In the last post, in response to my criticism of Chalmers for relying on the standard but vague “something it is like” definition of phenomenal consciousness, someone pointed out that Chalmers has talked before metaphorically about a movie playing in our head, notably at the beginning of his TED talk on consciousness. I think this is an insightful point. It goes to what most people intuitively think about consciousness, that it’s a theater of the mind.
Indeed, I think what Nagel probably meant when he coined the phrase “something it is like” was “something like a theater of the mind.” It’s probably fair to say that when most people ask whether a particular animal or other system is conscious, it’s this idea of a inner theater they are intuitively thinking about. So what Nagel meant when saying we could never know what it’s like to be a bat was, we couldn’t know what their theater of the mind is like.
So the theater metaphor does a good job of capturing the most common intuitions about consciousness. However, it also encapsulates the problems with those intuitions.
First, it implies that somewhere in the brain, there is a place where a presentation is made, and a place where an audience views that presentation. This leads a lot of people to look for those locations. The current search for phenomenal consciousness, as something separate and apart from the overall information access processing, is a key example of looking for the presentation.
But it also often leads people to hypothesize about relatively compact locations where the audience may lie. Common guesses are the brainstem, the thalamus, the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, the claustrum, or the posterior cortex hot zone.
The problem with this notion is it downplays the role of the audience. However, when it comes to consciousness, the audience is arguably the most important part. Relegating it to a small section of the brain actually magnifies the difficulties in explaining what the audience actually is. It might work if the audience actually were some passive entity simply receiving the presentation of the theater, but it isn’t. The audience is, ultimately, the doer of the mind, the portion that makes decisions and takes action.
This, I think, is why the theater metaphor is a target of illusionists. Daniel Dennett, in his 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, actually spends a lot of time attacking what he calls the “Cartesian theater.” And I’m pretty sure this theater is what Keith Frankish has in mind when he attacks phenomenal consciousness.
Dennett attacks the idea of the homunculus, the little person in the brain observing events. The trouble is that this can lead to an infinite regress. Does the homunculus have its own homunculus? And does that homunculus have yet its own? Dennett, in later writing, does admit that as long as each nested homunculus is less sophisticated, it can break the regress, but that arguably is not our intuition about what’s happening.
However, while I think the illusionists are basically right, I disagree with their framing of the issue. I don’t know how helpful it is to simply point at an intuitive metaphor and say it’s wrong. I think the solution is to present a better one.
The theater metaphor often used to present Global Workspace Theory (GWT) actually tries to improve on the standard one by stipulating that both the audience and backstage support are unconscious mechanistic agents. It is their collective response to what’s being presented that makes that presentation the contents of consciousness.
But as I noted in my post on GWT, I think even this improved theater metaphor leaves the audience in too passive of a role. It’s why I see a raucous meeting as a better metaphor. The meeting has a chairperson, but their control is tenuous. The chair recognize a series of speakers, who take the floor and make a speech, sending their content into the overall room consciousness.
But the person making the speech is far from the only person talking in the room. There is a general background hum of people having side conversations with each other. While the speeches have large causal effects on the mood and sentiment in the room, the side conversations are having their more local effects too. And these effects periodically result in a speaker, or coalition of speakers, shouting down the current speaker, despite any efforts of the chairperson, and taking the floor and saying their own piece, further altering the tenor of the room.
In this metaphor, the consciousness of the room is what is being conveyed in the speeches, that is, it is what is having causal effects throughout the room. Most members of the audience have the potential to become part of the presentation at any time. There’s no central presentation, no passive audience, no one location in the room where it all comes together.
So, rather than a theater of the mind, we should think of a community of the mind. This seems true even if GWT turns out not to be the right theory of consciousness, or (as I suspect) it’s only a part of the overall picture.
Unless of course I’m missing something?