Sunday, February 28, 2021

What is the Mind, what is Consciousness?


1. What is Consciousness? Nagel
2. Reductionist Materialism vs. Phenomenology
3. The Hard problem of Consciousness
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
5. Zombies6. The Self
7. Free Will and Agency
8. Humanity’s Future


6. The Self
As I just mentioned, a discussion of consciousness also requires us to delve into the concepts of Self and Free Will or Agency.

In Chapter 4 (“The Nature of Consciousness”), Sam Harris and Thomas Metzinger discuss the Self. In a 700-page long book titled Being No One, Metzinger explains that there is no such thing as a “self.”

It is a common misconception to conflate self-consciousness and consciousness. Metzinger explains that the self is an illusion or a hallucination. It is the sense we all have “that there is a subject in our head, a thinker of thoughts, an experiencer of experience.... We have this robust misrepresentation of trans-temporal identity” (pp.170-171). There is no such thing as a self, any more than there is a soul. There is, in our brain, no thinker behind our thoughts.

How this sense of selfhood emerges is a question for another day. Metzinger mentions all sorts of factors at work in this regard, for example gut feelings, perceptions, heart beat, breath, etc. (p. 171). Also, this human “self-model” is a product of evolution” p179).

Harris notes that believing and experiencing the absence or dissolution of the self can be achieved via psychedelics, meditation, and other Buddhist practices. The two scholars contrast the Western and Eastern scientific and cultural perspectives regarding the self: The Western scientific approach is third-person empiricism that objectifies the world. The great Asian contribution is its first-person, subjective point of view (p. 179).

Furthermore, these two authors note that the Western self model contains some “nasty inventions, such as this (odd) sense of self-worth...” Certainly wiser cultural values are conceivable and desirable.
There is some convergence between Metzinger and the social psychological paradigm into which I was thoroughly “indoctrinated” in graduate school, something called “Symbolic Interactionism.” The founders of this orientation include William James and George Herbert Mead, both philosophical pragmatists. I discuss this topic in an article which I published in 2008: What is the Mind?

Not surprisingly, Harris mention James as the rare exception among Western behavioral scientists “who thought that there was something to be learned... from the flow of conscious experience from the first-person side. But with the dawn of behaviorism, we lost the thread. In the East, there has never been any question that there is be understood through introspection. Obviously, one also needs to study the brain and behavior to understand the mind - ignore the first-person point of view entirely is crazy.” (Harris: 179).

Symbolic Interactionism is the major sociological strand of social psychology. It understands the self to be a process or a function, not an entity or a structure. It is congruent with the “phenomenological” view of the self and of consciousness.

7. Free Will, Agency
Along with the Western conception of the self, comes an obstinate belief that we possess “Free Will,” “Agency.”

In chapter 7, Harris interviews Robert Sapolsky about this topic. Both Harris and Sapolsky state unequivocally that there is no such thing as free will. Sapolsky declares that “Free will is the biology that hasn’t been discovered yet” (p.267). However, it is a whole lot easier to operate with the notion of agency. So we believe in this fallacy, as we believe in the fallacy that we have hard-core selves. Sapolsky admits that he is a mechanistic biological reductionist (p. 266). Everything we do is caused by prior biological factors. 
To be sure, these factors are both nature and nurture, because nurture (experience) also changes your brain. Sapolsky lists a variety of behaviors which were once judged through a moral lens - from epilepsy to schizophrenia, learning disabilities once viewed as “laziness” to criminal violence - but are now understood to be medical problems. However, the concepts of “punishment” and “justice” (or, conversely, “forgiveness”) are as inappropriate when it comes to humans who engage in dysfunctional behavior, violence and other crimes, as they are when your car breaks down.

To quote Sapolsky: “No one would say that the car has a rotten soul or deserves incarceration in the garage. - it’s just a mechanical problem.” (P. 267).

This is not to say that bad behavior cannot and should not be corrected. However, it has nothing to do with free will. Crime is a medical problem. It is a disease. As is all mental illness. For example, depression is every bit as much of a physiological condition, and nothing else, as diabetes.

This is strong and extreme language. One feels like disagreeing with it, as with the behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s similar belief that free will is an illusion.

Therefore, Harris asks Sapolsky: Is there no such thing as evil? He asks Sapolsky how he would explain, for instance, Auschwitz: We have “photos of happy people sunning themselves on a porch, eating blueberries...and laughing... Some wearing SS uniforms.... These were actually the guards and staff at Auschwitz on their days off...The people who were gassing and cremating men, women and children and working slave laborers to death. It’s safe to assume that most of these people were NOT psychopaths... (pp. 275-276). Sapolsky’s answer is that while most people would say that “it’s not okay to do horrible violent things, but here is why I am an exception.” Or, “it’s terrible to do violent, horrible things to innocent people,’ and then they’ll differ as to who counts as innocent... They use a personally convenient context.”

Personally, I struggle with the radical position taken by people such as Sapolsky and Skinner. However, they may very well be right. In time, the empirical sciences - physics, chemistry and biology - may well provide the knowledge necessary to “cure,” fix,” or “repair” bad human behavior, jut as we treat other systems now. Of course, we are already far along the road of the medicalization of crime and anti-social behavior.

On the other hand, it is not clear how this neuro-endocrinologist’s total mechanistic reductive determinism can be reconciled with phenomenology. As we saw, this branch of philosophy focuses on the study of mind and consciousness. Phenomenology’s ontological position about the existence of Free Will and Agency is not clear.

8. Humanity’s Future
Society has long believed that there is something unique and exceptional about human beings. That our species is not only “superior” to, but qualitatively different from all other forms of life (“animals”). One label for this conviction is “anthropocentrism.” Anthropologists and other social scientists have listed various things which presumably account for humans being the planet’s dominant species, for example our large brain, our opposable thumb (which gives us tool-making capability), language, etc.

Anthropocentrism is no longer very popular. There is now an animal rights movement. Then too, there is the concern that humanity may commit suicide via nuclear Armageddon, or by destroying the environment, or through some other technology.

The second chapter in Harris’ book, (“Finding Our Way”), is an interview with David Deutsch. The topic is, as elsewhere in Deutsch’s work, Knowledge: (See my review of Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity on this blog a few years ago.) Deutsch uses the word “knowledge” in the sense of “rational knowledge,” “scientific knowledge,” or “true facts,” or “truth” based on reason. This is in contrast with unreason. He defines humans as knowledge-creating beings who live on earth. There may be other knowledge-creators in the universe. Deutsch calls them “people.”

This issue is currently quite topical by the way: Even after Donald Trump’s departure, there remain 74 million Americans who are indifferent to factual knowledge, science and reason.

Thus, to the question “is there something special about humans?” Deutsch answers yes, at least on earth. (As just mentioned, there are probably other similar creatures elsewhere in the universe). The sociological paradigm called Symbolic Interactionism (see above) is another anthropocentric theory. Here, the emphasis is on language. George Herbert Mead argued that symbolic communication (language) is essential to human development.

However, in his interview with Anil Seth (Chapter 3, “Consciousness and the Self”), Harris rightly corrects this anthropocentric error: Not so long ago, “you could still hear people say that consciousness was so dependent on language that they wondered whether human infants were conscious - to say nothing of dogs and anything else not human” (p.107).

Seth, of course, agrees that this is an error, although it is true that “language shapes a lot of our conscious experiences” (ibid.). Whether or not there is a place in science for anthropocentrism is not clear. But one thing is now obvious: Humans have no monopoly on consciousness. It is obvious that other higher forms of life are conscious. My cats prove this to me every day.

As to humanity’s future: the fact that we have risen to become the planet’s dominant species is no guarantee that we will inherit it. We (homo sapiens) have been around for about 200,000 years. Cockroaches have been here for a thousand times longer. Rats three hundred times.

Chapter 9, Will We Destroy the Future, is a conversation between Harris and Nick Bostrom. According to the Swedish philosopher, we ourselves may be the greatest existential risk to our own survival - not necessarily a giant asteroid, or some other factor beyond our control.

Bostrom uses a metaphor: “Think of the history of technological discovery as the process of pulling balls out of a giant urn - the urn of creativity. We reach in and we get an idea out, and then we reach in and get another idea out.... But what if there is a black ball in the urn - some possible technology that destroys any civilization that discovers it?”(p. 326).

So far this has not happened, but it may. Most technologies are double-edged, and some are mainly negative. Examples of two-edged and therefore dangerous technologies are nuclear power, Artificial Intelligence and the use of fossil fuels.

As an example of a largely negative tool, Bostrom mentions nerve gas. A more topical example comes to mind at this time: The artificial manufacture of an indestructible deadly virus.

And in the final chapter (“Our Future”), where Harris interviews Max Tegmark, they bring up once again the “breakout” danger that comes with Artificial Intelligence.

In sum, there is always the possibility that humanity will blow it, one way or another. According to Deutsch, there is also the possibility that we’ll survive and succeed. We are a knowledge-producing creature, and there is no end to how much knowledge we may acquire. However, neither is there a guarantee that we will succeed. A few years ago, I wrote a science fiction book titled Humanity’s Future: The Next 25,000 Years. It is on the more optimistic side of this question. leave comment here