Feb 14, 2007

Mysteries of Consciousness

There's a very interesting article posted on the Time web-site, Mystery of Consciousness by Steven Pinker. (Author of the very good book; The Language Instinct. )

This article presents a light over-view of current thinking in neurology and consciousness research. Pinker states early on the nature of the so-called "hard problem," explaining consciousness in terms of brain function;

The Hard Problem, on the other hand, is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one's head--why there is first-person, subjective experience. Not only does a green thing look different from a red thing, remind us of other green things and inspire us to say, "That's green" (the Easy Problem), but it also actually looks green: it produces an experience of sheer greenness that isn't reducible to anything else. As Louis Armstrong said in response to a request to define jazz, "When you got to ask what it is, you never get to know."
In abhidhamma terminology, that would be cetasika and citta. This statement of the issue is important because not so long ago western concepts of consciousness were mixed up with cognitive thought. I once read a very good history of chess written in 1948. The last chapter, The Future of Chess, contained a speculation that some people were claiming that one day a machine would be able to play a decent game of chess. The author thoroughly debunked this ridiculous notion by pointing out that the permutations in a game were literally astronomical so it necessarily takes a "conscious entity" to make " the intuitive decisions" between possible moves.

So conciousness is now being correctly defined. It only took western science twenty-five centuries to catch up with the abhidhamma.

But Pinker immediately follows this with the following;

The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.

Although neither problem has been solved, neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it "the astonishing hypothesis"--the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain.
I think it is fair to ask why this has to be assumed. Pinker admits that science hasn't got a clue how it could work, and yet remains convinced that somehow it does. Crick's statement may have been an hypothesis to begin with, but it's now become an article of faith, i.e. a statement held to be true without any evidence.

Pinker does offer a couple of facts as evidence; that neuro-scientists can tell a lot about what a person is thinking by looking at an MRI of their brain, and that mental processes can be affected by physical manipulation (electrical or chemical) of the brain. But the reasoning is faulty; these things demonstrate only a strong correlation between mind and brain, they do not indicate causation. It's more than a little bit like claiming that the rooster crowing every morning makes the sun come up.

When speaking about brain-waves, Pinker says "a bit like radio transmitters and receivers tuned to the same frequency." Without intending to, he has hit on an alternative metaphor that may be closer to the truth. Physicalists like Pinker rely on what has been called "the computational model" of mind. In this theory, brain is like a computer and mind is like the software running on it. An alternate view could be called the "radio model" where brain doesn't generate mind, but acts as the physical interface for it.

The glaring problem with the computational model for the "hard problem" is that consciousness cannot be reduced to an algorithm. This argument is inherently simple, but difficult to explain briefly. (Roger Penrose's book, "The Emperor's New Mind" takes hundreds of pages and then he waffles a bit on his own conclusion.) But the idea is that everything done by a physical machine must be, in theory at least, be able to be explained in terms of a step by step analysis of action. (an algorithm) Think of a Rube Goldberg cartoon. A computer program can always be printed out in machine code instructions which tell the chips in a systematic way what to do.

The problem is not that consciousness is so complex, it is that is too simple to be reduced to an algorithm. Everything else, possibly, could be. When we look at an apple, there is a very complex series of events beginning with light of specific wavelengths stimulating the sensitive cells in the eye, and impulses travelling through the optic nerve to the brain. However, at the end of the sequence, there is just pristine simple knowing.

A machine these days could easily be imagined that could sort apples and pears. A camera could send visual data to a processor that could sort the objects by colour and shape. (The Easy Problem.) However, the machine would have no experience of seeing an apple. (The hard problem) I would contend that this is because having an experience is not a mechanical process.

Western philosophy of mind debates have been stuck in a controversy between the physicalists and the dualists. A dualist believes in "the ghost in the machine." The problem is, this is really just another kind of materialism, it is sometimes even called "substance dualism." In Buddhist theory, Mind is a separate category from Matter, neither of which is reducible to the other, so we agree with the dualists on some points. However, Mind is also seen as utterly void of substance. There is no "ghost" in the machine. There is a process happening that the machine can tune in to. Brain, I would argue, serves as the physical interface allowing mind to manifest in matter.

Far from mind being a product of brain, the reverse is closer to the truth. Mind in the womb serves as a guiding principle for the unfolding of matter into a new organism. If you think this is far-fetched, read maverick biologist Rupert Sheldrake. He points out the problems involved in explaining morpho-genesis (the unfolding of cells and organs in an embryo) in strictly physical terms.

It is a curious feature of the history of science that while physics in the twentieth century began to approach the idea that Mind is an independent actor in the world, (the observer being necessary to definitively kill Schrodinger's cat) biology remains committed to a nineteenth century naive materialism. Perhaps in the future physicalism will be remembered fondly as an intellectual folly like the universal ether or the phlogiston theory of combustion.


Cranky addendum - why do big media sites like Time break up articles like this into separate pages, making searching for quotes and off-line reading problematic? Could it be to make us look at more ads? Nah....

Feb 12, 2007

Gravitic Anomaly at Arrow River

Ladder stands up unsupported; scientists baffled.

Feb 11, 2007

Just a Few Cool Links

This is pretty good tool for contemplation of impermanence; time-lapse video of a decomposing piglet.

This one illustrates something very important about perception. It's really worth a look. Follow the instructions on the introduction page.

This one was going viral before CBS pulled it off YouTube (coincidence? I think not.) But good viral videos never die and this page is still up (for now.) Andy of Mayberry vs. the Patriot Act. See what America used to be.

An excellent think piece from the NY Review of Books on why America thinks it's special. (No, wise guy, not like the kids who go to the other school in the "special" bus)

Finally, yet more Microsoft bashing (hey they're a big target and easy to hit). BBSpot's Windows Vista installation flow-chart.