Drescher’s Account of Consciousness

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 3, 2010 in Reviews

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.)

First I discussed the purposes of Drescher’s book. Then I explained Drescher’s ‘Cartesian Camcorder‘ theory of consciousness, and his prediction-value machine theory of intentional action.

So far, we have explained why some states are valuable to us such that our prediction-value machinery leads us to pursue them. But this does not explain why things feel valuable to us, or feel like anything at all.

But note that on Drescher’s theory of consciousness,

…it’s not that you avoid pain… in part because pain is inherently bad; rather, your machinery’s systematic tendency to avoid pain… is what constitutes its being bad. That systematic tendency is what you’re really observing when you contemplate a pain and observe that it is ‘‘undesirable,’’ that it is something you want to avoid.

…The sensations we deem pleasurable or painful are those that incline us to plan our way to them or away from them.1

This feeling of goodness and badness, pleasure and pain, just is our prediction-value machine at work, pursuing things of positive utility for us, and avoiding things of negative utility for us.

Drescher goes on to explain qualia by analogy to gensyms in the computer language Lisp. He also rebuts Roger Penrose’s claim (in Shadows of the Mind) that Godel’s theorem shows we cannot be mere machines. But for those discussions, you’ll have to get the book!

Drescher sums up his discussion of consiousness like so:

By the present account, consciousness is a particular physical, mechanical, computational phenomenon…

To be conscious (of one’s thoughts, feelings, desires, perceptions, etc.) is to have those thoughts recorded and played back by a metaphorical Cartesian Camcorder – an actual physical system within our brains. The events are recorded using terms of representation that designate their interrelatedness with other events and concepts. The recording is thus of events as they are understood – a smart recording – rather than just a transcription of raw sensory inputs. The very playback of the recorded material is among the sorts of events that can be recorded, making the self-awareness potentially self-referential to an arbitrary depth.

Although consciousness is conferred retroactively upon selected mental events by virtue of their recording and playback, the events themselves seem intrinsically conscious, in part because the very act of ‘‘looking at’’ a mental event (via the Cartesian Camcorder) – to see if it’s conscious, or for any other reason – is what confers consciousness upon it [like the light in the fridge; it's always on when you check, because it turns on when you open the door]…

Prediction-value machinery (in contrast with simpler, insect-like situation-action machinery) explicitly pursues goals by selecting among actions on the basis of the desirability of the actions’ respective expected outcomes.

Some such outcomes feel inherently desirable, but [it] is not their inherent desirability that induces us to pursue them. Rather, our machinery’s wired-in tendency to pursue them is what their seemingly inherent desirability turns out to consist of.

Next, we’ll examine Drescher’s discussion of some paradoxes in physics, which also have ramifications for our understanding of conscious experience.

  1. Good and Real, pp. 77-78. []

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

YNOT July 3, 2010 at 7:05 am

do you know what sin is?
You have broken the law!
you can not save yourself!
Repent!!! Turn away from sin!!!
Jesus Christ Died and shed His blood for you sinners!!!!
So that all who believe in Him will be save!!!!
Pray to Jesus Christ that your sins are forgiven!!!
Now that I have told you about Jesus Christ, YOUR DEATH WILL NOT BE ON MY HANDS!!

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Justfinethanks July 3, 2010 at 7:12 am

That’s interesting YNOT. I wonder how Drescher would respond to your criticism of his work.

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numeral July 3, 2010 at 7:28 am

He is using a slight of hand with his “looking at” remark. He is implicitly using the word “you” to specify who’s looking at something. So this makes seem like the “you” of “you” is looking at your stream of consciousness. So this self referencing “you” makes it so that you can’t resolve the meaning of “you”. What we really should be saying is that the subsystem of you is looking at your stream of consciousness. You are the whole of you, although some parts of you are more important. I haven’t read Godel but he is probably using the same slight of hand. This is another example of using the ambiguity of language or math to create new mysteries when we should be concentrating on the mysteries that are real.

The references to paradoxes makes me cringe. Paradoxes are just examples us improperly using language or math, or it’s because we haven’t developed the language or math to describe it.

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Lorkas July 3, 2010 at 7:29 am

I do love absurdist poetry, YNOT *snapsnapsnapsnap*

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JS Allen July 3, 2010 at 7:40 am

Not available in iBooks or Kindle? Boo :-(. I guess I’ll kill a tree.

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Zak July 3, 2010 at 8:15 am

Numeral,

Drescher would agree with you about paradoxes. He goes through classic physics paradoxes, attempting to show how they actually aren’t.

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Zeb July 3, 2010 at 8:21 am

OK, this is on my wishlist now. Maybe it will put to bed my main objections to naturalism. That be a relief, because monism looks from the outside like a more satisfying position. Is it possible to be a theistic naturalist?

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JS Allen July 3, 2010 at 8:37 am

@Zeb – I think Al Moritz, who comments here often, would describe himself as a theistic naturalist. Theistic dualism was one of the first major heresies that Christianity squashed. I guess Christians today see no problems with theistic dualism.

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lukeprog July 3, 2010 at 10:22 am

LOL, Justfinethanks

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Burk July 3, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Hi, Luke-

The fact that we have knee reflexes does not lead to consciousness of any feeling towards the reflex hammer. Thus it seems that there is an extra ingredient of this-ness that is not accounted for by mere observation of one’s own mechanisms. There is something else about these emotions that generate feeling. Indeed, we can have the feeling without the action or consequence, by way of various disorders, even fictional works. Perhaps some better grounding in brain science would help, though this is a hard problem and has not been solved yet there on the ground, either. At any rate, I don’t think the above argument works yet in any serious way.

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Jeff H July 3, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Burk,

I’d say that reflexes constitute a special case. The act of moving one’s leg when the reflex hammer hits is directed by a reflex arc that only travels to the spinal cord and back (not up to the brain). It’s not until a second signal gets sent to the brain that we actually have a conscious perception of what just happened. In other words, the reaction can occur, and then the “this-ness” comes when the signal is processed by the brain. I don’t see this as a problem with what Drescher has said.

In addition, my reading of it seemed to be that no external action was necessary. His “Cartesian Camcorder” is focusing on other parts of the brain, not on external events (although these would still be processed by the brain anyways). In other words, we don’t have to observe ourselves avoiding pain, we just have to observe our tendency to avoid pain. But I don’t know – perhaps I am misunderstanding either him or you.

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Al Moritz July 3, 2010 at 2:57 pm

I think Al Moritz, who comments here often, would describe himself as a theistic naturalist.

JSAllen,

In most things yes, but not when it comes to the human mind, at least the rationality part and the free will part of it. When it comes to conciousness I would have no problem with a materialistic explanation, if there were one forthcoming, but I am not convinced yet by Drescher’s Cartesian Camcorder — as I read the book, Drescher evades the question how there can be an “I”. Yes, he talks about self-referentiality of the Cartesian Camcorder, but I don’t see a true explanation here how this leads to a consistent impression of a first person within us. To me, the Cartesian Camcorder only tackles the sub-problem of how there is a distinction between subconscious and conscious events, and Drescher presents the solution to this subproblem (with which I do not necessarily disagree) as the solution to the larger problem of what consciousness really is, and I do not think that this a correct argument.

So far I am impressed with the book though (I am only on page 106 yet, and should not get distracted with the discussions here) — it is a well-thought out, at times even brilliant, effort at tackling things, and certainly in a completely different, immensely more heavy-weight, intellectual category than the silly, even laughable, “The God Delusion” and similar drivel. I do like his prediction-value machinery quite a bit, at least on first reading. I am curious how he tackles the issue of choice in a deterministic universe later in the book.

Theistic dualism was one of the first major heresies that Christianity squashed.

What do you mean by that? Certainly, mind and body form a tight unity, so a Cartesian dualism is out of the picture, but dualism per se is not — the mind can still have an immaterial component. The Christian ‘soul’ lurks here (oh, I still need to reply on that other thread — oh well, first got some reading to do).

I guess Christians today see no problems with theistic dualism.

This seems to contradict your previous sentence.

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Al Moritz July 3, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Drescher goes on to explain qualia by analogy to gensyms in the computer language Lisp.

Yes, I was quite stunned by that, and I cannot at this point exclude the possibility that he may actually be right. As I said, I would not have a problem with a physicalist explanation of consciousness, if one was forthcoming, and I don’t have an issue with qualia as much as other theists do, as this may fall under the umbrella of a physicalist consciousness. (Hey, I do think that my dogs experience qualia too!).

In any case, Luke, thanks a lot for pointing me to that book. As I said, an impressive read, and thought-provoking too. From what I have digested so far, it may indeed be one of the best things naturalism has to offer, I agree.

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noen July 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm

“the events themselves seem intrinsically conscious, in part because the very act of ‘‘looking at’’ a mental event (via the Cartesian Camcorder) – to see if it’s conscious, or for any other reason – is what confers consciousness upon it”

This is the homunculus fallacy. Who is it that is watching the camcorder?

“By the present account, consciousness is a particular physical, mechanical, computational phenomenon…”

Computational? Unlikely. Strong AI is refuted by the Chinese Room argument. There might be elements of the brain that compute but even that is debatable. But there is no reason at all to think that the brain “processes information” like a von Neumann machine.

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lukeprog July 3, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, Al!

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Al Moritz July 3, 2010 at 7:05 pm

This is the homunculus fallacy. Who is it that is watching the camcorder?

Interesting. Drescher devised the Cartesian Camcorder precisely in order to avoid that homunculus fallacy which he believes arises from dualism.

But you may have a point here (?).

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Al Moritz July 3, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, Al!

You’re welcome Luke. Do you think Drescher has solved the consciousness issue or do you think otherwise, or even that my critical points have some merit? Does in your view Drescher really adress the first-person issue sufficiently?

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Zak July 3, 2010 at 7:10 pm

I must thank Luke too. When he first mentioned this book (back in December?), I had not yet heard about it. After reading his first post about it, I was very excited about it, and went and bought it.

Thanks for bringing it to my attention :)

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noen July 3, 2010 at 7:25 pm

“But you may have a point here (?).”

I don’t know his full argument, all I know is what is posted here so I could be wrong.

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lukeprog July 3, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Al,

Drescher and Dennett and some others don’t so much address the first-person issue as dismiss it. :) But that may indeed be the right response. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure nobody has yet “solved” the problem of consciousness, but I think the Dennett-Drescher approach is a promising one. It is at least an attempt to account for consciousness in a way that respects the incoming scientific data, whereas dualism does not even rise to the level of an hypothesis.

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lukeprog July 3, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Al and noen,

It’s possible to train another camcorder on the camcorder, and that would constitute consciousness of being aware of such-and-such. But in practice we humans appear to only be capable of (or have interest in) two or three levels. I can be aware of my awareness of drinking a glass of water, but I don’t know that I can be aware of my awareness of my awareness of drinking a glass of water.

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Bill Maher July 4, 2010 at 7:59 am

Noen,

I think the question “who is watching the camcorder” is both begging the question and nonsensical. It is like the question “who caused the uncaused cause”

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noen July 4, 2010 at 8:59 am

lukeprog
“It’s possible to train another camcorder on the camcorder, and that would constitute consciousness of being aware of such-and-such.”

No it wouldn’t. Mechanical devices are not made aware by training them on each other. I am not going to pronounce Drescher’s argument invalid because I haven’t read the book but I am going to say that any argument that fails to solve for the homunculus fallacy must be false. So I think that defenders of this argument should be careful not to try to prove the homunculus fallacy true. That cannot be done, but should instead try to show how Drescher’s argument avoids it.

Bill Maher
“I think the question “who is watching the camcorder” is both begging the question and nonsensical. It is like the question “who caused the uncaused cause””

Yes, the homunculus fallacy exposes those arguments that make use of it to the charge of question begging. Such arguments don’t solve anything, they just push the question back another level.

There really is a problem to be solved though. Consciousness has a first person ontology that needs to be accounted for. My disagreement with Dennett (I don’t know Drescher) and cognitivism in general is that it tries to solve the problem simply by denying it exists. It think that does violence to our everyday psychological experience of being embodied selves.

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Bill Maher July 4, 2010 at 10:17 am

noen,

Have you read any Rudolfo Llinas or Michael Gazzaniga? They seem to answer your question rather straight forward.

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lukeprog July 4, 2010 at 3:03 pm

noen,

The camcorder thing is an analogy, obviously. Also, it is Drescher’s positive explanation of consciousness, not his refutation of homunculus theory. That consists in other arguments.

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Tom Clark July 5, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Noen: “Consciousness has a first person ontology that needs to be accounted for. My disagreement with Dennett (I don’t know Drescher) and cognitivism in general is that it tries to solve the problem simply by denying it exists. It think that does violence to our everyday psychological experience of being embodied selves.”

Agreed with respect to Dennett. Re first-person ontology: what’s often overlooked is the categorical privacy of consciousness: phenomenal, qualitative experiences, unlike their physical correlates, can’t be observed, which makes it hard to suppose consciousness and its correlates are the same thing. So if Drescher is claiming a literal *identity* between physical processes or states of affairs and qualitative experience, that seems to me problematic. Dennett tries to cast doubt on the reality of first person ontology, saying that there’s nothing really there that can’t be captured by observation. But there *is* something there that can’t be observed: only you undergo your experiences, e.g., pain, no one can see or measure them. So we can’t avoid the “hard problem” of explaining how categorically private qualia come to exist for a system, all of whose parts are in principle observable. http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm

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Mike Young July 5, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Luke, I will not take you seriously until you have read and understood “Rediscovery of the Mind” by John Searle. Both Daniel Dennet and the Cartesian Camcorder will die a painful death to Searle

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JS Allen July 11, 2010 at 6:00 am

Oops, I wasn’t subscribed to comments, so missed Al’s response and other good comments here. The book is very good; no major disagreements with Drescher yet.

@Al – OK, thanks for clarifying. Are you having trouble buying the “intentional stance” idea? Drescher’s summary of Dennett’s argument is as good as any I’ve seen, but maybe you would want to read Dennett directly, or read any of the attempted theistic refutations to see where you fall. I don’t see anything wrong with Dennett’s argument.

The Cartesian Camcorder analogy, relates closely with what “De La Metrie’s Ghost” and Flesch’s “Comeuppance” say, and is consistent with how I’ve viewed consciousness since about 4 years old. I am surprised that more naturalists don’t take him to task for it, though.

Regarding qualia, Drescher picked a very good example with color. Not sure if people here have read the letters from Goethe’s beef with Newton about color, but it’s been an interest of mine for quite awhile. Gardenfors “Conceptual Spaces” had a great discussion of why colors could be perceived in multiple incompatible ways depending on which system is being used. I remember reading about some recent neurobiology research that suggests that colors (or at least, some colors) resolve down to just a neuron or two in the brain, as do some other evolutionarily important things. I look forward to the day when we find the neuron that tell you “Dude, there’s a cougar in my car!”. (Ketamine research hinst that cougar detection is a human universal.)

@Mike – I’ve read a lot of Searle, and it seemed to me that he would support (or even demand) something like the Cartesian Camcorder. He would simply demand even more than that. In his criticisms of Dennett’s “intentional stance”, Searle seemed to argue only that Dennett didn’t go far enough — i.e. that Dennett needed to exclude thermostats and focus on intentionality for actors that are “alive”. He adds a bunch of constraints for what sort of thing can truly be intentional, but that’s it. What am I missing?

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JS Allen July 12, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Whoa! Looks like someone uploaded the whole book. Could’ve saved me a few bucks and let me read it on the iPad instead of killing a tree.

Great discussion about “quantish” in Chapter 4.

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Al Moritz July 15, 2010 at 11:28 am

Luke,

But in practice we humans appear to only be capable of (or have interest in) two or three levels. I can be aware of my awareness of drinking a glass of water, but I don’t know that I can be aware of my awareness of my awareness of drinking a glass of water.

Exactly.

And with this you have precisely refuted the strawman of Dennett’s Cartesian Theater that Drescher mentions on p. 44 f. He says:

“Or if a mental event’s consciousness does consist of the event’s being observed by an internal observer, then the observer must itself be observed, or we could not be conscious of our consciousness (or of the observer’s decisions in its directorial capacity, if any). Does consciousness then require an infinite regress of observers observing other observers? That would be implausibly extravagant, especially if a finite physical brain implements consciousness.”

This infinite regress of observers is a terrible strawman that I dismissed right away, exactly based on the reasoning also brought forth by you. And if it were to hold for the internal observer, it were to hold for the Cartesian Camcorder too.

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Al Moritz July 15, 2010 at 11:35 am

Luke,

Al,

Drescher and Dennett and some others don’t so much address the first-person issue as dismiss it. :) But that may indeed be the right response. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure nobody has yet “solved” the problem of consciousness, but I think the Dennett-Drescher approach is a promising one. It is at least an attempt to account for consciousness in a way that respects the incoming scientific data,

I have re-read Drescher pp. 35-52, and I do not see where you find Drescher dismissing the first-person issue. I do not know about Dennett.

Which scientific data are you talking about? That cognitive events that are experienced as a unity are spread all over the brain? This should form neither a problem for physicalism nor for dualism. In physicalism, it should be possible to construct a unitary self from stable and self-referential neural connections, even if events are separate from one another. In dualism, there is no problem since the brain is just an agent of the mind. In any case, I am dualist based on rationality and free will, not on consciousness — as I said, I can imagine a purely physicalist consciousness.

If science (or physicalist philosophy based on science) wants to answer consciousness, it cannot dismiss the first-person experience, no less than dualist philosophy does.

As noen says:

There really is a problem to be solved though. Consciousness has a first person ontology that needs to be accounted for. My disagreement with Dennett (I don’t know Drescher) and cognitivism in general is that it tries to solve the problem simply by denying it exists. It think that does violence to our everyday psychological experience of being embodied selves.

Exactly.

Science can take two approaches here:

1) It can say that this is out of its reach, because it only deals with things that can be inter-subjectively verified, whereas the first-person ontology of consciousness is an intra-subjective experience (even though shared by every person on Earth). Fair enough.

or 2) it can tackle the problem as is, head-on. However, this means that it really explains it, not tries to pretend that the first-person ontology of consciousness does not really exist, or is just an illusion. Science should be in the business of explaining things, not explaining away things. “Explaining away” (“everything is just an illusion”) is not science, it is a caricature of science. As a scientist, I am vehemently opposed to that.

Remember behaviorism? That was a typical item of “explaining away” things. The argument went, since science can only objectively test behavior and not internal states, the latter are entirely irrelevant to psychology and the philosophy of mind — after all, we need a “scientific”, objectively measurable, approach to things. Nowadays of course, everybody smiles about behaviorism — nobody these days denies the significance of internal states. Yet Behaviorism was the trend in psychology in the first half of the 20th century, at least in North America. Now of course it is nothing more than a mildly amusing museum piece.

I believe that, a few generations in the future, the same fate will apply to the current “explaining away” stance in “scientific” argumentation about these matters.

Again, we should not revere or even adore science, and take it simply by what it says, no further questions asked. Instead, we should be critical about it and realize that not just individual scientists, but entire schools of thought can be wrong. History has shown this to be the case.

(And no, this is not meant as an argument against the well-established science of evolution ;-)

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