Accelerating Research on Consciousness

Back in December, psychologist and author Christian Jarrett got in touch to ask what I thought about the new project “Accelerating Research on Consciousness” organised by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. See this news story for more information about the project. Christian incorporated some of my comments into an article for BBC Focus magazine (which I recommend) but I thought I’d post my full reply here, in case anyone is interested. Here it is.

I have mixed feelings about the project. I’m delighted to see more funding for experimental work on consciousness. The data collected will undoubtedly be useful. I have worries, however. It looks like the project will focus on explaining consciousness in the phenomenal sense. That is, the organizers and participants conceive of conscious states as essentially subjective ones, involving awareness of phenomenal properties or qualia (the private mental ‘feel’ or ‘what-it-likeness’ of experience). If that’s right, then I am dubious of the chances of making decisive progress.

To begin with, it’s hard to see how one could explain phenomenal properties in terms of brain processes. The two things are just too different. (This is the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.) The most we can hope to do is to find correlations between brain processes and phenomenal properties. And even then there’s a methodological problem. For there can be no objective test for the presence of essentially subjective properties. The best we can do is to test for objective indications of their presence, such as the subject’s reports and reactions. And this means that tests of correlation hypotheses can never be decisive. Suppose theory A says that conscious state C occurs when brain region N1 is active, whereas theory B says that N1 isn’t sufficient on its own and that brain region N2 needs to be active as well. And suppose we run some experiments and find that participants report C when both N1 and N2 are active but not when only N1 is. Does this prove that theory A is wrong and theory B right? No. It might be that N1 is sufficient for C, but that N2 is needed to enable us to report it. The same problem will arise if we try to test for nonverbal indications of C. Again, how do we tell which brain states are necessary for the conscious state itself and which are necessary for producing the behavioural indications of it? Since there is no way of directly testing for subjective properties, we can never definitively rule out any theory.

In short, so long as we focus on phenomenal consciousness, we’re never going to have decisive tests of our theories. The moral I draw is that shouldn’t focus on phenomenal consciousness. In fact, I believe that we do not have phenomenal consciousness; it’s a kind of introspective illusion, which reflects the limited access we have to our own mental processes. (I call this view ‘illusionism.’) The real task is to explain our intuitions about phenomenal consciousness — why we think we possess it.

As regards the theories currently being tested, I am very sceptical of IIT. It is intended as a theory of phenomenal consciousness, so the worries I’ve just mentioned apply, but even as theory of that, IIT is implausible. All kinds of things can have a rich informational structure in the relevant sense, so the theory has the consequence that inanimate objects can be phenomenally conscious. Even a blank wall could be.

I am much more sympathetic to Global Workspace theory, though I think it should be construed as a theory of access consciousness — of the awareness of information in a functional sense — rather than phenomenal consciousness. Moreover, it needs to be supplemented with some account of why we think we have phenomenal consciousness.

As for what I’d like to see next: Unsurprisingly, I’d like to see the project test illusionist theories of consciousness, which focus on explaining our intuitions about phenomenal consciousness. These do not face the problems I’ve mentioned, and they offer a promising line of research. It’s early days yet, but such theories are being developed. A good example is the Action Schema Theory proposed by the Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano and his colleagues.

The bottom line, then, is that the funding for experimental work is welcome and the data gathered will be useful, but the project is unlikely to settle anything until we have a better conception of exactly what it is we are trying to explain.

Bright Shiny Colours

What are colours? My view is that they are properties of surfaces in the world around us — albeit complex gerrymanded ones, which can be picked out only by reference to our reactions to them. Blue things are things that evoke a certain distinctive cluster of reactive dispositions in us. Note that that I do not say that they are ones that produce blue sensations in us. I don’t think that experiencing blue involves entertaining a mental version of blueness — a blue quale or phenomenal property.

Where then is the quality of blueness ? It’s not out there in the world. Out there there’s just a surface with a microstructure that reflects certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. And I’ve denied that there is any blue quality in our minds. So where is the blueness of the blue?

My answer that it is not really anywhere. It’s a property that our minds misrepresent external objects as having. However, it’s a property that corresponds to, and carries information about, something real and important — namely, the affordances of the objects in question. That needs a lot of unpacking and qualification, but the general idea is this. We are tuned up, by biological evolution, cultural evolution, and personal experience, to track worldly properties that it’s useful for us to notice. Such properties afford us opportunities for action in various ways; they have specific affordances. An object’s affordances are reflected in the suite of reactive dispositions its perception triggers in us — the suite of beliefs, expectations, associations, emotions, priming effects, and so on.

Now my suggestion is that the human brain monitors its own reactive dispositions and generates schematic representations of them, which are linked to its representations of the objects that triggered them. The upshot of this is that we experience the world as being metaphorically coloured by our reactions to it. We experience objects as having a distinctive but ineffable significance for us, which is a marker of their affordances. This is what we call their quality or feel. The blueness of blue is a distorted representation of the affordances it presents, represented as a property of the object itself.

That’s still very schematic, but a little example may help. Consider shiny, metallic colours, such as silver and gold. These seem to have a distinctive feel to them, and as a child I was very puzzled as to where they fitted into the visible spectrum. But, of course, they are not really different colours. Shiny things are just regularly coloured things whose brightness (and colour if they are very shiny) varies markedly with viewing angle. What gives them their distinctive ‘feel’ is precisely the affordances they present. We expect them to change in a distinctive way as we move in relation to them. The ‘feel’ of metallic colour just is the expectation of this effect.

A postscript: Another illustration of this is afforded by Gregory Thielker’s paintings of scenes though rain-spattered glass. In me, these create a powerful response (‘feel’, if you like). Doubtless, this is in part because they evoke memories of glum hours spent in traffic during rainy commutes. But I think it also reflects the way they trigger strong expectations that the scene will morph and distort in a distinctive way as the water drips or I move my head.

Illusion or identity?

Illusionists believe that consciousness involves no properties that are not detectable and fully describable by third-person science. Any other properties we think are involved are illusory. Suppose that’s right. Still, why should it follow that phenomenal properties are illusory? Why not say that they are properties that are detectable and fully describable by third-person science? It’s true (the objection continues) that we think of phenomenal properties as ones that present a problem for science — that pose a hard problem — but it doesn’t follow that they really do present one. Maybe we are just wrong about them.

Suppose that phenomenal concepts do in fact track completely unmysterious brain properties, which for some reason we mistakenly think of as nonphysical. There are many candidate explanations of why we might do this. If that’s the case (and illusionists don’t deny the possibility), then wouldn’t it be better to say that phenomenal properties are real but different from what we thought?

Here’s my answer. Maybe we could say that. It’s a revise-or-eliminate situation, and there is no simple procedure for determining the best way to go. But here are some reasons for rejecting the revisionary route.

First, it would invite confusion. The concept of the phenomenal carries a lot of connotations that physicalists must reject — assumptions about the reliability of introspection, intuitions about well-known thought experiments, associations with dualist notions such as sense data, and so on. Using a term with all this theoretical baggage is not the most perspicuous way of presenting a physicalist theory of consciousness.

Second, it would be misleading. The notion of phenomenal consciousness has become bound up with that of the hard problem — a problem that is supposed to be both substantive (there’s a real thing that needs explaining) and qualitatively different from ‘easy’ problems that can be solved by cognitive science. To offer a theory of phenomenal consciousness is to suggest that one has solved this hard problem, and physicalists shouldn’t do that. For physicalists, there is no hard problem, only the problem of explaining why there seems to be one.

Third, it would be tedious. In theoretical work, we’d have to laboriously disinfect phenomenal concepts before use, explicitly disavowing all their theoretical accretions.

Fourth, it would be pointless. After disinfection, we’d be left with nothing more than a bare demonstrative or quotational device, equivalent to ‘whatever this is’, applied introspectively. It’s not clear that this would pick out something determinate or theoretically interesting. We’d be gesturing at the whole complex perceptual-cum-reactive state triggered by the current stimulus, and without further specification it’s doubtful that the gesture would pick out a clear target for scientific investigation. (By contrast, gesturing at the supposed qualitative aspect of the state would narrow down the target, but only to something that physicalists must say is illusory.)

Fifth, it’s restricting. Physicalists need phenomenal concepts in their old theoretically laden senses in order to describe how people mistakenly think of consciousness (‘It seems that experiences have a phenomenal aspect as well as a functional one’). Compare the term ‘witch’. If we revise it to mean female naturopath, then it becomes harder to express what mediaeval people thought. After all, they were right to think that there were witches in that sense. Of course, this is only a linguistic problem and it could be solved by paraphrase, but it’s a consideration.

In the end, the concept of the phenomenal is too compromised to be useful to science. As Daniel Dennett says in his Consciousness Explained, let’s cut the tangled kite string and start over. Phenomenal properties are illusory.

Beetles and consciousness

A beetle in a box

‘Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.’ — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Sec. 293.

Behaviourism: People say there’s a beetle inside the box.

Cosmopsychism: We are all inside the beetle in the box.

Eliminativism: There’s no beetle in the box.

Epiphenomenalism: There’s a beetle in the box but it’s harmless.

Emergentism: If the box is fancy enough, a beetle will appear inside it.

First-order representationalism: The beetle in the box is transparent.

Higher-order thought theory: When you think about the box, a beetle appears inside it.

Higher-order perception theory: When you look at the box, a beetle appears inside it.

Illusionism: It only seems as if there’s a beetle in the box.

Interactionism: There’s a beetle in the box and it bites.

Materialism: There’s a beetle in my brain.

Mysterianism: I’ll never understand how the beetle got into the box.

New physics: The beetle got into the box through microtubules.

Nonreductive materialism: There’s a beetle in my brain but it’s hiding.

Panpsychism: Electrons have tiny boxes with tiny beetles in them.

Property dualism: The beetle in the box is made out of ectoplasm.

Quietism: Beetle? Box?

Self-representationalism: When you put the box in front of a mirror, a beetle appears inside it.

Twitter question threads (Oct 18–Mar 19)

I have recently taken to posting questions on Twitter, asking for recommendations, advice, and ideas on philosophy-related themes. The replies have been fascinating, and in order to preserve them I have compiled a list of the most popular questions here. Click on the blue bird icon in the top right of a tweet to open the thread on Twitter. I shall post further compilations in the future.


October 2018

November 2018

December 2018

January 2019

February 2019

March 2019

The trolley problem murder

Moriarty wants to kill Holmes but doesn’t want to run the risk of being convicted for murder. So he plans to get an innocent person to do the dirty work for him. Here’s what he does.

First, he persuades Holmes (with whom he is ostensibly on good terms) and three of his Baker Street Irregulars to take part in a real-life philosophical experiment. He will tie the three Irregulars to a trolley track, near to a spur on which Holmes will be tied. He will wait till there are a number of bystanders near where the spur branches off, then release a trolley down the main track in the direction of the Irregulars, and wait to see if one of the bystanders throws the lever to divert the trolley onto the spur. The experiment will provide the philosophical world with important data on the famous trolley problem.

Moriarty shows everyone that the trolley has an automatic braking mechanism that will prevent it hitting the Irregulars if the lever is not thrown. This mechanism really does work, but Moriarty has adjusted it so that if the trolley is sharply diverted onto another track, it will fail. Everyone agrees to take part.

It all goes to plan. Moriarty releases the trolley, a bystander, Doyle, sees the trolley and the people on the tracks, does some rapid moral reasoning, and operates the lever, believing that this will result in the death of the person on the spur. The trolley goes onto the spur, its braking mechanism fails, and Holmes is killed.

Moriarty’s plan has worked. Holmes is dead, yet Moriarty did not kill him. If Doyle had not intervened, no one would have been harmed. Instead, Doyle freely chose to do something which he believed would kill Holmes.

Or was there a flaw in the plan? Did Moriarty commit a crime? If so, what was it? Who is morally responsible for Holmes’s death? Does it matter if you think Doyle’s moral reasoning was faulty?

(Revised and expanded after twitter discussion with @JulianSales2, @FillinghamLydia, and @tylerhower.)

Imagine

With apologies to John Lennon

Imagine there’re no qualia
It’s easy if you try
No feel or what-its-likeness
Just plain old cog sci

Imagine all the zombies
Being just like us

Imagine there’re no inverts
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing for Mary to learn
And no hard problem, too

Imagine all the people
Being illusionist

You may say I’m a quiner
But there’s nothing wrong with that
I hope someday you’ll join us
And learn what it’s like to be a bat.

Self-deception in Basel

On 25 October 2017 I gave a keynote presentation at a conference on Self-Deception: What It Is and What It Is Worth, at the University of Basel. Family commitments prevented me from attending in person, so I spoke via Skype — which worked very smoothly, even for the Q&A. Many thanks to the organizers Anne Meylan, Marie van Loon, and Melanie Sarzano for inviting me and setting up the Skype link. Click here to see the slides from my talk

The Evil Trolley Problem

Photo of child on railway line

On Tuesday I posted a question on Twitter (prompted by a remark by @bowmanthebard). The question involved a version of the trolley problem, in which one has to choose between letting die and actively killing, but with the twist that the motive for choosing the active option is not to minimize loss of life (in this version it might actually increase it) but to preserve a life especially dear to one.

As the question generated some interest, I thought I would set out the thought experiment in more detail here. Another Twitter user @gjfitzgerald described my question as evil, since there is no way to answer it without guilt, so I call it The Evil Trolley Problem (not a perfect name, I admit, since it’s ambiguous). I’m not an ethicist, and I don’t know if this particular scenario has been previously discussed in the literature (if it has, I’d be grateful for references), though I’m sure the underlying issues have.

Here is the problem:

You are walking by the railway line, where a group of local children are playing. Suddenly, there is a shout and you see that a runway trolley is thundering down the track. You run to warn the children and see that one child is trapped on the line. With horror you realize that it is your own child. The trolley will certainly kill your child if you do not act. Luckily, you are close to the points, and by operating a manual lever you can divert the trolley onto another track. But as you grasp the lever, you notice that another child, not known to you, is trapped on the other track. If you pull the lever, the trolley will certainly kill them.

What would you do? There are only seconds left and there is no other option. Would you sacrifice an unknown child to save your own? If you would switch the trolley, would do the same if it it would result in more deaths? What if there were two children trapped on the other line or if there were a school bus stalled there? How many children would you sacrifice to save your own child?

The scenario is of interest because what most of us would do in the imagined situation is in contrast to what moral theory tells us we should do. I suspect that most of us would switch the trolley, even if it would result in many deaths. Yet I doubt if there are many moral theories that would dictate that course, or even judge it permissible, and most legal systems would, I assume, class it as murder. This in turn raises wider questions about how far moral theory should bend to human nature, and how we can reconcile our intense preference for our kin with our ideals of altruism and egalitarianism.

Image credit

Chart topper

In February 2016, my Philosophy Bites interview on the Hard Problem and the Illusion of Qualia reached #1 on the US Top Episodes Podcasts Charts, as reported in this tweet by Steve Wilson, Marketing Manger at Apple Podcasts.

Screenshot of podcast chart