Saturday, February 13, 2021

What is the Mind, What is Consciousness?

by Tom Kando

 This three -part article is a “magnum opus.” I struggled writing it, and you will probably struggle reading it, but it is well worth it. 

Introduction: 1. What is Consciousness? Nagel 2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology 3. The Hard problem of Consciousness 4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) 
5. Zombies 
6. The Self 
7. Free Will and Agency 
8. Humanity’s Future 
I just read a fascinating book: Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality, and the Future of Humanity by Sam Harris (2020). 
Harris is a widely published neuroscientist and philosopher. In his podcast and this book, he interviews eleven eminent scientific experts. Most of the interviews are about consciousness, the mind, the self and morality. His guests are high-powered neuroscientists and philosophers (David Chalmers, Anil Seth, Thomas Metzinger and Robert Sapolsky), quantum and theoretical physicists (David Deutsch, Nick Bostrom, and Max Tegmark), and biological and behavioral scientists (Timothy Snyder, Glenn Loury, Daniel Kahneman and David Krakauer). The group includes Nobel laureates. All these people have rich interdisciplinary backgrounds and experiences. So you are in a select company when you read this book. 

The main themes of the book are: (1) What is consciousness, what is the mind, is there something unique about us humans? (2) Artificial Intelligence; (3) Morality, politics and history; (4) Humanity’s future; (5) Knowledge; (6) Racism and the criminal justice system. 
My focus in this article will be primarily on the first one of these topics. I want to share with you some of the fascinating insights provided by Harris and his luminary guests regarding Consciousness - with forays into topics #2 (Artificial Intelligence) and #4 (Humanity’s Future). . 
1. What is Consciousness? Nagel Harris’ first chapter is a conversation with David Chalmers, an Australian-born cognitive scientist/philosopher. It is titled “The Light of the Mind.” The central question which the two scholars address is: What is consciousness? They agree that the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous formulation is still the most “attractive.” Nagel first offered it in 1974 in a now widely quoted paper titled “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” 

Nagel’s article discusses some of the “difficulties posed by consciousness, including the possible insolubility of the mind-body problem owing to "facts beyond the reach of human concepts," the limits of objectivity and reductionism, the "phenomenological features" of subjective experience, the limits of human imagination, and what it means to be a particular, conscious thing. Nagel famously asserts that an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism." 

Let me explain what Nagel means by “the phenomenological features of subjective experiences:” Phenomenology “is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first person point of view” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It attempts to analyze and understand consciousness and our direct subjective experiences. This is in contrast with “materialistic” science, which understands the world to consist of objects acting upon one another. Sam Harris sums up Nagel’s contrast between objectivity and subjectivity as follows: The former is the 3rd person perspective whereas the latter is the 1st person perspective. The former is central to Western scientific thought, whereas the latter is found in Eastern philosophical thought. 

Philosophers and psychologists of a phenomenological bent have often talked about qualia: This can be defined as the qualitative and subjective character of experience, for example, how one experiences a headache or the taste of wine. They are the “what it is like” of mental states. 

However, other scholars totally reject Nagel and phenomenology: The British philosopher Peter Hacker stated that Nagel's paper "laid the groundwork for…forty years of fresh confusion about consciousness." The American cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett wrote in the 1990s that consciousness does not exist, it is an illusion. According to him, there is no such thing as “phenomenology,” and we should all stop talking about such things as “qualia.” 

This position has been called “epiphenomenalism” (Harris, p. 9): this is the notion that whatever consciousness may be, it is simply irrelevant, inconsequential.

So what we have here is clearly the disagreement between two philosophical orientations: Reductionist Materialism and Phenomenology. 

2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology
Much of modern Western science is “materialistic,” in the sense that it claims that reality consists only and entirely of physical matter and processes. 

It is also reductionist, in the sense that it reduces all psychological functions, including thought, the mind and morality to biological processes. There is, for example, Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford neuroendocrinologist interviewed by Harris in Chapter Seven titled “The Biology of Good and Evil.” According to him, “the frontal cortex is your moral barometer” (p. 263) and it is not fully developed until age twenty-five, on average. 

Most of Harris’ guests in this book are neuroscientists, biologists and physicists. One might therefore expect, among most of them, a bias in favor of materialistic reductionism, and a rejection of the phenomenological approach to the problem of consciousness. And a great deal of the book is, indeed, devoted to neural pathways, the physical brain, neuro-chemistry, etc. (See for example Chapter Three, “Consciousness and the Self,” with the British neuroscientist Anil Seth). 

However, these scholars are far too knowledgeable to subscribe to a simplistic materialistic conception of consciousness and the mind. Most of them attempt to synthesize, or bridge the gap between the traditional mechanistic view of mind and phenomenology. And Harris himself, of course, rejects the materialistic reduction of mind and consciousness. For example, when Seth suggests moving towards “the neuronal basis of consciousness,” (p. 135), he ends up agreeing with Harris that the problem of consciousness content, as opposed to level, remains. 

Thus, we are reminded throughout the book that “ mind” is not synonymous with “brain,” that the mind is not pure flesh. The problem of consciousness is still a mystery. 

For example, scientists are now creating artificially incredibly intelligent (AI) machines, devices which can compute millions of times better than humans can, computers which can beat the world champion at chess. However, we have not been able to create machines which have consciousness, which have subjective, phenomenological experiences. I shall return to Artificial Intelligence in a moment. 

As Chalmers, following Nagel, explains, consciousness is about feeling something (p. 15). Furthermore, “a system is conscious if there is something it’s like to be that system. For example, there is something it’s like to be me. There is nothing it’s like, presumably, to be this glass of water on my desk... The glass of water is not conscious” (p. 3). If “it’s like something” to be a creature processing information....there is consciousness. 

3. The Hard Problem of Consciousness 
Neuroscientists have made great progress in mapping the neural correlates of consciousness, in identifying the location of various psychological functions in our brain (memory, fear, etc.), in explaining how the brain does what it does in terms of behavior, perception, and so on (p. 101). This is the easy problem. However, as Harris and Chalmers note, the mystery regarding consciousness remains (p.13). 

The hard problem is this: How do you get consciousness from matter? As Seth explains: “ the fundamental mystery is that for some physical systems there is also an inner universe...there is the presence of conscious experience., there is something it-is-like-to-be that system. Whereas for other systems, - tables, chairs, probably all current computers - there is nothing it-is-like-it-to-be that system (p.101). 

Phenomenologists are interested in tackling the hard problem. Biological reductionists, who stick with a mechanistic conception of the mind, are not. 

Harris and his interviewees are highly trained empirical neuroscientists who are, at the same time, also intrigued by the hard problem. For example, throughout these conversations, they raise questions about the origins of qualia, i.e. the qualitative phenomenological experiences which conscious systems have. 

Harris repeatedly uses the metaphor of “the light being on” in conscious systems, and ONLY in conscious systems. 

As a thought experiment, these scholars often bring up the zombie: A zombie would be a creature that may be able to function far more intelligently than humans, but would not be conscious. I’ll return to zombies in the next installment of this article. 

Many neuroscientists are attempting to develop theories and carry out “consciousness research” which would “bridge mechanism and phenomenology” (p.105). For example Dr. Anil Seth, with whom Harris carries on a highly complicated conversation in Chapter Three (“Consciousness and the Self”). Seth shares with the readers the theory and research of Giulio Tononi, an Italian neuroscientist. It is called Integrated Information Theory (ITT, symbolized as Φ (Phi). It “attempts to explain what consciousness is and why it might be associated with certain physical systems. Given any such system, the theory predicts whether that system is conscious, to what degree it is conscious, and what particular experience it is having...According to IIT, a system's consciousness is determined by its causal properties and is therefore an intrinsic, fundamental property of any physical system (IIT

An important question is: Where does consciousness first emerge? All mammals and other higher forms of life have consciousness. For example, octopuses most certainly do. But flies? Nagel, for one, wrote that “we cannot be sure that there is consciousness in simpler organisms (p.99). 

Addressing the hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers proposes the following idea: Maybe “the physical system is not a closed network.” Maybe there are ‘holes’ in the physical processing, and consciousness plays a role, without being part of physics. “Some people think something like this goes on in quantum mechanics, for example, with wave-function collapse” (p. 16). The larger “system” can then be called “reality.” 

Then there is Panpsychism: “The view that basically everything has a mind, where mind equals consciousness. Every system is conscious, including fundamental physical systems like atoms or quarks or photons” (p. 17). 

In philosophy, panpsychism is the view that mind or a mindlike aspect is a.... ubiquitous feature of reality. It is... the theory that "the mind is a fundamental feature of the world which exists throughout the universe." It is one of the oldest philosophical theories, and has been ascribed to philosophers including Thales, Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell. In the 19th century, panpsychism was the default philosophy of mind in Western thought, but it saw a decline in the mid-20th century with the rise of logical positivism. Recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has revived interest in panpsychism (Panpsychism). 

With panpsychism, we might have to take consciousness for granted “ as fundamentally present, in the same way we take space or time to be present.” (p.17). According to this view, consciousness would be an axiomatic and prior constituent of reality, before any information processing. This is reminiscent of Tononi’s ITT Theory, mentioned above. 

Thomas Metzinger, a German neurophilosopher whom Harris interviews in chapter 4 (“The Nature of Consciousness”) is optimistic about our chances of discovering what consciousness is. He predicts that by 2050 we’ll have the global neural correlate of consciousness - we’ll isolate that in humans. And that’s only a first step. Life isn’t a mystery anymore, but 150 years ago many people thought it was. Consciousness will be like that” (p. 164). 

In the next installment of this article, I discuss Artificial Intelligence, with or without consciousness. 

© Tom Kando 2021;All Rights Reserved