-as-a-whole intelligible, you will say things like "these transistors form an XOR gate", "these gates are a 'carry-lookahead adder'", "this register holds the result of the computation" and "this table says which segments to darken to show '2'", but that's just shorthand meaning that, again, resides in the person with the mind, not in the calculator itself.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 10:07 AM on February 23


> The thing about psychedelics is that while you are on them, it seems very profound, almost a shortcut to enlightenment.

There are two distinct phenomena. 1.) the visual hallucinations; 2.) the entheogenic sensation of God is touching you inside. The entheogenic sensation is what provokes the deep thinking and can be activated with sufficient meditation/prayer/hypnosis, no drugs necessary.

Maybe with sufficient meditation Plato needed no drugs at all for what he did. If there is anything in the dialogues which resembles multicolored sparkle trails I overlooked it.
posted by bukvich at 10:13 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


This piece by Philip Goff is a good introduction to panpsychism: The Case For Panpsychism
According to early 21st century Western common sense, the mental doesn’t take up very much of the universe. Most folk assume that it exists only in the biological realm, specifically, in creatures with brains and nervous systems. Panpsychists deny this bit of common sense, believing that mentality is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the universe. Mind is everywhere (which is what ‘panpsychism’ translates as).

There have been panpsychists in Western philosophy since at least the pre-Socratics of the 7th century BC, and the view achieved a certain dominance in the 19th century. Panpsychism fared less well in the 20th century, being almost universally dismissed by Western philosophers as absurd, if it was ever thought about at all.

However, this dismissal was arguably part and parcel of the anti-metaphysics scientism of the period: the attempt to show that any questions which cannot be answered by scientific investigation are either trivial or meaningless. This project failed, and metaphysics is back in a big way in academic philosophy. At the same time, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the physicalist approaches to consciousness which dominated the late 20th century, and a sense that a radically new approach is called for. In this climate panpsychism is increasingly being taken up as a serious option, both for explaining consciousness and for providing a satisfactory account of the natural world.
posted by homunculus at 10:15 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Marijuana-I think therefore I yam...ummm!
LSD-I yam one with the universe Om...no man I can't chew with these little rocks embedded in rubbery stuff. No look, every single thing growing on this whole mountain is reaching for its little piece of the sun. Don't shade them let's just walk on the rocks.
posted by Oyéah at 10:27 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


My question for the panpsychists out there is... so what? Say that "mind", whatever that is, is everywhere. What are the consequences? How does that help us better understand how we think, rather than just kicking the can down the road? Is there any way to test whether we live in a panpsychic universe versus a totally material universe?

I also find it somewhat ironic that folks that subscribe to a dualistic view of matter versus mind would be led to believe so by the use of psychedelics. To me, the fact that your perception can be changed by the use of psychedelics points to conclusion that your thoughts are just the process of your brain doing its thing. And as quoted upthread, you can measure how the physical activity of the brain changes during times when we experience these altered states of thinking.

I think there are interesting things to say about how your brain mediates your perception of the world around you. But, I don't understand the logical leap from "wow, my thoughts are different when I ingest this substance" to "everything is thinking and furthermore the mind is a separate non-physical entity".
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:32 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


More by Hedda Hassel Mørch: The Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness

(• Resources for learning more about IIT (including a Φ calculator) can be found at integratedinformationtheory.org.)

"New paper: 'Is Consciousness Intrinsic? A problem for the Integrated Information Theory'. I argue that this is actually a problem for all theories of consciousness, and propose solutions (incl one in terms of emergent Russellian panpsychism)"

The paper: Is Consciousness Intrinsic? A Problem for the Integrated Information Theory
Abstract
The Integrated Information Theory of consciousness (IIT) claims that consciousness is identical to maximal integrated information, or maximal Φ. One objection to IIT is based on what may be called the intrinsicality problem: consciousness is an intrinsic property, but maximal Φ is an extrinsic property; therefore, they cannot be identical. In this paper, I show that this problem is not unique to IIT, but rather derives from a trilemma that confronts almost any theory of consciousness. Given most theories of consciousness, the following three claims are inconsistent. INTRINSICALITY: Consciousness is intrinsic. NON-OVERLAP: Conscious systems do not overlap with other conscious systems (a la Unger’s problem of the many). REDUCTIONISM: Consciousness is constituted by more fundamental properties (as per standard versions of physicalism and Russellian monism). In view of this, I will consider whether rejecting INTRINSICALITY is necessarily less plausible than rejecting NON-OVERLAP or REDUCTIONISM. I will also consider whether IIT is necessarily committed to rejecting INTRINSICALITY or whether it could also accept solutions that reject NON-OVERLAP or REDUCTIONISM instead. I will suggest that the best option for IIT may be a solution that rejects REDUCTIONISM rather than INTRINSICALITY or NON-OVERLAP.
posted by homunculus at 11:13 AM on February 23


a good introduction to panpsychism

this thread is the first time I think I've come across the word panpsychism. But that said, whilst deep beyond and within psychedelic realms, I have acutely experienced ...

that mentality is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the universe. Mind is everywhere

and when I say "acutely experienced", that means I've seen it, felt it, been presented with sufficient information that yes, something like panpsychism does begin to seem possible to my so-called rational mind.

My question for the panpsychists out there is... so what? Say that "mind", whatever that is, is everywhere. What are the consequences? How does that help us better understand how we think, rather than just kicking the can down the road?

A. I'm not calling myself a panpsychist, just saying I experienced some stuff that seems in line with something like "the view that fundamental physical entities such as electrons have thoughts; that electrons are, say, driven by existential angst."

B. My experiences were, to say the least, profound. They did very much shake me up for a while, and no doubt continue to inform one of my key guiding directives, which I'd call an openness to "the indivisibility of all things". Which I suppose, in the broadest possible sense, means I have a hard time taking any kind of border/barrier seriously. Whether you're talking the lines on maps that divide countries, or the lines in old biology text books that divide gender. It's also opened me up to some amazing art and music, because what the fuck's Country anyway, as opposed to Western, or Americana? And so on.
posted by philip-random at 11:48 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]


(Fun fact; ‘Plato’ was actually a nickname, approximately equivalent to ‘Tubby’.)

I thought it was a nickname from “Platon” meaning “broad” (as in “wide-shouldered” from his wrestling days) not “fat.” You’re right though about it being a nickname: his birth name was Aristocles (“the bestest").
...
I thought it was a nickname from “Platon” meaning “broad” (as in “wide-shouldered” from his wrestling days) not “fat.”

I’m relying on my old Latin/Greek teacher who, if I’m honest, generally preferred the most amusing permissible interpretation, though I guess most translators look for the most complimentary. “Bomber” or “Tank” would have been equivalents for a big-not-fat chap when I was at (British) school; I’d rather read Tubby’s chats than Bomber’s.
So Plato . . . was Socrates' bodyguard cum enforcer??

Suddenly much that has been mysterious to me about the social milieu of the Dialogues becomes a little clearer.

Gods know the exasperating old git needed one -- as the final scenes of his life amply demonstrate, I suppose.
posted by jamjam at 12:36 PM on February 23 [3 favorites]


> A. I'm not calling myself a panpsychist, just saying I experienced some stuff that seems in line with something like "the view that fundamental physical entities such as electrons have thoughts; that electrons are, say, driven by existential angst."

For context, here's the paragraph that quote comes from:
Panpsychism is sometimes caricatured as the view that fundamental physical entities such as electrons have thoughts; that electrons are, say, driven by existential angst. However, panpsychism as defended in contemporary philosophy is the view that consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous, where to be conscious is simply to have subjective experience of some kind. This doesn’t necessarily imply anything as sophisticated as thoughts.
posted by homunculus at 1:25 PM on February 23 [3 favorites]


Mind is everywhere

Every time I see that phrase, my inner DJ starts playing this.

If mind is ubiquitous, I how it's less ridiculous than my own mind is.
posted by homunculus at 1:28 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Gods know the exasperating old git needed one -- as the final scenes of his life amply demonstrate, I suppose.

Really Socrates invented sealioning. Roaming around town demonstrating that no one rich and famous and powerful actually knows shit, demanding definitions for everything and nitpicking edge cases in them until they look idiotic, but never supplying your own, attracting a following of rich young goodfornothings who like seeing your victims humiliated,and then acting like you do this only because a divine voice tells you to.....it's not a great way to make friends.
posted by thelonius at 1:54 PM on February 23 [11 favorites]


Here's a little bit more on Sjöstedt-H's neo-nihilism which inspired Warren Ellis:

Links to e-book: Neo-Nihilism: the Philosophy of Power

Lecture notes: Nietzsche and Nihilism

He talks a bit about it in this interview: Psychedelic philosophy
posted by homunculus at 1:56 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


I put a lot of these pieces in a Twitter thread, if anyone's interested (or if they're not; what's done is done.)
posted by homunculus at 5:33 PM on February 23


psychotomimesis: "When LSD was discovered, its major first proposed use was as a psychotomimetic, a technologically inducible and reproducible means by which psychologists might study and gain empathy for the difficult experiences of troubled patients."
posted by kliuless at 11:34 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]




Put me in the generally unimpressed camp. If the answer to the problem of consciousness is that humans have thoughts because everything has thoughts (or qualia, etc. if you prefer), then I don’t see how that actually addresses the problem
posted by oddman at 5:44 AM on February 24 [2 favorites]


These following arguments – briefly: that the mental cannot emerge from ‘matter’, that ‘matter’ is but an abstraction, and that the brain is not a necessary condition for mentality – will be elucidated by combining and augmenting the thoughts of various thinkers.

Put me in the unimpressed camp as well. I got into this camp via experience with both psychedelics and psychosis (not simultaneously, in case that matters).

From both psychedelics and breath meditation I took away the lesson that the fundamental distinction between Me and Everything Else is essentially a matter of conceptual convenience rather than a sound basis for an overall metaphysics. I think that this distinction is quite likely to be the first one most of us ever make. I think it's hard to recognize as a largely arbitrary distinction for that reason, and I think failure to understand its arbitrariness is largely what props up a failure to understand that all distinctions are fundamentally arbitrary and get made for no better reason than allowing for certain kinds of reasoning to be built on top of them.

From psychosis I took away the lesson that it is possible to be convinced to the core of one's being of the profound and indisputably self-evident truth of certain propositions that are in fact complete and utter bullshit. The feeling of epiphany is exactly that - a feeling - and is not in and of itself a reliable guide to what is and/or how stuff works. Epiphany requires thorough cross-checking.

It has also occurred to me at various times in the past that what we learn very early on about object permanence - the principle that things have existence independent of our perception of them - is frequently misapplied to the notion of a Self that is not exactly the physical body. I see no evidence that any such Self has in fact got an existence other than that which it brought into being as soon as one goes looking for it. I also see a great deal of evidence for my actual physical embodied self being completely capable of operating in modes where no abstract Self is in fact present, from sleeping to driving on autopilot and arriving with no memory of the journey whatsoever to existing in an intensely engrossed flow state while playing the drums.

There are other phenomena where something like object permanence appears to apply but does not in fact apply; notably in the field of stroboscopy, where carefully timed flash illumination can make objects undergoing quite complicated transformations appear to remain still and stable. The key to making a stroboscope work is to ensure that the flash only goes off exactly when the object is in the configuration that one is trying to render perceptually stable, and it seems highly plausible to me that any interior check for the presence of a Self would in fact do exactly that.

From all of which follows my distinct lack of enthusiasm for positing the existence of a conscious Self that's both temporally continuous and in some way distinct from my physical body, and my resistance to taking seriously the idea of consciousness occurring in contexts other than that of roughly brain-like general-purpose representation engines.

The fact that chemistry (among other things) can give me access to conscious states where the distinction between my body and everything else in the universe is no longer apparent or interesting - even states where sensory information hitherto associated with my body is no longer even perceptible - is not in my view at all convincing as evidence for the proposition that consciousness is feasible without brains. All it means to me is that my brain is completely capable of operating in modes where its attention is not drawn to itself, which I already knew anyway.

Reality is what it is. The fact that this is no more than a rank tautology doesn't make it untrue, and nor does it create any requirement for reality to conform to my conceptual plan or to be any particular way. Given that my present state of mental health appears to be reasonably workable and stable, I would be quite surprised to learn that the metaphysics my brain builds for me when it's firing smoothly on all cylinders is generally less accurate than that resulting from fucking with all its internal connections via psychoactives.

I think experience with psychoactives can be vastly and profoundly fascinating, illuminating and valuable, but I think it's an error to let them spoil one's grasp of the bleedin' obvious. And I also think that any argument so vague and hand-wavy as to require "matter" to be put in scare quotes is unlikely to be terribly sound.
posted by flabdablet at 6:24 AM on February 24 [6 favorites]


It was Spinoza’s view that thought is omnipresent, holding that, just as nature is a continuum of matter, so is it a continuum of thought. There are many ways in which this view results in an approach to science and human endeavor in general that differs from prevailing theory and practice. For one thing, Spinoza argued that thought is subject to the same cause-and-effect determinism as material motion:
[T]rue science proceeds from cause to effect; though the ancients, so far as I know, never formed the conception put forward here that the soul acts according to fixed laws, and is as it were an immaterial automaton.
Spinoza’s outlook also departs from the prevailing understanding of biology in that, for Spinoza, every life-form has a unique essence, its conatus, the preservation of which is the sole purpose of the lifeform.
posted by No Robots at 7:59 AM on February 24


I've been reading about panpsychism and emergentism all weekend and .. I still can't grasp what the crux of the objection to emergentism is, or how there's any way to figure out whether panpsychism as stated is wrong, or how knowing the fact of the matter would influence a moral or practical question, or whether computers can have qualia, or whether all of you but me are p-zombies.

(At some point, the most parsimonious explanation IS that we're all just p-zombies but for some reason our utterances are consistently at odds with our lack of any internal experiences. If you were to maintain that this is the case, you can dismiss all the problems with panpsychism and emergentism as stated...)
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 6:35 PM on February 24


Also, I loved that in the Stanford Encyclopedia, under the heading "4. Objections to Panpsychism" is "4.1. The Incredulous Stare"
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 6:40 PM on February 24


Seems to me that many of the thickets of confusion surrounding the so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness are rooted in a failure to make a distinction between what a thing is and what it does.

Consciousness, it seems to me, is first and foremost a behaviour. Considered with maximum generality, then, consciousness is non-material, for the same reason and in exactly the same sense that falls and splashes and explosions are. All of these things describe the behaviour of material, but they remain recognizable and describable and distinguishable from other behaviours regardless of what kind of underlying material might be involved in any given instance of them.

It's completely reasonable and worthwhile to contemplate, analyze and discuss assorted kinds of behaviours in order to learn what we can about them, but it seems to me that divorcing them entirely from the things that perform them in order to abstract them into some kind of Platonic ideal amounts to the kind of pleasurably useless philosophical wanking for which cannabis, rather than a willing publisher, is the best accompaniment.

The Law of Leaky Abstractions applies every bit as strongly to philosophy as it does to software development, and if you think you've got a workable Theory of Everything just because you've managed to curate some particularly pleasing collection of abstractions, then I'm sorry but you're just having a Dunning-Kruger moment. Happens to the best of us.

To claim that consciousness is in some sense more fundamental to the universe than matter strikes me as every bit as useless and misleading as some similar claim about explosions or falling or vibration or spinning. Yes, all of these behaviours are things. No, none of them would be things without some part of the universe that also admits of description independent of them having been available to perform them.

And if your objection to consciousness-as-behaviour is that this view provides no explanation at all for why it feels like something for you to read these words, or how it is that you experience a point of view to read them from: ask yourself what you'd expect from an autonomous, embodied, general-purpose representation and association engine capable of self-directed construction of arbitrarily extensible models of itself and its relationships with the things around it? To me, it would be as astonishing to learn that such a thing could exist and not perform experience as it would be to learn that Wile E. Coyote could remain forever suspended past the edge of that cliff.

Build them and it will come.
posted by flabdablet at 7:59 PM on February 24


If consciousness is merely a behavior how does that work with aggregates of the “roughly brain-like general-purpose representation engines” exhibiting the same behavior while acting in concert? Is the “factory in Chicago that makes miniature models of factories” from Austin Powers conscious on its own, independently of the people who work there, because it can represent itself?

I'm really thinking of something more like a community or nation of people, or perhaps an organization of other organisms, being able to fulfill the requirements for consciousness-as-a-behavior but I like Austin Powers references. I don't pose my question in advocacy for panpsychism, but because my recollection is that it's difficult to come up with simple answers to the question of consciousness that fit all my intuitions and heuristics which would seem appropriate to apply.

Also this relates to the Searle's Room thought experiment. There's a MetaTalk thread about the racist connotations of Searle's original formulation of that concept and the term commonly used for it.
posted by XMLicious at 10:31 PM on February 24


I saw you slip that "merely" in there. To say that consciousness is merely a behaviour is like saying that the Amazon rainforest is merely a place where plants grow. Putting a thing in a category says nothing about the complexity of the thing or the capaciousness of the category.

Searle's Room is a bad thought experiment, not because there's anything fundamentally wrong with the conceptual model but because the implementation as described was deliberately constructed in such a maximally implausible fashion as to make intuition get in the way of understanding rather than aid it.

If the Room was in fact capable of conducting a conversation with a human being in real time, and capable of offering a plausible defence of its own consciousness, there should (it seems to me) be no a priori reason not to take it at its word. But the stark intuitive implausibility of having a rulebook-bound human at the centre of that room being able to perform anything even close to all of the required processing at anything even close to the required speed makes that point quite unappealing to defend, as Searle fully intended that it should.

As for the self-modelling factory in Chicago: not plausibly conscious, in my view. Sure, it makes miniature physical representations of itself, but the fact that the English language uses the word "models" both for things like that and for things like the active explanatory and predictive models that our brains construct for us doesn't make the referents of the word the same thing.

it's difficult to come up with simple answers to the question of consciousness that fit all my intuitions and heuristics

Given that large parts of human culture appear to be devoted to the construction of intuitions and heuristics specifically designed to deny, obscure and obfuscate our status as but one of many ordinary mortal mammal species, I would be astonished to find that any accurate answer to the question of consciousness would fail to encounter widespread intuitive repugnance.

But you know, I don't have to like the fact that I cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound to give that belief more day-to-day explanatory and predictive power than an alternative that says I can.
posted by flabdablet at 11:08 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


I'm really thinking of something more like a community or nation of people, or perhaps an organization of other organisms, being able to fulfill the requirements for consciousness-as-a-behavior

Roundness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for wheelitude :-)
posted by flabdablet at 11:15 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


...okay so if an aggregation of humans collectively behaves in the manner which constitutes consciousness in your formulation, is the aggregate conscious?
posted by XMLicious at 11:23 PM on February 24


If it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck but it don't walk like a duck, it ain't a duck.

Unless your aggregate can conduct a conversation and defend its own aggregate consciousness, it ain't performing a consciousness that resembles mine.
posted by flabdablet at 11:24 PM on February 24


It might well, however, be performing a variety of consciousness more typically associated with animal species that don't employ language.
posted by flabdablet at 11:28 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Implementing a single overall consciousness on top of multiple individual consciousnesses smacks of the Inner-Platform Effect to me, and intuition suggests that its performance would therefore be quite poor.
posted by flabdablet at 11:31 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


The question is about consciousness-behavior-exhibiting like a duck, though, not walking or quacking. Which was supposed to “remain recognizable and describable and distinguishable from other behaviours regardless of what kind of underlying material might be involved in any given instance.”

I guess it's not so recognizable after all if it's “poorly performed,” though, and Cyrano de Bergerac whispering love poetry in Christian's ear to repeat to Roxane up on the balcony just always happens to be an underlying material which produces a poor performance?
posted by XMLicious at 11:49 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


(And hence, your answer to the question of whether an aggregation of humans collectively behaving in the manner which constitutes consciousness in your formulation is conscious, appears to be “it probably wouldn't happen”?)
posted by XMLicious at 11:55 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Might aid mutual intelligibility to note at this point that I think of consciousness as a term with varying degrees of applicability to various kinds of behaviour, rather than some kind of hard binary that any given system is either held to perform wholly and genuinely or not at all.

But if one is determined to settle the "hard" question about whether any given system is performing human-comparable consciousness or not, I can think of no better test than to go with Turing and interrogate it directly and explicitly.

If a system is capable of giving an account of its own subjective experience in a manner no less plausible than that of the least self-aware available reference human, I can see no in-principle reason not to give it the benefit of the doubt.

As things stand in 2019, the only systems I have ever encountered that are capable of passing this test are human beings. I can see no in-principle reason why an engineered system could never pass it, and I think the Hard Problem would instantly evaporate as soon as one did, but I also think that the practical barriers to implementation are a lot higher than most commentators would have you believe. I'm 57 years old at present and I do not expect to be able to converse with an engineered or otherwise non-human yet human-comparable consciousness within my lifetime.

That said, part of the extreme beauty of the universe (and reasonably good evidence for the view that it's not something I'm just making up in what I mistakenly believe to be my own head) is its endless capacity to surprise.
posted by flabdablet at 12:18 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Lucky you, my experience has been different. Out of the 6 or 8 people in our little group, I'm the only one who isn't a wing nut today. I'm not saying drugs have nothing to teach, I am saying that the lessons are rarely permanent.
posted by ambulocetus at 8:54 PM on February 25


Reading the antecedent of that pronoun's link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on panpsychism and a couple of the OP links, I'm fascinated to find that a central difficulty is something referred to as the “combination problem” which appears similar to my objection above to flabdablet's consciousness-as-a-behavior proposition. From the SEP:
It is generally agreed, both by its proponents and by its opponents, that the hardest problem facing panpsychism is what has become known as the “combination problem”. This term comes from William Seager (1995), although in the contemporary literature the problem itself is generally traced back to William James ([1890] 1981). The combination problem is most obviously a challenge for constitutive micropsychism, although as we shall see there are forms of it that threaten other kinds of panpsychism. According to constitutive micropsychism, micro-level entities have their own very basic forms of conscious experience, and in brains these micro-level conscious entities somehow come together to constitute human and animal consciousness. The problem is that this is very difficult to make sense of: “little” conscious subjects of experience with their micro-experiences coming together to form a “big” conscious subject with its own experiences.
posted by XMLicious at 3:48 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


Again, all of these difficulties stem from treating consciousness as some kind of constitutive property of reality (consciousness as an is), rather than as specific kinds of behaviour exhibited by those parts of reality that are structured in such a way as to support and perform those kinds of behaviour (consciousness as a does).

To use a very rough analogy, this is like trying to predict the result of a computer executing a program by starting with an assumption that a tendency to execute computer programs is an inherent property of transistors. To use an even rougher one, it's a classic example of missing the forest for the trees.
posted by flabdablet at 7:12 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


The problem is that this is very difficult to make sense of: “little” conscious subjects of experience with their micro-experiences coming together to form a “big” conscious subject with its own experiences.

on a macro scale, wouldn't a human culture or society be an analog to this? A bunch of individual "tendencies" coming together to form a bigger "tendency". It could be something as broad as a nation, as narrow as a fandom.

And getting back to some of my own psychedelically informed observations, I very much did experience my consciousness (a vast swath of it anyway) breaking down, atomizing you might say, into a multitude of individual voices, all working their own "tendency". This was not at all pleasant. But in time (when the drugs wore off?) they came together again as one, a unity I could think of as my self. That's a very simplistic way of describing a very complex experience, but it does seem in line with "little" conscious subjects coming together (or not) to form a "big" conscious subject.
posted by philip-random at 8:20 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


flabdablet—if you have to peek behind the curtain during the Turing test to see whether one source of answers to the questions is, rather than an individual human, three eight-year-olds standing on each other's shoulders wearing a trench-coat or some other group of humans, like the writing staff of a sitcom, (or if you have to mandate that the participants in the Turing test answer particular questions of self-knowledge truthfully, which would be the same thing) then no matter how many times you put the word “does” in italics your criteria for consciousness is not actually limited to behavior.

Then you're requiring the dissection of the prospective conscious entity so that you can examine what you're calling “implementation” details, because you have further criteria which depend on what the conscious entity looks like on the inside, regardless of how it behaves.

My point is that even if you actually did limit yourself to a behavior-only definition of consciousness then your definition is vulnerable to the combination problem in the form of an aggregation of humans also having the ability to behave in whatever fashion supposedly constitutes consciousness. And if you come up with a valid way of dismissing the subject-summing version of the combination problem then congratulations because you probably also just dramatically advanced the argument for panpsychism.
posted by XMLicious at 6:34 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


I think you're conflating two separable things here. On the one hand, there is consciousness as experienced, which is really the only source of difficulty in the Hard Problem; on the other is an attempt to make a judgement call about whether some particular system external to oneself can also reasonably be described as conscious.

The difficult issue does not come from a pressing need to define consciousness, because consciousness is a matter of direct experience. One does not need a definition of consciousness in order to have that experience. The issue is working out recognition criteria for posited conscious systems that do not share one's own immediate personal subjective experience.

In the case of other human beings, we generally do this by assessing the system concerned as largely similar to ourselves on the basis of both observed structure and observed behaviour. The waters get muddier as we start to decide to what extent it is reasonable to describe other, non-human systems as conscious. The further removed the observable structure of such systems is from our own, the more we need to rely on an assessment of their behaviour to come to a view on the degree to which "conscious" is an appropriate description.

What we're really looking for here is evidence that the system in question is having an experience in anything like the same sense that we find ourselves doing personally. And the reason I am happier to view the having of experience as an action performed by a system rather than as an inherent property of that system is that so many of the difficulties I see people tying themselves in conceptual knots over simply don't apply after taking that view.

In particular, it becomes much easier to think about breaking down the having of experience into simpler constituent behaviours, much as one can think about breaking down a dance into simpler constituent gestures and rhythms. None of these need to be the dance in and of themselves in order for the dance to exist.

philip-random wrote: I very much did experience my consciousness (a vast swath of it anyway) breaking down, atomizing you might say, into a multitude of individual voices, all working their own "tendency". This was not at all pleasant. But in time (when the drugs wore off?) they came together again as one, a unity I could think of as my self.

I've had an experience I'd describe in almost exactly the same way, except that mine was pleasurable. Fascinating, too. One of the things I found really interesting about it was that luckily it did not seem to be interfering with my ability to continue responding safely to the rain-slicked roads and the traffic around me, even though the driver did feel itself becoming a little irritated by the argument between the food seeker and the home goer.

The conclusion I drew after some years of musing on that and related experiences was that what I had hitherto thought of as my inner self is nothing more than a convenient conceptual placeholder for my whole self, toenails to topknot, and that the reason its locus seems to be somewhat vague is because my locus is somewhat vague. I occupy a region, not a point.

My point is that even if you actually did limit yourself to a behavior-only definition of consciousness then your definition is vulnerable to the combination problem in the form of an aggregation of humans also having the ability to behave in whatever fashion supposedly constitutes consciousness.

The most reliable way for such an aggregation to put up a convincing performance of a unitary consciousness would be for most of it to shut up and let one member do the talking.

But again, this is not so much about defining consciousness as about recognizing it. That's what we'd need to be able to do in order to settle the question of whether or not some engineered system was "really" conscious or "merely" a p-zombie.

Reality is what it is. A dog is going to do what it does whether we define it as conscious or not. The only entity capable in principle of a definitive answer to the question of whether or not the dog is conscious is the dog; for anybody other than the dog it will always be a judgement call.
posted by flabdablet at 9:34 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


But if your proposed method of recognizing consciousness breaks down as soon as it's presented with two people acting in concert instead of one person, or with one person who lacks the ability to interact in a Turing-test-like manner for that matter, it seems like the method might require further analysis before pronouncing it effective for decid[ing] to what extent it is reasonable to describe other, non-human systems as conscious.

I think the utility you're seeing in “recognizing” consciousness as a behavior is actually the utility of redefining the problem to ask a completely different question with an answer that shows signs of being much less complicated. I mean if we hypothesize that an effective method of “recognizing” consciousness is to determine whether the prospective conscious entity has a butt, that also makes the “hard problem of consciousness” super-easily dismissed as trivial.

It makes for a tragedy for the butt-less, but for the enbutted it provides a simple syllogism to demonstrate that they were created in the image of God. Or in the image of Jesus, at least.

And at least until our mad scientists actually create a monkey with five butts, it also avoids the combination problem.

To further illustrate the babies which might be thrown out with the bathwater here, scoffing that any argument so vague and hand-wavy as to require "matter" to be put in scare quotes is unlikely to be terribly sound tosses 𝐄=𝐦𝐜𝟐 to the curb, of all things.
posted by XMLicious at 11:19 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


if your proposed method of recognizing consciousness breaks down as soon as it's presented with two people acting in concert instead of one person, or with one person who lacks the ability to interact in a Turing-test-like manner for that matter

I don't see that it does break down.

If I find myself interacting with a system whose behaviour is convincingly that of a conscious entity, and it subsequently turns out that one or more entities generally agreed upon to be conscious were responsible for that behaviour, how does that invalidate my conclusion that conscious behaviour is in fact being performed by that system?

Conversely, if I'm interacting with a system whose structure and appearance is convincingly that of a person even if they're not currently in a condition to exhibit conscious behaviour, how does that invalidate my conclusion that this system might well be capable of exhibiting that behaviour at some future time?

In fact behavioural tests for the presence of consciousness are regularly used in the latter case. For example, it would be unethical to harvest the bodily organs of a person not convincingly shown to lack all brain activity, and brain activity is, I think you will uncontroversially agree, a kind of system behaviour.
posted by flabdablet at 1:16 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


redefining the problem to ask a completely different question with an answer that shows signs of being much less complicated

is a perfectly respectable approach. See also: epicycles.
posted by flabdablet at 1:17 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


scoffing "that any argument so vague and hand-wavy as to require "matter" to be put in scare quotes is unlikely to be terribly sound" tosses 𝐄=𝐦𝐜𝟐 to the curb, of all things.

I can't see how an equation about a property of matter counts as belonging to the category of arguments so vague and hand-wavy as to require "matter" to be put in scare quotes. It seems to me that an equation relating specific and measurable quantities of energy to specific and measurable quantities of mass and the speed of light in a vacuum is about as far from vague and hand-wavy as it's possible to get.
posted by flabdablet at 1:40 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


I also note in passing a distinct lack of both measurables and equations in any account of panpsychism. To claim that all of reality is in some ill-specified and hand-wavy sense composed of an ill-specified and hand-wavy thing called consciousness strikes me as a view with even less explanatory and predictive power than the phlogiston theory of fire.

"I don't understand what consciousness is or how it works, but my experience of it is the only thing I cannot reasonably doubt, so therefore it must be the fundamental basis of all reality" seems to me both to be a fair precis of the arguments for panpsychism and to fall somewhere between kicking the can down the road and straight-up narcissism. It's a view I would expect to be held only by people capable of the same doublethink involved in accepting a supernatural Creator as a good-enough answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

I can only interpret embracing this kind of view as an attempt to stave off the inevitability of personal death, and I personally view all such attempts as a waste of my inherently limited time.
posted by flabdablet at 1:59 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


But “I don't understand what consciousness is or how it works, but my experience of it is the only thing I cannot reasonably doubt, so therefore I can probably guess how to recognize a group of an undetermined number of consciousnesses somewhere between one and infinity via a test that uses no definition of consciousness” is a really solid place from which to suppose that this entire branch of philosophical study is the result of confusion over phenomena you yourself have successfully managed to grasp, with phrases like “useless philosophical wanking” and while faulting the assertions of others as “ill-defined”? And while openly saying that you may be pitching out the actual question involved in Chalmer's “hard problem of consciousness” in favor of pursuing a completely different question that's easier to answer?

Faulting someone else's analysis of consciousness as lacking equations of all things, while putting forward none in your own analysis even if they were an appropriate instrument anyways, is more evocative of erecting idols and doublethink and narcissism than anything I've read in the links in this thread. (Though, admittedly, I've only read the entirety of a few of the links from this thread.)
posted by XMLicious at 4:45 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]


Here's a tidy precis of the Hard Problem of Consciousness from scholarpedia.org:
Although experience is associated with a variety of functions, explaining how those functions are performed would still seem to leave important questions unanswered. We would still want to know why their performance is accompanied by experience, and why this or that kind of experience rather than another kind.
My view is that the performance of those functions (i.e. behaviours) is experience, that conceptual separation of any given experience from the internal behaviours of the entity that's having that experience is erroneous and unjustifiable, and that all of the questions that arise from doing so are therefore intellectual dead ends. If there is any sense at all in which bodily behaviour is indeed distinguishable from experience, it's distinguishable only to observers outside the body concerned: wherever there is an explanatory gap there is physical separation as well.

The prediction that follows from this (which, as I said above, I unfortunately don't expect to be in a position to test within my lifetime) is that if we ever solve enough of the "easy" problems to let us engineer a device able to simulate the internal behaviour of an embodied human being in real time to some yet-to-be-determined degree of accuracy, then that device would have experiences i.e. be conscious, but would probably have a great deal of difficulty convincing anybody but a Hard Problem reductionist that such was the case.

Your objection to what you appear to characterize as my proposed recognition test for consciousness is actually a perfect illustration of this difficulty. It seems to me that you're conveniently ignoring the fact that recognition of both structure and behaviour is currently the only criterion used in practice to test for the presence of consciousness.

It's not my test. I'm not proposing something new here; I'm saying that in the absence of enough detailed knowledge about the inner workings of conscious systems to allow such a system to be engineered, recognition is the best test we've got.

I'm also saying that I've as yet seen no argument from anybody who actually thinks that the Hard Problem is indeed harder than any of the "easy" ones that strikes me as sound enough to be worth taking seriously. I've read a hell of a lot of those arguments. They all seem to come down to insisting that there is an explanatory gap on the basis of some variety of intuitive discomfort with the lack of one, often propped up by a thought experiment or two to disguise that discomfort under some putatively respectable veneer of reasoning.

“I don't understand what consciousness is or how it works, but my experience of it is the only thing I cannot reasonably doubt, so therefore I can probably guess how to recognize a group of an undetermined number of consciousnesses somewhere between one and infinity via a test that uses no definition of consciousness” is not a fair precis of my position, so it's a straw man as well as a non sequitur.

My reasonable belief that I can recognize another consciousness when I interact with one is not based on knowing that I lack a detailed understanding of consciousness, nor on my inability to doubt that I have experiences. Rather, it rests squarely on the observation that I have been performing exactly that kind of test all my life, every time I meet or otherwise interact with another animal.

Nor is my categorization of consciousness as behaviour any kind of attempt to explain consciousness. I obviously don't know anywhere near enough about its detailed workings to construct a useful explanation. But I'm pretty sure I can tell you what it isn't, and if you think it's anything but behaviour, I think you're making assumptions about it that you can't really justify.
posted by flabdablet at 6:12 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]




MetaFilter: a tragedy for the butt-less.
posted by homunculus at 3:06 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


It seems to me that you're conveniently ignoring the fact that recognition of both structure and behaviour is currently the only criterion used in practice to test for the presence of consciousness.

Are you talking about the things medical professionals might do to evaluate what in the U.S. at least is referred to more generally as “responsiveness” (as far as I know anyways, since I'm not myself a medical professional) such as briefly shining a flashlight in the eyes to check for pupillary response, the absence of which can indicate pathology of the autonomic nervous system?

Some of these responsiveness behaviors are coloquially referred to as “conscious” and “unconscious”, but you seem to be saying here that such checks are equivalent to determining whether or not someone is a p-zombie. If so, I think you're misunderstanding the purpose or extending tests related to aspects of medical vitality utilized for practical purposes, and perhaps adopted by courts for their own related practical purposes, beyond their actual intended significance.

Ideally all of legal practice and medical ethics would be precisely aligned with philosophical fundamentals, I guess, but even outside of the U.S., I believe, we do stuff like furnish legal rights to corporations; not just entities which pass some test as not being p-zombies. Or for another example, future people who don't exist yet, and hence can't fulfill any behavioral or structural criteria, can have some degree of legal status. And we used to put animals on trial for murder not too long ago.

So “courts do it”, even were they actually addressing the same issues as philosophical analyses of consciousness, is from my point of view no more sound as a basis than, in 1900, an equationless description of the implications of the mass-energy equivalence and the subjective nature of a material object's mass depending on relativistic frames would have apparently been to you.

if we ever solve enough of the "easy" problems to let us engineer a device able to simulate the internal behaviour of an embodied human being in real time to some yet-to-be-determined degree of accuracy, then that device would have experiences i.e. be conscious

We come back around to the beginning here: it seems to me that the logical consequence of this is that also, if you had a large enough team of sitcom writers—perhaps one the size of the entire 2019 population of the Earth, or several such Earths—then at some point, at a certain level of sophistication-slash-sitcom-engineering, their collective script-writing of the “internal behaviors” of a fictional person responding to Turing test questions would attain consciousness, if only once they conformed to whatever structural requirements have crept into what was previously behavior “regardless of what kind of underlying material might be involved.”

It also seems to me as though part of the absurdity you find in the Searle's Room thought-experiment is that you regard it as mandating a single human inside the room carrying out the rules. But when the concept was presented to me at school it was described as a room containing whatever number of people would be necessary to carry out the processing rules, like offices full of people attacking the Enigma cipher with pen and paper at Bletchley Park during WWII. (Quite possibly my professors were presenting a modified form of the thought-experiment, but that's the one brought to mind then for me in the context of a scheme in which consciousness is a behavior.)

In any case—you seem to regard your assertion that you're pretty sure you can tell me what consciousness isn't, and fault me for being open to it having a nature other than a behavioral(-structural) one, as a simple and straightforward and empirical position.

But a major outcome of the hundreds of years and more of investigation of this and related questions by philosophers has been to determine that this in fact is not a simple claim, but one with very involved implications.

The particular one I'm focused on here is that when asked what exactly is it that happens at the point when the sophistication of the team of sitcom writers increases to the level that their imitated human mind attains its slow consciousness, it seems to be that all you're able to say is another tautological characterization, something like “behavior which is not conscious becomes behavior which is consciousness” next to non-defined consciousness: you can't actually account for how the qualities attributed to consciousness in the first place which make for the “hard problem of consciousness” arise and are differentiated from non-conscious behavior.

Coming up with a rationale why only machine-executed behavior in the form of a Turing-test-passing AI could fulfill the requirements of conscious behavior (consciousness can't be too slow, perhaps?) and hence gestalt behavior by a group of humans which is identical otherwise fails some additional test, doesn't change that issue. It's just leveraging the convention of hand-wavily describing the operation of technological things as a “black box”, a discrete unit which for practical engineering purposes does not need to be understood, whereas with sitcom writers or neurologists manually animating these behaviors in activities on the scale of nations or larger, the awareness that you'd actually be able to examine what's happening at any resolution level of the behavior—to investigate how it would produce the qualities of consciousness—is maintained.

I mean if you're really committing to this “real-time” requirement, for example, a similar question arises given that an apparent implication would be that dialing the clock speed of the potentially-conscious AI up and down will determine whether the exact same behavior is conscious or not, and how does that work?

So from my perspective, it's actually your approach which is kicking the can down the road to where the actual qualities of consciousness which are what prompt the questions in the first place are pushed down into black boxes we just don't examine, within which consciousness works in mysterious ways, and maybe our technological approaches will figure it out in the future or maybe they won't, or perhaps even to a mysterian-like position where the internal operation of the AI or the multiplanetary sitcom-writing team is of a complexity beyond the ken of mortal man, and it hence again doesn't need to be considered in detail. Because it's a thing like the Amazon rainforest of such superlative complexity and capaciousness that it must not be sullied with the word “merely.”

This is why it would make sense to me that you can put forward tautologies like “reality is what it is” as supporting your position with a straight face while sneeringly dismissing other approaches with criticisms that in actuality apply to your own position just as much, because on some level you're aware that your scheme is legerdemain, with refraining from defining consciousness in any way as a central gimmick. You're just putting the explanatory gap in the black box.

Doesn't it seem a bit odd to you yourself that you regard “I have been performing exactly that kind of test all my life, every time I meet or otherwise interact with another animal” as a reliable instrument for everything except defining what consciousness is? Especially given that your statement that “[you] would be astonished to find that any accurate answer to the question of consciousness would fail to encounter widespread intuitive repugnance” doesn't interfere with being pretty sure you can tell me what consciousness isn't.

What's behind the curtain? It could be something as mundane as a butt, another “easy problem” like the factory in Chicago making a representation of itself; but cloaked in the costume of an unspecified technological breakthrough which advanced AI researchers might finally crack at an unknown distance into the future, and make mankind alike unto gods by bringing forth mind anew as a Deep Thought that can announce “42” to us after 7.5 million years of cogitation, it makes a great peg to hang some sneering at academic philosophers on.

That's a detailed description of my reactions to the things you've been saying here, anyways. Perhaps all you're really saying is that it's a complex issue which none of us forsee a resolution to any time soon, which I'd certainly agree with. It's because of that complexity, though, and many of the other things you yourself have said, that I think categorical dismissal of philosophers getting up to their elbows in this stuff—particularly dismissal founded on intuitions, which you seem happy to condemn when it's of use to you rhetorically—isn't warranted.
posted by XMLicious at 12:10 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


"It seems to me that you're conveniently ignoring the fact that recognition of both structure and behaviour is currently the only criterion used in practice to test for the presence of consciousness."

Are you talking about the things medical professionals might do to evaluate what in the U.S. at least is referred to more generally as “responsiveness” (as far as I know anyways, since I'm not myself a medical professional) such as briefly shining a flashlight in the eyes to check for pupillary response, the absence of which can indicate pathology of the autonomic nervous system?


No, I'm talking about the ordinary process by which ordinary people ascribe consciousness to other people in practice.

you seem to be saying here that such checks are equivalent to determining whether or not someone is a p-zombie

No, I'm saying that p-zombies are a just-so story arising from unjustifiable assumptions about the nature of consciousness, and the apparent need of philosophers to design increasingly elaborate thought experiments about them does not amount to any kind of practical test.

The particular one I'm focused on here is that when asked what exactly is it that happens at the point when the sophistication of the team of sitcom writers increases to the level that their imitated human mind attains its slow consciousness

whoa whoa whoa. I hadn't realized that you were offering your team of sitcom writers as an alternative implementation of Searle's Room, having been somewhat misled by its proximity to your three kids in a trenchcoat. The difficulty I thought you were asking me to consider is that of working out whether my Turing-ish test subject is actually one conscious entity or several, a question I thought wasn't particularly relevant.

If you want to posit a Searle's Room implementation of an engineered consciousness as a candidate for testing, and are interested in the question of whether or not the Room as a whole has an interior life, then the only useful thing I can say about that is that unless your Room can respond conversationally at something close to a native human rate, it's unlikely that the result of any recognition-based test would be conclusive.

I mean if you're really committing to this “real-time” requirement, for example, a similar question arises given that an apparent implication would be that dialing the clock speed of the potentially-conscious AI up and down will determine whether the exact same behavior is conscious or not

Not at all. I expect that it would, however, bear strongly on the likelihood of being able to get a positive result in a consciousness-recognition test because humans can be chauvinistic that way. But having once been recognized as conscious, I don't think any reasonable person would consider the extra-human ability to operate on variable time scales to be a disqualifier.

You're just putting the explanatory gap in the black box.

No, I'm saying that my considered opinion is that the explanatory gap isn't there. It's an illusion generated as a consequence of some fairly fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of that which is being considered.

Doesn't it seem a bit odd to you yourself that you regard “I have been performing exactly that kind of test all my life, every time I meet or otherwise interact with another animal” as a reliable instrument for everything except defining what consciousness is?

That's not how I regard that.

it makes a great peg to hang some sneering at academic philosophers on

Academic philosopher or not, this right here
The mind-matter problem, the problem of understanding the relation between mind and matter, has brought human understanding to an impasse. The question is how something describable in physical, spatiotemporal terms, such as neuronal activity, can relate to something that cannot be described spatiotemporally, such as pain or curiosity. We know that mind and matter can be correlated, but we do not know the nature of that correlation. Psycho-neural identity theory asserts that a mental state simply is its correlated brain state, but a problem therewith is multiple realization: a mental state such as hunger can be correlated to a human brain state but also presumably to, say, an octopus brain state[12] – thus indicating that the mental state cannot be identical to a human brain state.
strikes me as worth the deployment of a pretty decent sneer. The presumption that the octopus experiences hunger sits squarely atop an assumption that octopus experiences can be meaningfully mapped onto human ones and another that human experiences can be meaningfully mapped onto each other. No explanation of how these mappings are to be done is ever offered. If you want to look for an explanatory gap, there's one right there, being constructed before your eyes.

We do know the nature of the correlation between mind and matter because each of us is an instance of that correlation. What many of us appear to be somewhat shaky on is the nature of objectivity.
posted by flabdablet at 3:10 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]


Human Mind Control of Rat Cyborg's Continuous Locomotion with Wireless Brain-to-Brain Interface - "We developed a BBI [brain-brain interface] from the human brain to a rat implanted with microelectrodes (i.e., rat cyborg), which... showed that rat cyborgs could be smoothly and successfully navigated by the human mind to complete a navigation task in a complex maze."
posted by kliuless at 5:46 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


electroencephalogram-based motor imagery and brain stimulation to realize human mind control of the rat’s continuous locomotion

That's some next-level qwop.
posted by flabdablet at 10:04 AM on February 28




I'm talking about the ordinary process by which ordinary people ascribe consciousness to other people in practice.

So the thing which over the course of human history also ascribed consciousness to forces of nature and sources of misfortune and golden calves and penis-shaped sculptures? That's the foothold, accompanied by “reality is what it is”, from which you're casting aspersions on the rational inquiry of others as too much like religion?

My mistake here seems to have been taking what you said more seriously than you did. I mentioned way up in my first response to you in the thread that I was thinking of something more like a nation, as a non-individual-human fulfillment of the consciousness-as-behavior criterion without any requirement for a specific substrate.

If someone were genuinely interested in inquiring into the nature of consciousness, one the first things I'd think would come to mind is that any system with sub-components already carrying out the consciousness-behavior is probably also going to be capable of carrying out some sort of consciousness-behavior at the system level, without even any more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts phenomenon being necessary.

I mean especially if you regard what we conventionally consider simpler forms of life, like a duck or a housefly, to be conscious or capable of consciousness (which I'm not totally clear that you do? don't want to speak for you here) then that would bring the bar even lower for a 7-billion-person planetary community of humans, if you would only need to find it collectively enacting the consciousness-behavior of a housefly for it to qualify as a conscious system.

But, your rhetorical evaluations of consciousness here are very, very focused on behaving in a way which externally looks exactly like human behavior, even emphasizing a requirement to converse and give a natural language account of subjective experiences (which I think many humans, especially children, might not actually do better than a chatbot or current 21st-century-technology robot designed to imitate humans can already do, imo) so my further, admittedly-snarky examples involved things like Cyrano de Bergerac and the three eight-year-olds in a trench-coat which can very very easily exhibit the behavior which supposedly by itself constitutes consciousness, and then a nation or planetary-sized group of humans carrying out exactly the type of imitating-an-individual-human consciousness-behavior which you seem to regard as especially important. But a scheme of consciousness that only requires us to examine entities exactly like humans and far-off science fiction scenarios about artificial intelligence appears to me to just be refraining from actually inquiring about consciousness, honestly.

We don't inherently understand the nature of consciousness or a way to recognize it just because our selves integrate consciousness any more than we inherently understand the circulation of blood just because our bodies do it, and we even constantly cut ourselves and observe blood and bleeding. And have constantly in the course of human history dissected and eaten, and sought augury in the entrails of, animals which also have circulatory systems, for that matter.
posted by XMLicious at 8:44 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


any system with sub-components already carrying out the consciousness-behavior is probably also going to be capable of carrying out some sort of consciousness-behavior at the system level, without even any more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts phenomenon being necessary.

Doesn't follow, because behaviour at any given level of detail is often not observable at other levels unless it's simple enough that e.g. classical mechanics applies to it. I am a system with sub-components carrying out neural firing behaviour, but that doesn't mean I can carry out some sort of neural firing behaviour at the system level. If nothing else, I lack the required system-level axon and dendrites.

Now, you could well argue that neural firing is a communication behaviour, and here I am at the system level communicating with you, so given a sufficiently abstracted viewpoint then I am exhibiting the "same" behaviour at system level as at neural level. But that "same" firmly deserves its scare quotes, in my view; and also, given a sufficiently abstracted viewpoint, everything is the same as everything else and nothing can be said about any of it. At some point we do need to nail down what it is that the words we use actually refer to, or we're going to end up like you and me, just endlessly talking past each other.

if you regard what we conventionally consider simpler forms of life, like a duck or a housefly, to be conscious or capable of consciousness (which I'm not totally clear that you do? don't want to speak for you here) then that would bring the bar even lower for a 7-billion-person planetary community of humans, if you would only need to find it collectively enacting the consciousness-behavior of a housefly for it to qualify as a conscious system.

As I mentioned upthread, I don't think it's useful to consider consciousness as a binary attribute that any given system can be rigorously held either to possess or not possess. It seems to me that there's a fairly good analogy between consciousness and dance, or consciousness and music, or consciousness and pornography; it's one of those "I can't tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it" things.

So I'm pretty sure that having just read that, you're currently revisiting that pleasurable snort about forces of nature and sources of misfortune and golden calves and penis-shaped sculptures and so forth, and happily dismissing my thinking on this as Not Properly Serious. But in fact I'm quite serious. I know full well that I have no better touchstone for consciousness available to me than brute recognition, and I accept that from antiquity to the present day it's easy to find countless examples of people recognizing consciousness in ways and places that you and I never would.

But what I'm attempting to suggest to you with total straight faced sincerity is that a gaggle of academic philosophers talking past each other on the topic while ever they're taking a break from bower-birding each other's work shows no more evidence of having an actual clue about how consciousness works than you or I do, regardless of how much academic finery everybody says they're dressed in. The only folks who do have a clue are the ones who spend their time figuring out how the very brain they're doing the figuring with actually does what it does, because the collected works of empiricists like that are the reason you and I are both in a position to think of penis shaped sculptures as funny rather than awe-inspiring.

We don't inherently understand the nature of consciousness or a way to recognize it just because our selves integrate consciousness any more than we inherently understand the circulation of blood just because our bodies do it, and we even constantly cut ourselves and observe blood and bleeding.

From that cutting has followed both a large body of useful medical knowledge about the circulation of blood as well as a shifting and arbitrary mess of superstition about it. Point is that the blood is right here, it's available to be studied, and we can either do that or sit around getting stoned and making up Just So stories about it. Which is fine and fun, but not much good for treating wounds.

We don't need to understand consciousness in order to recognize it any more than we need to understand blood to recognize that. But we can and do need to recognize consciousness in order to understand it.

Instead of sitting around disputing the likelihood that eight billion humans can "in principle" produce some kind of behaviour that maps in some ill-specified way onto that of a housefly, let's study what we have to hand. Let's use and refine our consciousness-recognition ability to keep us steered straight as we move toward the understanding we'd like to have. Let's not waste our time burying the actual thing we wish to understand - our own living experience - six foot deep in Just So assumptions, or climb an Everest of abstractions until sheer lack of oxygen convinces us that qualia are a tradeable commodity. Let's start right here right now and work out how a small molecule like psilocybin can do things like undermine a unitary experience of self, and react to that experience by musing on what the feasibility of such an undermining says about the nature of that sense of self rather than just marvelling at the special effects, and go on from there.
posted by flabdablet at 3:23 AM on March 1 [1 favorite]


Speaking of philosophical roots: Socrates in love: how the ideas of this woman are at the root of Western philosophy
Where did Socrates, the foundational figure of Western philosophy, get the inspiration for his original ideas about truth, love, justice, courage and knowledge? New research I’ve conducted reveals that as a young man in 5th-century BC Athens, he came into contact with a fiercely intelligent woman, Aspasia of Miletus. I argue that her ideas about love and transcendence inspired him to formulate key aspects of his thought (as transmitted by Plato).
In my first philosophy class in Community College, the teacher talked about Aspasia, the high esteem Socrates held her in and her influence on him.

Aspasia of Miletus: The Art of Eloquence
posted by homunculus at 9:51 AM on March 11


Neuroscience Readies for a Showdown Over Consciousness Ideas - "Philosophers have debated the nature of consciousness and whether it can inhere in things other than humans for thousands of years, but in the modern era, pressing practical and moral implications make the need for answers more urgent."
Some researchers, such as the cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene of the Collège de France in Paris, suggest that this conscious behavior arises when we hold a piece of information in a “global workspace” within the brain, where it can be broadcast to brain modules associated with specific tasks. This workspace, he says, imposes a kind of information bottleneck: Only when the first conscious notion slips away can another take its place. According to Dehaene, brain-imaging studies suggest this “conscious bottleneck” is a distributed network of neurons in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

This picture of consciousness is called global workspace theory (GWT). In this view, consciousness is created by the workspace itself — and so it should be a feature of any information-processing system capable of broadcasting information to other processing centers. It makes consciousness a kind of computation for motivating and guiding actions. “Once you have information and the information is made broadly available, in that act consciousness occurs,” said Christof Koch, chief scientist and president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.

But to Koch, the argument that all of cognition, including consciousness, is merely a form of computation “embodies the dominant myth of our age: that it’s just an algorithm, and so is just a clever hack away.” According to this view, he said, “very soon we’ll have clever machines that model most of the features that the human brain has and thereby will be conscious.”

He has been developing a competing theory in collaboration with its originator, the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They say that consciousness is not something that arises while turning inputs into outputs but rather an intrinsic property of the right kind of cognitive network, one that has specific features in its architecture. Tononi christened this view integrated information theory (IIT).

In contrast to GWT, which starts by asking what the brain does to create the conscious experience, IIT begins instead with the experience. “To be conscious is to have an experience,” Tononi said. It doesn’t have to be an experience about anything, although it can be; dreams, or some “blank mind” states attained by meditation also count as conscious experiences. Tononi has sought to identify the essential features of these experiences: namely, that they are subjective (they exist only for the conscious entity), structured (their contents relate to one another: “the blue book is on the table”), specific (the book is blue, not red), unified (there is only one experience at a time) and definitive (there are bounds to what the experience contains). From these axioms, Tononi and Koch claim to have deduced the properties that a physical system must possess if it is to have some degree of consciousness.

IIT does not portray consciousness as information processing but rather as the causal power of a system to “make a difference” to itself. Consciousness, Koch said, is “a system’s ability to be acted upon by its own state in the past and to influence its own future. The more a system has cause-and-effect power, the more conscious it is.”

This harks back to the famous “cogito, ergo sum” dictum of René Descartes in the 17th century. “The one thing, the only thing, that is [a] given is my experience,” Koch said. “That’s Descartes’ central insight.”

To Tononi and Koch, systems in which information is merely “fed forward” to convert inputs to outputs, as in digital computers, can only be “zombies,” which might act as if they are conscious but cannot truly possess that property. Much of Silicon Valley may believe that computers will eventually become conscious, but to Koch, unless those machines have the right hardware for consciousness, they will just constitute a “deep fake.”

“Digital computers can simulate consciousness, but the simulation has no causal power and is not actually conscious,” Koch said. It’s like simulating gravity in a video game: You don’t actually produce gravity that way.
posted by kliuless at 11:56 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Neuroscience Readies for a Showdown Over Consciousness Ideas

By self-identified homunculus (no relation, afaik) Philip Ball.
posted by homunculus at 3:26 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Here's another thread on the foundations of Western philosophy: Aspasia, Socrates and the roots of Western philosophy
posted by homunculus at 10:16 PM on March 13


Speaking of psychedelics in history, the druids liked their shrooms: Otherworld Gnosis: Fairy Ointments and Nuts of Knowledge
Today, the ‘magic mushroom’ or Liberty Cap mushroom is the prime indigenous Celtic entheogen. There is a popular belief amongst psychonauts that Liberty Caps were used by druids, seers, witches, wizards and mystics down the ages. There tends to be a uniquely Celtic aesthetic to the Otherworld to which they transport the tripper full of spirals and jewelled knots in complex patterns of incredible beauty, and oft peopled by elven or fairy-like entities.
posted by homunculus at 9:49 PM on March 16


Psychedelic Drugs Really Do Lead to a Higher State of Consciousness: Study participants bravely took LSD and ketamine in the name of science.
The researchers found that all three drugs produced higher levels of brain signal diversity than the baseline "awake" state observed in people in the placebo group. They found similar changes in signal diversity even though the drugs are very different, pharmacologically, and noted that people who reported more intense experiences had more brain signal changes.

This doesn't necessarily mean that people who got the drugs were thinking more philosophically, or that this is a "better" brain state; just that their brains operated at a different, higher level than normal.
posted by homunculus at 6:30 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


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