Technology and the human minds

As some of you may know, I have my own particular take on the dual-process theory of reasoning, and I recently I wrote a longish paper applying this take to issues surrounding AI and cognitive enhancement. The abstract of the article runs as follows:

According to dual-process theory, human cognition is supported by two distinct types of processing, one fast, automatic, and unconscious, the other slower, controlled, and conscious. These processes are sometimes said to constitute two minds—an intuitive old mind, which is evolutionarily ancient and composed of specialized subsystems, and a reflective new mind, which is distinctively human and the source of general intelligence. This theory has far-reaching consequences, and it means that research on enhancing and replicating human intelligence will need to take different paths, depending on whether it is the old mind or the new mind that is the target. This chapter examines these issues in depth. It argues first for a reinterpretation of dual-process theory, which pictures the new mind as a virtual system, formed by culturally transmitted habits of autostimulation. It then explores the implications of this reinterpreted dual-process theory for the projects of cognitive enhancement and artificial intelligence, including the creation of artificial general intelligence. The chapter concludes with a brief assessment of the risks of those projects as they appear in this new light.

The paper appeared in a 2021 collection titled The Mind-Technology Problem, edited Robert W. Clowes, Klaus Gärtner, and Inês Hipólito. If you don’t have access the volume, here is an eprint of the article.

In addition, Anna Strasser has prepared a fantastic PowerPoint presentation summarizing the main ideas of the article, which she has kindly given me permission to share.

The brain repair experiment

Looking through old teaching materials, I found a little philosophical story I’d written as an exercise for students of my first-year introduction to philosophy of mind course at Sheffield in the mid-1990s. I thought it was moderately amusing and that others might like to see it, so here it is. I have tidied it up and removed the exercises that accompanied it, but I haven’t attempted to update it. All the characters are fictional. The Brain Repair Experiment

A dialogue between Philobios and Philopraxis

Scene: The agora of ancient Athens.

Enter Philobios and Philopraxis, two philosophers.

Philobios: Greetings, Philopraxis! Have you a moment? I have been thinking about the nature of life, and I should like to share my ideas with you.

Philopraxis: Ah well, actually I’m busy. I’m searching for my dog, you see. He’s run off again.

Philobios: It won’t take long. Then I can help you search for your dog.

Philopraxis: Very well. If it won’t take long.

Philobios: Excellent. To begin, then: Some things are alive and some things are not, and we are good at telling which are which. You and I are alive, obviously, and so are many other things, from bears to beetles to beetroots. It seems there is some property they all share, a vital property, a that-it’s-aliveness, which we can immediately recognize when we encounter it. But what is this property exactly, and how does inanimate matter come to possess it?

Philopraxis: Isn’t that a question for our scientists? Like young Aristoteles, for example.

Philobios: Ah, no. Scientists describe processes that occur in living things — responsiveness to stimuli, metabolism, growth, reproduction, and so on — but this doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. We can easily imagine all those processes occurring without life. A machine might detect things, convert resources into energy, use raw materials to augment itself, and even make copies of itself, without really being alive. Processes such as responsiveness and metabolization may be necessary for life, but they aren’t sufficient for it, and explaining how those processes occur in living things won’t be sufficient to explain life itself. We’d still have to explain how things that support those life-related processes acquire a vital property, an intrinsic that-it’s-aliveness. This is a really hard problem! We need a new science of life, which takes life seriously as a fundamental aspect of reality. Perhaps life emerges spontaneously, by natural necessity, when sufficiently complex life-related processes occur. Or perhaps all matter possesses a tiny spark of life, and the vital properties of complex organisms like us are produced by combining the micro-level vital properties of their atomic constituents. We should explore these exciting ideas! Don’t you agree?

Philopraxis: Erm, no, actually, I don’t. I think processes of the sort you mentioned are all there is to life. Being a living thing is just a matter of being a persisting system that is responsive, metabolizes resources, grows, and so on. There’s no need for an extra animating ingredient. Maybe it seems otherwise to you because we can recognize life so easily. When we encounter a living thing, we don’t have to check that all those processes are occurring within it. We can just see that it’s alive. And that tempts us to think that we are detecting a special property that is distinct from all those processes. I can understand. I feel the same, in fact. But I don’t trust my feelings here. I think it’s a sort of illusion. For her own good reasons, Nature has tuned up our perceptual systems to be highly sensitive to indications of life, so that animate things leap out at us perceptually. And this leads us to think that they possess a special property — a vital property, a that-it’s-aliveness — which can’t be explained in more basic terms. That’s how it seems; animation is a fundamental feature of the world as we take it to be — of what we might call our manifest image. But it’s not a fundamental feature of reality independent of us, and we would be making a big error if we were to set about asking how it arises, whether all matter possesses it, and so forth. We’d be mistaking a feature of our reaction to the world for a feature of the world itself.

Philobios: But that’s not taking life seriously. In fact, it’s denying life! That’s the silliest view I’ve ever heard. What’s more, it’s an immoral and dangerous view. If you deny that life exists, then presumably you don’t think that murder is possible? I assume you think that the tyrant Hippias was a fine man. For on your view, he never deprived anyone of life!

Philopraxis: You’re missing my point. I’m not denying that life exists; I’m denying that life is what you think it is…

Philobios: You’re equivocating! Does life exist? Yes or no!

Philopraxis: Yes, but…

Philobios: So you concede that vital properties are real…

We pan away to a dog scratching itself. The dog settles down to sleep in the sun as Philobios and Philopraxis continue to argue in the background.

KF: Philobios and Philopraxis continue to argue, but I think you will have got the gist of their views about life, and I hope you will agree that Philopraxis’s view is better and that it is unfair of Philobios to accuse him of silliness and immorality.

Now substitute ‘consciousness’ and ‘phenomenal properties’ for ‘life’ and ‘vital property’ and replace the references to biological processes with ones to perceptual and cognitive processes. Philobios’s position is now a robust form of phenomenal realism and Philopraxis’s is a form of illusionism.

Do you still agree with Philopraxis? If not, why not?

George Harrison - What Is Life

Some replication crisis resources

Note: A few years ago, I made a start on a blog post listing some resources on the replication crisis in psychology. I have just found the draft and thought I would post it, in case it is of use to anyone. It’s very incomplete and outdated. If you would like to improve the post by adding more references in the comments, please do!

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Some thoughts on LLMs

Here are some thoughts on large language models (LLMs), derived from a recent email exchange concerning the digital simulation of Daniel Dennett recently created by Eric Schwitzgebel, Anna Strasser, Matthew Crosby.

Do LLMs such as GPT-3 perform speech acts? Is there a continuum between what they do and what we do when we speak? Or is there a sharp difference — we performing genuine speech acts and GPT-3 merely giving the appearance of doing so?

There’s a case for thinking that GPT-3 can perform speech acts. It can make appropriate contributions to conversations within domains it has been trained on. If game-playing AIs such Alpha-Zero can make genuine moves within a board game, why can’t GPT-3 make genuine moves with in a language game?

I think it can. It can make conversational moves with words. The problem is that that’s all it can do. It can’t do any of the other things we do with words. It can’t inform, instruct, persuade, encourage, suggest, imply, deceive, and so on. It can’t perform any illocutionary acts. It can’t even assess its own conversational contributions and select the best.

It can’t do any of this, of course, because it lacks the raft of psychological and social attitudes and aptitudes that illocutionary acts require. (As Dennett has noted, Grice’s theory of communication is an attempt to elucidate this implicit background; see chapter 13 of his From Bacteria to Bach and Back.) Even a non-human animal with a simple call system can perform more types of speech act than GPT-3 can.

And here there is a big contrast with the game-playing AIs. Alpha Zero can’t do much with go counters; it’s limited to making clever moves in games of go. But we don’t do much more with go counters ourselves. Go is a game, and making clever moves is the object. Of course, we can achieve other things through playing go, such as winning a bet, but we also play the game simply to pass the time.

Language, by contrast, is far more than a game. It’s a tool — a hugely complex Swiss army knife of a tool — and one that GPT-3 doesn’t have a clue how to use. If there’s a sharp divide here, it’s between systems that play language like a game and ones that use it as a tool.

It is true that humans sometimes treat language as a game. Think of a simultaneous translator whose only object is to reproduce the moves made in one language with parallel moves in another. But these are rare cases. (This example was suggested by a comment by Douglas Hofstadter.)

A final, broader point. One of the worries about AIs such as GPT-3 is that we may end up creating systems that are behviourally but not psychologically identical to us — counterfeit humans, which would trick us into treating them as equals. I suspect this is a red herring. We have very little reason to create beings like ourselves, with all our limitations, weaknesses, and occasional concomitant sublimities. (And if we do, we can already produce them by biological means.)

What we will want are machines that aren’t like us — ones that can do things we can’t do or that make a better job of things we can. We will want artificial astronauts, explorers, builders, doctors, companions, inspirers, inventors — and some will want artificial cheaters, exploiters, and fighters. The danger is that we will give these beings a veneer of humanity — an ability to play social interaction like a game — which will lead us to both overestimate and underestimate their real abilities.

Caricaturing attempts to crack consciousness

On 15 May this year, The Spectator magazine published an by Kit Wilson titled ‘Cracking consciousness: how do our minds really work?’. I disagreed with much of the article, which I felt gave a seriously unbalanced view of consciousness science, but I was particularly annoyed by the author’s presentation of the illusionist view to which I myself subscribe. Partisanship is one thing, but downright misrepresentation is another, and I sent a brief letter to the magazine protesting about it. Since the editor decided not to publish it, I am posting it here.

Sir: As the person who coined the term ‘illusionism’, I want to protest against the mischaracterization of the illusionist view in Kit Wilson’s article ‘Cracking consciousness: how do our minds really work?’ (15 May 2022). Wilson says that illusionists ‘deny the mind exists’, and he uncritically quotes dismissive assessments (‘essentially gibberish’, ‘the silliest claim ever made’) from two of the view’s most hostile critics. Your readers deserve better.

Illusionists do not deny that mind and consciousness exist. They merely reject a certain view of what consciousness is. Specifically, they deny that consciousness involves awareness of what philosophers call ‘qualia’ — private mental versions of colours, sounds, tastes, and so on. Illusionists argue that qualia are illusory, and they offer alternative accounts of consciousness that do not mention them. Wilson suggests that this view is ‘self-evidently self-defeating’ since the illusion of consciousness would itself be a conscious one, but this facile objection ignores the fact that illusionists conceive of consciousness (and thus of illusion) as not involving qualia.

Illusionism may not be the right view, but it is an alternative to the outlandish and untestable speculation Wilson discusses elsewhere in his piece, and it deserves to be assessed on its merits rather than dismissed on the basis of a crude caricature.

Keith Frankish
(Honorary Reader, University of Sheffield)
Heraklion, Greece

Like a rainbow

Do illusionists deny the reality of consciousness? I’ve been discussing this on Twitter recently (see this thread, among others), and it has promoted me to try to think of analogies that might illuminate the illusionist perspective.

Here’s one: rainbows. Rainbows are real, aren’t they? You can see them with your own eyes — though you have to be in the right position, with the sun behind you. You can point them out to other people — provided they take up a similar position to you. Heck, you can even photograph them.

But what exactly is it that’s real? It seems as if there’s an actual gauzy, multi-coloured arc stretching across the sky and curving down to meet the ground at a point to which you could walk. Our ancestors may have thought rainbows were like that. We know better, of course. There’s no real coloured arc up there. Nor are there any specific physical features arranged arcwise — the rainbow’s “atmospheric correlates”, as it were. There are just water droplets evenly distributed throughout the air and reflecting sunlight in such a way that from your vantage point there appears to be a multi-coloured arc.

To sum up:

  • Rainbows, whatever they are: real
  • Coloured, spatially located aerial arcs: illusory
  • Experiences as of coloured, spatially located aerial arcs: real
  • Atmospheric conditions that cause experiences as of multi-coloured, spatially located aerial arcs: real

That’s very much how illusionists think of consciousness. It’s real enough. It’s the condition you’re in when you attend to things perceptually. I have it; you have it, scientists can study it. But, like a rainbow, it’s not what we naively take it to be.

When I reflect on my own experience, it seems to me that my consciousness is an inner world, where the world around me is rendered in private mental qualities — “qualia” — for my benefit alone. But there isn’t such a world. Neuroscience finds nothing like it in the brain, nor even anything isomorphic to it. Rather, it finds complex trains of neural activity proceeding in parallel and triggering a host of reactions — physiological, psychological, and behavioural. My sense of having a rich qualia-filled inner world is an impression created by all these processes, but the processes themselves are as different from the supposed inner world as a moisture-infused mass of air is from a colourful aerial arc.

To sum up:

  • Consciousness, whatever it is: real
  • A private qualia-filled mental world: illusory
  • The impression of a private qualia-filled mental world: real
  • Brain processes that produce the impression of a private qualia-filled mental world: real

I know what you are going to say! You’re going to ask about that impression of a private qualia world. What’s that exactly? Isn’t it a conscious experience — like the experience of seeing a rainbow — which itself belongs to a private qualia-filled mental world? If so, the whole idea is circular. I seem to be saying that the qualia world exists only in another qualia world. Does that second qualia world exist only in a third one, then, and so on? Ridiculous!

If illusionists thought like that, then their view would indeed be ridiculous. But they don’t. They don’t think that experiences exist in qualia worlds at all. They offer alternative accounts of what experiences are that don’t mention qualia. On the view I favour, experiences are complex sets of perceptually triggered psychological reactions and reactive dispositions. To have an experience as of a colourful arc in the sky is to form beliefs, memories, emotions, and a host of other reactive dispositions appropriate to the presence of such an arc. It is to be, as it were, in “sensing sky arc mode”. Similarly, to be under the impression that one has an inner qualia world is to react psychologically as if one had an inner qualia world — to think, talk, and react in countless other way as if such a world existed. That suggestion needs a lot of fleshing out, of course, and you might think it won’t work, but at least it shows that illusionists aren’t making a ridiculously circular claim.

That’s the analogy then. Consciousness is as real as a rainbow. It exists, but it is not a private qualia world, any more than a rainbow is a physical arc in the sky. So trying to find the neural correlates of the qualia world is as sensible as trying to find an arc-shaped structure in the atmosphere after a rain shower. And searching for a solution to the Hard Problem is like looking for the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow!

PS. After posting this piece, I was delighted to find that Daniel Dennett gave it his stamp of approval:

The Rolling Stones - She's A Rainbow (Official Lyric Video)

Do you know what sensations you’re having?

Last week, Matt Lieberman posted the video below on Twitter. (I believe it was originally posted on TikTok by the dancer featured in it.) The video illustrates change blindness. Large visual changes occur during the course of the video, which the viewer typically doesn’t notice. You may like to watch the video a few times and see if you notice the changes.

If you still haven’t noticed the changes, I’ll tell you. [Spoiler follows]

. . .

The colours of the dancers’ tops change markedly during the video. You can see the difference easily by jumping to different points in the video and noting the colours of the tops at each point.

You may be surprised that you missed such a large change, but it is not really surprising. Our visual systems are designed to keep track of things through changes in their appearance. Imagine you’re in a forest with a tiger stalking you. As the tiger moves in and out of the shade, the light reflected from its coat changes continually, but you need to ignore these changes and focus on what’s constant: the individual animal moving through the trees. And that is exactly what your brain does. In the case of the video, your brain accurately tracked the individual dancers, not confusing one with another, and it ignored changes in colour that were irrelevant to this task. Looked at in this way, change blindness is not a bug in our visual system but a feature, and we should expect it to occur all the time.

But this feature of vision presents a problem for a certain view of consciousness, which I’ll call the three-stage view. The view goes like this. Conscious perception proceeds in three stages. First, physical stimuli impact on our sense organs and produce neural activity in sensory processing regions of our brains. Second, this neural activity produces a visual sensation — a private mental quality which makes it like something to perceive the stimuli. Third, the sensation in turn produces reactions appropriate to its nature (unpleasant sensations cause us to shun the things generating them, pleasant sensations cause us to seek them out, etc). We react as we do because of what our experiences are like.

Now, when the colours changed without your noticing it, what happened at each of the three stages? There were certainly changes at the first stage. The light rays hitting your retina changed, and, presumably, at least some of the activity in your visual cortex did, too. There were no changes at the third stage, however — or at least no major ones. Maybe there were subtle changes in your behavioural dispositions that could be detected under experimental conditions. (I don’t know if this has been investigated; it would be an interesting project.) But your reactions did not change in a way that was noticeable either to you or to a casual observer.

What about the second stage? Did your visual sensations change? Was there a change in what the experience was like for you?

If there wasn’t, and your sensations didn’t change until you reacted, then the three-stage view is undermined. For the view says that our reactions are produced by our sensations; we react as if there is something green in front of us because we are having a sensation of green. But if we don’t have a green sensation until we react, then the sensation can’t be playing this role. Indeed, it is not clear why we need sensations at all, since the reactions occur independently of them.

So a defender of the three-stage view must say that our sensations change before we react. They can then continue to claim that when we do react we are reacting to a change in our sensations, albeit after a delay.

But this has a strange consequence. It means that we can be mistaken about our own current sensations. At the mid-point of the video, you thought you were having the same colour sensations as at the start, but you were in fact having different ones. And does that even make sense? Your sensations are supposed to define how things seem to you, and while you may be wrong about what colour something is, you can’t be wrong what colour it seems to be.

That’s not all. If you can fail to notice your sensations changing, then maybe you could fail to notice them fading out altogether. Maybe your sensations faded out an hour ago, and you haven’t noticed yet. You’ve continued to react as if they hadn’t faded out, of course, but during the video you continued to react as if your colour sensations hadn’t changed. Maybe you’ve never had colour sensations at all. Maybe you’re just reacting as if you have them. How do you know? All you can be sure of is what you think about your sensations. Maybe sensations are a sort of illusion.

A confession

I have a confession to make. I often fail to reply to people who email or message me with invitations, requests, and questions. I have an excuse, of sorts. I have many demands on my time and haven’t been in the best of health. But I feel guilty about it.

I am particularly bad at replying to messages that pose philosophical questions. Replying to such a message takes time and thought — especially if the question is a good one — and I often put it off, though fully intending to reply at some point. And then, of course, more messages come in, and my to-reply list grows longer and longer. The senders must think I am just ignoring them.

Why don’t I at least send a short acknowledgement, saying that I have received the message and will reply if and when I have time? I have thought of doing this, but the danger is that it would make me even less likely to write a full reply. Having sent the acknowledgement, I might feel that I’d dealt with the matter and could forget it. By contrast, If I don’t reply at all I feel guilty, and the guilt does sometimes push me to reply properly.

So here’s a message to anyone who has written to me and not received a reply:

First, I am sorry; please accept my apologies.

Second, please don’t think that I felt your message wasn’t worth a reply. The chances are it was just the opposite: I felt that it deserved a long and careful reply, which I just didn’t have time to write.

Third, please feel free to re-send your message. I won’t be annoyed and will reply eventually!

Zac’s disappearing nonconsciousness

Clive Wearing is a former musicologist and musician who has chronic amnesia, both anterograde and retrograde. He can’t form new memories or retrieve old ones. Although he is fully conscious, Clive lives trapped in a perpetual present, with no awareness of his own past (according to Wikipedia his episodic memory has a capacity of only 30 seconds). He continually feels that he has just emerged from a long period of unconsciousness, and in his diary he repeatedly affirms that he is now at last awake, scoring out earlier entries which affirmed the same and which now mean nothing to him:

8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely awake.
9:06 AM: Now I am perfectly, overwhelmingly awake.
9:34 AM: Now I am superlatively, actually awake.

Clive’s condition is a personal tragedy for him and his loved ones, but it is a also a fascinating psychological case study, and I want to take it as the basis for a philosophical thought experiment. I hope this does not suggest any disrespect to Clive or his family. I certainly intend none.

Clive suffers from what we might call disappearing consciousness. At every waking moment he is fully conscious, but those conscious moments rapidly pass into oblivion, and Clive’s conscious life has a brief temporal extension. We can imagine his memory span reducing further — to twenty seconds, ten, one, less — until his conscious life is the merest flicker in an otherwise dark existence.

I want to imagine someone who is the inverse of Clive — someone who suffers from disappearing nonconsciousness. Consider Zac. Zac has suffered an illness which has left him a zombie in the philosopher’s sense. His brain functions exactly as it did before, taking in the same range of sensory information and using it to produce responses just like those of a fully conscious person. He can give detailed reports on the world around him and his own bodily condition, noticing everything a fully conscious person would. However, his brain no longer produces any subjective experience — his mental states no longer have any phenomenal feel to them, no ‘what-it-is-likeness’. The inner light of phenomenal consciousness has gone out, and Zac experiences the world unconsciously. Given the standard way of thinking of consciousness, this should be at least conceivable.

There is a twist, however. Zac is not a complete zombie. Unlike other philosophical zombies, he is aware that he is not phenomenally conscious. So when he describes the visual scene before him, he adds that he isn’t really seeing it. He knows what the world is like, but his experience is not like anything. If zombies are conceivable, then a partial zombie like Zac should be, too. (I have borrowed the notion of a partial zombie from Allin Cottrell, who uses it to question the conceivability of zombies. See his excellent paper ‘Sniffing the Camembert’.)

Zac’s lack of phenomenal consciousness troubles him, and he repeatedly notes it in his diary. (He can write perfectly well, of course, and is aware of what he is writing, though the experience of writing is not like anything for him.)

8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely unconscious.

So Zac is unlike Clive in not being conscious. He is unlike Clive in another way, too. Whereas Clive’s brain fails to record memories of being conscious, Zac’s brain keeps fabricating them. When it forms episodic memories of scenes and events, it tags them as having been experienced in the normal way, just as they were before Zac’s illness. So although Zac experiences the world unconsciously, he remembers it has having been experienced consciously.

The upshot is that Zac suffers from the opposite delusion to Clive. Whereas Clive continually feels that he is waking up into consciousness and denies his past consciousness, so Zac continually feels that he losing consciousness and denies his past nonconsciousness:

8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely unconscious.
9:06 AM: Now I am totally, overwhelmingly unconscious.

9:34 AM: Now I am fully, actually unconscious.

And as the latency period between experience and memory shrinks, Zac’s sense of nonconsciousness shrinks too, until it is a mere flicker of darkness in an otherwise illuminated life.

What is the moral of this? The obvious one is that even if our experiences do have a subjective phenomenal feel to them, this feel may play little or no role in generating our sense of being conscious — of its being like something to be us. So maybe consciousness doesn’t have much to do with phenomenal feel after all.

Designed for destruction?

Suppose that our universe is intrinsically special in a way that it would not have been if the physical constants had taken other possible values. (As I argued in this previous post, it’s important that it be intrinsically special, not just special in the eyes of the creatures who inhabit it.) Then this would seem to raise the credence we should give to the hypothesis that the constants were not randomly set but shaped by a purposive agency of some kind, which sought to produce a universe with this special feature. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that it does.

So is our universe intrinsically special? What might be the special-making feature be? An obvious candidate is life. Life looks pretty special, perhaps even intrinsically valuable. Now, I’m not convinced that life is intrinsically valuable in the relevant sense. (We often treat it as intrinsically valuable, of course, and it’s right that we do, but that’s another matter.) But let’s concede it. And life certainly could not have existed if the physical constants had not been within a vary small range. So we have an argument that a life-seeking agency shaped our universe to enable to it to support life. Cool!

But wait a minute! Our universe’s physical laws and constants may allow life to emerge, but they also condemn life to complete annihilation. The second law of thermodynamics secures that. The relentless growth of entropy, which actually drives the local development of complexity, will eventually dismantle all complexity, leaving the universe a cold, dead realm of undifferentiated low-energy soup. This doesn’t look like something a life-seeking agency would build in. If we were designing a giant spaceship to carry humanity to a new star system, we wouldn’t build in a self-destruct mechanism set to trigger automatically halfway through the voyage.

In fact, a more plausible hypothesis is that the special making feature is the destruction of life, and that the agency that shaped the constants was seeking this goal — an inference not dissimilar to that drawn by Gloucester in King Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

A defender of the life-agency hypothesis might reply that the agency could only do so much. It could tweak the physical constants but couldn’t change the second law. But what reason do we have to think that? We know nothing of this agency and the constraints under which it operated. (Unless of course, we think that revealed religion provides such information.) The agency has been introduced simply in order to explain why the universe supports life on the assumption that life is what makes this universe intrinsically special. If the universe is not really so special in the life department, then we can’t save the life-agency hypothesis by saying that the life agency did its best. It’s begging the question. We need to identity the special-making feature independently of the process posited to explain it.

Notes on emergence

Last April, Bryce Huebner and I had a Twitter exchange about emergence in biology. I felt that we were talking past each other and tried to work out how it had happened. I suspected that it was due to the way the concept of emergence had been used in different traditions, and I sketched the following tentative history. (I should stress that this is speculative; I’m not a historian.)

1. Late 19th – early 20th century: Some British philosophers (Broad, Lloyd Morgan, Alexander) started using ’emergentism’ to describe a metaphysical view on which the world is radically layered, with new fundamental properties and powers spontaneously appearing at each level, building up to the mental.

2. Mid 20th century: That kind of emergentism was empirically falsified, and philosophers rejected it. However, dualist philosophers continued to claim that some mental properties and powers are fundamental, emerge spontaneously, and exert a ‘top-down’ influence on the physical world, causing particles to behave in ways that physics alone could not predict.

3.Late 20th century: Scientists adopted the term ’emergence’, ignoring its metaphysical baggage and using it in a different sense to characterize global features of complex systems, especially self-sustaining ones. Confusingly, these scientists often spoke of these global features as exhibiting a ‘top-down’ causal influence — meaning that the components of complex systems are causally sensitive to global conditions, not that global features appear spontaneously and exert a fundamental causal influence on the physical world, additional to that of the components.

5. Late 20th – early 21st century: To capture the difference between the philosophical and scientific uses, philosophers drew a distinction between strong and weak emergence. However, they tended to define weak emergence in terms of deducibility and denial of ‘top-down’ influences, which made scientists think that that ‘weak’ emergentists denied the kind of global influences they needed to talk about.

6. Same time: Some dualist philosophers seized on this, claiming that scientists themselves were now talking of strong (spontaneous, fundamental) emergence. If strongly emergent features are common in the natural world, then why shouldn’t aspects of the mind be strongly emergent? Science vindicates dualism!

7. April 2021: Bryce and Keith talk past each other, Bryce adopting the scientific use, Keith the philosophical one.

At the time, Bryce and I talked of writing this up as a short paper, which we may still do. Meanwhile, if anyone has any comments, I’d be grateful for them. Comments from historians of science and philosophy would be particularly welcome!

Illusionism cover image

Front cover of Illusionism book

The cover image for my 2017 book Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness is a painting of a rather flamboyant stage magician performing a variety of tricks simultaneously. I found the image on Wikimedia and thought it was an appropriate visual metaphor for the theory discussed in the book. But who was this magician? Wikimedia says only this about the image:

Zan Zig performing with rabbit and roses, including hat trick and levitation. Advertising poster for the magician (who seems to have left no other trace behind).

Could it be Julius Zancig? It seemed unlikely to me, given the description of Julius’s act, which he performed with his wife Anges. I put a message on my website asking if anyone could find out more.

In 2020, Jeff Miner (a former student of Kent Bach at SFSU, now working in tech) contacted me to say that he’d done some research on the image, which he has kindly given me permission to share. Jeff wrote:

I asked around and crowd-sourced a bit.

It looks as though he was a magician (possibly from the Cincinnati area) who named himself in such a way as to be confused with Zancig.

There’s a second lithograph of him at the LoC.

This response I got seems the most complete:

It was fairly common for second and third rank magicians to use names that resembled those of first-rank magicians (e.g. Hoodini, Howdini, Houdyni, etc.). The Zancigs, (Agnes and Julius) toured with a two-person telepathy (second sight) act. They didn’t do bunnies, doves and goldfish. It’s possible there was a fellow who called himself “Zan Zig” in hopes that people would think they were seeing the Zancigs.

Since the US Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress, and since this lithograph was copyrighted, I expect the LOC got the name from the copyright registration. Librarians are pretty good about researching items in their collections, and the LOC librarians are some of the best in the world.

As to who “Zan Zig” might have been, at least on the Google-Indexed Web all hits on “Zan Zig” are to this picture (or the second lithograph also at the LOC showing a fellow who looks like the same guy doing four different illusions.) The fellow top left in that second lithograph is the standard stage version of Mephistopheles from Faust.

Doing a search in The New York Clipper and the New York Dramatic Mirror for the year 1899 might reveal more, or maybe not if this fellow was a local Cincinnati magician.

In a second email, Jeff forwarded further information from one of his correspondents:

There was a magician of this period named “Zanzic,” He was referred to in Leaves From Conjuror’s Scrapbooks, with this paragraph:

Another magician by the name of Robinson has been traveling in the Western States for the past few years, but is going under the professional name of Zanzic. Being a clever performer, it would seem he ought to have originated a more healthful-sounding name, which is “sick’led o’er with a pale cast of thought.”

There is quite a bit more about him in Jim Steinmeyer’s book The Glorious Deception, pages 135-138. The first paragraph there reads:

Zanzic was a tall, slender, dark-haired magician. His real name was Robertson or Brenner, and he also worked under the name Henry Andre. Zanzic had been born in New Orleans, the son of a Creole fortune-teller. He was six years younger than Will [Robinson], an old friend from the days when they were both starting out in magic and used to meet at Martinka’s shop. His associates thought of Zanzic as unstable: accident-prone and filled with half-baked schemes. He certainly had the skill to be a good magician. But for Zanzic, the adrenaline of a performance was like a strange, addictive sort of poison that made him giddy and stupid.

In short, the illustration is of a hyperactive magician who was hoping to deceive people about his very identity. I think that makes it even more appropriate for a book about the addictive self-illusions our brains create.

The title of this blog

The title of this blog, Tricks of Mind, reflects the role that notions of illusion and artifice play in my view of the human mind. We humans have learned a variety of subtle but powerful tricks — strategies of self-control, self-manipulation, and extended problem-solving — which vastly extend the power of our biological brains and give us the sense of having a unified, phenomenally conscious mind, self, or soul. The conscious mind is a virtual system, constituted by these activities. It is, in a sense, a trick of the biological mind.

The pinprick solution to the Fermi paradox

Why are there no signs of aliens, given the vastness of the galaxy and the apparent abundance of opportunities for life to develop? This is the Fermi paradox. Here’s a possible solution to it. I’ve not seen it proposed before, though I don’t know the literature well.

Suppose the following claims are true:

1) There is a multiverse. (It may not be strictly necessary to assume this, but it makes exposition easier.)

2) Any universe that is capable of supporting life is also fragile, in the sense that a relatively small, highly localized ‘pinprick’ event can cause the whole thing to collapse, as a pinprick can destroy an inflated balloon.

3) ‘Pinprick’ events do not occur naturally. (Again, it may not be strictly necessary to assume this.)

4) An advanced technological civilization will almost certainly create a pinprick event inadvertently as soon as it is capable of doing so. (Suppose that there is a technological process that promises huge benefits in say, in cheap energy or interstellar travel, but which will also, and unforeseeably, create a pinprick event.)

Then we have a solution to the Fermi paradox. Every universe in which a technological civilization develops is rapidly destroyed by that civilization — or by another that develops around the same time. No universe contains more than a very small number of technological civilizations, and we shouldn’t expect to see signs of another one in our galaxy.

And we’re going to destroy the universe soon.

Fine-tuning and intrinsic value

I’ve been thinking a bit about the fine-tuning argument for design, and in particular about this Scientific American piece by Philip Goff. I’ve also been talking to Philip about it. Here are few thoughts arising from the process.

(Note added 8/11/21: Below I talk about fine-tuning as evidence for design — a word which might be taken to imply the existence of a personal creator god of the kind believed in by the Intelligent Design community. Philip has asked me to clarify that he does not align himself with that community and that he prefers to talk of fine-tuning as evidence for ‘teleology’ or ‘goal-directed activity’ in the early universe rather than design. The points made below equally to this weaker claim.)

The fine-tuning argument starts with the uncontroversial claim that if the fundamental physical constants of our universe had been different, then life would have been impossible. There is only a tiny range of possible values within which stable complex physical structures, and hence life, could arise. That is, it looks as if our universe has been designed to support life. More precisely: given the evidence (the actual nature of the constants — call this E), the hypothesis that the universe was designed (D) is more probable than the hypothesis that it arose by chance (C). Schematically, Pr(E/D) > Pr(E/C).

One reply to this is that is there is another, equally probable, hypothesis — namely, that there is a multitude of universes (a ‘multiverse’), each member of which has different constants. Our universe was not specially designed for life; it just happens to be one in which life is possible. It seems special to us because it enabled us to exist. Compare a lottery winner who thinks there must have been something special about their ticket. There wasn’t really anything special about it. It seems special to them because it made them a winner. It doesn’t seem special to anyone else, and our universe doesn’t seem special from other perspectives either.

I think Goff would agree that if there were a multiverse, then the existence of our universe would be no more improbable than if there were a designer. But he argues that the existence of our universe does not make it probable that there is a multiverse. To think it does, he argues, is to commit the reverse gambler’s fallacy (the fallacy that an observed lucky throw of the dice must have been preceded by long series of unobserved unlucky ones). To underline the point, he describes a scenario in which a deranged kidnapper will kill you unless a certain monkey types out an English sentence within a set time (an analogy for the universe having just the right constants for us to exist). Goff points out that if the monkey comes through with the goods and you survive, you won’t be tempted to infer that there are lots of other typing monkeys around, on whose productions the lives of other, less fortunate, victims depend (analogous to a multiverse).

The issues here are tricky, and I don’t claim to be clear about them. But even if Goff is right about the multiverse hypothesis, I don’t think the result is a win for the design hypothesis. For the obvious alternative to the design hypothesis is a simpler one: that our universe arose by chance, with random constants (analogous to the monkey just happening to type English). Our universe had to have some constants, and they just happened to be ones that made life possible. It seems amazingly lucky to us, of course, but that is because we are living beings and wouldn’t be around if the constants had been different. The specialness is in our eyes only — analogous to the specialness of the lottery’s winner’s ticket. Why is this hypothesis less probable than the hypothesis that the universe was designed to support life? Why should we think that a designer tuned the constants to make our existence possible, any more than a lottery winner should think that someone fixed the lottery to make them win?

Now we can easily imagine a case where design would be more probable than chance. Suppose our universe had some feature that made it objectively special, not just special in our eyes. Suppose that, in virtue of having the constants it has, it supported something intrinsically valuable, which a universe designer would plausibly want to promote. Then, other things being equal, design would be more probable than chance. Analogously, if there were something about the lottery winner that made their winning independently significant — say, that they were married to the chief executive of the lottery company — then we would be warranted in suspecting that the lottery had been fixed. Proponents of the fine-tuning argument can claim that this is in fact the case, and that life is the specialness-conferring feature.

In short, the fine-tuning argument requires the assumption that life itself, or the experiences of living beings, is intrinsically valuable. (This is in fact Goff’s view.) This isn’t to say that that the assumption is sufficient for the argument to work — there might be other problems with the argument, particularly with the design hypothesis itself — but it is necessary to get it going.

Should we make the assumption? It is a big issue, but I think not. Of course, life and the experiences of living creatures matter enormously to us, but I don’t see any reason to think they matter in the way required by the fine-tuning argument — that they have an intrinsic value, independent of the interests of living creatures. Indeed, I find it hard to make sense of the claim. As I see it, value and meaning are rooted in the interests of living creatures, even if we sometimes speak of them as intrinsic properties of things. But that’s another story. The moral I want to draw here is that the fine-tuning argument needs the assumption that life is intrinsically valuable.

Introducing jekylls

Philosophers of mind talk a lot about zombies. I want to introduce a related species of philosophical monster, which I shall call jekylls. Like zombies, jekylls are atom-for-atom duplicates of us, inhabiting a world with the same physical laws as ours — a world which, let’s assume, is causally closed. Your jekyll twin has all the same physical and functional states you do, including mental ones. It has the same functionally defined perceptions, sensations, thoughts, desires, memories, and emotions, and it is conscious in a functional way too. It also has a sense of self, built of memories, emotions, and introspective and interoceptive states — all functionally defined. (For simplicity, I’ll use ‘psychological’ as David Chalmers does in TCM to mean ‘psychological in a functional sense’.)

So far, then, jekylls are just like zombies. There is a difference, however. Jekylls also have phenomenal states, understood as qualitative mental states that can’t be characterized in functional terms. The phenomenal lights are on inside, as they supposedly are in us. But jekylls aren’t just like us, either. For their phenomenal states are not aligned with their psychological ones. There is a deep incongruity between what they are thinking and feeling psychologically and what they are thinking and feeling phenomenally. When they are psychologically calm, they are filled with phenomenal rage, when they are in psychological pain, they feel phenomenal bliss, when they are psychologically confused, they experience phenomenal clarity, and so on. They are phenomenal/psychological self-inverts.

As a consequence, jekylls have dual selves (you see now why I chose the name). As psychological beings, they have no introspective access to their body’s phenomenal states (which have no distinctive effects), and their phenomenal states make no contribution to their psychological sense of who they are. The subject of their phenomenal states — whatever it is — is completely isolated from the self manifested in their reactions, overt and covert. Each jekyll harbours a phenomenal Mr Hyde. (As with zombies, the literary parallel is not exact, since jekylls never morph into hydes; their inner hyde is forever locked away in a metaphysical limbo.)

Are jekylls conceivable? If zombies conceivable, then jekylls are too. We can conceive of zombies because there is no conceptual connection between functional facts and phenomenal facts. And if there no conceptual connection between functional facts and phenomenal facts, then jekylls are conceivable too. If you think that jekylls are not conceivable, then you have a conception of the phenomenal that is not the one employed in the zombie argument.

Now if phenomenal realism is true, then we are like jekylls, except that our phenomenal selves are beautifully aligned with our psychological ones. You, too, have an ineffective hidden self, but it perfectly mirrors the worldly self manifest in your reactions.

But wait a minute! How do you know that aren’t a jeykll — that you don’t harbour an inner hyde? If you are sure you don’t, then there are two explanations. The first is that you identify with your phenomenal self rather than your psychological one, and know that you are not a hyde. Your mind harmonizes perfectly with the psychological mind your brain processes implement. The downside of this option is that you are strangely alienated from the self manifest in your reactions. You are a phenomenal ghost ineffectively haunting a psychological machine. The other explanation is that at heart you identify with your psychological self and don’t really think you have a phenomenal self at all. You are a complex psychological being, and if you are tempted to think you have a phenomenal self as well, that’s due to features of your psychology. The downside of this is . . . you’re an illusionist!

Old poster for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Comment on Papineau vs Dennett

In 2017, the TLS published a debate about consciousness between David Papineau and Daniel Dennett, focusing on issues raised in Papineau’s review of Dennett’s 2017 book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back. (The debate is behind a paywall, but with limited free access.) Tim Crane, who edited the debate, suggested that I might like to add my thoughts on the exchange in the comments section, which I did. This has seems to have been removed from the TLS site, so I have reproduced it here.


I thought this was a useful exchange, but the conciliatory tone on which it ends left me puzzled about the extent of the difference between the participants’ views on consciousness. Both agree that conscious experiences are physical brain states and that we can internally monitor these states and report their occurrence in us. Yet they differ over what this internal monitoring reveals to us. Papineau holds that we are introspectively aware of phenomenal properties of our experiences, whereas Dennett denies that we are.

This looks like a huge disagreement, but is it really? It depends on what we mean by ‘phenomenal properties’. Papineau glosses the term as ‘properties like being in pain or seeing something red‘. On one reading of this, Dennett can agree that we are aware of such things. As noted, he holds that we can internally monitor our mental states and tell introspectively what experiences we are having. What he denies is that introspection reveals anything about the intrinsic nature of these states. When we have a pain or an experience of red, we are aware only of the property represented (the condition of some part of our body, the redness of some external surface), not any intrinsic properties of the mental state that does the representing. It may seem to us that introspection reveals intrinsic properties of experiences, but this, Dennett maintains, is an illusion.

Papineau disagrees, however. If I understand him right, he uses ‘phenomenal properties’ to refer to intrinsic, nonrepresentational properties of experiences. On his view, introspection doesn’t just reveal that we are having a pain or seeing red, but what these experiences are like in themselves. It does not, however, reveal these properties to us in their true nature, as physical properties of the brain, and this limitation misleads us into thinking that consciousness is mysterious and nonphysical.

On the face of it, Papineau’s position — which is, as he notes, the mainstream physicalist one — may seem more plausible. But I’m not sure it is a stable one. One worry is that introspection doesn’t just fail to present consciousness as physical, but positively presents it as non-physical. When I have an experience of red, I’m tempted to judge that I am directly presented with an ineffable mental redness — which may or may not have been caused by something red in the real world (think of an afterimage). ‘This redness here’, I might say, trying to gesture inwardly at the property I mean. And it’s very hard to see how a physical brain state (a collection of neuronal spike trains, in Dennett’s words) could have a property like that. Certainly, no investigation of my brain would reveal anything like it.

One response to this would be to say that, although we do have introspective access to intrinsic properties of our experiences, introspection misrepresents these properties as having a qualitative nature they in fact lack. (This view has been defended by the American philosopher Derk Pereboom.) I think this is a coherent position, but it would be misleading to call the properties involved ‘phenomenal’, since that term suggests that they do have a qualitative nature. (I have suggested calling them ‘quasi-phenomenal’.) On this view, then, phenomenal properties, properly so called, are illusory — a view that is very close to Dennett’s.

I am unsure whether Papineau would endorse this view. He seems to agree with Dennett in dismissing qualia, understood as mysterious entities constituted by the appearances of things, but he might want to insist on the reality of phenomenal properties in some sense intermediate between full-blown qualia and quasi-phenomenal properties. Perhaps such a view could be defended, though I am sceptical. At any rate, I think that Papineau and other physicalists should at least allow the possibility of a thoroughgoing illusionism about phenomenal properties. For if we are wholly physical beings, then our introspective access to our experiences must be mediated by some physical mechanism, and it is possible that such a mechanism could consistently misrepresent them as having properties they do not in fact have.

In the end, I remain unsure about the extent of the disagreement between Dennett and Papineau. It is, however, a disagreement between allies, and on one crucial point they are agreed: that the philosophical puzzle of consciousness arises in large part from the limitations of introspection.

‘Illusionism as a theory of consciousness’ translated into Spanish by David Vanegas

David A. Vanegas-Moreno has made a Spanish translation of my 2016 article ‘Illusionism as a theory of consciousness’ , which he has kindly allowed me to share here.

David is a psychologist and cognitive scientist from the Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia. His work has focused on the evolution of language and its role in human cognition. At the moment he is working on the “representation wars” in 4E cognitive science, and on the explanatory and integrative approach to cognitive science proposed by the new mechanical philosophy. He posts on Twitter as @evolanguagemind.

I am very grateful to David for his careful work in making my article accessible to Spanish-speaking readers. The translation is also available on my Publications pages.

The dynamical combination problem

Panpsychism is the idea that basic physical entities are essentially micro-consciousnesses and that our macro-consciousnesses result from combining the phenomenal natures of the physical entities that constitute us. The view faces the combination problem: how do simple, discrete micro-consciousnesses combine to produce complex, unified macro-consciousnesses? This problem has been much discussed, but there’s an aspect of it that has, I think, been relatively neglected. Here it is.

It looks like a sensible methodological assumption that if two entities are qualitatively identical from a physical point of view, then they are phenomenally identical too. If panpsychists don’t make this assumption, then it’s hard to see how they could construct anything like a science of consciousness. If panpsychism is true, then we are acquainted with only a tiny fraction of phenomenal reality — the portions that constitute our consciousnesses. The rest can be known only indirectly, by inference from corresponding physical features. But if phenomenal properties could vary independently of physical ones, then there would be no stable phenomenal-physical correspondences, and the bulk of phenomenal reality would not be even indirectly accessible to us. This could be case, but if it is, then there is no hope of explaining consciousness.

If the assumption is true, however, then it follows that there is very little phenomenal variation at the fundamental level. There are only a few types of fundamental particles, and all tokens of these types are qualitatively identical from a physical point of view, differentiated only by their spatio-temporal location. Every up-quark is physically identical to every other up-quark. So all tokens of each particle type are phenomenally identical too. (Differences in their spatio-temporal location are relational ones and cannot affect their intrinsic natures.)

It follows that fundamental phenomenal reality is quite uniform. There will just be a few different phenomenal ‘notes’ played billions upon billions of times. The combination problem is thus doubly difficult: the phenomenal elements from which our macro-consciousnesses are formed are not only simple but few in number, and we must explain how variety emerges from uniformity as well as how richness emerges from simplicity.

But this isn’t all. There is another aspect to the problem, which looks even more challenging. It’s a dynamical aspect. For if our assumption is sound, the phenomenal properties of the fundamental entities never alter. Fundamental particles do not change or age. So, except in exotic circumstances where particles are created or destroyed, the overall phenomenal soundscape stays the same, unaffected by particles’ changes in location (which, again, are irrelevant to their intrinsic natures). The fundamental phenomenal world is almost completely static. How, then, does a dynamical, ever-changing human consciousness emerge from a static phenomenal base? We might call this the dynamical combination problem.

Of course, all this assumes a rather old-fashioned picture of the microphysical world as one of discrete fundamental particles located in spacetime. The problem may look different, and perhaps more tractable, if we adopt a more sophisticated physics.

If you have any thoughts on this problem or any references to relevant discussions in the panpsychist literature, do please post them in the comments.