Crazyism and Consciousness

This week I attended a talk sponsored by the Center for the Explanation of Consciousness at Stanford University on “Crazyism about Consciousness and Morality,” by Eric Schwitzgebel. Eric is a philosopher at the University of California at Riverside. I’ve appreciated his work for some time, and I quote him in Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You.

“Crazyism” about consciousness is the claim that to understand consciousness we will need to accept some idea that currently seems bizarre (bonkers, ludicrous, off the wall, ‘round the bend) and that has not yet been proven to be true. We do not yet know which crazy idea about consciousness will solve its deepest mysteries. We may not have even thought of it yet! But until we accept it, we will be totally unable to understand conscious experience.

As Schwitzgebel wrote in Perplexities of Consciousness, “it became evident in the late twentieth century … that all metaphysical accounts of consciousness will have some highly counterintuitive consequences. … Something apparently preposterous, it seems, must be true of consciousness.”*

Eric told us that he likes to open up new possibilities, to expand the range of alternatives. Many philosophers try to do the opposite. They concentrate on eliminating incorrect ideas, so as to zero in on The Truth. I tend to do this myself. I want to keep “cutting to the chase,” pushing to the bottom line, aiming for the bullseye. This attitude is often helpful, but Schwitzgebel’s work helps keep me from being too confident about my own pet theories.

I haven’t space to recap the arguments he marshalled for crazyism, but they were impressive, and I mostly agree with them. In my own work I’ve emphasized the idea that we make crucial mistakes in understanding our own minds, and that these errors make consciousness seem stranger than it really is. More broadly, we need to re-evaluate the relationship between:

What’s so

Our beliefs about what’s so

The words we use to express these beliefs

Many of our beliefs about consciousness are based on introspection. If there’s something kooky about our concept of consciousness, perhaps something has gone awry in our introspection-based judgments. So in what ways does introspection inform us about consciousness, and in what ways does it mislead us? In Your Living Mind I wrote:

 

For now, it seems likely that we usually do well at detecting, recognizing, and noticing changes in conscious sensory perceptions, including particular qualia. Sometimes we also make helpful comparisons among qualia. But we often make mistakes about other aspects of our experiences. Here are some errors that are particularly common and pernicious:

  1. Confusing our experiences with our judgments about experiences
  2. Thinking introspection reveals the internal structure of experiences
  3. Thinking introspection reveals the essential nature of experiences**

 

What do you think? By re-assessing introspection can we deliver ourselves from crazyism about consciousness? Your comments are welcome!

Roger Christan Schriner

*Schwitzgebel, Perplexities of Consciousness, p. x.

**Schriner, Your Living Mind, p. 155.

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An Aggravating Mystery Named Mary

For the past few weeks I’ve been posting comments about some of the deepest mysteries of consciousness. I’ve been focusing particularly on “qualia,” the qualities of sensory experiences such as colors, sounds, tastes, and pains. In 1982 Frank Jackson published a paper called “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” following up in 1986 with “What Mary Didn’t Know.” In the past three decades more than a thousand scholarly papers and several books have responded to these articles. Jackson’s two little essays seem to have hit a very big nerve.

Jackson eventually decided that his argument was flawed, but many believe he was right the first time and should never have recanted. So here is Jackson’s conundrum, as I understand it:

Imagine that we can peer into the distant future, hundreds of millions of years from now. Science has advanced so far that many fields of study are essentially complete. And biotechnology has expanded our memory and intelligence so that a single individual can understand everything there is to know about some complicated subject. One of these people is Mary, a neuroscientist who knows all that can ever be known about color experiences by studying their physical aspects. Mary has soaked up everything about the physical aspects of color perception that books, teachers, and information technology can possibly tell anyone – but Mary has never seen a color. She grew up in a black-and white room, she was prevented from looking at her own skin, etc. Then one day she is released from her colorless home, free to see the whole range of hues for the very first time.

Let’s say that the first colorful thing Mary sees is a garden full of dazzling red roses. And here is the crucial question: When she sees a red rose for the first time, does Mary gain new knowledge? Jackson claimed that she does, and he cooked up the Mary scenario because at that time he was a dualist. Dualists believe that mind and matter are two very different sorts of stuff, and Mary helped Jackson argue that mind is not matter. He claimed that after her release Mary gains new knowledge over and above the complete physical knowledge she already possessed. She learns what colors are as we experience them.

If all things are physical, including our visual experiences, and Mary already knew everything about the physical aspects of color perception, then she would not have learned anything new when she walked into that garden. But if she did learn something new when she actually experienced color, then our experiences of color are not physical. They are not made of matter, and do not occur within the brain. This also implies that qualia in general are not physical.

“Physicalism” (sometimes called materialism) claims that everything that exists is made of physical matter, and so any facts about things that exist are facts about physical things. But Jackson’s argument implies that knowledge of physical facts is not complete knowledge, because after her release Mary learns new facts over and above the complete physical knowledge she already possessed. Therefore, physicalism is false.

So what do you think? Was Jackson’s argument correct? If not, what’s wrong with it?

Perhaps more importantly, do you see why this thought experiment is so challenging? Why has it stimulated so much discussion? When I have led workshops for the public on consciousness, many participants have a hard time understanding that it’s the qualities of conscious experience that are difficult to explain physically. Until one sees the depth of this problem, the mystery of consciousness may seem soluble, even trivial. Soluble it may be. Trivial it’s not.

Roger Christan Schriner

The Dreaded “Hard Problem”

I’ve been posting thoughts about “qualia,” the qualities of sensory experience. Qualia figure prominently in one of the most baffling enigmas even discussed, and the history of this issue is wonderfully described by Oliver Burkeman. I’ll quote some of his essay, but I urge you to read the whole thing:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/21/-sp-why-cant-worlds-greatest-minds-solve-mystery-consciousness

“One spring morning in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, an unknown philosopher named David Chalmers got up to give a talk on consciousness…. the young Australian academic was about to [discuss] a central mystery of human life – perhaps the central mystery of human life – and revealing how embarrassingly far they were from solving it.

“The scholars gathered at the University of Arizona … knew they were doing something edgy: in many quarters, consciousness was still taboo, too weird and new agey to take seriously, and some of the scientists in the audience were risking their reputations by attending. Yet the first two talks that day, before Chalmers’s, hadn’t proved thrilling. ‘Quite honestly, they were totally unintelligible and boring – I had no idea what anyone was talking about,’ recalled Stuart Hameroff, the Arizona professor responsible for the event. … ‘But then the third talk, right before the coffee break – that was Dave.’ With his long, straggly hair and fondness for all-body denim, the 27-year-old Chalmers looked like he’d got lost en route to a Metallica concert. … ‘But then he speaks. And that’s when everyone wakes up.’

“The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all ‘easy problems’, … given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, … why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? …’

“What jolted Chalmers’s audience from their torpor was how he had framed the question. ‘At the coffee break, … everyone was like: “Oh! The Hard Problem! The Hard Problem! That’s why we’re here!”’

Here’s one way of considering this issue. Suppose in the distant future neuroscience has discovered precisely which brain structures and processes are correlated with specific conscious experiences. They can even read people’s minds: Experimental subject C79 reports that she is recalling a teenage love affair. But a brain scanning machine had already printed out a report, just before C79 spoke: “subject is remembering a high school sweetheart.” Isn’t it clear that we now understand the neural basis of consciousness? Aren’t the neural structures and activities that the scanner detected simply identical to the memory-experience that C79 reported?

Not necessarily. We need to know why this configuration of neural structures and activities constitutes consciousness. “Even if every behavioral and cognitive function related to consciousness were explained,” writes Chalmers, “there would still remain a further mystery: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by conscious experience? It is this additional question that makes the hard problem hard.”*

Next: the menace of philosophical zombies.

Roger Christan Schriner

*Cited by Uriah Kriegel, Subjective Consciousness: A Self-Representational Theory, p. 271, emphasis added.

Opening a Window into Philosophy of Mind

No doubt there are still cocktail-party conversations about Descartes, Nietzsche, and Sartre, but I wonder how many Bordeaux-sipping intellectuals discuss Dretske, Nagel, and Kripke. The relationship between academic philosophy and the general public is nearly non-existent. Professors mostly speak to each other, in a technical language full of confusing terms with multiple definitions – “qualia,” “intentionality,” “representationalism,” “epiphenomenalism,” and so on. A few, such as Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey, have written for a wider audience, but most seem comfortable remaining within their own ivory towers.

I have been a member of the American Philosophical Association for nearly 25 years, reading books and professional journals and regularly attending conferences and colloquia. So I have spent years as the proverbial fly on the wall, listening to professorial interchanges within these lofty retreats. I am impressed with the need for competent philosophical analysis, and one of my life goals is to open a window into contemporary philosophy of mind for interested non-philosophers.

But I have sincerely wondered whether this is possible. When I tell people about my book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You, I cannot sum it up in a sound bite. In the book itself, it takes the Introduction and the first five chapters just to explain the key problems.

Last Sunday, however, I had a very encouraging experience. I presented Part One of a workshop called Your Mysterious Mind: New Insights into Baffling Enigmas at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. The program concludes with Part Two on February 15. About 35 showed up, an excellent turnout for an early Sunday afternoon program, and participants seemed interested and engaged.

It was especially heartening to see that some attendees had an intuitive feel for the problem of consciousness and its possible solutions. One person (“K”) dealt with Frank Jackson’s Mary-scenario by proposing what academicians call the ability hypothesis – after seeing colors for the first time, Mary acquires new abilities but does not acquire new facts. “M” suggested that sensory experiences are memories, perhaps implying that they involve cognitive responses to recent (not current) perceptual inputs. And “E,” who has a strong science background, wondered whether some consciousness-conundrums are merely pseudo-problems. I could imagine Daniel Dennett cheering her on: “Right! There isn’t any special Problem of Consciousness. There just seems to be.”

I’m under no illusions that conveying contemporary philosophy of mind will be easy, but I am now more hopeful that my project will make a positive difference.

Roger Christan Schriner

Are You Trapped Within Your Thoughts? Here’s a Way to Savor Your Senses

Today I’ll say more about the difference between having a conscious experience and just thinking about it. When I was working as a psychotherapist I noticed that people seemed to live in their concepts instead of in the flow of their own sensual experiences. When asked, “What are you feeling now?” clients would often say how they had usually felt in similar circumstances, how they thought they should feel, how they imagined that most people would feel, what they thought I wanted them to say they felt, how they had generally been feeling in the past few minutes, or what sort of feeling they thought others would applaud. Few were able to tap into the detailed, second-by-second flow of their own stream of awareness.

A woman might initially say, “I feel sad,” for example, but after carefully focusing on her experience she might discover to her own surprise that she was mainly feeling angry. (Perhaps she was taught by her parents that good girls don’t get mad.) Her beliefs about how things seemed to her experientially were quite different from her actual state of mind. Incidently, this could be one cause of the placebo effect. When people expect an inert “drug” to ameliorate their symptoms, they often report that it does. This may be partly because they are not competently monitoring their own sensations. They are living more in their concepts than in their own bodies.

I observe – I assume. This technique from Gestalt Therapy helps us “come to our senses.” It can be practiced in many different situations, but at first try using it in situations where you can observe other people without distraction. Sitting in a restaurant or watching TV are two excellent opportunities. Look at someone unobtrusively and notice something you observe about that individual. Then notice what you are assuming, inferring, or speculating about this person. “I observe that he is wearing a tie. I assume he is a rather formal fellow.” “I observe that she is wearing a red blouse; she probably likes that shade of red.” “I observe that he is laughing; I speculate that he has a nice sense of humor.”

Continue alternating between things you observe and things you guess or assume. See if you can catch yourself confusing an assumption for an observation. For example, “I observe that she is sleepy” is false. You aren’t inside of her head and you can’t be sure sleepiness is what she is experiencing. “I observe her yawning, and I assume she is sleepy” would be correct. But she might be bored. By practicing this technique you can begin to see how much of what we take as obvious facts are merely conjectures. It is remarkably easy to live within our concepts instead of our actual experiences.

Roger Christan Schriner

Your Living Mind

I apologize for neglecting this blog. Ironically, the thing that has prevented me from continuing it was the fact that I have been writing a book about consciousness! I’ve now finished my sixth and most challenging book project, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. I’ll paste text from the book’s back cover below my signature line.

It may be a few weeks before I catch up enough with mundane matters to get back to blogging, but I look forward to resuming The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters.

Roger Christan Schriner

Your Living Mind was written for several kinds of readers.
Do any of these statements fit for you?

❁ You want to develop a well-crafted personal philosophy of life. Understanding consciousness is part of that quest.
❁ You want to learn about yourself, to know who and what you are.
❁ You have been interested in the “big questions” of philosophy and psychology, and you’d like to revisit this sort of reflection.
❁ You find it fascinating to learn about the mind and the brain.
❁ You have already explored contemporary consciousness studies, and you enjoy playing with new ideas about “philosophical zombies” and other enigmas.

This book confronts the most bewildering puzzles in philosophy of mind. You will find out how dedicated scholars have struggled with these riddles, apparently without success. You will also have opportunities to reflect and experiment yourself, and to evaluate the author’s proposed solutions. Your Living Mind explains subtle ideas in straightforward language, minimizing technical jargon. Issues are clarified with illustrations, diagrams, and specific examples.

Available on Amazon.com:
http://www.amazon.com/Your-Living-Mind-Mystery-Consciousness/dp/0984584013/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1412313451&sr=1-1&keywords=your+living+mind+schriner

Right-there! The “Presence” of Conscious Experience

In my previous post I mentioned that some experiences seem present in a way that’s hard to explain or even articulate. This is especially true of perceptions and sensations. One way to grasp this slippery notion is to realize that a great deal of the time we are noticing what’s passing through our minds in a way that seems like a discovery of something tangible. We do this continually while we are awake and even when we’re dreaming.

Obviously many of our beliefs are not based on noticing anything tangible. At any moment during daylight hours I have good grounds for believing that somewhere in Chicago a family is having a nasty argument. Out of a population of over a million people, the odds of that are overwhelming, even though I am not now actually observing a family squabble. Similarly, I have various opinions about what is happening in my own unconscious mind, and the conscious minds of others, although I do not notice, detect, or monitor these mental states. On the other hand, I notice my own sensory experiences as they occur. They seem right-here-now. It also seems as if I can examine them, in a way that’s a bit like examining a physical object. I can think about Paris while I’m in Madrid, but when I’m actually experiencing Paris I see, hear, smell, feel, and taste that city.

Manifest experiences seem to be obviously real. It would be strange to say, “I am conscious of a searing pain in my left side, but I’m not sure if I am now in a pain-state.” Normally the manifest presence of pain tells you this pain is real – real in your mind regardless of whether any pain-signals are coming from your body. It is as if all sensuous experiences contain an added message. “I’m here, I’m real, pay attention to me!” they insist, and we have little choice but to obey.

The manifest presence of experience seems to be one of the key differences between conscious and unconscious entities. We do not think paper clips or hot dogs have states in which something is manifest to an experiencing self. But try to figure out how the brain – or any information-processing system whatsoever – could constitute a state that is manifestly present. Chronic insomnia is a possible side effect of actually attempting to solve this conundrum. But it’s extremely important, and many puzzles about the nature of consciousness are satellites of this basic enigma.

Notice that when philosophers and scientists write about consciousness, they are often talking a about mental states that seem present to an experiencing self. But we are also conscious of our own thoughts, and many scholars say that thoughts are not manifestly present, at least not in the same way as sensations and perceptions. More about that on another day.

Roger Christan Schriner

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