Sunday, February 12, 2006

Consciousness (or, I'm way out of my depth)

To me, perhaps the greatest mysteries concern consciousness. For example, I wonder if, perhaps, consciousness is the bridge between the physical and the spiritual.

Consciousness is wrapped up in concepts like the mind and self awareness. On this last point, various questions arise. Why are humans self aware? To what extent are animals (like the dog in the cartoon above) self aware? Can computers become self aware? (Assuming they're not already!)

I recently rented A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a 2001 movie directed by Stephen Spielberg and based on ideas by Stanley Kubrick. I have to say that I was disappointed. Although aspects of the movie were quite impressive, it didn't give me much to chew on.

So once again, I appeal to you, gentle readers for enlightenment, or at least some opinions!

Update 14Feb2006: After writing this post, a friend suggested that I look at work by Karl Pribram, an eminent brain/behaviour researcher. So I sent Professor Pribram an e-mail — and he very kindly sent me one of his recent papers! The paper, titled "Consciousness Reassessed", is heady stuff (pun intended, tee hee): it touches on neurophysiology, perceptual psychology, quantum physics, coding theory, and philosophy.

Along the way Pribram cites related work by all kinds of luminaries: Russell, Bohr, Poppper, and Crick to name a few. Yes, Francis Crick, who later in life turned his attention from DNA to neuroscience. In 1994, he published a book titled The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, which Pribram characterizes as taking "an eliminative reductionist, materialist stance". Pribram writes:
"Many of the problems that fuel the current discourse on consciousness are due to the acceptance of a radical reductionist stance. Take Francis Crick’s view (Crick 1994) that if we knew what every neuron is doing we would dispense with folk psychology. But what every neuron is doing is a complex process composed of synapto-dendritic fine fibered transactions, circuits, modules composed of circuits and systems composed of modules. The complexity of our experience can also be hierarchically organized into levels of organization, scales of processing, that must be taken into account if we are to relate the organization of our experience to the organization of the brain (see, for instance, King and Pribram 1995)."
(That last reference is to a book with the engaging title Scale in Conscious Experience: Is the Brain Too Important to be Left to Specialists to Study?)

Crick's book does sound interesting, though. At Amazon they let you see the first four pages. It starts with a quote from the Roman Catholic catechism:
Q: What is the soul?
A: The soul is a living being* without a body, having reason and free will.
The asterisk is Crick's. In the footnote he writes:
"As a small child my wife, Odile, was taught the catechism by an elderly Irish lady who pronounced "being" as "be-in'". Odile heard this as "bean." She was extremely puzzled by the idea of the soul of a living bean without a body but kept her worries to herself."

Update: 18Feb2006: In the comments, Mike points out that a sense of humour may be related to consciousness. It's an interesting point. In science fiction movies, robots are often portrayed as being humourless. Consider, for instance, the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Here is an article on the neurology of humour. And I wonder if any of this has to do with mirror neurons, about which there's been quite a bit of excitement lately.
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Blogger Zeno said...

Nick, it may be time to read some of Daniel Dennett's stuff, like Consciousness Explained. I confess that I have not yet, although last year I was impressed by Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which is Dennett's natural selectionist manifesto. By an amusing coincidence, since you illustrated your posting with a cartoon containing a dog, you'll find that Dennett's home page contains a dog, too: an antique robotic dog from France. No kidding.

6:10 PM, February 12, 2006  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Thanks, Zeno. I looked up Consciousness Explained on Amazon and did a little link surfing. A lot of people have good things to say about John R. Searle's books, such as The Mystery of Consciousness (1997) and Mind : A Brief Introduction (2004). I think I may order the latter ...

8:37 PM, February 12, 2006  
Anonymous Mike said...

I just like the cartoon... maybe, that I can laugh at it makes me exhibit consciuousness?

10:32 AM, February 14, 2006  
Blogger Dominic said...

I quite like John Searle. He's largely despised within AI circles, but he's probably right in his criticism of the traditional symbolic approach to intelligence and consciousness. Look up his Chinese Room argument for more on that debate.

Consciousness is hard to study for a number of reasons, not least because it's hard to define. Most people's view of consciousness, including mine, is based on the idea of qualia. In short, the experience of things is phenomenally different than the things being experienced. There are other definitions, but experiential consciousness works for me. We're conscious of an experience "if there is something that it is like" to have that experience. I forget who's quote that is. I think this line of thought became especially popular following Thomas Nagle's paper "What is it like to be a bat?" but don't quote me on that. I'll add that David Chalmers makes a good argument - or perhaps recounts one, I can't remember - that the study of qualia is fundamentally different than the study of anything else, and that it's not subject to reductionist methods. Chalmers is largely incomprehensible to me, but I recall liking the argument.

If you define consciousness experientially, you still need a framework for its study. Maybe the best book on conciousness I've read is Bernard Baars' "In the theatre of conciousness". He's pretty much equating conciousness and attention, but that's as good a place to start as any. Autobiographical memory is another approach. Baars is very readable, and he recounts psychology experiments with great effect, showing the reader that conciousness is real and ammenable to study. He also discusses anatomical and physiological findings. Anyway, attention and memory are very active research areas and have been so for a long time. Despite that, they're poorly understood. I think that most brain researchers have succumbed to the view that if the subcomponents of consciousness are poorly understood, how can we hope to study consciousness itself? It's a reasonable stance, though its subject to debate.

I think the dynamic systems approach is a good one. Consciousness is surely an emergent property of the very complex, dynamic brain, or at least parts of the brain. That said, complexity is surely not sufficient for consciousness, and perhaps a brain isn't either. Consciousness evolved as a competitive advantage, and is presumably rooted in a fairly specific system architecture.

It's been a while since I've read much about consciousness, but it's the proverbial big one in brain science. Over the last couple of years, I've actually been more interested in unconsciousness, probably because its more foreign to me. The idea that we're processing information without knowing it is a little freakish. And thus interesting.

Anyway, that's my amateur two cents.

8:44 PM, February 18, 2006  
Anonymous Mohammed TA said... said...

Hello Nick,

Visiting your blog after a long pause -- always very interesting!


No idea.

However, I have often wondered whether consciousness (as opposed to subconsciousness) is that state of wakefulness in which one receives various bits of information and decides what to do with it -- ignore or take up for further consideration.

Why I think so is because I reckon infos (and ideas) come to mind, rather than are generated within it -- no credit for a brilliant idea, but yes for the perseverance to patiently receive one.

Personally, I have never pre-planned the contents of a good idea (if at all I came upon one). It has come as a flash, or sometime is refined in flashes.

Emotions like anger, I never actively think and generate (with contents, intensity and timing preplanned), but they just come up from nowhere in association with certain events. Although until the very end such emotion is expressed, I have the choice and the ability not to express it.

Is consciousness just a seat where choices of thoughts are made, they themselves coming up from elsewhere?

10:18 AM, March 26, 2006  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I very much agree with you that ideas seem to occur spontaneously, and that we can then choose what to do with them. I believe that creativity is in large part a reflection of how we deal with these ideas.

A number of social forces act to dampen our creativity; that is they encourage us to supress these spontaneous ideas. For example, as children in school we are mostly taught to follow the rules. Grades are typically assigned according to how obediently we go along with this. To a great extent, creativity is only rewarded when it conforms to the rules. Thus a narrow, stunted form of creativity is enforced. It is not my intention to demonize teachers; many individual teachers work very hard to swim against the powerful current. But there are complex social forces and constraints at play, and good intentions are not sufficient to overcome them. Creativity is most effectively contained when we internalize the notion that our original ideas and perspectives are worthless. Social conformity becomes the chief goal. People who express ideas or ask questions that fall outside the acceptable, narrow consensus are dismissed as rude, or stupid, or dangerous, or crazy. Ultimately this is a kind of mob mentality, and it's not hard to see how it promotes authoritarian politics.

Ooops, I think I've wandered a bit from the topic at hand. I agree with you too that emotions, like ideas seem to arise spontaneously. In both cases, I believe there are deeper unconscious processes at work. And there's plenty of evidence of this, both anecdotal and from the results of psychological experiments. I frequently have the following experience: I forget a word or a name, and stop thinking about it; subsequently (minutes, hours, or even days later) it suddenly pops into my mind. Another example is where conscious mental effort fails to produce a solution to a problem, but the unconscious somehow (and apparently effortlessly) succeeds. A famous instance of this was apparently the discovery of the structure of the benzene molecule (a ring), which came to Friedrich August Kekulé in a dream. (I had to look that up on Google: his description of the event is fascinating.)

My tentative conclusion is that our unconscious is powerful and we need to listen to it. To a considerable extent, our emotions also seem to reside there. Yet a variety of forces encourage us to dismiss the unconscious to our individual detriment, and the detriment of humanity.

4:54 PM, March 26, 2006  
Anonymous Mohammed-TA said...

"Creativity is most effectively contained when we internalize the notion that our original ideas and perspectives are worthless"

Beautifully put!

The "system" chooses its own leaders -- those that will best perpetuate it. Perhaps, leaders can be only good, if so is the system.

Our system is unfortunately ostentatious. Hence, again unfortunately, this is the working paradigm of our politics.

Canvassing for political support, televised presedential debates etc., sometimes appear to be exercises of self-glorification.

This might sound a bit crazy: but, to me, the underlying notion of democracy of the 'rule of the people by the people' pales in contrast with the notion of the 'rule of righteousness and goodness'.

What that righteousness and goodness mean, and might imply, can be a long debate (or preferably, dialogue), but only after this notion is at least brought up for consideration :)

Here is another in your agreement:

9:07 PM, March 26, 2006  
Anonymous Brother Neil said...

Nick -- go read Julian Jaynes' THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND for a jolt-inducing look at how we became thinking human beings.

11:47 AM, April 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Animals are conscious but do they have any concept of eternity?
What is it that frightens us so?
Have we created God (and the idea of a soul) in our own image instead of the other way around in order to deal with the prospect of nothingness forever after consciousness ends?
We must have a belief that our awareness exists after death or believe we have a purpose here.
Does there really have to be a purpose at all?
For you physics experts...since consciousness has no matter or mass, can it trancend time and space since it requires no fuel to exceed the speed of light. Einstein where are you? Does that, at least, partly explain precognition and why some can "see the future".
Arrgh...think I will have a stiff drink and communicate with my sub-conscious ala Julian Jaynes.

1:33 AM, April 12, 2007  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I suspect that it's harder to ask good questions than to give good answers. You've certainly raised some important and profound issues.

As for seeing into the future: my impression is that the subconscious performs some (dare I say) mind-boggling information processing that sometimes produces remarkably accurate predictions. We call it "seeing the future", but I believe it's just very subtle and powerful information processing.

1:11 PM, April 12, 2007  

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