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Cosmology, Quantum Mechanics & Consciousness Message Board › Consciousness, by Andrew

Consciousness, by Andrew

lan B.
user 10895495
London, GB
Post #: 120

Of course, as it happens I think that we actually do "think in pictures (sounds; words; possibilities of touch, movement and intervention; balance; sometimes even taste and smell)". (As far as I am aware Camilla is much more sceptical of the suggestion.) This is because as an "anti-platonist" I simply do not believe in a realm of logical truth and formal ideal perfection standing timelessly, fundamentally, "alongside" physical reality and of no more insignificant status in terms of "what reality is made of" (i.e. ontology). I consider that kind of talk to be thoroughly unscientific. I seek permission at this point, Andrew, in tabling -- in fact, in repeating from the other consciousness thread -- a philosophical maxim (or rather, anti-philosophical from the conservative standpoint of the overwhelming majority of philosophers) of the logical positivists. (With apologies for any induced cringeing, Andrew!):


This is known as the verification principle or the principle of verifiability. It became "famous" after its repetition by Herbert Feigl in 1931, but was originally enunciated by Friedrich Waismann in 1902. It has precious little to do with verifying matters in actuality, though. It is instead about meaning; and its corollary, understanding. The claim is that unless our thinking and beliefs in general about some object, situation or person are grounded in the kinds of sensation which we would have were such object, situation or person actually to be somewhere and behaving in some specifically described way, present to us personally, then we simply cannot understand what that object, situation or person is, what its properties are, and how if at all it might connect with the rest of reality.

That might seem like a very strong claim, and it is outright rejected by almost all current philosophers, who like Grand Old American Hilary Putnam wax garrulously and seemingly endlessly in producing turgid essays against the principle, at the end of 200 pages of which readers like myself shake their heads and ask themselves: "Was there any point in my reading that?"

If we are to make thinking (let alone consciousness!) of a piece with the rest of science, then ultimately it must be about sensory isomorphisms to stimuli out there in the world, must it not? Even for those who reject the VP and its closely associated, Wittgensteinian, picture theory of meaning, some account needs to be given to the rest of us as to how the literal, geometric, retinal projections of sharp optical images onto the retina -- which are indisputably physical -- become "translated into ideas" without those "ideas" bearing any relation in some specifiable and preferably physically testable sense to the measurable, parameter-specified character of those stimuli as they would be descriptively analysed within some textbook of (in this case) physics or biology. If these objective, geometrically describable stimulus-patterns at our sense-organ termini can indeed be causally responsible for the character of any ensuing such "ideas", then we want to know precisely where within the brain and in what way they somehow "morph" into "something else" which is not literally imagistic!

The problem only arises (IMV!) because almost everyone has been trained by a generally unreflective society to straitjacket the overt phenomenology into a fictitious "mental container" which then of course completely obscures the physical reality of what's happening in the relevant parts of the brain and thus creates an utterly unnecessary "layer of mystery" shrouding what is underneath a genuine problem for physics -- and, therefore, for biology also!

Of course, although I am claiming that at least in the instances of vision and touch -- as Einstein averred, Andrew (see the famous mathematician Jacques Hadamard's slender late-1940s monograph The Psychology of Invention Within the Mathematical Field) -- there is a literal, physical isomorphism between retinal or cutaneous stimulus-projection and the corresponding topic-specific cortical maps, these are nevertheless maps, and are thus specifiable in terms of primary qualities -- distances, angles, and topologies -- this does not, sadly, resolve The Hard Problem. Or rather, it does not solve my, secondary quality, Hard Problem, but it does resolve the later-abstracted, primary-quality "outline" of the stimuli, a little like joining up the dots in the child's colouring book without filling in the colours, which latter are of course not "reducible" to the lines which demarcate object boundaries!

As far as philosopher David Chalmers is concerned, it does not solve any of his "bigger" Hard Problem. For some mysterious reason which I wasn't able to extarct from him even after nearly half-an-hour's-worth of conversation he finds even the topographically isomorphic cortical representation of connections, angles and distances "Hard". Undeniably, "how to extract colour from a physically colourless world" -- and the same inter alia for sounds, smells, touches, tastes, not to mention all the host of representational capacities of one's own internal bodily states -- is "Hard", and Dave agrees; it's just that as I perceive matters he's just a little too over-generous at sowing mysteries where they need not arise!

A former member
Post #: 85
Peter, I am not suggesting that we think in pictures all the time. But I am suggesting that we have the ability to think in pictures some of the time. When you take a photograph and aim for a nice composition you might say to yourself "no, a bit less sky" or you might think that thought directly in terms of the picture you wish to capture. I say you have the ability, the free will actually, to decide whether to think in terms of words or pictures, on the verbal screen or the pictorial one. When I write this message I think in verbal components on the verbal screen. Yes, I think I am going to use this notion of a screen quite a lot now, I rather like it.

Definition: in the information processing of an automaton a screen is the collective representation of some coherent aspect of either (a) the external environment gained through one of the senses or (b) information gained internally from one or more other screens.

Thank you for all that agreement! That makes it easy for me to respond to points outstanding from that section. Furthermore because you have made the supreme effort to write in un-adorned English I now understand more clearly your own position.

You refer to the conscious process of thinking and comment on its external cultural aspects. We do not need to discuss thinking. It is not central to the question of what is consciousness in the sense that you, Camilla and I seem to be agreeing upon. Thinking is to do with the extra power in the human brain to work with symbolic representations of things and concepts and to process those symbols like computers programmed by object- orientated code. This is a higher order of information processing, possibly available to a very few intelligent mammals such as dogs, whales and dolphins, but maybe only available to us. I think we have agreed that the 'hard problem' is to explain the sort of conscious experience that we do share with a lot of higher animals. On that basis we do not need to say any more about thinking.

You refer to your own theory about consciousness, with the mention of foundational building blocks made out of the primitive sensory experiences. Perhaps I might call this the 'sensory alphabet theory' of consciousness, though you might prefer that I do not! This is not the thread on which to discuss your own theory, this is the thread to discuss my one! If you set up a new 'Consciousness by Ian' thread I will talk about it there. Or if you prefer to go back to email for proprietorial reasons to do with your paper I will talk to you there.

Not for the first or second time you have put up a warning flag about the word 'mental'. You have hinted at about 20 pages worth of analysis and criticism of the word that is waiting behind a dam that is all set to burst. Could I ask you to hold the dam please. In plain English 'mental' means to do with the mind and 'the mind' is what goes on inside the head. I do not wish or intend to be any more sophisticated than that. To repeat, this message board has a potential of 400 people, most of whom like me are not into your distinctions or (sorry Camilla) the works of Hume or Hegel.

Next up is your description of what science is ultimately about, in which you have very kindly avoided the oft-used but peculiar 'dimensional analysis' with a plain English explanation of your point. Now I am going to divert temporarily from the consciousness theme to comment on your and Camilla's conception about science. It is time for me to say what I think and to be very blunt. I don't think either of you are even close to understanding what modern science is really about.

This theme of dimensional analysis is something I learned about in school physics, it is merely a device and in my studies of science to higher levels and over decades since I have not heard it mentioned again until the last few weeks when both of you have repeatedly used it. It very much appears to me that dimensional analysis is something taught in philosophy school along with other notions such as reductionism. To me, and I suspect a lot of professional scientists, these concepts are merely part of the framework by which philosophers try to classify and convey the ways of science, but they are not really what science is about at the front line of progress. I have the impression that some philosophers believe that they can legitimately extrapolate from past observations of scientific progress to likely future developments. Such beliefs are almost certainly as misguided as those of amateur investors in the stock market who think they can identify future winnings from past patterns.

Real hard science, the science of fundamental physics, is much harder than such simplistic beliefs would suggest. Modern science is about discovering features in the world in the form of hidden patterns, often indeed symmetrical patterns, that explain observed phenomena and can be rationalised in some way. I don't know how you think that dimensional analysis helps. What does it say about Feynman diagrams in quantum electrodynamics for example? Or the topology of string theories? And at the elementary level how does it deal with the equivalence of time and space in the sense of special relativity?

If you want to push back on this item then, again, I suggest a new thread for the topic. It is of no relevance whatsoever to my theme in this thread and I will not discuss it further here.

You refer to the impossibility of a continuum between the chalk and cheese of information processing and sensory experience. Peter believes that a continuum is possible, you and Camilla deny it. All three of you are trying to argue your positions as rationally as possible but, so far, without any meeting of minds and indeed with some difficulty. None of you persuade me with your arguments so far. My position, as I have indicated, is that I do not and will not know the truth of the matter until scientific investigation reaches the question and deals with it. However I have some ideas to share with you when I develop my theme at some future time, maybe within the next week or so (depending on how much progress we make on more basic issues).

In the same section you question my reference to mental representation. Sorry to use my own lingo here, but this phrase was equated to awareness in my opening definitions. To recap, this definition is about mental representation of the external world in digital or sub-conscious format, nothing to do with the smell of coffee.

Finally I appear to have lost you completely when I talk about human consciousness. But we have already agreed that the hard problem involves a broader and more widespread concept of consciousness than our specifically human experience. And I have hopefully disposed above with thinking about 'thinking'. Perhaps you are lost no longer?
lan B.
user 10895495
London, GB
Post #: 121

(From Peter):

>"Hi Andrew,

I finished my post - I was adding to it and re-posting it over 5-6 hours to avoid losing bits - after your subsequent post.

My first concern is that you have already defined a number of terms in entirely reasonable and comprehensible ways; but ways that, nevertheless, differ from normal English. We need to be able to distinguish these two meanings - hence my suggestion of underlining defined terms.

I'm sorry for saying your view depended on QM uncertainty. I had gained that impression. Thanks for correcting me.

I've obviously failed to explain my position properly. I completely agree that we cannot report on our experience of the colour red, or on our experience of consciousness, or indeed on any sensation. My point is that this difficulty is fundamental. IMO no explanation in terms of neuroscience or physics can ever exist, in principle. We will (I am sure) one day have AI systems that are indeed intelligent and conscious, but their inner workings, and the source of those attributes will be no more amenable to reductionist logic, no more capable of analysis, no more predictable, than our own minds. There is (again IMO) no possibility that we will ever be able to "program that experience". Those AIs will not be computers in any sense that we currently understand that term, whether or not they are composed of silicone circuits at a physical level.

So when I say that I do not see what the problem is, I'm really saying:

Your objective is, in my view, illusionary: no explanation at the level of the brain's physical workings can, in principle, exist. All you have is an Emergent Phenomenon which (to my mind) provides an entirely coherent explanation of all these sensations: that's all I believe you can ever have, and as I'm perfectly content with that, I see no problem."

Many thanks for that crucial clarification Peter. You agree exactly with Camilla and myself (Andrew?) on the precise nature of the Hard Problem, so we are indeed not talking past each other!

You however think -- unprecedentedly within the history of human intellectual endeavour! -- that the problem will "just vanish" as we develop progressively more sophisticated AI systems. I agree with you that consciousness cannot be programmed. It is not software. (Are you agreeing with my second claim?) The reliance on "emergence" IMV -- and I hope that by now it ought to be starkly apparent to all -- at least appears to others unpersuaded by the thesis to be a strategy to avoid trying to analyse the problem(!!!). Since I am quite confident that you are not intellectually dishonest I can only conclude that you have a picture of knowledge as a whole which differs very radically from my own. I can only repeat that IMV we need some cohering theory akin to the Theory of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection in order to systematise the numerous disparate and senseless-seeming known facts. L have advanced a suggestion, but no-one seems to like (understand?) it, so I' think I'd better jsut let it lie for now.

lan B.
user 10895495
London, GB
Post #: 122

Superb selection of apposite phraseology, Andrew. "You've got it in one", as they say:

>"You refer to your own theory about consciousness, with the mention of foundational building blocks made out of the primitive sensory experiences. Perhaps I might call this the 'sensory alphabet theory' of consciousness, though you might prefer that I do not! "

That's so gratifying and .. unusual. I use similar phraseology later on in my paper, but I anticipate that you lost the patience to proceed too far in the masochsitic enterprise! Apart from hardly any philosophers, Camilla is the only other person known to me who can grasp the nub of the problem and some of my preliminary aspirational gangplanks toward solving it! (Not trying to bamboozle you into agreement with the concluding thrust of my paper though. Nosir. Intellectual honesty is the name of the game.)

The nice thing about exchanges such as these is that genuine, disinterested criticism sharpens one's own ability to express one's own pet notions ever more precisely -- unto destruction, if necessary! -- and that's a good thing.

You know, even if you haven't encountered his works at first hand already -- you've clearly heard references to him many times though -- I am getting a preliminary picture of you which suggrests that you would indeed find the outlook of philosopher of science Karl Popper highly congenial to the rest of your viewpoint. at times youi come acrioss to me as strikingly similar to him! (Apologies for tarring you with the ghastly brush of philosophical insight! shock )

As far as Popper was concerned critque is the most important aspect of the scientific process, and it is indeed ruthlessly Darwinian!

lan B.
user 10895495
London, GB
Post #: 123


>"The idea that one day we will be able to deal with consciousness as if it were any other aspect of physical science may well be false. Instead it may be like trying to peer inside a black hole - impossible so far as we know. I wonder if that analogy would satisfy Ian and Camilla about their philosophical problems?"

At least we can be confident -- on the basis of GR -- how things would stand inside the EH of a black hole. (I.e. awfully!)

Still catching up! Sorry, Camilla!

A former member
Post #: 86
I'm sorry that I upset you with my harsh comment about philosophy and dimensional analysis. Sometimes I think I am being too nice to Ian and I have to balance it out. You got caught up in my comment which I should have edited out. I mean no personal criticism and i know you are being extremely conscientious about tackling this issue. Maybe too conscientious, as this group is surely just for interest, fun or whatever we want to make it. My apologies to you both.
lan B.
user 10895495
London, GB
Post #: 124
(From Andrew):

>"My position is this. One day we will have clarified ideas about consciousness, we will have the computer technology and we will build a computer that appears for all purposes to have conscious thought like us. And yet that computer might not have consciousness like us. How could that be so? Well, try to imagine the experience of a simple animal if all its visual processing occurs and ends at the sub-conscious level. Its sub-conscious does all the work steering it around obstacles, foraging for food, avoiding predators etc. Or imagine what it would be like for you in that situation. It can be envisaged. Indeed I think some people with brain defects can exhibit partial features of this kind - seeing without conscious awareness. I will dig out a reference or two if required."

Yes: blindsight – co-discovered (in macaque monkeys) during 1969-74 by then-PhD student Nicholas Humphrey and his advisor Larry Weiskrantz. I have already referred to this on a much earlier thread – maybe in private correspondence between just the 4 of us. Nick has been at the LSE for nearly 2 decades but holds associate Professorships elsewhere also (internationally).

Soon after their work was published neurologists dealing with neurologically traumatised human patients began to catalogue the syndrome also. The advantage over studying macaques is of course that humans can actually tell the investigator that they honestly “can’t see” what it is that they are invariably accurately describing, complete with the right colouration!

During the following decades deafhearing and numbtouch have also been described in detail within human patients!

I mention all this because Nick Humphrey – a research neuropsychologist don’t forget! – has to some extent anticipated my own model of consciousness (which overview he first expounded in his book A History of the Mind; 1991) although his emphases are of course somewhat different and I’m still in the process of trying to determine the degree of closeness of theoretical correspondence between us. Independently, I didn’t get the first glimmerings of my own idea until around 1997, and didn’t formulate it explicitly until asked to write it down in 2004. Full details of Blindsight are of course available on the relevant Wiki page. Prominent in recent research has been Petra Stoerig

>"Now, I think consciousness is an evolved feature of our minds that improves upon this sub-conscious way of life. It enables better instant decisions for survival. The problem which Ian has emphasised and which I have tried to define above is that we do not know how the mind generates that conscious form of mental experience, as in the experience of the colour red, as distinct from the unconscious form that any of today's computers exhibit. A computer will record and process the wavelength of the light and it will assign a digital code to the colour red, but it will not share our conscious experience of red. Nor do we know how to program that experience. That is where the problem lies. If, Peter or anyone else reading this, if you still do not get the issue then we should stay on discussion of this point until you do!"

Apologies therefore to the rest of you for still being a little out-of-phase with current exchanges. Please be patient with me! Camilla and I completely agree with Andrew on this issue, and Peter has sort-of acknowledged it, but thinks that – backed up by some system which in some as-yet unspecified way is sufficiently “complex” or “rich” – the problem will somehow evaporate because these subjective, incommunicable felt sensations will suddenly somehow just appear, without any further either mathematical or physical theoretical preamble!

Could we all please individually communicate agreement with what I’ve typed in the preceding paragraph? (Peter, no aspersions cast or intended; I just want to confirm that I’ve got the facts straight, because it seems to me at the moment that this is our debating group’s current state-of-play.)

Appreciative regards-in-anticipation


A former member
Post #: 70
Hi Ian,

Just a quickie...

You are correct.

In several different places in your posts over the last few days you indicated that you had suddenly changed your view of what I was essentially trying to say.

Your new views seem to me to be the correct ones - i.e. it seems you now understand me correctly.

That does not mean you agree with me of course, or that my views are correct (perish the thought lol).

I want to try to collect every response and discuss them, because it seem that more discussion will lead to better understanding. For instance when you say that I think that 'the problem will "just vanish"' my one line answer would be "No. I don't believe it ever existed"... but I have to be careful because we now agree that there are in fact two hard problems, namely:
1. Reporting on sensations (I think we all agree that is impossible, so "hard" is a bit of an understatement lol)
2. Explaining sensations

However, since I am qualitatively indistinguishable from a sea slug, differing from it only in quantitative ways, I may need to evolve another neurone in order to obtain enough processing power to explain these subtle points.


lan B.
user 10895495
London, GB
Post #: 125

We need to sort this matter out as well. (From Peter):

>“To put it another way, if the Greeks had been right, if the atom was genuinely unsplittable, and sub-atomic physics did not exist, then I think that consciousness would still have arisen, whereas Andrew (as I understand it - I'm sure he'll correct me if I have got him wrong) thinks that under those circumstances, intelligence and consciousness would not arise.

By contrast, again as I understand it, Ian and Camilla disagree fundamentally with either my or Andrew's view. The believe as far as I can make out, that all science can be reduced to basic physics in principle, i.e. that everything can ultimately be explained in terms of physics, and that our current inability to do this is just that - a current inability, caused only by our current lack of knowledge - and not an issue of in principle.

If they are right then the sort of emergent phenomena needed to support the view I proposed earlier, namely:

"intelligence, consciousness, etc. are perfectly normal emergent phenomena of the sort you would to arise in any suitable system " ..

.. simply could not arise.

I mention all this to try to show how critical the concept of emergent phenomena is, and also how important the idea of predictability is, because it is the concept of unpredictable emergent that lies at the heart of the disagreement.”

Peter, you have understood the position on this issue held jointly by Camilla and myself. I suspect that Andrew holds it also, but he’s a lot less “conservative” than the rest of us. That is, he (unlike yourself?) believes along with Camilla and myself that physics is “the ultimate container science” in that whatever physics forbids is not available as any sort of explanatory resource to any other physical/(biological) science either. Andrew holds the door open to the possibility of resolution of the problem via the auspices of QM, yet whilst agreeing with at least Camilla and myself – and now, apparently, Peter also – on the recognition of this “illuminated inner world” (not necessarily Andrew’s own terminology but pretty similar; apologies for any inaccuracies of rendition) which we might try regarding as “true” consciousness, he fails to explain, as did Roger Penrose before him, how exactly (or even vaguely!) any allegedly QM-mediated “conscious architecture” could pull off this neat trick of generating an illuminated inner world from mere biologically natural collectives of neural nets in some manner which wouldn’t be available to some network which were reliant on “simply classical” physical rules!

So I’m still somewhat puzzled! (Hope no-one’s anticipated me in the meantime as I’m still caught in the throes of catch-up.


A former member
Post #: 87
I agree with that paragraph.

As for the explanation I understand that the three of you believe that there is no quantum behaviour or other 'new physics' involved. You Peter believe that the whole consciousness thing emerges from increasing complexity of neural networks, there is a continuum from basic not-conscious awareness to full consciousness but the difficult emergent features of conscious sensation cannot be reduced or analysed into components. You Ian believe something rather similar, it seems to me, the difference being that the conscious experience can be analysed into 'atomic' components of the 'sensory alphabet' so that there is a discontinuity between not-conscious awareness and consciousness.

But I bet one or both of you is going to correct me on that.
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