An excellent explanation of quantum decoherence, and how it might lead to many worlds

Matt O’Dowd is a first class science communicator.  In this latest video, he does an excellent job explaining decoherence, and why the MWI (many worlds interpretation) ends up being so tempting when you see it through.

Of course, this doesn’t mean MWI is the right interpretation, but it does demonstrate why many find it tempting.  (At least once they get over the visceral reaction we all seem to initially have for it.)

But it’s worth noting that decoherence actually is compatible with pilot-wave and many other interpretations, and reportedly even some versions of Copenhagen.  So don’t let MWI cause you to dismiss it!

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , | 42 Comments

Altered Carbon, season two

Poster for Altered Carbon season 2

Netflix dropped the second season of Altered Carbon on Thursday, so naturally I had to binge through it.  This show is based on the novels by Richard K. Morgan.  While the first season (which I reviewed) broadly followed the plot of the first book, albeit with a lot of additions and enhancements to the storyline, the second season largely charts a course independent from the books.  It does take ideas from the second and third novel, and it takes place on the same planet as the third book, but the storyline is new.

As a reminder, the world of Altered Carbon is a future where everyone has a “stack” implanted in their brainstem, which records their mind.  That stack can be transferred to a new body (a “sleeve”), or the contents of the mind can be “needle cast” to another planet in another solar system, or connected to a virtual environment.

If someone’s sleeve is destroyed, getting another one is not cheap, either because it requires a body not in use, or one clone grown, which is staggeringly expensive.  As a result, this is a society with sharp class distinctions between the very rich, who can afford new sleeves as needed, and the poor, who have to make do with the one they have, often not able to afford a new one until they’ve aged out their current one, if even then.

And although the ability exists to backup a mind, it’s very expensive, so again, only the rich are protected from “real death” resulting from the destruction of their stack.  It’s also illegal to “double sleeve”, putting the same mind in more than one body; in fact the penalty is real death for anyone who does it or enables it.  The reasons for this are never explicitly spelled out, but it’s implied as an oppressive restriction of the society.  (It also conveniently enables the characters to be in jeopardy.)

The result is pretty dystopian.  Think of an interstellar version of Blade Runner where everyone is a replicant.  Although there are also AIs who have their own existential issues.

As the season starts, Takeshi Kovacs, the protagonist, is lured back to his home world, “Harlan’s World”, and recruited by a “Meth” (rich immortal) for protection.  Part of the lure is that the Meth claims to have information on the whereabouts of his lost love, Quellcrist Falconer.  However, things quickly go to hell and Kovacs finds himself a fugitive on the run.

Lots of action, violence, and gore, and the occasional nudity, follows.  I mostly enjoyed it, and if the previous points haven’t turned you off yet, I highly recommend it.

An important point.  If you saw the first season, don’t be surprised that Kovacs is no longer played by Joel Kinnaman.  He’s in a new body, which means a new actor, in this case Anthony Mackie (of Avengers-Falcon fame).  Although the show does find a lot of ways to bring back actors from the first season.

I do have a few nits.  The first is that Kovacs is downloaded into a combat sleeve, one with all kinds of enhanced genetic engineering, which is fine as far as it goes.  But the body has the ability to make weapons fly into its hands, Jedi style.  No explanation is given for exactly how this works.  I’m sure it seemed like a cool thing to the producers, but I found it gimmicky and annoying, particularly as it adds nothing to the story.

It’s mentioned several times in the show that Harlan’s World is being strip mined by “The Protectorate”, the oppressive interstellar government.  In particular, the alloy for making most of the stacks comes from this planet.  But it’s also made clear that the original colonists to the world had to travel for decades to reach it.  No explanation is provided for how the materials mined on Harlan’s World actually physically get to the rest of the Protectorate.  In the books, although needlecast communication appears to be instantaneous across interstellar distances, there is no physical FTL travel.  I didn’t see the show explicitly clarify this one way or the other anywhere, so it feels like an inconsistency.

Finally, (minor spoiler alert) at a certain point in the story, Kovacs is sentenced to be executed.  Not by simply being erased, or tortured to death, but in a sort of trial by combat with people in synthesized bodies, with the whole rest of the planet watching, which he gets to deal with in his special combat body.  This felt excessively comic-bookish.  There’s even a scene where one of the antagonists urges that Kovacs simply be killed, but of course, drama dictates that he be ignored, and he is.

All that said, I found this show to be a lot of fun.  And while I was initially disappointed that the stories from the books were discarded, the new story made up for it pretty well, and again, still used a lot of ideas from the books.  If you like epic mind bending fiction with cyberpunk flavoring, and don’t mind gratuitous sex and violence, then I think you’ll enjoy it.

Have you seen it?  If so, what did you think?

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

The rise of the west and the changing sociopolitical landscape

Aeon this weekend highlighted a 2017 article by Joel Mokyr looking at how Europe became the richest part of the world (or at least one of the richest).  Historically, there have been many theories, ranging from racist rationals, cultural ones, to it merely being Europe and the overall west’s turn to be on top.

That last one shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.  1000 years ago, the Muslim societies in the Middle East were the pinnacle of civilization.  Europe at that time was a poor backwater.  Arguably, the Middle Eastern societies benefited at the time from being situated at the center of Asia (and thus the center of the known world), putting them at the intersection of long range trade routes, making them an international economic hub.  The rise of Europe seemed to coincide with trade shifting from overland routes to the seas, giving the sea powers (Portugal, Spain, France, and Britain) the advantages.

Still, the question could be, why did Europe produce those sea powers and not other regions?  The answer Mokyr explores is one that’s been posited many times: competition.  Europe never had one central government, but numerous squabbling states competing with each other.  That competition ensured that the Age of Discovery, among other things, would continue, unlike in China, whose own age of discovery was abruptly cut short by the whims of imperial decree.

But Mokyr notes that competition is only half of the story.  The other half is the rise of science and technology, and an intellectual class.  Unlike in regions dominated by a central authority, where a conservative ruling class threatened by developing ideas could simply suppress them, any attempt to do so in Europe simply led to other powers making use of those ideas.

Mokyr describes a “society of letters” which existed between intellectuals across international borders.  That and the printing press allowed ideas to permeate throughout European cultures.  So when Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church, and his ideas banned in Italy, they simply resurfaced in other countries, and continued to be built upon.

I’ve often noted that the printing press was the disrupting technology of the second millennium.  Its development in the 15th century led to ideas spreading much more rapidly, and enabled collaborations that previously had only happened across generations.  No one in 1440 could have predicted the effects it would eventually have: the Scientific Revolution, Reformation, Counter-reformation, religious wars, and many other developments.

So Europe’s rise could be a factor of competition and a technology and culture that allowed ideas to permeate throughout the competitors.  Thinking about this makes me wonder about the rise of the internet.  On the one hand, it could be seen as a continuation of mass media, which itself can be seen as a continuation of the printing revolution.

But the internet has always felt different.  The fact that I’m writing and publishing this post, without having to convince a publisher, broadcaster, or anyone else with resources to make it available, and that people throughout the world will be able to read it, seems like something new.  Something whose long term effects we’re just beginning to feel.

Some of the effects, of course, have been predicted from the beginning.  Even in the 1990s, I remember seeing predictions that it would lead to far more globalization than existed at the time, and that this would have consequences for many people in society.  That’s largely come to pass.

What was less predicted is the backlash that we’re now seeing in many countries.  In the English speaking world, that’s manifested as Brexit in Britain, and the election of Donald Trump in my own country.  Although in retrospect, looking back at history, it should have been obvious that something like this would happen.  The waves of industrialization of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries all came with their associated backlashes.  The rise of socialism and communism can actually be viewed as giant backlashes against those waves.

This morning, Taegan Goddard, on his Political Wire blog (highly recommended BTW), noted that the Democratic party has now been hijacked (warning: paywall), similar to the way the Republican party was four years ago.  The front runner for the Democratic nomination is a candidate who, until a few years ago, didn’t identify as a Democrat.  And the strongest alternative may end up being a billionaire who also only recently started identifying as a Democrat.  It’s worth remembering that Trump spent most of his life not identifying as a Republican.

For most of US history, political parties chose their nominees in smoked filled rooms, the choice made by party insiders.  That started to change in the 1970s with the switch to primary elections.  But even with that switch, party insiders: major donors, elected officials, and political professionals, still largely determined who the primary candidates would be, through the infamous “money primary.”

Goddard recalls that he wrote in 2016 that Trump’s rise in the Republican party “broke political science”.  With the rise of Bernie Sanders, we seem to be seeing a similar dynamic in the Democratic party.  The days of party insiders pre-winnowing the candidates appears to be over.

But what’s leading to that change?  Goddard focuses on the rise of social networks: Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest, in other words, the internet.  Another unforeseen consequence of the rise of the internet, is the weakening of elites in both parties to be able to constrain the choices.  Candidates now have the ability to interact directly with their constituencies and bypass party elites, the media, and other gatekeepers.

Some are saying that this means that parties are now irrelevant.  I think that’s wishful thinking.  The dynamics of how governing works in the US haven’t changed.  Given the structure of the US government, a president still needs allies in the legislative and judicial branches to get things done, and given the nature of separate but overlapping incumbencies, those alliances still need to be long term.  In other words, parties aren’t irrelevant yet.

And the fact is that this is happening within the parties, not outside of them.  But it is changing the nature of politics in the US, in ways I’m not sure anyone would have predicted a decade ago.

Bringing this back to the original thesis, the rise of Europe and the west may well have been based on competition, a competition enhanced and informed by a framework that allowed new ideas to proliferate.  It’s manifesting in new ways today, and happening across a much wider backdrop, with other world regions increasingly becoming major players.

The question, as always, is what happens next?

Posted in History, Society | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Islands of awareness

(Warning: neuroscience weeds)

An interesting paper by Tim Bayne, Anil Seth, and Marcello Massimi, which came up in my Twitter stream today, asks whether there can be islands of awareness.

Ordinary consciousness involves ongoing interaction with the environment, receiving sensory information, and producing motor output.  It has a functional role, enabling an organism to deal with novel situations, including dangers and opportunities.

However, it is possible, due to injury or pathology, for some or all of this interaction to be lost, for the consciousness to become isolated.  The authors start out discussing various medical situations where people can become almost completely disconnected on the output end, only able to communicate with the world by the twitching of an eyelid, or even worse, be completely locked in, unable to communicate at all.

It’s also possible to become disconnected on the input side.  Some of these cases are reversible, such as what happens in dreaming.  In that state, we’re generally disconnected from the outside world, although with a strong enough stimulus, that can usually quickly be reversed.  There is also the anesthesia drug ketamine, which apparently provides the same disconnection, but doesn’t always extinguish consciousness, sometimes leading to vivid and terrifying experiences.

But what the authors are most concerned about here are actual islands of awareness, where the system in question is completely isolated from the environment.  They explore three scenarios: ex cranio brains in a nutrient vat, hemispherotomy, and cerebral organoids.

An example of ex cranio brains were the disembodied pig brains which were kept alive in a nutrient delivery system.  The nutrient mix included a neural inhibitor to ensure that the brains wouldn’t regain consciousness, but suppose that inhibitor hadn’t been present?  Could such brains actually be conscious?  A lot of people would say no, that consciousness requires interaction with a body.  But if such a brain showed wide scale organized activity, it might “put pressure” on embodied cognition theories.

A hemispherotomy is sometimes performed on a patient with severe epileptic seizures.  It involves severing the connections between the damaged hemisphere and the other side, as well as its connections with the brainstem, thalamus, and other subcortical structures.  However, a hemispherotomy, unlike a hemispherectomy, leaves the tissue in place, with all of its vascular connections.

Could such a disconnected hemisphere be conscious?  The authors note that, under normal circumstances, without the activating signals coming up from the RAS (reticular activating system) in the brainstem, the activity in the disconnected tissue has very low firing rates, equivalent to a deep dreamless sleep.  But, they ask, what would happen if electrodes were inserted and used to stimulate the hemisphere?  Might it then regain some consciousness?

The authors discuss the role of subcortical regions in consciousness.  It’s well established that they provide crucial support, but what is the nature of that support?  Are they causal, constitutive, or both?  Causal means they just cause awareness in cortical tissue but don’t participate in generating or consuming the content.  Constitutive means they do.

Personally, I think with a disconnected thalamus, the question is somewhat moot.  Such a hemisphere’s ability to communicate with its disparate regions would be heavily compromised.  I tend to doubt any awareness is possible under those conditions.  Only if the subcortical connections were kept intact, with only the RAS disconnected, might it be possible to re-stimulate some form of consciousness.

The third scenario is cerebral organoids.  I did a post on these a few months ago.  The chances that any form of awareness exists in these largely random collection of neural cells is so close to zero that I find worrying about it counter-productive.  There’s simply nothing to indicate these small clumps of neural tissue are organized to have any sensory or affective functionality, and without that, it’s hard to call whatever is happening in them consciousness.  We might as well worry about whether brain tumors or other excised tissue are conscious.

The authors worry that as organoids continue to be developed, there may eventually be issues.  I guess that’s possible, but it only seems to be a significant possibility when enough of the various components of the brain start to be included, which still seems very remote.

The authors mention other possibilities, such as an in utero fetus with some pathology causing it to be completely disconnected.  Given how immature the brain is until well into the third trimester, this only becomes a possibility in the last few months of pregnancy, but it is a possibility.  Would such a system, with no history of sensory input, be conscious in anything like our understanding of the word?

But the most likely scenario is the ex cranio one, such as the pig brains.  It seems inevitable that someone will eventually try that experiment without the inhibitors.  What will it mean if the brains in that scenario do show wide scale organized activity?  The paper discusses the difficulty of detection in these scenarios, and of avoiding false positive and false negatives.

It’s worth noting that the major cognitive theories: global workspace (GWT), integrated information (IIT), and  higher order thought (HOT), are compatible with the ex cranio scenario.  But the more fragmented the tissue is, the less compatible these theories are, although IIT may posit even organoids as having some level of consciousness.  The theory that might be most compatible with small fragmentary islands is recurrent processing theory (RPT).

The paper finishes up by noting that neuroscientific progress increases the chances of producing these islands, and that they may already exist.  They call for careful consideration of the ethical issues involved.

What do you think?  Are conscious hemispheres or organoids more likely than I think?  Or are there solid reasons to conclude that disembodied cognition is impossible?

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Daniel Dennett on why phenomenal consciousness is access consciousness

This old talk by Daniel Dennett touches on a lot of topics we’ve discussed recently.  Dennett explains why it’s wrong to regard phenomenal consciousness (the “what it’s likeness” or “raw experience” version) as separate from access consciousness (the cognitive access of information for decision making, memory, report, etc).

Note that Dennett doesn’t deny the existence of phenomenal consciousness here, just the idea that it’s something separate and apart from access.  He even passes up opportunities to dismiss qualia, although he does provide a reduction of them.

This video is about 66 minutes long.  Unfortunately the video and sound quality aren’t great, and the camera operation is annoying, but the talk is worth powering through.

I agree with just about everything in this talk, but I do feel a little compelled to defend Victor Lamme since I read his stuff recently and it’s still relatively fresh in my mind.  Dennett says that there’s no rational provided for why recurrent neural processing leads to phenomenality.  Lamme, to his credit, actually does take a stab at it, citing the enhanced synaptic plasticity associated with recurrent processing, leading to the formation of memories, albeit very brief ones in the cases he’s considering.  But as I noted in my post on that theory, it’s arguably more about the preconscious, pre-access sensory processing, than consciousness itself.

The main thrust of Dennett’s remarks are that phenomenal content isn’t something that access consciousness makes use of, phenomenal experience is a result of access processing.  Therefore, studying access consciousness is studying phenomenal consciousness.  They are one and the same, just seen from the outside or the inside respectively.

Dennett also talks about the element people often feel is missing from strictly information processing accounts, referring to it as “the juice” or “the sauce” (a cute acronym for “subjective aspect unique to conscious experience”) before, in politeness to his host, settling on “feeling”, but pointing out that feelings must be felt, and felt is a form of access.

There have also been some conversations recently about the hard problem of consciousness, particularly at James Cross’ blog.  It’s worth noting that phenomenal consciousness is the version typically associated with the Chalmers’ hard problem, while access consciousness is associated with his “easy problems” (discrimination, attention, reportability, etc).  But if phenomenal and access consciousness are one and the same, then the hard problem is simply an agglomeration of the easy problems.  Meaning that as the easy problems are solved, the hard problem will gradually be solved.

So, a lot of good information in this talk, which I’m sure won’t be controversial at all.  🙂

(via Richard Brown)

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Stimulating the central lateral thalamus produces consciousness

(Warning: neuroscience weeds)

The thalamus.
Image credit: Wikipedia

A couple of people have asked me about this study, described in numerous popular science articles (such as this one).  A monkey had electrodes installed in its brain that allowed scientists to stimulate parts of its thalamus, the region at the center of the brain which links the cortex to the brainstem and other systems, as well as serves as a relay station for some inter-cortical communication.

Stimulating the monkey, while it was anesthetized, in the central lateral thalamus region caused it to wake up, look around, and reach for things.  Ceasing the stimulation caused the monkey to immediately lose consciousness.  Notably, this region is heavily interconnected with frontal and parietal regions.

Diagram showing the various regions of the thalamus

Image credit: Madhero88 via Wikipedia

Interestingly, stimulating the medial dorsal thalamus, which is heavily connected to the prefrontal cortex, “proved less effective”, and stimulating the central medial thalamus, which projects to the striatum, was also less effective.

In other words, consciousness seemed to be associated with the central lateral thalamus region and its projections to layers in the frontoparietal network.

Diagram showing the regions of the brain

Lobes of the brain
Image credit: BruceBlaus via Wikipedia

One interesting point about this study, is it seems to contradict another study from a year or two ago which ruled out the thalamus as having a role in wakefulness (favoring the basal ganglia instead, if I recall correctly), a reminder that it’s not a good idea to hang too tightly on the results of individual studies.  Another point is the demonstration that the frontoparietal network overall, not just the prefrontal cortex, seemed to be most important for stimulating consciousness.

What does it all mean?  Well, it seems like a dramatic experiment.  And it seems to re-establish the role of the thalamus in wakefulness.  The part about stimulating the regions projecting to the prefrontal cortex not being effective makes me wonder about implications for higher order theories that focus on that region.

All that said, I think we have to bear in mind the distinction between the state of consciousness, that is wakefulness or vigilance, and awareness.  A lot of the information in this experiment seems to be about the state more than awareness.  In that sense, some of the anatomical details are new, but the overall macroscopic picture doesn’t seem to be much affected.

But this is a technical paper and there are probably implications I’m missing.  In particular, the implications for anesthesiology  and other clinical situations may be very significant.

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Do qualia exist? Depends on what we mean by “exist.”

The cognitive scientist, Hakwan Lau, whose work I’ve highlighted several times in the last year, has been pondering illusionism recently.  He did a Twitter survey on the relationship between the phenomenal concept strategy (PCS) and illusionism, which inspired my post on the PCS.  (Meant to mention that in the post, but it slipped.)  Anyway, he’s done a blog post on illusionism, which is well worth checking out for its pragmatic take.

As part of that post, he linked to a talk that Keith Frankish gave some years ago explaining why he thought qualia can’t be reduced to a non-problematic version that can be made compatible with physicalism.  The video, which has Frankish’s voice but only shows his presentation slides, is about 23 minutes.

In many ways, this talk seems to anticipate the criticism from Eric Schwitzgebel that illusionists are dismissing an inflated version of consciousness, one that Schwitzgebel admits comes from other philosophers who can’t seem to resist bundling theoretical commitments into their definitions of it.  He argues for a pre-theoretical, or theoretically naive conception of consciousness.

Frankish discusses the problems with what he calls “diet qualia”, a concept without the problematic aspects that Daniel Dennett articulates in his attempted take down of qualia, a conception that in some ways resembles what Schwitzgebel advocates for.  But Frankish points out that diet qualia don’t work, that any discussion of them inevitably inflates to “classic qualia” or collapses to “zero qualia” (his stance).

Just to review, qualia are generally considered to be instances of subjective experience.  The properties that Dennett identified are (quoted from the Wikipedia article on qualia):

  1. ineffable; that is, they cannot be communicated, or apprehended by any means other than direct experience.

  2. intrinsic; that is, they are non-relational properties, which do not change depending on the experience’s relation to other things.

  3. private; that is, all interpersonal comparisons of qualia are systematically impossible.

  4. directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness; that is, to experience a quale is to know one experiences a quale, and to know all there is to know about that quale.

Illusionists usually point out that qualia can be described in terms of dispositional states, meaning they’re not really ineffable.  For example, the experience of red can be discussed entirely in terms of sensory processing and the various affective reactions it causes throughout the brain.  And doing so demonstrates that they’re not intrinsic or irreducible.

Privacy can be viewed in two senses: as a matter of no one else being able to know the content of the experience, or of no one being able to have the experience.  The first seems like just a limitation of current technology.  There’s no reason to suppose we won’t be able to monitor a brain someday and know exactly what the content is of an in-progress experience.  The second sense is true, but only in the same sense that the laptop I’m typing this on currently has a precise informational state that no other electronic device has, a fact that really has no metaphysical implications.

There’s a similar double sense for qualia being directly or immediately apprehensible.  In one sense, it implies we have accurate information on our cognitive states, something that modern psychology has pretty conclusively demonstrated is often not true.  In the second sense, it says that we know our impression of the experience, that we know what seems to be, which is trivially true.

So, seen from an objective point of view, qualia, in the sense identified by Dennett, doesn’t exist.  So the failure of the diet versions can seem very significant.

But I think there’s a fundamental mistake here.  The dissolving of qualia in this sense happens objectively.  But remember that qualia are not supposed to be objective.  They are instances of subjective experience.  This means that the way they seem to be, their seeming nature is their nature, at least their subjective nature.

Of course, many philosophers make the opposite mistake.  They take subjective experience and think its phenomenal nature is something other than just subjective, that its objective reality is in some way obvious from its subjective aspects.  But all indications are that the objective mechanisms that underlie the subjective phenomena are radically different from those phenomena, which is what I think most illusionists are trying to say.

Put another way, qualia only exist subjectively.  But they only need to exist subjectively to achieve the status of being instances of subjective experience.

And they only need to exist that way to be subjectively ineffable and subjectively irreducible.  Yes, the processing underlying qualia can be described in objective terms, but much of that description will involve unconscious processing below the level of consciousness, meaning that it won’t be describable from the subjective experience itself, or reducible from that experience.

Looking at it this way allows us to accept qualia realism, but in a manner fully consistent with physcialism.  In other words, there’s nothing spooky going on here.  In many ways, this is just an alternate description of illusionism, but one that hopefully clarifies rather than obscures, and doesn’t seem to deny our actual experiences.

Of course, a hard core illusionist might insist that subjective existence itself doesn’t count as really existing.  Admittedly, it comes down to a matter of how we define “exists.”  In other words, we’re back to a situation where there is no fact of the matter, just different philosophical positions that people can choose to hold.

Unless of course, I’m missing something?

Posted in Mind and AI | Tagged , , , | 90 Comments

Alita: Battle Angel

Movie poster for Alita: Battle Angel

I’m pretty late to the party on this one, but today I finally watched Alita: Battle Angel.  The movie is set in the 26th century and involves a society with a lot of cyborgs in it, including many whose entire body other than their head or brain has been replaced by machinery.

It’s about 300 years after an event known as “the fall”, in which all the floating cities were destroyed in a war.  Only one of those floating sky cities remains: Zalem (apparently held up by some kind of anti-gravity technology).  Beneath and around Zalem is another city on the ground: Iron City.

Directly underneath Zalem is a scrapyard, where the detritus from the floating city lands, and where Dr. Dyson Ido finds the head and upper torso of a young girl, who is still alive.

Ido attaches the her to a cybernetic body.  When she awakens, she has no memory of her past life.  He gives her the name “Alita”.  What follows is a journey of discovery as Alita learns about her abilities, who she is, and where she comes from, and the society she has awoken in.

It’s a society with a sharp class division, with an affluent population living in the sky city Zalem, and the rest of the hardscrabble population living in Iron City.  The people of Iron City dream of finding a way to move up into Zalem, but the options for doing so are very limited.  Life is hard and brutal.

It’s difficult to go into much more detail without getting into spoilers.  I’ll just note that it’s chock full of action, with plenty of battles between cyborgs with all kinds of attached weaponry.  And there are lots of special effects.  A big part of the appeal is the imagery, which this movie handles very well.

I have to admit that I hadn’t heard much about this movie so I wasn’t expecting more than moderately entertaining fluff.  It surprised me by being more than that.  It wasn’t until after finishing it that I learned that it’s based on a classic manga and anime series, and that one of the producers is James Cameron.

It’s not clear if it did well enough financially for sequels.  I hope it did.  It’d be good to see more.  If not, I might have to dig up the anime or manga material.

So, if you’re looking for a couple hours of entertainment, and aren’t turned off by cybernetic body parts and human machine hybrids being ripped apart, and like me have somehow managed to miss this movie until now, I recommend checking it out.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged | 12 Comments

The phenomenal concept strategy and issues with conceptual isolation

I’ve often pondered that the hard problem of consciousness, the perceived problem of understanding how phenomenal consciousness can happen in physical systems, arises due to the fact that our intuitive model of the phenomenal is very different from our intuitive model of the physical, of the brain in particular.

As is usually the case, anytime you think you’re having an original observation, you should make sure someone hasn’t thought of it first.  In this case, philosophers have.  It’s called the phenomenal concept strategy (PCS).  Peter Carruthers discussed it in his blog posts a few weeks ago, but in a manner that expected the reader to already be familiar with it.  And Hakwan Lau brought it up on Twitter recently, spurring me to investigate.

It’s basically the idea that the explanatory gap between mind and body exists not because there’s a gap between physical and mental phenomena, but because there’s a gap in our concepts of these things.

Part of the value of this strategy, is that it supposedly helps physicalists answer the knowledge argument from Mary’s room: the thought experiment where Mary, a scientific expert in visual perception who has spent her entire life in a black and white room, leaves the room and experiences color for the first time, and the question is asked, does Mary learn something new when she leaves the room?  According to the PCS, what Mary learns is a new phenomenal concept, which just expresses other knowledge she already had in a new way.

At first glance, this view seems to offer a lot.  But as with all philosophical positions, it pays to look before you leap.  Under the view, the reason this works is that phenomenal concepts are conceptually isolated.  This isolation supposedly makes philosophical zombies conceivable.

“Conceivable” in this case is supposed to mean logically coherent, as opposed to merely imaginable.  And the zombies in this case aren’t the traditional ones which are physically identical to a conscious being (and simply presuppose dualism) but functional or behavioral ones, systems that are different internally but behaviorally identical.

The idea is that it’s possible to imagine a being just like you but with different or missing phenomenal concepts.

David Chalmers uses this zombie conceivability to attack the PCS.  His point seems to be that we eventually run into the same gaps in the concepts that we perceived to be in the originals.  Peter Carruthers responds with a discussion involving phenomenal and schmenomenal states that I have to admit I haven’t yet parsed.

But my issue is that the concepts can’t be that isolated, because we can discuss them.  Indeed, it seems dubious that there can be a being that is missing phenomenal concepts who can nonetheless discuss them.

That’s not to say that our concepts of phenomenal content can’t be isolated, but that isolation doesn’t seem inherent or absolute.  It’s something we allow to creep into our thinking.  It’s a failure to ask Daniel Dennett’s hard question:  “And then what happens?”

I personally think qualia exist, but not in any non-physical manner.  They are information, physical information that are part of the causal chain.  There is no phenomenal experience which doesn’t convey information (although it may not be information we need at the moment).  This information is raw and primal, so it doesn’t feel like information to us, but it is information nonetheless.

Consider the pain of a toothache.  How else should the valence systems in the brain signal to the planning systems that there is an issue here which needs addressing?  The only alternative is to imagine some form of symbolic communication (numbers, notations, etc), but symbolic communications is just communication built on top of the primal version, raw conscious experience.

This communication is primal to us because it is subjectively irreducible.  We have no access to its construction and underlying mechanisms (which ironically can be understood in symbolic terms), therefore it seems like something that exists separate and apart from those mechanisms.  In that sense, our concept of it is isolated from our concepts of those underlying mechanism.  This might tempt us to see that concept as completely isolated.

But it’s only isolated in that way if we fail to relate it to why we have that phenomenal experience, and how we use it.  If we touch a hot stove, our hand may reflexively jerk back due to the received nociception, but we also experience the burning pain.  If we didn’t, and didn’t remember it, we might be tempted later to touch the stove again.  A zombie needs to have a similar mechanism for it to be functional in the same way.  (Maybe Carruthers’ “schmenomenal” states?)

In other words, phenomenal experience has a functional role.  It evolved for a reason (or more accurately a whole range of reasons).  That doesn’t mean it may not misfire in some situations, leaving us wondering what the functional point of it is, but that’s more a factor that evolution can’t foresee every situation, and of how strange the modern world is in comparison to our original ecological niche in places like the African savanna.

So, I think there is some value to seeing the explanatory gap in terms of concepts, but not in seeing those concepts as isolated in some rigid or absolute manner.  They’re only isolated if we make them so, as we frequently do.  And they’re not so consistently isolated that we need to let in zombies.

Of course, I’m approaching this as someone who most frequently falls within Chalmers’ Type A materialist category.  Apparently the PCS is typically championed by Type B materialists, those who see a hard problem that needs addressing.  So it may be that I was never the intended audience for this strategy.

Unless of course I’m missing something.  Are zombies less avoidable than I’m thinking here?  What do you think of the PCS overall?

Posted in Mind and AI | Tagged , , , | 74 Comments

Prefrontal activity associated with the contents of consciousness

The other day I bemoaned the fact that the Templeton competition between global workspace theory (GWT) and integrated information theory (IIT) would take so long, particularly the point about having to wait to see the role of the front and back of the brain in consciousness clarified.  Well, it looks like many aren’t waiting, and studies seem to be piling up showing that the frontal regions have a role.

In a preprint of a new study, the authors discuss how they exposed monkeys to a binocular rivalry type situation.  They monitored the monkeys using a no-report protocol, to minimize the possibility that the monitored activity was more about the need to report than perception.  In this case, the no-report was achieved by monitoring a reflexive eye movement that had been previously shown to correlate with conscious perception.  So the monkeys didn’t have to “report” by pressing a button or any other kind of volitional motor action.

The authors were able “decode the contents of consciousness from prefrontal ensemble activity”.  Importantly, they were able to find this activity when other studies hadn’t, because while those other studies had depended on fMRI scans using blood oxygen levels, this study used equipment physically implanted in the monkey’s brain.

These results add support for cognitive theories of consciousness, such as GWT and higher order theories (HOT), and seem to contradict the predictions made by IIT.

Of course, it doesn’t close off every loophole.  There was speculation on Twitter that Ned Block will likely point out that some variation of his no-post-perceptual-cognition protocol is necessary.  In other words, it can’t be ruled out that the activity wasn’t the monkeys having cognition about their perception after the perception itself.  (Which of course assumes that cognition about the perception and conscious perception are distinct things, something cognitive theories deny.)

And as I’ve noted before, I tend to doubt that the prefrontal cortex’s role will be the whole story, which seems necessary for strict HOT.  It seems possible that someone could have sensory consciousness without it, but probably not affect consciousness, and not introspective consciousness.

So, not the last word, but important results.  After the study last week calling into question the role of the P3b wave, it seems to get global neuronal workspace off the ropes.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , | 34 Comments