I have never been a fan of the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. In part, this is probably because I never have considered myself a philosopher. While, like most people, I have some “philosophical” ideas, philosophy itself as a formal, academic discipline always has seemed like an elaborate form of intellectual activity serving no practical purpose. Count me a pragmatist if we must pick a philosophical word, I am more interested in science and results than elaborately spun arguments which seem to turn back on themselves in the end. I have written previously about the “hard problem” which I consider something of a trap for scientists (armchair or otherwise) since in my opinion it is inherently unanswerable. We cannot answer why red is red or green is green any more than we can answer why there is something rather than nothing. Many neuroscientists seem to suspect the problem is unsolvable and avoid it altogether. This does not seem to stop some physicists and other scientists from trying to solve it with a “just physics and chemistry” answer while omitting almost all of the in-betweens, leaving consciousness almost as much of a mystery as the philosophers.
While I think the exact and rigid form of the “hard problem” is unsolvable (and probably meaningless), that does not mean that I think a weaker form of the problem might not be meaningful. Give me some explanation how qualia, which seem very immaterial, arise from matter. Certainly the “just physics and chemistry” answer is inadequate, even if it is ultimately correct, because we can explain everything the same way. Neuroscientists, for the most part, barely improve on that answer when they answer it is “just neurons firing”. “Just neurons firing”, like “just physics and chemistry”, will likely be ultimately correct but it does not tell me the important thing: how do neurons firing result in something that looks like our experience? It does not do enough to fill the gap between electrochemical activity in a piece of meat to something that looks to us on the inside like what we call mind.
For the most part, neuroscientists have been disappointing in their answers.
Until now. I have now read an interesting explanation that at least provides some plausible “in-betweens” even if it does not have all the answers. What is more, it was written in book published nearly twenty years ago.
The book is I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self by Rodolfo R. Llinás. Llinás is a professor at the NYU School of Medicine. He has had a long career with numerous publications and credits for scientific contributions. He even has a law named after him: Llinás’s law or law of no interchangeability of neurons.
Llinás believes the brain and nervous system developed to enable intelligent locomotion. The brain’s ability to predict the outcome of future events – actions by the body itself –was central to its evolutionary development. Without intelligent locomotion, based on prediction, an organism could not find food or avoid becoming food. For Llinás the brain is a reality emulator. It is closed system. Llinás writes:
It is primarily a self-activating system, one whose organization is geared towards the generation of intrinsic images… the central nervous system must have developed over evolutionary time as a neuronal network that initially handled very simple connectivity relations between sensory and motor systems. As the nervous system evolved, the constraints generated by the coordinate system that describe the body were slowly embedded into a functional space within the nervous system.
Llinás looks to the oscillating patterns of neurons firing synchronously as central to how the brain works. He believes organisms come pre-wired to a considerable extent with the patterns needed to move the body, to understand and interact with the world. Learning is about selecting and tweaking the pre-existing patterns, modifying them based on experience in the world.
While many neuroscientists hardly mention consciousness or subjectivity, Llinás takes the question head on:
Is subjectivity necessary at all? Why is it not just enough to see and react, as robot might do? What advantage is conferred on the organism by actually experiencing something over just doing it? It is important to consider that animals may not have subjectivity but only react as if they do. Some in this field point out that because we cannot determine that animals do have subjective feeling (qualia), we can say in fact they don’t until it is demonstrated otherwise. It may be argued, however, that the burden of proof is on those who deny subjectivity in animals. For myself, I suspect that subjectivity is what the nervous system is all about, even at the most primitive levels of evolution. As an obvious corollary to that suspicion, I also suspect that consciousness as the substrate for subjectivity does not exist outside the realm of nervous system function or its nonbiological equivalent, if there is any.
Llinás is willing to take the idea that subjectivity arises at the most primitive levels of evolution to single cell organisms. He points to single cell animals as capable of irritability – the ability to respond to stimuli and react in a goal directed way. He is not saying single cell organisms are conscious but that the ancestry of subjectivity can be found in such capabilities. (I have noted that both cilia and flagella, which serve as stimuli detectors and provide an able for movement, are constructed with a microtubule, cytoskeleton-based structure like that found neurons.)
Llinás, however, rejects any notion that single neurons are conscious. Consciousness arises in the global activity patterns of many neurons oscillating and firing in resonance. This time ordered coherence mapped on top of the possibilities of spatial structure create “almost infinite possibilities of combinations” to represent the world. “Temporal coherence is believed to be the neurological mechanism that underlies perceptual unity, the binding together or conjunction of independently derived sensory components, called ‘cognitive binding’.” He points especially to the global 40 hertz generated by the thalamocortical system as a potential candidate for the creation of this coherence. The self, in his view, arises from this.
This temporally coherent event that binds, in the time domain, the fractured components of external and internal reality into a single construct is what we call the “self.” It is a convenient and exceedingly useful invention on the part of the brain. It binds; therefore, I am! Temporal coherence not only generates the self as a composite, singly perceived construct, but creates a single seat or centralization from which the predictive functions of the brain, so critical to survival, may operate in a coordinated fashion.
Since Llinás thinks consciousness or subjectivity arises from primitive evolutionary origins, it is not surprising that he thinks qualia does also.
My argument is that sensory experience leading to active movement (motricity) through the function of prediction is the ultimate reason for the very existence of the central nervous system. If one takes into consideration the fact that perception itself- through any sense modality – has become the elaborate process we see now through the course of evolution, then the most parsimonious view is that sensory experience, qualia, must be primordial in the global organization of nervous system function. In fact, qualia must represent a significant and influential drive through evolution.
Perhaps not surprisingly Llinás returns to the irritability feature of single cell organisms to explain the actual nature of qualia. The ability of such an organism to respond to stimuli and act with intentionality constitute a sort of primitive sensory function. Qualia then “represent a specialization of such primitive sensorium”. As the nervous system evolved as multicellular units, qualia arose from the properties of single cells amplified by acting in concert with other similar cells.
Llinás draws a comparison between muscle cells and sensory cells. Muscle cells are organized with the skeletal system so they when they fire in unison the force of each cell is additive to the other cells. Llinás thinks that a similar summing operation is happening with sensory cells to produce the sort of corporate feelings in high organisms.
Of course, Llinás acknowledges, a significant difference is the force generated by muscle contraction is obvious and measurable. The product of sensory cells firing in unison seemingly less substantial and, he writes, “corresponds to nothing we know about at this moment, inside a cell.” Also, he notes, neurons supporting qualia do not seem obviously different from other neurons currently, whereas muscle cell do have a unique structure.
An obvious candidate for the product of firing sensory cells that Llinás does not write about is an electromagnetic field. Such a field (or perhaps fields) manifesting in time ordered coherence mapped over the spatial structures of the brain are exactly what electromagnetic theories of consciousness theorize to be the substrate of consciousness. What is more, such a field could additionally provide feedback to neuron firing by triggering additional firings. The additive effect of multiple fields could, in addition, overlap with weaker fields to explain the simplification of reality that our internal reality emulator seems to generate. Both possible attributes might help to provide more insight into the question of the “advantage is conferred on the organism by actually experiencing something”.
All in all, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self is a fascinating and non-technical book. I’ve hit some of the major highlights but there is still a good bit more I have left out.
To me this sounds quite Feinberg and Mallatt. I guess they figure that consciousness was needed to effectively manage “distance senses”, whether in predator or prey. That doesn’t seem too far from intelligent mobility since such movement should often be needed for both defense and attack. Then there’s my own such account. Here non-conscious “biological robots” simply couldn’t be armed with enough set piece programming to effectively deal with environments that were more “open” (by which I mean, the opposite of playing Chess).
Anyway it’s good to hear about natural accounts in general which aren’t still more varieties of information processing alone. I guess the standard term for these approaches is a family of views called “embodied cognition”.
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I think it starts with control of the body itself which is necessary for even the simplest of movements. After reading Llinás and Buzsáki, however, I have an appreciation for how much “set piece” programming does. Of course, it needs to be modified according to the details of the environment which is where consciousness becomes essential. In some cases, “set piece programming” or fixed action patterns are essential – a new born gazelle doesn’t have time to learn or to analyze before it may need to run from a lion. It needs cues to recognize the problem and then trigger the response.
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Exactly James. And my own model does take this “set piece” theme to an extremity. From here all anatomical elements of the brain may be said to exist as a non-conscious form of “computer”, and thus its function in general should be considered “set piece”. Then through these set pieces it may also incite mechanisms which directly produce qualia (perhaps by means of EM fields given certain neuron firing). Thus a conscious entity may be created as well, and whether “functional” or not.
I consider consciousness to effectively guide set piece behavior given its purpose to feel good. We humans commonly like to claim responsibility for those set pieces however, or that we’re responsible for things like typing, talking, driving, or even moving muscles in general. I consider this largely an illusion.
To help demonstrate how minuscule our conscious figuring happens to actually be when compared against anatomical brain computation, try wiggling your finger. Did “you” just make it move as it did? Instead I’d suggest that you decided to make that sort of movement, though it was actually your anatomical brain which detected your decision and obeyed by implementing the associated muscles. Whatever amount of information processing that my brain does, both to produce consciousness and all else, I suspect that the consciousness dynamic may effectively be said to do less than 1000th of one percent of that.
I’m with you on not being a fan of the hard problem. However, I think Chalmers would say that what you describe as the weaker form, the question of how qualia arise from physical systems, is the hard problem. Personally, I think even this weaker form is a distraction. It inherently assumes there’s something non-physical to explain.
I do think Llinás starts on the right track by focusing on prediction. A lot of neuroscientists would agree with him that the central nervous system exists for prediction. It’s the one evolutionary benefit that we can point to from the earliest interneurons all the way up to brains.
A lot of neuroscientists are also on board with the idea of pre-wiring. Although like anything else, I think people have a tendency to get carried away with the notion. We have plenty of evidence for considerable pre-wiring, but we also have a lot of evidence for plasticity, particularly early in development.
I think where Llinás starts to go wrong is in assuming there is necessarily a difference between us and what a robot does. Sure, current robots are, well, robotic, meaning reflex driven. But that’s steadily changing. If we get a robot able to navigate the world as well as an animal in flexible pursuit of goals, I think it’s confusion to say the animal has something fundamental that the robot lacks. If the robot is making predictions, it’s doing what we do.
I’m not sure what to make about the irritability of a single cell to explain qualia, or the comparison with muscle fibers. There’s a version of it that I can find plausible, similar to Antonio Damasio’s biological value. But locating qualia at such a low level has a whiff of magical thinking to it. Maybe if I read him at length, that whiff would disappear.
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I think I may see the root of our disagreement over robots and such. It is in how we understand the inputs and outputs relate to consciousness.
One way is to think of brain/mind primarily as an information processing machines with a bunch of sensors (inputs) that has a rules for processing the input then generates actions (outputs). Brain/mind is a box with some algorithms that sits in between inputs and outputs. In this case, we could build a robot with sensors similar to human ones that could generate actions similar to human ones. I wouldn’t call the robot conscious but I am guessing you would.
There is little evidence that the brain actually works like this.
The approach of Llinás and Buzsáki is somewhat different. For them the brain is a reality emulator. To quote again: “It is primarily a self-activating system, one whose organization is geared towards the generation of intrinsic images”. In other words, most of the input to the brain comes from the brain itself, not from the external sensors. Consciousness – the emulation capability – came about with the evolutionary limitation that there is insufficient processing power in the brain to process all the inputs, build a model, and control all of the outputs in a timely way. Speed is certainly a factor since an organism has to act in quasi-real time but it basically only has only electrochemical mechanisms to do it. So the consciousness solution is to have prebuilt model honed by evolution for its niche that admits enough external sensor input to stay in touch with the external world but is capable of acting quickly and decisively.
The model doesn’t need to accurately represent the world or to process all of the sensor input. It only needs enough information to sync its internal model with the external world sufficiently to act in an evolutionary advantageous way. Qualia and consciousness are simplifications and filters built from evolutionary necessity. They are a way of generating outputs, which could be mimicked by a robot, but they are a specific way built from biological limitation.
Your description of the robot omits things like the possibility of building its own models and learning (admittedly using those algorithms). If we add those in, then I think our actual disagreement may be in whether the second description you give is an example of the first. I think it is.
A lot of the brain’s processing is endogenous, which fits with its role as a prediction system. But it evolved, was naturally selected for, because of its outputs.
You leave out this part:
“Qualia and consciousness are simplifications and filters built from evolutionary necessity. They are a way of generating outputs, which could be mimicked by a robot, but they are a specific way built from biological limitation”.
They aren’t just models but biological models built for biology.
Otherwise, sure, you can tweak the rules and algorithms all sorts of ways to mimic a human.
I didn’t leave it out. I just don’t think there is anything there that couldn’t, at least in principle, be reproduced by a machine. In my view, biology is just evolved machinery. I know a lot of people are convinced that it’s something more, but I haven’t seen a good reason for it.
(“In my view, biology is just evolved machinery.”)
If biology is just evolved machinery, which fundamentally it is; does not that brute fact alone make the point that you are continually hung up on moot? Therefore, your fundamentalist, computationalist, informational processing model of consciousness flies like a lead balloon without the evolved raw materials of biology. One cannot build a machine like us without using organic materials; end of debate.
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Lee, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here, or what you think I’m hung up on. Given the remarks you’re replying to, it sounds like you’re arguing for biological exceptionalism. Which seems strange coming from a panpsychist.
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I think “evolved machinery”, while perhaps true, drastically understates how different biological systems are from non-biological systems. It’s a little like the “just physics and chemistry” or “just neurons firing” or “just information processing”. There’s big gap, a lot of stuff that is just presumed to arise, between the attempted explanation and the thing explained.
Certainly current machines are a long way from what biological systems do. But people from a few centuries ago would be amazed with the amount of biological functionality we’ve been able to reproduce so far. When it comes to the human brain, we’re talking about a physical system, one that doesn’t require tremendous amounts of energy. Saying it’s impossible in principle to reproduce its capabilities, I think, requires better justification than anything I’ve seen put forward up to now.
Do we have a single machine that can pass on genes, self-regenerate itself, or reproduce? I’m not sure we’re anywhere close to the real functions of life.
We’re even pretty limited with body parts – joints and limbs mostly, the more mechanical parts. We can insert some electrodes here or there with varying degrees of effectiveness. Growing biological replacement organs wouldn’t really count.
BTW, you ought to take a look at Llinás’s law.
A neuron of a given kind (e.g. a thalamic cell) cannot be functionally replaced by one of another type (e.g. an inferior ollivary cell) even if their synaptic connectivity and the type of neurotransmitter outputs are identical. (The difference is that the intrinsic electrophysiological properties of thalamic cells are extraordinarily different from those of inferior olivary neurons)… the prevailing belief in neuroscience was that just the connections and neurotransmitters released by neurons was enough to determine their function. Research by Llinás and colleagues during the 80’s with vertebrates revealed this previously held dogma was wrong.
Do you get that? The different kinds of neurons cannot be replaced even if they have the same connectivity and output.
I hadn’t heard about that law in particular. (Just did a search in the neuroscience textbooks I have electronically. I get a reference to one of his papers in a chapter on action potentials, but no mention of his law.) But I know there are many different types of neurons, possibly hundreds or even thousands, and that subcortical regions in particular tend to have specialized types.
I’ve never argued that this isn’t complex stuff.
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Yes, it’s complex. We can agree on that.
Different kinds of neurons with many regions of the brains having multiple types. Some with vertical dendrites, others more spreading. Some inhibitory. Some excitatory. Some fire rapidly, some slowly. Some wired to distant regions, most wired locally. Some fire with little stimuli, some require a great deal. Some will fire bursts with the right kind of stimulus.
Buzsáki’s Rhythms of the Brain is a great overall starting point.
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At a fundamental level I am arguing for biological exceptionalism when it comes to a physical system we call mind. I equally argue for classical exceptionalism, an exceptionalism derived from the quantum realm that gives rise to our three dimensional classical universe.
Evolution is a progression, and every progressive step taken by that evolutionary process is exceptional. It’s one of those self-evident sort of things. Acknowledging the exceptionalism of the multiplicity of stages within the progression of the evolutionary process in no way negates panpsychism, it empirically corroborates panpsychism.
Explicitly addressing the point you are hung up on: One cannot replicate our own experience of mind without the exceptional raw materials provided by biology and likewise, one cannot replicate biology without the exceptional raw materials provided by inorganic matter. Does that clear it up?
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“One cannot replicate our own experience of mind without the exceptional raw materials provided by biology and likewise, one cannot replicate biology without the exceptional raw materials provided by inorganic matter.”
I like that expression a lot.
Once we say “evolved machinery” we are already expressing the key difference. For something to evolve, it needs to have embedded information about the environment and a plan for an organism that can survive in the environment. It has to be able to accumulate information on evolutionary time scales.. At more of a real-time level, this is same thing that consciousness does.
Thanks for the clarification Lee. I disagree. Only time will tell.
Ditto that James……
(“Saying it’s impossible in principle to reproduce its capabilities, I think, requires better justification than anything I’ve seen put forward up to now.”)
I don’t know, but it appears to me that you might be at stage two (2) of Schopenhauer’s progression. Violently opposed?? 😞 Not to worry, the third progression becomes self-evident.
Excellent essay James. From a physics standpoint, I think Llinás is write on target. As with all assessments of consciousness though; as long as the term consciousness is directly correlated and/or synonymous with the system of mind, all explications become an easy target for criticism. Not only does it invite criticism it obfuscates the overall picture. The only way to avoid that type of criticism and obfuscation is to ontologically distinguish the system of consciousness from the system of mind and see them as two separately distinct systems.
Understanding our universe as a system made up of the aggregate of ancillary and sub-system is the key here. System is the fulcrum term here, not consciousness or non-consciousness. If one can intellectually accomplish that epistemic maneuver, a maneuver that distinguishes consciousness as a system and that mind is another system then yes, absolutely, single celled organisms would definitely experience qualia as the empirical evidence asserts. I like it, great.
Mike’s robot thesis is absurd simply because he does not recognize and/or refuses to accept the unique qualitative properties that organic matter brings to the table.
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Credit Llinás more than me. Aside from the preamble, I am mostly paraphrasing or directly quoting him. I just happen to agree with a lot of it.
Maybe another way of looking at the organic non-organic divide is to associate non-organic systems with structure, whereas organic systems would correlate to systems that are structured with the enhancement of qualities, i.e. biology becomes the substrate that provides qualia producing mechanisms. Yes, I like it……..
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Biological systems have a great many differences from mechanical systems.
A few not in any particular order.
1- They continually replace the material of their structure through metabolism.
2- They are self-organizing.
3- They meet the characteristics to participate in a Darwinian process.
4- They are composed of complex molecules based on carbon.
5- They reproduce.
I suspect that many of those characteristics are somehow integral to consciousness or that consciousness arises from other prerequisite characteristics that makes life possible.
So what about a “Positronic” brain? (An idea I’ve borrowed, and modified, from Issac Asimov. Star Trek’s Data also had such a brain.)
Imagine a synthetic construction grown somewhat like a crystal, but according to a plan that generates a structure akin to a new-born infant’s brain structure. That is, a highly interconnected network, with “synapse” and “neuron” analogues, that is isomorphic in structure and function with a brain. It would have the same “neuronal” inputs and outputs as a brain, so could drive, for example, a humanoid robot.
Would such a Positronic brain be conscious, per your most rigorous definitions of conscious?
(I think yes. I’m a structuralist, not a biological exceptionalist, but also not a functionalist.)
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I’m not sure I have rigorous definition of consciousness. 🙂
I’ve come to believe, however, that in biological organisms that, if it has nervous system and can perform intelligent movement, which requires a combination of sight, hearing, or smell and ability to learn about the environment, it probably has some degree of consciousness.
I don’t see how the positronic brain could be totally isomorphic if it is driving a humanoid robot rather than a human body made of muscle and tendon. I assume it also wouldn’t be receiving inputs from eyes and ears but instead electronic equivalents. So the inputs and outputs would not actually be the same but instead something else equivalent or isomorphic.
The question might be is the whole system isomorphic enough to qualify as conscious?
If Llinás is right that qualia originate in single cells, then consciousness arises from groups of cells firing together. The question here would be what is it about cells that provide the qualia-ness. Is a peculiar feature to biology or could it be replicated in silicon or something else?
I am not 100% sure. Llinás at a different point thinks it might be possible for consciousness to exist in something non-biological but he thinks it would be a different kind of consciousness from that in biological organisms. The EM field theorists – Pockett in particular – believe that anything that manifest the correct spatiotemporal electromagnetic patterns will be conscious.
Without buying into the quantum brain ideas of Penrose-Hammeroff, I note that movement and sensing in single cells are controlled by cilia and flagella and both of these structures are microtubule-based structures built of tubulin. Is it possible they are on the right track in identifying the structure even though their quantum theory is wrong? This could mean that specific biological structures are required or something highly isomorphic with those structures.
One other point before I complete my non-answer to your question.
You mention a new-born infant’s brain. Llinás and Buzsáki both think that organisms come with a lot of pre-wiring. Learning is more a matter of matching perception of the world to the pre-wired patterns than it is learning completely everything de novo. This might be less so with humans but even humans with language, which is what most uniquely human, may be matching the language of their environment with a sort of Universal Grammar (Chomsky’s idea) that consists of the pre-wired patterns that would enable the learning of any language. If this is the case, then to a degree the pre-wiring might have a lot of do with the capabilities.
By “rigorous” I just meant ‘as conscious as we are’ — that one would fail to find any differences.
“The question might be is the whole system isomorphic enough to qualify as conscious?”
Yes, that is precisely the question I’m asking. As I mentioned, I’m a structuralist, so my view is that replicating the structure should lead to a conscious system regardless of the building materials. Per what you’ve said, suppose that structure is accurately isomorphic down to a microtubule level. Or that the “neuron” analogues function as if they were neurons with microtubles.
Another way to frame the question might be: At what level of detail, and using what materials, is a constructed brain isomorphic enough to experience consciousness? Is that level of detail cellular (surely at least), sub-cellular, biochemical, atomic, or all the way down to quantum? Does the material have to be biochemical or can it be silicon, metals, and plastic (maybe some ceramic)?
“The question here would be what is it about cells that provide the qualia-ness.”
Is the idea that qualia originate in peripheral sensing cells (retina cells, touch cells, etc)? After that, is it just a signal to the brain? And then information processed in the brain?
What about the brain-in-a-jar concept (or The Matrix idea)? Can a brain be fooled by artificial qualia signals (assume it’s connected to a simulated body so if the brain thinks it’s moving its “arm” there are feedback signals indicating the “arm” moves).
“Llinás and Buzsáki both think that organisms come with a lot of pre-wiring.”
I agree. We’re more blank slate than a lot of animals, but I think we’re born with a basic O/S hardwired in. I also agree what’s going on in learning, especially early, is training that neural net with real world inputs. That’s what I referred to by saying the crystal would be grown according to a plan. That plan would include the pre-wiring along with the basic “new born brain” structures.
Assuming physicalism, it’s hard for me to see why alternate structures with alternate materials wouldn’t work. Unless there’s something specific about carbon-based biochemistry. But it clearly would depend entirely on the right level of detail. How much detail is sufficient?
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Yeah. You’ve restated some of the same issues I’ve raised.
H2O and HCL are both liquids but otherwise quite different. H2O and H2S both are similar in structure but also quite different. So it doesn’t seem preposterous to me that complex proteins, neurotransmitters, nucleotides, etc will have properties that can’t be replicated in silicon and copper no matter how structurally similar you could make them.
Llinás view is that each cell – originating at single celled organisms with sensing and movement abilities – have a “quanta” (my term, notice quotes) of qualia. So it wouldn’t just be the sense organs themselves but everything throughout the brain. He admits this idea is “out of left field” himself.
Regarding brain-in-a-jar Buzsáki likes to emphasize action before perception in the perception-action loop. We understand the world by interacting with it. The brain doesn’t passively sense the arm moving. Rather it is directing the arm to move through a series of 8-12 hertz pulses to the muscles and perceiving the response/adjusting millisecond by millisecond. So there would need to be a much more complex simulation for the brain-in-a-jar. But I would guess a sophisticated enough simulation would fool the brain.
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So you feel biochemistry is probably required. Okay, just curious. We have quite a spread of views about the possibility of consciousness in this crowd! 😀
“He admits this idea is ‘out of left field’ himself.”
I see what he’s getting at with it (and “quanta” of qualia is cute!) but I think for me qualia requires both the sensing part and the brain part. Single-cell organisms don’t have brains (and I’m not sympathetic to panpsychism), so I don’t know I can apply qualia in their case.
“But I would guess a sophisticated enough simulation would fool the brain.”
As you say, it would have to be very good. (Might be doable with an ANN trained on signals monitored from people.)
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I’m leaning towards biochemistry being involved in the absence of a good theory about how it works or what it actually is.I wouldn’t entirely rule out other possibilities.
To me it is more of evolutionary argument. Llinás’s argument is there is definitely some primitive sensing and movement capability in some single cell organisms. The sensing can involve light or chemical sensitivity. It is almost a rudimentary reflex action where a stimulus triggers movement with little nuance or control. A true reflex, of course, would be multi-cellular and involve muscles, nerves, and neurons but would also be in its most basic form a stimulus triggering a movement with little nuance or control. If you take that basic pattern and begin adding layers of neurons between the stimulus and the movement, you start to have a brain and you get intelligent and more complex movement. Then eventually you get self-directed movement independent of direct stimulus. That would probably be the stage where you get what we call qualia. Llinás, I think, is just speculating that something in the biochemistry of the single cell organisms produces qualia when it evolves into specialized cells, neurons that is, and begins acting in a networked and synchronous manner that magnifies the effect . As I mentioned, the obvious candidate for what is being magnified is something electromagnetic. There is some research out there about electrical and electromagnetic type activity in single cell organisms, such as amoebas.
One more comment. When you write:
“Imagine a synthetic construction grown somewhat like a crystal, but according to a plan that generates a structure akin to a new-born infant’s brain structure. That is, a highly interconnected network, with “synapse” and “neuron” analogues, that is isomorphic in structure and function with a brain.”.
My question is how would you know this highly interconnected network with synapse and neuron analogues is what is responsible for consciousness? Or, if it is, how do you know what property or aspect of the network or its analogues is the critical part that is responsible? And what type of neurons, since there are many types?
There seems to more than a “structural” theory behind your question. Rather it seems to be a particular type of structure you are asking about, one that you think constitutes the type of structure that creates consciousness.
I don’t think a more simplistic approach to create analogue for everything in the brain will work. For example, there are blood vessels. Do we create a analogue for them? There are dopaminergic neurons and doamine receptors. Do we create analogues for them? There six layers in the cortex with different types and distribution of neurons. Do we analogue that? There are folds and lobes. How about them? Neurons fire with calcium ion fluctuation? Analogue? ATP? Serotonin? Myelin? Can it run on glucose?
If you analogue everything, you probably have something quasi-biological if not biological.
If you start dropping stuff, how do you know at what point you have dropped the critical element that makes consciousness possible?
In the absence of a theory about what is the essential structure, the structuralist position seems somewhat vacuous. On the other hand, if there actually were a theory about a particular sort of structure, then I think the that theory would probably go under a different name than structuralist. It would be called something more like Integrated Information Theory or Ultra-Networked Processor Theory or Wyrd Mind Theory. 🙂
“In the absence of a theory about what is the essential structure, the structuralist position seems somewhat vacuous.”
“Vacuous” is a bit pejorative. I use the term “structuralism” as a broad term for a class of theories that depend on structure. In particular, it’s meant in contrast to computational approaches, either simulations or functional-based.
As you say, IIT is a specific structural theory. (One I think is insufficient.) For that matter, your view can be seen as structuralist and going so far as to specify the building materials.
I have a similar but looser view that allows for other building materials is really the only difference.
“My question is how would you know this highly interconnected network with synapse and neuron analogues is what is responsible for consciousness?”
I don’t know anything. This is my hypothesis.
“Or, if it is, how do you know what property or aspect of the network or its analogues is the critical part that is responsible?”
Again, I don’t know; I’m guessing. My thinking is that the brain is an analogue signal processor, and we’ve gained a lot of knowledge about how it works. At a minimum (my thinking goes), an isomorph has to replicate the network structure, including synaptic behavior (which I believe IIT doesn’t, which is why I see it as insufficient). It also has to account for the contributions of things like glial cells as well as the effect on signals of myelin sheathing.
But the premise of my thinking is that the brain is ultimately a complex analogue signal processor with resonant modes and balanced by feedback loops. I think there is a reasonable chance such a signal processor could be built with other materials so long as it gets the signal processing right.
The answer to all your questions is that whatever affects the signal processing has to be part of the system. If local EMF effects obtain, that (or something like it) has to be part of how a “Positronic” brain also works.
Really, the point of structuralism is the idea that the shape matters, but the building materials may not. (This assumes we are able to build things on the same fine scale that nature does, but we’re nearly there now.)
Sorry I didn’t mean it to be pejorative but I can see how it would read that way. I meant more in the sense of “empty” or in the sense of lacking sufficient specificity to be useful. The fact that you think my viewpoint also structuralist seems to add to the impression that it is so all encompassing that many different types of specific theories could be encompassed under its umbrella.
When you get to specifics, however, it does seem you have something more definite in mind:
“But the premise of my thinking is that the brain is ultimately a complex analogue signal processor with resonant modes and balanced by feedback loops”.
That I believe to be a viewpoint which certainly could possibly be correct but I probably have a few more doubts about than you. I think there is probably some additional gap we need to bridge to make it work.
Ronnie : Good… The world will want to know that… What else? Why didn’t it work?
Seth Brundle : [Disappointed] I think it turned the baboon inside-out.
Ronnie : Why?
Seth Brundle : [sigh] It can’t cope with the flesh. It only seems to work on inanimate objects; nothing that’s living.
Ronnie : Why?
Seth Brundle : Computers are dumb. They only know what you tell them… I must not know enough about the flesh myself. I’m gonna have to learn.
Seth Brundle : I don’t wanna talk now.
vacuous. adjective. having or showing a lack of thought or intelligence; mindless. The emptiness sense can apply to things or spaces, but when applied to people or their ideas, it’s almost always pejorative. E.g. “A vacuous smile.”
But I do understand your meaning:
“The fact that you think my viewpoint also structuralist seems to add to the impression that it is so all encompassing that many different types of specific theories could be encompassed under its umbrella.”
Yes, that’s the point. It’s a general term for a class of theories. As I said before, it’s main intent is to differentiate from computationalist ideas.
“When you get to specifics, however, it does seem you have something more definite in mind:”
Yes, I do have my own vague ideas. 🙂 And of course they need working out and research. I’m not into it enough to do more than ponder vaguely how it all might turn out.
I have no idea who Ronnie and Seth are.
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Yeah. Sorry if you took it that way. I intended more in sense of vacuous truth.
“For that reason, it is sometimes said that a statement is vacuously true only because it does not really say anything”
Ronnie and Seth – The Fly 1986
That would have been fine had I been making a mathematical or logical statement, but as a first response to someone’s opinion, there is no other way to take it than as pejorative. I do believe you didn’t intend it that way, though.
The Fly, ah, okay. Not really into horror, although I believe I have seen both the Price and the Goldblum versions. I mostly have zero retention when it comes to movies and books. Worst trivia player ever.
Regarding more research, you might find Rhythms of the Brain by Buzsáki interesting.
He has quite a detailed discussion about a number of networking topics. Especially the role of inhibitory neurons in creating brain oscillations, neuronal assemblies, and his discussion of small-world networks which seems to be how the brain is actually networked.
One aspect of the brain that may somehow be involved in consciousness is the fact that the brain is networked but it has to do extensive contortions so that its different parts work in a cooperative fashion under the limitation that communication is relatively slow. Consciousness may be involved either directly or indirectly with those mechanisms. If that is the case, then a positronic brain may actually need to have it connectivity deliberately slowed – to work at the speed of “flesh” so to speak.
I’ll keep the book in mind, but as I mentioned, I’m not that into neuroscience — not like you guys are. (My interests right now lie more in mathematics and quantum physics. I want to learn to work with the Schrödinger equation, so I’m watching an online course from MIT.)
I do think structure matters (I don’t think computed simulations will work), and as we’ve been talking about, it all depends on how detailed the replication has to be.
I’ve long thought the slow and sloppy approach of the brain may well be significant to consciousness. As I think you were suggesting with your movie quote, computers are too literal, too deterministic. The “speed of thought” I agree is significant. And, of course, a Positronic brain would use slow and sloppy pathways. Its connectivity wouldn’t be deliberately slowed so much as designed to work at the appropriate speeds.
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I’ve had some renewed appreciation for Schrödinger’s What is Life? recently. It really hits a lot of issues that have become big over the last fifty years or so.
Be interested in your take on what I just published. As I state I’m skeptical, but nevertheless, it’s pretty interesting.
Wyrd commented: (I think yes. I’m a structuralist, not a biological exceptionalist, but also not a functionalist.)
I’m really blown away by this statement. I find it fascinating that everyone likes to reference evolution as the standard bearer of empirical evidence for theories of mind, and then in the next breath reject the exceptional levels that the evolutionary process brings to the table when it does not fit with one’s worldview. How could any reasonable person (idealists excluded of course) not acknowledge biological exceptionalism.
As a pragmatist myself, I just cannot deal with that type of a mindset. It appears that your blog is the only reasonable voice out there James. Keep plugging away dude……
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Before reading your comment, I had just commented that I tended to lean toward a biological explanation precisely for evolutionary reasons.
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