Dust to Lust: How Groups of Atoms Can Think and Feel

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 10, 2010 in Reviews,Science

drescher good and real smallI’m blogging through Good and Real by Gary Drescher, perhaps the best book on naturalism I’ve read yet. (See the series index.)

Drescher asks:

Our own bodies and brains turn out to [be made of] the same kind of elementary particles as the rest of the world… But then what about our ghostlike thoughts and feelings, and consciousness?

…Dualism is a tempting compromise, but an awkward one… The problem is that the mechanical principles that govern each particle of our bodies… already specify how each of those particles behaves… But in that case, there is no room for the [extraphysical] component to have any influence – if it did so, it would have to make some of the particles sometimes violate the principles that all particles are always observed to obey whenever we check carefully.

…Granted, it could be the case that particles somewhere in our brains behave differently than particles ever do when we watch them carefully… But since the rules are otherwise exceptionless (as far as we can tell), there should be a strong presumption that there’s no exception in our brains either…

And the more we learn about computation and neuroscience, the more we discover how cognitive processes that were once supposed to require an ethereal spirit – perception, motor control, memory, spatial reasoning… deduction, induction, planning – can be implemented by basic switching elements (e.g. neurons or transistors) that need not themselves be conscious, or even animate.

But then what is consciousness, if it is only physical? Why does consciousness not feel like neurons and electrochemical activity? Why does consciousness feel like anything at all?

Sometimes it can feel like certain perceptions are intrinsically conscious. When you see a flower it can be hard to imagine separating your perception of the flower and your experience of perceiving the flower. But actually, we all know this is easily done.

A computer surveillance system, for example, can perceive and recognize objects without apparently having any experience of the perception. And we humans do it, too. Have you ever arrived home from work only to realize that you weren’t paying attention to the road the whole way there? If there’s no traffic, the mind may go into ‘autopilot’ for this repetitive task and allow you to focus your consciousness on more taxing things: thoughts about a relationship or work project, for example. Likewise, you may see a video of yourself walking across a lawn and subtly adjusting your movements to avoid stepping on a flower, even though you weren’t conscious of doing so in the moment. Perception is often separate from a conscious awareness of that perception.

But if things are not intrinsically conscious events, then it seems like there must be a kind of tiny conscious you that is paying attention to these all these perceptions – or at least, the perceptions you are conscious of. This is what Daniel Dennett disparagingly called the ‘Cartesian Theater’ theory.1

But there are some problems with that view, one of which is this: How would the tiny conscious you observe itself if it’s not intrinsically conscious? We are often conscious of our being conscious of some perception, but this would seem to require another tiny conscious you watching the first tiny conscious you. In fact, we might need an infinite regress of tiny conscious yous.

Instead, Drescher proposes a ‘Cartesian Camcorder’ theory of consciousness:2

Here is a proposal. Each cognitive event – such as recognizing a flower – is itself devoid of consciousness. But there is an internal memory system – what we might call a Cartesian Camcorder… – that records a stream of selected mental events – perceptions, thoughts, and so on – that the machinery deems salient. A recorded event can be played back and “watched” by other parts of the cognitive system, either immediately or much later; this process turns out to be what consciousness consists of. The event of “watching” the playback is itself a cognitive event that can be recorded and played back (just as, with a literal camcorder, you can shoot a video of yourself watching a previous video).

…unlike a literal camcorder, the Cartesian Camcorder does not record or play back raw pixels, sound amplitudes and frequencies, and so on, but rather records events at a much higher level of abstraction. The cognitive system parses sights, sounds, and other perceptions into representations that designate physical objects, persons, and so forth. When you see a flower, your cognitive system respresents that event in terms that designate not just a flower, but also that you, a person, with such-and-such identifying attributes and history, have just seen a flower; the system represents myriad aspects of what a flower is, and what a person is, and what it is for a person to see a flower, and so on… Thus, the Cartesian Camcorder makes and plays smart recordings rather than verbatim recordings.

The cognitive system represents and can calculate various relations among those terms of representation: …what affected what else, what depended on what else, what events are desirable…

The cognitive system’s knowledge of such interrelatedness facilitates the system’s pursuit of goals: the machinery engages in prediction and planning, selecting actions to pursue desired results according to its expectations of what could occur if one action or another were taken.

But some things aren’t hooked up to be recorded. No matter how hard you try, you cannot become conscious of a neuron’s depolarization or your parsing of lightwaves on your retina into images.

Drescher continues:

By this account, consciousness is a property that is endowed upon a cognitive event… retroactively (albeit often within a fraction of a second) by virtue of the event’s smart capture and playback by the Cartesian Camcorder. The seeming intrinsic quality of the self-awareness of a conscious experience arises in part because anytime you examine a recorded mental event to see if you’re conscious of it, you find that you are. But that’s simply because the very examination – that is, the smart recording and playback of the event – itself ensures that the event is conscious.

…that smart recording and playback, by the Cartesian camcorder, of a given mental event, is your consciousness of the event. Had you seen the flower… when your attention was focused elsewhere, the recording and playback might not have occurred, in which case those same events would not have been conscious.

  1. See Consciousness Explained. []
  2. Basically the same as Dennett’s proposal, but with a different emphasis for this book. []

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Nick Barrowman January 10, 2010 at 6:36 am

Luke, you quote Drescher thus:

…Dualism is a tempting compromise, but an awkward one… The problem is that the mechanical principles that govern each particle of our bodies… already specify how each of those particles behaves… But in that case, there is no room for the [extraphysical] component to have any influence – if it did so, it would have to make some of the particles sometimes violate the principles that all particles are always observed to obey whenever we check carefully.

But what if matter has an intrinsic conscious aspect that doesn’t have any influence on the physical world. The conscious aspect “experiences” the physical, but not vice versa. This would be a sort of “dualism without the dualism”.

  (Quote)

TH January 10, 2010 at 7:11 am

Consciousness is complex, but clearly there is a lot going on mechanistically (rather than supernaturally). However, I think this still avoids a big question, why do we feel conscious? Why do we feel pain? That is, everything described in this post could happen to a sufficiently complex computer, but at least initially, we would not believe the computer feels conscious. We would assume a sufficiently complex computer would be a “philosophical zombie”, going through all the mechanistic steps of consciousness but never really feeling anything. Thus, have we solved anything by analyzing consciousness?

  (Quote)

lukeprog January 10, 2010 at 8:21 am

Nick,

That’s one of the possibilities that Dresher discusses but I left out of my summary… which is why you should buy the book, ‘cuz it’s awesome. :)

  (Quote)

Antiplastic January 10, 2010 at 10:57 am

Nick Barrowman: Luke, you quote Drescher thus:…Dualism is a tempting compromise, but an awkward one… The problem is that the mechanical principles that govern each particle of our bodies… already specify how each of those particles behaves… But in that case, there is no room for the [extraphysical] component to have any influence – if it did so, it would have to make some of the particles sometimes violate the principles that all particles are always observed to obey whenever we check carefully.But what if matter has an intrinsic conscious aspect that doesn’t have any influence on the physical world. The conscious aspect “experiences” the physical, but not vice versa. This would be a sort of “dualism without the dualism”.  

One rather fatal problem with epiphenomenalism is that it is formulated in such a way that there could not possibly be any evidence in its favor. So it can be dismissed out of hand as observationally meaningless.

“I believe I’m having a subjective experience of the physical world, but my subjective experience has no causal impact on the physical world.”

“What makes you say that?”

“My subjective experience.”

“Then it does have a causal impact on the world; I just heard it.”

“No, the reasons for what you just heard are entirely physical, and subjective experience played no role whatsoever in the formation of that belief.”

“But if subjective experience played no causal role in the formation of the belief, then by definition your belief in it is without evidence.”

“But my evidence is my subjective experience…”

etc.

  (Quote)

John D January 10, 2010 at 11:37 am

I bought this book after seeing it recommended here. It really is fascinating. His discussion of the mirror paradox in the opening chapter has allowed me feel superior to my physicist friends for the past month.

  (Quote)

Bryce January 10, 2010 at 11:40 am

lukeprog, it seems to me that Drescher is simply begging the question in assuming that physical particles are closed to interaction with non-physical entities. How does he know that there isn’t an openness to interaction on an epiphenomenal level?

Further, I would question whether dualism is really so awkward (looking past this begging-the-question) in comparison to the monism he offers in reply, because if there is to be just physical particles, then how does he argue that the sensation of pain as it is experienced by the subject is really reducible to nothing more than a certain complex interaction of particles? As I subjectively feel pain to be, it seems to be positing a lot less than my feeling of pain to just tell me my sensation was wholly material.

Oh yes, and Antiplastic, that’s scientism; just because something is formulated in such a way that it can’t be studied by science doesn’t mean its meaningless. If its supposed to be a description of a wholly material phenomena, then that would be fatal (i.e. Marxism), but assuming that the description must be wholly material is, yet again, begging the question. The dualist could simply reply that you’re assuming dualism is false with your assumption that consciousness is nothing more than a material process, because you would rather be missing the point, because the dualist isn’t arguing for a wholly material process in the first place.

  (Quote)

Antiplastic January 10, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Bryce: Antiplastic, that’s scientism; just because something is formulated in such a way that it can’t be studied by science doesn’t mean its meaningless.

Note that I specifically said “observationally meaningless”. Meaning, its adoption or rejection has no impact on my world-model. Meaning, as a model of how the mind works, epiphenomenalism is vacuous. This does not forclose the possibility that it might have some emotive function according to which it’s meaningful.

The dualist could simply reply that you’re assuming dualism is false with your assumption that consciousness is nothing more than a material process, because you would rather be missing the point, because the dualist isn’t arguing for a wholly material process in the first place.

You’re remarks are a defense of interactionist dualism, but my post was not directed at interactionist dualism or even dualism per se, only at epiphenomenalism as described in Nick’s post. And note that even then your criticism misses the mark, as I have not “assumed” anything. I have only claimed that having no evidence for some claim is a good reason to reject the claim, and that epiphenomenalism is formulated in such a way as to either be self-refuting or permanently irrelevant to evidence.

  (Quote)

Antiplastic January 10, 2010 at 1:16 pm

p.s. yay! My first your/you’re typo of the new year!

  (Quote)

lukeprog January 10, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Bryce,

I’ve left out lots of Drescher’s argumentation. I recommend reading the book for the whole story.

  (Quote)

Baal January 10, 2010 at 3:29 pm

I had always thought of consciousness as having something to do with being able to select from all the different simultaneous imputs and placing greater value on some, giving attention to them because at that moment they had greater survival value, for example.

Something I wondered while reading this was whether there is any truth to the idea that after an event one can be hypnotised to revisit an event and become consciously aware of details that you missed first time.
If there is any truth to this and it’s not just something in TV land, it might be another aspect of what you have described here.

As a side note, I have practised meditation for a long time and one exercise is fixing the conscious attention and holding it. When successful, the rest of the world disappears, with the object of attention seeming to expand to fill your consciousness. You can then reach a non-dual state which isn’t unconscious but isn’t like ordinary consciousness.
It is impossible to describe but it’s as though your mind ceases to create mental representations of the world and of you, the observer, as a part of the world. There is a timeless sense to it.
The strangest part almost is when ‘you’ return. It’s like getting a glimpse that your perception of the world is actually the creation of mental representations of the world, with the observer, the self, being just another mental representation among the rest. but with that return of a point of view, the sense of separateness, of duality returns. It has a feeling quality to it.

  (Quote)

Beelzebub January 10, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Mind dualism does not seem tenable due to the varieties of material interaction with mind and the pliability of mind, for instance with respect to drugs. I suppose you could try to rescue the idea with some kind of dualist interaction, like to say that drugs affect the mind/body interface, making the variegated drug experience from hallucinogenic tripping to tranquilizing to anesthesia merely physical effects on the interface. But then what about brain damage and its measurable effects on cognition? Granted, brain damage is a less convincing example since it often doesn’t alter conscious experience per se, but I think dualism has a very hard time explaining florid drug induced hallucination — or even something as mundane as getting drunk.

  (Quote)

urbster1 January 10, 2010 at 7:46 pm

I hate to skip ahead, but I’m getting really stuck on trying to understand the “quantish physics” stuff in 4.2.3 (U3: A Quantish Artificial Universe). Where should I turn to for help with that? (I found the original paper on Google Scholar and do plan to work my way through it and some of the other references in the book as well at some point). Hopefully the rest of the book will still be rewarding. I really loved Chapter 3, and thinking about time symmetry. Very cool stuff.

  (Quote)

lukeprog January 10, 2010 at 10:18 pm

urbster1,

You’re ahead of me! Be patient! :)

  (Quote)

Andrew Marshall January 11, 2010 at 3:29 pm

On another post (Atheist philosophers don’t want god to exist) I replied

To my way of thinking, certain abstract “objects” are so clearly constructed to provide vocabulary for observations about structure, meta-observations, self-referential observations, and other theory-organizing purposes, that their “existence” is immediate and incontrovertible (what is controvertible is the usefulness of said “objects”). This includes moral values, freewill, and consciousness.

I hunted this quote down because it expresses my view of consciousness. I think where ‘dualism’ is concerned with two separate metaphysical systems, there should be an alternative ‘multism,’ that says there are many metaphysical systems working around us. I might then be a weak multist, a sort of compatiblist, since to me it seems clear that

(1) given enough time and space all phenomena could be described in terms of particle physics, i.e., there are no supernatural forces;* and

(2) such a description of conscousness or freewill or interpersonal relationships or even personhood, is necessarily unwielding to the point of being arguably meaningless.

The hard-line materialists seem to want the quality of truth to belong only to statements in terms of particles and the laws that govern them, yet they go about their day using words like “me, remember, friend, socialist, science,…” In fact, the majority of our vocabulary is in terms of “objects” which are not strictly physical, (some would go so far to say none are). I believe strict materialists must suffer cognitive dissonance.

Also, the idea of a “robot” which physically replicates the process of consciousness but which is not conscious seems preposterous. What separates this robot from your neighbor? The one who has the right physiological get-up, but who, for all your efforts, you still do not feel pain when they stub their toe.

Saying consciousness is an illusion is misleading and essentially wrong, but regarding it as independent from the physical system is wrong too. Consciousness is a label that incredibly complex, extremely specific systems give to themselves and those similar to distinguish them from systems that are clearly not complex in the same way.

Mind is not other than the body because it is driven by a supernatural force. It is other than body because it has value and meaning in the abstract land of personhood, which is not first and foremost physical.

*of course this could only be true if the universe had some indivisible particle, which we have no idea if it does.

  (Quote)

lukeprog January 11, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Andrew Marshall,

Are you an atheist? Shall I add your blog to my Internet Atheism Search Engine?

  (Quote)

Andrew Marshall January 11, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Hi Luke, I’d appreciate it. It’s your call, of course. I don’t really get much traffic, but I welcome it. I’m an atheist when it suits me, and not when it doesn’t. I think religion is insane, but insanity is undervalued.

  (Quote)

lukeprog January 11, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Andrew,

What do you mean you’re an atheist when it suits you? Atheism is a belief-stance. Do you waver back and forth between theist and atheist in your head – a kind of agnostic, I suppose?

  (Quote)

Andrew Marshall January 11, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Luke,

Yes, I suppose I do. Though I never have any reason to base any action on my belief system, so there is almost nothing at stake for me, no reason for taking a strong stance. For instance, can I hypothesize a sort of computer programer that dreamed up the universe and is executing it as an experiment? I can, and might if I was stuck in an airport or on a bus without a good book, but there is no reason for me to go on believing this specific story over another. The 2 points I would make consistently are these:

1) Universal qualities cannot be enjoyed by a god, i.e., ultimate goodness, omniscience etc. are incompatible with a creature that has motives, and acts.

I think I can reasonably defend this, which makes me pretty anti-theist, consistently, any time of day, any day of the week. And

2) there may be agents which are causally relevant to our universe, powerful god-like entities. The computer programer example is one. These cannot be completely refuted.

Though really what is the use in 2)? not much practical use, except that it gives me something to think about when I’m spacing out, on a long trip.

  (Quote)

Nick Barrowman January 11, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Antiplastic,

Thanks. It seems I am an epiphenomenalist (or perhaps a qualia-epiphenomenalist)—at least for now. In 2006, the Journal of Consciousness Studies had a special issue on epiphenomenalism. The full text of the introduction is available as well as abstracts of the papers. Quite interesting, if rather challenging for someone who isn’t a professional philosopher!

I agree that epiphenomenalism is “observationally meaningless”, but I don’t think that means it can be dismissed out of hand. Is mathematics observationally meaningless?

  (Quote)

Andrew Marshall January 13, 2010 at 11:51 am

For an analogy to the question of how groups of atoms can think we can ask how AND and NOT gates can pester people with unsolicited messages. Sure, once we have a way of decoding the position of the gates, it doesn’t take many to hold the contents of a viagra offer, but what makes spam spam is not only what it says as a binary string, but also its context, which involves inboxes, mail servers, an entire infrastructure in fact. Quoting a piece of spam to make a point, for example, is to use the same binary string in a context whereby it is no longer spam. The question of how many logical gates it takes to make spam is then almost absurd. Spam is a consequence of complexity, not something that exists in its own right. Yet, you don’t have any supernatural force that renders a piece of information as spam. And gates which hold bits of spam are not different than gates which hold anything else.

You can get as much complexity as you desire from the simplest rules, so there’s no reason to expect atoms in the brain to interact differently than those in the air, nor any reason to hypothesize “quantum consciousness,” nor any strong kind of dualism, other than the weak kind I mention above, where we recognize that consciousness and goodness and intention are not chiefly physical phenomena (just as spam is not chiefly a physical phenomenon).

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment