Demystifying Sensuous Experience

My previous post considered one of the most mysterious aspects of consciousness, the qualities of sensory experience – sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and physical sensations. It has been incredibly difficult to show how these could be physical states – brain states, for example.

One of the problems is that we understand physical states through science, and science deals with quantities, not qualities. Sensory qualia seem to be another sort of beast entirely. But that may not be as puzzling as it seems. After all, when humans think about their own experiences, it would make perfect sense for them to categorize mental states in qualitative terms when they are actually quantitative. In order to survive, we had to evolve the ability to very quickly tell one thing from another. In the jungle, we needed to distinguish ripe bananas from the green leaves that surrounded them, and from the viper gliding nearby. Thus the visual information profiles of yellow, green, and black must be represented differently in our minds.

Colors, sounds, tastes, scents, and body sensations must also contrast with each other. We would become discombobulated, for example, if tactile sensations suddenly seemed like part of the visual field. So sensory inputs must be clearly “labeled.” So neural activities that constitute sensory phenomena could be clustered into families and sub-families that we automatically think of in qualitative terms. Science, of course, would analyze these same brain states by making quantitative measurements of neural functioning. So the seemingly qualitative nature of sensations and perceptions could be accommodated by science.

Philosophers often say that sensory experiences are like something. So one way of asking what the person sitting next to you is experiencing is to ask what it is like to be that person right now. Presumably there is something it is like to be that individual, but how is that related to what your experiences are like? In particular, are your qualia the same?

I imagine most of us as children wondered about whether some people’s color experiences might be unusual or even reversed. And academicians worry about the possibility of inverted spectra, meaning that your color spectrum might be reversed, relative to mine. Perhaps when you look at a ripe banana the color you see is the same color I call “blue,” and when you look at the sky on a smog-free day you experience what I call “yellow.” It seems intuitively as if this sort of thing is possible. But is it? What do you think?

Roger Christan Schriner

Advertisements

More on the Elusive NCC

Earlier this month I discussed the difficulty of finding the NCC, the neural correlates of consciousness. It is extremely hard to know which aspects of a brain’s activity constitute (or generate) conscious processes and which are the unconscious accompaniments of our conscious experiences. Those who are interested in this problem may want to read “Why the Neural Correlates of Consciousness Cannot be Found,” by Bernard Molyneux (Journal of Consciousness Studies, No. 9–10, 2010).

Molyneux asks whether we can discover “the perfect correlate of consciousness – the neural events that occur, in both normal and abnormal circumstances, when and only when consciousness is present. However, consciousness correlates not only with the NCC but also with its causes, its consequences and with other associated states. Hence, to determine the true NCC, we need to drive these states apart to see which one consciousness tracks, by holding one constant while obliterating its usual correlates”(p. 169). I don’t think we need to “obliterate” any brain states to study consciousness, but I agree with Molyneux that it is very hard “to distinguish the ‘one true’ NCC from closely associated phenomena” (p. 169).

I’m not ready to give up on finding the NCC. So many times in the history of science some pundit has declared that we will never be able to discover such-and-such, and 50 years later we do. And Molyneux does seem to admit that there’s a ray of hope: “… the problem demands a greater appreciation of when a seeming dispute between NCC researchers cannot be empirically settled, and calls for a more perfect philosophical explication of what exactly it is that we can hope to find when we set out to look for the (rather than a) neural correlate of consciousness” (p. 169). Very true, and this is an example of the practical relevance of philosophy.

Roger Christan Schriner

The Complexity Trap

It’s hard to prove that the conscious mind is located in the brain. One problem is that both mind and brain are incredibly complicated, and it’s hard to map one sort of complexity onto the other. Popular media sometimes imply that science has accomplished this feat, but this isn’t so.

Suppose we ask subjects to visualize a square, then a circle, then a square again, while their brains are scanned for signs of neural activity. And suppose this experiment enables us to print out colorful pictures showing that brain regions 1-2-3 are especially active while subjects visualize squares, and regions 4-5-6 are especially active while they’re imagining circles. Does this show that the experience of fantasizing squareness is located in 1-2-3 and fantasizing circularity is located in 4-5-6?

Not at all. It’s a start, but barely that, and I’ll just mention two of the many difficulties.

1. How much of a lit-up region is the experience of the item, and how much of it is a motley assortment of non-experiential accompaniments? Visualizing a square may call up all sorts of associations with square items and with the word “square” – square meal, square deal, square mile, and “you’re so square.” Perhaps activity in linguistic regions involves verbal associations only, and is never part of the mental image itself. Perhaps. But we don’t know for sure.

2. It’s also hard to know which aspects of a brain’s activity are conscious processes and which are the unconscious accompaniments. A great deal of the brain’s visual processing, for example, never reaches the level of awareness.

Someday we may be able to detect precisely which neural activities constitute, say, a visual experience of seeing a single cherry blossom, but this will certainly not be easy. Compare the task of identifying precisely which electromagnetic waves in the signal from a TV satellite constitute an image of the seams of a football being passed during the last five seconds of the 2015 Superbowl. We assume that this part of the video signal is a physical event, and our inability to precisely specify it does not make us philosophically puzzled. But the difficulty of knowing just which brain activities constitute a particular experience may make us wonder whether this experience could be in the brain. Complexity confuses us, so beware of the complexity trap.

I recall a lecture in which the speaker announced that he was going to display his model of the neural correlates of consciousness, or NCC. The NCC is whatever cluster of neural activities correlates with conscious experiences, and finding such a correlation would be a big step toward showing that experiences are constituted by neural processes. He then showed us a diagram with about 50 arrows going in all sorts of directions.

He was joking, of course, because we have no idea how to sketch the NCC. We need to remind ourselves that the brain is much more complex than we can comprehend, and that we are in this convoluted mish-mash.

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

Returning to Consciousness

I’m returning to this blog after taking several weeks off. Ironically, I stopped writing posts because I was too busy working on a book about consciousness, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. The book should be out this summer.

In my last post I talked about the debate between externalists and internalists. When we speak of conscious experiences, are we talking about our own states of mind or are we talking about things in the outside world that we’re consciously perceiving?

And could it be both? Could one and the same experience tell us about both the outside world and our own minds? Obviously it’s possible to detect two or more things by focusing on the same item. Think about a TV newscast. By watching it, you are monitoring (1) its content (what it’s telling you about world affairs), (2) the screen images which help convey this content, and (3) with old low-resolution TVs, the dotty little pixels that make up these images.

So a single stream of stimuli can tell us about several different things. Could it be that a multiple-detection process of some sort is occurring in consciousness? Perhaps sensory experiences are in some sense both inner and outer states (or processes). Even so, we run into trouble if we use this approach to answer the basic question, what are conscious experiences made of? Contrast these two claims:

❁ Seeing a giraffe gives me information about both what’s happening inside of my head and what’s happening in the outside world. I can tell that I am perceiving this animal in a certain way (seeing it clearly or fuzzily, for example), and I can also tell that there’s a giraffe in front of me.
❁ The stuff that I detect when I pay attention to the experience of seeing a giraffe is both the giraffe itself and a visual experience of that beast.

The second claim, which says what this experience is, just sounds silly. Tall spotted creatures and mental events in human heads are very different kinds of things. How could one thing actually be both of these? Compare: “I now see a red shape on my TV screen. This shape is both a screen image of a fire truck and the fire truck itself.” It seems more fitting to say that I’m seeing a screen image which I imaginatively experience as a fire truck.

If this tall creature I see IS both a visual state and a humongous mammal, we must be dealing with two different senses of “is.” So in what ways could this experience be something inside of the experiencer, and in what ways could it be something out there in the world? What do you think?

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to this blog, click the “Follow” link which is typically located on the upper left.

The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters

This is the first entry of a new blog dealing with deep puzzles about the nature of consciousness. I will be exploring issues that will be addressed in more detail in my forthcoming book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. My main focus will be the question of whether it is possible that conscious experiences are brain events.

If you are already convinced that the mind is wedged in between our ears, don’t be too sure that this is obvious. The puzzles involved are far more profound than I realized when I first immersed myself in this issue in the early 1990’s. How could a sensuous experience – the tingle of a caress, the scent of lilacs, the sight of day-glo orange – occur within a brain? Some brilliant scholars have concluded that we can never answer this question satisfactorily.

The basis of their skepticism varies according to their theoretical orientation. But they all agree that it is extremely difficult to show that sensory experiences are brain activities in a way that makes this understandable. Their pessimism involves more than just the worry that consciousness and neural dynamics are too complicated for us to grasp at this time. They believe that understanding how perceptual experiences occur within the brain is virtually impossible in principle, either because experiences do not occur within the brain or because we can never understand how they could.

This blog will wrestle with the remarkable issues associated with this conundrum, trying to show how the conscious mind could, in principle, exist within the brain.

I would appreciate candid feedback about my ideas, partly because I realize that communicating clearly about consciousness is remarkably difficult. Whenever you read something in this blog that seems muddled or confusing, please let me know. Thanks for your interest in The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to this blog, click the “Follow” link which is typically located on the upper left.