Human consciousness as a tractable scientific problem

post by lukeprog · 2011-09-09T06:39:41.633Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 104 comments

I encounter many intelligent people (not usually LWers, though) who say that despite our recent scientific advances, human consciousness remains a mystery and currently intractable to science. This is wrong. Empirically distinguishable theories of consciousness have been around for at least 15 years, and the data are beginning to favor some theories over others. For a recent example, see this August 2011 article from Lau & Rosenthal in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, one of my favorite journals. (Review articles, yay!)

Abstract:

Higher-order theories of consciousness argue that conscious awareness crucially depends on higher-order mental representations that represent oneself as being in particular mental states. These theories have featured prominently in recent debates on conscious awareness. We provide new leverage on these debates by reviewing the empirical evidence in support of the higher-order view. We focus on evidence that distinguishes the higher-order view from its alternatives, such as the first-order, global workspace and recurrent visual processing theories. We defend the higher-order view against several major criticisms, such as prefrontal activity reflects attention but not awareness, and prefrontal lesion does not abolish awareness. Although the higher-order approach originated in philosophical discussions, we show that it is testable and has received substantial empirical support.

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comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-09T09:15:16.844Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Please can someone tell me/(tell me where to learn) what is meant by 'first order' and 'higher order' in this context? I am familiar with the terms from logic but I don't think this is what the terms mean here.

The definition from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-higher is too circular for me to understand:

Higher-order theories of consciousness try to explain the distinctive properties of consciousness in terms of some relation obtaining between the conscious state in question and a higher-order representation of some sort (either a higher-order perception of that state, or a higher-order thought or belief about it).

edit: I think the background material necessary is all here http://davidrosenthal.jottit.com/ I will update this after reading it.

edit: Here are my notes so far:

From The Higher-Order Model of Consciousness I gather the following terms: mental state seems to be synonymous with thought, I am treating this term as an roughly undefined and trying to fill it in as I read. The first order thoughts are those direct from sensory modalities whereas higher order thoughts are those which observe thoughts. The example of being hungry is given: this is a first order thought but the observation that you are hungry is a second order thought and so on.

Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness goes into more depth about the historic context of the idea of HOTs (higher order thoughts) and how they relate to three subtle definitions centered around the notion of consciousness. Creature consciousness is defined as simply being awake, sentient and/or aware (presumably it simply means one is interpreting first order thoughts) and transitive consciousness is being conscious of something by thinking of it. The central question is posed: which mental states are state-conscious (to say that a mental state is "conscious" means that one is immediately transitive-conscious of it). The example is given: subliminal perception is not a conscious state, even though one is conscious of what they are perceiving.

The transitivity principle is introduced which states: a mental state is conscious if one is conscious of it in some suitable way. He claims this definition is not circular. The conclusion is:

Higher-order theories of consciousness capture the compelling folk-psychological idea that conscious states are those we are conscious of in some suitable way, and they fit well with results in experimental psychology. It is likely that some version of a higher-order theory will prove to be correct.

In Explaining Consciousness a rough approach to the problem of state-consciousness is sketched: starting with the true statement "if one is not aware of a state, it is not a conscious one", we get "a state is conscious if one is aware of it" - but this is too strong a statement to be true (subliminal awareness is one counter-example) so eliminating all counter-examples should lead to a necessary and sufficient criteria for which mental states are conscious. The apparent circularity from before is clarified, he says "my strategy is to explain a state's being a [state-]conscious state in terms of our being [creature-]conscious of that state in some particular way".

He asks what is special about the way we are transitively conscious of our mental states when they are conscious states. He rejects the idea of an inner-sense or higher-order perception that observes thoughts as a modality, then poses the "only alternative" that we are conscious of our conscious states by virtue of having thoughts about them. It is immediately concluded that a conscious HOT must have content roughly describing that one is in a mental state. It is also argued that a a mental state is conscious when accompanied by a noninferential, nondispositional and assertoric higher order thought that one is in that mental state. He goes on to analyze this hypothesis.

The next section mentions that "when a mental state is not conscious we do not experience any of its qualitative properties", I don't know what "qualitative" means in this context. Apparently "there is nothing like it's like to be in that state" but that doesn't make sense.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2011-09-09T11:55:07.003Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aren't most of the people who say consciousness is a mystery talking about the hard problem, whereas global-workspace theory and higher-order theory and the like address the easy problem?

Replies from: lukeprog
comment by lukeprog · 2011-09-09T12:21:54.249Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps, though some - including Dennett - think that the hard problem will end up being solved by solving the easy problems. I tend to take this 'deflationary' view about the problems of consciousness.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-09T12:41:15.306Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe it's antisocial to keep asking these sorts of questions, I hope not. Do either of you have any idea where I can find a less-wrongian friendly description of this "hard problem". Everything I've read that tries to describe it in the past is full of snippets like "something that it's like to be" and "subjective qualitative" and other such things I have no ability to understand...

Replies from: Yvain, summerstay, lukeprog, scientism
comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2011-09-10T15:13:18.399Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's kind of supposed to be hard to explain, but...hmmmm...maybe something like "why is there a subjectively perceived difference between sleepwalking through your life and being awake?"

If we imagine a sort of "perfect sleepwalker" who, while sleepwalking, could hold conversations, go to work, write poetry, and do anything else that people do while awake exactly as waking people do it - even to the point where if we ask her "Are you awake?" she answers "Yes." - then it might be necessarily impossible for us outsiders to distinguish her sleep from her waking.

But we feel an intuitive believe that she should be able to do so easily. If she's awake, she can notice her awakeness and all the sensations she's feeling and experiences she's having. If she's sleeping, then it doesn't even make sense to "experience" not being awake, because there's no one "at home" to do the experiencing.

An equivalent interpretation of the problem revolves around qualia. Suppose that your experience of "red" was everyone else's experience of "blue". You would never be able to confirm this by talking to other people - you would say things like "blue is the color of the sky and the sea and short-wavelength light" and they would agree with you, but you would be thinking of red when you said it, and everyone else would be thinking of blue. This "experience of blue" which is separate from statements about blue or concepts surrounding blue is the "quale" (plural "qualia") of blue.

Intuition tells us one difference between the sleepwalker and the awake person is that if you ask the sleepwalker what color a stop sign is, the light rays would hit her eyes, go through a chain of neurons in her brain, and produce the response "it's red". The same thing would happen in the awake person, but she'd also have the conscious visual experience qualia thing where she "sees" a certain color in her "mind's eye".

The hard problem is whether there's a difference between awake people with qualia and perfect sleepwalkers (aka "p-zombies") without qualia, and, if so, what causes that difference.

Replies from: Bugmaster, lessdazed, XiXiDu
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-09-11T04:13:20.646Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The hard problem is whether there's a difference between awake people with qualia and perfect sleepwalkers (aka "p-zombies") without qualia, and, if so, what causes that difference.

Is the answer even relevant ?

As far as I understand, there currently exists no "qualia-detector", and building one may be impossible in principle. Thus, in the absence of any ability to detect qualia, and given the way you'd set up your thought experiment about the sleepwalker, there's absolutely no way to tell a perfect sleepwalker from an awake person. As far as everyone -- including the potential sleepwalker -- is concerned, the two cases are completely functionally equivalent. Thus, it doesn't matter who has qualia and who doesn't, since these qualia do not affect anything that we can detect. They are kind of like souls or Saganesque teapots that way.

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-09-11T16:12:32.454Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It certainly matters to the subject! I sure wouldn't want to lose my ability to experience regardless of whether others can ever notice (or whether it's possible).

Your objection here strikes me a little bit like behaviorism. Yes, there are valuable things to be gotten most of the time from such an approach, but behaviorism suffered from an unwillingness to acknowledge that people had thoughts. After all, thoughts didn't demonstrate themselves in behavior beyond being talked about, in which case it was the talk that was part of the scientific domain, not the thinking. The thing is, I know I think, and my strong impression is that others talk about "thoughts" for the same reason I do: they think. The fact that behaviorism didn't have a clear empirical approach to exploring these subjective experiences tagged "thoughts" didn't mean that they were uninteresting or irrelevant. This was the main reason why we switched away from behaviorism in the second half of the 20th century.

(Quick note: Yes, I know that not all behaviorism was like this. Some behaviorists simply said that they didn't want to make claims about what thinking entailed because they didn't know how to approach the matter empirically. However, it was common if not dominant among behaviorists to take the "If we can't study it then it doesn't exist or doesn't matter" approach.)

In exactly the same way, quale-type experience seems to be present for me, and my own impression is that everything I talk about in terms of empiricism gets filtered through qualia. There are no data that transmit information to my mind that I am aware of without that awareness taking on qualia. I'm under the strong impression that others experience the world similarly. The fact that we don't know what that means in reductionistic terms doesn't mean that it's irrelevant or that qualia don't exist. It just means that we don't know how to approach the question unambiguously as yet.

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-09-11T23:53:28.410Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I sure wouldn't want to lose my ability to experience regardless of whether others can ever notice (or whether it's possible).

But according to the though experiment you'd set up, you wouldn't notice:

even to the point where if we ask her [the sleepwalker] "Are you awake?" she answers "Yes."

Granted, you go on to say,

... then it might be necessarily impossible for us outsiders to distinguish her sleep from her waking. But we feel an intuitive believe that she should be able to do so easily.

But that to me seems like a contradiction. We asked the sleepwalker if she was awake, and she said "Yes", after all. If she could in fact determine that she was sleeping, she'd say "No". Which brings me to your next point:

Your objection here strikes me a little bit like behaviorism. ...After all, thoughts didn't demonstrate themselves in behavior beyond being talked about, in which case it was the talk that was part of the scientific domain, not the thinking. The thing is, I know I think, and my strong impression is that others talk about "thoughts" for the same reason I do: they think.

As far as I understand, a hardcore behaviorist would actually claim that humans have no internal state and are basic reflex agents; that's obviously silly, so that is not my position. Instead, I actually agree almost completely with everything you'd said above.

You think thoughts, and your thoughts affect your actions. Unlike a simple reflex agent, you are able to actually think about your thoughts; this ability affects your actions even further. For example, when someone asks you, "are you awake ?", you can think about it for a moment, and say "Yes, probably", or "Most likely, not". You can also hold a lively discourse on the subject of your own thoughts. Thus, your actions -- including your speech -- are, in fact, evidence for your consciousness. A perfect sleepwalker, then, would have to perfectly emulate being conscious, as well; and I'm willing to stick my neck out and say that a perfect emulation of X is, in fact, X.

You say that you are "under the strong impression that others experience the world similarly" to yourself -- well, why is that ? I would argue that your "strong impression" is actually based on evidence (well, that, and possibly some biologically programmed response, but mostly evidence). You converse with others and they respond in certain ways that are consistent with the hypothesis that they, like yourself, are conscious. Sure, they could be perfect sleepwalkers, but that is a less parsimonious hypothesis.

Thus, again, I see no need for dualistic assumptions of any kind, which includes qualia. Besides, dualism doesn't actually explain anything, it just replaces one mystery with another, because now you have to explain how it is that qualia do what they do -- in the total absence of any empirical evidence, as well as any possibility of acquiring such. Well, ok, you don't have to explain it (I'm not the boss of you), but then you're stuck with a kind of mental elan vital that gets you nowhere.

P.S.: For what it's worth (which admittedly isn't much), I personally recall having both kinds of dreams: the kind where I knew I was dreaming, and the kind that seemed so real that, upon waking, it took me some time to figure out whether or not the events in the dream had actually occurred. Thus, I have no trouble imagining a perfect sleepwalker who would answer "No" when you asked her whether she was dreaming or not.

(edited for style)

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-09-26T01:35:15.437Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But according to the though experiment you'd set up [...]

I think you're confusing me and Yvain. I'll take that as a complement, though!

I agree with pretty much everything you've said here - but it's posed as though to stand as an argument against what I think, so I'm a little bit concerned that we're not talking about the same thing. For instance, you say:

Thus, again, I see no need for dualistic assumptions of any kind, which includes qualia.

I agree, dualism is unnecessary as far as we know. It's hard for me to conceive of a type of evidence that would ever suggest that we need dualism.

However, the existence of qualia does not immediately require dualism. The term "qualia" just points to the experiences we have that currently seem to sit on the "other side" of the hard problem of consciousness with respect to our current empirical knowledge. Presumably, we will eventually find a reductionist answer to the hard problem of consciousness. In the meantime, though, we still need a way of talking about the phenomenon in question. Qualia don't play the same role in this question that vis vitalis did with vitalism; it isn't that we're trying to answer the hard problem by saying "subjective experience is made up of qualia", but instead we're trying to describe how subjective experience presents itself to us. We see red, and this experience of redness seems to have a certain character to it, so we tag it with the descriptor of being the quale of red. The question is, how is it that there is a conscious experience induced by neurons firing in response to stimulation of the optic nerve? We know how visual perception works, but as far as I know we don't very well know how the quale of red appears from that. It's a statement of the question, not a phlogiston-class proclamation masquerading as an answer.

Does that clarify where I'm coming from on this? It's not dualism (or at least I'm pretty darn sure it's not!); it's just naming a confusion in as much detail as possible.

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-09-26T09:31:42.105Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're confusing me and Yvain. I'll take that as a complement, though!

Oops, I think you may be right, I'm sorry and/or you're welcome. Heh.

Anyway, oddly enough, I understand the details of your argument, but I don't see the big picture that you're presenting. You reject the proposal that qualia are dualistic in nature, so we're definitely on the same page here. But then you ask,

Presumably, we will eventually find a reductionist answer to the hard problem of consciousness... the question is, how is it that there is a conscious experience induced by neurons firing in response to stimulation of the optic nerve?

I agree that this is a hard question (seeing as it hasn't been fully answered yet), but I don't see this question as categorically different from questions such as "how is our blood flow regulated ?" or "how does visual perception work in humans ?". Presumably, a sleepwalker's brain, or a robot's circuitry, or a zombie's... er... goo or whatever it is zombies have, would implement this functionality in different ways than normal human brains do; and we could tell whether the sleepwalker/robot/zombie implements this functionality or not by talking to them (as you have pointed out in your thought experiment).

So, would you agree that the question "how does consciousness work" is no different from "how does blood flow work" ? If not (as I suspect is the case), then what's the difference ?

By the way, when people talk about qualia, they usually claim that we all share the same ones. Thus, for example, when I see something that I experience as "red", and you see something else (or maybe even the same object) that you experience as "red", we are both using the same exact quale to experience that stuff with. There's pretty much nowhere to go from this premise other than toward dualism, which is why I'd originally assumed you were going toward that route. But now I think that you'd reject the premise just as I do -- is that correct ?

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-09-27T01:15:45.516Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anyway, oddly enough, I understand the details of your argument, but I don't see the big picture that you're presenting.

Ah, then perhaps I'm more confused than I thought! I still haven't identified the source of my confusion, though.

So, would you agree that the question "how does consciousness work" is no different from "how does blood flow work" ? If not (as I suspect is the case), then what's the difference ?

Er... Yes and no. I agree that eventually we should be able to find an answer that sounds as reduced as an answer to "How does blood flow work?" does. But from where we currently stand, they seem to be really, incredibly fundamentally different questions - as long as you understand the question "How does consciousness work?" to be in the hard sense rather than in the easy one.

I think you get near to the crux of the matter in this statement:

Presumably, a sleepwalker's brain, or a robot's circuitry, or a zombie's... er... goo or whatever it is zombies have, would implement this functionality in different ways than normal human brains do; and we could tell whether the sleepwalker/robot/zombie implements this functionality or not by talking to them [...]

Yes, presumably that's the case, and eventually we'll nail that down. But from what we can currently tell, there doesn't seem to be even an in-principle plausible mechanism for adding qualia to a computer's way of processing things. A computer receives input, does some well-defined manipulations, and offers output. Where do qualia come into play? How is it we get the subjective impression of there being a "someone" who is "watching" what's going on in the Cartesian theater? The very concept is internally inconsistent (e.g., how does the homunculus experience?), but the point is the same: there doesn't seem to be any plausible way that we have currently thought of to get from neurons firing to qualia.

I guess the categorical difference is that when asking about blood flow, there's someone who experiences the question and the data and the subsequent answer; but when asking about consciousness, it's the very process of being able to understand the question in the first place that we're asking about. I'm not sure that's entirely equivalent to the hard problem, though.

You might find it helpful to read the Wikipedia page on the hard problem. That might help to explain some of the nuances better than I've been able to thus far. (In particular, it helps to point out that by "hard problem" I don't mean "a challenging problem" but rather "a problem whose potential to be answered even in theory seems in question.")

[...] (as you have pointed out in your thought experiment).

Again, I think that was Yvain.

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-09-27T11:24:27.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that eventually we should be able to find an answer that sounds as reduced as an answer to "How does blood flow work?" does. But from where we currently stand, they seem to be really, incredibly fundamentally different questions...

Ok, that makes sense. I understand now that this is what you believe, but I still don't see why. You say:

But from what we can currently tell, there doesn't seem to be even an in-principle plausible mechanism for adding qualia to a computer's way of processing things. A computer receives input, does some well-defined manipulations, and offers output. Where do qualia come into play?

This, to me, sounds like a circular argument at worst, and a circular analogy (if there is such a thing) at best. You are trying to illustrate your belief that qualia are categorically different from visual perception (just f.ex.), by introducing a computer which possesses visual perception but not qualia, because, due to the qualia being so different from visual perception, there is no way to grant qualia to the computer even in principle. So, "qualia are hard because qualia are hard", which is a tautology. Your next paragraph makes a lot more sense to me:

I guess the categorical difference is that when asking about blood flow, there's someone who experiences the question and the data and the subsequent answer; but when asking about consciousness, it's the very process of being able to understand the question in the first place that we're asking about.

I think that, if you go this route, you arrive at a kind of solipsism. You know for a fact that you personally have a consciousness, but you don't know this about anyone else, myself included. You can only infer that other beings are conscious based on their behavior. Ok, to be fair, the fact that they are biologically human and therefore possess the same kind of a brain that you do can count as supporting evidence; but I don't know if you want to go that route (Searle does, AFAIK). Anyway, let's assume that your main criterion for judging whether anyone else besides yourself is conscious is their behavior (if that's not the case, I can offer some arguments for why it should be), and that you reject the solipsistic proposition that you are the only conscious being around (ditto). In this case, a perfect sleepwalker or a qualia-less computer that perfectly simulates having qualia, etc., is actually less parsimonious than the alternative, and therefore the concept of qualia buys you nothing (assuming that dualism is false, as always). And then, the "hard question" becomes one of those "mysterious questions" to which you could give a "mysterious answer", as per the Sequences.

You might find it helpful to read the Wikipedia page on the hard problem.

I'd actually read that page earlier, and it (along with associated links) seemed to imply that either dualism offers the best answer to the "hard question", or the "hard question" is meaningless as per Dennet -- which is why I took the time to slam dualism in my previous posts.

Again, I think that was Yvain.

Darn, again, I'm sorry. But nevertheless, I think it's a good thought experiment.

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-05T06:32:56.867Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This, to me, sounds like a circular argument at worst, and a circular analogy (if there is such a thing) at best.

Mmm. Yes, I think you're right. As I've chewed on this, I've come to wonder if that's part of where I've been getting the impression that there's a hard problem in the first place. As I've tried to reduce the question enough to notice where reduction seems to fail or at least get a bit lost, my confusion confuses me. I don't know if that's progress, but at least it's different!

I guess the categorical difference is that when asking about blood flow, there's someone who experiences the question and the data and the subsequent answer; but when asking about consciousness, it's the very process of being able to understand the question in the first place that we're asking about.

I think that, if you go this route, you arrive at a kind of solipsism.

I'm afraid I'm a bit slow on the uptake here. Why does this require solipsism? I agree that you can go there with a discussion of consciousness, but I'm not sure how it's necessarily tied into the fact that consciousness is how you know there's a question in the first place. Could you explain that a bit more?

Anyway, let's assume that your main criterion for judging whether anyone else besides yourself is conscious is their behavior (if that's not the case, I can offer some arguments for why it should be), and that you reject the solipsistic proposition that you are the only conscious being around (ditto).

Well... Yes, I think I agree in spirit. The term "behavior" is a bit fuzzy in an important way, because a lot of the impression I have that others are conscious comes from a perception that, as far as I can tell, is every bit as basic as my ability to identify a chair by sight. I don't see a crying person and consciously deduce sadness; the sadness seems self-evident to me. Similarly, I sometimes just get a "feel" for what someone's emotional state is without really being able to pinpoint why I get that impression. But as long as we're talking about a generalized sense of "behavior" that includes cues that go unnoticed by the conscious mind, then sure!

In this case, a perfect sleepwalker or a qualia-less computer that perfectly simulates having qualia, etc., is actually less parsimonious than the alternative, and therefore the concept of qualia buys you nothing

It's not a matter of what qualia buy you. The oddity is that they're there at all, in anything. I think you're pointing out that it'd be very odd to have a quale-free but otherwise perfect simulation of a human mind. I agree, that would be odd. But what's even more odd is that even though we can be extremely confident that there's some mechanism that goes from firing neurons to qualia, we have no clue what it could be. Not just that we don't yet know what it is, but as far as I know we don't know what could possibly play the role of such a mechanism.

It's almost as though we're in the position of early 19th century natural philosophers who are trying to make sense of magnetism: "Surely, objects can't act at a distance without a medium, so there must be some kind of stuff going on between the magnets to pull them toward one another." Sure, that's close enough, but if you focus on building more and more powerful microscopes to try to find that medium, you'll be SOL. The problem in this context is that there are some hidden assumptions that are being brought to bear on the question of what magnetism is that keep us from asking the right questions.

Mind you, I don't know if understanding consciousness will actually turn out to yield that much of a shift in our understanding of the human mind. But it does seem to be slippery in much the same way that magnetism from a billiard-balls-colliding perspective was, as I understand it. I suspect in the end consciousness will turn out to be no more mysterious than magnetism, and we'll be quite capable of building conscious machines someday.

In case this adds some clarity: My personal best proto-guess is that consciousness is a fuzzy term that applies to both (a) the coordination of various parts of the mind, including sensory input and our sense of social relationships; and (b) the internal narrative that accompanies (a). If this fuzzily stated guess is in the right ballpark, then the reason consciousness seems like such a hard problem is that we can't ever pin down a part of the brain that is the "seat of consciousness", nor can we ever say exactly when a signal from the optic nerve turns into vision. Similarly, we can't just "remove consciousness", although we can remove parts of it (e.g., cutting out the narrator or messing with the coordination, as in meditation or alcohol).

I wouldn't be at all surprised if this guess were totally bollocks. But hopefully that gives you some idea of what I'm guessing the end result of solving the consciousness riddle might look like.

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-11-05T08:34:01.218Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm afraid I'm a bit slow on the uptake here. Why does this require solipsism?

Well, there's exactly one being in existence that you know for sure is conscious and experiences qualia: yourself. You suspect that other beings (such as myself) are conscious as well, based on available evidence, though you can't be sure. This, by itself, is not a problem. What evidence could you use, though ? Here are some options.

You could say, "I think other humans are conscious because they have the same kind of brains that I do", but then you'd have to exclude other potentially conscious beings, such as aliens, uploaded humans, etc., and I'm not sure if you want to go that route (let me know if you do). In addition, it's still possible that any given human is not a human at all, but one of those perfect emulator-androids, so this doesn't buy you much.

You could put the human under a brain scanner, and demonstrate that his brain states are similar to your own brain states, which you have identified as contributing to consciousness. If you could do that, though, then you would've reduced consciousness down to physical brain states, and the problem would be solved, and we wouldn't be having this conversation (though you'd still have a problem with aliens and uploaded humans and such).

You could also observe the human's behavior, and say, "this person behaves exactly as though he was conscious, therefore I'm going to assume that he is, until proven otherwise". However, since you postulate the existence of androids/zombies/etc. that emulate consciousness perfectly without experiencing, you can't rely on behavior, either.

Basically, try as I might, I can't think of any piece of evidence that would let you distinguish between a being -- other than yourself -- who is consciousness and experiences qualia, and a being who pretends to be conscious with perfect fidelity, but does not in fact experience qualia. I don't think that such evidence could even exist, given the existence of perfect zombies (since they would be imperfect if such evidence existed). Thus, you are forced to conclude that the only being who is conscious is yourself, which is a kind of solipsism (though not the classic, existential kind).

Similarly, I sometimes just get a "feel" for what someone's emotional state is without really being able to pinpoint why I get that impression. But as long as we're talking about a generalized sense of "behavior" that includes cues that go unnoticed by the conscious mind, then sure!

It seems like we agree on this point, then -- yey ! Of course, I would go one step further, and argue that there's nothing special about our subconscious mind. We know how some parts of it work, we have mapped them down to physical areas of the brain, and our maps are getting better every day.

I think you're pointing out that it'd be very odd to have a quale-free but otherwise perfect simulation of a human mind. I agree, that would be odd.

I don't just think it would be odd, I think it would be logically inconsistent, as long as you're willing to assume that people other than yourself are, in fact, conscious. If you're not willing to assume that, then you arrive at a kind of solipsism, which has its own problems.

But what's even more odd is that even though we can be extremely confident that there's some mechanism that goes from firing neurons to qualia, we have no clue what it could be.

Right, which is why I reject the existence of qualia as an independent entity altogether. As per your magnetism analogy:

"Surely, objects can't act at a distance without a medium, so there must be some kind of stuff going on between the magnets to pull them toward one another." Sure, that's close enough, but if you focus on building more and more powerful microscopes to try to find that medium, you'll be SOL.

Right, and the problem here is not that your microscopes aren't powerful enough, but that your very idea of a magnetic attraction medium is flawed. In reality, there are (probably) no such things as "magnets" at all; there are just collections of waveforms of various kinds (again, probably). You choose to call some of them "magnets" and some others "apples", but those words are just grossly simplified abstractions that you have created in order to talk about the world -- because if you had to describe every single quark of it, you'd never get anywhere.

Similarly, "qualia" and "consciousness" are just abstractions that you'd created in order to talk about human brains -- including your own brain. I understand that you can observe your own consciousness "from the inside", which is not true of magnets, but I don't see this as an especially interesting fact. After all, you can observe gravity "from the inside", as well (your body is heavy, and tends to fall down a lot), but that doesn't mean that your own gravity is somehow different from my gravity, or a rock's gravity, because as far as gravity is concerned, you aren't special.

If this fuzzily stated guess is in the right ballpark, then the reason consciousness seems like such a hard problem is that we can't ever pin down a part of the brain that is the "seat of consciousness", nor can we ever say exactly when a signal from the optic nerve turns into vision.

I don't think that we need to necessarily pin down a single part of the brain that is the "seat of consciousness". We can't pin down a single part that constitutes the "seat of vision", either, but human vision is nonetheless fairly well understood by now. The signal from the optic nerve is just part of the larger mechanism which includes the retina, the optic nerve, the visual cortex, and ultimately a large portion of the brain. There's no point at which electrochemical signals turn into vision, because these signals are a part of vision. Similarly, there isn't a single "seat of blood flow" within the human body, but blood flow is likewise fairly well understood.

Similarly, we can't just "remove consciousness", although we can remove parts of it (e.g., cutting out the narrator or messing with the coordination, as in meditation or alcohol).

I'm not sure I follow your reasoning here. What do you mean by "removing consciousness" and "cutting out the narrator", and why is it important ? Drunk (or meditating) people are still conscious, after a fashion.

Replies from: Mercurial, None
comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-05T19:05:14.528Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Basically, try as I might, I can't think of any piece of evidence that would let you distinguish between a being -- other than yourself -- who is consciousness and experiences qualia, and a being who pretends to be conscious with perfect fidelity, but does not in fact experience qualia. I don't think that such evidence could even exist, given the existence of perfect zombies (since they would be imperfect if such evidence existed). Thus, you are forced to conclude that the only being who is conscious is yourself, which is a kind of solipsism (though not the classic, existential kind).

Ah! Okay. Three points:

  • I think you're arguing for something I agree with anyway. I don't think of qualia as being inherently independent of everything else. I think of qualia as self-evident. I don't think my experience of green can be entirely separated from the physical process of perceiving light of a certain wavelength, but I do think it's fair to say that I'm conscious of the green color of the "Help" link below this text box.
  • Even if I did think qualia were divisible from the physical processes involved in perception (which I think would force dualism), I wouldn't be able to conclude that I'm the only one who is conscious. I would have to conclude that as far as I currently know, I have no way of knowing who else is or isn't conscious. So solipsism would then be a possibility, but not a logical necessity.
  • I'm not arguing that p-zombies can exist. I seriously doubt they can. If this is a point you've been trying to argue me into agreeing, please note that we started out agreeing in the first place!

It seems like we agree on this point, then -- yey ! Of course, I would go one step further, and argue that there's nothing special about our subconscious mind.

Er... Except that we're not conscious of it! I'd say that's pretty special - as long as we agree that "special" means "different" rather than "mysterious".

I don't just think it would be odd, I think it would be logically inconsistent, as long as you're willing to assume that people other than yourself are, in fact, conscious.

Sorry, I meant "odd" in the artistically understated sense. We agree on this.

I reject the existence of qualia as an independent entity altogether.

So here, I think, is a source of our miscommunication. I also reject qualia as being independent.

I think part of the problem we're running into here is that by naming qualia as nouns and talking about whether it's possible to add or remove them, we've inadvertently employed our parietal cortices to make sense of conscious experience. It's like how people talk about "government" as though it's a person when, really, they're just reifying complex social behavior (and as a result often hiding a lot of complexity from themselves).

"Quale" is a name that has been, sadly, agreed upon to capture the experience of blueness, or the sense of a melody, or what-have-you. We needed some kind of word to distinguish these components of conscious experience from the physical mechanisms of perception because there is a difference, just like there's a difference between a software program and the physical processes that result in the program running. Yes, as far as the universe is concerned, it's just quarks quarking about. But just like it's helpful to talk about chairs and doors, it's helpful to talk about qualia in order to understand what our experience consists of.

I suspect in the future we'll be able to agree that "qualia" was actually a really bad term to use, with the benefit of hindsight. I suspect consciousness will turn out to be a reification, and thus talking about its components as though they're things just throws us off the track and creates confusion in the guise of a mystery. But even if we dump the term "qualia", we're still stuck with the fact that we experience, and there's a qualitative sense in which experience doesn't seem like it's even in-principle describable in terms of firing neurons. If you told me that it was discovered that there's actually a region of the brain that's responsible for adding qualia to vision (pardoning the horrid implicit metaphor), I wouldn't feel like hardly anything had been explained. So you found circuitry that, when monkeyed with, makes all yellow vanish from my conscious awareness. But how did yellow appear in the first place, as opposed to being just neuronal signals bouncing around? Pointing to a region of the brain and saying "That does it" still leaves me baffled as to how. I don't see how explaining the circuitry of that brain region in perfect synapse-level detail could answer that question.

However, I could totally see consciousness turning out to have this "hard problem" because it's like trying to describe where Mario is in terms of the transistors in a game console.

Similarly, "qualia" and "consciousness" are just abstractions that you'd created in order to talk about human brains -- including your own brain. I understand that you can observe your own consciousness "from the inside", which is not true of magnets, but I don't see this as an especially interesting fact.

On this point, I think we might just be frozen in disagreement. You seem to be taking as practically axiomatic that there's nothing significantly different about consciousness as compared to anything else, like gravity. To me, that view of consciousness is internally incoherent. You can make sense of gravity as an outside observer, but you can't make sense of your own consciousness as an outside observer. That's hugely relevant for any attempt to approach consciousness with the same empirical eye as used on gravity, or magnetism, or any other physical phenomenon. We can look at those phenomena from a position that largely doesn't interact with them in a relevant way, but I cannot fathom a comparable place to stand in order to be conscious of consciousness while not interacting with it.

This is not to say that consciousness is intrinsically more mysterious than gravity. I'm just utterly dumbfounded that you can think that your ability to be aware of anything is somehow no more interesting than any other random phenomenon in the universe.

I don't think that we need to necessarily pin down a single part of the brain that is the "seat of consciousness".

I don't think so either.

We can't pin down a single part that constitutes the "seat of vision", either, but human vision is nonetheless fairly well understood by now.

...

We seem to keep doing this. I agree, because that's part of the point I was making.

Similarly, we can't just "remove consciousness", although we can remove parts of it (e.g., cutting out the narrator or messing with the coordination, as in meditation or alcohol).

I'm not sure I follow your reasoning here. What do you mean by "removing consciousness" and "cutting out the narrator", and why is it important ? Drunk (or meditating) people are still conscious, after a fashion.

Removing consciousness is exactly the process that would turn a person into a p-zombie, yes? So what I've suggested as a general direction to consider for how consciousness appears passes the sanity test of not allowing p-zombies.

As for the narrator... Well, you know how there's a kind of running commentary going on in your mind? It's possible to stop that narration, and if you do so it changes the quality of consciousness by quite a lot.

Meditation, alcohol, and quite a number of other things can all monkey with the way parts of the mind coordinate and also get the narrator to stop narrating (or at least not become an implicit center of attention anymore). And I'm not claiming that doing these things removes consciousness. Quite the opposite, I'm pointing out that drunk and meditating people have a different kind of conscious experience.

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-11-06T07:08:05.742Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would have to conclude that as far as I currently know, I have no way of knowing who else is or isn't conscious. So solipsism would then be a possibility, but not a logical necessity.

True, but you can carry the reasoning one step further. The claim "other people are conscious" is a positive claim. As such, it requires positive evidence (unless it's logically necessary, which in this case it's not). If your concept of qualia/consciousness precludes the possibility of evidence, you'd be justified in rejecting the claim.

Er... Except that we're not conscious of it! I'd say that's pretty special - as long as we agree that "special" means "different" rather than "mysterious".

Fair enough.

We needed some kind of word to distinguish these components of conscious experience from the physical mechanisms of perception because there is a difference...

Well, it depends on what you mean by "perception". If you mean, for example, "light hitting my retina and producing a signal in my optic nerve", then yes, experience is different -- because the aforementioned process is a component of it. The overall process of experience involves your visual cortex, and ultimately your entire brain, and there's a lot more stuff that goes on in there.

...just like there's a difference between a software program and the physical processes that result in the program running.

Hmm, I don't know, is there such a difference ? As far as I understand, when Firefox is running, we can (plus or minus some engineering constraints) reduce its functionality down to the individual electrons inside the integrated circuits of my computer (plus or minus some quantum physics constraints). Where does the difference come in ?

...and there's a qualitative sense in which experience doesn't seem like it's even in-principle describable in terms of firing neurons.

I lack this sense, apparently :-(

If you told me that it was discovered that there's actually a region of the brain that's responsible for adding qualia to vision (pardoning the horrid implicit metaphor), I wouldn't feel like hardly anything had been explained.

As it happens, there's a real neurological phenomenon called "blindsight" which is similar to what you're describing. It's relatively well understood (AFAIK), and, in this specific case, we can indeed point to a specific region of the brain that causes it. So, at least in case of vision, we can actually map the presence or absence of conscious visual experience to a specific area of the brain. I suspect that there are scientists who are even now busily pursuing further explanations.

You seem to be taking as practically axiomatic that there's nothing significantly different about consciousness as compared to anything else, like gravity.

The word "axiomatic" is perhaps too strong of a word. I just don't think that it's possible to treat consciousness as being categorically different from other phenomena, such as gravity, while still maintaining a logically and epistemically (if that's a word) consistent, non-solipsistic worldview.

You can make sense of gravity as an outside observer, but you can't make sense of your own consciousness as an outside observer. [emphasis mine]

Ok, let me temporarily grant you this premise. What about the consciousness of other people ? Can I make sense of those consciousness as an outside observer ? If the answer is "no", then consciousness becomes totally mysterious, because I can only observe other people's consciousness from the outside. If the answer is "yes", then you end up saying, "my own consciousness is categorically different from anyone else's", which seems unlikely to be true, since you're just a regular human like the rest of us.

but I cannot fathom a comparable place to stand in order to be conscious of consciousness while not interacting with it.

I agree, but I don't think this means that you can't "make sense" of your consciousness regardless. In a way, this entire site is a toolkit for making sense of your own consciousness -- specifically, its biases -- and for using this understanding to alter it.

Removing consciousness is exactly the process that would turn a person into a p-zombie, yes? ... Quite the opposite, I'm pointing out that drunk and meditating people have a different kind of conscious experience.

Ah, ok, I get it, and I agree, but I'm still not sure how this relates to the point you're making. If anything, it offers tangential evidence against it -- because the existence of a relatively simple physical mechanism (such as alcohol) that can alter your consciousness points the way to reducing your own consciousness down to a collection of strictly physical interactions.

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-07T05:12:42.665Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You know, I think we're getting lost in the little details here, and we keep communicating past one another.

First, let me emphasize that I do think we'll eventually be able to explain consciousness in a reductionist way. I've tried to make that clear, but some of your arguments make me wonder if I've failed to convey that.

Second, remember that this whole discussion arose because you questioned the value of trying to answer the hard problem of consciousness. I now suspect what you originally meant was that you don't think there is a hard problem, so there wasn't anything to answer. And in an ultimate sense, I think you're right: I think people like Thomas Nagel are trying to argue that we need a complete paradigm shift in order to explain how qualia exist, and I think they're wrong. Eventually it almost certainly comes down to brain behavior. Even if it's not clear what that pathway could be, that's a description of human creativity and not of the intrinsic mysteriousness of the phenomenon.

But what you said was this:

Is the answer even relevant ?

As far as I understand, there currently exists no "qualia-detector", and building one may be impossible in principle. Thus, in the absence of any ability to detect qualia, and given the way you'd set up your thought experiment about the sleepwalker, there's absolutely no way to tell a perfect sleepwalker from an awake person. As far as everyone -- including the potential sleepwalker -- is concerned, the two cases are completely functionally equivalent. Thus, it doesn't matter who has qualia and who doesn't, since these qualia do not affect anything that we can detect. They are kind of like souls or Saganesque teapots that way.

This, to me, really sounds like you're saying we can't detect qualia, so we might as well assume there are no qualia, so we shouldn't worry about how qualia arise. Maybe that wasn't your point. But if it was, I stand in firm disagreement because I think that qualia are the only things we can care about!

For some reason I can't seem to convey why I think that. I feel rather like I'm pointing at the sun and saying "Look! Light!" and you're responding with "We don't have a way of detecting the light, so we might as well assume it isn't there." (Please excuse the flaw in the analogy in that we can detect light. Pretend for the moment that we can't.) All I can do is blink stupidly and point again at the sun. If I can't get you to acknowledge that you, too, can see, then no amount of argumentation is going to get the point across.

So all I'm left with is an insistence that if my understanding of the universe is completely off and it turns out to be possible to remove conscious experience from people, I most certainly would not want that done to me - not that I could care afterwards, but I absolutely would care beforehand! So to me, the presence or absence of qualia matters a lot.

But if you cannot relate to that at all, I don't think I'll ever be able to convey why I feel that way. I'm completely at a loss as to how this could possibly be a topic of disagreement.

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-11-07T07:10:59.218Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You know, I think we're getting lost in the little details here, and we keep communicating past one another.

Sorry, you're right, I tend to do that a lot :-(

I now suspect what you originally meant was that you don't think there is a hard problem, so there wasn't anything to answer.

That's correct, I think; though obviously I'm all for acquiring a better understanding of consciousness.

Eventually it almost certainly comes down to brain behavior. Even if it's not clear what that pathway could be...

I think it's not entirely clear what that pathway is, but there are some very good clues regarding what that pathway could be, since certain aspects of consciousness (such as vision, f.ex.) are reasonably well understood.

This, to me, really sounds like you're saying we can't detect qualia, so we might as well assume there are no qualia, so we shouldn't worry about how qualia arise.

Pretty much, but I think we should make a distinction between a person's own qualia, as experienced by the person, and the qualia of other people, from the point of view of that same person. Let's call the person's own qualia "P" and everyone else's qualia (from the point of view of the person) "Q".

Obviously, each person individually can detect P. Until some sort of telepathy gets developed (assuming that such a thing is possible in principle), no person can detect Q (at least, not directly).

You seem to be saying -- and I could be wrong about this, so I apologize in advance if that's the case -- that, in order to build a general theory of consciousness, we need to figure out a way to study P in an objective way. This is hard (I would say, impossible), since P is by its nature subjective, and thus inaccessible to anyone other than yourself.

I, on the other hand, am arguing that a general theory of consciousness can be built based solely on the same kind of evidence that compels us to believe that other people experience things -- i.e., that Q exists and is reducible to brain states. Let's say that we built some sort of a statistical model of consciousness. We can estimate (with a reasonably high degree of certainty) what any given person will experience in any situation, by using this model and plugging in a whole bunch of parameters (representing the person and the situation). I think you would you agree that such a model can, in principle, exist (though please correct me if I'm wrong). Then, would you agree that this model can also predict what you, yourself, will experience in a given situation ? If not, then why not ? If yes, then how is P any different from Q ?

So all I'm left with is an insistence that if my understanding of the universe is completely off and it turns out to be possible to remove conscious experience from people, I most certainly would not want that done to me...

I agree, but I believe that removing a person's consciousness will necessarily alter his behavior; in most cases, this alteration would be quite drastic. Thus, I definitely wouldn't want this done to me, or to anyone else, for this matter.

However, I think you are contemplating a situation where we remove a person's consciousness, and yet his behavior (which includes talking about his consciousness) remains exactly the same. I argue that, if such a thing is possible, then consciousness is a null concept, since it has literally no effect on anything we could ever detect. As far as I understand, you agree with me with respect to Q, but disagree with respect to P. But then, you must necessarily believe that P is categorically different from Q, somehow... mustn't you ?

If you do believe this, then you must also believe that any model of consciousness that we could possibly build will work correctly for anyone other than yourself. This seems highly unlikely to me, however -- what makes you such an outlier ? You are a human like the rest of us, after all. And if you are not an outlier, and yet you believe that the model won't function for you, then you must believe that such a model cannot be built in principle (i.e., it won't function for anyone else, either), and yet I think you would deny this. As I see it, the only way to reconcile these contradictions is to reject the idea that P is categorically different from Q, and thus there's nothing special about your own qualia, and thus the problem consciousness isn't any harder than the problem of, say, unifying gravity with the other fundamental forces (which is pretty hard, admittedly).

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-07T18:43:40.876Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Apparently my reply is "too long", so I'll reply in two parts.

PART 1:

Sorry, you're right, I tend to do that a lot :-(

Hey, apparently I do too!

That's correct, I think

Excellent.

I think it's not entirely clear what that pathway is, but there are some very good clues regarding what that pathway could be, since certain aspects of consciousness (such as vision, f.ex.) are reasonably well understood.

Um... Sure, let's go with that. There's a nuance here that's disregarding the hard problem, but I don't think we'll get much mileage repeating the same kind of detail-focusing we've been doing. :-P

I think we should make a distinction between a person's own qualia, as experienced by the person, and the qualia of other people, from the point of view of that same person. Let's call the person's own qualia "P" and everyone else's qualia (from the point of view of the person) "Q".

Sure, agreed.

I should warn you, though, that I'm not sure that this distinction is coherent. There's some reason to suspect that our perception of others as conscious is part of how we construct our sense of self. So, it might not make sense to talk about "my" conscious experience as distinct from "your" conscious experience as though we start with a self and then grant it consciousness. It might be the other way around.

I emphasize this because explaining Q without ever touching P might not tell us much about P. If we start with conscious experience and then define the line between "my" experience and "others'" experience by the distinction between P and Q, all we do by detailing Q is explain our impression that others are conscious. We might think we're addressing others' P, but we never actually address our P (which, it seems, is the only P we can ever have access to - which might be because we define "me" in part by "that which has access to P" and "not me" by "that which doesn't have access to P").

So with that warning, I'll just run with the intuitive distinction between P and Q that I believe you're suggesting.

Obviously, each person individually can detect P. Until some sort of telepathy gets developed (assuming that such a thing is possible in principle), no person can detect Q (at least, not directly).

I agree, and I would go just a little bit farther: I would argue that it's not possible even in principle to detect Q as a kind of P. If I experience another person's experience from a first-person perspective, it's not their experience anymore. It's mine. Sure, we might share it, like two people watching the same movie. But the P I have access to is still my own, and the Q that I'm supposedly accessing as a kind of P is still removed: I still have to assume that the person sitting next to me is also experiencing the movie.

You seem to be saying -- and I could be wrong about this, so I apologize in advance if that's the case -- that, in order to build a general theory of consciousness, we need to figure out a way to study P in an objective way. This is hard (I would say, impossible), since P is by its nature subjective, and thus inaccessible to anyone other than yourself.

Yeah, I think that's a reasonably fair summary. :-)

I, on the other hand, am arguing that a general theory of consciousness can be built based solely on the same kind of evidence that compels us to believe that other people experience things -- i.e., that Q exists and is reducible to brain states.

I agree with you on this. I just think it's important to recognize that what we will have explained is our impression that others are conscious. That might give us insight into P, and it seems implausible that it wouldn't, but it also doesn't seem clear what kind of mechanism it could possibly reveal for P. At least to me!

I think you would you agree that such a model can, in principle, exist (though please correct me if I'm wrong).

Yes, I agree.

Then, would you agree that this model can also predict what you, yourself, will experience in a given situation ? If not, then why not ? If yes, then how is P any different from Q ?

I'm going to go with "maybe", which I think requires me to answer both the "yes" and "no" branches. :-P

I think it's certainly plausible that this model of Q could predict the behavior of P. But it needn't do so. Why not? Because P and Q are different for precisely the reason that we gave them different names. I'm under the impression that my wife is conscious as a sort of immediate perception; surely I deduce it somehow, probably by my perception of her as a social entity with whom I could in principle interact, but that isn't how it seems to me. I just see her as conscious. So when we explore my perception of her as conscious and we develop a thorough model of her consciousness as perceived by me (and others), what that model does is predict how our perception of her conscious experience changes.

But it requires an extra step to say that if I were her, I would be experiencing those changes as P.

Now, I suspect that this model would work out just fine. I suspect that when we determine that we've modeled Q, that the model of Q will predict my P. (I see this in the Enneagram all the time, in fact: it describes others' experiences, and when I spell out their experiences they often give an "I've been caught!" kind of reaction. When someone does the same to me, I sure feel caught!) After all, part of the impression I get of Q comes from the fact that I know that I would react they way the other is reacting if I were to experience X, which draws me to think that they're experiencing X. So for it to fail to model P, it seems likely that I'd have to react in a way that I would not recognize from the outside (assuming experiencing my own P as Q can be turned into a coherent idea). That seems like it'd be pretty weird.

But we're still left with the fact that the application of the theory to Q feels tremendously different than its application to P. The fact that the model is attempting to explain in part why P and Q are different in the first place makes it difficult for me to see how an explanation of Q alone is going to do it. It feels as though its ability to capture P would be almost coincidental.

(continued...)

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-07T18:43:58.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

PART 2:

I think you are contemplating a situation where we remove a person's consciousness, and yet his behavior (which includes talking about his consciousness) remains exactly the same. I argue that, if such a thing is possible, then consciousness is a null concept, since it has literally no effect on anything we could ever detect.

Yep. I believe that's Eliezer's argument (the "anti-zombie principle" I think it was called), and I agree. That's why I prefaced it with saying that my understanding of the universe would have to be pretty far off in order for my self-zombification to even be possible. So, given the highly improbable event that p-zombies are possible, I sure wouldn't want to become one! Ergo, my own qualia matter a great deal to me regardless of anyone else's ability to detect them.

As far as I understand, you agree with me with respect to Q, but disagree with respect to P. But then, you must necessarily believe that P is categorically different from Q, somehow... mustn't you ?

...

I'm not sure what it would mean for me to agree in terms of Q but not P. I'm not quite sure what you're suggesting I'm saying. So maybe you're right, but I honestly don't know!

If you do believe this, then you must also believe that any model of consciousness that we could possibly build will work correctly for anyone other than yourself. This seems highly unlikely to me, however -- what makes you such an outlier ? You are a human like the rest of us, after all.

Mmm... I'm not saying that I, personally, am special. I'm saying that an experiencing subject is special from the point of view of the experiencing subject, precisely because P is not the same as Q. It so happens that I'm an experiencing subject, so from my point of view my perspective is extremely special.

Remember that science doesn't discover anything at all. Scientists do. Scientists explore natural phenomena and run experiments and experience the results and come to conclusions. So it's not that exploring Q would just happen and then a model emerges from the mist. Instead, people explore Q and people develop a model that people can see predicts their impressions of Q. That's what empiricism means!

I emphasize this because every description is always from some point of view. For most phenomena, we've found a way to take a point of view that doesn't make the difference between P and Q all that relevant. A passive-voice description of gravity seems to hold from both P and Q, for instance. But when we're trying to explore what makes P and Q different, we can't start by modulating their difference. We have to decide what the point of view we're taking is, and since part of what we're studying is the phenomenon of there being points of view in the first place, that decision is going to matter a lot.

And if you are not an outlier, and yet you believe that the model won't function for you, then you must believe that such a model cannot be built in principle (i.e., it won't function for anyone else, either), and yet I think you would deny this.

I think that if a model of Q fails to inform us about P, then it will fail for P regardless of whose perspective we take.

However, I suspect that a good model of Q will tell us pretty much everything about P. I just can't fathom at this point how it might do so.

As I see it, the only way to reconcile these contradictions is to reject the idea that P is categorically different from Q, and thus there's nothing special about your own qualia, and thus the problem consciousness isn't any harder than the problem of, say, unifying gravity with the other fundamental forces (which is pretty hard, admittedly).

Well, part of the problem is that we know P is categorically different than Q. Or rather, I know my P is categorically different than Q, and if Q is going to have any fidelity, everyone else will be under the same impression from their own points of view.

I can guarantee that any model that claims I don't have conscious experience is flat-out wrong. This is perhaps the only thing I'd be willing to say has a probability of 1 of being true. I might discover that I'm not experiencing what I thought I was, but the fact that I'm under the impression of seeing these words, for instance, is something for which I believe it is not possible even in principle to provide me evidence against. (Yes, I know how strong a claim that is. I suppose that since I'm open to having this perspective challenged, I should still assign a probability of less than 1 to it. But if anything deserves a probability of 1 of being true, I'd say the fact that there is P-type experience is it!)

However, I can't make a claim like that about Q. I'm certainly under the impression that my wife is conscious, but maybe she's not. Maybe she doesn't have P-type experience. I don't know how I could discover that, but if it were possible to discover it and it turned out that she were not conscious, I wouldn't view that as a contradiction in terms. It would just accent the difference between P-type experience and my impression of Q-type experience. Getting evidence for my wife not being conscious doesn't seem to violate what it means for something to be evidence the way "evidence" against my own consciousness would be.

I'm oversimplifying somewhat since consciousness almost certainly isn't a "yes" or "no" thing. Buddhists often claim that P-type consciousness can be made "more conscious" through mindfulness, and that once you've developed somewhat in that direction you'll be able to look back and consider your past self to not have been "truly" conscious. However, the point I'm trying to make here is that we actually start with the immediate fact that P is different than Q, and it's upon this foundation that empiricism is built. We can't then turn around and deny the difference from an empirical point of view!

However, in spirit I think I agree with you. I think we'll end up understanding P through Q. I don't see how since I don't see how to connect the two empirically even in principle. But science has surprised philosophers for three hundred years, so why stop now? :-D

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-11-10T04:24:15.502Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Apparently my reply is "too long", so I'll reply in two parts.

Bah ! Curse you, machine overlords ! shakes fist

I should warn you, though, that I'm not sure that this distinction is coherent. There's some reason to suspect that our perception of others as conscious is part of how we construct our sense of self.

I did not mean to imply that. In fact, I agree with you in principle when you say,

So, it might not make sense to talk about "my" conscious experience as distinct from "your" conscious experience as though we start with a self and then grant it consciousness. It might be the other way around.

Sure, it might be, or something else might be the case; my P and Q categories were meant to be purely descriptive, not explanatory. Your conscious experience, of whose existence you are certain, and which you are experiencing at this very minute, is P. Other people's conscious experience, whose existence you can never personally experience, but can only infer based on available evidence, intuition, or whatever, is Q. That's all I meant. Thus, when you say, "...we might think we're addressing others' P, but we never actually address our P", you are confusing the terminology; there's no such thing as "other people's P", there's only P and Q. You may suspect that other people have conscious experiences, but the best you can do as lump them into Q.

You move on to say several things which, I believe, reinforce my argument (my apologies if I seem to be quote-mining you out of context, please let me know if I'd done so on accident):

I emphasize this because explaining Q without ever touching P might not tell us much about P. ... I would argue that it's not possible even in principle to detect Q as a kind of P. ... it's important to recognize that what we will have explained is our impression that others are conscious, ...but it also doesn't seem clear what kind of mechanism it could possibly reveal for P. ... But we're still left with the fact that the application of the theory to Q feels tremendously different than its application to P. ... I'm saying that an experiencing subject is special from the point of view of the experiencing subject, precisely because P is not the same as Q.

You appear to be very committed to the idea that your own experience is categorically different from anyone else's, and that a general model of consciousness -- assuming it was even possible to create such a thing -- may not tell you anything about your own experience. The problem with this statement, though, is that there exists one, and only one, "experiencing subject" in this Universe: yourself. As I said above, you suspect that other people (such as your wife, for example) are experiencing things, but you aren't sure of it; and you don't know if they experience things the same way that you do, or whether it even makes sense to ask that latter question. There are two possible corollaries to this fact (well, there are two that I can think of):

1). Other people in this world are categorically similar to yourself, and thus a general model of consciousness can never be developed, in principle, because such a model will fail to predict P, as seen from the point of view of every person individually. Thus, consciousness is completely mysterious and inexplicable.

2). You are special. A general model of consciousness can be developed, but it will work for everyone other than yourself, specifically.

Option #2 is solipsism. Option #1 may seem attractive at the surface, but it contradicts the fact that we do have models of consciousness which work quite well -- they are employed by psychologists, advertisers, political speech writers, and even computer scientists, f.ex. when they build things like HDR photo rendering or addictive Facebook games. One way to dodge this contradiction would be to say,

3). The models of consciousness that we currently possess do not actually model consciousness; they just model behavior. Consciousness is not correlated with behavior in any significant way.

Option #3, however, puts you on the road to discarding consciousness altogether as a null concept.

I can't think of any way to resolve these contradictions, other than to posit that there's nothing special about your own consciousness. Sure, it feels special in a truly visceral way, but there are lots of things we feel that aren't actually true: the Earth is not flat, the stars are really huge and really hot, but very far away; choosing a different door in the Monty Hall scenario is the correct choice, etc. Thus, I disagree with you when you say,

However, the point I'm trying to make here is that we actually start with the immediate fact that P is different than Q, and it's upon this foundation that empiricism is built.

Empiricism is based on the foundation of avoiding cognitive biases, and I am inclined to treat the (admittedly, very strong) intuition that I am very special as just another kind of a cognitive bias. And while it is true that "...people explore Q and people develop a model that people can see predicts their impressions of Q...", I don't see why this is important. Why does it matter who (or what) came up with the model ? Doesn't the predictive power of the model (or lack thereof) matter much, much more ?

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-10T19:11:33.814Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's nice to see this discussion converging! I was afraid we'd get myred in confusing language forever and have to give up at some point. :-(

Bah ! Curse you, machine overlords ! shakes fist

:-D

...my P and Q categories were meant to be purely descriptive, not explanatory. Your conscious experience, of whose existence you are certain, and which you are experiencing at this very minute, is P. Other people's conscious experience, whose existence you can never personally experience, but can only infer based on available evidence, intuition, or whatever, is Q.

Ah, okay. I thought you meant, "Given a subject, that subject's experience is P, and others' is Q." The above distinction seems more coherent.

Let's do away with possessive pronouns when referring to P and Q, then. We'll say P is phenomenal experience (what I'm tempted to call "my experience" but am explicitly avoiding assigning to a particular subject since my sense of myself as a subject might well arise from the existence of P), and Q is the part of P that gives the impression that we describe as "Others seem to be conscious." I think we can agree that those two phenomena are different, even if Q seems to be a part of P. (I have a hard time conceiving of a kind of experience that's not part of P, for that matter!)

Sound good?

...you are confusing the terminology...

Sorry about that. I see what you mean.

(my apologies if I seem to be quote-mining you out of context, please let me know if I'd done so on accident)

It doesn't look that way to me at first brush. Thanks for the consideration, though. :-)

You appear to be very committed to the idea that your own experience is categorically different from anyone else's, and that a general model of consciousness -- assuming it was even possible to create such a thing -- may not tell you anything about your own experience.

I think here is where the use of possessive pronouns betrays us. What I'm very committed to is that P is more than Q, so a priori knowing everything about Q doesn't necessarily tell us anything about why P arises in the first place. The only reason we seem to think this is likely, as far as I know, is that Q is specifically the impression that P-like phenomena exist "in others." (I honestly can't think of a way to describe the relationship between P and Q without talking about Q in terms of others. I think that might be intrinsic to the definition of Q.)

What we will have explained with a full and robust theory of Q is why the impression of "others who have P-type experience" arises. (Again, I don't know how else to phrase that.) That wouldn't tell us why red appears as red, although it would tell us why others who are conscious (if any) would be under the impression that we experience red as red.

Or said a little differently, it seems perfectly plausible to me that my impression that others are conscious might have nothing to do with why I'm conscious. It might be based solely on the fact that I'm conscious.

Now, if it turns out that those two really don't have anything to do with one another, that would be surprising to me because of the nature of Q: my impression is that others are conscious for the same reason I am. But my evidence for others' consciousness is of a completely different nature than that of my own. So, if they really don't have anything to do with one another, then solipsism seems much more likely.

But even in that solipsistic case, I wouldn't say that there's something special about me. I'd say there's something special about P in that it's the only perspective possible. It just so happens that from the only possible perspective, there is this impression of a particular identity, which is under the delusion that there are other, comparable identities "out there". In this situation, there's no other perspective one can don in order to say that there's nothing special about me as compared to any other random human. I'm special because I'm the one whose identity is wrapped up in P, and in a solipsistic universe there's no one else like that. As far as I know, that's what solipsism means.

(Of course, because of Q, I would predict that you would make the same argument about yourself. But I know better! :-P )

I'll say once more that I suspect that a full theory of Q would, indeed, go a long way to explaining P. But I'm also aware that I'm under this impression because of Q. This makes it extremely difficult to fathom what the connection between a Q-explanation and a P-explanation could possibly look like. After all, if such a connection did not exist, I would still have a strong suspicion that a Q-explanation would yield a P-explanation.

Sure, it feels special in a truly visceral way, but there are lots of things we feel that aren't actually true: the Earth is not flat, the stars are really huge and really hot, but very far away; choosing a different door in the Monty Hall scenario is the correct choice, etc.

I don't think this comparison works because of a recursive element that's in consciousness. With those other phenomena, we can look at an aspect of P, apply a mental model, and predict what the next experience in P will be. But what is to be explained is the arising of P in the first place. It's hard to make sense of what making predictions in that context would even mean, in part because we can't experience P from outside of P. We can't look at P as a whole the way we can look at our visual impression that the Earth is flat.

Empiricism is based on the foundation of avoiding cognitive biases, and I am inclined to treat the (admittedly, very strong) intuition that I am very special as just another kind of a cognitive bias.

I'm inclined to agree. The problem is that there isn't a perspective to take from where you can say that your ability to take perspectives is an external phenomenon. It becomes very convoluted to even try to say what it would mean for the fact that your subjective experience is special to you is a bias. Biased for whom, in what way? What's the objective truth that this "bias" is causing you to mentally deviate from? It's not an impression that my consciousness is different to me than my impression of others' consciousness is; rather, it's a fact, as objective as any fact could possibly be. I could totally believe that there's some kind of weird cognitive illusion trick being played on me such that I'm not actually writing these words, but there is no possible way for my impression that I'm writing these words to not actually exist. What would that even mean? I'm more certain that I'm under the impression that I'm experiencing what I'm experiencing than of anything else, bar none. And I can be so certain of this because the only way to offer me evidence to the contrary is through experience.

I think part of the tangle here is this implicit idea that there's what Nagel calls a "view from nowhere" that we can always take to describe phenomena. It is, for instance, the idea that 2+2=4 is an objective fact that is part of the universe itself rather than just a facet of how we happen to experience it. It's true no matter who is talking, and disagreement with that fact is a form of being objectively wrong. But that model - the idea that there's this objective truth out there independent of subjective experience - is not something we can ever even in principle get evidence for. It's much like how you can never know for sure that you're not dreaming: any test you can perform is a test you can dream. There's no way out even in principle. This doesn't mean you are dreaming, but it does mean that you can't use the supposed fact that you're not dreaming as part of your evidence that you're not dreaming. In the same sort of way, there's no way to get evidence that there's an objective world outside of your experience. That doesn't mean it isn't there, but it does mean that there's no way to get evidence for that world's existence. Any such evidence is evidence you'd have to experience.

(Let me emphasize here that I'm not arguing against reductionistic materialism. I'm just pointing out a tangle in attempts to use reductionistic materialism to explain the ability to experience. I'm sure we can come up with a model of consciousness that works within reductionistic materialism, but it's not at all clear how that model could possibly be true to the a priori fact that the model itself arises out of our experiences.)

So how do you get outside of experience in order to demonstrate how experience itself arises?

The question doesn't seem even in principle answerable.

That's why it's called the hard problem of consciousness!

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-11-18T04:27:52.426Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Given a subject, that subject's experience is P, and others' is Q." The above distinction seems more coherent.

Oops, actually, the latter definition is closer to what I had in mind. It seems like we need three letters:

  • P: Your own subjective personal experience.
  • Q: The personal subjective that you suspect other people are having, which may be similar to yours in some way; or, as you put it, the impression that "others have P-type experience". You have no way of accessing this experience directly, and no way of experiencing it yourself.
  • Pq: "The part of P that gives the impression that we describe as "Others seem to be conscious."" Pq is all the evidence you have for Q's existence.

Since Pq is a part of P, as you said, I don't want to focus too much on it. I also want to emphasize that P is your own personal experience, not any abstract "subject's". It's the one that you can access directly.

Moving on, you say:

My impression is that others are conscious for the same reason I am. But my evidence for others' consciousness is of a completely different nature than that of my own.

1). I would agree with your statement if you removed the word "completely". Obviously, you know you are conscious, and you can experience P directly. However, you can also collect the same kind of data on yourself (or have someone, or some thing, do it for you) as you would on other people. For example, you could get your brain scanned, record your own voice and then play it back, install a sensor on your fridge that records your feeding habits, etc.; these are all real pieces of evidence that people are routinely collecting for practical purposes.

2). If you think that the above paragraph is true, then it would follow that you (probably) can collect some data on your own Q, as it would be experienced by someone else who is conscious (assuming, again, that you are not the only conscious being in the Universe, and that your own consciousness is not privileged in any cosmic way).

3). If you agree with that as well, then, assuming that we ever develop a good enough model of Q which would allow you to predict any person's behavior with some useful degree of certainty, such a model would then be able to predict your own behavior with some useful degree of certainty. You could, for example, cover yourself with cameras and other sensors like a Christmas tree, start the model running on your home computer, then leave for work. And when you came back, you could verify that the model predicted your behavior that day more or less correctly (and if you doubt your powers of recall, which you should, then you could always play back the video).

4). If you agree that the above is possible, then we can go one step further. A good model of Q would not only predict what a person would do, but also what he would think; in fact, this model would probably have to do that anyway -- since a person's thoughts are the hidden states that influence his behavior, which the model is trying to predict in the first place. Thus, the model will be able to predict your own thoughts, as well as your actions. I think this addresses your point regarding "the arising of P in the first place", above.

5). At this point, we have a model that can explain both your thoughts and your actions, and it does so solely based on external evidence. It seems like there's nothing left for P to explain, since Q explains everything. Thus, P is a null concept; this is the "objective truth that this "bias" is causing you to mentally deviate from", which you asked about in your comment. That is, the "objective truth" is that P can be fully explained solely in terms of Q, even though it doesn't feel like it could be.

I am pretty sure you disagree with the conclusion (5). Do you disagree with (1) through (4), as well, or do disagree that (5) follows from (4) -- or both ?

It is, for instance, the idea that 2+2=4 is an objective fact that is part of the universe itself rather than just a facet of how we happen to experience it.

Eeergh, that's a whole other topic for a whole other thread...

It's much like how you can never know for sure that you're not dreaming: any test you can perform is a test you can dream. There's no way out even in principle.

Why not just use Occam's Razor ?

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-18T07:46:11.248Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like we need three letters

I guess so!

I also want to emphasize that P is your own personal experience, not any abstract "subject's". It's the one that you can access directly.

Er... By "your", do you mean to refer to me, personally? I'll assume that's what you meant unless you specify otherwise. Henceforth I am the subject! :-D

I would agree with your statement if you removed the word "completely".

But that's the crux! I know I'm conscious in a way that is so devastatingly self-evident that "evidence" to the contrary would render itself meaningless. But if some theory for P were developed that demonstrated that Q doesn't exist, I wouldn't view that theory as nonsensical. It'd be surprising, but not blatantly self-contradictory like a theory that says P doesn't exist. I believe in Q for highly fallible reasons, but I believe in P for completely different reasons that don't seem to be at all fallible to me. I deduce Q but I don't deduce P.

(Although I wonder if we're just spinning our wheels in the muck produced from a fuzzy word. If we both agree that P is self-evident while Q is deduced from Pq, perhaps there's no disagreement...?)

Obviously, you know you are conscious, and you can experience P directly. However, you can also collect the same kind of data on yourself (or have someone, or some thing, do it for you) as you would on other people. For example, you could get your brain scanned, record your own voice and then play it back, install a sensor on your fridge that records your feeding habits, etc.; these are all real pieces of evidence that people are routinely collecting for practical purposes.

Agreed. Notice, though, that the only way I'm able to correlate this Q-like data with P is because I can see the results of, say, the brain scan and recognize that it pairs with a particular part of P. For instance, I can tell that a certain brain scan corresponds with when I'm mentally rehearsing a Mozart piece because I experienced the rehearsal when the brain scanning occurred. So P is still implicit in the data-collection and -interpretation process.

If you think that the above paragraph is true, then it would follow that you (probably) can collect some data on your own Q, as it would be experienced by someone else who is conscious (assuming, again, that you are not the only conscious being in the Universe, and that your own consciousness is not privileged in any cosmic way).

Mostly agreed. If others experience, then others experience. :-)

The main point at which I disagree is that P is privileged. There's no such thing as a P-less perspective. But if we're granting that others are actually conscious (i.e., that Q exists) and that we can switch subjects with a sort of P-transformation (i.e., we can grant that you have P and that within your P my consciousness is part of Q), then I think that might not be terribly important to your point. We can mimic strong objectivity by looking at those truths that remain invariant under such transformations.

If you agree with that as well, then, assuming that we ever develop a good enough model of Q which would allow you to predict any person's behavior with some useful degree of certainty, such a model would then be able to predict your own behavior with some useful degree of certainty.

Hmm... "behavior" is being used in two different ways here. When we use our "theory of Q" to make predictions, what we're doing is assuming that Q exists and is indicated by Pq, and then we make predictions about what happens to Pq under certain circumstances. On the other hand, when we look at my "behavior", what we're considering is my P in a wider scope going beyond just Pq. For instance, others claim that they see blue when we shine light of a wavelength of 450 nm into their functional eyes. When we shine such light into my eyes, I see blue. Those are two very different kinds of "behavior" from my perspective!

But presumably under the P-transformation mentioned earlier, other subjects actually do experience blue, too. So we'll just go with this. :-)

If you agree that the above is possible, then we can go one step further. A good model of Q would not only predict what a person would do, but also what he would think...

I agree with what you elaborate upon after this. Since the "behavior" here is a kind of experience, I would include the experience of thinking in that. So yes, already granted.

At this point, we have a model that can explain both your thoughts and your actions, and it does so solely based on external evidence. It seems like there's nothing left for P to explain, since Q explains everything.

I wonder if you arranged your sentence a little bit backwards...? I think you meant to say, "It seems like there's nothing left of P to explain, since our theory of Q explains everything." Is that what you meant?

If so, then sure. There's a detail here I'm uneasy about, but I think it's minor enough to ignore (rather than write three more paragraphs on!).

Thus, P is a null concept; this is the "objective truth that this "bias" is causing you to mentally deviate from", which you asked about in your comment. That is, the "objective truth" is that P can be fully explained solely in terms of Q, even though it doesn't feel like it could be.

Hmm. You seem to be saying two different things here as though they're the same thing. One I strongly disagree with, and the other I half-agree with.

The one I half-agree with is that based on the trajectory you describe, it seems we can describe P with the same brush we use to explain Q. The half I hesitate about is this claim that we can just equate P and Q. That's the part that is to be explained! But perhaps something would arise in the process of elaborating on a theory of Q.

The part I totally disagree with is the claim that "P is a null concept". Any theory that disregards P as a hallucination, or irrelevant, or a bias of any sort, is incoherent. I'll grant that the impression that P is special could turn out to be a bias, but not P itself. And we can't disregard the relevance of P. How would we ever gain evidence that P can be disregarded? Doesn't that evidence have to come through P?

But I do agree:

  • We should be able to predict Pq with evidence that remains fixed under a P-transformation.
  • It seems easier and more consistent to assume that Pq points to an extant Q.
  • If Q exists, then under a P-transformation my experience (previously P) is part of Q.
  • Therefore, a full model of Pq should offer a kind of explanation of P.

But I still don't see how this model actually connects P and Q. It just assumes that Q exists and that it's a kind of P (i.e., that P-transformations make sense and are possible).

Eeergh, that's a whole other topic for a whole other thread...

Fair enough!

It's much like how you can never know for sure that you're not dreaming: any test you can perform is a test you can dream. There's no way out even in principle.

Why not just use Occam's Razor ?

Because if you were dreaming, your idea of Occam's Razor would be contained within the dream.

I'm reminded of some brilliant times I've tried to become lucid in my dreams. I look at an elephant standing in my living room and think, "Why is there an elephant in my living room? That's awfully odd. Could I be dreaming? Well, if I were, this would be really strange without much of an explanation. But the elephant is here because I went to China and drank tea with a spoon. That makes sense, so clearly I'm not dreaming."

So when you go through an analysis of whether the assumption that you're awake yields shorter code in its description than the assumption that you're dreaming does, how sure can you really be that you have any evidence at all that you're not dreaming? Sure, you can resort to Bayesian analysis - but how do you know you didn't just concoct that in your dream tonight and that it's actually gibberish?

I think in the end it's just not very pragmatically useful to suppose I'm dreaming, so I don't worry too much about this most of the time (which might be part of why I'm not lucid in more of my dreams!). But if you really want to tackle the issue, you're going to run into some pretty basic epistemic obstacles. How do you come to any conclusions at all when anything you think you know could have been completely fabricated in the last three seconds?

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-11-18T10:22:27.579Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Er... By "your", do you mean to refer to me, personally? I'll assume that's what you meant unless you specify otherwise.

Yep, that's right. I'm just electrons in a circuit as far as you're concerned ! :-)

I know I'm conscious in a way that is so devastatingly self-evident that "evidence" to the contrary would render itself meaningless. ... If we both agree that P is self-evident while Q is deduced from Pq, perhaps there's no disagreement...?

Sure, that makes sense, but I'm not trying to abolish P altogether. All I'm trying to do is establish that P and Q are the same thing (most likely), and thus the "Hard Problem of Consciousness" is a non-issue. Thus, I can agree with the last sentence in the quote above, but that probably isn't worth much as far as our discussion is concerned.

For instance, I can tell that a certain brain scan corresponds with when I'm mentally rehearsing a Mozart piece because I experienced the rehearsal when the brain scanning occurred. So P is still implicit in the data-collection and -interpretation process.

I'm not sure how these two sentences are connected. Obviously, a perfect brain scan shouldn't indicate that you're mentally rehearsing Mozart when you are not, in fact, mentally rehearsing Mozart. But such a brain scan will work on anyone, not just you, so I'm not sure what you're driving at.

I agree with what you elaborate upon after this. Since the "behavior" here is a kind of experience, I would include the experience of thinking in that.

When I used the word "behavior", I actually had a much narrower definition in mind -- i.e., "something that we and our instruments can observe". So, brain scans would fit into this category, but also things like, "the subject answers 'blue' when we ask him what color this 450nm light is". I deliberately split up "what the test subject would say" from "what he will actually think and experience". But it seems like you agree with both points, maybe:

I think you meant to say, "It seems like there's nothing left of P to explain, since our theory of Q explains everything." Is that what you meant?

Pretty much. What I meant was that, since our theory of Q explains everything, we gain nothing (intellectually speaking) by postulating hat P and Q are different. Doing so would be similar to saying, "sure, the theory of gravity fully explains why the Earth doesn't fall into the Sun, but there must also be invisible gnomes constantly pushing the Earth away to prevent that from happening". Sure, the gnomes could exist, but there are lots of things that could exist...

The one I half-agree with is that based on the trajectory you describe, it seems we can describe P with the same brush we use to explain Q. The half I hesitate about is this claim that we can just equate P and Q.

If you agree with the first part, what are your reasons for disagreeing with the second ? To me, this sounds like saying, "sure, we can explain electricity with the same theory we use to explain magnetism, but that doesn't mean that we can just equate electricity and magnetism".

Maybe we disagree because of this:

Because if you were dreaming, your idea of Occam's Razor would be contained within the dream.

Well, yeah, Occam's Razor isn't an oracle... It seems to me like we might have a fundamental disagreement about epistemology. You say "I think in the end it's just not very pragmatically useful to suppose I'm dreaming, so I don't worry too much about this most of the time"; I'm in total agreement there. But then, you say,

But if you really want to tackle the issue, you're going to run into some pretty basic epistemic obstacles. How do you come to any conclusions at all when anything you think you know could have been completely fabricated in the last three seconds?

I personally don't see any issues to tackle. Sure, I could be dreaming. I could also be insane, or a simulation, or a brain in a jar, or an infinite number of other things. But why should I care about these possibilities -- not just "most of the time", but at all ? If there's no way, by definition, for me to tell whether I'm really, truly awake; and if I appear to be awake; then I'm going to go ahead and assume I'm awake after all. Otherwise, I might have to consider all of the alternatives simultaneously, and since there's an infinite number of them, it would take a while.

It looks like you firmly disagree with the paragraph above, but I still can't see why. But that does explain (if somewhat tangentially) why you believe that the "Hard Problem of Consciousness" is a legitimate problem, and why I do not.

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-18T17:12:14.671Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You know, something clicked last night as I was falling asleep, and I realized why you're right and where my confusion has been. But thanks for giving me something specific to work from! :-D

I think my argument can be summarized like so:

  • All data comes through P.
  • Therefore, all data about P comes through P.
  • All theories about P must be verified through data about P.
  • This means P is required to explain P.
  • Therefore, it doesn't seem like there can be an explanation about P.

That last step is nuts. Here's an analogy:

  • All (visual) data is seen.
  • Therefore, all (visual) data about how we see is seen.
  • All theories of vision must be verified through data about vision. (Let's say we count only visual data. So we can use charts, but not the way an optic nerve feels to the touch.)
  • This means vision is required to explain vision.
  • Therefore, it doesn't seem like there can be an explanation of vision.

The glaring problem is that explaining vision doesn't render it retroactively useless for data-collection.

Thanks for giving me time to wrestle with this dumbth. Wrongness acknowledged. :-)

I'm not sure how these two sentences are connected. Obviously, a perfect brain scan shouldn't indicate that you're mentally rehearsing Mozart when you are not, in fact, mentally rehearsing Mozart. But such a brain scan will work on anyone, not just you, so I'm not sure what you're driving at.

What I was driving at is that there's no evidence that it corresponds to mentally rehearsing Mozart for anyone until I look at my own brain scan. All we can correlate the brain scans with is people's reports of what they were doing. For instance, if my brain scan said I was rehearsing Mozart but I wasn't, and yet I was inclined to report that I was, that would give me reason for concern.

The confusion here comes down to a point that I still think is true, but only because I think it's tautological: From my point of view, my point of view is special. But I'm not sure what it would mean for this to be false, so I'm not sure there's any additional information in this point - aside from maybe an emotional one (e.g., there's a kind of emotional shift that occurs when I make the empathic shift and realize what something feels like from another person's perspective rather than just my own).

What I meant was that, since our theory of Q explains everything, we gain nothing (intellectually speaking) by postulating hat P and Q are different. Doing so would be similar to saying, "sure, the theory of gravity fully explains why the Earth doesn't fall into the Sun, but there must also be invisible gnomes constantly pushing the Earth away to prevent that from happening". Sure, the gnomes could exist, but there are lots of things that could exist...

Well, I do know that P exists, and I know that from my point of view P is extremely special. That's not invisible gnomes; it's just true. But saying "from my point of view P is extremely special" is tautological since P is my perspective. When something is a tautology, there's nothing to explain. That's why it's hard to come up with an explanation for it. :-P

If you agree with the first part, what are your reasons for disagreeing with the second ? To me, this sounds like saying, "sure, we can explain electricity with the same theory we use to explain magnetism, but that doesn't mean that we can just equate electricity and magnetism".

I agree with you now.

Maybe we disagree because of this:

Because if you were dreaming, your idea of Occam's Razor would be contained within the dream.

Oh, no no no! I didn't mean to make a particularly big deal out of the possibility that we're dreaming. I was trying to point out an analogous situation. There's no plausible way to gather data in favor of the hypothesis that we're not dreaming because the epistemology itself is entirely contained within the dream. I figured that might be easier to see than the point I was trying to make, which was the bit of balderdash that there's no way to gather evidence in favor of P arising from something else because that evidence has to come through P. The arguments are somewhat analogous, only the one for dreaming works and the one for P doesn't.

I personally don't see any issues to tackle. Sure, I could be dreaming. I could also be insane, or a simulation, or a brain in a jar, or an infinite number of other things. But why should I care about these possibilities -- not just "most of the time", but at all ?

Two and a half points:

  • Again, this was meant to be an analogy. I wasn't trying to argue that we can't trust our data-collection process because we could be dreaming. I meant to offer a situation about dreaming that seemed analogous to the situation with consciousness. I was hoping to illustrate where the "hard" part of the hard problem of consciousness is by pointing out where the "hard" part in what I suppose we could call the "hard problem of dreaming" is.
  • This issue actually does become extremely pragmatic as soon as you start trying to practice lucid dreaming. The mind seems to default to assuming that whatever is being experienced is being experienced in a wakeful state, at least for most people. You have to challenge that to get to lucid dreaming. There have been many times where I've been totally sure I'm awake after asking myself if I'm dreaming, and have even done dream-tests like trying to read text and trying to fly, only to discover that all my testing and certainty was ultimately irrelevant because once I wake up, I can know with absurdly high probability that I was in fact dreaming.
  • Closely related to that second point is the fact that you know you dream regularly. In fact, there's quite a bit of evidence to suggest that pretty much everyone dreams several times every night. Most people aren't crazy, or discover that they're brains in a jar, or whatever every day. So if there's a way that everything you know could be completely wrong, the possibility that you're dreaming is much, much higher on the list of hypotheses than that, say, you have amnesia and are on the Star Trek holodeck. So picking out dreaming as a particular issue to be concerned about over the other possibilities isn't really committing the fallacy of privileging the hypothesis. If we're going to go with "You're hallucinating everything you know," the "You're dreaming" hypothesis is a pretty darn good one to start with!

Again, though, I'm not trying to argue that we could be dreaming and therefore we can't trust what we know. I was trying to point out an analogy which, upon reflection, doesn't actually work.

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-11-23T01:23:53.808Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All right, so it seems like we mostly agree now -- cool !

I meant to offer a situation about dreaming that seemed analogous to the situation with consciousness.

Ok, I get it now, but I would still argue that we should assume we're awake, until we have some evidence to the contrary; thus, the "hard problem of dreaming" is a non-issue. It looks like you might agree with me, somewhat:

This issue actually does become extremely pragmatic as soon as you start trying to practice lucid dreaming. The mind seems to default to assuming that whatever is being experienced is being experienced in a wakeful state, at least for most people. You have to challenge that to get to lucid dreaming.

In this situation, we assume that we're awake a priori, and we are then deliberately trying to induce dreaming (which should be lucid, a well). So, we need a test that tells us whether we've succeeded or not. Thus, we need to develop some evidence-collecting techniques that work even when we're asleep. This seems perfectly reasonable to me, but the setup is not analogous to your previous one -- since we start out with the a priori assumption that we're currently in the awake state; that we could transition to the dream state when we choose; and that there exists some evidence that will tell us which state we're in. By contrast, the "hard problem of dreaming" scenario assumes that we don't know which state we're in, and that there's no way to collect any relevant evidence at all.

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-11-23T04:33:51.855Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All right, so it seems like we mostly agree now -- cool !

Yep!

Rationality training: helping minds change since 2002. :-D

Ok, I get it now, but I would still argue that we should assume we're awake, until we have some evidence to the contrary; thus, the "hard problem of dreaming" is a non-issue.

You're coming at it from a philosophical angle, I think. I'm coming at it from a purely pragmatic one. Let's say you're dreaming right now. If you start with the assumption that you're awake and then look for evidence to the contrary, typically the dream will accomodate your assumption and let you conclude you're really awake. Even if your empirical tests conclusively show that you're dreaming, dreams have a way of screwing with your reasoning process so that early assumptions don't update on evidence.

For instance, a typical dream test is jumping up in the air and trying to stay there a bit longer than physics would allow. The goal, usually, is flight. I commonly find that if I jump into the air and then hang there for just a little itty bitty bit longer than physics would allow, I think something like, "Oh, that was barely longer than possible. So I must not be quite dreaming." That makes absolutely no sense at all, but it's worth bearing in mind that you typically don't have your whole mind available to you when you're trying to become lucid. (You might once you are lucid, but that's not terribly useful, is it?)

In this case, you have to be really, insanely careful not to jump to the conclusion that you're awake. If you think you're awake, you have to pause and ask yourself, "Well, is there any way I could be mistaken?" Otherwise your stupid dreaming self will just go along with the plot and ignore the floating pink elephants passing through your living room walls. This means that when you're working on lucid dreaming, it usually pays to recognize that you could be dreaming and can never actually prove conclusively that you're awake.

But I agree with you in all cases where lucid dreaming isn't of interest. :-)

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-11-28T22:35:05.272Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're coming at it from a philosophical angle, I think. I'm coming at it from a purely pragmatic one.

That's funny, I was about to say the same thing, only about yourself instead of me. But I think I see where you're coming from:

If you start with the assumption that you're awake and then look for evidence to the contrary, typically the dream will accomodate your assumption and let you conclude you're really awake... it's worth bearing in mind that you typically don't have your whole mind available to you when you're trying to become lucid.

So, your primary goal (in this specific case) is not to gain any new insights about epistemology or consciousness or whatever, but to develop a useful skill: lucid dreaming. In this case, yes, your assumptions make perfect sense, since you must correct for an incredibly strong built-in bias that only surfaces while you're dreaming. That makes sense.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-11-05T10:41:32.381Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Basically, try as I might, I can't think of any piece of evidence that would let you distinguish between a being -- other than yourself -- who is consciousness and experiences qualia, and a being who pretends to be conscious with perfect fidelity, but does not in fact experience qualia.

As I discussed here - see also this comment for clarification - we should in theory be able to discover if other beings have qualia if we were to learn about their brains in such microscopic detail that we are performing approximately the same computations in our brains that their brains are running; we then "get their qualia" first-hand.

As for arguing about qualia verbally, I hold qualia to be both entirely indefinable (implying that the concept is irreducible, if it exists) and something that the vast majority of humans apprehend directly and believe very strongly to exist. There is little to be gained by arguing about whether qualia exist, because of this problem - the best that can be achieved through argument is that both of you accept the consensus regarding the existence of this indefinable thing that nonetheless needs to be given a name.

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-11-05T13:10:14.903Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ok, I read your article as well as your comment, and found them very confusing. More on this in a minute.

As for arguing about qualia verbally, I hold qualia to be both entirely indefinable...

How is that different from saying, "I found qualia to be a meaningless concept" ? I may as well say, "I think that human consciousness can best be explained by asdfgh, where asdfgh is an undefinable concept". That's not much of an explanation. In addition, this makes it impossible to discuss qualia at all (with anyone other than yourself, that is), which once again hints at a kind of solipsism.

...and something that the vast majority of humans apprehend directly and believe very strongly to exist.

This is weak evidence at best. The vast majority of humans apprehend all kinds of stuff directly (or so they believe), including gods, demons, honest politicians, etc. At least some of these things have a very low probability of existing, so how are qualia any different ? In addition, regardless of what the vast majority of people believe, I personally disagree with this "consensus regarding the existence of this indefinable thing", so you'll need to convince me some other way other than stating the consensus.

Note that I agree with the statement, "humans appear to act as though they believe that they experience things, just as I do" -- a statement which we may reduce to something like, "humans experience things" (with the usual understanding that there's some non-zero probability of this being false). I just don't see why we need a special name for these experiences, and why we have to treat them any differently from anything else that humans do (or that rocks do, for that matter).

Which brings me back to your article (and comment). In it, you describe qualia as being indefinable. You then proceed to discuss them at great length, which means that you must have some sort of a definition in mind, or else your article would be meaningless (or perhaps it would be meaningless to everyone other than yourself, which isn't much better). Your central argument appears to rest on the assumption that qualia are irreducible, but I still don't understand why you'd assume that in the first place.

In short, qualia appear to be a "mysterious answer to a mysterious question": they are impossible to define, irreducible, and totally inexplicable -- and thus impossible to study or even discuss. They are a kind of elan vital, and therefore not terribly useful as a concept.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-09-10T22:48:42.817Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An equivalent interpretation of the problem revolves around qualia.

How well established is it that they are equivalent? The second, qualia version seems much less mysterious to me.

comment by XiXiDu · 2011-09-10T16:41:38.307Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The same thing would happen in the awake person, but she'd also have the conscious visual experience qualia thing where she "sees" a certain color in her "mind's eye".

ETA: I completely forgot that you wrote an article on that, sorry. There were two people in the comments whose comments seemed to suggest that they lack a "mind's eye", Garth and Blueberry.

Note that you are using potentially confusing analogies and therefore terminology here. Some people, e.g. my dad, are unable to see anything with their "mind's eye". Indeed, those people don't even know what you mean by that. If you ask them if they are able to imagine a beautiful sunset then they think that you are asking them if they could describe or paint a sunset (database query), they do not understand that you ask them to simulate a beautiful sunset visually and experience it with their "mind's eye" as if dreaming. My dad can only experience visual images if they actually happen live, but he has visual dreams when asleep. That's how I figured this out in the first place, by asking if he is able to deliberately cause dream-like sensory experiences that do not correlate with the outside world (he can't, it is all "black"). I asked others and there are quite a few people who are not capable of "daydreaming" (my mom is). I don't know how else to call this but a lack of a certain type of consciousness.

comment by summerstay · 2011-09-10T14:41:35.367Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find David Chalmers's explanation of what is meant by "qualia" and "subjective experience" and "something its like to be" the easiest to understand. For example, read the first chapter of The Conscious Mind.
The Knowledge Argument above refers to the fictional story of Mary the color scientist. She was raised in a black and white environment and never saw color. But she read textbooks on color theory (printed in black and white, of course.) The question is, when she finally experiences the color blue, how is that different from the previous knowledge she had about what the color blue would be like? That different extra aspect to the actual experience is what we refer to as qualia, and how such an experience can be caused by physical processes is (in Chalmers's terminology that has now been widely adopted) the Hard Problem.

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-09-11T16:19:07.397Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a really clear description! Thanks for summarizing it.

I suspect it's highly relevant that if someone were to actually grow up in a grayscale environment, they wouldn't be capable of experiencing blue. Even if the optic nerve had somehow retained the ability to transmit data from cones, the brain simply would not be wired for blue-processing. I'm pretty sure her brain would interpret a colored world the way a black-and-white television would. (This is my understanding of neuroscience, by the way, not my stab at philosophy.)

I haven't taken the time to think carefully about the implications of this. It just seems suspicious to me that one of the clearest descriptions of qualia I've encountered involves a process that's neurologically implausible to enact.

Replies from: red75
comment by red75 · 2011-09-11T17:04:27.663Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect it's highly relevant that if someone were to actually grow up in a grayscale environment, they wouldn't be capable of experiencing blue.

Results of gene therapy for color blindness suggest otherwise. Maybe those monkeys and mice cannot experience colors, but they react as if they can.

I'm really want to try this myself. Infrared sensitive opsin in a retina, isn't it wonderful?

comment by lukeprog · 2011-09-09T22:04:35.542Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does this article help? The knowledge argument is a famous argument that tries to pump the intuition about the existence of qualia, which are the source of the 'hard problem' of consciousness.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T13:44:37.493Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the link but it still doesn't make sense to me (I've tried to understand what this qualia thing a few times before and I am still baffled about what it is and why everyone other than me thinks it's real).

Replies from: Jack, red75, shokwave
comment by Jack · 2011-09-10T14:38:06.554Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't find the source but I recall reading the following interesting point: different people might possess different degrees of qualia, perhaps ranging down to none, and that perhaps some or all of the debate could be explained by this fact. So maybe it's just your brain. You've read the qualia wikipedia article I assume? It's a pretty obvious concept for most people- whether or not it is 'real'. Perhaps you recall wondering as a child if when other people saw something green they saw the same color you did: "Maybe what you see when you look at things called 'green' is what I see when I look at things called 'orange'. How would we know?'" The aspect of color that cannot be communicated and generates this worry is the qualia of 'greenness',

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T15:50:34.088Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

deleted

Replies from: Jack, XiXiDu, XiXiDu
comment by Jack · 2011-09-10T20:11:45.327Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah. Except you're not the physically impossible kind since you're actually reporting your lack of qualia- and I'm not sure you actually lack qualia entirely- it's just very weak in you. +1 For Less Wrong neurodiversity. Would you be offended if I prodded you with questions about how you think? (Heck, I sort of think you should just start a discussion post called "I'm a zombie AMA".)

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T20:18:37.826Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes quite happy to answering anything. In fact I sort of preemptively started already! I don't think I'm knowledgeable enough to make an AMA worthwhile for the people asking though.

Replies from: Jack
comment by Jack · 2011-09-10T20:37:00.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I get to anything too private, feel free to tell me to frack off.

Do you know your IQ? Have you been diagnosed with any condition listed in the DSM?

Are there any cognitive tasks that you find yourself notably worse than average (especially compared to those with similar IQs)? What about tasks that you find yourself to be notably better than average?

Can you got into detail about this:

I've known some people in that past with (much weaker) versions of this sort of visualization you describe. I tried to construct some games/experiments in which they decisively beat me/performed better than me by using these powers but I didn't manage to build any.

What games/experiments?

Would you say you have a good sense of humor? Can you reliably read someone's emotions from non-verbal cues? Do you have empathy for others that are suffering? Does music evoke emotions in you? Ever been in love?

Let's say you are in a situation which could lead to either excitement or anxiety. When you learn that you are anxious and not excited does that information just come to you verbally? Do you read physical signs of your body? For most people the way we know whether we are excited or anxious is that these emotions feel different- their qualia are different (or at least that is how we report learning about our emotional state... I'm not entirely sure that story is right).

Replies from: None, lessdazed
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T21:31:42.244Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

-

comment by lessdazed · 2011-09-10T23:00:59.260Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let's say you are in a situation which could lead to either excitement or anxiety. When you learn that you are anxious and not excited does that information just come to you verbally? Do you read physical signs of your body? For most people the way we know whether we are excited or anxious is that these emotions feel different- their qualia are different (or at least that is how we report learning about our emotional state... I'm not entirely sure that story is right).

Is this a good zombie test? I have to consciously search my body for hints to tell those apart.

Replies from: Jack
comment by Jack · 2011-09-10T23:05:16.364Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No idea, never interviewed a zombie before. I'm not especially confident I have yet. It certainly might be overly-sensitive.

Replies from: lessdazed
comment by lessdazed · 2011-09-10T23:07:04.250Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK I think it is an OK test but you might get false positives from that alone.

comment by XiXiDu · 2011-09-10T18:06:53.493Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Me being a zombie actually does seem like the most likely explanation right now!

Well, "the philosophical zombie is a hypothetical person whose behavior is indistinguishable from an ordinary person, but who lacks conscious experience." That's nonsensical, but you could however lack conscious experience while acting differently, e.g. not being able to comprehend the concept of qualia.

Replies from: lessdazed
comment by lessdazed · 2011-09-10T22:51:34.573Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Excellent point.

comment by XiXiDu · 2011-09-10T18:33:39.183Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

By the way, I'd be interested in your opinion on my comment here, are you able to deliberately cause dream-like, simulated sensory experiences that do not correlate with the outside world?

I am able to simulate sensory input, i.e. dream deliberately, enter my personal Matrix (Holodeck). I can see, hear, feel and smell without the presence of light, sound, tactile or olfactory sensory input. That is, I do not need to undergo certain conditions to consciously experience them. They do not have to happen live, I can imagine them, simulate them. I can replay previous and create new sensory experiences in my mind, i.e. perceive them with my minds eye. I can pursue and experience activities inside my head without any environmental circumstances, i.e. all I need is my body. I can walk through a park, see and hear children playing, feel and smell the air, while being weightlessness in a totally dark and quiet zero gravity environment. Can you do that?

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T19:05:41.485Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

deleted

comment by red75 · 2011-09-11T04:11:52.338Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe it's better to start from obvious things. Color experience, for example. Can you tell which light of traffic lights is illuminated while you are not using position of light and you aren't asking himself which color it is? Is there something in your perception of different lights that allows you to tell that they are different?

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-11T08:46:07.590Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The cones in the eye detect three different aspects of light (redness, greenness, blueness) and these are sent to the brain in three different fibers. By this mechanism we see there's nothing magic going on in telling the difference between two colors. I guess the rods (which detect variation in brightness) are more relevant to the question of which light is on though.

Replies from: red75
comment by red75 · 2011-09-11T12:11:35.782Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I doubt that you think about rods and cones when you are deciding if it's safe to cross the road. The question is: is there something in your perception of illuminated traffic light, that allows you to say that it is red or green or yellow? Or maybe you just know that it is green or yellow, but you can't see any differences but position and luminosity?

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-11T14:11:49.574Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand what the question is getting at. You're right that I don't think about cones when I check which color a light is, but this is the mechanism by which it enters my brain: since different lights enter my brain in different ways it is no surprise I can differentiate between them.

Replies from: red75
comment by red75 · 2011-09-11T15:05:11.195Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand what the question is getting at.

I am getting there. There's a phenomenon called blindsight type 1. Try to imagine that you have "color blindsight", i.e. you can't differentiate between colors, but you can guess above chance what color it is. In this condition you lack qualia of colors.

comment by shokwave · 2011-09-10T13:55:47.946Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not to be dismissive of a chunk of philosophy, but your post is akin to "I've tried to understand elan vital, but I keep running into problems integrating it with my biology course".

Replies from: lessdazed, Jack
comment by lessdazed · 2011-09-10T22:52:31.887Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Materialists should be able to answer "why do people think they have qualia" without it being a mystery.

comment by Jack · 2011-09-10T14:39:24.302Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even the most strident eliminative materialists understand what is meant by qualia. You don't have to integrate a concept into your theory to understand what it means.

comment by scientism · 2011-09-11T03:40:06.135Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's hard to understand because it's confused.

comment by XiXiDu · 2011-09-09T09:36:15.890Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I encounter many intelligent people (not usually LWers, though) who say that despite our recent scientific advances, human consciousness remains a mystery and currently intractable to science.

I would ask them to state their definition of consciousness, "describe and model the principal features of consciousness", to be able to discern if they actually believe that science is inept or if the true problem is the terminological vagueness. Personally I don't know what is meant by consciousness.

Here is a starting point for those who wish to delve into the topic of consciousness and cognitive science (not a recommendation, just part of my personal ToDo list):

Replies from: atucker
comment by atucker · 2011-09-09T15:16:48.528Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I liked the Ego Tunnel, and Metzinger has a longer more detailed (but worse written, prose-wise) book called Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity

comment by atucker · 2011-09-09T15:13:40.158Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Has anyone else on the site read/encountered Metzinger's work? I read the Ego Tunnel and am working through Being No One, and I'm fairly impressed.

He often refers to various mental disorders and abnormal phenomenal states in order to separate out individual parts of consciousness, and is one of the most hardcore materialists I've ever read.

comment by examachine · 2011-09-09T15:09:30.516Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are in fact some plausible scientific hypotheses that try to isolate particular physical states associated with "qualia". Without giving references to those, obviously, as I'm sure you'll all agree, there is no reason to debate the truth of physicalism.

The mentioned approach is probably bogus, and seems to be a rip-off of Marvin Minsky's older A-B brain ideas in "The Society of Mind". I wish I were a "cognitive scientist" it would be so much easier to publish!

However, needless to say any such hypothesis must be founded on the correct philosophical explanation, which is pretty much neurophysiological identity theory. I don't see a need to debate that, either. Debates of dualism etc. are for the weak minded.

Furthermore, awareness is not quite the same thing as phenomenal consciousness, either. Awareness itself is a quite high cognitive function. But a system could have phenomenal consciousness without any discernible perceptual awareness. I suspect that these theories are not sufficiently informed by neuroscience and philosophy, but neither am I going to offer free clues about the solution to that :) For now, let us just say that it is entirely plausible that small nervous systems (like that of an insect) with no possibility of higher order representations still may have subjective experience. There is also a hint of anthropocentricism in the cited approach (we're conscious because we can make those higher order representations...), which I usually think points to the falsehood of a theory of mind (similar errors are often seen on this site, as well).

Is Dennett to blame here? I hope not :/ Dennett has many excellent ideas, but his approach to consciousness may push the people the wrong way (as it has some flavor of behaviorism, which is not the most advanced view).

Replies from: None, None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-12T15:10:25.176Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are in fact some plausible scientific hypotheses that try to isolate particular physical states associated with "qualia". Without giving references to those, obviously, as I'm sure you'll all agree, there is no reason to debate the truth of physicalism.

I was looking some things up after you mentioned this, and after reading a bit about it, qualia appears to be extremely similar to sensory memory.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualia) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_memory)

These quotes about them from Wikipedia(with the names removed) seem to do a good job describing the similarity:

'The information represented in ### is the "raw data" which provides a snapshot of a person's overall sensory experience.' 'Another way of defining ### is as "raw feels." A raw feel is a perception in and of itself, considered entirely in isolation from any effect it might have on behavior and behavioral disposition.'

If you think about this in P-zombie terms, and someone attempts to say "A P-zombie is a person who has sensory memory, but not qualia." I'm not sure what would even be the difference between that and a regular person. Either one can call on their sensory memory to say "I am experiencing redness right now, and now I am experiencing my experiences of redness" and it would seem to be correct if that is what is in their sensory memory. There doesn't appear to be anything left for qualia to explain, and it feels a lot like the question is dissolved at that point.

Is this approximately correct, or is there something else that qualia attempts to explain that sensory memory doesn't that I'm not perceiving?

Replies from: examachine
comment by examachine · 2012-01-14T16:34:48.927Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Subjective experience isn't limited to sensory experience, a headache, or any feeling, like happiness, without any sensory reason, would also count. The idea is that you can trace most of those to electrical/biochemical states. Might be why some drugs can make you feel happy and how anesthetics work!

comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-09T15:46:01.219Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know what phenomenal consciousness or subjective experience means. Could you please give a reference or explanation for these terms?

Replies from: Mercurial, Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mercurial · 2011-09-09T18:31:07.800Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is the hard problem, actually. If we could operationalize those terms, we would be able to study what they refer to with a reductionist lens. Until then, we're kind of stuck using words to point at experience rather than at structural definitions.

In case you're honestly not sure what everyone is talking about, though: There's a difference between red as a certain frequency of light and red as experienced. Yes, we know there's a strong connection between the two, and we can describe in some fair detail how a certain frequency of light stimulates optic nerves and is processed in the brain and so on. But it's not at all clear how we get from those mechanical processes to the experience of red. We don't experience red as a frequency; we experience it as red! That latter bit, the redness of red, is what people refer to as the qualium of red. ("Qualium" is the singular form of "qualia".)

The reductionist thesis maintains that there must be a way to reduce the connection between physical mechanisms and qualia down to mechanisms. The hard problem of consciousness is that no one seems to be able to come up with even an in-principle plausible way of making that connection. In other words, everyone is confused but doesn't have a clear way to even start dispelling the confusion. People like Daniel Dennett have made efforts, but many people question whether their efforts even count as progress.

So in short: "phenomenal consciousness" refers to the experience of qualia, although we don't know what that means aside from pointing at the fact that everyone seems to experience qualia and that mechanisms affect but don't seem to be qualia. "Subjective experience" usually refers to the same thing, but is often used to emphasize the fact that the experience of qualia seems to depend on the individual; e.g., you don't experience my experiencing red the way I do and vice versa.

Replies from: arundelo
comment by arundelo · 2011-09-09T20:17:07.743Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

qualium

"Quale", according to Wiktionary, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and my 1993 Random House unabridged dictionary (which gives the pronunciations KWAH-lee, KWAH-lay, and KWAY-lee).

Edit for completeness:

For the plural, "qualia", the Random House gives the pronunciations KWAH-lee-uh and KWAY-lee-uh.

(The second edition OED pronunces "quale" as KWAY-lee but does not include "qualia" at all.)

Replies from: Mercurial
comment by Mercurial · 2011-09-09T21:35:53.918Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, I had been misinformed! I was informed it was the Latin neuter form, which uses "-um" for singular endings and "-a" for plural. Thanks for the correction!

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2011-09-10T01:47:12.761Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you understand the difference between being asleep and being awake?

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T09:31:42.031Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like a subtle question which I could be missing the point of, so I'll explain my answer instead of just saying "yes": When awake someone is generally acting based on their sensory inputs and plan. When asleep they are in one of several different sleep stages, I don't know much about these different states but I'll say in general that I think they are still (using the HOT terminology) creature-conscious of sensory inputs (that's how you can wake from the alarm clock) but they are not transitive-conscious (except in the cases when you incorporate these into your dreams).

Let me also add that I've been re-reading the wiki and Stanford encyclopedia pages on all these terms and it makes just as much sense as last time I tried to understand what it's all about (none). I'm a bit worried about people getting angry at me for not "getting it" as fast as they did but hopefully people on LW are more forgiving than what I'm used to.

Replies from: mwengler, Mitchell_Porter
comment by mwengler · 2011-09-10T19:44:34.797Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Chimera writes: I'm a bit worried about people getting angry at me for not "getting it"

You are what? Worried? Worried is a conscious experience. A movie of you being worried does not show someone else being worried, it shows an unconscious image that looks like you being worried. An automaton built to duplicate your behavior when you are worried feels nothing, there is nothing (no consciousness) there to feel anything, but when you are doing that stuff people know and more importantly, you know how you feel and what it means to feel worried.

Imagine a world filled with disney animatronic robots all programmed to behave like real world people in our world behaved. Unless you think all those singing ghosts in the Haunted Mansion at disneyland are feeling happy and scared, then you can know what is being discussed here by imagining the difference between what images of people feel (nothing) and what actual people feel.

Good luck with this.

Replies from: Bugmaster, None
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-09-11T04:23:31.073Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would argue that if someone constructed an automaton that behaved exactly like I would in any given real-world situation -- including novel situations, which Disney automatons can't handle -- then that automaton would, for all intents and purposes, be as conscious as I am. In fact, this automaton would, in fact, be a copy of me.

Let's imagine that tonight, while you sleep, evil aliens replace everyone else in your home town (except for yourself, that is) with one of those perfect automatons. Would you be able to tell that this had occurred ? If so, how would you determine this ?

Replies from: mwengler
comment by mwengler · 2011-10-09T00:46:10.697Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps I might not know the difference, but I am not the only observer here. Would the people replaced know the difference?

Fooling you by replacing me is one thing. Fooling me by replacing me is an entirely more difficult thing to do.

Replies from: Bugmaster
comment by Bugmaster · 2011-10-09T03:35:31.796Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps I might not know the difference, but I am not the only observer here. Would the people replaced know the difference?

Well, presumably, the original people who were replace would indeed know the difference, as they watch helplessly from within the bubbling storage tanks where the evil aliens / wizards / whomever had put them prior to replacing them with the automatons.

The more interesting question is, would the automatons believe that they were the originals ? My claim is that, in order to emulate the originals perfectly with 100% accuracy -- which is what this thought experiment requires -- the automatons would have to believe that they were, in fact, original; and thus they would have to be conscious.

You could probably say, "ah-hah, sure the automatons may believe that they are the originals, but they're wrong ! The originals are back on the mothership inside the storage vats !" This doesn't sound like a very fruitful objection to me, however, since it doesn't help you prove that the automatons are not conscious -- merely that they aren't composed of the same atoms as some other conscious beings (the ones inside the vats). So what, everyone is made of different atoms, you and I included.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T20:08:32.556Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

deleted

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2011-09-10T10:09:12.041Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When awake someone is generally acting based on their sensory inputs and plan.

You skated past the hard problem of consciousness right there. Why does "acting based on sensory inputs and a plan" correlate with "being awake"?

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T10:36:39.248Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's just the term "awake" is defined that way, or is that wrong?

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2011-09-10T10:52:16.222Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It depends on whether your definition of "sensory input" and "acting on a plan" already require the concept of being conscious. Functionalists have definitions of those concepts which are just about relations of causality (sensory input = something outside the nervous system affects something inside the nervous system) and isomorphism (plan = combinatorial structure in nervous system with limited isomorphism to possible future world-states). And the point of the original question is that when you know you're awake, it's not because you know that your nervous system currently contains a combinatorial structure possessing certain isomorphisms to the world, that stands in an appropriate causal relation to the actions of your body. In fact, that is something that you deduce from (1) knowing that you are awake (2) having a functionalist theory of consciousness.

So, when you are awake (or "conscious"), how do you know that you are conscious?

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T11:52:41.075Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When awake you are not necessarily transitively conscious of it - I think usually we are but there are times when we 'zone out' and only have first order thoughts.

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2011-09-10T11:56:11.999Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK. But it seems (according to your answer) that when I am awake and knowing it, it's because I'm transitively conscious of something. Transitively conscious of what?

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T11:58:51.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

of being awake, as defined above: "I notice that I am taking audio-visual input from my environment and acting on it". (The quote should be 'noninferential, nondispositional and assertoric' but I am not completely sure it is of that nature, if not, my mistake)

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2011-09-10T12:30:34.922Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

i.e. you know you're awake when you have subjective experience of phenomenal consciousness. :-) Or something very close to this - that may not be the most nuanced, 100% correct way of stating it.

Would you say that only a functionalist can know whether they are awake, because only a functionalist knows what consciousness is? I presume not. But that means that it is possible to name and identify what consciousness is, and to say that I am awake and that I know it, in terms which do not presuppose functionalism. In this we have both the justification for the jargon terms "subjective experience" and "phenomenal consciousness", and also the reason why the hard problem is a problem. If the existence of consciousness is not logically identical with the existence of a particular causal-functional system, then I can legitimately ask why the existence of that system leads to the existence of an accompanying conscious experience. And that "why" is the hard problem of consciousness.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-09-10T13:42:55.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your comment but I don't understand it.

comment by ahartell · 2011-10-09T02:10:32.775Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was reading through some of these comments, and now I'm not sure if I'm normal. When one imagines images, is it the same as dreaming or seeing? I can imagine what my room looks like around me, but all I "see" is black.

comment by Ghazzali · 2012-01-18T17:36:26.453Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is there a scientific/mechanical model that would enable a machine to feel pain? Not react to pain as if it did feel pain, but to actually feel pain in the same sense as a human does? The answer is no, there is nothing in science or philosophy that can come up with such a model even in theory, much less using current technology.

And that is only a small part of consciousness. Our abilities to understand and appreciate 'meaning', our vision, imagination, sense of free will....our general human experience of ourselves and our environment cannot be mathematically modeled or completely understood rationally. That makes some rationalists so uncomfortable that they deny the phenomenon of consciousness even exists at all, that its just an illusion. What an amazing conclusion that is!

Replies from: Plasmon, CuSithBell
comment by Plasmon · 2012-01-18T19:10:54.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not react to pain as if it did feel pain, but to actually feel pain in the same sense as a human does?

Do you know how to distinguish "actually feeling pain" from "acting as if" it feels pain?

If so, do tell.

If not, would you perhaps also claim that a machine which passes the Turing test is not "actually" conscious, but merely "acts as if" it is conscious ?

Anti-reductionists are always quick to point at "qualia", "subjective experience", "consciousness" (or the subjective experience of pain, in this case) as examples of Great Big Unexplained Mysteries which have not been/can not be solved by science, but they can never quite explain what exactly the problem is, or what a solution would look like.

Replies from: ArisKatsaris, CuSithBell, Ghazzali
comment by ArisKatsaris · 2012-01-20T16:11:38.513Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anti-reductionists are always quick to point at "qualia", "subjective experience", "consciousness" (or the subjective experience of pain, in this case) as examples of Great Big Unexplained Mysteries which have not been/can not be solved by science, but they can never quite explain what exactly the problem is, or what a solution would look like.

A solution would help dissolve our confusion about how the territory of our consciousness can be produced by the map that is our brain's computation.

I feel I've made some small progress on elements of that front after connecting some seperate ideas from other fields, like Tegmark IV, fractals and great attractors, and calculus. I hope to most some of these ideas later this month, or on February.

comment by CuSithBell · 2012-01-19T18:29:23.402Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you know how to distinguish "actually feeling pain" from "acting as if" it feels pain?

Well, I suppose you'd do it the same way you'd distinguish "actually has a cat in a box" from "pretending to have a cat in a box" (without checking the box).

I do think there's something weird going on with consciousness - why there is something that thinks it has the experience of having thoughts and experiences is as yet unexplained, and is tricky to talk about given the inability to directly access the subject matter - but I imagine it's in principle explicable.

And saying we need to find a "mysterious" way of understanding it... well, there are all sorts of reasons why that's not going to work.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2012-01-19T19:00:05.412Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I suppose you'd do it the same way you'd distinguish "actually has a cat in a box" from "pretending to have a cat in a box" (without checking the box).

If there is no way to check the content of the box, ever, in any conceivable way, then there is no difference, period.

Replies from: CuSithBell
comment by CuSithBell · 2012-01-19T20:36:00.887Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure. But that's not true of cats / boxes, nor is it necessarily true of consciousness (based on the notion that consciousness is in principle explicable / reducible). The parallels being that we can't check now, the person acts in such a way that the cat/consciousness is/isn't a parsimonious explanation of their behavior, it might be difficult to check, you can fake it (to some degree), you can be wrong about it... and perhaps the cat might be a delusion.

Moreover, some people here claim to have values that encompass things that they cannot in principle interact with in any way (things external to their light cone, for example), so I'm not sure your assertion is unproblematic. If you're going to step on my box, it matters to me whether there's a cat in it, even if you can't check that, and it might in fact matter to you as well. But facts tend to have ripples, so it seems likely that there is, in principle at least, a way to check the catbox.

comment by Ghazzali · 2012-01-19T16:21:49.547Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The fact that the problem cannot be explained is because of the limitations of language/logic/reason....the tools that we rely on to explain mechanical phenomenon. Things that require equal signs.

The fact that this subject is not easilly explainable is not a hit against our side, it is a hit against your side. It is the non-rational aspect of consciousness that makes it seemingly impossible to explain in the first place.

The reaction of reductionists and some rationalists (I argue that it is quite rational to conlude that this is indeed a mystery as of present time) that because we cannot explain what that sensation of 'pain' is then it may not exist to begin with is dubious at best.

Replies from: Plasmon
comment by Plasmon · 2012-01-19T18:14:35.388Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"You can't explain the precession of the perihelion of Mercury" is a hit against Newton's theory of gravity.

"You can't explain "zoink", and I can't tell you what "zoink" is, nor what an explanation of "zoink" would look like" is not a hit against anything.

Also, arguments are not soldiers, and talking about "hits" and "sides" is unwise.

There have, in history, been many occasions where something was not understood. When temperature was not understood, it was still possible to explain to someone what this ill-understood "temperature" was. Specifically, it is simple to make sure that your notion of "colour" or "temperature" is similar to my notion of "colour" or "temperature" even if I don't understand what "colour" and "temperature" are.

I predict that there has never been a concept that

  • was not understood at some point in time

  • was "not easily explicable" in the sense that "the subjective experience of pain" is not easily explicable

  • later turned out to be well-defined and to "cut reality at its joints"

If you can come up with an example of such a concept, I will start taking arguments from vague not-easily-explicable concepts far more seriously.

On the other hand, there are at least some concepts that

  • were not understood at some point in time

  • were "not easily explicable" in the sense that "the subjective experience of pain" is not easily explicable

  • turned out to be completely bogus

namely, the concepts of "soul", "god", etc...

Replies from: Ghazzali
comment by Ghazzali · 2012-01-19T21:48:12.672Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry for the allegorical language if it offended you.

There is a difference between not finding a solution for a problem, and not even understanding what a solution may look like even in the abstract form.

It is also not a good sign when the problem gets to be more of a mystery the more science we discover.

The concern here is that we have an irrational view that rationalism is a universal tool. The fact that we have unsolved scientific and intellectual problems is not a proof of that. The fact that there seem to be problems that in their very nature seem to be unsolvable by reason is.

Replies from: Plasmon
comment by Plasmon · 2012-01-20T06:56:25.039Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry for the allegorical language if it offended you.

I am not offended

There is a difference between not finding a solution for a problem, and not even understanding what a solution may look like even in the abstract form.

Certainly. And further on that scale, there is "understanding so little of the problem that you're nor even sure there's a problem in the first place".

Progress on the the P vs NP problem has been largely limited to determining what the solution doesn't look like , and few if any people have any idea what it does look like, or if it (a solution) even exists (might be undecidable).

So, this scale goes

  • Solved problems

  • Unsolved problems where we have a pretty good idea what the solution looks like

  • Unsolved problems where we have no idea what the solution looks like : subjective experience is not here

  • problems we suspect exist, but can't even define properly in the first place : subjective experience is here!

It is also not a good sign when the problem gets to be more of a mystery the more science we discover.

Consciousness and the subjective experience of pain have not gotten more mysterious the more science we discover. At worst, we understand exactly as much now as we did when we started, i.e. nothing (and neurologists would certainly argue we do understand more now).

The concern here is that we have an irrational view that rationalism is a universal tool.

It is. Have a look at Solomonoff induction

The fact that we have unsolved scientific and intellectual problems is not a proof of that.

It's not proof, but it is evidence.

The fact that there seem to be problems that in their very nature seem to be unsolvable by reason is.

What makes you think that these problems are "in their very nature unsolvable by reason" ? Is it because you think they are inherently mysterious ?

Replies from: Ghazzali
comment by Ghazzali · 2012-01-20T15:18:22.331Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I will make a point about the progress of science in this subject and then use that to step towards a more general argument for the innate mystery of consciousness with regards to reason.

Ever since the time of the enlightenment there has been a real movement in the west to view the world as purely mechanical/physical so that a conclusion of reason as a universal tool could be accepted. That meant the elimination from society of not just God but also the soul and other things.

Ironically it was a particular invention of science and reason that made rationalists realize the problem of eliminiating all non-mechanical/physical realities from a human being: the computer. With the development of the computer it became painfully obvious that human beings were fundamentally different from any designed piece of technology. Although they could theoratically design and program a coputer for all kinds of amazing functions, there is no rational model as to how to make that machine 'conscious'. It was through computers that mankind realized in the most clear and blunt way the mystery of consciousness.

So to reassert my point....from the development of computers throughout this past century into the advancment of it to this century, the more we progress the more we understand that consciousness does not seem to be a matter of just complexity and sophistication.

Secondly, our faculty of reason itself does not even work in the same way a computer works. A computer's mechanical structure "signals" a conclusion. The machine moves in a certain way, albeith at the tiniest levels, to signal that something is right or wrong. For us, it is understanding that makes us realize a right or wrong, it is a feeling. Even at the most fundamental level of using reason itself the mystery of consciousness is engaged and operating in a way we do not understand.

Replies from: Plasmon
comment by Plasmon · 2012-01-21T06:48:17.917Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

With the development of the computer it became painfully obvious that human beings were fundamentally different from any designed piece of technology.

Evidence-based Citation needed. ( From a neurologist or computer scientist. Nothing about how our own massively parallel architecture differs from the Von Neumann architecture.)

The more we understand of the workings of the brain, the more we can mimic it on a computer. ("Ha, but these are simple tasks! Not difficult tasks like consciousness." How convenient of you to have chosen a metric you can't even define to judge progress towards full understanding of the human brain)

there is no rational model as to how to make that machine 'conscious'.

And there was no such model before the development of computers either.

Your unstated assumption seems to be that it is rational to expect a quick development of a "model of consciousness" (whatever that is) after the invention of the computer. If that were so, you might have a point, but, again : evidence needed.

Secondly, our faculty of reason itself does not even work in the same way a computer works.

Evidence-based Citation needed.

Our brain runs on physics. Although there may be various as-of-yet unknown algorithms running in our brain, there is no reason to assume anything non-computational is going on.

Will you change your mind if/when whole brain emulation becomes feasible ?

Replies from: Ghazzali
comment by Ghazzali · 2012-01-23T16:02:04.451Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Our brain is physical, no doubt, but as you can imagine I am making a claim that mind (consciousness, spirit, whatever you want to call it) is not the same as brain. There is a connection between the two, but my argument using rational judgment is that consciousness does not seem to be physical because there is no way to understand it rationally. Your point against me is what I use against you. You say I am mistaken because I cannot even define what is consciousness, I say that is precisely the point! The only way you can reply is to hold out for the view that consciousness may not even exist, so it may not be a problem in the first place. And that is a whole other issue, for if consciousness is only an illusion that breaks down the entire human experience of reality.

Furthermore, there are other reasons why the idea of a purely physical human being without any mysterious non-physical reality is extremely problematic:

  1. It would mean no free will. To deny free will is to deny rationality to begin with. How can a conclusion made by reason in turn negate reason?

  2. It would deny any real morality. Fundamdentally a human being would be the same as a piece of wood, except more complex.

It is the western insistence that reason be a univeral tool (and therefore reality be universally physical) that has led them to completely deny dualism. But if you recognize that reason itself is pointing towards its own limits, dualism is not that bad of a conclusion.

comment by CuSithBell · 2012-01-18T18:20:03.609Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is essentially certain that it is possible in principle to construct out of matter a thing which can feel pain, have an experience of self, etc., to the extent that these are meaningful concepts.

The proof is very simple.

Replies from: Ghazzali
comment by Ghazzali · 2012-01-18T18:29:15.597Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Up to this point in human history no rational or scientific model has been presented that would explain how matter could be put together to feel pain. Or feel anything for that matter. Whether it is possible or impossible to do is another conversation.

Replies from: CuSithBell
comment by CuSithBell · 2012-01-18T18:37:58.286Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, no one does or has ever really had a clue where consciousness comes from. What's your point? The way you're saying "no rational or scientific model" rather than "no model whatsoever" implies you think these are poor tools - do you have some alternative in mind?

Replies from: Ghazzali
comment by Ghazzali · 2012-01-19T15:45:51.574Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What we know is that reason is extremely useful when applied to mechanical/material subjects. We should continue to use it in that way.

We know that it has extreme difficulty in explaining and analyzing some key issues, including consciousness and all of its manifestations; pain/pleasure, emotions, imagination, and meaning in general as well as others. Once again, this seems to be the case because consciousness itself is extremely difficult to put into mechanical/material terms. Therefore reason has a problem with it.

If a tool is proficient in explaining some things but not other things, is it 'rational' to consider it a universal tool? In this way I am using reason itself to conclude that it is not a universal tool.

So your question is what then should we use to understand consciousness if not reason?

Just as reason seems to do well in understanding things of a certain nature (mechanical/physical), we can look at consciousness and conclude from its mysteries what kind of tool is needed to give us insight into it.

(Notice that I am still using reason throughout this process, it never really leaves our endeavors. We are just being honest in that we recognize something more is there that is beyond its limits.)

Consciousness does not seem to be mechanical or physical in nature because we are not able to even model in theory an explanation for it. Therefore the tool to be used to understand it should have a much more mysterious/abstract nature. Once we make that conclusion it is a whole other topic as to what that other 'tool' might be. Whatever it is, it will probably be more elusive and less universally apparent throughout the human population than reason is.