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Faulty expectations of a theory of consciousness.

  1. Jan 3, 2004 #1
    Several of the members here have mentioned some of the problems that stand in the way of a scientific theory of consciousness. I've been thinking about them quite a bit, but it seems that some of these problems can be gotten rid of simply by understanding what a scientific theory does and does not do, in normal experience.

    This will not solve all the problems of a theory of consciousness, obviously, but it will remove some - such as the "you cannot make a color-blind person understand 'blue' simply by teaching them all of the physical aspects of comprehending that particular wavelength of light" objection.

    This is the opinion of Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi, who wrote, in A Universe of Consciousness:

    This same understanding should, in my opinion as well as that of the authors, be applied to the search for a scientific explanation of consciousness.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 3, 2004 #2

    we all have a conciousness, ergo we see the color blue.

    also, why do we need science to prove something that we know exsits???

    what we need is for our conciousness to give science the next leap forward. imho, if science allowed the concept of conciousness, and it's implications, it would make a giant leap.

    where do scientists believe all the great ideas came from? GOD or the concious mind communicating with the physical world thru our brain??

    nel blu d'pinto d'blu Or blue on blue??
  4. Jan 3, 2004 #3


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    I agree. The objection that a scientific theory of consciousness could not communicate to a colorblind person what the color red looks like (which I have used before) is probably too strong. We should be satisfied with a theory of consciousness that satisfactorily explains how and why consciousness exists and is associated with certain physical systems.

    However, there is still strong reason to believe that a purely physical account of consciousness will never be able to answer the question of why consciousness should be associated with physical systems in the first place. There is nothing in the current understanding of time, space, matter, energy and the like that makes it conceivable a priori that these things, arranged in the proper fashion, should somehow result in consciousness. To answer this question, it appears as if we must accept that our ontological map of reality needs to be extended to include a new fundamental entity alongside time, space, matter and the like-- consciousness, or at least 'things' that could conceivably combine to create consciousness.
  5. Jan 5, 2004 #4
    But isn't that like asking why a hurricane is associated with physical systems? The consciousness, according to the scientific approaches to the issue, is the physical processes - it isn't just "associated" with them.

    But that just leads one back to the original Inductive assumption of Science. If you can constantly reproduce something in experiment, then it must be caused by whatever you used to produce it. There is no way, in pure logic, to even "prove" that bodies fall toward each other, e.g. that gravity exists at all. Each of the times that this effect has been observed could (at least, in the realm of pure logic) be a pure coincidence. However, that is not the scientific (nor, in this case, common-sensical) way to look at it.
  6. Jan 5, 2004 #5
    We discussed the nature of intelligence and consciousness for the last six months at university, and all I can say at the end is that nobody has found a comprehensive explanation for either.
  7. Jan 5, 2004 #6
    Was your course on Neurology or Philosophy of the Mind?
  8. Jan 5, 2004 #7
    Artificial Intelligence.
  9. Jan 5, 2004 #8


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    Not quite. Given the complete set of microphysical facts about the weather system, it is inconceivable that this system could be anything but a hurricane; it is a conceptual necessity that the weather system, composed in this way, comprises what we call a hurricane on the macroscopic scale.

    However, given the complete set of microphysical facts about brain processes, it is still very much conceivable that these processes could be instantiated without consciousness. Thus the association of consciousness with such systems is derived not by a priori necessity as with our hurricane, but rather with a posteriori contingency; it is taken as a brute fact observed to exist in nature.

    Consciousness thus cannot be explained in simpler terms, but must be taken as non-reducible and fundamental. As such, our ontology of non-reducible, fundamental entities such as spacetime and matter/energy should be expanded to include consciousness, or theoretical 'things' that could conceivably combine to compose consciousness.

    This view is incoherent without assuming something 'extra' in addition to our usual ontology-- either extra properties for spacetime and/or matter/energy or an extra fundamental entity in its own right.

    Gravity (spacetime) is a fundamental entity in our ontology; it cannot be explained by reductive means, but is taken to exist as a fundamental, non-reducible entity. Comparing explanations of consciousness to explanations of gravity only supports the idea that consciousness (or things that could conceivably compose it) as well should be taken to be a fundamental, non-reducible entity.
  10. Jan 5, 2004 #9
    And I'm sure a similar statement will be made in the near future, about consciousness. We simply don't understand neurology well enough.

    What if we just happened to have approached this particular mystery from the wrong perspective, ITFP? Now, of course, it would seem that an a posteriori contingency would need to be drawn, but not if it had been approached in the same manner that science first approached hurricanes.

    And yet, a hurricane is fundamental and irreducible. If you take away the "wind" part, or even (to be slightly more specific) the "counter-action-of-opposing-currents-of-wind" part, you would no longer have a hurricane...and yet "hurricane" is not perfectly synonymous with "opposing currents of wind".

    Not at all. If it can be shown that the electrochemical processes of neurons always produce this effect (and not just in human brains), then it can be scientifically shown that there is no extra property required at all, merely a revision of our ideas about consciousness, and its relation to chemical processes.

    Every concept should be taken as a fundamental, non-reducible entity. A duck, for example, is not a duck if you cut a piece off...it is a duck-with-missing-piece. However, there is a different kind of reducibility, which relates to the fundamental processes, which must occur to produce the higher function.
  11. Jan 5, 2004 #10


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    There are good reasons to believe that a purely reductive explanation of consciousness is not possible even in principle, given our currently accepted ontology. A hurricane is a large scale structural/functional event, and it is natural to formulate an explanation of it in terms of smaller scale structures and functions.

    This is not the case with consciousness. Even given perfect understanding of the mapping of physical processes in the brain onto conscious experience, we would still be left to wonder how it is that these physical processes can account for experience. Why should these processes be associated with conscious experience in the first place? Given a purely physically reductive account, we can just as well imagine the processes taking place without consciousness. Contrast this with a hurricane, where a sufficiently detailed physically reductive account will not even leave room for us to imagine these processes taking place without a hurricane occuring on the large scale. There is room for imagination to the contrary in the case of consciousness precisely because the explanation is insufficient.

    A hurricane is certainly reducible, in that we can give a reductive explanation of its properties with such force that it is a conceptual necessity that, having accepted and understood the explanation in terms of the microscopic properties, we see that the macroscopic result must be a hurricane.

    No, such a demonstration would force us to revise our notions of electrochemical processes and, more generally, physical processes. We would need to rework our ontological map such that an explanation involving such and such properties makes it a conceptual necessity that consciousness arises, as with our explanation of the hurricane. In the current ontology there is no way in which we can derive such a conceptual necessity; we are still left with the gap.

    For a naturalistic explanation to be successful, it must provide necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of the explanandum. In the case of the hurricane, it is both necessary and sufficient that we explain it in terms of smaller scale physical phenomena-- necessary because there are obviously smaller scale physical phenomena involved, and sufficient because once we have explained the smaller scale phenomena, we have explained everything that needs explaining.

    For consciousness, the argument is not that it is not necessary for us to explain in terms of electrochemical processes-- of course it is-- but that this explanation is insufficient. It is insufficient because it leaves us with the explanatory gap; we have not explained everything that needs explaining. What we have left out is how it is that feeling ever enters the equation in the first place. Again, there is room for logically imagining something contrary to what the explanation dictates-- imagining that these processes take place without any attendent subjective experience-- precisely because the part about experience has not been adequately explained.
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2004
  12. Jan 10, 2004 #11
    I could respond directly, I suppose, but perhaps I should change the analogy. What of the bending of spacetime? Science can clearly explain the functions of warped spacetime, and can show under what conditions it warps. However, we can always "imagine" the presence of energy and the like without spacetime ever bending. I think the reason why this may be a better analogy is because it doesn't refer to something clearly percievable, but to something abstract, while nonetheless scientifically explanable.

    I suppose, but what if we could give an account of all of the patterns occuring in conscious experience, such that we could not imagine these processes occuring without consciousness? Then would the expectations on a reductive explanation be satisfied?

    But what if a theory (such as William Calvin's hexagon theory) could show the Darwinian processes which occur among synchronously-firing neurons, and that these must produce thought, by their very nature?

    And yet, I can imagine pin-pointing a particle at an exact location. It can't happen, but I can imagine it.
  13. Jan 11, 2004 #12


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    Admittedly I'm not familiar enough with relativity to know to what extent it explains bending spacetime in terms of matter/energy. However, there is no good reason to believe why this would not be satisfactorily explainable in principle, since once again we are talking about coherently bridging structures and functions here. We would have to explain how the structure and function of mass/energy warps the structure of spacetime. Once again, we have a scenario that is explainable, at least in principle, entirely within the framework of materialism. There is no analog for the explanitory gap here.

    More on imagining later.

    Even a complete mapping of brain activity to conscious experience would not explain why brain activity should be associated with conscious experience in the first place.

    Let me put this another way. Suppose we have some non-conscious computer, or demon, or whatever (let's just call it the Deducer, or D), which takes in microphysical facts under a materialist framework and then deduces what these microphysical facts entail on a larger scale. Given a complete physical account of nature, D would presumably be able to deduce the bending of spacetime due to matter/energy, the existence of a hurricane due to microscopic weather phenomena, the properties of water based on the structures and functions of H2O, etc. D would also be able to deduce complex human behavior, including verbal reports pertaining to something called consciousness. At this point, a philosopher like Dennett would be satisfied that D has deduced everything that needs deducing, since verbal reports are supposedly the only relevant things that need to be deduced/explained.

    However, D would not be able to deduce consciousness itself; as far as D can tell, humans are very complex physical systems, but D cannot possibly deduce that subjective experience (or, more simply, feelings) exists at all. D simply regards humans as enormously complex physical systems, but nothing more; to D, humans are just like so many philosophical zombies. D has fallen victim to the explanitory gap. There is nothing in materialism as we know it that can possibly account for subjective experience, so D is doomed to leave something out.

    Let's be very clear here. Thought is an ambiguous word. We want to explain subjective experience, how it is that certain physical processes feel like something.

    I can also imagine that the earth is flat, or that gravity doesn't exist. This is besides the point. I mean rational imagination, given the complete set of physical facts. Given the complete set of physical facts, it is impossible for me to rationally imagine that the earth is flat, or that gravity does not exist, or that I can pin-point a particle at an exact location. However, given the complete set of physical facts about the brain, I can still rationally imagine that the physical processes of the brain occur without consciousness. This is precisely because the physical facts don't say anything about how subjective experience can exist in the first place. We just take this as an ad hoc add-on to agree with reality, but in fact under closer scrutiny it is incompatible with materialism as we know it.
  14. Jan 13, 2004 #13
    Hypnagogue said:

    Ok, this makes sense and all, but I think D would actually be able to understand that humans are very emotional and D could deduce the fact that these humans experience some type of emotional consciousness because:

    • D can take in materialist facts under a microphysical framework and then D can deduce these frameworks in a larger scale.
    Thus you can conclude that D is a heuristic bot that can understand reason, emotion, and physicality. If he can process materialist frameworks.
    Therefore you can list that D can contemplate that these humans have a desire in their nature by observation.
    • D observes humans, therefore D contemplates reason, desire, and emotion, even though D doesn't know exactly what the human neurology is. D can semi-comprehend emotional confrontations in fixated situations.
    • If D can deduce large frameworks, D can understand the minimal components of consciousness, without knowing how it works or why it works, but D observes that these components and mechanisms happen.
    • If D can complete physical accounts of weather patterns, verbalization, and spacetime curvatures, it could be concluded that D understands humanology and nature. Thus D can comprehend that verbalization holds emotion. And physical frameworks have deeper meanings, thus D exposes "himself" to contemplate the mechanisms and functions of the "how" and "why" these things are the way they are or seem.

    I'm pretty sure this is dead on by your definition of D, otherwise if there is a mistake then D in definition isn't possible by concluding microphysical facts and verbalization.
  15. Jan 13, 2004 #14


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    I think you're missing the force of the argument.

    D can predict behaviors (including verbal reports) perfectly well, but has no reason at all from its given facts to suppose that something like subjective experience should exist. Imagine for a moment a zombie called Z, a person who looks, acts and talks like any other person but who in fact is not conscious. That is, from the 3rd person view Z is indistinguishable from a normal person, but from the 1st person view Z is totally different-- if you put yourself in Z's shoes, you would not see, hear, or feel anything at all. Z has no inner life, no consciousness, no subjective experience, no feelings; it is not like something to be Z.

    What I am saying is, given only physical facts in a materialist framework, D would deduce that all humans are like Z. Given the complete microphysical information about a person's brain and body, D would be able to predict all of his complex behaviors, including anything we might call emotional behavior. But D would not see the underlying conscious subjective experience of these emotional behaviors-- D would get the 3rd person picture perfectly, but would not get the 1st person picture at all. As far as D can see, there is no such thing as consciousness, because it does not follow from the ontology of materialism that consciousness should somehow arise from such and such configuration of physical processes.
  16. Jan 14, 2004 #15

    I agree with what you've said here so clearly. It fact I don't see how it's possible to disagree.

    Science takes the existence of certain entities as fundamental (gravity, spacetime, Big Bang etc) and leaves them unreduced and unexplained. It has no choice in this, since it has to take something as being axiomatic, or non-relative, in order to proceed at all. I agree that it should do the same for consciousness, as you and Chalmers suggest.

    However if it does this then the question arises as to which of these unreduced entities or substances is ontologically most fundamental. I suspect that this question, which arises inevitably once consciousness is deemed axiomatic, will prevent science from ever taking consciousness as having any inherent existence. To do so would be to undermine the scientific world-view.

    For this reason my prophecy is that 100 years, and even a 1000 years into the future, either the current scientific 'episteme' will have been discarded, or the arguments will still be raging inconclusively.

    Personally I can't see the problem with assuming that consciousness is fundamental and then building theories on that assumption. We do it for spacetime and matter, the existence of which is scientifically inexplicable, so why not consciousness.

    Doing so does not preclude the idea that the brain is a computer, it just asserts that there is something else to consciousness than its output.
  17. Jan 15, 2004 #16
    The colour blue is not just the wavelength of light, it's a subjective idea ASSOCIATED with a certain wavelength of light.

    Every point a distance d from a midpoint FORMS a circle- all of those points (as a whole) are not a circle, they form it. Water is not just H2O- no matter how precise a scientific model you have for water, you can't ever show that it's "wet"- you can show that if it comes in contact with the sensory receptors and nervous system of a human it will be differentiated by the human from non-liquid things, but you can never show the feeling of it being "wet". When we feel an object's wetness we don't simply intake data that the object is liquid with such-andsuch composure, we FEEL a "wetness", a distince subjective feeling that is not data in any way. That feeling is a PRODUCT of the data saying the object is wet, it is ASSOCIATED with that data, but it is a seperate entity.
  18. Jan 16, 2004 #17

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    In otherwords Sikz, the subjective phenomenon of Wet water, is actually the objective reality of H2O. The subjective understanding of a circle, is actually an infinite number of points equidistant from a single point. The subjective phenomenon of a HUrricane is the objective occurance of a particular weather system. The subjective phenomenon of Lightning and thunder is the objective reality of Static discharge and a vibration of air particles resulting from the discharge.... and so on.

    For every scientifically reducible objective fact, there is an unreducioble subjective experience.

    For the objective fact of the brain, there appears to be a resulting subjective phenomenon creator ....

    External Objective (wavelength of light) => Interal objective (brain) => experience of light (How?) + Memory of experience => Ability for memories to be recalled, thereby creating our conscious 'thinking' minds.

    The only real question, is how the brain translates the input into experience. Related, is how 'much' or what 'type' of brain is required to achieve this function....


    Here is some food for thought for you all. This is something Dark Wing and I have been thinking about for a few months now, and I think it might help someone to create a better concept for the mind one day.

    Think about the stock market. You have the physical reality: Thousands of people, buying, selling or doing neither all together, yet individually. Neither answer to each other, but their actions all have direct consequences on each other. From this objective fact, the 'Stock Exchange' itself arises. The stock exchange is an entity which doesn't really exist. There is no where that the stock market is, and there is no thing that the stock market is. The stock market is nothing beyond the actions of those thousands of people buying, selling, or standing.

    Yet we refer to it as an entity. We talk about 'the stock market acting' in particular ways as if it has a life of its own.

    I'm not sure how to link the stock market to how the brain creates 'experience' per say, but for now it at least describes how the mind is nothing more than the actions of the brain, yet can be thought of as something else altogether.

    Sorry 'bout the ramble.
  19. Jan 17, 2004 #18
    And the reverse of course.

    And the reverse of course.

    It would be great if it was this simple. But it is clear from the research that it isn't.

    The question is IF the brain (alone) translates this into experience.

    That's a good analogy for the brain, not the mind.

    You've ommitted to consider that the stock market consists of conscious players. It wouldn't exist otherwise. If your analogy held then neurons would be conscious.
  20. Jan 17, 2004 #19
    The reactions on the stock market are based on information. It can be (1) objective information (real turnover, projections ... of bookkeeping numbers), (2) subjective information (rumours, advertisment, interviews, news, ...) and (3) personal motives (need of cash, intuition to sell, more trust in other opportunities, ...).
    So it's a combination of various factors. These factors are valorized by each investor in his personal way.

    All that information can be seen as 'memories' on different levels. Buy or sell will dependent of the priority the investor gives at a certain information or at a combination of them.

    The same happens in consciousness: priority-choice between values coming from memories from several dimensions.
  21. Jan 17, 2004 #20
    AG, I don't really see how this analogy differs from the Hurricane analogy that has already been discussed. It isn't a good analogy for consciousness because hurricanes and stock market characteristics can be reductively explained and accounted for. The argument here is that consciousness cannot be, in principal, reductively explained.

    All you're arguing here is for the usefulness of holistic concepts. Which btw, is something that some materialists here would claim doesn't even exists and shouldn't even have a word assigned to it. They're having a hard time claiming the same thing about consciousness.
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