by Massimo Pigliucci
For some time I have been noticing the emergence of a strange trinity of beliefs among my fellow skeptics and freethinkers: an increasing number of them, it seems, don’t believe that they can make decisions (the free will debate), don’t believe that they have moral responsibility (because they don’t have free will, or because morality is relative — take your pick), and they don’t even believe that they exist as conscious beings because, you know, consciousness is an illusion.
As I have argued recently, there are sensible ways to understand human volition (a much less metaphysically loaded and more sensible term than free will) within a lawful universe (Sean Carroll agrees and, interestingly, so does my sometime opponent Eliezer Yudkowsky). I also devoted an entire series on this blog to a better understanding of what morality is, how it works, and why it ain’t relative (within the domain of social beings capable of self-reflection). Let’s talk about consciousness then.
The oft-heard claim that consciousness is an illusion is an extraordinary one, as it relegates to an entirely epiphenomenal status what is arguably the most distinctive characteristic of human beings, the very thing that seems to shape and give meaning to our lives, and presumably one of the major outcome of millions of years of evolution pushing for a larger brain equipped with powerful frontal lobes capable to carry out reasoning and deliberation.
Still, if science tells us that consciousness is an illusion, we must bow to that pronouncement and move on (though we apparently cannot escape the illusion, partly because we have no free will). But what is the extraordinary evidence for this extraordinary claim? To begin with, there are studies of (very few) “split brain” patients which seem to indicate that the two hemispheres of the brain — once separated — display independent consciousness (under experimental circumstances), to the point that they may even try to make the left and right sides of the body act antagonistically to each other.
But there are a couple of obvious issues here that block an easy jump from observations on those patients to grand conclusions about the illusoriness of consciousness. First off, the two hemispheres are still conscious, so at best we have evidence that consciousness is divisible, not that it is an illusion (and that subdivision presumably can proceed no further than n=2). Second, these are highly pathological situations, and though they certainly tell us something interesting about the functioning of the brain, they are informative mostly about what happens when the brain does not function. As a crude analogy, imagine sawing a car in two, noticing that the front wheels now spin independently of the rear wheels, and concluding that the synchronous rotation of the wheels in the intact car is an “illusion.” Not a good inference, is it?
Let’s pursue this illusion thing a bit further. Sometimes people also argue that physics tells us that the way we perceive the world is also an illusion. After all, apparently solid objects like tables are made of quarks and the forces that bind them together, and since that’s the fundamental level of reality (well, unless you accept string theory) then clearly our senses are mistaken.
But our senses are not mistaken at all, they simply function at the (biologically) appropriate level of perception of reality. We are macroscopic objects and need to navigate the world as such. It would be highly inconvenient if we could somehow perceive quantum level phenomena directly, and in a very strong sense the solidity of a table is not an illusion at all. It is rather an emergent property of matter that our evolved senses exploit to allow us to sit down and have a nice meal at that table without worrying about the zillions of subnuclear interactions going on about it all the time.
What about the neurobiological research that seems to show quite conclusively that consciousness is just a post-facto add-on to our decision making? Don’t we know that “we” don’t actually make our decisions, that it’s all going on subconsciously?
To begin with, I find it bizarre to talk as if unconscious thinking isn’t part of what “we” do. Who else is doing it? “We” are made of our conscious and unconscious processing of information, of our bodies, and of our interactions with the social and physical world. That’s who “we” are, and to limit the definition of “we” to just the conscious part is misguided.
Moreover, a closer look at the evidence does not bear out the increasingly persistent myth that “it’s all unconscious anyway.” Here very interesting work has been done by Alfred Mele at Florida State University. In his Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will, Mele critically examines claims to the effect that, for instance, our brains make decisions before we become conscious of them, or that intentions don’t play a role in producing actions. He finds the evidence for such extraordinary claims extraordinarily deficient and — to the contrary — lines up evidence from neurobiology for the conclusion that consciousness plays a major role in (some, most certainly not all) of our decisions, particularly when it comes to the sort of decisions we normally do attribute to conscious deliberation (like whether to change career, say, not just when to push a button on a computer screen, a la Libet experiments).
One more thing strikes me as strange from the point of view of the “consciousness is an illusion” school of thought. Its supporters have no account of why this illusion would evolve. If we take seriously the commonsensical idea that consciousness aids deliberative reasoning, then we see that it has a (important) biological function. But if it is just an illusion, what’s it for? Now, as a biologist I am perfectly aware that sometimes in evolution shit just happens (“spandrels,” as Stephen Gould and Richard Lewontin referred to structures that seem adaptive but are in fact byproducts of evolution). But if a large amount of metabolic energy used up by the brain goes into maintaining the illusion of consciousness surely one wants an answer to the question of why did natural selection bring this situation about or — if consciousness is a spandrel — why does it persist in the face of what should be strong selection against it. We know that when organisms don’t need complex structures/functions natural selection quickly eliminates them (for instance, in the case of eyes for cave animals).
It won’t do to claim that the illusion of consciousness is there because that way we feel in control and suffer less psychological stress. First, this is clearly an ad hoc and hard to test hypothesis (the evolutionary part of it, not the psychological: we do know that people become stressed by perceived lack of control). Second, the problem is only removed by one step: why would we evolve a psychological system that causes stress when we perceive a loss of control? Most other animal species seem to get along in life just well without these psychological mechanisms, so clearly something is missing from the “illusion” account.
Seems to me, therefore, that the increasingly fashionable idea that consciousness is an illusion is both too quick and not actually supported by a careful reading of the neurobiological literature, and skeptics and freethinkers would do well to pause and reflect on it before continuing to spread it. Of course that assumes that you can reflect on things in a way that is conducive to decisions implementing what your conscious will wants to do.
caro MP, when confronted with the question: an illusion of what? (is consciousness) endorsers cant answer. Just re-watched a Ned Block video where he advises not to say consciousness is an illusion, to potential Nobel Prize winners.ReplyDelete
Great post, Massimo. Shit happens, as you say, and it also dos frequently happen in philophers' work. And in this post you do a great crap-cleaning job. Please excuse my French.ReplyDelete
Consciousness produces the illusions that we are conscious of.ReplyDelete
Yes! When I read the lengthy comments below, I am reminded of how our minds create false substance out of nothing to give the illusion of productive thinking. Nowhere do I find a decent examination of ourselves as sensory systems and as meaning-creation systems (or other fundamental questions.) I do believe the highest knowledge is that of the self. Assuming the self is 100% OK and going out to "learn" something of "reality" is simply going to yield nothing of real value without understanding the processing system. We humans are a system with a basic purpose: procreate and die. The rest are interesting details, but have no meaning beyond that which we give them. I don't think anyone should become a monk and waste life in self-contemplation, but a good amount of doubt would be a good start, then ask meaningful questions about how we sense, how we create meaning, how we are ruled by emotional systems, etc. Until the instrument of detection is well-investigated, any "knowledge" acquired is of little value. Everything I've stated is open to be corrected at any time. Thanks for your wise comment, and your time!Delete
Thanks. That last edit of my post was the last straw. I'm outta here.ReplyDelete
"...in a very strong sense the solidity of a table is not an illusion at all. It is rather an emergent property of matter that our evolved senses..."ReplyDelete
Isn't it just a lack of information due to the low bandwidth capacity of our sensory organs (not to mention the impossibility of actually computing those information)?
Isn't a lack of information the reason why we perceive the Earth to be round from afar and flat at a close-up range?
No idea what you are talking about. I cannot edit posts, only accept them or reject them, and your latest have all gone through.
I think what people mean when they say that is the absolute notion of conciousness associated with dualist ideas. I am clearly concious, the "perfection" of the conciousness is an illusion.ReplyDelete
Coyne for instance seems pretty intent on insisting on "common" dualist terminology so he can convince people to reject it. This both solves and creates issues with confusing jargon.
Agreed that consciousness is real, not so sure about the table, but a redefinition of reality is in order. Would propose that reality is that which is real to an object. Therefore, imaginations are also real, as real as the table, anyway. The problems posed by the redefinition are myriad. For example how do you distinguish an imagined table from a 'real' one. Answer: you by yourself do not, and in fact cannot. But what you can do is use the opinions of others to move forward. So if three people sitting around a table agree that they are sitting around a table, for all intents and purposes they are sitting around a real table. I hear these silly arguments like "Well what happens if you happen to believe there is no table, then your table-mate gets upset, proceeds to pick up the table and swings it at you, sending you flying. What's the story about the table then"?ReplyDelete
Answer: You probably change your beliefs as you pick yourself up, or else convert the table into a imagined baseball bat, but that proves the table exists as much as that asinine "I refute it thus" argument.
The consciousness questions are akin to the free will questions, and everyone from Massimo Pigliucci to David Chalmers now seems to agree we have a problem, a problem about duality and physicality, and there are few solutions at least these days. In this regard, Chalmers is an Obama or maybe a bit to the left, Pigliucci is somewhere to the right of Romney, but definitely left of Gingrich.
I think about this junk all the time, and what I've come up with is:
(1) assign properties to consciousness,
(2) do like the QMers do - treat the thing like a particle, shut up and calculate. And it seems right that consciousness should reduce to a 'mathematical' point,
(3) Assign it some sense of reach or ownership that extends to what we would call physical space.
(4) Assign it to all matter at every level. Please to toss the boundaries between plants and tadpoles
That's just my opinion, and its there because nobody else has anything workable or useable. Happy to throw it out if you have something more functional.
The Universal Consciousness' crowd seems to be on track with much of their ideology, but their message is muddled and does not translate well to everyday life, that they are easy prey for skeptics - see Chopra/Shermer/Nightline.
I think the charge of woo to lots of this stuff is fair because it is just plain different and also lets journeymen with the gift of BS become experts, and rapidly eclipse those who stay in trenches and just plain work. I like to laugh at it sometimes too, but on the non-woo side of things I also laugh at the attempts of skeptics etc to build moral and ethical foundations that do not take into account the sad fact that we are animals, animals who misbehave, and fail to to see that the evils of religion are really the evils made possible by those god-ful moral systems they are trying to replicate without the god stories. Not saying gods didn't do horrible things to each other, just that the things that keep people awake at night are more about human misbehavior in the name of religion than the stuff that 'really' happened in the whatever 'myth' is in question.
What does it mean for consciousness to be an illusion? Doesn't the word illusion imply some gap between what's real and what we perceive? But if that's the case it doesn't seem like we can talk about illusions without presupposing consciousness.ReplyDelete
"An illusion of what?" is a good question, artikcat. Another in a similar vein is: if consciousness is an illusion, then illusions exist, but how can illusions exist without the existence of something that experiences them? How are subjectless illusions possible? In another vein, what is the denial of the existence of consciousness specifically a denial of? In itself, denial of consciousness is a rather nebulous position. Could it be clarified as the position that all experiential reports are false? To illustrate, perhaps consciousness-denial is the claim that when I say that I hear music, it is false to say the I hear music; when I see a tree, it is false to say that I see a tree; when I feel a pain, it is false to say that I feel a pain; and so on for all experiential reports. Now, when I hear music and say that I hear music, how could the consciousness-denier prove to me that my utterance is false? He or she couldn't simply prove that it's an illusion that I am hearing music, as that is consistent with consciousness existing. He or she must prove that my experience of hearing music does not exist. But what would it mean for my experience of hearing music not to exist? Anyway, suppose I agree that my experience of hearing music does not exist, what do I make of my experience of believing that my experience of hearing music does not exist? I suppose it must not exist either.ReplyDelete
The denial of consciousness cannot be an empirical claim because the existence of experience, observations, is the first thing that empiricism confirms, or presumes. Thus the position must be a subtle conceptual point of some kind. The problem with this, however, is that coherence with what we already believe is the only criterion of truth of conceptual claims, and consciousness-denial hardly seems coherent with what we already believe. So what does consciousness-denial fit with such that fitting with it makes it a compelling position?
I think that consciousnesses really exist, but our interpretations of what it is may be wrong.ReplyDelete
Witch is the gap between non-consciousness and consciousness? And, speaking of volition, Where is the gap between social and physical conditions and freely acting?
I think those are the important questions in this theme.
DaveS - The definition 'reality is that which is real to an object' simply moves the question 'what is reality?' to 'what is real?', which is not a great distance. Personally I thinking it is hopeless to try to give 'reality' an analytic definition. To explain, in my view, 'reality', along with, e.g., 'belief', 'desire', 'intent', 'truth', 'time', 'space', and 'existence', is an unanalysable concept due to being a conceptual primitive; there is no set of concepts adequate to define it. What we may still do though is characterize 'reality' in terms of its non-definitional relations to other important concepts. For example, we might say that reality is that which makes beliefs true or false. If asked what beliefs are, we might say that a belief is that which is made true or false by reality. If asked what truth and falsity are, we might say that true and false are what reality makes beliefs. It is true that this set of statements is circular, but still information is given about how these concepts, which, being primitive, have no other means of definition, fit together. We might say the statements identify a "primitive circle" in our conceptual system, and that thus they give a kind of contextual definition of the involved concepts. Note that concepts do not need to be analyzable to be meaningful; analyzability is not what makes concepts meaningful (that idea leads to an infinite regress of conceptual meaningfulness); analyses only reduce.ReplyDelete
Don't all three questions you mention simply come down to whether one accepts or rejects that humans are no different than the rest of the natural world....subject to deterministic, cause/effect explanation, with no exceptions? Those that fully accept this view the fancy footwork of the resisters as no different than the last gasp defenders of the existence of god.
All of the redefining of words in the struggle to preserve human freedom, dignity and esteem is very clear when viewed from a philosophical distance.
Though I certainly see your point, there does seem to me an understandable clinging to perception, which to me negates an objective view of the situation. A prominent pre-frontal cortex is no more a case for consciousness and freewill than any other organ, it is only an example of how human brains have evolved that unique survival tool. I do think there is something that we can define as consciousness, as we can also define the inverse, whether it is in sleep states or under anesthesia, but I see no reason why consciousness need be tied to Free-will, or be something that is uniquely human. As someone who is a physicist who makes super resolution microscopes I also find your description that we are are given the senses we need as interesting. I think we are given what we need for ourselves as we would have progressed without technology. This is the same with our perception of free-will, and possibly consciousness. We need to revise those, as you acknowledge, if that is what science is teaching us. For now it makes thought provoking conversation. thanks as always...ReplyDelete
//..an increasing number of them, it seems, don’t believe that they can make decisions (the free will debate), don’t believe that they have moral responsibility (because they don’t have free will, or because morality is relative — take your pick), and they don’t even believe that they exist as conscious beings because, you know, consciousness is an illusion.//ReplyDelete
I think of those people as intellectual perverts. Great post, Massimo! You're my role model.
@pmpaolini: Agreed - much of this is conceptual.ReplyDelete
With you that the distance from 'reality' to 'real' is short, but was trying to express that the reality could be defined one way by me and another way by you - for anything either of us choose. More like a switch from the word 'real' to the phrase 'real for...' or a switch from 'objective' to 'subjective'.
Why do you refer to them as perverts? Very strange word to use for describing individuals that hold beliefs that seem threatening to you.
Massimo, I'm wondering who has actually claimed that consciousness is an illusion. When I looked, the only well-known writer I found was Susan Blackmore, who has written that "To say that consciousness is an illusion is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but that it is not what it seems to be―more like a mirage or a visual illusion. And if consciousness is not what it seems, no wonder it’s proving such a mystery."ReplyDelete
Daniel Dennett seems to come close to saying consciousness is an illusion, though I'm not sure he's actually said so. Still, it seems his thoughts on the subject have a great deal of influence.
Sorry, what definition/aspect of consciousness are we talking about here?ReplyDelete
Nick, Dennett has been quoted as saying: "Consciousness is an illusion of the brain, for the brain, by the brain." (actually thrwon to one Evangelical Theological Society" (??really..)ReplyDelete
Consciousness seems to involve as a result of „communication“ between various parts of the brain.ReplyDelete
There also seems to be a “market” or “auction” to which part of these parallel ongoing communications between parts of brain “emerge victorious”. Victorious I would call these that have the final determined influence on resulting decision-making.
If this is so, consciousness must refer to a concept. These concepts might be quite different, more simple or quite complex.
When my hand touches the burning candle there will be sent the signal:“hot” . This will be communicated to my “state of hand” and I will consciously remove either the candle or my hand, depending what ever makes more sense.
This type of consciousness refers to my state of body, nothing else.
What about a completely different situation: I read my morning Google news and learn about the new alliance Europe tries to build up with African countries at the Climate Conference in Durban to not pass the point of no return in warming up our atmosphere
There will also be a signal communicated from one part of the brain to another, signaling, it is getting hotter. And some kind of decisionmaking process will start.
This type of consciousness refers to my state of body on a very low degree. It refers instead to rather abstract concepts: my children’s future, state of economy, oil-price etc.
One needn’t be a Dualist to relate state of consciousness to an “I”. Only “I” in many cases is not bounded by the biological corpus of the human being.
I tend to see consciousness as a sophisticated communicational and computational tool that is not limited to the “I” of a human being. Reverse to “You are not your brain” (Alva Noe) I would say “Consciousness is not You”. It is a tool that allows communication between both the “individual” participating parts within a larger conceptual structure, groups, between singles and groups and between all of these and the structure itself.
"But if a large amount of metabolic energy used up by the brain goes into maintaining the illusion of consciousness surely one wants an answer to the question of why did natural selection bring this situation about or — if consciousness is a spandrel — why does it persist in the face of what should be strong selection against it."ReplyDelete
The metabolic energy is used to maintain the neural processes *associated* with consciousness, which processes are very likely functional, given the parsimony of natural selection. But consciousness itself - phenomenal experience - isn't obviously functional, since there's no theory on offer about how phenomenal states add to neural states in producing behavior: the problem of mental (and in particular phenomenal) causation. Of course, if one *identifies* consciousness with its associated brain processes, then consciousness inherits the causal powers of those processes. But that identity is hotly contested in the philosophy of mind, which is to say the "hard problem" of consciousness is yet unsolved. But if we at least acknowledge that consciousness is essentially private, qualitative and subjective, in contrast to the brain states studied by cognitive neuroscience, then the problem of phenomenal causation might become tractable, http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm
I think "consciousness is an illusion" is a way too broad/vague statement to write a rebuttal about without concrete references for who said that in what context, talking about which aspect or interpretation of consciousness.ReplyDelete
> Isn't it just a lack of information due to the low bandwidth capacity of our sensory organs (not to mention the impossibility of actually computing those information)? <
Only if the goal of our senses is to perceive the quantum level, which it clearly isn't. Trust me, if they did, it would be impossible for you to live a normal life. Our senses evolved to deal with reality at the appropriate level of complexity for beings like us.
the next time you compare me with Gingrich or Romney I'll shoot you (metaphorically ;-)
More seriously, unlike Chalmers, I am not conceding any type of dualism, at least not in the sense in which the word is usually invoked. I don't think there is anything mysterious in the fact that we currently don't have a neurobiological theory of consciousness. Consciousness is a result of physical processes going on in the brain (and of their interactions with the outside world). No spooky stuff needed.
> Don't all three questions you mention simply come down to whether one accepts or rejects that humans are no different than the rest of the natural world....subject to deterministic, cause/effect explanation, with no exceptions? <
No. Noboby here (and certainly not me) is arguing for human beings to be exempted from causality, but that doesn't exhaust the question of human volition, how it works and what its limits are. As for determinism, as I have explained in a separate post, the question is not at all settled, and I remain agnostic about it.
> Though I certainly see your point, there does seem to me an understandable clinging to perception, which to me negates an objective view of the situation. <
Not sure what you mean. Our perception is ultimately all we have, even when it comes to science (we still need to perceive whatever telescopes and microscopes tell us). I do think consciousness and volition (I'm trying to avoid using the loaded "free will" term in favor of a scientifically more tractable one) are intimately connected, but I also agree that likely other species of animals have (degrees of) consciousness.
> I'm wondering who has actually claimed that consciousness is an illusion. <
In one guise or another: Blackmore (as you say), Dennett, Coyne, and Rosenberg. I suspect Harris holds a belief along those lines too, particularly because of his Buddhist leanings.
> The metabolic energy is used to maintain the neural processes *associated* with consciousness, which processes are very likely functional, given the parsimony of natural selection. But consciousness itself - phenomenal experience - isn't obviously functional. <
Perhaps, but I'd like to know why exactly said neural correlates need to be in place to begin with, or need to entail consciousness. As for consciousness itself not being functional, I find that hard to believe, considering how crucial it is to human beings. Try going through life without phenomenal experience, if you can.
"I'd like to know why exactly said neural correlates need to be in place to begin with..."ReplyDelete
Probably because they serve specific functions having to do with information integration that support learning, flexible behavior, and forming memories - some details and citations at http://www.naturalism.org/kto.htm#Neuroscience
"...or need to entail consciousness." This of course is the hard problem. I follow Metzinger and others in hypothesizing that it's our being representational systems that entails consciousness, http://www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm
"As for consciousness itself not being functional, I find that hard to believe, considering how crucial it is to human beings. Try going through life without phenomenal experience, if you can."
As I suggested in my earlier comment, it's hard to see how consciousness *itself* - phenomenal experience - adds to what its neural correlates do in controlling behavior. For instance, the experience of pain doesn't figure in neuroscientific accounts of behavior, only pain's neural correlates. Of course, if you *identify* pain with its correlates, then of course it functions in behavior control, but that identity is controversial: to my knowledge there's no accepted theory of how they could be one and the same thing. But as I suggest in "Respecting privacy," being skeptical about phenomenal (mental) causation when formulating neuroscientific explanations of behavior leaves intact the undeniable 1st person subjective reality of having phenomenal feels like pain, and *experiencing* them as causally effective, http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm
Thank you for the response. I wasn't' clear. What I meant by perception takes into account false perception, or illusion. Whether we perceive an experiment (microscope etc), we count on its objectivity (when analysis software is used), which our brain inherently doesn't have. Still, thank for the response, and I enjoy the conversation with Tom Clarke.ReplyDelete
I am not clear on what 'volition' means. What do you mean by 'volition' when you use the term?
Maybe it's because I'm a lay person with limited time to ponder such matters, but I tend to think of consciousness (C) as a brute fact, of which I am a lot more confident (viz. that it effectively occurs) than I am of any particular scientific claim - including those re: the neural correlates of C, or C'. So, of course, I find that any claim that C is an illusion, whereas only C' is real, begging for an explanation, to say the least.ReplyDelete
As for the purported "hard problem" (or explanatory gap), philosopher Ned Block made sense to me when he suggested that C and C' are simply different kinds of concepts - such that, if we face with a dualism of any kind here, it is a dualism of concepts (e.g. phenomenal vs. physical - cf. heat and molecular kinetic energy), rather than of substances or properties.
My impression is that it's more common to believe that the self is an illusion, rather than that consciousness is an illusion. That seems to me a separate claim.ReplyDelete
Perhaps my impression is such because I myself think that the self is an illusion, based on my absorption of the Buddha, Hume and Nietzsche. (Perhaps "sometimes useful fiction" might be a better description than "illusion"?)
Anyway, what would you say, Massimo, about this idea that "The self is an illusion" (granting that self probably requires a bit of unpacking)?
More generally, I question whether "self" or "will" are robust notions.
Well, as a theist I tried to participate in this discussion but I was disallowed. So much more for pure inquiry into the truth.ReplyDelete
Does no one here have any spiritual experience?ReplyDelete
I hear a lot of brain chatter...SAK
Mental chatter and speculation about Selves is just that. Lose the racket and perhaps the vision will improve. Read the living thoughts of Gotama by Coomeraswamy. Therein, bona fide spiritual experiences are indicated. The ONLYReplyDelete
problem is....that You will HAVE to have HAD
certain experiences in your own life in order to acknowledge corroboration of Gotama's words. None on this board do...hence the questions...
not sure what you mean by "disallowed." As I explained several times, I let all comments through except for death threats and insults.
Steve A. Ray:ReplyDelete
Define "spiritual experience" and I'll let you know if I believe that I've had one or not.
Regardless, whether or not that shared experience supports any particular Buddhist doctrine (as opposed to that of some other religion or philosophy) would seem to depend entirely on how I interpret it.
DaveS - If the word 'reality' can't be defined, then it can't be defined differently by different people. Giving one's own definition to 'reality' might be like giving one's own definition of the word 'good'. Alluding to G.E. Moore's "open-question argument", just as one can consider any definition of 'good' and ask, 'but is what is referred to by the definition good?', one can consider any definition of 'reality' or 'real' and ask, 'but is what is referred to by the definition reality?' This shows that these words are impervious to definition; they have a fixed function in language that overrides any attempted special definition. Philosophically, all we can do with these words is be sure we use them in a coherent way (and coherent use is determined by their fixed function). Attempts to use 'reality' (as well as 'true') in a relativistic way (real-for, true-for) leads to incoherence; with regard to a relativistic theory of reality or truth, we can ask whether the theory must be real or true for everyone. Either answer is self-defeating.ReplyDelete
TheDudeDiogenes - I don't see how consciousness could be non-illusory without the self being non-illusory also. Consciousness requires an experiencing subject, and that experiencing subject is the self, or at least an aspect of the self. The alternative would require making sense of the notion of real consciousness with an illusory, or no, experiencing subject.
@Massimo - you used the s-word (spooky). Less than 90 years ago the guy who invented special and general relativity, likewise called a reasonably-sized chunk of quantum mechanics spooky too, and accused one of the leading inventors of QM of dabbling in mysticism. A peer of Bohr's actually conceded the mysticism charge with respect to locality, and accused Einstein of knowing nothing about mysticism!ReplyDelete
I won't ask what you mean by 'spooky', and assume you refer to the magical or spriritual. But given that some time has gone by since your last unambiguous comment on this, has your definition of 'physical' changed? Over a year ago, you concluded
with To recap: information is not a third type of thing outside of matter and energy (which are, of course, just two aspects of the same type of thing), and it therefore poses no problem to materialism. Also, talk of information does not require the presence or involvement of conscious minds, unless one wishes to talk about knowledge — the latter being a fairly uncontroversial and utterly non-mystical concept.
You allowed 'matter' and 'energy' to be physical things, but not 'information'. Are you still comfortable with the fungibility of matter and energy, and non-fungibility, say, of information and energy?
Rather than try to define 'reality', it seems more effective to ask the speaker how they are using the word in the stated proposition. It is their usage that makes the proposition potentially true or false. If we understand what the speaker is attempting to assert as true....that's all we need. We don't require a definition....as long as we are just interested in the truth or falsity of the proposition. So, if a person asserts that "there is no reality", for instance, we can simply ask him what he means by 'reality' in that particular assertion.
DJD - I agree with that, though it seems you took me to be endorsing trying to define 'reality' when my position was to opposite.ReplyDelete
> because they serve specific functions having to do with information integration that support learning, flexible behavior, and forming memories <
Well, that seems like special pleading without actual empirical evidence to suggest that one can functionally decouple consciousness from those other functions.
In general, it seems to me strange to argue that consciousness has no function, considering that we do deliberative thinking through it, for instance.
> I follow Metzinger and others in hypothesizing that it's our being representational systems that entails consciousness <
Again, entails in what sense, why? Certainly not logically so. Still talking about an epiphenomenon?
> it's hard to see how consciousness *itself* - phenomenal experience - adds to what its neural correlates do in controlling behavior. For instance, the experience of pain doesn't figure in neuroscientific accounts of behavior, only pain's neural correlates. <
More strange talk. Pain *is* the phenomenal experience *caused by* certain neural structures. Which means that awareness of pain is highly adaptive, as shown by the maladaptive phenotype of those few unfortunates who cannot feel pain.
> What do you mean by 'volition' when you use the term? <
What cognitive scientists mean: the ability to make decisions, some of which are implemented after reflection, others originates from subconscious thinking.
> what would you say, Massimo, about this idea that "The self is an illusion" (granting that self probably requires a bit of unpacking)? <
As people have argued above, to me self and consciousness are tightly bound up together, so if I don't think conscioussness is an illusion, neither is the self.
> I won't ask what you mean by 'spooky', and assume you refer to the magical or spriritual. <
> You allowed 'matter' and 'energy' to be physical things, but not 'information'. Are you still comfortable with the fungibility of matter and energy, and non-fungibility, say, of information and energy? <
Ah, excellent question. I need to reflect on this one a bit more. But I would at the very least distinguish information in the sense, of say, DNA sequence, and information in the sense of, for instance, what you read in the New York Times. Clearly the latter involve concepts and thoughts, the first one doesn't. So to the extent that I think concepts (like numbers) don't neatly fit the straight physicalist paradigm, then yes, that sort of information wouldn't either.
I'm going through a painfully long and detailed Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on physicalism, I might write more about this soon.
You say “Pain *is* the phenomenal experience *caused by* certain neural structures. Which means that awareness of pain is highly adaptive, as shown by the maladaptive phenotype of those few unfortunates who cannot feel pain.”
If, as you say, pain is caused by certain neural processes, it isn’t identical to them. So the question then becomes how pain as something other than neural processes contributes to behavior control and thus is adaptive. From a neuroscientific, physicalist standpoint, the neural processes do all the work – there’s no room or need for something besides them to account for behavior (causal closure). So it isn’t obvious how the feeling of pain (as distinct from its neural correlates) is functional from a physicalist standpoint, unless you identify pain with its correlates, which you don’t.
As far as I know there’s no account on offer for how the feeling of pain is produced by neural processes. Nor is there an account of how, once it’s produced, pain then interacts with neural processes to make its own contribution to behavior control - the problem of dualist interactionism. So it isn’t at all obvious how pain is functional from a dualist standpoint.
Of course, as I’ve said before, if you *identify* pain with its neural correlates, the dualist interactionism problem disappears: pain inherits all the causal powers of its correlates, hence is functional and adaptive. But that identity is controversial, and in fact you yourself don’t seem to buy it.
What’s pretty clear, given evidence cited at http://www.naturalism.org/kto.htm#Neuroscience , is that the neural structures *associated with* consciousness (phenomenal experience) do have important functional roles, so natural selection didn’t waste its time producing them. The big puzzle, of course, is why such structures and their functions should entail the existence of consciousness. That entailment, I suggest following Metzinger and others, might have both logical and functional components, see http://www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm#part5
OK, let's see if my Buddhist leanings can help:ReplyDelete
The question of what is self is a good place to start - if your unconscious is you, then what about your mitochondria? If they are you, then what about the e coli in your gut? If they are also you, then what about the plants and animals we are symbiotic with through agriculture (like fungi-farming ants)? Etc. I expect the line will be drawn between the mitochonrial (you) and the E coli (not you) because of cell walls etc.
Now let's go the other way: Do "you" control the sun? [no], do "you" control the wind? [no], do "you" control the division of your cells? [no], do "you" control the ph of your blood? [no], do "you" control the thoughts that appear in your consciousness? [if you think the answer is yes, then try to block all thoughts into your consciousness for even 60 seconds].
I wouldn't argue that consciousness is an illusion as in non-existent but I would argue that our understanding & perception of consciousness is massively biased (like our perception of a table being solid) for very practical reasons.
I do argue that free-will (the ability to use our consciousness to decide things) is an illusion. I also suggest that the free will illusion evolved because the feeling of authorship for actions is necessary to learn what to do and not to do - if you have no sense of authorship (of deciding) to touch a hot plate you can't prevent yourself from touching it twice. This also makes behavior modification & responsibility for behavior necessary, because we can learn, despite free will being an illusion.
Fun stuff to think about! Thanks again Massimo!
I'm confused. You said that Massimo "allowed 'matter' and 'energy' to be physical things, but not 'information'." You're claiming that Massimo thinks that information isn't physical? But in the post you cite, I understood him to be saying the very opposite.
I'm slightly surprised to see you draw a distinction between "concepts (like numbers)" and information. How would you propose that we distinguish between a number and a DNA sequence given that there's a one-to-one correspondence between natural numbers and possible DNA sequences. (This can be readily seen if one simply maps ACGT -> 1234 and reads the result as a quaternary numeral.)
I don't mean to disagree with you about this. In fact I'm sympathetic to (but agnostic regarding) certain flavors of mathematical platonism. But I'm a bit surprised to hear you express what sounds like the same sympathy; and I also have a hard time believing that whatever concepts of numbers we have do not amount to formal representations (in some way or another) of said numbers.
I suppose DNA doesn't "come with" concepts like addition, subtraction, etc.; but if one were to add the relevant formalisms, it's not immediately clear to me that the result would be any different from what we humans have access to.
I dunno, I'm wandering into speculative waters here, but I'm really curious what you have to say about the matter, either here or in a full post...
Mostly agreed, but would temper
Attempts to use 'reality' (as well as 'true') in a relativistic way (real-for, true-for) leads to incoherence
somewhat as the incoherence is only that which is not understood - realities may be harmonious.
@Massimo: Thks - looking forward to reading what you have to say about physicalism.
@Scott: How do you figure? If Massimo concludes that all information is as physical as toothbrushes, we have a pretty powerful argument for the proof of every god, religion, and apocalyptic prediction that ever roamed our flat-as-a-membrane earth. Why? Stuff is true if people say its true - end of story.
I think you are taking my comments to lean toward some kind of dualism, which is not the case:
> If, as you say, pain is caused by certain neural processes, it isn’t identical to them. So the question then becomes how pain as something other than neural processes contributes to behavior control and thus is adaptive. <
There is a difference between a process and its outcome, right? X is caused / made possible by Y, but it isn't Y. Breathing is caused by the expansion of the rib cage and the movement of the lungs, but it *isn't* that expansion and movement.
> What’s pretty clear, given evidence cited at, is that the neural structures *associated with* consciousness (phenomenal experience) do have important functional roles, so natural selection didn’t waste its time producing them <
Would you mind elaborating? What neural structures, doing what?
> The big puzzle, of course, is why such structures and their functions should entail the existence of consciousness. That entailment, I suggest following Metzinger and others, might have both logical and functional components <
I don't see how anything biological is logically entailed by anything else. Functionally, perhaps, but that doesn't settle the question of how.
> The field should close down because it is a quagmire of mediocrity and intellectual impotence. <
With that sentence you lost all credibility, I'm afraid. I don't see any point in continuing our exchange.
> I also suggest that the free will illusion evolved because the feeling of authorship for actions is necessary to learn what to do and not to do - if you have no sense of authorship (of deciding) to touch a hot plate you can't prevent yourself from touching it twice <
A common argument, which seems to me clearly wrong. All other animals seem to be able to stay away from danger without having to have the feeling of ownership of what they do. Why on earth would human beings be the exception?
In general, conscious experience is connected to awareness, which is of clear adaptive value. Moreover, we reflect/think because we are conscious, and if anyone wants to argue that that's just an epiphenomenon just ask yourself how you would be able to read this blog if you were not conscious. (Not that blog reading evolved by natural selection, of course... ;-)
> I'm slightly surprised to see you draw a distinction between "concepts (like numbers)" and information. How would you propose that we distinguish between a number and a DNA sequence given that there's a one-to-one correspondence between natural numbers and possible DNA sequences. (This can be readily seen if one simply maps ACGT -> 1234 and reads the result as a quaternary numeral.) <
The difference is that *someone* has to make that transition, i.e. concepts like numbers and such require a consciousness to think about them. Not so DNA, which works automatically on purely chemical bases. That seems to me to indicate a pretty important distinction that is swept under the rug if we treat both cases simply as "information."
On mathematical Platonism, by the way, I'm agnostic, though somewhat sympathetic to the idea.
I take your point; but I remain uncertain that numbers require a consciousness to think about them. It seems to me that there are formalisms that capture all of the necessary and sufficient conditions for number-hood. It may be that the tools of consciousness allow us to prove certain interesting theorems about numbers faster than a brute-force theorem proving machine; but the theorems themselves aren't any different. So while I agree that there are many important distinctions between (say) a DNA-based theorem prover and a human mind, I think both have equal access to numbers. (Or to be more precise, both have access to equally complete, consistent, and sound representations of numbers, which themselves may or may not actually exist, depending on whatever conclusion one adopts regarding mathematical realism.)
One important difference, as I see it, is that human minds have the additional ability to do mathematical pattern-matching, and to thereby generate mappings between their internal representations of numbers and numerical patterns latent in various physical phenomena. Indeed I suspect that ability is a big part of consciousness! So if your definition of "concept" includes the ability to generate such mappings--which seems reasonable to me, if not immediately obvious--then we are in agreement.
PS, read "1234" above as "0123." I'm forgetting my basics, so to speak!
I take it, then, that it is your firm position is that physicalism implies truth relativism? Setting aside the question of whether that position is sound, I doubt that Massimo would agree. (Am I mistaken?) In any case, I'm fairly certain that he didn't make any such claim in the post you cite. I just want to be certain that I haven't misunderstood one of his claims.
> I also suggest that the free will illusion evolved because the feeling of authorship for actions is necessary to learn what to do and not to do - if you have no sense of authorship (of deciding) to touch a hot plate you can't prevent yourself from touching it twice <ReplyDelete
A common argument, which seems to me clearly wrong. All other animals seem to be able to stay away from danger without having to have the feeling of ownership of what they do. Why on earth would human beings be the exception?
Good point. I've thought more & read more Wegner on the issue (this work has a final section with ideas on why the feeling of free will might have evolved: Wegner, D. M. (2008). Self is magic. In J. Baer, J. C. Kaufman, & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Are we free? Psychology and free will (pp. 226-247). New York- Oxford University Press)
First, I wonder if other animals really lack a feeling of ownership, as you suggest. I agree that their consciousness is obviously not as developed as ours (in the way ours is)... which suggests that the answer lies in what we have that they lack - greater predictive power. Maybe our consciousness evolved because it allows us to run 'what if' scenarios the hypothetical results of which are then fed back into the subconscious which returns feelings/thoughts on whether those hypothetical outcomes are desirable or not?
I'm sure others have elaborated these sorts of ideas far better than I have. I don't think you can support an argument that free will is NOT an illusion simply because we haven't yet explained how it could have evolved. Anyhow, I recommend that work (PDF freely available at Wegner's website) for more on this.
An additional comment based on Wegner's writings and more relevant to your 'other animals' point: Maybe the feeling of authorship makes it easier to learn? Being a matter of degree, you'll admit that there is a wide range of learning potential among the animals from some insects that are nearly hard-wired to ourselves. So it's not that other animals manage to learn without this feeling of free will so therefore learning has no relevance to its evolution, but that other animals don't learn as quickly/well as we do because they lack what we have - an illusion of free will.ReplyDelete
Since you decline dualism, your bet about consciousness has to be that phenomenal experiences like pain aren’t anything over and above what certain neural processes are doing. Whatever functions these processes have are the functions of consciousness too, so it isn’t as if on your account the experience of pain per se adds to what its neural correlates do, since on your view they are one and the same.
About these functions you ask “Would you mind elaborating? What neural structures, doing what?” I elaborate considerably in section 10 of my Journal of Consciousness Studies paper, “Killing the observer,” at http://www.naturalism.org/kto.htm#Neuroscience Here’s a taste (see the paper for references cited):
"...a positive account of sensory consciousness as informational states is emerging from neuroscience and neurophilosophy (see for instance Dehaene, 2002; Metzinger, 2000a, 2003). Defined methodologically, consciously available information is just that embodied in representations that participate in functions subserving the empirically discovered *capacities* conferred by conscious states as opposed to unconscious states (Baars, 1999). For instance, conscious states have the capacity to make information available over extended time periods in the absence of continued stimulation; they permit novel, non-automatized behavior; and they allow spontaneous generation of intentional, goal-directed behavior with respect to perceived objects (Dehaene & Naccache, 2001). Studies of neural activity which contrast conscious and unconscious capacities indicate that phenomenal experience is associated with widely distributed but highly integrated neural processes involving communication between multiple functional sub-systems in the brain, each of which plays a more or less specialized role in representing features of the world and body (Kanwisher, 2001; Dehaene & Naccache, 2001; Jack & Shallice, 2001; Parvizi & Damasio, 2001, Crick & Koch, 2003). Such processes, it is hypothesized, constitute a distributed, ever-changing, but functionally integrated ‘global workspace’ (Baars, 1988; Dehaene & Naccache, 2001).”
Re your physicalism (the majority view these days), I think it’s difficult to maintain the literal identity of phenomenal experiences like pain with their neural correlates since pains are categorically private, whereas their correlates are in principle publicly observable, see “Respecting privacy” at http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm The entailment from the neural correlates of phenomenal experience to the existence of experience itself is, I suspect, a matter of being a complex, recursive, but limited representational system, details at http://www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm#part5 The adaptive, functional aspects of this entailment (I list 7 of them, somewhat overlapping), likely have to do with information integration and other representational functions instantiated by the neural structures such as the global workspace referenced above.
Animals that are awake at some level make conscious decisions at that level when optional assessments are required. They don't necessarily assess their options consciously beforehand to the same degree that we do, but neither do they think entirely unconsciously where some assessment of their sensory apparatus is involved. Only the "non-living" elements of nature assess their environment with completely programmed reactively.ReplyDelete
What does "contra-causal" mean in relationship to "free will"?
Best Answer - Chosen by Asker
Determinists like Tom Clark of Naturalism.Org use the phrase to mean that free will cannot exist because it is not free of the causes that create the need to exert will against those causes.
But free will isn't supposed to be free of causes. We wouldn't exist without causation. So free will needs to be exerted against the logical ends of the causes, not against the prior causes themselves. We can, however, prevent such causes from occurring again in the future (like learning to design buildings that withstand hurricanes instead of letting the weather take down buildings.)
>"We can, however, prevent such causes from occurring again in the future"
Only if we have been caused to desire to prevent such cause from occurring again. It seems that you have created a circular argument.
DJD, that wasn't my argument, that was another person's example, but not a bad one. It could "only" be circular in your deterministic universe. Was that your point?ReplyDelete
What about research in Henrick Ehrsson's lab, Massimo? If consciousness does exist, the fact he can induce an OBE without drugs on 4 of 5 people says it exists on thin ice. http://www.nature.com/news/out-of-body-experience-master-of-illusion-1.9569ReplyDelete
> I remain uncertain that numbers require a consciousness to think about them. <
Last time I checked only conscious beings can think, and brute-force theorem proving machines require thinking beings to be designed and built.
But you are correct in your criticism of Dave, I have no idea where he gets the physicalism implies truth relativism. And I certainly never wrote anything of the kind.
> Since you decline dualism, your bet about consciousness has to be that phenomenal experiences like pain aren’t anything over and above what certain neural processes are doing <
We've covered this. You seem trapped into a false dichotomy here, and I don't know how to explain myself any better. Think back to my example that breathing doesn't require anything more than lungs, rib cage, etc., but that it still makes no sense to say that breathing *is* the sum total of lungs, rib cage, etc. There is a difference between the outcome of a process and the process itself.
Thanks for the extended excerpt from your paper, but I don't see how it makes your point. It seems very clearly to make mine...
Not sure also where you got that I am committed to standard physicalism. I certainly am no dualist in the common sense of the word, but I do see problem with physicalism, which as you know comes in a variety of flavors. I'm reading more about it as we speak, hopefully I'll expand in a future post.
> I don't think you can support an argument that free will is NOT an illusion simply because we haven't yet explained how it could have evolved. <
First, my comment there referred to consciousness, no free will, the two are related but not identical. Second, I make other arguments for the non-illusory status of both free will and consciousness throughout my recent posts.
But I agree with your other comments about degrees of consciousness and volition in other animals.
Ehrsson's research is fascinating, but I don't see how it bears on the point at all. That would be like arguing that vision doesn't exist because you can trick people into seeing things that are not there.
"You seem trapped into a false dichotomy here, and I don't know how to explain myself any better. Think back to my example that breathing doesn't require anything more than lungs, rib cage, etc., but that it still makes no sense to say that breathing *is* the sum total of lungs, rib cage, etc. There is a difference between the outcome of a process and the process itself."ReplyDelete
So if consciousness isn't what neural processes are doing, but it's an outcome of what they're doing, how would you describe it? Is it something physical, functional, or what? Consciousness, I think we agree, consists in qualitative phenomenal experience, so the basic question is whether it is, or is not, the same thing as something we can locate in the world as described by science, for instance a set of neurally realized functions carried out in the brain.
I believe you stated the following....
>"So free will needs to be exerted against the logical ends of the causes, not against the prior causes themselves."
Why would we desire to do so? Because there were causes of our desire to do so. You seem to be simply transferring from one 'action' to another.
Why would we desire to make choices? Because they weren't made for us in advance? But of course, as your universe requires, I'm just obliged to guess, as rightness or wrongness is not a real issue.
>" But of course, as your universe requires, I'm just obliged to guess, as rightness or wrongness is not a real issue"
What role does "rightness and wrongness" play in having a desire to make a choice?
None in your world. Wasn't that your point?
If not, please explain the basis used to select your choices.
If you can.
My choice is to try and understand your position. I suspect that you are a defender of both free will and morality....and possibly a believer in a supernatural being. The three often go together. But, I am not sure about my interpretations of your statements. Am I correct about one, two, or all three?
If you could understand my position, you'd have been able to answer my previous questions. Since you clearly can't, we're done here.
Massimo, have to disagree with you. That said, as I've posted here before, I agree with folks like Wegner that we probably don't have either the degree of free will or of consciousness that we'd like to believe.ReplyDelete
Ericsson shows, I think, that consciousness is in part a construct based on our minds normally interacting with the world through a set of senses coming to us in expected means and fashion. Had he done what he did with drugs, it would be easier to say his experiments had little bearing in the "big issues" of mind because of all the different effects of drugs.
But, by doing what he did without drugs, to use a good economics term, he showed the sense of self, under the right conditions, is quite "fungible."
To some degree, I think "consciousness" is, if you'll allow me to coin, or Quine, an idea, a construct of "bootstrapped feedback loops." Our primitive agency detectors feed off the agency detectors of others with whom we interact. It's all Dennett's heterophenomenology turtles, all the way down, but the turtles aren't conscious in the way he believes.
And, yes, I like slicing and dicing metaphors.
What do you think of Robert Trivres's idea that consciousness in not an illusion but a tool for self-deception, in order to make the deception of others more convincing?ReplyDelete
Illusion would become delusion and deception but be none the less real for that.
[Trivers 2000. The elements of a scientific theory of self-deception. Annals NY Acad Sciences 907: 114-131]
@Scott - you have now raised two issues, will try to address.ReplyDelete
(1) You say:
You're claiming that Massimo thinks that information isn't physical? But in the post you cite, I understood him to be saying the very opposite.
We may need quotes from the post to be really clear, but my understanding of his position is that he agrees with 99% of the world who thinks the world is made up of matter, mayyyyybe energy, but certainly not information. He implies, not says, that information may be a property of either matter or energy. But he certainly does not say information is a physical thing. If you provide the quote where he says that, this will help my confusion about your confusion.
(2) You say, paraphrased by Massimo:
I have no idea where he gets the physicalism implies truth relativism. And I certainly never wrote anything of the kind.
Lots of room for confusion here, and I can help out. First off yes, I think something like physicalism implies truth relativism. And no, I never thought Massimo agreed here. I am uncomfortable with the definition of physical and/or physicalism, because I believe both matter (and energy, too) are composed of information. Not the finely sliced non-conceptual information some talk about, but just plain old info, just like matter is plain old stuff. This idea does not sit well with thoughts of either dualism or physicalism, as per this comment from 4 RS posts ago:
@Sharkey, Massimo: I love it, y'all are getting to root of the problem and Sharkey is correctly steering this to to the 'left' of dualism. Ya got yer physicalists on the right, saying everything is physical in nature. Your dualists to the left saying there is both a non-physical and a physical, and further to the left, the tables turn. Nothing is physical, numbers, tables, emotions, gods, same shit different clothing.
What is unsound about this position to you? It is quite simple. Anything that can be said to exist actually exists as information to other things.
> Ericsson shows ... the sense of self, under the right conditions, is quite "fungible." <
I'm not sure what you mean. He showed that one can be tricked in spatially locating the self outside of one's body. But it is a trick nonetheless, and of course it still requires a functional brain and sensory system, without which, no consciousness or self.
> What do you think of Robert Trivres's idea that consciousness in not an illusion but a tool for self-deception, in order to make the deception of others more convincing? <
Trivers is a smart guy, but I think he takes his self-deception hypothesis far too seriously. Among other things, it's pretty close to being untestable.
> It is quite simple. Anything that can be said to exist actually exists as information to other things <
Obviously you subscribe to a notion of "existence" that is pretty out there. Sure, in that sense both unicorns and Spiderman exist, but I find that somewhat trivial and utterly uninteresting.
Massimo, I wouldn't call Ericsson a "trick." First, denotatively, using that particular word seems to cheapen what's he's found in his research.ReplyDelete
True, it requires a functional brain, indeed a more functional one than drug-induced OBEs. Which underscores why what we call consciousness is, in some degrees, a construct.
Now, per things like Dennett's heterophenomenolgy, or Hume's problem of induction, we act "as if" we have a robust unitary consciousness. But, maybe that itself is the "trick," if anything.
That said, we can't all join Buddhist monasteries to try to unlearn ideas of consciousness; besides, the only good Buddha is a dead Buddha.
I didn't mean my "trick" comment in a derogatory manner. I find Ericsson's work fascinating, but it is a trick in the same sense as optical illusions of the Gestalt type are tricks: they tell us something about how our senses work by "tricking" them under unusual circumstances.
And to me it makes little sense to say that a unitary consciousness is an illusion. It's an obvious fact that needs to be explained. Just because we can break that sense of unity under unusual circumstances it doesn't mean it ain't real when consciousness functions the way it is supposed to. It would be like causing a mutation to disrupt a phenotype (a useful "trick" in genetics) and then claim that the mutant shows that the wild type is an illusion.
"Last time I checked only conscious beings can think, and brute-force theorem proving machines require thinking beings to be designed and built."
True; I think we misunderstood each other, and I could have been clearer. There are a few possible interpretations of the statement that I purported to doubt: "numbers require a consciousness to think about them." One interpretation goes like this: "for numbers to be thought about, a consciousness must do the thinking." This is probably true, since it's unclear what "thinking" is if not done by a conscious being. But I didn't mean to raise doubt about this statement.
Another goes like this: "For any x to be a number in any sense, x must be thought about by a consciousness as a number." Setting aside the naive Platonic view that we conscious beings have some kind of special access to Platonic heaven not granted to other physical beings, I think this amounts to a flavor of mathematical fictionalism (MF). Numbers, according to this view, are only "in our heads"; they are false representations, representations of things that don't really exist. Therefore the only way something outside our own heads could "be" a number is by being thought of by us as a number.
I have doubts about this claim on two fronts. First, since it is a fictionalist claim that would be refuted by mathematical platonism (MP), and since I am agnostic about MP, I must also be agnostic about it.
But second, even if numbers are fictions, we can give a stringent account -- most likely a formalist account -- of what a number is. This account is always false, strictly speaking, in the sense that there exists nothing that satisfies it. It is our best false representation of numbers. But at this point, it's not clear to me that our false representation of numbers, as thinking beings, is in any way preferable to the false representation of numbers given by any appropriately powerful symbolic engine. In other words, if formal equivalence is the best criterion available for determining whether x is a number, then lots of things outside our heads are numbers.
More generally, if numbers are fictions anyway, and we are free to define them however we want, isn't it reasonable on a pragmatic basis to adopt a view of numbers as existing outside our own heads? Isn't that, in fact, the whole point of imagining numbers?
well, I don't necessarily disagree with at least some of the points you make, but there seem to be some contradiction, and at any rate I don't think they contradict my position:
> "For any x to be a number in any sense, x must be thought about by a consciousness as a number." Setting aside the naive Platonic view that we conscious beings have some kind of special access to Platonic heaven not granted to other physical beings, I think this amounts to a flavor of mathematical fictionalism (MF). <
Fictionalism and Platonism are mutually exclusive, in my understanding. And while I am agnostic about the latter, I don't think it is naive. (It doesn't have to imply that only we have access to mathematical objects, any being in the universe with similar or more advanced cognitive abilities would have access.)
> it's not clear to me that our false representation of numbers, as thinking beings, is in any way preferable to the false representation of numbers given by any appropriately powerful symbolic engine. In other words, if formal equivalence is the best criterion available for determining whether x is a number, then lots of things outside our heads are numbers. <
But symbolic engines don't "interpret" anything. And they need to be built by conscious beings. (No, I don't count molecular biological machinery as a symbolic engine.)
> if numbers are fictions anyway, and we are free to define them however we want, isn't it reasonable on a pragmatic basis to adopt a view of numbers as existing outside our own heads? <
Again I think fictionalism is incompatible with Platonism.
"But symbolic engines don't "interpret" anything. And they need to be built by conscious beings. (No, I don't count molecular biological machinery as a symbolic engine.)"
I follow you here. Well, actually, I do feel that symbolic engines could interpret things with the right kind of programming; but setting aside that established point of disagreement between us, I agree that the kind of symbolic engine I am describing wouldn't interpret anything. My feeling is simply that, even so, the symbols it manipulates are numbers, at least by a formalist account, because by a formalist account, formal equivalence is all we have. Furthermore, I think formalism is the best account of numbers we physical beings have, even if MP is true.
Now I could be wrong about that. Indeed there's lots of evidence that Goedel felt that "the human mind... infinitely surpasses the powers of any finite machine," the alternative being the unlikely (in his opinion) conclusion that "there exist absolutely unsolvable Diophantine problems." (Kurt Gödel: Collected Works, III, ed. Feferman, Oxford, 1995, p. 310. Quoted here.) This claim is essentially what I was describing as "naive Platonism" above. But the formulations of mathematical platonism (note the small p now) that I find most persuasive are those that deny such "special access," which as I understand it amounts to access to an uncountable infinity. In other words, I am sympathetic to versions of platonism that hold that mathematical statements do have "truthmakers," but that the finite nature of our physical world prevents us from accessing some of those truthmakers.
"Again I think fictionalism is incompatible with Platonism."
Definitely -- but it seems to me that, adopting fictionalism for a moment, the fiction that mathematics tells is precisely the fiction of platonism.
Reminded me of what Morpheus said in the Matrix movie … If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brainReplyDelete