3/16/11

looking for consciousness beyond the brain

my impression of human consciousness (drawn from what I've read and heard) is that a genetically human brain cannot become conscious on its own. it needs 1) a personal history 2) inside a body in 3) a rich physical/perceptual environmental and 4) to be steeped in interaction with other brains. this interaction means that the brain is 5) absorbed into the medium of cultural information. the brain, in other words, comes to exist in a sea of memes (quanta of cultural or semiological information) as a tight "island" of memes; as a dense cluster of connections between bits of cultural/semiological information. the conscious self is a node in a cultural network.  the brain is constructed into a roughly discrete pattern in a rich and tangled network of culturally-transmitted patterns and processes

crucially, the functional architecture of the brain is organized such that it can 6) operate in a language (e.g. Zulu, Hindi, Icelandic). language turns out to be what fundamentally enables certain global or semi-global habits of thought, these habits or organizing principles of the brain being essential to consciousness, such as 7) making analogies or isomorphic mappings, 8) categorizing all elements of perception (and hence, the world) into concepts based on these analogies, 9) subsuming lower-level concepts/categories into higher-level ones, and 10) abstracting away essential information from situations, ignoring swathes of noise and redundancy in the process. analogical categorization transforms perception into experience. abstracting the essences of experiences transforms them into something more abstract: situations. as human beings, the situation is the dominant genre of our conscious experiences. the world is not just categorized into concepts but into interactive narratives with actors, atmospheres, themes, tensions, dilemmas, goals, outcomes, triumphs, and frustrations. consciousness is a kind of perpetual motion machine: the aforementioned narratives go into the ontogenesis of an increasingly fluid and agile I. as I blossoms, it generates increasingly more (and more elaborate) narratives that feed right back into its growth. this is the self-fueling engine that powers our inner light

language creates some analogue of an internal map of the brain's information, with each word or phrase acting as a "landmark" so that the information can be located and "called up" at any time. words also serve as a way to organize information, similar to how a colour-coding system might work if it used thousands of shades. as a third function, words mobilize information, recruiting chunks of it for use in thinking. a brain cultivated by culture and language into a mind becomes capable of 11) organizing mental events/experiences in a pseudo-serial fashion and 12) to "perceive" itself or obtain information about its own state, such that it can reflect on what it is doing (internally or as a body in motion). to become conscious, a brain needs to 13) reflect on its own reflections, reflect on those meta-reflections, and in this way build enormous towers of self-inquiry that perpetually grow in an endless string of self-stimulations. focusing on how a brain manages to analogize, categorize, serialize, and meta-meta-meta...reflect, we can begin to see how it comes to author a story of self


2/27/11

the verb "soul"

the seemingly spontaneous emergence of rich personality in a person gives the sense that the content of the soul is something pre-given (though mysterious and deeply buried); a destiny to be unraveled. the question "who am I?" is strangely phrased. what is the underlying truth you are groping for when you deliberate on who you are? isn't the question "who am I?" up to you, closer to "what am I going to do?" than "what am I already"?

"who am I?" is often invoked in the face of choices that define your values or when you deliberate on a destiny to set for yourself. maybe it is the contradiction between (passive) observation and agency that makes the soul's emergence seem so mysterious and spontaneous. our understanding of human selfhood is coloured by the "finding yourself" schema, in which you take on a quest to discover yourself. is "discovering yourself" just provocative language, or is there an underlying superstructure of the self we are supposed to find?

if your self emerges through agency, and that agency operates in the language and meaning of observation or discovery, a mystery will arise when you literally interpret that agential process as a search for knowledge. self-knowledge can causally predate the reality of the self; you think "I am" and in doing so shape yourself towards that "am" such that you're right. here, the answer to "who am I?" is not really a revelation so much but a self-determination. your "I am" is a resoluteness of desire instead of an expression of a clearly defined self. through pursuit, desire, and searching we continually create ourselves, with the illusion that we originate from an innate source that is forever hidden. we search for ourselves, but not selves already there to be found; we search for a way that we might be, for a projective self that is formulated open-endedly and eternally


1/7/10

Spookifying consciousness


Ray Tallis has an article in New Scientist published online today titled "You won't find consciousness in the brain". Unlike Alva Noë, Tallis isn't just arguing that we should expand our hunt for consciousness to culture, language, and our physical environment. He's advocating a spooky, mysterious view of consciousness in which neuroscience is forever powerless to investigate it. For example, Tallis argues that synapses are unable to facilitate memory because, as physical objects, they lack any access to the past; they don't "have anything other than [their] present state". If this made sense, however, home video tapes would be just as incomprehensible.

Tallis statement that "neural activity is nothing like experience" is confusing. Does he expect that when someone thinks of a polar bear, the neural activity in their brain should be white and furry? Another technological analogy seems to apply here: superficially it seems like the audiovisual world of our monitors and speakers has nothing to with the mechanical activity inside our computer towers (you can't lift the case off your PC tower and watch a YouTube video), but we know they are in some sense the same thing. If we knew only as much about computers as we know about the mind, the relationship between computers' mechanical activity and their seemingly distinct audiovisual world would also be baffling and mysterious to us.

I agree that "neuroscience provides ... an incomplete explanation of consciousness" but would argue that's just because it's only one of many fields under the cognitive science umbrella that are each necessary but not sufficient to (eventually, hopefully) explain consciousness.

5/4/09

Brain worship


Philosopher Alva Noë has an interview in Salon that is well worth reading. The general thrust of the interview, as I understand it, is that consciousness exists in more than just the brain. It also exists in the environment, in language, in culture, and other physical locations (Noë is not a dualist). I've written before about consciousness existing in the body, as well as the brain. Noë takes it up a notch. I think it is a challenging shift in perspective, but I'm inclined to agree with him. It is important to realize that, as Victor Vinge says, what makes humans unique is that we outsource our cognition to the world around us.

Dan Dennett, my favourite philosopher of consciousness, takes the interdisciplinary approach to consciousness that Noë encourages; in a radio discussion (which unfortunately I can't track down), he agreed with someone (whose name I've forgotten) who wrote a book about "brain worship" that it's important to focus on more than just the brain, but also the head. Dennett, however, unlike Noë, will tell you that the taste of an apple is in your brain, not in the apple.

Noë's arguments are thought provoking, although I really don't like how he puts an aesthetic and moralistic spin on it all. Isn't it enough just to say brain monomania is a bad idea? I spotted some strawmen in there as well, but I imagine it would be hard to voice the arguments Noë is trying to hammer home without going overboard a little bit. My main complaint is that he seems to be longing for a quasi-skyhook, although it's hard to tell if that's actually the case. Like most interesting arguments, Noë's are an uncertain mix.

2/8/09

The ghost and the machine

The Future of Humanity Institute, headed by transhumanist Nick Bostrom, has released a report proposing how we might get a point where we have the technology to emulate (not just simulate) an entire human brain in a computing substrate. In its introduction (which I admit is as far as I can get in the 130 pages), this "roadmap" states that whole brain emulation would make "digital immortality" possible. I assert that merely emulating someone's brain would not be enough to preserve that person entirely. I am no dualist, but I think there is more to a human mind, to a self or a soul, than just the brain. There's also the body.

We human beings are vast networks of nerves. Although it is true that by far the largest cluster is our brains, that doesn't mean all nervous activity goes on within our skulls. (I think it was in Kinds of Minds that Dan Dennett said that a mind includes much of the body, not just the brain.) Consider this: the sound of your voice is a major element of your identity, at least to the people who know you, and your vocal timbre depends on non-neurological factors like the size and shape of your vocal cords – as well as the rest of your body. All sorts of biological factors, like your metabolism and your tastebuds, form part of your mental experience and usually your identity. More dramatically, we humans have an intimate connection to the macroscopic bodies – not that we "inhabit" – but that we are. Our sense of self is predicated inextricably on our physical existence. Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg talk about body simulation in their report, but I say that isn't enough. For digital immortality, I posit, in addition to whole brain emulation, you need whole body emulation. There may be even more requirements for full human preservation than this. For one, a simulated environment certainly wouldn't be enough. True human existence depends on a real environment or, at the least, a flawlessly emulated one.