Sunday, July 6, 2008

On the topic of consciousness:

I am always excited to read debates over the human experience or the human mind. However, it becomes quite tedious, since those that would evoke consciousness often hope to bypass the scientific method, since it is a concept which isn't yet tied to a specific glob of neurons.

My ability to discuss the seat of consciousness is tied to the definition of consciousness. Recently, a blabbering troll over on the News-Leaders page said that we could not explain the soul, which he seemed to define as our ability to think, to wonder, to imagine. Neuroscience has shown that these traits and abilities are all the result of the basic neurons in our brain. We can take away memories by taking away the hippocampus. We can explain our emotional reactions by studying the amygdala, the way that memories are tagged with emotions.

This is a sufficient explanation of consciousness when we are dealing with trolls who define consciousness as memory or emotion. However, those who are up to date on the scientific research are changing their definition of consciousness, to fit what we do not yet have an explanation for.

What use to be defined as memory, emotion, imagination, and experience has now been boiled down to experience. We know how the rest are completely physical, so they are tossed out, leaving experience to be held up by those who want an inexplicable phenomenon.

Neuropsychology has tried to combat this, but it is still at a point of infancy in the scientific spectrum. Their understanding of the brain, of thought and consciousness, is simplistic at best. They are still growing, still getting there. Their research is gravely limited by ethical concerns and the inability to generalize findings on nonhuman subjects to human minds. Neurologists are bringing us explanations, but it takes time, time which others would exploit as a failure.

One of the most commonly cited arguments for dualism, and therefore against a biological basis for consciousness, is that proposed by Dr. David Chalmers. The gist of Chalmers' argument is that there are two questions we must ask of consciousness. The easy questions are those we can answer with biological research. The hard question is that of experience, which cannot be explained using neurological evidence, and instead we we should label is as a fundamental principle. (I know I am cutting his explanation short, and butchering it in simplicity. The paper is certainly worth a read.)

Chalmers compares the fundamental principle of experience to the creation of new basic laws to explain electromagnetism, or other physical laws. Something which just is, and cannot be explained through reductive reasoning.

Chalmers is quick to drop the scientific pursuit of a biological explanation for experience, which certainly makes me immediately suspicious. Heck, in his paper he even says "Biological theories involve no principles that are fundamental in this way, so biological theory has a certain complexity and messiness to it; but theories in physics, insofar as they deal with fundamental principles, aspire to simplicity and elegance." But what Chalmers seems to skip over is that experience, like emotion or memory, seems to come from biological roots, and a mass of cells cannot be as elegant as we would hope.

However, the larger problem with Chalmers argument is that he separates experience, when there is no reason to do so. His "easy problem" seems to be everything we can explain using biology, and the "hard problem" is the overarching principle, which he reasons that no amount of evidence would appropriately explain.

Dr. Daniel Dennett discusses this in his paper "Facing Backwards on the Problem of Consciousness". He compares Chalmers' attempt to separate the problems as to a vitilist, speaking to a microbiologist:
The easy problems of life include those of explaining the following phenomena: reproduction, development, growth, metabolism, self-repair, immunological self-defense, . . . . These are not all that easy, of course, and it may take another century or so to work out the fine points, but they are easy compared to the really hard problem: life itself. We can imagine something that was capable of reproduction, development, growth, metabolism, self-repair and immunological self-defense, but that wasn't, you know, alive. The residual mystery of life would be untouched by solutions to all the easy problems. In fact, when I read your accounts of life, I am left feeling like the victim of a bait-and-switch.

It is frustrating, as a fan of the scientific method, to see people who are so quick to cling to what it cannot yet explain, when we have explained so much. It is so easy to say that we cannot explain it, so we should just stop trying, instead labeling it as a law. And sadly it seems that "Facing Up To the Problem of Consciousness" is trying to do just that. Dennett cites an unpublished paper by John Roberts which says:
"when we ask what data are driving him [Chalmers] to introduce this concept, the answer is disappointing: It is a belief in a fundamental phenomenon of 'experience'. The introduction of the concept does not do any explanatory work. The evidential argument is circular."

Even ignoring the flaws in Chalmers' proposal, a lack of concrete biological explanation should not to fuel the assumption that we can simply create a force behind the phenomenon. It is a classical case of an argument from ignorance. Just because we have not found the source of experience, does not mean in anyway that there is any reason to assume that this would indicate that there is no explanation, or that we should create explanations.

Our experiences of the world are slowly being explained, and science is certainly the medium discovering the truth. The dualist perspective which would somehow separate our experiences of the world from our physiological being, seems hinged to a need to feel special, as if we are not simply neurons firing away. And yet we have no reason to assume we are anything more.

Four hundred years ago, Descartes was cutting edge when he announced that the soul was located in the pineal gland. Less than two hundred years ago Theodore Schwann and Matthias Schleiden proposed Cell Theory. It is only in the last few decades that we have begun to understand the roll of the lymbic system in memory and emotion.

I can't help but feel that this implication that we should decide that human experience is inexplicable through entirely physiological processes is to play traitor to all the evidence the scientific method has brought us.

Note: Although sparked by a recent blog-a-logue, this post has no influence or relevence to that discussion. I am happy to debate and discuss my thoughts here, but these thoughts are simply the result of reading Chalmers' paper, and not an attempt to refute unrelated points.

1 comment:

Blue Devil Knight said...

Consciousness is strange, as some people feel the pull of the problem while others balk (Dennett is at the top of that list).

Chalmers' problem with all the purported neuro-explanations of conscious experience is that it is easy to imagine a system with those same properties without any accompanying experience. E.g., consider one hypothesis: consciousness is implemented by coherent 40Hz oscillations in the cerebral cortex. That is interesting, but where is the feeling of red? Where is the experience of orgasm? Would a martian armed with this theory be able to predict the types of experiences we have? (Or, to steal from Nagel, does it tell us what it is like to be a bat?)

I'm fine with all the neurophysiology. Neurophysiology kicks ass! But right now it seems to not have the conceptual resources to meet up with the first-person experience, the phenomenology.

I agree with you that Chalmers goes too far, trying to turn this conceptual gap into an ontological gap. After all, there is a conceptual gap between 'electrostatic discharge' and 'lightning' but that doesn't mean they aren't the same thing! However, in the case of lightning/electricity, we have an intelligible story about how the two conceptual spaces connect. With experience and 40Hz oscillations it seems different. Chalmers exploits this by going a bit too far, but he is really good at clearly expressing the nature of the gaps in a way that is more sensitive to science than the other anti-materialists out there.

My hunch is that our concept of experience and our concepts from neuroscience will both evolve until it is intelligible how they interface with one another.

Right now it's like being an evolutionist before 1859--sure I'm probably right in my bionaturalism, but I don't have a biologically plausible story to tell you yet, so until the science rolls along a bit more, I'll try to be tolerant. People that believe conscious experience cannot be explained by neuroscience are certainly not going directly against any evidence or well-established theories (i.e., Chalmers is nowhere near Behe in the nutball spectrum).

For such reasons I'm less dismissive of Chalmers' positive story. Since experience is so strange, it may require strange conceptual revolutions on a par with quantum mechanics. E.g., the hypothesis that experience is a fundamental property of certain subatomic processes in the universe, processes which are distilled and condensed in evolution, coming together in brains to give rise to the most wonderful experiences of all.

My money is on the biology, but part of me finds panpsychism romantic.