The Qualia of Force

sisyphusI’ve been working on an idea for several months: that exerting effort, force, has an subjective feeling, a quale, which lays behind a person’s intuitive idea of physics and causality.
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The Humanities: Leon Wieseltier wants to protect his turf

A science versus humanities war is brewing. Triggered by Steven Pinker’s excellent article in the New Republic (Science is not the Enemy), Leon Weiseltier, a “Humanist” and literary editor of the New Republic, retorted “Science is the Enemy” (rough translation; Crimes Against Humanities: Science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let that happen). I am not the first to complain about Weiseltier’s screed. Daniel Dennett does an excellent job in the Edge (Dennett on Wieseltier v. Pinker in the New Republic. Lets Start With A Respect For Truth).

But I want to make one simple point. Weiseltier is not making an argument, he is making an assertion.

For example, Wieseltier states,

… the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final.

Huh? who said so?

For all his complex words, Wieseltier is a dualist.

Pinker rejects the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world

It is fine for Wieseltier to be a dualist. Dualism is a respectable framework. But one cannot assert that it is true, just as one cannot assert that materialism is true. Assertions are not arguments, they are articles of faith.

The advantage of the scientific/materialist framework is that it can expand. Gradually, it can explain more of the natural world. With the rise of Neuroscience, materialism is beginning to explain and understand aspects of the mental (human) world. As truth-seekers we should rejoice in this. But Neuroscience is not alone. I interpret much of the work in the liberal arts as a search for truth that is not a conflict with materialism.

Will there be convergence? Will we understand the mind — the “hard problem”? I don’t know. But simply to assert the impossibility of the task — and to attack those who attempt to bridge the divide — is turf protection and the opposite of scholarship.

Personal Identity and Agency


“I act therefore I am” — anonymous

In previous blog posts I’ve supported John Locke’s account of Personal identity. Briefly, identity is the awareness of a continuous conscious experience extending from birth to the present and extending into the future (links: here, here, here).  Locke’s conception is old, but is, I believe, consistent with modern mind-based views of identity.

Although I believe this conception is powerful, and an essential component of identity, it doesn’t seem complete. Perhaps an additional critical component is a person’s concept of his or her agency. Continue reading

Consciousness Wars: Tononi-Koch versus Searle

kochGuilio Tononi has proposed a theory of consciousness he calls “Integrated Information Theory” (IIT)*. Very roughly, the theory is based on Shannon’s concept of information, but extends this by adding a property refers to as “Integrated Information”. Consciousness Information will exist in an entity when it has information and is connected. This property is called “Phi” (rhymes with “by”, written φ) and can be computed. The higher the Phi, the more conscious the entity.

Although theories of consciousness are not new, this one is special: it has high-profile converts, perhaps the most noteable being Christof Koch. Koch, Cal Tech professor and chief scientific officer of the Allen Brain Institute, is best known for his book, The Quest for Consciousness: a Neurobiological Approach. A new Koch book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist is largely a description of and paean to IIT. It’s fair to view Tononi and Koch as collaborators.

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Fire and Consciousness: A Metaphor

fireBorghish was a genius, the most respected man in his village. For he was a genius about fire. Borghish lived on the island of Manula with 100 clansmen, an estimated 50,000 years ago. The group lived off of fishing, hunting and gathering. Fire was especially important, for preparing meals, for preserving meats, for preparing clothing, for warmth at night, to help protect against dangerous animals. Fire was part of the essence of life. And Borghish understood fire. He could make a small fire large in minutes, he could preserve a fire’s embers, making a second fire easy to start, he could control a fire’s warmth and its direction of spread. He could prepare the perfect fireplace, and understood which woods and material made best fires. When it came to fire, he was the man. He had absolute control. Compared to anyone in his clan, compared to anyone in present-day America, Borghish was a master of fire. Although the people of Manula knew that Borghish was a genius, Borghish, himself, wasn’t so sure. Sometimes, he thought “yes, I have gifts unimaginable to others, I am all powerful, I understand fire.” Sometimes he realized that there was variation in his craft, variation he hid from others, variation he could not control. And sometimes, at the moment when the turning rod caused the smoke to turn to fame he thought, “I don’t understand what’s going on; I don’t understand fire”. He could control the instance of magic, but the fire itself was magic.

Borghish had absolute control of the conditions necessary for fire, but he did not understand fire.

Neuroscience appears to be advancing in the battle to understand consciousness. We are rapidly moving towards understanding what Cristof Koch calls the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC), that is, the brain events that correlate with conscious states. As this work advances, correlations will become more precise. Rather than simply recording from a brain and recognizing sleep from wakefulness, or stages of sleep, we are and will be able to identify the type of task the conscious brain is engaged in. Slowly specifics about the task will emerge. The ability to determine which of two movies a subject is thinking about can be identified. Eventually, conceivably, via precise correlates, neuroscientists may be able to accurately read conscious minds. In a parallel train, in a manner similar to Borghish, physicians and scientists may be able to advance consciousness control, and steer someone’s brain into particular patterns. Perhaps very precise states. Perhaps, very precise thoughts and memories.

If this advance in technology is reached, will we be able to say that we understand consciousness? No. We will have gotten no farther then Borghish. We will have precise understanding of the physical conditions necessary for consciousness to emerge, but the conscious state that we all know (and love) will remain deeply mysterious. We will know the recipe, not the chemistry (or physics). Whence the unity of conscious experience? The sense of self? The perception of agency and control? Answers are not clear.

That is how consciousness is like fire.

Some will say that it ends there. Consciousness, like fire, is an emergent property. It exists at a different level than the physical state of the brain. Ryle termed mixing consciousness with brain states a categorical mistake. He felt it improper to cross categories of knowledge, such as physical world events and mental events. I find Ryle’s view a cop out. The term “emergent property” is hand waving for “stuff we don’t understand“. That is, an emergent property is a function of the brain, not the world. I consider settling for an “emergent property” conception of consciousness “soft dualism”. Reductionism is the opposite. It is the quest to remove an “emergent property”, by explaining a higher level property via lower level properties, such as physics explaining chemistry. Or chemistry explaining fire. Just as Borghish had no theory of fire, in 2013 we have no strong proposals for crossing the boundary between brain state and consciousness. The project lies ahead.

Are Brains Egocentric?

Hippocampal Representations

Hippocampal Representations
egocentric? allocentric?

The term “egocentric” has nothing to do with Freud or selfishness. It’s a geometric term meaning that part of the self is the center of the spatial coordinate frame (“ego” = self). The contrasting term, “allocentric” means something other than the self is the center of the coordinate frame (“allo”= other). A comparison has helped me: think of geocentric and heliocentric models of the solar system.

The question I’m going to address is whether our brains, our perception of the world, our behavior, and our consciousness operate in egocentric or allocentric coordinate frames.

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Does a thermostat have consciousness?


(the following is a short piece I wrote two years ago in a private blog. I’m making it public and reposting because of similarities to arguments in John Searle’s review of Chistof Koch’s book in the NYRB. I found Searle’s review excellent. Unfortunately, most is behind NYRB firewall)

David Chalmers proposes that consciousness is inherent in informational structures1,2. As a reductionist example, he suggests that a computer, which organizes large quantities of information, or a thermostat, which organizes much smaller quantities, has a measure of consciousness. Some physicists (Penrose, Wheeler) have proposed that when natural phenomena are better understood, ‘information’ (non-random organization) will be recognized as a principal feature. Continue reading