Monday, December 19, 2011

The Nature of Consciousness

by Don Wharton

I treasure Sam Harris is a great many ways. However, he recently posted a two part essay on consciousness which demonstrate complete confusion about the subject (link1, link2). I think that we should start with the obvious point that some objects are complex biological machines which are conscious. Humans are the preeminent examples and they can more richly demonstrate their consciousness by verbal reports on the content and nature of what they are conscious of. There are an increasingly well understood array of cognitive function which support that activity.

What does Sam Harris do in response to the fact of human consciousness? He basically assumes that something magical happens that cannot be explained. He has many statements such as the following:

“How is it that unconscious events can give rise to consciousness? Not only do we have no idea, but it seems impossible to imagine what sort of idea could fit in the space provided. Therefore, although science may ultimately show us how to truly maximize human well-being, it may still fail to dispel the fundamental mystery of our mental life.”

It not difficult in the slightest for me to imagine that science will explain this phenomenon. Our universe is profoundly and completely natural with no supernatural elements. Our instrumentation is increasingly sophisticated in deriving data about how the brain works and where various types of emotion and cognition occur. The entirety of our subjective experience is created by these various brain functions combined with the sensory and support mechanisms for the brain supplied by the rest of our bodies. I an not only certain that this is true; I am certain that when we eventually build systems that adequately emulate the entire array of these functions we will have a system that is aware and will be able to demonstrate that subjective awareness as well as any person. If it is built on a computer system (as is most likely) we might have a feeling of incredulity in response to our relationship to the invented system. However, it should be an undeniable fact when it is achieved.

The fact is that nothing is ever proved by incredulity. Sam Harris, simply repeats one layer of incredulity after another with the expectation that we will accept his assertion that there is something that cannot be explained. For example: “Consciousness—the sheer fact that this universe is illuminated by sentience—is precisely what unconsciousness is not. And I believe that no description of unconscious complexity will fully account for it. It seems to me that just as “something” and “nothing,” however juxtaposed, can do no explanatory work, an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness.” 

What should we do in the face of such claims. I think it is appropriate to approach these claims with the scorn we express for all unsupported religious claims. That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence. That was a standard line used by Christopher Hitchens and it fully applies here. There simply is no reason to assume that subjective experience is anything other than the well integrated collection of more primitive functions in the system that experiences.

There is the obvious fact that no description of any object, such as a brick, would ever be equal to the brick itself. Reality is different from any of our maps of that reality. This is not rocket science. However somehow very bright people can trip over this very obvious and simple distinction when it comes to consciousness.


Explicit Atheist said...

I do not know if non-biological machines could ever be designed that are conscience. It appears to me to be at least plausible that consciousness arises because of properties that are unique to biology. Certainly we have no evidence that consciousness exists apart from biology. some people look at various self-regulating feedback loops and link that to the concept of consciousness, such as the processes that maintain the proportion of oxygen in the air, but I consider that to be a mistaken analogy.

Like you, I think Sam Harris is mistaken to say that consciousness is beyond understanding. It appears that Self- recognition when looking in a mirror occurs among a number of mammals. The overall evidence seems to favor the conclusion that consciousness arises from the functionality of sufficiently complex brains. Accordingly, I see good reason to think that as our understanding of brains, which is not anywhere near complete yet, increases, questions about how consciousness arise will be answered. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, but I doubt that most neuroscientists agree with sam Harris that consciousness is somehow beyond scientific understanding.

Explicit Atheist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don Wharton said...

Consciousness is an information processing function. The process of scanning our perceptual landscapes, determining objects and properties of objects within that landscape is simple information processing. What we do is an immense complex of these simple processes. It is unlikely to be exactly like our consciouness because there is no need for a subconscious in which much of the processing occurs. When a computer system becomes fully aware it will be much more aware than we are.

lucette said...

Is Sam Harris really a scientist? Is a PhD in Neuroscience enough to make him an authority in the field? I have started researching how many of his publications have been published in refereed scientific journals. Here is a list of his publications. VERY few are true research papers in the accepted sense. Who is Sam Harris?

Don Wharton said...

Harris was quite innovative in his use of fMRI in the analysis of belief. I also love the fact that he has made a frontal assault on the nonsensical notion that science cannot say anything about values. There are a whole range of values built into the enterprise of science itself.

lucette said...

Don, that does not qualify Harris as a serious scientist. And certainly not as someone qualified to judge the scientific method. He is now discovering a "new, improved" god of the gaps. I hope he is not becoming another Deepak Chopra. There are too many of these already.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Dan Dennet is the person I would like to see comment on Harrri's ideas. Dennett's book Consciousness Explained is a step towareds a scientific naturalist philosophy of the mind. His framework is a multiple model of consciousness in which there is no single source of consciousness (no conscious qualia).

This makes consciousness seem unreal and this seems to be what provokes Harris. He seems to be disturbed by the current stack view that consciousness "emerges" from the activities of certainly types of suitably configured brain matter. He finds this naked conjecture of such emergence “incomprehensible” (or at least far from the data) as implied in the quoted material below:

'To say that consciousness emerged at some point in the evolution of life doesn’t give us an inkling of how it could emerge from unconscious processes, even in principle.
I believe that this notion of emergence is incomprehensible—rather like a naive conception of the big bang….

[T]he idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken. We can say the right words, of course—“consciousness emerges from unconscious information processing.” We can also say “Some squares are as round as circles” and “2 plus 2 equals 7.” But are we really thinking these things all the way through? I don’t think so. '

I'm not sure that Harris is really in the Mysterian camp of philosophy, but he points to an issue that it will take a combination of cognitive and neuro-science and philosophy to answer. Isolated citing of neuro study or reasoning won't do in my opinion.

lucette said...

Here is a talk by D'Amasio about consciousness:

Explicit Atheist said...

Don, I do not have a strong opinion about this, it is beyond my area of expertise. However, when we dig into the details of implementations, mechanisms become important. In the abstract, information processing may seem to be a singular concept, but in practice it is more complicated. For example, some information processing is analogue, some is digital, some can be either. Biological information processing appears to be hybrid, whereas general purpose computers are mostly digital. Because information processing is plural and implementation can sometimes be mechanism dependent, I think we cannot assume that consciousness implementation is mechanism independent. It is possible that consciousness is an intrinsically biological type of information processing, in my judgement.

Don Wharton said...

Thecontent of consciousness is a sum of the "qualia" that we experience and the meaning that is imputed to that qualia. There is not the slightest reason to assume that a biological system would behave differently than a digital system that accurately models the behavior of the biological system.

However, given that all digital systems are so obviously machines with no emotion, independent motivation, empathy or humor it is easy to assume that all such systems will forever lack all of these qualities. I think that it is precisely this type of assumed difference that makes it so easy to presume something "magical" about consciousness. The problem that then arises is the magical quality is used to justify something like a the theistic concept of a soul.

Explicit Atheist said...

Emergent properties do have the appearance of being "magical", but they are common in mathematics, the hard sciences, and social sciences, etc. In physics we have

Classical mechanics: The laws of classical mechanics can be said to emerge as a limiting case from the rules of quantum mechanics applied to large enough masses. This may be puzzling, because quantum mechanics is generally thought of as more complicated than classical mechanics.

Color: Elementary particles do not absorb or emit specific wavelengths of light and thus have no colour; it is only when they are arranged in atoms that they absorb or emit specific wavelengths of light and can thus be said to have a colour.

Friction: Forces between elementary particles are conservative. However, friction emerges when considering more complex structures of matter, whose surfaces can convert mechanical energy into heat energy when rubbed against each other. Similar considerations apply to other emergent concepts in continuum mechanics such as viscosity, elasticity, tensile strength, etc.

So I would caution my fellow philosophical naturalists to not underestimate how "magical" purely materialistic phenomena can appear to be to our intuition. Time and time again our intuitions fail us. Wholes do not behave like their constituent parts, differences that seem irrelevant are relevant, or vice versa.

lucette said...

With all due respect, I wonder why the Washington Area Secular Humanists group is sponsoring this blog. If WASH is interested in growing, this particular discussion is an example of what the blog should not cover. My apologies for being so blunt, but I cannot find a sweet way of expressing my disappointment.

Don Wharton said...

I fully agree that consciousness is an emergent property. I also agree that our intuitions can miss the mark egregiously. There is an entire genre of books describing how our typical intuitions are reliably biased. Obviously consciousness can appear to be magically different from other phenomenon. It is the stuff against which all other elements of the universe are experienced.

My problem is with people who based on no evidence whatsoever conclude that there is a “hard problem” that cannot be explained (as asserted by David Chalmers). Sam Harris seems to be making a very similar case.

Chalmers made the blatant assertion that consciousness was a non-material phenomenon (whatever that could possibly mean). Harris seems to have flirted with the assumption that PSI phenomenon is real. My suspicion is that he thinks that consciousness is linked to this category of magic, although that is not what he says in the blog posts I referenced. Sam Harris has said, "I don’t know what happens after the physical brain dies. I don’t know what the relationship between consciousness and the physical world is." and "There seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which have been ignored by mainstream science." We all know about his positive reports about meditation as suggested by eastern religions.

I am in agreement with Daniel Dennett when he says that consciousness is the sum of the brain functions that we are mapping out with increasing precision. There is not the slightest reason to presume that we will find something that is beyond the range of scientific inquiry. That is what Harris and Chalmers and others seem to suggest.

Don Wharton said...

@Lucette I guess sweetness is unlikely to be high on the list of your virtues. However, I do have a video of the 2007 AAI Conference that includes you challenging Sam Harris specifically on his mystical tendencies. There is a clear way in which the Harris claims border on supporting religious anti-naturalism which are a central concern of this blog. Moreover, this post in the last couple of days has been the most popular on our weekly stats.

Explicit Atheist said...

In information processing, there is evidence that capability and implementation mechanism are related. Quantum IP and Classical IP have different capabilities, discrete and continuous, linear and non-linear, etc. It isn't clear that non-biological and biological IP have the same capabilities. I think this is a question that remains open. Emergent properties tend to be dependent on the nature of the material that form the constituent parts. IP capabilities, including consciousness, could transcend this biology versus non-biology mechanism. I don't think we have enough evidence to have much confidence which is the case here. Either way, consciousness is an equally material phenomena. So I favor not taking sides on this question.

lucette said...

Explicit Atheist, I would love to have some references supporting all your affirmations. Are you just expressing your opinions or are you discussing something that all intelligent people should know? I would like to learn more about these emergent properties and other interesting concepts that you are juggling so skilfully.

Don Wharton said...

Given that we now have excellent digital emulations of neuron behavior it seems very unlikely that one could ever demonstrate a categorical distinction based on mechanism dependency. If two different mechanisms produce exactly equivalent objective behavior and one of them is universally agreed demonstrates consciousness, we should logically assume that the other domonstrates consciousness also.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Explicit Atheist's discussion seems clear, fairly representative and on target as usual. Emergent properties is a pretty well used and discussed concept in Biology and Systems Science. You can read about its use in such works as P B Checkland's(1999) Systems Thinking, Systems Practice: includes a 30-year retrospective. John Wiley and Sons Ltd, Chichester. ISBN 0-471-98606-2

The example he uses comes from the difference in system properties of a bag filled with bicycle parts and an assembled bicycle.

In Biology researchers aspect about the individual part-level behavioral traits that give rise to aggregate features like swarming. See for an abstract on Self-Organized Fish Schools: An Examination of Emergent Properties.