No bells, just whistling in the dark…
The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness (pdf)
Please convince me it’s gotta be wrong!
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I don’t agree with everything here but I was surprised to find how much I did agree with. I have not seen a better treatment of the consequences of what you refer to as encapsulation. A few years ago I became frustrated with how people were throwing around the word ‘mind’ like it meant something we all understood. At that point I came to the conclusion that the concept of mind was being invoked (going back at least to the time of the Buddha) to explain how we go from stimulus to response. Thoughtful people realized that some kind of magic was involved in arriving at responses to stimuli and they postulated an immaterial processor called ‘mind’ to account for it. Flash forward to today and not much has changed. People still use the term ‘mind’ loosely and still assume we all agree what it is. When pressed many people still think of mind as something outside ‘normal’ brain functioning.
It is refreshing to see a serious treatment of the Black Box of brain processing. I think you are spot on with regard to the way the RS’s limited access to information leads it to conclude there is nothing more to know about and how this leads to the illusion of sufficiency. I also like the way you point out that the features of consciousness don’t necessarily require actual neural correlates but may be inevitable side-effects of encapsulation and information horizons. Brilliant!
As I said there are some points with which I disagree. One case where I feel your analysis may not hold up is when you attempt to extend the influence of information horizons to the question of presence. You contend that the now is a consequence of temporal horizons analogous to visual horizons.
“Where the limit of the visual field simply marks the point at which conscious access to immediate visual information ends, we could surmise that the limit of the temporal field marks the point at which conscious access to immediate temporal information ends”
Whereas perceptual horizons limit what is available to the RS, time is not perceived by any physical perceptual apparatus. There is no sense organ that detects time ‘atoms’ streaming by in the environment. Also, I would contend that ‘temporal information’ is necessarily and always limited to information about the present moment. It seems to me that there is quite literally no other source of information. All information processed by the brain is received and processed now. There is no flow of time. There is just perception occurring now and simultaneously being stored in memory. The idea of time as flow is a mental construction not a feature of reality. It relies on the existence of memories and the ability to call these memories up in consciousness. There is no past or future to be occluded by a temporal horizon. The stream or flow of time is an illusion resulting from our memories of past events and our imaginings of possible future events. Time does not flow. Rather the present evolves in the present. Presence occurs because there is no input available other than what is occurring now. Even when we think of the past we do so now. Likewise speculations on possible futures take place in the present moment. The present is the only time there is and presence is our experience of this situation. Or at least this is my suspicion.
There are one or two other quibbles I have with this paper but they are by no means game changers in terms of the core arguments presented. I enjoyed reading it and was repeatedly blown away by your seemingly effortless ability to clearly elucidate some very difficult ideas.
Lay those quibbles on me, Terry!
Your point regarding time not being something ‘perceived’ I think points to a series of perhaps telling issues facing BBT regarding the distinction between perception and cognition more generally. It’s well taken.
Your subsequent time counterargument simply takes a different metaphysical frame of reference. From BBT’s standpoint, what you are positing as the metaphysical baseline – an abiding, all encompassing present – is the illusion. The metaphysics that BBT entails is a kind of radical monistic nominalism, where concrete consequences (of concrete consequences, etc) are all that exist. (For me, this is just another reason to hate the thing).
So what we have are two competing metaphysical accounts of time: radical difference versus radical identity. Since they’re both metaphysical, we have no real empirical recourse: the only warrant we can bring to bear is abductive. And this is where BBT becomes downright pernicious. On the basis of a straightforward insight, not only does it unravel several Gordian knots, it provides an naturalistic explanation for why radical identity seems such an intuitive metaphysical conclusion – and it happens to entail radical difference.
So what are the abductive grounds of radical identity? The strength of the counter, it seems to me, entirely depends on the answer to this.
I’m not sure I understand the time part? I could get a model where processing of stimuli lags behind the physical changes of the actual universe. Even differing degrees of lag in different processors. Does that overlap with this time idea, to any degree?
I don’t think I can present a defense of radical identity (RI) using abductive reasoning. The problem is that RI assumes that the apparent reality of separate things and sequential events is an illusion. This means that I can’t properly use the appearances related to these phenomena to support the RI position. The only defense of radical identity I can offer is a entreaty to what I consider to be the inescapable logic of identity. Things, as we usually, think of them have some sort of assumed independent existence. For this to be actually true individual things would have to exist with true independence; that is to say, without support from the rest of existence. To me this seems an impossibility. How can any “thing” stand outside the universe and still be of universe? We are willing to admit that organisms exist interdependently in ecological niches with other organisms and the environment. RI simply expands this realization to its logical conclusion. Niches exist within ever larger niches until we reach the largest niche of all, the entire universe. To paraphrase a famous phrase, it’s niches all the way down.
So, what does this say about radical difference (RD)? RD addresses the way things seem to be (apparent reality) which is, after all, what we have to deal with. The apparent reality of separate things and sequential events (“concrete consequences of concrete consequences”) is the reality we experience. This being the case the BBT goes a long way in helping us understand why things appear to us as they do (apparent sequences of causes and effects occurring over time as the result of interactions of apparently separate things).
I don’t find RI or RD particularly comforting. Neither view places us in a very encouraging situation. Either way we are not the independent masters of our own fates that we would like to believe we are. But I wonder if, in the final analysis, it matters what reality is really like or how our brains deceive us. In the end even an exhaustive understanding of the truth about reality or intentionality do not appear to be particularly effective in dispelling the illusion of the independent self and its apparent agency. Life as we experience it (as opposed to how we understanding it intellectually) is a subjectively felt phenomenon. We just can’t seem to shake the feeling that we are free actors in a cause and effect world. I can’t decide if this is a blessing or a curse.
“Findings from a variety of sources converge on a ‘window of presence’ some 2 to 3 seconds in length, beyond which‘perceived unity in time’ disintegrates, and reproductive memory (cognition) takes over.
14 In effect, the now is a kind of temporal field, an ‘integration window’ which binds stimuli into singular percepts.”
From a neurological perspective, I don’t see how it could be other than this for the simple reason that nerve action potentials are comparatively slow. Simultaneously touching toe and nose (or better, having someone else or a machine do it) tells us that some kind of slight of hand must be going on because we really do perceive these as coincident, while sensory data from the nose reaches the brain soon enough prior to the toe that it would be perceptible. In fact, it’s even weirder that even watching yourself touch a toe is an integrated experience, since we can be certain the visual image are absolutely coincident with it. This means that even the visual cortex is “in on” this illusion. Temporal experience must be a moving integration window, the time length of which was probably roughly determined by the length of our bodies divided by the speed of neural impulses. If we did not integrate “the now” over this period, we would have no way to accurately coordinate our bodies with reality.
The ‘other’ binding problem. It really gets creepy when you compare how sloppy we KNOW the integration to be, versus how seemless it appears (the literature on batting in baseball is wonderful for this stuff). The question BBT raises is whether the ‘bound’ information required to formulate and execute effective behavioural stimuli actually ever makes it to consciousness. It could be the case that we get the tangled version that cognition subsequently interprets (the way it takes post facto credit for the actions it witnesses). More and more it’s looking like there’s no clear distinction between cognition and CONSCIOUS perception.
I was eagerly awaiting the increasingly complex diagrams to turn into this, so I could make the joke about how once we could understand the diagrams we would have figured out consciousness. Alas, it was not to be.
I’ve given this to a few friends to take a look. I feel it’s way above my head but I’ll also give it another shot when it’s not 3 in the morning.
Danke. I actually saw the news conference when they trotted that thing out. I kept hoping some reporter would ask if it really wasn’t a map of what happened whenever Dubya was allowed to tie his own shoes…
Scott, you know how I feel about this. It’s solid.
The core: “Consciousness is structured in such a way as to appear sufficient and ontologically complete. It is anything but that.”
This is a powerful core thesis that deserves to be elaborated upon fully. The parallels and connections with ancient Greek philosophy are startling and telling. The implications for a host of philosophical problems are deep.
Thank you, Jorge. As much as they like the ideas, both Tom Metzinger and Eric Schwitzgebel think that I need to break the thing up and write whole papers on each concept if I’m to have any hope of bending academic philosophical ears. In other words, turn it into a book!
Since there’s no chance of that happening, I’m kind of left hemming and hawing…
I have to find some way to shut down my ‘new concept’ module. Fuck.
As for convincing you it’s wrong all I can say is this:
You have narrowed the explanatory gap, but it is still there, and I cannot (yet) see how science can jump the chasm. Souls, god, purpose, and will: they still survive in the narrowest of niches…
For majority, certainly. For us, I’m not so sure.
Think of the vitalism debate. As the problem came into focus, the adequacy of naturalistic explanation became more and more obvious. Once the mystifying peculiarities can be explained away, it seems more plausible to assume that the scientific explanation of consciousness, when it comes, will seem as unproblematic as any other in retrospect (apart from its cultural consequences, that is!).
Maybe. I dunno. I’m just not sure remains to make this problem ‘special.’
So I tried to give this another go. And I have to say, out of all your novels, essays, and speeches I’ve read (with the exception of Supernaut, but …eh), I’m finding this to be by far your least accessible piece of writing. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, since a shift away from literature or cultural theory, and towards cognitive psychology, is a shift away from my own education background. I can’t make heads or tails out of most physics or economic papers either, and I don’t expect to without a lot of work. I just find it striking since I’ve read your previous talks touching on BBT and thought I had grasped the key concepts for the most part.
My biggest stumbling block so far is my inability to conceptualize the recursive nature of all conscious experience. When you say “at some point… the human brain became more and more recursive, which is to say, more and more able to factor its own processes into its environmental interventions,” (2-3) I have no idea what that means. What are some behaviourial and experiential differences between a less and more recursive brain? How, even if it’s just a hypothetical or cartoon sketch, might forms of this recursion work? Is recursive experience the idea of, say, dim light causing my brain to alter my sensitivity to light and therefore changing what I see in dim light? Is it more complicated than that? How are all experiences recursive?
So before I can understand this central premise and get past page 8, I’ll limit myself to one more question. How is it that we can have the physiological blind spot in our eyes yet not notice the internal boundaries within our field of vision any more than we’d notice the outer boundaries? If “vision-trailing-away-into-asymptotic-nothingness” neural correlates are preposterous, are “vision-blurring-into-asymptotic-nothingness” neural correlates equally preposterous?
There’s a number of competing models (like ‘causal density’ and ‘phi value’) for quantifying what I mean by ‘recursion’ in this paper. But just think about language use: in order to communicate information via language your brain has to access information it already possesses and translate it into linear code. The ‘RS’ is an idealization, a way to think through the kinds of limits this ‘brain within a brain’ would face – and it seems to give a reasonable, if depressing, picture of what consciousness looks like.
“If “vision-trailing-away-into-asymptotic-nothingness” neural correlates are preposterous, are “vision-blurring-into-asymptotic-nothingness” neural correlates equally preposterous?”
On BBT, yes. Since only information that is integrated reaches attentional awareness, the absence of information is absolute.
What is more, our intuition/assumption of ‘volition’ may have no utility whatsoever
and yet ‘function’ perfectly well, simply because it remains systematically related to what the brain is actually doing.
I’d estimate the function is to make a model of ‘what we are doing’/what something is doing, to apply fitness evaluations to the notion behind the volition to begin with. ie, is this notion any good? To judge so, you need to refer to it somehow. So it becomes volition, as it’s focus tag. To create the perspective of what something is actually doing, which is a fitness question when viewed from the outside, and ‘what something is actually doing’ when viewed from within looking out. So the assumption of volition is kind of a bookmark or line in the sand upon which to start hinging some fitness evaluations. Not very flattering – I think I’m failing at the initial idea of debunking…
Mr. Bakker, Ive been reading some of your articles concerning BBT recently and found myself asking one peculiar question, the answer to which I didnt find in your archives(not that I tried to read it entirely, so forgive me if youve already answered that). Some time ago I stumbled upon a paper discussing some implications of the Godel theorem and an approach to the problem of intelligence and reasoning that stemmed from it. It affirmed that the difficulty of the problem in question requires reassessing on the basis of a very bold statement – that human intelligence(and finctional intelligence in general) demonstrates properties that cannot be explained by current scientific knowledge. Having read a substantial part of Sir Penrose book “Shadow of the Mind” that was mentioned in referenses and his answers to the criticism that followed(and some other discussions), I found myself not convinced by the refutation attempts. As I can see, the argument still stands and neuroscientists that sympathize Penrose ideas are making progress in the field that can potentially support it(recent Google lectures on microtubules and discoveries of various “warm” biological quantum processes where theyve been thought to be impossible).
So, how do you look on this possibility(and oppose Penrose logic)? From what I can tell the blueprint of the brain you describe in your (genuinely frightening) theory is classic(in physical terms) and computational in pricipal. What if its not even possible to construct a functional model of a brain with our current information? Sir Penrose goes pretty far in his reasoning and suggests some breathtaking concepts, that may seem too improbable, but as an attempt to avoid the nightmarish consequences of your hypothesis, its not a bad one, dont you think?
Thanks for the read! I remember reading Emperor’s New Mind way back when and simply thinking it was all special pleading. I actually refuse to shut the door on the quantum – consciousness is just too strange to shut the door on anything – but Penrose/Hammerhof style ‘uniqueness arguments’ don’t strike me as remotely convincely. They’ve certainly taken a beating in the literature.
But the fact is, we have these ‘intentional phenomena’ that resist naturalization. The alternatives seem to be: 1) they are ‘super’ natural; 2) they are natural in some special way; or 3) they are confusions of some kind. The (1) camp is no longer taken seriously. Most theorists split themselves between (2) and (3) depending on the phenomena, but the number of phenomena finding their way to (3) is slowly growing. BBT simply takes an all (3) approach, on that seems to predict the consensual migration from (1) with Descartes, then the migration beginning with Willis to (2) and thence to (3).
‘Nightmarish for us,’ unfortunately, has nothing to do with what is the case.
Ive read both books(though admittedly understood hardly a third of them) and was mesmerized by the strict mathematical reasoning of the author, I find it appealing b/c this argumentation will not simply go down without formal refutation, and from what I can tell nobody managed to formally undermine that argument to this day. Mr. Penrose was indeed attacked from different angles, but remarkably none of the most insistent critics (David Chalmers and Solomon Feferman and a couple of others) actually acknowledged their victory. If anything they said that the theory requires “live” research.. not providing thier own answer to the question how exactly a brain does what it does.
If you happen to have some free time I suggest reading the second book(especially updated parts about theoretical limits of all kinds of computational systems and an overview of the current state of physics) and critique exchange some years later. There was a remark on so-called materialistic “naturalization” and a suggestion that our attempts to naturalize, for instance, evolutionary processes are actually not so natural, but seem rather artificial.
I personally think that the intuitive platform on which you construct your (undeniably robust) reasoning is flawed b/c it is formed by our understanding(or rather conjectures) of how things work and might work in the universe. We know so little about such fundamental concepts that its not even funny(for instance the law of energy conservation is pretty established concept and serves as a solid basis for realistic reasoning.. but it turns out its systematic microscopic and sometimes not so microscopic violations are not only possible, but they must be present all the time for spacetime to exist.. and even become assymetrical for that matter). In other words there may be mistakes in your argumentation where its not even possible to spot them now, without, say, substantial revision of our idea of causality. If anything it sounds pretty bold to affirm that we can already know enough to explain mind when we have a very vague idea on time itself.
As you said Nature tend to simplicity, but what humans often take for simplicity turns out to be a plain primitivism.
There’s no shortage of very credible people who have tackled Penrose’s mathematics – the consensus is decidedly against him as far as I can tell. As a nonspecialist, this is really all I have to go on.
But aside from that, the real problem with Penrose (and others who follow Lucas) lies in their interpretation of Godel. As I understand it, the argument is that Godel ‘proved’ that certain statements within formal systems must remain unprovable within such systems, and that the only way the human mind could conceive this is if it somehow violated the laws of formal thought (which is reducible to syntax which is reducible to mechanism) and that therefore, the mind is not reducible to mechanism. So the idea is that only the human mind can see where truth and provability part ways. The big criticism, as I see it, is that Godel’s argument is assumptive, or conditional. IF a formal system is consistent… The conclusion that Penrose and others draw – unprovable but true – depends on the formal system (or machine) ACTUALLY being consistent, rather than simply guessing this is the case. This may seem like small potatoes, but it seems to unravel the whole shebang.
In other words, the human mind can only see where truth and provability part ways if it can actually see the TRUTH, rather than guess.
Maybe the mind does accomplish mechanistically impossible things, but there’s simply too much human conceit riding on this thesis, and it’s simply too easy to game ambiguities to rationalize those conceits, for me to be anything but extremely skeptical.
Hello Mr. Bakker,
Seeing as I am both intellectually stunted and very lazy, would you pretty please do me the honour of dumbing all of this down for me as much as possible? What exactly is it that you, the author of THE best and most mentally brutal fantasy series that I’ve ever come across, fear so much about the way our brains work? I’d really like to slowly worm myself into this and hopefully other, related, discussions without coming off as a total retard.
Furthermore, I’d like to ask you about something I once saw you had written: It was about you liking to play devil’s advocate, or something to that effect. Should one take that to mean that you are really not the through and through nihilist I have always taken you for? If so, that would break my pink little hero-worshipping heart into a billion pieces, and you would be branded excommunicatis traitoris, or something similarly silly and pretentious-sounding.
One last thing: Supposing he is giving his honest appraisal; what would Kellhus say about being intellectually nihilistic and emotionally idealistic?
Basically, the argument is that consciousness is a kind of cartoon – profoundly distorted and low-res – and that this explains many of the ways it seems so peculiar from a natural scientific standpoint. As for being a ‘thoroughgoing nihilist,’ hell no! I’m just stumped, is all. I know it’s not nearly so Wagnerian, but hey, I never liked opera anyway!
Kellhus would likely see the two as different sides of the same coin.
Welcome to TPB, J!
Ok, well, that first bit I kind of grasped when reading your essay – I guess I’m just a bit puzzled as to why that should be regarded as such a frightening prospect.
The problem lies in what this means for that family of concepts that philosophers call ‘intentional,’ such as PURPOSE, TRUTH, GOOD, MEANING, and so on. BBT suggests that these are kinds of perspectival illusions – as is consciousness itself.
That’s kind of funny – for as long as I can remember, I’ve always seen that (what you described) as more or less a given, but as it doesn’t affect my day-to-day life, I’ve never worried about it.
Granted, I “suffer” from a couple of personality disorders to various degrees, so maybe that has something to do with my phlegmatic outlook. In fact, I have it on good authority that it does.
Regarding the discussion of transhumanism; for me, it always brings to mind this little exchange between two characters in the mostly brilliant series (the recent rendition, that is) “Battlestar Galactica” :
Brother Cavil: In all your travels, have you ever seen a star go supernova?
Ellen Tigh: No.
Brother Cavil: No? Well, I have. I saw a star explode and send out the building blocks of the Universe. Other stars, other planets and eventually other life. A supernova! Creation itself! I was there. I wanted to see it and be part of the moment. And you know how I perceived one of the most glorious events in the universe? With these ridiculous gelatinous orbs in my skull! With eyes designed to perceive only a tiny fraction of the EM spectrum. With ears designed only to hear vibrations in the air.
Ellen Tigh: The five of us designed you to be as human as possible.
Brother Cavil: I don’t want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays! And I want to – I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to – I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws! And feel the wind of a supernova flowing over me! I’m a machine! And I can know much more! I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body! And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way!
Maybe it’s just me, but that Cavil guy seems like a serious buzz-kill.
Nice quotes, J!
Or a serious hit from the bong! Great quote indeedy.
In case it wasn’t apperent before, I’ll be the peasant amongst all you cerebrals over here, and so cannot be held responsible for not knowing any better than to avoid posting off topic, as per below:
A new series called “Perception” just premiered, with the wacky coupling of an F.B.I. agent and a brilliant but quirky (schizophrenic) neuroscientist as its premise. Seems too procedural for my taste, but it might get interesting once in a while. Being a staunch materialist, this utterance from the afflicted brain specialist has me worried:
“If you feel sad, do you just have a case of the blues, or are you suffering from a neurochemical imbalance?”
Exactly what is he proposing a “case of the blues” is triggered by? Perfectly balanced neurochemistry?
Ok, on topic:
“The problem lies in what this means for that family of concepts that philosophers call ‘intentional,’ such as PURPOSE, TRUTH, GOOD, MEANING, and so on. BBT suggests that these are kinds of perspectival illusions – as is consciousness itself.”
What aspect of this is frightening? I just don’t see (nudge nudge) it.
“If you feel sad, do you just have a case of the blues, or are you suffering from a neurochemical imbalance?”
Seems missleading as science – as if there’s a existant and legitimate blues as opposed to some neurochemical issue/problem on the other.
Aught to be more “If you feel sad, are you still within the neuro-typical? Or is your brain broken? Dare I say, damaged? Is your sadness legitimate?”
But the former apparent scientific legitimisation of ‘the blues’ as distinctly different will make conversations oh so much more convoluted.
Mr Herr Monsieur Bakker-sama Sir (I can’t stand using honorifics other than in an ironic manner, but I have every confidence we’ll bridge this cultural divide eventually)
I’m sure this particular horse has been smashed into its constituent atomic components before you several times already, but let me put it to you this way … uhh … anyway. You once wrote something to the effect that:
“Kellhus is searching for meaninglessness in a world filled with meaning”,
and I can’t help but wonder if you’re trying to do exactly the opposite. If this is the case, what are your motivations (aside from recently having had a kid)?
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