Friday, October 17, 2008

Ribbonfarm on Framing Consciousness

There exists an excellent article on the problem of consciousness, which you can compare to my own ideas to verify that I do in fact know what I'm talking about.

I like repeatedly verifying my ability as a philosopher. This is a hallmark of the insecure. Am I insecure? Essentially, yes. I can make up all sorts of rationalizations:

I want to find out if people who think I'm a hack can be convinced, or if they are immune to evidence.

I honestly believe that there's no reason to assume I do know what I'm talking about.

I do make mistakes, and this kind of activity helps others to audit.

I need to know whether the things that are obvious to me are obvious to many people, or if I possess specialized skills.

And so on, but ultimately it's true that I'm insecure, despite my ability to come up with good alternative reasons. Lacking any serious verification process, I can never be entirely sure that my ideas don't simply exist to prop up my cognitive biases. Indeed, that's what I see all day - biases comprehensively blocking communication and understanding. It would be an act of supreme hubris to assume I am immune.

Of course, some of the people that are obviously blocked by bias is the population of credentialed philosophers. Simply put, they are far too confident in their conclusions, which would be fine if they did not entangle responsiveness to evidence with their feeling of confidence.

Here is Venkatesh Rao, who bridges the gap. He is respectful of credentials, yet also does not make any serious mistakes that are obvious to me.

"Surprisingly little has been said on the subject that is relevant in a non-negative-definition sense."
Which is why I start by declaring that consciousness isn't physical.
"But you have to clear the clutter, and there the literature helps."
This is exactly why I want heavy critique of the mind node. It goes above and beyond the call in this field, and even if it's only slightly right I've done something extraordinary. Also, as I'll go into below, here's his respect for authority versus my disdain. I really don't see the point of most of the literature; I've almost never read Chalmers directly, although I did read about the hard problem.

"I’ll studiously ignore 101 level questions or at best say “read Chalmers” or something along those lines. This is not because I am snotty about my extensive reading in this area. It is because even for the talented thinkers in this field, who I frequently cite, providing a careful account of even the most trivial-sounding question, like whether we all experience ‘blue’ the same way, can take entire chapters. And still achieve no progress besides eliminating the sillier wrong answers."

This is actually a good example of an is-ought problem. Careful thinkers spend a lot of words just to refute basic confusions, and therefore he won't answer 101-level questions? There's no connection here; you must go to the subjective level. "I don't want to write that much in comments." "I don't feel I'm qualified, and thus I feel I would do more bad than good." You have to give a reason. Or at least, I have to give a reason.
  1. Do you or do you not believe that subjective consciousness is a real , as yet-unexplained, mystery? (Chalmers estimates that about two thirds of academics engaged in the question believe it is. Daniel Dennett wrote a book titled “Consciousness Explained” that represents the other third who think it has been explained. That’s the schism. Live with it.)
  2. If you answered ‘yes’ to Question 1, which sub-category of stances do you adopt (the main current candidates being a) that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe like mass/time, b) that it is a an epiphenomenon of brains only, or c) it has something to do with quantum mechanics that manifests itself due to the peculiar structure of the brain). There are about half a dozen other views which I don’t view as even being contenders.
  3. What elements of the consciousness debates do you consider relevant, marginally relevant and irrelevant respectively? There is a laundry list of things you need to make up your mind about, which I’ll provide in a minute.

"That’s it. That’s the framing problem. My own commitments have been made: yes to 1, choice a) for 2, and the rest of this post for 3."

1. Yes.

2. A and C, though mostly likely only because B is self-contradictory. Some of the inevitable consequences of the definition conflict with other consequences. Otherwise, I'm a big fan of synthesis.

3. I can't say on the spot. Show me a detail and I'll generate an answer for it.

"Each side has significant internal work to get done first."
I want to know what he means by this. Certainly I can think of many ways he could be right. But it seems to me that what he's saying is that, essentially, both sides are wrong. That is, they are extremely crude approximations of reality, where the patches that match well are small and far apart.

I would disagree with this. (As you would expect, and for the exact reason you would expect.) I suspect he actually knows a lot more on the subject than I do, however, every time I've attempted to draw out this kind of knowledge from people I've failed.

"Question 2 is tougher if you don’t know about some of the frames in play,"
I don't know about this either way. I suspect it's safe to trust him. As such, the method I used to learn philosophy continually surprises me - if I had been doing it on purpose, I would not have been able to reasonably expect success. My bookshelf never groans, and certainly not under the weight of non-fiction texts. I learned it just by being alive - by encountering people and by reading stuff. Making and testing predictions was also key. But this I did just in the course of daily life, rather than ever specifically seeking out philosophers until very late in the process, and even then I was just looking for things I found interesting, not philosophy per se.

As example;
"To form a substantial opinion and avoid getting trapped into unnecessary trails of thought that others have mapped and dismissed credibly, you need to do some reading."
No, I don't have to do some reading. Yet, I will generally avoid wandering into already-refuted territory, because I'm aware of the refutations, at least to a reasonable degree.

Ironically, he falls into exactly this trap.
"Unsolved fundamental physics problems (primarily, but not only, quantum indeterminacy)"
The problem is not unsolved. If physicists were good at thinking in straight lines, nearly any one would be able to tell you the solution. First, 'indeterminacy' is not thought of the way he does. It's better termed 'non-determinacy' which doesn't imply that we could somehow 'solve' the issue by figuring out what determines it. The 'problem' is already solved - nothing determines it, at least, nothing physical. For something to determine it would require a vastly different physical system than the one we have observed.

"For instance, does the brain construct reality or perceive it? The data is in. It constructs reality."
The brain interacts with the world which strongly influences certain internal processes which communicate something to the consciousness, whatever it is. (This is me generating a stance on a detail.) Is this construct, or perceive, according to Rao? If he means the brain must use some mechanism to entrain consciousness and reality, rather than simply psychically intuiting it, then yes of course. This conclusion doesn't even require data at this point. You can use Newton's Third to conclude this. But a naive reading makes it sound likes the options are psychic reading and hallucination.

Also, someone needs to decide the 'data is in' versus 'data are in' issue.

"Mass, space and time are fundamentally just as confusing as the fact that there happens to be an ‘I’ sitting inside your head (just behind your eyes, apparently)."
Mostly true, although it's obvious that the spatial assocation of qualia is independent of the actual sensory input, as qualia don't inherently have position; it is arbitrary. (Perhaps this is what Rao means by 'construct'.) As such, the qualia corresponding to the sensation of I-ness being located behind the eyes was mostly arbitrary, though it's interesting that it corresponds closely to where most of the personality and sensations are generated.

(It's almost certain that a tiny fraction of sensations and thinking are generated elsewhere, considering the distribution of neurons and the fact that we must consider the brain not-special until proven otherwise.)
"Chalmers dismisses this as not relevant, and that’s an area where I break from his views. I don’t agree or disagre; I just think the jury is still out, and that fundamental physics is at least as mysterious as consciousness itself."
When I spoke to my local university, this is exactly where we reached an impassable disagreement, so it's nice that he's on my side. I should really get around to doing a few posts about university...

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