Feeling Neurons?

A recent post on panpsychism in relation to a book review and a comment by Travis R. has me thinking about some things.

One thing is whether we are fundamentally conflating two related but somewhat distinct concepts in discussions of consciousness.

The first concept relates to the connection between information and consciousness. The second concept is the feeling of the information.

Since information is physical, there is no reason to believe that matter itself even in its smallest forms might not contain information. An electron, for example, might be conceptualized as an “information field” that is a continually fluctuating wave of calculations about its itself and environment. I am using “information field” in an attempt to suggest something implementation neutral. It might be quantum, electromagnetic, or some other wave-like mechanism not understood at this time. It may be something like a tensegrity structure that I wrote about quite a while ago and that Donald Ingber discussed in a Scientific American piece. While Ingber was primarily talking about living forms towards the end of his discussion he writes:

Finally, more philosophical questions arise: Are these building principles universal? Do they apply to structures that are molded by very large scale forces as well as small-scale ones? We do not know. Snelson, however, has proposed an intriguing model of the atom based on tensegrity that takes off where the French physicist Louis de Broglie left off in 1923. Fuller himself went so far as to imagine the solar system as a structure composed of multiple nondeformable rings of planetary motion held together by continuous gravitational tension. Then, too, the fact that our expanding (tensing) universe contains huge filaments of gravitationally linked galaxies and isolated black holes that experience immense compressive forces locally can only lead us to wonder. Perhaps there is a single underlying theme to nature after all. As suggested by early 20th-century Scottish zoologist D’Arcy W. Thompson, who quoted Galileo, who, in turn, cited Plato: the Book of Nature may indeed be written in the characters of geometry.

The key idea is that there might be similar organizing principles in the small and the large and the principle might involve wrapping information and binding it into structure. The panpsychists then could be correct that consciousness in its information aspect is found throughout the universe in all matter and structures from the smallest to the largest. The complex consciousness that we humans have is but another example of an information structure built on common principles from which all structures in the universe are constructed.

At the same, however, our consciousness seems different, seems to be more than just information. The reason is that it is felt. This might be where the panpsychists, the IIT theorists, and computationalists go wrong when they conflate the feeling of the information with the information itself. Hence, we get absurd statements about electrons feeling things from the panpsychists or the notion that a thermostat might be minimally sentient from an IIT theorist.

Perhaps the prototypical neuron is the sensory neuron – a neuron that senses (feels?) something about its environment. The apparent “feeling” of consciousness is actually neurons sensing the feedback generated by other neurons in its environment. The mind in this feeling aspect is biological and localized to small areas over which neurons are able to be sensed, that is brains. The feedback itself provides an explanation for apparent causal ability of mind without which an evolutionary explanation for its origin is difficult. Consciousness as we know it and feel it represents a sort of wrapped structure, an “information field”, but it belongs to biological matter and is also felt.

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7 Responses to Feeling Neurons?

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    Re “The key idea is that there might be similar organizing principles in the small and the large and the principle might involve wrapping information and binding it into structure. The panpsychists then could be correct that consciousness in its information aspect is found throughout the universe in all matter and structures from the smallest to the largest.”

    This does not seem logical. That “information” may exist and that it may be bound to structure somehow, does not equate to consciousness in my mind. Consciousness seems to derive its existence form the organization of information, not the information itself. As a physical example, granitic rocks are assemblies of many tiny crystals. We do not value those as greatly as large crystals, also to be found naturally assembled or to very pure natural crystals, again produced in nature. The little crystals are quotidian, and myriad in number. The very pure, large crystals are very rare. Both contain information in their structures but we value them quite differently. Similarly there is information galore in the universe. Does that make all things a tad conscious? I do not think so. Possessing information is almost unavoidable. Consciousness is rare.

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    • James Cross says:

      “does not equate to consciousness in my mind”

      Exactly. That is what I’m saying. Although everything depends upon what you are thinking about it.

      That some have conflated the notion of information with consciousness because it is example of an dynamic information structure. However, it would not be consciousness just because of the information structure in my view. It also requires the feeling aspect which requires biology.

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    • James Cross says:

      I don’t think I answered your point well. Let me try again.

      Different people have different conceptions of consciousness. Some emphasize the information aspect; some the feeling aspect. I think both are required. The IIT and computationalists lean toward the information aspect. That view also could consistently encompass a panpsychist view. In other words, if consciousness is just integrated information, nothing more, then it could exist almost anywhere in some form. If you lean towards the feeling aspect – I think perhaps Damasio and Solms, perhaps Reber, tend that way – then the focus would more likely be on biological organisms.

      To me, as I said, I think both aspects are required. However, if you view it more narrowly in only its information aspect, then panpsychism and conscious AI would be totally consistent.

      McFadden and Pockett, who view consciousness as an EM field, fall actually into the information camp. McFadden describes it as spatially integrated information manifesting in an EM field. They both think artificial consciousness is possible.

      Trying to have the best of both worlds, I think it likely is an EM field but the consciousness of biological organisms requires more than an EM field. It also requires feeling neurons.

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  2. Lee Roetcisoender says:

    “…our consciousness seems different, seems to be more than just information. The reason is that it is felt. This might be where the panpsychists, the IIT theorists, and computationalists go wrong when they conflate the feeling of the information with the information itself.”

    Recently, I’ve come to the same conclusions James; as you might have noticed from my comments on Mike’s blog. Here’s a brief excerpt from an essay I’ve been working on:

    Valences: noun
    According to one; non-conceptual representations of value. Nonconceptual representations of value are feelings and sensations. (Wikipedia)

    Sentience: noun
    A state of be-ing; the capacity to be aware of feelings and sensations; the experience of valences; non-conceptual representations of value experienced on a gradient from good to bad, positive (+) to negative (-) charges and the attraction of a force known as gravity. (Wikipedia)

    Notes:
    The word sentience was first coined by philosophers in the 1630s for the concept of an ability to feel; derived from the Latin word sentientem. The word sentience was established to distinguish the non-conceptual sensations of feelings integral to our own experience of consciousness from its counterpart, the conceptual processes of mentation, information processing, introspection and psyche. In modern Western philosophy, sentience is the ability to experience sensations such as pain, a numinous presence or the apex of a Zen Buddhist meditative state absent any semblance of cognitive processes. Sentience is a valence experience that is ontologically distinguishable from the non-valence experience of information processing and/or mentation because the term sentience is
    now directly correlated with the phenomenal state of qualia. Early philosophers recognized this difference and designated a term to express that distinction.

    I also included in the essay the correct and agreed upon definition of consciousness. Since materialism, idealism and panpsychism conflate the experience of consciousness with mind, none of those ontologies are useful for anything other than a comparison of our own experience. I’ve had to rethink my own metaphysics and have come up with a new model. I believe that I’ve finally settled on “Imperative Pansentientism.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lee Roetcisoender says:

    While I’m at it, I might as well plug in the definition of consciousness.

    Consciousness: noun
    Together to know us; a state of being. Consciousness is derived from the Latin root words Con, (together); Scio, (to know); Us, (us) and Ness, ( a state of being). Conscious means; together to know us; Ness means; a state of being.

    Notes:
    The meaning of consciousness is derived from its Greek origin, a philosophy based upon the anthropocentric principle of Protagoras of Abdera; a manifesto which declares that “Man is the measure of all things.” Since the time of the Greeks, man and man’s experience of consciousness
    has become the standard by which everything else is adjudicated to be conscious or not.

    ThIs discrete definition of consciousness is limited and restrained therefore, the term cannot be used for anything other than a comparison to the human experience. If the human experience itself is the standard by which all other systems are judged to be conscious, then those systems will be
    limited and few. This limited and restricted definition of the word consciousness itself is responsible for David Chalmers infamous Hard Problem of Consciousness.

    The hard problem of consciousness is an irreconcilable paradox under the metaphysical paradigm of materialism, whereas in the ontology of imperative sentientism, there is no such thing as a hard problem because the experience of consciousness is considered to be just another physical system that is sentient. Pansentietism maintains that sentience, not consciousness or mind, is ubiquitous and universal whereas consciousness is an exclusive sentient experience limited to the physical systems of mind.

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  4. I’m on record as thinking we conflate a number of things under the label “consciousness”, so the idea we conflate information, which is everywhere and amounts to causation, with something else resonates pretty well with my own view. Of course, I think we can carve up the rest into a lot of other conflated concepts.

    I think feelings are a conflation of reactive impulses (I’ve often used the word “reflexes”), and awareness of those impulses. The reactive impulses themselves are very ancient, going back to the early stages of life. The awareness of those impulses is, while still very ancient, is much more recent, arising maybe somewhere between the Cambrian and the rise of mammals and birds.

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