About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

New 5-minute Philosopher video: No such thing as the hard problem of consciousness

Oh boy, this is going to be controversial with this crowd. Still, I'm looking forward to your comments. Of course remember that the 5-minute Philosopher videos are meant as brief introduction for a general audience, so don't complain that there is no in-depth argument in here...

Nevertheless, I stand by my basic idea, which is, in fact, very close to Dennett's and Churchland's positions. It differs from both (just like those two differ from each other), because I think Dennett has gotten closer to the "it's an illusion" position (which I reject), and of course because I'm not an eliminativist. Enjoy!

49 comments:

  1. Massimo, As I said in my comment in the article below, consciousness is a group trait which explains why we can introspect others and nature easier than we can intropect ourselves. As an evolutionary biologist you know nature takes some logical and predictable steps and consciousness is no exception to the rule. When it came to mammalian brains nature didn't suddenly break out the field theory and quantum physics books. We are an extension of the reptilian brain or I like to think Adam and Eve didn't grab the apple as much as the snake left it's two dimensional crawling world and entered this more dimensioned world of bipedal experience.

    BTW interesting Ken Burns film Empire Of The Air: The Men Who made Radio. Interesting chronicle of the battle between DeForest and Armstrong about the invention of the vacuum tube and radio transmission. DeForest had the initial intuitive insight about the tube but little scientific understanding of how to perfect it which Armsstrong did as an engineer. Very insightful how philosophers approach the consciousness debate.

    I lean towards the Chalmers argument because I believe there is a missing insight about how areas of the brain form feelings and qualia and of course our Being itself appear to be a fixed qualia which all the others add in. Also there has to be an insight of the neocortical six layers and how they integrate.

    Hope we get to talk sometime....Victor Panzica

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  2. Hey Massimo,
    Thank you for this recording and the discussion here.

    What about reason; can biology account for reason? What about the subject matter studied by the psychological sciences? And what about art and wisdom? How do all of these fit in with consciousness and the “hard problem”? Of course consciousness in its simplest form can in principle be explained by biology. Philosophers have long speculated that simple organisms experience feelings that correlate with observable behavior of attraction and repulsion. However, can evolutionary biology and neurobiology adequately explain reason? Can these disciplines explain why Grandma Moses painted the way she did? Her paintings look distinctly feminine. Why is that? Can biology explain the subtleties of Martin Luther King’s empathy, reason and effort to understand and connect as expressed in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”?

    Being a philosopher and not just a scientist I’d like you to tell me the limits of biological explanations, which I think this talk about the “hard problem” is trying to get at. Kenan Malik in his review of “Freedom Evolves” said the difficulty with Dennett’s argument is his

    “insistence on viewing agency simply as a biological phenomenon. Our very possession of agency reveals that humans cannot be understood in this fashion. Agency is an expression not just of our embodiment in nature but also of our capacity to transcend it. It is an expression of our existence not simply as natural creatures but also as historical beings.”

    Is there an aspect of consciousness that Malik is trying to get at here that cannot be explained by biology?

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    1. What else could it be? Are you proposing something else yourself? Something super/extra/para-biological? Ever taken barbiturates which suppress conciousness? What I'm proposing is that there has to be a very good reason to propose something more than biology. The burden is on you to propose something compelling.

      A definition of reason from Google is as follows:

      "Think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic"

      we have no examples of these things happening without a biological brain. If you describe judgements in terms of decision making, well just look at computers.

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    2. In fact your seem to be appealing to ignorance or consequences, I'm not exactly sure which, for some strange reason.

      Martin Luther's empathy was amazing.
      This being based on biology would make it less amazing.
      Therefore a biological basis for conciousness is wrong.

      That's an appeal to consequences, right?

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    3. Hey Louis,
      I never said consciousness happens without human brains. Nor is Kenan Malik implying this. In his review he makes this plain. In the previous entry here on Rationally Speaking (Neuro-backlash? What backlash?) the authors described different levels of explanation. Currently we cannot describe consciousness using physical explanations. It is no less reasonable to assume that this will never be possible thant it is to assert that it will. The fact is we do not know. To insist on one position or the other is to insist on a dogma that cannot (at this moment in time) be verified. It is more of a religious view than a scientific one.

      Kenan Malik here goes a step further and argues that you cannot account for human behavior and consciousness using just biological explanations. Perhaps he’s making the case that reason is an emergent property that cannot be explained by biology alone. He says Dennett’s insistence on a mere biological explanation leaves some important things out.

      Yours is just one definition of reason. Historically reason has been used to differentiate humans from other animals, who do not reason the way we do. Reason is our capacity for objectivity. It is our ability to know the world as it is as opposed to the way we might wish it to be.

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    4. Louis,
      My examples (including King's letter) were just expressions of reason, intelligence and love that I can't imagine a mere expert in biology being able to explain.

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    5. Physicists have a hard time dealing with turbulence in fluids, but surely turbulence is a physical problem.

      By the same token, biologists can't explain MLK's empathy completely, but there's no reason to doubt it was a biological phenomenon. There's a difference between what's biological and what biologists can explain.

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    6. But Massimo has clearly stated:

      "Of course remember that the 5-minute Philosopher videos are meant as brief introduction for a general audience, so don't complain that there is no in-depth argument in here..."

      He's an outspoken critic of what I think you're describing as reductionism.

      He also says:

      "I'm not an eliminativist."

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    7. Hey Steve,
      There is a difference between the problem of consciousness and turbulence.

      Immanuel Kant said there will never be a newton for a blade of grass. Kant felt that the physical sciences were essentially mathematical and there is no way to move from the material to the biological. What we have are biological sciences that deal with organisms in as much as they are material and biological theories that describe life processes that are not (in the same way) mathematical. We have here different levels of explanation. The levels of explanation correspond to the separation of the sciences into physical, biological and psychological categories. There are gaps between each of these divisions that make the idea of using physics to describe how organisms came into being or how they grow and develop difficult to imagine. Kenan Malik is underscoring the division between biology and psychology (and for that matter biology and art and morality and philosophy, etc). So I am asking Massimo if there could be an aspect of consciousness that he is not considering when he says neurobiology and evolutionary biology will one day be able to describe human consciousness.

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    8. To riff on some of Massimo's comments, and others.

      Grandma Moses painted the way she did because she saw "light" at 380-700nm and not, say, 575-950nm. To riff on Nagel, she wasn't a bee and didn't know what it was like to be one.

      Grandma Moses painted the way she did because of her unique life experiences, any formal training in painting, etc. That was different than Eduoard Manet, Claude Monet, Andy Warhol or Georgia O'Keefe.

      This is like why did Bach write music the way he did?

      Answer: H. sapiens has become self-reflective enough emotionally as well as intellectually to weave sense-input experiences into emotional expressions.

      ===

      Biology plus sociology can make a stab at MLK's nuances of emotion, too. Again, a stab ... whether one accepts conscious free will, subconscious quasi-free will, anything else besides hardcore determinism, or, better yet, like me (you'll get there, Massimo), rejects "free will vs. determinism" as old thinking, the "stab" will get more accurate but never precisely there.

      On the sociological basis, we have a good idea already. And, to the degree that there is **some heritability basis** for various personality traits, we're already some way there on the biology side.

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    9. Let me add another response, besides the one I wrote earlier (still in approval queue, just in case this one actually gets posted first).

      Expecting biology to "explain" why Grandma Jones painted the way she did, or why Mother Jones rabble-roused the way she did, is 100-proof scientism from where I stand. Dunno about Massimo, but that's my take. Ditto on expecting psychology or sociology to become so reductionistic they become that much like biology.

      That all said, there's no need to posit a "mysterian position." It's simply that we're all individual human beans and that full-on determinism doesn't exist, even if free will as commonly understood through the end of the 20th century doesn't, either.

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  3. Hey Massimo,

    You might want to check out the reddit comments about this video:
    reddit com/r/philosophy/comments/1me3n4/hard_problem_of_consciousness/

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  4. Listened to the RS72 Podcast with Graham Priest, absolutely interesting. http://www.rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs72-graham-priest-on-paradoxes-and-paraconsistent-logic.html

    Fascinating when Graham asks Julia to consider the sentence and something gets tied up in her higher lobes.

    Honestly when we walk we usually step left AND right AND left... However with our hands we favor one but we do have the choice of left OR right, so logic and reason is built into us or as Nietzsche said "Great Truths Are Conceived by Walking".
    Logic is built into us which we express through our higher lobes as language and reason.

    "Adam Heard The Sound Of God Walking In The Afternoon".

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  5. Victor,

    > I lean towards the Chalmers argument because I believe there is a missing insight about how areas of the brain form feelings and qualia <

    I don’t get it: what missing insight? It sounds close to the infamous “mysterian position to me. Now if you are saying that we still have a lot of research to do in neurobiology before we understand consciousness, I’m on board (and so is Chalmers, by the way).

    Patrick,

    > What about reason; can biology account for reason? <

    I don’t see why not. It’s clearly an adaptive property, and equally obviously the result of activities in the physical brain. While we don’t know (yet) the details, I doubt there is something big missing here.

    > Can these disciplines explain why Grandma Moses painted the way she did? <

    Now we are talking about cultural evolution, which sits on top of, and builds from, biological evolution. But again I don’t see what’s missing in principle (except that we still don’t have a good theory of cultural evolution. Then again, we don’t have a good theory of gravity either...).

    > Being a philosopher and not just a scientist I’d like you to tell me the limits of biological explanations <

    They are reached when we get deeper and deeper into cultural evolution.

    > “Agency is an expression not just of our embodiment in nature but also of our capacity to transcend it.” <

    I’m not sure what that means... Mystically??

    > “an expression of our existence not simply as natural creatures but also as historical beings” <

    Uhm, yeah, but biology is an *historical* discipline as well...

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  6. A consciousness-capable robot, if installed with my memories and cognitive programming, would have much of my personality, but would not be me. We would be spatially separated of course, and it would from that point forward have its own experience and free will.

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    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poe's_law

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    2. I think in thought experiments like this (including teleportation/duplication thought experiments), identities can fork.

      So, if the building of this robot is in the future, I think it is just as much you as your biological self, as it will inherit the memories and experience of the you of now.

      If the building of the robot is in the past, then your identity has already forked, and the you of now is not the same as the robot.

      It's just like a river or software project forking in two. Both forks are as much the parent as each other, but they are not identical to each other and evolve separately from that point on. We may choose to privilege one fork with the name of the parent, but that is an arbitrary choice and not really philosophically significant.

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  7. I was recently reading some comments of Taylor Carman and was thinking that might add to this discussion:

    ". . .Searle and Dennett ignore the background context of hermeneutic conditions that render their own conceptions of intentionality intelligible to begin with. Dennett speaks of the “intentional stance” as a quasi-scientific, third-person point of view we take up in explaining and predicting behavior. That’s fine, but how does that notion even arise in our experience of ourselves and each other? What is its basis? How are we able to understand it? Dennett just helps himself to the notion, which is to say, he ignores the understanding we must already have of ourselves and of each other that underlies and underwrites the entire theoretical vocabulary of belief and desire. But that theoretical vocabulary doesn’t just grow on trees. Dennett’s view is in this sense scientistic and uncritical, in the Kantian sense.

    Searle’s theory is more like Husserl’s in substance, since, unlike Dennett, he conceives of intentional content as given to the first-person point of view, not just the third. Moreover, to his credit, he has a concept of a “Background” of noncognitive skills that makes intentional mental states possible. . . .however, Searle’s “Background” turns out not to be a background of intelligibility and understanding, though he often describes it with intentional terms like “expectation.” Instead, he insists, it consists of nonintentional causal capacities that allow intentional states to function. The concept therefore does nothing to answer the critical or transcendental question, What makes concepts like consciousness and mind and intentionality intelligible in the first place? How is it possible for such notions even to make sense to us as they do?"

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  8. Hi Massimo,

    I'm not sure your views are that different from Dennett's on the point where you mention your disagreement with him. You maintain that consciousness is no mere illusion - that the appearance of seeming is the seeming. I think Dennett would agree with you there.

    But I still don't see how your views are compatible with your interpretation of the Chinese Room. The Chinese Room has all the functionality of a human brain, and just like a human brain it believes itself to be conscious.

    Yet, in your view, it is mistaken, i.e. it is under some sort of illusion. This seems to contradict your position that the appearance of seeming is the seeming.

    You also make the point that consciousness is metabolically expensive, so can be no mere epiphenomenon. I would put it to you that what is metabolically expensive is the information processing, and consciousness is a necessary attribute of the algorithm that is being implemented. If I am wrong, and if consciousness itself imposes an additional metabolic burden, then your interpretation of the Chinese Room would seem to suggest that nature would not have selected for it, because if the CR can achieve all the functionality of the human brain without actually needing consciousness then nature could find some way of doing the same thing.

    I think the only way out of this conundrum for you is for you to assume that the Chinese Room scenario is actually impossible in principle, and that it is not possible to implement a human-level intelligence with an algorithm. You must therefore reject weak AI along with strong AI.

    And if that is the case, then the human brain must be exploiting non-computable physics, which means that only radically new understanding of the laws of nature can ever hope to explain consciousness.

    Or else, the Computational Theory of Mind is true, which is what I believe, obviously.

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    1. DM: "You [Massimo] also make the point that consciousness is metabolically expensive, so can be no mere epiphenomenon. I would put it to you that what is metabolically expensive is the information processing, and consciousness is a necessary attribute of the algorithm that is being implemented."

      Agreed, it's the metabolically expensive neural activity *associated with* conscious experience that was selected for, due to the behavioral advantages of the cognitive operations (information processing) such neural activity supports. Conscious experience - perhaps, as DM suggests, a necessary entailment of being a complex behavior control system - doesn't add to what the brain is already doing in controlling behavior, so wasn't directly selected for. Of course if consciousness is *identical to* its associated neural activities, then it controls behavior, but that identity isn't obviously the case. If it were, there'd be no talk of a hard problem.

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  9. >Now we are talking about cultural evolution, which sits on top of, and builds from, biological evolution. But again I don’t see what’s missing in principle (except that we still don’t have a good theory of cultural evolution. Then again, we don’t have a good theory of gravity either...).<

    Culture also builds upon itself, i.e., reproduces itself on a scale more immediate than what can be demonstrated within cognitive processes - whatever that means. It's perfectly reasonable to say that a sociocultural dynamic is at work and equally explicable from a sociological perspective. If we're hanging "everything" on physical properties and making promisary notes due to present explanatory deficits, it's seems equally plausible to entertain, for instance, a historical materialist position that works off of similar "we don't know all the linkages and their pathways just yet but we will..."

    So what's more compelling about the biological promisary notes that is apparently lacking in the social sciences?

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  10. Victor,

    > I lean towards the Chalmers' argument because I believe there is a missing insight about how areas of the brain form feelings and qualia <

    Massimo:

    >I don’t get it: what missing insight? It sounds close to the infamous “mysterian" position to me. Now if you are saying that we still have a lot of research to do in neurobiology before we understand consciousness, I’m on board (and so is Chalmers, by the way).<

    So I'm curious as to what you (Massimo) see as the problem with understanding consciousness, if it isn't the problem of explaining why and how phenomenal states (conscious experiences, qualia) arise only in conjunction with certain sorts of brain activity? You seem to suggest that it's a category mistake to think that the hard problem exists. If it doesn't, then what's the open question about consciousness that future science will answer?

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    1. Tom,

      I know you want Massimo's reply but the old understanding was it smells because it's in your nose, you see it in your eyes, you feel it in your feet....Now we know which cells actually fire in the various cortex areas but still no understanding why they "stand out" and are also unified as a complete consciousness.

      Call me the "greedy functionalist" who says there has to be a deeper explanation and here's "My Theory": I call it the Supercell Theory or when neurons fire the nuclei lock function so they behave as one large cell so patches of blue are patches of blue supercells, as the music plays the cells respond in the audiotory cortex and all of these separate experiences sum into our waking experience of Being. All of these experiences also get aggregated by our multilayer neocortex which closes around the lower functions and forms Phenomenality that also gets presented to us in our CNS.

      That's a Systems Engineer's view....Victor Panzica

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  11. Great video! Massimo, as a scientist and philosopher, do you think that some of the misunderstanding comes from an overly ambitious view of what science can do? Not from scientists, but from non-scientists who have an inflated expectation science? Scientists, being more accustomed to how perspectival, incomplete and provisional a naturalistic view is, would not have metaphysical unease regarding the haziness about incorporating the phenomenal in a physicalist description. It's not so much a shortcoming of the physicalist approach, per se, but business as usual.

    That is why Mary's room requires her to be a super gifted scientist. If Mary were a normal scientist with a normal scientific perspective, she could know all that science has to say about any color vision, but still not know a lot. Even if she'd seen all those colors. Not because a physicalist description is ipso facto incomplete, but because all models, all descriptions are incomplete. No one theory will incorporate all data points. Chalmers pumps up the expectations of science and then gives way too much existential import to modal logic, all to arrive at the point he's always wanted to arrive at.

    In other words, there is no hard problem of consciousness. There is just the hard problem of being limited beings in a vast world. Fundamental skepticism, the problem of induction, these are problems that will never go away, but they aren't actually problems once you get past them. The problem is when people like Chalmers gussy them up as new ideas and argue from ignorance and/or inflated expectations.

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  12. Thomas,

    > Dennett just helps himself to the notion, which is to say, he ignores the understanding we must already have of ourselves and of each other that underlies and underwrites the entire theoretical vocabulary of belief and desire. But that theoretical vocabulary doesn’t just grow on trees. Dennett’s view is in this sense scientistic and uncritical, in the Kantian sense. <

    So what? Whatever theoretical vocabulary one needs can be derived from other branches of science, including the social ones.

    > The concept therefore does nothing to answer the critical or transcendental question, What makes concepts like consciousness and mind and intentionality intelligible in the first place? <

    That, to me, is a non-question arising from the very same philosophical confusion that Wittgenstein said we should get rid of.

    Louis,

    re: “Poe’s Law.” I can assure you I am very serious in the video, in case you had doubts.

    DM,

    > I still don't see how your views are compatible with your interpretation of the Chinese Room. <

    Sorry, I overdosed on the CR in recent weeks, I’ll leave that for another time, if you don’t mind.

    > I would put it to you that what is metabolically expensive is the information processing, and consciousness is a necessary attribute of the algorithm that is being implemented. <

    We don’t actually know that. But even if true, it remains the fact that consciousness is metabolically expensive. And since it isn’t necessary for the survival of plenty of other species of animals, it was likely selected for, or at least not selected against.

    > Or else, the Computational Theory of Mind is true, which is what I believe, obviously. <

    And, as you know, I don’t... ;-)

    Randall,

    > So what's more compelling about the biological promisary notes that is apparently lacking in the social sciences? <

    Nothing, to me consciousness will be explained by a combination of biological and social sciences. But all of that still falls under Chalmers’ “easy” problem.

    Tom,

    > I'm curious as to what you (Massimo) see as the problem with understanding consciousness, if it isn't the problem of explaining why and how phenomenal states (conscious experiences, qualia) arise only in conjunction with certain sorts of brain activity? <

    That’s exactly the problem. But Chalmers considers those the “easy” part. Once we have that (if we’ll ever have it) there will be nothing else to explain. We’ll know the how and we’ll know the way. What would be missing?

    OneDay,

    > do you think that some of the misunderstanding comes from an overly ambitious view of what science can do? <

    No, in this case I think it comes from the recalcitrance of philosophers like Chalmers to admit that a given problem is empirical, and therefore scientific. Philosophy of mind needs to transform itself in the same way in which philosophy of science has: philosophers of science don’t *do* science, they reflect critically on what science does. Analogously, we are getting to the point where philosophy of mind needs to turn into a critical study of neurobiology and related disciplines, not a field were people think they can solve the problem of consciousness with thought experiments.

    > The problem is when people like Chalmers gussy them up as new ideas and argue from ignorance and/or inflated expectations. <

    Agreed...

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    1. Massimo: Philosophy of mind needs to transform itself in the same way in which philosophy of science has: philosophers of science don’t *do* science, they reflect critically on what science does. Analogously, we are getting to the point where philosophy of mind needs to turn into a critical study of neurobiology and related disciplines, not a field were people think they can solve the problem of consciousness with thought experiments.

      Thanks for saying this. It expresses perfectly what I, an interested lay person, have suspected for a long time, but have been unable to articulate with the same confidence and/or authority that you have.

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  13. Tom Clark:

    > I'm curious as to what you (Massimo) see as the problem with understanding consciousness, if it isn't the problem of explaining why and how phenomenal states (conscious experiences, qualia) arise only in conjunction with certain sorts of brain activity? <

    Massimo:

    > That’s exactly the problem. But Chalmers considers those the “easy” part. Once we have that (if we’ll ever have it) there will be nothing else to explain. We’ll know the how and we’ll know the way. What would be missing? <

    There wouldn't be anything missing, but that's because this isn't the easy part according to Chalmers, it's the hard part. The problem of explaining why and how phenomenal states (conscious experiences, qualia) arise only in conjunction with certain sorts of brain activity is the hard problem as he poses it. Quoting him:

    "Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

    "If any problem qualifies as *the* problem of consciousness, it is this one. In this central sense of 'consciousness', an organism is conscious if there is something it is like to be that organism, and a mental state is conscious if there is something it is like to be in that state. Sometimes terms such as 'phenomenal consciousness' and 'qualia' are also used here, but I find it more natural to speak of 'conscious experience' or simply 'experience'." - Chalmers in "Facing up to the problem of consciousness."

    Since the problem of explaining qualia as stated above (and as I stated it previously) is the hard problem, which you claim doesn't exist, what is the problem of consciousness you think is left unresolved? I'm guessing it would be among the easy problems, which according to Chalmers include the following (from the same paper):

    "- the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
    - the integration of information by a cognitive system;
    - the reportability of mental states;
    - the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
    the focus of attention;
    - the deliberate control of behavior
    - the difference between wakefulness and sleep"

    But if you admit there's a problem of explaining qualia (conscious experience, phenomenal states), as you seem to above, then you're in Chalmers' camp in supposing there *is* a hard problem. Unless of course you think it reduces to the "easy" problems about functions that Chalmers lists. But as he puts it, "Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience?" That's the hard part.

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  14. Massimo: "So what? Whatever theoretical vocabulary one needs can be derived from other branches of science, including the social ones."

    Goodness, oh, let me see, yes, that's was what Dennett said in a footnote in discussing intentionality, "I'll just throw this out there to see if 'some *other* branch of science' can figure what I really mean in using it as a professional philosopher."

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  15. @ Massimo

    What kind of nonsense is this? On the one hand, you're making (what is essentially) Dennett's argument that "qualia" (consciousness or subject experience...what is a.k.a. "P-consciousness" or the "hard problem of consciousness") is a category mistake. Yet, on the other hand, you're rejecting his argument by explicitly stating that consciousness (qualia, subjective experience, P-consciousness, or the hard problem) is no illusion. Bizarre!

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  16. Massimo,
    I don’t know if reason is “clearly” an adaptive property. Do you have anything more than anecdotal evidence (something more than the kind of evidence Steven Pinker, and other evolutionary psychologists, like to use when weaving their just-so stories) that can demonstrate this? It may be that a woman’s powers of reason (more so than the curve of her hip and the light in her smile) are really what captures a man’s attention and compels him to pursue her as his mate, but I don’t know that this has been “clearly” established.

    Of course it is likely an adaptive property, but I think Gould was correct when he wrote this:
    “ If evolution were powered by a single force producing one kind of result, and if life’s long and messy history could therefore be explained by extending small and orderly increments of adaptation through the immensity of geological time, then an explanatory simplicity might descend upon evolution’s overt richness. Evolution then might become “algorithmic,” a surefire logical procedure, as in Daniel Dennett’s reverie. But what is wrong with messy richness, so long as we can construct an equally rich texture of satisfying explanation?”

    Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld’s words of warning are pertinent here:
    “for the foreseeable future, valuable information is often lost when descending from higher explanatory levels, such as mental states, to lower levels, such as neuronal systems.”

    As I already said there are three levels of explanation that correspond with the physical, biological and psychological sciences. When we talk about reason we are talking about consciousness at a level that is best described by the psychological sciences. It could be that one day there will be a biological account of reason, but this is at best a hunch and at worst a theological doctrine of sorts. At this moment in history talk of consciousness being explained by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is likely to inspire the kind of contrived oversimplifications that Satel and Lilienfield are trying so hard to discourage.

    Biology is NOT historical in the proper sense of the word. History is a record of the doings or actions of human beings. We also use the word to talk about the development of processes over time, but this is a specialized use. When we study history (the kind found in the humanities departments at universities) we’re studying things that people did. I can’t speak for Kenan Malik but I doubt there is anything mystical in his reference to transcendence. In fact I have heard reason described using this term. Let me see if I can recall how it was put to me.

    An organism (like a dog for instance) is bound by his biology. He has no free will. He’s a slave to his inclinations in a way that humans are not. For example if a mother sees her child beginning to run into a busy street her natural reaction might be to scream out. But then she notices the child is aware of the cars and she realizes if she yells she might distract him and cause him to be hit. So rather than follow her inclination she remains silent. How can a biologist predict human behavior by biology alone if people can do that?

    What I think Malik is trying to get at when he says we are historical beings is that we are a part of a dialogue, one that not only integrates us into a community but one that spans generations. Newton expressed this when he said he was standing on the shoulders of giants. Our community is not merely biological, like a herd of cows. We are aware that we are a part of a community.

    The fact that there are these three levels of explanation is evidence of transcendence. Life forms seem to transcend the physical world where things do not move or feel happiness or fear. Since we created this separate category of sciences to study human psychology it seems reasonable (and not at all mystical) to think that we may require more than biological metaphors and theory to adequately describe human beings. I think that’s all Malik is saying.

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  17. @ Massimo

    I just wanted to reiterate a point I made in a previous thread that also applies here: You cannot explain why a sentient stimulus-response system (what behaviorists refer to as a living organism, and a term implied by your video) was naturally selected over an insentient stimulus-response system given the materialist (and behavioralist) belief that consciousness is not required for a living organism to respond to environmental stimuli (a.k.a. "epiphenomenalism").

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    1. A sentient system would plausibly be selected over a nonsentient system in social animals, due to the need to deal with other minds (which could greatly affect sexual selection). To deal with another mind you need to have access to similar or corresponding states in your own mind, hence the need for sentience. So intelligence and sentience would evolve - co-evolve - in social groups. And funnily enough, the social animals - elephants, whales, chimpanzees, etc. - appear to have more of the qualities we include under the label of 'consciousness'. So you have the environmental need - other minds, affecting access to reproduction - producing a selection pressure for consciousness. Plus, there could have been at some point an 'evolutionary arms race' in favor of sentience and/or other socio-cognitive abilities among our ancestors leading to the rapid growth of the brain (and resulting growth in mental powers), which is what we see in the fossil record.

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    2. Chris, I'm sorry. This is stretching the rubber band to its breaking point. Sentient systems have been selected for many species, "social" and otherwise. I fail to see the connection surrounding reproduction as due to sentience *and* "the need [?] to deal with other minds." Have you ever seen male dogs mind meld with a female dog in heat? Accessing her mind/consciousness hardly seems the controlling feature. There does seem to be something special about the mammalian species, and that seems to be our own confirmation bias in discussing it. ("And funnily enough, the social animals - elephants, whales, chimpanzees, etc. [i.e., homo sapiens] - appear to have more of the qualities we include under the label of 'consciousness'.) Until convinced otherwise, I see nothing about discussions of consciousness (self or non) that suggests "it" (whatever it is) is a selected or adaptive trait with regard to reproduction.

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    3. @ Chris

      > A sentient system would plausibly be selected over a nonsentient system in social animals, due to the need to deal with other minds (which could greatly affect sexual selection). <

      A couple of points:

      - The argument that sentience was naturally selected in one individual of a species because it enabled that individual to interact with the sentience of other individuals in the same species presupposes that sentience was already naturally selected within that species. IOW, you're guilty of "begging the question" - a logical fallacy. (You're presupposing the very thing that you're obligated to explain.)

      - The chess application on my personal computer has the capacity to interact with another mind. No consciousness is required!

      > So intelligence and sentience would evolve - co-evolve - in social groups. <

      My argument concerns only sentience (a.k.a. "P-consciousness"), not intelligence (a.k.a. "A-consciousness").

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  18. Tom,

    > (quoting Chalmers) Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C?" <

    That is precisely the sort of thing that neurobiology is after. And the answer will only come from there, if it will come. By the way, notice that his use of "why" here is ambiguous and sloppy. He probably means "how" (as in: what mechanism allows it?), because "why" questions are a matter of evolutionary biology (as in: what function was selected for, in what environments?).

    > "It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does." <

    It seems *objectively* unreasonable? To whom? It seems eminently reasonable to me!

    > if you admit there's a problem of explaining qualia (conscious experience, phenomenal states), as you seem to above, then you're in Chalmers' camp in supposing there *is* a hard problem. <

    As you guessed, I think the problem of qualia is a subset of the others, or it is a consequence of the existence of the others. So there is no problem that is harder than the "easy" ones (which, of course, are anything but!).

    Thomas,

    I understand you are trying to be sarcastic, but neither your tone nor especially your content is actually helping the discussion. Try again.

    Alastair,

    > What kind of nonsense is this? <

    If you only read carefully what I write you wouldn't ask this sort of question. First, Dennett does *not*, as far as I know, think that the hard problem is a category mistake. Second, as a consequence, it makes perfect sense for me to reject his position that consciousness is akin to an illusion (he is actually ambiguous about that, since he is not a straight eliminativist like Churchland).

    > You cannot explain why a sentient stimulus-response system (what behaviorists refer to as a living organism, and a term implied by your video) was naturally selected over an insentient stimulus-response system given the materialist (and behavioralist) belief that consciousness is not required for a living organism to respond to environmental stimuli <

    You are assuming that there is only one way to evolve a stimulus-response system. Simply considering the difference between plants (no brains) and animals (brains) should obviously refute your assumption.

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  19. Patrick,

    > I don’t know if reason is “clearly” an adaptive property. <

    Fair point, but does anyone really think that the ability to reason isn't instrumental to survival, and has a likely been from the beginning? At any rate, my point was simply that any biological structure that is metabolically costly should be eliminated by natural selection unless it provides - directly or indirectly - a function worth the expense. This seems to me to apply to a brain complex enough to be capable of phenomenal consciousness.

    > When we talk about reason we are talking about consciousness at a level that is best described by the psychological sciences. <

    Agreed, but phenomenal consciousness isn't just about reason, and it is best described / understood at the interface btw neuro and social sciences. And certainly not via the mystery mongering parlayed by the likes of Chalmers (or Nagel, not to keep picking on just one target).

    > Biology is NOT historical in the proper sense of the word. History is a record of the doings or actions of human beings. <

    I don't know what it means to be "properly" historical. Biology is recognized by both philosophers of science and biologists as a historical science. Good enough for me.

    > How can a biologist predict human behavior by biology alone if people can do that? <

    Who said anything about prediction? I'm talking about explanations. In science, those are not the same thing (though they are related, to a point).

    > The fact that there are these three levels of explanation is evidence of transcendence. <

    I think you are using that word in a different way from my understanding. Are you sure you are not talking instead about emergence?

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  20. Chalmers:

    "Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C?"

    Massimo:

    > That is precisely the sort of thing that neurobiology is after. And the answer will only come from there, if it will come...As you guessed, I think the problem of qualia is a subset of the others, or it is a consequence of the existence of the others.<

    So you and Chalmers agree that the problem of consciousness is explaining qualia, it's just that he thinks it's different from, and harder than, explaining functions, whereas you think not. Since, unlike Chalmers, you think it's eminently reasonable that neurobiology (and only neurobiology) will solve the problem, perhaps you could point us to your favorite (proto, quasi) hypothesis. My representational (not necessarily biological) proto-hypothesis, which draws on Thomas Metzinger's work and might get us in the vicinity of qualia, is at www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm

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  21. Amazing discussion. Unlike simple organisms which bump around in a puddle, higher organisms exist in a bigger environment and can enable very nimble and complex movement. Although some of us weigh over two hundred pounds, only three pounds of neural tissue create this incredible model of the world and enact all forms of complex behavior. The Stanford article gives a great discussion Phenomenological Approaches To Self-Consciousness. All mammals seem to engage in the Pre-Reflective State but humans have the amazing ability to "turn their frontal lobes around" and engage in all of this introspection and amazing modal arguments. I'm always amazed by Dennett that when he gives answers to questions like qualia he goes into that Pre-Reflective state with the OH WELL expression, something you rarely see Chalmers do.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/self-consciousness-phenomenological/

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  22. @ Massimo

    > If you only read carefully what I write you wouldn't ask this sort of question. First, Dennett does *not*, as far as I know, think that the hard problem is a category mistake. <

    Dennett thinks that the hard problem of consciousness (or "qualia") is a "conceptual mistake." He compares qualia with the concept of the "elan vital" (what he calls the "hard problem of vitalism").

    "Our vitalist can surely ask the same dreary question: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by life? Chalmers says that this would be a conceptual mistake on the part of the vitalist, and I agree, but he needs to defend his claim that his counterpart [qualia] is not a conceptual mistake as well." (source: "Facing Backwards on the Problem of Consciousness" by Daniel Dennett)

    > Second, as a consequence, it makes perfect sense for me to reject his position that consciousness is akin to an illusion (he is actually ambiguous about that, since he is not a straight eliminativist like Churchland). <

    Dennett's argument is that the hard problem is a "conceptual mistake" which is essentially the same argument as yours. (You call it a category mistake; he calls it a conceptual mistake. I see no meaningful difference between the two.)

    In the video, you employed the technical terms: access-consciousness (A-conciousness) and phenomenal-consciousness (P-consciousness). A-consciousness is basically information processing (what you referred to as "intelligence" in a previous blog post). P-consciousness is subjective experience or qualia (what you referred to as "understanding" in a previous blog post). Dennett has taken a strictly functional view of consciousness. As such, he embraces (at least tacitly) the concept of A-consciousness while explicitly denying the validity of the concept of P-consciousness or qualia. This is why many characterize him as denying consciousness. You also deny the validity of qualia. (You can't have it both ways. You can't argued against the validity of qualia and then argue: "Oh, by the way, consciousness (qualia) is no illusion." It makes no sense at all!)

    "The most common versions [of eliminative materialism] are eliminativism about propositional attitudes, as expressed by Paul and Patricia Churchland,[7] and eliminativism about qualia (subjective experience), as expressed by Daniel Dennett and Georges Rey.[2] These philosophers often appeal to an introspection illusion." (source: Wikipedia: Eliminative materialism)

    > You are assuming that there is only one way to evolve a stimulus-response system. <

    No, I have not made such an assumption. If you believe that the hard problem (qualia or P-consciousness) is not valid, then you qualify as a functionalist (someone who embraces only the concept of A-consciousness) by default.

    I am not asking you to explain why more functional abilities (what you call "intelligence") were naturally selected. I'm asking you to explain why awareness itself (what you call "understanding") was naturally selected. Because it is clear that your concept of intelligence (which can be simulated by a computer programmer) does not require your concept of understanding to function.

    > Simply considering the difference between plants (no brains) and animals (brains) should obviously refute your assumption. <

    This is an evasive ploy, not an explanation.

    By the way, Charles Darwin argued that the "radicle...acts as a brain" in plants.

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  23. Massimo: "I understand you are trying to be sarcastic, but neither your tone nor especially your content is actually helping the discussion. Try again."

    Okay, let me try again. Yes, I was being sarcastic, but I felt you were being glibly dismissive in your comments to the passage I quoted. Perhaps that was not your intent. I quoted Carman (despite his studies of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) because of the comments on Dennett and Searle. If you felt that, in doing so, I was not meaningfully contributing to your post, you didn't have to post the quote.

    I happen to agree with you regarding the easy/hard question distinction. I also think you explained what a category mistake in your discussion of colors and triangles. However, I think you are mistaken when applying this to Chalmers's contention. I fail to see how there is a category error when discussing "human" consciousness and "human" experience (which are rather entwined since we metabolically expend ourselves trying to separate the two). You say you "unpack" them. But I think otherwise.

    Churchland is at least transparently honest enough to know when she is faced with a singularity, so to speak. Both Dennett ("illusion") and Searle ("the appearance is the reality") are drawing cards from Eastern thinking without providing attribution.

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  24. Tom,

    > Since, unlike Chalmers, you think it's eminently reasonable that neurobiology (and only neurobiology) will solve the problem, perhaps you could point us to your favorite (proto, quasi) hypothesis. <

    Not really. Like Chalmers, I don't think neuroscience is even close to proposing a reasonable hypothesis here. But like Searle, I suspect neuroscientists would do better to begin with truly "simple" things, like color perception, and let an explanation of consciousness emerge little by little from the accumulated understanding of how the brain works.

    Alastair,

    > Dennett thinks that the hard problem of consciousness (or "qualia") is a "conceptual mistake." He compares qualia with the concept of the "elan vital" <

    There is an ambiguity there. Qualia as a, ahem, qualitatively distinct phenomenon are indeed a category mistake, as I maintain too. But there is no question that we do have phenomenal consciousness, whatever you want to call that, and that biological phenomenon needs explanation. And that explanation will only come from neurobiology.

    > You can't have it both ways. You can't argued against the validity of qualia and then argue: "Oh, by the way, consciousness (qualia) is no illusion." It makes no sense at all! <

    As I just explained, I can and I do. And it should be clear that there is no contradiction as soon as you distinguish qualia qua qualitatively different phenomenon from, say, perception, and qualia as simply a label attached to the experience of phenomenal consciousness. The first one is a category / conceptual mistake; the former is an undeniable part of the human experience that requires scientific explanation.

    > I am not asking you to explain why more functional abilities (what you call "intelligence") were naturally selected. I'm asking you to explain why awareness itself (what you call "understanding") was naturally selected. <

    But for me awareness *is* a functional ability!

    > Charles Darwin argued that the "radicle...acts as a brain" in plants. <

    A metaphor, at best. And as a plant biologist I can assure you that Darwin was wrong on this one.

    Thomas,

    > I fail to see how there is a category error when discussing "human" consciousness and "human" experience <

    That isn't the contrast I'm making. The contrast is between the experience itself and the biological mechanisms that make that experience possible. The latter are a matter for neurobiology, but it makes no sense to then ask *in addition* that the explanation of the experience somehow generates another experience. I'm honestly having a hard time understanding why people are having such difficulties seeing the difference (fortunately, I don't think I'm deluded since plenty of others to see the difference, and deploy arguments similar to my own).

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    1. Massimo:

      "Like Chalmers, I don't think neuroscience is even close to proposing a reasonable hypothesis here."

      But there *are* reasonable if embryonic hypotheses for the "easy" problems:

      - the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
      - the integration of information by a cognitive system;
      - the reportability of mental states;
      - the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
      the focus of attention;
      - the deliberate control of behavior
      - the difference between wakefulness and sleep

      Since there's not even a proto-hypothesis you can point to for explaining qualia, why isn't justly characterized as the hard problem?

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    2. @ Massimo

      > But for me awareness *is* a functional ability! <

      But the problem is that you cannot articulate what exactly that functional ability is. (Because being aware, in and of itself, exhibits no causal efficacy.) What exactly does awareness itself do? What exactly is its function?

      The only possible function that we can ascribe to consciousness is free will...something that entails an element of randomness and spontaneity...something that cannot be reduced to a strictly mechanistic explanation...something that cannot be simulated by a digital computer (not even in theory). And since materialists are disinclined to believe in free will, they are forced by logical consistency to embrace epiphenomenalism.

      The only place in the physical sciences where we can possibly invoke consciousness in order to furnish us with some kind of explanation for observed phenomena is in quantum mechanics. We can argue that "consciousness collapses the wavefunction." (That is what consciousness does. That is its only function. It makes a free choice from an abstract realm of possibilities.)

      > A metaphor, at best. And as a plant biologist I can assure you that Darwin was wrong on this one. <

      You have already gone on record and ascribed intelligence to plants (see "Three and a half thought experiments in philosophy of mind"). So, based on your response, it would appear that you do not believe that it is necessary to have a brain in order to exhibit intelligent behavior. Interesting.

      > There is an ambiguity there. <

      The only ambiguity here is whether Dennett and you are willing to take your "functional view" of consciousness and of life to its logical conclusion...namely, that it implies "panpsychism" and/or "animism." (IMHO, the "hard problem of consciousness" is the same problem as the "hard problem of life." Neither Dennett nor you can tell us what exactly constitutes consciousness or what exactly constitutes life. My guess is that both are inextricably linked.)

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    3. Hi Massimo and Alastair,

      Much as Alastair irritated me in a previous thread with accusations that I am a creationist of the mind simply because I think human agency exists (misunderstanding what I mean by this, I feel), I think he's pretty much correct on this topic (except that I think Dennett is pretty much on the money with regard to consciousness while Alastair obviously does not).

      Massimo, I understand you are fed up with the Chinese Room debates, but I would ask you to clarify one simple thing which I think is causing this conversation to repeatedly move in circles and get nowhere.

      Do you think it is possible to have human level ability without phenomenal consciousness? If yes, then awareness and phenomenal consciousness cannot have been selected for because they are incidental to ability. If no, then the Chinese Room is an impossibility for you because it entails human-level ability without having phenomenal consciousness in your eyes.

      This in my view is the source of all this disagreement and confusion, so it might be very helpful if you explained your views on this question.

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  25. All,

    thanks for the discussion, this will be my last comment on this thread, for the usual reasons of limited time...

    Tom,

    > But there *are* reasonable if embryonic hypotheses for the "easy" problems ... Since there's not even a proto-hypothesis you can point to for explaining qualia, why isn't justly characterized as the hard problem? <

    I think the term “hard” here may be used ambiguously. Nobody disagrees that the problem of phenomenal consciousness is harder to solve than the other ones you list (and, indeed, I don’t think it will be solved until we come up with more than embryonic ideas about those first). But what Chalmers means by “hard” is qualitatively different. He explicitly says that even after science will have all the facts in there will still be a hard problem of consciousness. He advocates a radically different type of approach, about the nature of which of course he is pretty much silent, just like Nagel.

    Alastair,

    > the problem is that you cannot articulate what exactly that functional ability is. <

    The ability to reflect on one’s own thinking, deliberating instead of just reacting instinctively.

    > since materialists are disinclined to believe in free will, they are forced by logical consistency to embrace epiphenomenalism. <

    As I’ve made clear many times, I am agnostic on this. I don’t think the free will issue has been settled at all, and I am certainly not an epiphenomenalist.

    > The only place in the physical sciences where we can possibly invoke consciousness in order to furnish us with some kind of explanation for observed phenomena is in quantum mechanics <

    That’s purely speculative. But be my guest, speculate.

    > You have already gone on record and ascribed intelligence to plants <

    You are deluded. What I said is that plants behave in an intelligent manner, and I explained where that comes from: natural selection. If you remember, I made a clear distinction btw intelligence in that sense and intelligence in the sense of understanding. But you keep conveniently to ignore my distinctions in order to make your points.

    > The only ambiguity here is whether Dennett and you are willing to take your "functional view" of consciousness and of life to its logical conclusion...namely, that it implies "panpsychism" and/or "animism." <

    It does not such thing.

    > Neither Dennett nor you can tell us what exactly constitutes consciousness or what exactly constitutes life. My guess is that both are inextricably linked. <

    If you mean that one needs to be alive in order to be conscious, my response is: duh.

    DM,

    > Do you think it is possible to have human level ability without phenomenal consciousness? If yes, then awareness and phenomenal consciousness cannot have been selected for because they are incidental to ability. <

    What do you mean by “ability”? And how do you know that awareness and p-consciousness are “incidental” to it?

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      Disappointing that you've answered my question with a request for clarification if you're not coming back to this thread. I'll answer anyway in the hopes that you will come back to answer my question anyway.

      By ability, I mean ability in intellectual/information processing tasks, as illustrated in the Chinese Room. The ability to have a conversation, to learn, to solve problems, etc.

      I don't think that awareness and p-consciousness are incidental to ability, but they would be if you believed that it was possible to have ability without them, which is what I was asking you, and what you seem to imply by accepting the possibility of the Chinese Room while rejecting the awareness of such a room.

      So, do you think the CR is possible in principle? If so, would you say that it demonstrates human-level ability without consciousness? And if that is the case, how do you explain your position that consciousness is necessary for human-level ability?

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    2. @ Massimo

      > The ability to reflect on one’s own thinking, deliberating instead of just reacting instinctively. <

      I believe what you are attempting to do here is to make a distinction between instinctual behavior and learned behavior.

      Wikipedia defines "instinct" as "any behavior...[that] is performed without being based upon prior experience (that is, in the absence of learning), and is therefore an expression of innate biological factors."

      Wikipedia defines "learning" as "a goal-directed act. Learning is acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information." It also states that the "ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals and some machines."

      Computer scientists have already programmed computers with the capacity to exhibit learned behavior. However, no computer scientist (at least no deluded computer scientist) is claiming that any of these computers are experiencing consciousness. Why do you think that is?

      > As I’ve made clear many times, I am agnostic on this. I don’t think the free will issue has been settled at all, and I am certainly not an epiphenomenalist. <

      Belief in the mechanistic and materialistic worldview and belief in free will (libertarian) are incompatible beliefs. Perhaps, you have some kind of lurking belief in dualism that prevents you from grasping this simple fact.

      > That’s purely speculative. But be my guest, speculate. <

      It has nothing whatsoever to do with speculation. The only possible explanation for a spontaneous event is a free choice. Either that or magic. But it really amounts to the same thing. Doesn't it? It is completely mysterious. And we both know that you cannot furnish us with any mechanical explanation by virtue of the fact that a truly random event has no mechanical explanation by definition!

      > You are deluded. What I said is that plants behave in an intelligent manner, and I explained where that comes from: natural selection. If you remember, I made a clear distinction btw intelligence in that sense and intelligence in the sense of understanding. But you keep conveniently to ignore my distinctions in order to make your points. <

      If "plants behave in an intelligent manner" (your words, not mine), then you have ascribed intelligence to plants. No amount of personal attacks or spin-doctoring will change that.

      > It does not such thing. <

      Dennett ascribed "primordial points of views" to the first replicators. (A "point of view" presupposes consciousness.) That's flirting dangerously close with panpsychism. He makes this ascription because this is the logical conclusion of his functional view of consciousness. This is also explains why he does not have to explain why consciousness was naturally selected. (All organic-based information processing systems are conscious because that is what consciousness does...it processes information. All organic stimulus-response systems are conscious because that is what consciousness does...it responds to environmental stimuli.)

      "But, as we have seen, the point of view of a conscious observer is not identical to, but a sophisticated descendent of, the primordial points of view of the first replicators who divided their worlds into good and bad. (After all, even plants have points of view in this primordial sense.)" (source: pg. 176, "Consciousness Explained" by Daniel Dennett)

      > If you mean that one needs to be alive in order to be conscious, my response is: duh. <

      I mean that consciousness and life are inextricably-linked, You can't have one without the other and vice-versa.

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  26. I've posted a belated reply at http://www.siftingtothetruth.com/2014/01/08/massimo-pigliucci-is-wrong-on-the-hard-problem-of-consciousness/

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