The Utility of Conscious Experience

  • March 29, 2013 · 6:30 PM
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On Friday March 29 we will meet to discuss 'The Utility of Conscious Experience'.

Kiril Sinkel will present the case for the utility of conscious experience and then we will join in on a discussion.

For detailed directions how to get to the Hill building go to the pull down menu labeled 'more' and open the file "How to get to One Hampshire at Kendall Square"

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The Utility of Conscious Experience

The classic questions asked by hard problem theorists like Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers are these:

Why does conscious experience exist in the first place?
Why is there something that it is like to be a bat or to be human?
Why aren't we all just zombies?

These questions come out of a conviction that conscious experience is a functionally unnecessary phenomenon -- that we would be just as intelligent, mentally efficient, and evolutionarily successful if we were mere automatons. Chalmers, for instance, is so convinced that conscious experience confers no survival advantage that he believes that it could not have developed through Darwinian evolution. Such arguments naturally lead to epiphenomenalism, dualism and other theories which place understanding of the mind beyond the province of the sciences.

But what if we could account for the existence of conscious experience on purely functional grounds? What if we could identify its role in normal brain processes and understand how it contributes to intelligence?

To see if we can convince ourselves of the utility of consciousness, Kiril introduce us to two discussion topics that will address the problem.

1. Does pain need to be painful? There are some philosophers (e.g. Jaegwon Kim) who argue that the qualia of pain is functionally superfluous -- that nerve sensations of heat, cold, injury, etc. actually totally account for pain response behavior and that painful sensations play no role. We will examine this claim. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaegwon_Kim

2. What do Libet's decision experiments tell us about the role of consciousness in decision making? Benjamin Libet has famously established that decisions are made unconsciously and that subjects become aware of their decisions only after the fact. We will discuss the claim that our perception that we make decisions via conscious reasoning is thus illusory and that consciousness actually plays no role in decision making itself. (Some believe its role may be akin to that of a press secretary, that is, to explain or defend the decision.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Libet

In discussing these topics, Kiril suggests that we focus on the functional roles of conscious awareness as it is normally experienced.

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  • Kar

    "The way I see it, I don't have to experience what Tom is experiencing to know and understand that he is experiencing something." At the practical level, I think you are right. But at a philosophical level, it may not be the case. If instead of looking at Tom, you are looking at a cockroach the size of Tom, do you know that the cockroach is experiencing what you imply it is experiencing if you observe a similar neural pattern? What makes it logical to imply Tom's case and not in cockroach's case? Answer: You can imagine yourself being Tom, but not being the cockroach. Your implication is based on a questionable step: assuming yourself being someone who you are not, and start from there. (I would make that same expression when I felt this way. He is making this expression, he must be feeling this way.) Since you are you and not Tom, you cannot make that assumption. In other words, you have a "theory" of Tom's mind, but not the knowledge.

    March 30, 2013

    • Ron W.

      Hi Kar, I am sending you and the other members of the group that were at the meeting Friday an email where I argue that (1) There is, or may be, nothing wrong from a philosophical point of view, with recognizing (as a fundamental presupposition, without proof) the existence of other minds. (2) It maybe wrong, or worse, to require scientific proof for something, like our belief in other minds, that cannot, by it very nature, be proven.

      April 1, 2013

  • Andy M.

    I'm still trying to really understand Tom's position. The way I see it, I don't have to experience what Tom is experiencing to know and understand that he is experiencing something. That is, I can see the experience occurring, even if I'm not the one having the experience. Everything is from a point of view: thoughts, ideas, memories. That doesn't mean that we can't share thoughts, ideas, or memories.

    March 30, 2013

    • Tom C.

      Hi Andy, and good to see everyone last night!

      You have to *be* the person in order to have the experience, which is to say that experience doesn't exist for any one but the person having it. So in observing someone's neural correlates of their experience of pain, you're not having or seeing the pain itself. Experiences are never observed, not even by those having them, only undergone - I don't have a point of view on my experience. But of course we can share thoughts, ideas and memories communicated via language or other intersubjective media. More on this at http://www.naturalism...­

      March 30, 2013

  • Kar

    Indeed, very good discussion. As Tom pointed out, whether consciousness has any utility at all depends on what you mean by consciousness. Identifying it with neural correlates immediately grounds you into the utility camp because neural activities do provide some functions. But if consciousness, or conscious experience, is sometning else, the argument is far from certain. It always comes back to the same question: how do you tell if some autonomy system (such as a human body) is having a conscious experience. You see some brain having some neural activities, you imply that it is having some conscious experience. But some transistors are flip flopping in front of you in a circuit, is it having an experience too?

    March 30, 2013

  • beth

    Good discussion, and a lot of fun. We still haven't solved the Hard Problem though, guess we will have to do it again!

    March 29, 2013

  • Matthew J.

    Sorry for the last minute cancellation, something came up and I can't make it tonight. Have fun though!

    March 29, 2013

  • jonathan

    Just curious about the reason for the attendance limit.

    March 29, 2013

  • MJ

    It's been a while. I just found out about this meeting. Would love to hear the presentation. Packed. Grrr. :(

    March 29, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    utility of what?
    what is consciousness?
    how one measures consciousness?
    how consciousness is different from intelligence?

    March 19, 2013

    • MJ

      LOL

      March 29, 2013

  • Tom C.

    I think we need to keep clear the distinction between those neurally instantiated cognitive processes associated with consciousness (conscious processes) and phenomenal consciousness (experience) itself. Conscious processes obviously have functional utility, but it isn't obvious what experience per se can add to them in terms of behavior control. Still, it might be a mistake to conclude from this that experience is epiphenomenal as I suggested in a talk last year, see http://www.naturalism.org/Threethreats.htm It also covers some of the worries sparked by the Libet experiments.

    Look forward to seeing you all on the 29th. Tom

    March 19, 2013

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