Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply: Reflections on The Science of Consciousness 2018
Two years ago I attended The Science of Consciousness 2016 (in Tucson, AZ.) with David Pearce. Here is my account of that event. This year I went again, but now together with a small contingent representing the Qualia Research Institute (QRI). You can see the videos of our presentations here. Below you will find this year’s writeup:
What Went Great
(1) The Meta-Problem of Consciousness
This time David Chalmers brought the Meta-problem of Consciousness into the overall conversation by making a presentation about his paper on the topic. I think that this was a great addition to the conference, and it played beautifully as a tone-setter.
“The meta-problem of consciousness is (to a first approximation) the problem of explaining why we think that there is a problem of consciousness.”
– Chalmers on the Meta-Problem
David Chalmers is famous for defending the case that there is a problem of consciousness. And not only that, but that indeed, an aspect of it, the hard problem, resists conventional methods of explanation (as they focus on form and structure, but consciousness is anything but). Chalmers’ track record of contributions to the field is impressive. His work includes: formalizing foundational problems of consciousness, steel-manning extended-mind/embodied cognition, progress on classical philosophy of language questions (e.g. sense and reference with regards to modal logic), observations on the unity of consciousness, the case for the possibility of super-intelligence, and even the philosophical implications of Virtual Reality (I often link to his Reddit AMA as one of the best layman’s introductions to his work; see also his views on psychedelics). Plus, his willingness to consider, and even steel-man the opponent’s arguments is admirable.*
And of all of his works, I would argue, discussing the meta-problem of consciousness is perhaps one of the things that will help advance the field of consciousness research the most. In brief, we are in sore need of an agreed-upon explanation for the reasons why consciousness poses a problem at all. Rather than getting caught up in unfruitful arguments at the top of the argumentative tree, it is helpful to sometimes be directed to look at the roots of people’s divergent intuitions. This tends to highlight unexpected differences in people’s philosophical background assumptions.
And the fact that these background assumptions are often not specified leads to problems. For example: talking past each other due to differences in terminology, people attacking a chain of reasoning when in fact their disagreement starts at the level of ontology, and failure to recognize and map useful argumentative isomorphisms from one ontology onto another.
Having the Meta-Problem of Consciousness at the forefront of the discussions, in my appraisal of the event, turned out to be very generative. Asking an epiphenomenalist, an eliminativist, a panprotopsychist, etc. to explain why they think their view is true seemed less helpful in advancing the state of our collective knowledge than asking them about their thoughts on the Meta-Problem of Consciousness.
(2) Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply
At the Qualia Research Institute we explicitly assume that consciousness is not only real, but that it is formalizable. This is not a high-level claim about the fact that we can come up with a precise vocabulary to talk about consciousness. It is a radical take on the degree to which formal mathematical models of experience can be discovered. Qualia Formalism, as we define it, is the claim that for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object whose properties are isomorphic to the phenomenology of that experience. Anti-formalists, on the other hand, might say that consciousness is an improper reification.
For formalists, consciousness is akin to electromagnetism: we started out with a series of peculiar disparate phenomena such as lightning, electricity, magnets, static-electricity, etc. After a lot of work, it turned out that all of these diverse phenomena had a crisp unifying mathematical underpinning. More so, this formalism was not merely descriptive. Light, among other phenomena, were hidden in it. That is, finding a mathematical formalism for real phenomena can be generalizable to even more domains, be strongly informative for ontology, and ultimately, also technologically generative (the computer you are using to read this article wouldn’t- and in fact couldn’t -exist if electromagnetism wasn’t formalizable).
For anti-formalists, consciousness is akin to Élan vital. People had formed the incorrect impression that explaining life necessitated a new ontology. That life was, in some sense, (much) more than just the sum of life-less forces in complex arrangements. And in order to account for the diverse (apparently unphysical) behaviors of life, we needed a life force. Yet no matter how hard biologists, chemists, and physicists have tried to look for it, no life force has been found. As of 2018 it is widely agreed by scientists that life can be reduced to complex biochemical interactions. In the same vein, anti-formalists about consciousness would argue that people are making a category error when they try to explain consciousness itself. Consciousness will go the same way as Élan vital: it will turn out to be an improper reification.
In particular, the new concept-handle on the block to refer to anti-formalist views of consciousness is “illusionism”. Chalmers writes on The Meta-Problem of Consciousness:
This strategy [of talking about the meta-problem] typically involves what Keith Frankish has called illusionism about consciousness: the view that consciousness is or involves a sort of introspective illusion. Frankish calls the problem of explaining the illusion of consciousness the illusion problem. The illusion problem is a close relative of the meta-problem: it is the version of the meta-problem that arises if one adds the thesis that consciousness is an illusion. Illusionists (who include philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, Frankish, and Derk Pereboom, and scientists such as Michael Graziano and Nicholas Humphrey) typically hold that a solution to the meta-problem will itself solve or dissolve the hard problem.
– The Meta-Problem of Consciousness (pages 2-3)
In the broader academic domain, it seems that most scientists and philosophers are neither explicitly formalists nor anti-formalists. The problem is, this question has not been widely discussed. We at QRI believe that there is a fork in the road ahead of us. That while both formalist and anti-formalist views are defensible, there is very little room in-between for coherent theories of consciousness. The problem of whether qualia formalism is correct or not is what Michael Johnson has coined as The Real Problem of Consciousness. Solving it would lead to radical improvements in our understanding of consciousness.
Now, largely thanks to the fact that Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is being discussed openly, qualia formalism is (implicitly) starting to have its turn on the table. While we believe that IIT does not work out as a complete account of consciousness for a variety of reasons (our full critique of it is certainly over-due), we do strongly agree with its formalist take on consciousness. In fact, IIT might be the only mainstream theory of consciousness that assumes anything resembling qualia formalism. So its introduction into the water supply (so to speak) has given a lot of people the chance to ponder whether consciousness has a formal structure.
(3) Great New Psychedelic Research
The conference featured the amazing research of Robin Carhart-Harris, Anil K. Seth, and Selen Atasoy, all of whom are advancing the frontier of consciousness research by virtue of collecting new data, generating computational models to explain it, and developing big-picture accounts of psychedelic action. We’ve already featured Atasoy’s work in here. Her method of decomposing brain activity into harmonics is perhaps one of the most promising avenues for advancing qualia formalist accounts of consciousness (i.e. tentative data-structures in which the information about a given conscious state is encoded). Robin’s entropic brain theory is, we believe, a really good step in the right direction, and we hope to formalize how valence enters the picture in the future (especially as it pertains to being able to explain qualia annealing on psychedelic states). Finally, Anil is steel-manning the case for predictive coding’s role in psychedelic action, and, intriguingly, also advancing the field by trying to find out in exactly what ways the effects of psychedelics can be simulated with VR and strobe lights (cf. Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, and Getting Closer to Digital LSD).
(4) Superb Aesthetic
The Science of Consciousness brings together a group of people with eclectic takes on reality, extremely high Openness to Experience, uncompromising curiosity about consciousness, and wide-ranging academic backgrounds, and this results in an amazing aesthetic. In 2016 the underlying tone was set by Dorian Electra and Baba Brinkman, who contributed with consciousness-focused music and witty comedy (we need more of that kind of thing in the world). Dorian Electra even released an album titled “Magical Consciousness Conference” which discusses in a musical format classical topics of philosophy of mind such as: the mind-body problem, brains in vats, and the Chinese Room.
The Science of Consciousness conference carries a timeless aesthetic that is hard to describe. If I were forced to put a label on it, I would say it is qualia-aware paranormal-adjacent psychedelic meta-cognitive futurism, or something along those lines. For instance, see how you can spot philosophers of all ages vigorously dancing to the empiricists vs. rationalists song by Dorian Electra (featuring David Chalmers) at The End of Consciousness Party in this video. Yes, that’s the vibe of this conference. The conference also has a Poetry Slam on Friday in which people read poems about qualia, the binding problem, and psychedelics (this year I performed a philosophy of mind stand-up comedy sketch there). They also play the Zombie Blues that night, in which people take turns to sing about philosophical zombies. Here are some of Chalmers’ verses:
I act like you act
I do what you do
But I don’t know
What it’s like to be you
What consciousness is!
I ain’t got a clue
I got the Zombie Blues!!!
I asked Tononi:
“How conscious am I?”
He said “Let’s see…”
“I’ll measure your Phi”
He said “Oh Dear!”
“It’s zero for you!”
And that’s why you’ve got the Zombie Blues!!!
Noteworthy too is the presence of after-parties that end at 3AM, the liberal attitude on cannabis, and the crazy DMT art featured in the lobby. Here are some pictures we took late at night borrowing some awesome signs we found at a Quantum Healing stand.
(5) We found a number of QRI allies and supporters
Finally, we were very pleased to find that Qualia Computing readers and QRI supporters attended the conference. We also made some good new friends along the way, and on the whole we judged the conference to be very much worth our time. For example, we were happy to meet Link Swanson, who recently published his article titled Unifying Theories of Psychedelic Drug Effects. I in fact had read this article a week before the event and thought it was great. I was planning on emailing him after the conference, and I was pleasantly surprised to meet him in person there instead. If you met us at the conference, thanks for coming up and saying hi! Also, thank you to all who organized or ran the conference, and to all who attended it!
What I Would Like to See More Of
(1) Qualia Formalism
We hope and anticipate that in future years the field of consciousness research will experience an interesting process in which theory proponents will come out as either formalists or anti-formalists. In the meantime, we would love to see more people at least taking seriously the vision of qualia formalism. One of the things we asked ourselves during the conference was: “Where can we find other formalists?”. Perhaps the best heuristic we explored was the simple strategy of going to the most relevant concurrent sessions (e.g. physics and consciousness, and fundamental theories of consciousness). Interestingly, the people who had more formalist intuitions also tended to take IIT seriously.
(2) Explicit Talk About Valence (and Reducing Suffering)
To our knowledge, our talks were the only ones in the event that directly addressed valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis). I wish there were more, given the paramount importance of affect in the brain’s computational processing, its role in culture, and of course, its ethical relevance. What is the point of meaning and intelligence if one cannot be happy?
There was one worthy exception: at some point Stuart Hameroff briefly mentioned his theory about the origin of life. He traces the evolutionary lineage of life to molecular micro-environmental system in which “quantum events [are] shielded from random, polar interactions, enabling more intense and pleasurable [Objective Reduction] qualia. ” In his view, pleasure-potential maximization is at the core of the design of the nervous system. I am intrigued by this theory, and I am glad that valence enters the picture here. I would just want to extend this kind of work to include the role of suffering as well. It seems to me that the brain evolved an adaptive range of valence that sinks deep into the negative, and is certainly not just optimizing for pleasure. While our post-human descendants might enjoy information-sensitive gradients of bliss, us Darwinians have been “gifted” by evolution a mixture of negative and positive hedonic qualia.
(3) Awareness of the Tyranny of the Intentional Object
Related to (2), we think that one of the most important barriers for making progress in valence research is the fact that most people (even neuroscientists and philosophers of mind) think of it as a very personal thing with no underlying reality beyond hearsay or opinion. Some people like ice-cream, some like salads. Some people like Pink Floyd, others like Katy Perry. So why should we think that there is a unifying equation for bliss? Well, in our view, nobody actually likes ice-cream or Pink Floyd. Rather, ice-cream and Pink Floyd trigger high-valence states, and it is the high valence states that are actually liked and valuable. Our minds are constructed in such a way that we project pleasure and pain out into the world and think of them as necessarily connected to the external state of affairs. But this, we argue, is indeed an illusion (unlike qualia, which is as real as it gets).
Even the people in the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Consciousness plenary panel seemed subject to the Tyranny of the Intentional Object. During the Q&A section I asked them: “if you were given a billion dollars to build a brain or machine that could experience super-happiness, how would you go about doing so?” Their response was that happiness/bliss only makes sense in relational terms (i.e. by interacting with others in the real world). Someone even said that “dopamine in the brain is just superficial happiness… authentic happiness requires you to gain meaning from what you do in the world.” This is a common view to take, but I would also point out that if it is possible to generate valence in artificial minds without human interactions, generating high valence could be done more directly. Finding methods to modulate valence would be done more efficiently by seeking out foundational qualia formalist accounts of valence.
(4) Bigger Role for the Combination Problem
The number of people who account for the binding problem (also called the combination or boundary problem) is vanishingly small. How and why consciousness appears as unitary is a deep philosophical problem that cannot be dismissed with simple appeals to illusionism or implicit information processing. In general, my sense has been that many neuroscientists, computer scientists, and philosophers of mind don’t spend much time thinking about the binding problem. I have planned an article that will go in depth about why it might be that people don’t take this problem more seriously. As David Pearce has eloquently argued, any scientific theory of consciousness has to explain the binding problem. Nowadays, almost no one addresses it (and much less compellingly provides any plausible solution to it). The conference did have one concurrent session called “Panpsychism and the Combination Problem” (which I couldn’t attend), and a few more people I interacted with seemed to care about it, but the proportion was very small.
(5) Bumping-up the Effect Size of Psi Phenomena (if they are real)
There is a significant amount of interest in Psi (parapsychology) from people attending this conference. I myself am agnostic about the matter. The Institute of Noetic Science (IONS) conducts interesting research in this area, and there are some studies that argue that publication bias cannot explain the effects observed. I am not convinced that other explanations have been ruled out, but I am sympathetic to people who try to study weird phenomena within a serious scientific framework (as you might tell from this article). What puzzles me is why there aren’t more people advocating for increasing the effect size of these effects in order to study them. Some data suggests that Psi (in the form of telepathy) is stronger with twins, meditators, people on psychedelics, and people who believe in Psi. But even then the effect sizes reported are tiny. Why not go all-in and try to max out the effect size by combining these features? I.e. why not conduct studies with twins who claim to have had psychic experiences, who meditate a lot, and who can handle high doses of LSD and ketamine in sensory deprivation tanks? If we could bump up the effect sizes far enough, maybe we could definitively settle the matter.
(6) And why not… also a lab component?
Finally, I think that trip reports by philosophically-literate cognitive scientists are much more valuable than trip reports by the average Joe. I would love to see a practical component to the conference someday. The sort of thing that would lead to publications like: “The Phenomenology of Candy-Flipping: An Empirical First-Person Investigation with Philosophers of Mind at a Consciousness Conference.”
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 the 2016 writeup of the conference I pointed out that the dominant theories of consciousness (i.e. deck types in the above sense) were:
- Integrated Information Theory (IIT)
- Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR)
- Prediction Error Minimization (PEM)
- Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWS)
- Panprotopsychist (not explicitly named)
- Nondual Consciousness Monism (not explicitly named)
- Consciousness as the Result of Action-Oriented Cognition (not explicitly named)
- Higher Order Thought Theory (HOT)
So how has the meta-game changed since then? Based on the plenary presentations, the concurrent sessions, the workshops, the posters, and my conversations with many of the participants, I’d say (without much objective proof) that the new meta-game now looks more or less like this:
- Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR)
- Integrated Information Theory (IIT)
- Entropic Brain Theory (EBT)
- Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWS)
- Prediction Error Minimization (PEM)
- Panprotopsychist as a General Framework
- Harmonic-Resonant Theories of Consciousness
It seems that Higher Order Thought (HOT) theories of consciousness have fallen out of favor. Additionally, we have a new contender on the table: Harmonic-Resonant Theories of Consciousness is now slowly climbing up the list (which, it turns out, had already been in the water supply since 2006 when Steven Lehar attended the conference, but only now is gathering popular support).
Given the general telos of the conference, it is not surprising that deflationary theories of consciousness do not seem to have a strong representation. I found a few people here and there who would identify as illusionists, but there were not enough to deserve their place in a short-list of dominant deck types. I assume it would be rather unpleasant for people with this general view about consciousness to hang out with so many consciousness realists.
A good number of people I talked to admitted that they didn’t understand IIT, but that they nonetheless felt that something along the lines of irreducible causality was probably a big part of the explanation for consciousness. In contrast, we also saw a few interesting reactions to IIT – some people said “I hate IIT” and “don’t get me started on IIT”. It is unclear what is causing such reactions, but they are worth noting. Is this an allergic reaction to qualia formalism? We don’t have enough information at the moment to know.
The spiritual side of consciousness research is liable to overfocus on ethics and mood hacks rather than on truth-seeking. The problem is that a lot of people have emotionally load-bearing beliefs and points of view connected to how they see reality’s big plot. This is a generalized phenomenon, but its highest expression is found within spiritually-focused thinkers. Many of them come across as evangelizers rather than philosophers, scientists, explorers, or educators. For example: two years ago, David Pearce and I had an uncomfortable conversation with a lady who had a very negative reaction to Pearce’s take on suffering (i.e. that we should use biotechnology to eradicate it). She insisted suffering was part of life and that bliss can’t exist without it (a common argument for sure, but the problem was the intense emotional reaction and insistence on continuing the conversation until we had changed our minds).
We learned our lesson – if you suspect that a person has emotionally load-bearing beliefs about a grand plan or big spiritual telos, don’t mention you are trying to reduce suffering with biotechnology. It’s a gamble, and the chance for a pleasant interaction and meaningful exchange of ideas is not worth the risk of interpersonal friction, time investment, and the pointlessness of a potential ensuing heated discussion.
This brings me to an important matter…
Who are the people who are providing genuinely new contributions to the conversation?
There is a lot of noise in the field of consciousness research. Understandably, a lot of people react to this state of affairs with generalized skepticism (and even cynicism). In my experience, if you approach a neuroscientist in order to discuss consciousness, she will usually choose to simply listen to her priors rather than to you (no matter how philosophically rigorous and scientifically literate you may be).
And yet, at this conference and many other places, there are indeed a lot of people who have something new and valuable to contribute to our understanding of consciousness. So who are they? What allows a person to make a novel contribution?
I would suggest that people who fall into one of the following four categories have a higher chance of this:
- People who have new information
- Great synthesizers
- Highly creative people with broad knowledge of the field
- New paradigm proposers
For (1): This can take one of three forms: (a) New information about phenomenology (i.e. rational psychonauts with strong interpretation and synthesis skills). (b) New third-person data (i.e. as provided by scientists who conduct new research on e.g. neuroimaging). And (c) new information on how to map third-person data to phenomenology, especially about rare states of consciousness (i.e. as obtained from people who have both access to third-person data sources and excellent experienced phenomenologists). (a) Is very hard to come by because most psychonauts and meditators fall for one or more traps (e.g. believing in the tyranny of the intentional object, being direct realists, being dogmatic about a given pre-scientific metaphysic, etc.). (b) Is constrained by the number of labs and the current Kuhnian paradigms within which they work. And (c) is not only rare, but currently nonexistent. Hence, there are necessarily few people who can contribute to the broader conversation about consciousness by bringing new information to the table.
For (2): Great synthesizers are hard to come by. They do not need to generate new paradigms or have new information. What they have is the key ability to find what the novel contribution in a given proposal is. They gather what is similar and different across paradigms, and make effective lossless compressions – saving us all valuable time, reducing confusion, and facilitating the cross-pollination between various disciplines and paradigms. This requires the ability to extract what matters from large volumes of extremely detailed and paradigm-specific literature. Hence, it is also rare to find great synthesizers.
For (3): Being able to pose new questions, and generate weird but not random hypotheses can often be very useful. Likewise, being able to think of completely outrageous outside-the-box views might be key for advancing our understanding of consciousness. That said, non-philosophers tend to underestimate just how weird an observation about consciousness needs to be for it to be new. This in practice constrains the range of people able to contribute in this way to people who are themselves fairly well acquainted with a broad range of theories of consciousness. That said, I suspect that this could be remedied by forming groups of people who bring different talents to the table. In Peaceful Qualia I discussed a potential empirical approach for investigating consciousness which involves having people who specialize in various aspects of the problem (e.g. being great psychonauts, excellent third-person experimentalists, high-quality synthesizers, solid computational modelers, and so on). But until then, I do not anticipate much progress will come from people who are simply very smart and creative – they also need to have either privileged information (such as what you get from combining weird drugs and brain-computer interfaces), or be very knowledgeable about what is going on in the field.
And (4): This is the most difficult and rarest of all, for it requires some degree of the previous three attributes. Their work wouldn’t be possible without the work of many other people in the previous three categories. Yet, of course, they will be the most world-changing of them all. Explicitly, this is the role that we are aiming for at the Qualia Research Institute.
In addition to the above, there are other ways of making highly valuable contributions to the conversation. An example would be those individuals who have become living expressions of current theories of consciousness. That is, people who have deeply understood some paradigm and can propose paradigm-consistent explanations for completely new evidence. E.g. people who can quickly figure out “what would Tononi say about X?” no matter how weird X is. It is my view that one can learn a lot from people in this category. That said… don’t ever expect to change their minds!
A Final Suggestion: Philosophical Speed Dating
To conclude, I would like to make a suggestion in order to increase the value of this and similar conferences: philosophical speed dating. This might be valuable for two reasons. First, I think that a large percentage of people who attend TSC are craving interactions with others who also wonder about consciousness. After all, being intrigued and fascinated by this topic is not very common. Casual interest? Sure. But obsessive curiosity? Pretty uncommon. And most people who attend TCS are in the latter category. At the same time, it is never very pleasant to interact with people who are likely to simply not understand where you are coming from. The diversity of views is so large that finding a person with whom you can have a cogent and fruitful conversation is quite difficult for a lot of people. A Philosophical Speed Dating session in which people quickly state things like their interest in consciousness, take on qualia, preferred approaches, favorite authors, paradigm affinities, etc. would allow philosophical kindred souls to meet at a much higher rate.
And second, in the context of advancing the collective conversation about consciousness, I have found that having people who know where you are coming from (and either share or understand your background assumptions) is the best way to go. The best conversations I’ve had with people usually arise when we have a strong base of shared knowledge and intuitions, but disagree on one or two key points we can identify and meaningfully address. Thus a Philosophical Speed Dating session could lead to valuable collaborations.
And with that, I would like to say: If you do find our approach interesting or worth pursuing, do get in touch.
Till next time, Tucson!
* In Chalmer’s paper about the Meta-Problem of Consciousness he describes his reason for investigating the subject: “Upon hearing about this article, some people have wondered whether I am converting to illusionism, while others have suspected that I am trying to subvert the illusionist program for opposing purposes. Neither reaction is quite correct. I am really interested in the meta-problem as a problem in its own right. But if one wants to place the paper within the framework of old battles, one might think of it as lending opponents a friendly helping hand.” The quality of a philosopher should not be determined only by their ability to make a good case for their views, but also by the capacity to talk convincingly about their opponent’s. And on that metric, David is certainly world-class.