[FoRK] The State of Consciousness Studies
<lionkimbro at gmail.com> on
Mon Jul 9 22:32:02 PDT 2007
Here is, as far as I see it, a rough outline of the state of
the study of Consciousness. I'm just putting this together
on the spot, so expect neither miracles, completeness,
nor correct spelling of names.
<< this >> means paraphrasing, "this means literal quote."
Broad Sweeping Generalization on the Sociology of the Study of Consciousness:
* <<Consciousness doesn't really exist.>> -- Daniel Dennett
* <<Consciousness is not explained,
and we should study and think about that.>> -- Chalmers
* Consciousness is a God of the Gaps thing.
Consciousness will fall to science, if it hasn't already,
as part of the continuous crushing of religion by science.
-- "Science Rising" story
* Consciousness is really mysterious, and damn, it'd be
really neat if we could figure things out about it; If only
we weren't being bugged by all these people who insist
it doesn't exist.
-- "What am I?" story
My personal inquiry, and the inquiry of a number of my peers,
is, "What am I?"
The inquiry of a number of people, is the question, "How do we
best finally rid ourselves of the fables of religion?" (An effort that
I basically support.)
Naturally, there is a butting of heads between the two.
The problem isn't that there's a reasonable disagreement;
Rather, the problem is that the two sides aren't even talking about
the same things, nor has an interest even in even talking about the
same thing, save in very narrow regions of overlap.
People who are interested in "What am I?" are absolutely bored
to tears of descriptions of the mechanics of how shapes are rotated
in the brain. The "Science Rising" people can't get enough of it.
As soon as the "What am I?" crowd starts to describe what exactly
it is that they're talking about, the "Science Rising" crew starts to
lose attention, and zone out.
As far as I can tell, it's not a failure of reason and rationality; Rather,
it's a failure of misaligned motivation. The people on the one side
want to understand what they are, the people on the other side keep
just want to make sure you're not talking about anything spiritual
or other-worldly. They can confuse or ignore whatever they like, because
they have no actual inquiry into their self-nature; Rather, they just
want to make sure that you're ridding yourself of religious fables.
Dennett, Francis Crick, it's quite clear.
Most of scientific society has no conscious agenda, really,
(aside from vague distrust of agendas,) and yet they in general
induce into the same basic stream of thinking.
Important Questions in the Study of Consciousness
The most important question right now, as far as I can tell, is:
"How is it that we're having this conversation about Consciousness?"
That is, if epiphenominalism is true, then there should be no trace
of the epiphenominon within the system.
This would imply interactionist dualism ("Consciousness
over matter," or David Chalmers "Class D dualism,") or Conscious
Monism ("Matter is intrinsicly conscious," or "All information is
conscious," Chalmer's Class F Monism,) ...
That said, it could also include Class E epiphenominalism, if we
take the "radio" story, that Jaron Lanier has championed. This is
the view that the epiphenomenon does not affect the world, but it
does get a say in which channel it picks from the radio of
mathematically possible worlds. Perhap's it's Max Tegmark's
radio of mathematically possible worlds.
Earnestly, there are no real good answers, just lots of bad ones,
that bust balls whichever one you choose. And, no, "simple materialism"
doesn't do, because, hey, we're conscious, even though you're rather
believe that we're not. Well, at least I'm conscious, and that's enough
for me. The rest can choose to erase your existence from your minds
however you like.
Fortunately, and the reason I say this is the most important question,
is this: We can actually trace this one.
We can put the debugger on our universe, perhaps using nanites or
something, and track back: "What patterns of neural firings are those,
that are representing the word, "Consciousness?" ""
And you want to find those separate nodes in the brain for "Consciousness1"
vs. "Consciousness2." You want to find the one that's talking about
"actual experience," rather than the one that's talking about
"processing in the
brain," and so on.
And then, what you want to do, is you want to run the debugger
*backwards.* You want one of those omniscient debuggers, that keep a
And -- that might not be possible, so -- you might have to perform some
unethical experiments on children. You might have to introduce
nanites into the brain, to find out, "Where did this concept of consciousness
as something distinct from just processing, -- where did that come from?"
When did the brain first start forming those patterns of thought?
This may be difficult, but it's not "hard" in the sense of "the hard problem."
Rather, instead, this is all "easy problem of consciousness" work. It's just
labor, and it could, in theory, (provided the engineering of nanites work out,
and that neurons are, by engineering, observable, and I think that they
should be,) be done, and an answer could, in theory, be found.
From there, you should be able to narrow down some possibilities about
We are philosophers, and can gedankenize and so on.
Let's ask ourselves, "What kinds of things might we find out?"
1. "It's nothing. There's nothing there."
- that is, we could find out that there is no separate distinction
between consciousness1 and consciousness2; There's just
consciousness, and some people making up something just
because they've been so persuaded by religious nuttery.
2. "There's a pattern that is formed out of the swirl of
chaos. It doesn't form in all brains, but it does form in quite
a few of them."
- This is an interesting possibility, more on this in a bit.
3. "The notion of consciousness1 vs. consciousness2 is a
strange, but persistent error."
- This could be evidence of dualist interactionism.
I personally doubt it'd go this way, but, there it is.
4. This test is impossible. Thoughts "don't work like that."
Instead, there's some sort of cloud of obscurity, like looking
for the positions and speeds of particles, or something hokey
- I doubt it, but it's conceivable.
The most interesting of these possibilities, is #1.
The least interesting of these possibilities, is #4,
if it means, "We can't really look at what's happening
at the level of thought, in the brain."
#1 would, for the untrained scientists mind, seem to prove,
"Well, there it is, dag nabbit-- You're not REALLY Consciousness,
and I've got yer data, to PROVE it to you!"
Well, thanks for the tip, but it does no such thing.
You forget that my consciousness is axiomatic to me.
It can't be countered.
(This is part of how I "hook language coordinates" with other people,
who, quite independently, have also discovered "What do you mean
by Consciousness." That is, we enumerate properties that this
thing has, and then we say, "Oh, I agree, yes, I agree, yes,
I know something that goes by that description, too," and then
with sufficient agreement of properties, we say, "That's it! We're
talking about the same thing!" Those who can't follow the description,
can't identify it.
Anyways, this "axiomatic, undoubtable" nature, is one of those
So, if #1 turned out to be true, then I could, very confidently say,
"The universe is a joke, and it's trying to hide itself from me."
Except that I, and others like me, know the joke, and the cover is blown.
Good evidence that we live in the Matrix, or a dream, or something
like that. It's not real, it's just a cool set.
That'd be a *really neat discovery.*
Unfortunately, we'd hear no end of it from the ridiculous,
"Consciousness isn't real" crowd. Whatever. You can't
please everybody. So, the rest of the time living in the inescapable
"joke" might be a little bit miserable.
#2 is the "it's a chaotic formation" thing.
That'd be interesting evidence pointing towards...
...nothing. It could be class D, E, or F monism.
But perhaps the "consciousness isn't weird" crowd might subdue.
#3 is the "magical universe" thing.
Dualism would probably true, and interactionist dualism,
"The worst kind," at that. NOW we'd have to go and apologize
to all the crazies.
I personally see this as the least likely. But, hey; Who knows,
it could happen.
One interesting thing to note, here, though, is that we would have
**STILL** not solved the hard problem of consciousness..!
You would **still** not know if anyone, other than yourself, was
Rather, you'd just have evidence that there's some kind of
super-dimensional machinery, that was responsive to, and
poking information back into, this dimension. "But is that machinery
conscious?" You'd still have no way of knowing.
Even if it could reveal itself to us by glowing golden radiant white light
and by singing songs that filled our hearts with divine warm golden
love, and you heard harps and lutes and bagpipes and bells and so
on, and your dead relatives came back to greet you through this light
-- you'd still have no freakin' CLUE whether it was actually conscious
or not. Not epistemologically speaking, at least. You just couldn't
Any belief in the consciousness of an "other" is purely an induction.
And we can't show our "credentials" to anybody else, no matter
how advanced their technology.
Such is the state of things.
More information about the FoRK