When I was in 10th grade I took a course in formal logic. I had been a big fan of logic (and math in general) for several years, so I was looking forward to seeing how the class would approach the subject. I personally liked the teacher and I knew he thought very deeply about a range of topics (including aesthetics and philosophy). I was sure I was going to have a great time.
Unfortunately, the overall learning strategy of the class consisted of studying the textbook in extreme detail. The way I remember the textbook was that it featured a mixture of very casual and naïve paragraphs interspersed with blocks of rigid definitions and formulaic procedures for solving logic problems. My overall perception of the textbook was that anyone with a genuine interest in the beauty of math would experience the exercise of reading this book as particularly unpleasant.
I was used to math classes that didn’t actually require you to study anything; usually, problem solving skills and pragmatic inference of the meaning of words during the exam was good enough. In contrast, most questions on the exams for this class had a very particular style. The answers had to be verbatim repeats of the specific idiosyncratic responses found in the textbook. If you knew the contents of the textbook by heart, then the exam would be trivial. If you didn’t, then no amount of problem solving would get you anywhere.
These exams were open-note but closed-textbook, which meant that if you simply copied the entire textbook into your notebook you would easily be able to respond accurately to the vast majority of the questions. And if you didn’t, then you were almost guaranteed to fail. This meant that the largest fraction of the variance of grades in the class was determined by whether or not students took the time to do the grueling task of transcribing an entire textbook into their notebooks.
Needless to say, I intensely disliked this approach.
Thankfully, in every bad situation you can always find something good that redeems it a little bit . And in this case, what could be rescued from the situation was the man from Figure 5.9:
Figure 5.9: This man is confused
This must have been around page 150, which dealt with the need for logic. The textbook said, in a very informal way, something along the lines of: “Imagine a man without any logic. This person would have disjointed thoughts with no objectives, and he would be incapable of making sense of anything. The man in question would be confused. See Figure 5.9”
The teacher joked that the man in the figure could be experiencing one of many possible states of mind. His expression is somewhat ambiguous and it is unclear what exactly it adds to the conversation. Likewise, the facial features are not even the most salient component of the picture; his hair looks completely bizarre.
The Value of Confusion
This picture made me reflect on the difficulty of expressing mental states using drawings and pictures. A facial expression is perhaps a good start. Words, of course, and dialogue can help you trigger an emotion or state of being. But that only takes you so far, and it restricts you to what are largely social emotions.
Confusion, on the other hand, is an umbrella term for many states that are hard to communicate and describe. There is perceptual confusion, emotional confusion, cognitive confusion and even ontological confusion. Each of these varieties contains many flavors; there is a combinatorial explosion of possible reasons for the confusion.
Subjectively, confusion is an extremely interesting state of consciousness, since it spawns a lot of novelty. Even though it can and often is unpleasant (especially when what’s at stake is something one values), confusion comes in all shades of hedonic tone. Pleasant confusion is possible, and indeed it may play an important role in philosophical and spiritual euphoria. Likewise, one can achieve fantastic levels of neutral-valence confusion during meditation (alternating, at times, with states of very high clarity). Epiphanic, wondrous and mystical states are also often proceeded by profound confusion of the ontological kind (where you doubt the deepest background assumptions that provide the stilts upon which your worldview is suspended).
The fact that the texture of one’s experience has information processing properties (aka qualia computing) is itself more evident during states of confusion. For example, when you are confused about the meaning of something, this will have implications for the way you experience language and encode gestalts of experience (ex: “This synesthetic sensation here is usually paired up with meaning, but what is the meaning of it now? Without experiencing the meaning I usually ascribe to the sensation, I can’t compare it to other sensations I’ve had before.”)
Since language and facial expressions have their limitations, one might prefer to communicate confusion and other states using non-symbolic expressions. Visual textural gestalts, it seems to me, may take us the farthest in this direction, at least with the current level of technology (that is, unless we also include music, which itself has textural qualities).
In order to visualize new kinds of confusion, we can project the textural gestalt that the man from Figure 5.9 is experiencing into the picture itself, and imagine that we were given private access to his state of consciousness. We can then experience what it would be like to be him in these different experiential worlds, and introspect on the subjective nature of his confusion.
Did this religion of professional work start in the 1950’s? Could have been synergetic with the WWII patriotism. What a vicious cycle, people who love the professional culture, ideology, and rituals who spread the idea that you are personally disadvantaged unless you subscribe to this allegedly prevalent system, so people subscribe and the system becomes prevalent. Even before becoming prevalent, though, people who want the system to become prevalent are confident and mislead people into thinking it is prevalent, and so they join up in a tragedy of the commons. Next time you see someone with an overly clean desk and an excessive zeal for office supplies, formal cloths, ‘professionalism’ sanctioned social interactions (the arbitrary templates where gossip is permitted or even recommended but many instances of non-maliciously motivated honesty, or just acting natural and not so ‘fake’, that you would find between people in any other social situation is blasphemy), who actively spread and enforce their culture, who look confident, posture and all, (even/especially if they’re friendly (less suspicious)) that they know how to correctly act, causing that tragedy to occur, give ’em the ol’ stink eye for me, would ya? Don’t give a stink eye! Haha I’m kidding about seriously desiring their punishment. That’s humor, for ya. But it would be nice if more people were self-conscious about what it is they’re doing, the deceit of their tragedy-inducing confidence, BEFORE they became so deeply emotionally attached to the games, before they so intimately internalize them and, indeed, become drones for these parasitic memetic/cultural systems, a process that begins immediately after infancy. It’s terrible when an old generation has existential distress when their games are ripped out from underneath them, and it’s terrible that these games spread this way, and that people, who wouldn’t otherwise be (maximally) interested in this or that particular game are intimidated into the game, often a severe zero-sum game, where they might be trapped for the rest of their lives in bad faith, toiling away at it and speaking the creeds in defense of it. Whether you oppress with your culture or you are oppressed by a culture, we all aren’t that different after all, because we humans all are oppressed by the phenomenon of culture itself, prevented from reaching way greater potentials (and how might you evaluate the greatness of a potential outside of cultural values? Probably utilitarianism-like, cognitive frameworks which don’t posit the objectively valuable things like heroism, honor, big daddy, etc.., cultures invariably depend on….Anyway, this is a good discussion for (or, rather, pertains to) those who are disturbed by the thought of losing their culture, their forms of prestige, popularity, valor, or whatever social reward objective correlate posits they think they are fundamentally dependent on. People have trouble conceiving themselves attaining happiness or fulfillment or whatever ultimate valuable (which is almost certainly hedonic tone) without their culture. But subtly they misconceive what it would be like for them, their consciousness, to be beyond their current perspective. Even though in words they might appear to be contemplating possibilities beyond their current persuasion, they often fail to, because it is such a fundamental and subtle thing to do, requiring them keep vivid track of so much of their reasoning and schema. When trying to suspend a certain body of frameworks and systems and assumptions, insidiously they creep back in. First of all, most people aren’t even aware they can think beyond them. Their concept of what it is to think and consider is actually limited to thinking within such social paradigms. But if you’re trying to question a system, schema that originate from the very system you’re trying to suspend insidiously pose as necessary, neutral, universal, etc., things beyond the old paradigms when they really aren’t. Little under-cover mental viruses. In my opinion, many representative philosophers and people in academic and analytic philosophy in general fail to work free of this effect. They fail to detect and address their social bias, in very basic ways, for instance positing according to predicted language use (“common sense intuitions” are the worst), not according to evidence for the existence of some entity to be posited.) When will it be that culture doesn’t oppress, that people don’t repress critical or otherwise free thinking, that people don’t have so much socially motivated reasoning (the large majority of one’s thoughts and beliefs are really just predicted social strategies, not true reflection more free of the frames and biases of culture)? When will our interests and our sources of meaning and fulfillment, like the currently socially permissible or even required ones, be replaced by those NOT so bad for us? When will we “be not afraid” of questioning our very fragile personal, interpersonal, moral, and social institutional views, risking never getting them back, so we don’t have to live like this, as cultural sustenance, forced by oppression into forcing by oppression, as conduits of oppression?
Panpsychism is sometimes dismissed as a crazy view, but this reaction on its own is not a serious objection. While the view is counterintuitive to some, there is good reason to think that any view of consciousness must embrace some counterintuitive conclusion.
– Panpsychism and Panprotopanpsychism, David Chalmers (2011)
As Chalmers points out in this 2011 paper, any theory of consciousness will probably have counterintuitive conclusions. It should thus not come as surprise that almost every single consciousness scholar will be ridiculed as crazy by at least a minority of commentators. However, aside from omnipresent cognitive and affective biases, the vast majority of consciousness researchers are using their brains to their full capacity. Their search for understanding is sincere. It simply happens that the problem is, indeed, very hard.
Thus, when someone who is otherwise rational and intelligent has weird views about consciousness, one of several things could be going on. Instead of dismissing the view outright, ask the following four questions:
What conception of consciousness does this person have?
What criteria does he or she believe that a theory of consciousness must satisfy?
What information does this person know about, and how deeply is it being incorporated into the theory?
What are the relevant implicit background assumptions that color one’s reasoning?
Asking these questions will help you sort out the root causes behind the differences in beliefs you and the theorist may have. It will, in turn, help you see how, in a sense, uncrazy the person may be.
I recently had the opportunity to practice asking these questions over and over again in the 2016 “Science of Consciousness” conference in Tucson, Arizona. Every single presenter, panelist and poster-er could be framed in such a way that he or she would look outright crazy. In reality, the reasons behind their views are, for the most part, tractable.
Instead of focusing on the individual craziness of the participants, it is more sensible, and indeed more accurate, to simply realize that the crazy step is the very first: to dare attempt to understand, as a human, what consciousness is.
Ok, so let us just agree that all participants, including me, are crazy for simply trying to make a contribution to this field. After all, our conscious mind evolved to maximize inclusive fitness in complex, Machiavellian social structures, so when we repurpose this machinery to investigate the intrinsic nature of consciousness we are bound to have serious challenges. Starting from this understanding will make it easier to have an open mind when evaluating the merits of different theories of consciousness proposed in this conference. Do not get too fixated on how counterintuitive the theories sound to you; focus on whether they are capable of satisfying at least some minimal requirements we would want from such theories.
Conversely, it could be argued that what is truly crazy is to stand idly at the center of this monstrous philosophical conundrum.
My friend and colleague David Pearce persuaded me to accompany him to this year’s instance of this conference. He submitted an abstract of his paper on consciousness and physicalism. If you have been to Qualia Computing before, you may recognize that I heavily draw from Pearce’s philosophy. Not only do we share the belief that the problem of suffering is an ethical emergency best addressed with biotechnology, but we also have substantially similar views about consciousness.
David Pearce (left) and Andrés Gómez Emilsson (right) at the 2016 Science of Consciousness conference
Our Conception of Consciousness
Consciousness is very hard to define. But we agree on something: every single experience is an instance of consciousness. The possible components of a conscious experience come from a wide variety of qualia spaces (e.g. the state-space of phenomenal color). Importantly, we do not restrict our conception of consciousness to high-level thought, reasoning or social cognition. In all likelihood, consciousness is extremely ancient (possibly preceding the Cambrian explosion), and it is present in every animal with a thalamus (if not every animal with a nervous system).
More poignantly, the true state-space of possible conscious experiences is unfathomably large. Not only does it include the mental states of every possible animal doing any conceivable activity, but it also includes the ineffable weirdness of LSD, DMT and ketamine, not to mention the countless varieties of consciousness that are yet to be discovered.
If it weren’t for David, I would probably still be a neuron-doctrine functionalist who believes that we may be just a few decades away from programming a full Artificial General Intelligence in silicon computers.
How did Pearce help change my mind? Well, it comes down to the second question: I used to have an impoverished set of constraints that a theory of consciousness would have to satisfy. The main addition is that I now take extremely seriously the phenomenal binding problem (also called the combination problem).
For the sake of clarity and intellectual honesty, here is the answer that David and I give to the second question:
Back when I was in high school, before meeting David in person, I used to believe that the phenomenal binding problem could be dissolved with a computational theory of consciousness. In brief, I perceived binding to be a straightforward consequence of implicit information processing.
In retrospect I cannot help but think: “Oh, how psychotic I must have been back then!” However, I am reminded that one’s ignorance is not explicitly represented in one’s conceptual framework.
In order to make sense both of physicalism.com and Qualia Computing, it makes sense to be explicit about the background assumptions that we hold. Without explaining them in depth, here are some key assumptions that color the way we think about consciousness:
Events of conscious experience are ontologically unitary: The left and right side of your visual field are part of an integrated whole that stands as a natural unit.
Physicalism: Physics is causally closed and it fully describes the behavior of the observable universe.
Wavefunction realism: The decoherence program is the most parsimonious, scientific, and promising approach for interpreting quantum mechanics.
Mereological Nihilism (also called Compositional Nihilism): Simply putting two objects A and B side by side will not make a new object “AB” appear ex nihilo.
Qualia Realism: The various textures of qualia (phenomenal color, sounds, feelings of cold and heat, etc.) are not mere representations. On the contrary, our mind uses them to instantiate representations (this is an important difference).
Causal efficacy: Consciousness is not standing idly by. It has definite causal effects in animals. In particular, there must be a causal pathway that allows us to discuss its existence.
Qualia computing: The reason consciousness was recruited by natural selection is computational. In spite of its expensive caloric cost, consciousness improves the performance of fitness-relevant information processing tasks.
A Battle of Wits
A Broken Political Analogy
Naïvely, people may get the impression that there are only a few well-defined camps when it comes to scientific theories of consciousness. The layman’s conception of the explanation state-space tends to be profoundly impoverished: “Are you a scientific materialist, or one of those religious dualists?” In this sense, people may picture the discussions that go on in places like The Science of Consciousness conference as something akin to what happens in political debates. There may be a few fringe camps, but the bulk of the people are rooting for one (often very popular) party.
Magic: The Gathering analogy
Instead of imagining a political rally, I would ask you to imagine a Magic: The Gathering tournament. For those unfamiliar with this game: Magic is a card game with two competitive components. First, one selects a set of cards from a pool of allowed cards (which depends on the format one is playing). With these cards one constructs a deck. The cards within a deck tend to have synergistic interactions, and ultimately define a range of possible strategies that the player will be able to use.
And second: one can be better or worse at playing one’s deck. The skills required to play a deck properly often involve being good at estimating odds and probabilities, bluffing, and mind-reading. In terms of knowledge, one needs to be familiar with the sorts of decks that are common out there and the typical strategies that they are built around. This leads us to the concept of deck archetypes.
Often referred to as the flavors of the month, tournament decks tend to cluster rather neatly into deck types. In brief, certain clusters of cards tend to work very well with each other, which means that they will appear together in decks with a frequency that is much higher than chance. Arguably the process of block design is in part responsible for the emergence of these clusters. But even if, I would argue, you were to select at random a pool of 500 Magic cards from its entire history, we would still see clusters emerge: strategizing, trial and error, memetics and the natural synergy between some cards would lead to this outcome.
Intuitively, the game should then be entirely dominated by the deck types that are the most powerful. However, how good a given deck is depends on two things: The synergy between its cards, and the nature of the deck it plays against. Thus, decks cannot be analyzed in isolation. Their competitiveness depends on the distribution of other deck types in tournaments.
Over the months, therefore, the density of various deck types evolves in response to past distributions of deck types. This distribution, and evolutionary process, is often referred to as the Metagame. The connection to evolutionary game theory is straightforward: After gauging the frequency of various deck types at a tournament, one may strategically decide to switch one’s deck type in order to have a higher expected performance.
Some number of players tend to find playing common deck types boring or too cliché. In practice, the monetary cost for acquiring certain key cards for a given type may also push some players to develop their own unique deck type. It is rare for these decks to be top performers, but they cannot be ignored since they meaningfully contribute to the Magic ecosystem.
The Cards and Deck Types of Consciousness Theories
To make the analogy between Magic decks and theories of consciousness, we need to find a suitable interpretation for a card. In this case, I would posit that cards can be interpreted as either background assumptions, required criteria, emphasized empirical findings and interpretations of phenomena. Let’s call these, generally, components of a theory.
Like we see in Magic, we will also find that some components support each other while others interact neutrally or mutually exclude each other. For example, if one’s theory of consciousness explicitly rejects the notion that quantum mechanics influences consciousness, then it is irrelevant whether one also postulates that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. On the other hand, if one identifies the locus of consciousness to be in the microtubules inside pyramidal cells, then the particular interpretation of quantum mechanics one has is of paramount importance.
In this particular conference, it seemed that the metagame was dominated by the following 8 theories, in (approximate) order of popularity (as it seemed to me):
Consciousness as the Result of Action-Oriented Cognition (not explicitly named)
Higher Order Thought Theory (HOT)
David Pearce and I, together with perhaps up to ten other attendees, seemed to be playing a particularly rare rogue strategy: Panpsychism + Wavefunction realism + Quantum Coherence to Bind.
Other notable rogue types included: Transcendentalism + semantic nihilism, timeless + perspective-free functionalism, and, oddly, multi-draft theory of consciousness (which seems to have fallen out of favor for some reason).
Finally, it is worth mentioning that as far as this conference goes, it did not seem to be the case that any one theory was held by the majority of the participants. The plurality seemed to be held by IIT, which has a lot of interesting developments going for it.
Coming next: In the next article I will provide a chronology of the events in the conference. I will also discuss the most prominent theories of consciousness explored in Tucson this past week (25 – 30 April 2016) in light of their implicit components. Finally, I will also elaborate on some of the strengths and weaknesses of these theories relative to Qualia Computing. We will be assessing these theories in light of today’s points, and making sense of the implicit background assumptions of their proponents. (More specifically, inquiring into: the conceptions of consciousness, the criteria for theories of consciousness, the knowledge bases, and the implicit background assumptions of the various attendees who participated in this event.)