Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
The Disneyland of Consciousness
Andrea & David Lane
The Irreducible “I”
Regardless of the ontology of what consciousness ultimately is, we can make progress by analyzing what it "appears" to be...
Dr. Don Salmon's recent essay, Shaving Science with Ockham's Razor, was a delight to read. I particularly appreciated how he organized his ideas and how he displayed a disarming parenthetical humility (such as when he checks his musings with “though it may be so"). I am looking forward to how he will develop a “methodology to detect the presence of consciousness in the world which he purports will be the “the subject of a future video series.”
One of the linchpins in Dr. Salmon's argument is that “there is no scientific finding that compels us to think of 'X' as either conscious or non-conscious, living or non-living, intelligent or non-intelligent.” According to his argument this is “because scientific methods do not tell us what lies beyond our mind-constructed precepts and constructs.” Dr. Salmon's utilizes a number of quotes touching upon our inability to “objectify” reality when we aim to scientifically understand it through our limited perceptions. In this regard, he backs up his assertions with three famously pregnant quotes from quantum theorists:
“[In the study of modern physics] we can never understand what events are, but must limit ourselves to describing the patterns of events in mathematical terms; no other aim is possible. Physicists who are trying to understand nature may work in many different fields and by many different methods; one may dig, one may sow, one may reap. But the final harvest will always be a sheaf of mathematical formulae. These will never describe nature itself. . . . [Thus] our studies can never put us into contact with reality.”--Sir James Jeans
“What we observe is not Nature in itself but Nature exposed to our method of questioning.” --Werner Heisenberg
“Human beings are stuck in a Midas-like predicament: we can't directly experience the true texture of reality because everything we touch turns to matter. --Nick Herbert
I think Niels Bohr and others of like ilk would have no problem with Dr. Salmon's assertions since the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics essentially says that “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how Nature is. Physics concerns what we say about Nature.”
In addition, neurologists and neuroscientists are keenly aware that everything we experience is modulated through our brains. This is perversely summarized in the shorthand quip, “try thinking of something without your brain.”
Salmon goes a step further and focuses on our a priori experience of consciousness first. He very straightforwardly states “All that we experience is within consciousness.”
This is, of course, so fundamentally obvious that we sometimes overlook or neglect what such a radical supposition implies. John Searle, the well-known philosopher and linguist from U.C. Berkeley, has long been a champion of a fuller explanation of consciousness, one that doesn't ignore the apparent indissoluble subjective experience that is at the heart of our “I” awareness. As Searle explains,
“The very fact of subjectivity, which we were trying to observe, makes such an observation impossible. Why? Because where conscious subjectivity is concerned, there is no distinction between the observed and the thing observed. . . . Any introspection I have of my own conscious state is itself that conscious state.”
Searle argues for the irreducibility of consciousness, but ironically adds the odd caveat that it has “no deep consequences.”
If I understand Dr. Salmon's essay correctly, he would have a qualm with Searle's categorical dismissal, especially in light of what a first person understanding can bring to bear on “reality”.
Searle is not in isolated company, as David Chalmers, author of the widely cited book The Conscious Mind, also champions consciousness as a fundamental feature in the universe, and not merely a secondary byproduct. Interestingly, though, Searle and Chalmers dramatically part company with each other's over what such ontological primacy means.
Francisco J. Varela and Jonathan Shear critique both philosophers because their “adherence to the pertinence of first-person experience [has not been] followed with methodological advances.”
Additionally, they point out,
“The mental thus does not have any sound manner to investigate itself, and we are left with a logical conclusion, but in a pragmatic and methodological limbo. This is not unlike the limbo in Ray Jackendoff's views, where in his own manner he also claims the irreducibility of consciousness, but when it comes to method is tellingly silent. He does claim that insights into experience act as constraints for a computational theory of mind, but follows with no methodological recommendations except 'the hope that the disagreements about phenomenology can be settled in an atmosphere of mutual trust' (Jackendoff, 1987, p. 275).”
Varela and Shear want to move beyond the impasse that seems to have confronted other philosophers of the mind. In this regard, they suggest that there is a necessary “circulation” between first (subjective) person and third (objective) person accounts. They argue,
“Setting the question as we just did, the next point to raise is what is the status of first-person accounts? In some basic sense, the answer cannot be given a priori, and it can only unfold from actually exploring this realm of phenomena, as is the case in the contributions presented herein. However let us state at the outset some thorny issues, in order to avoid some recurrent misunderstandings.”
“First, exploring first-person accounts is not the same as claiming that first-person accounts have some kind of privileged access to experience. No presumption of anything incorrigible, final, easy or apodictic about subjective phenomena needs to be made here, and to assume otherwise is to confuse the immediate character of the givenness of subjective phenomena with their mode of constitution and evaluation. Much wasted ink could have been saved by distinguishing the irreducibility of first-person descriptions from their epistemic status.”
“Second, a crucial point in this Special Issue has been to underline the need to overcome the 'just-take-a-look' attitude in regards to experience. The apparent familiarity we have with subjective life must give way in favour of the careful examination of what it is that we can and cannot have access to, and how this distinction is not rigid but variable. It is here that methodology appears as crucial: without a sustained examination we actually do not produce phenomenal descriptions that are rich and subtly interconnected enough in comparison to third-person accounts. The main question is: How do you actually do it? Is there evidence that it can be done? If so, with what results?
Third, it would be futile to stay with first-person descriptions in isolation. We need to harmonize and constrain them by building the appropriate links with third-person studies. In other words we are not concerned with yet another debate about the philosophical controversies surrounding the first-person/third-person split, (a large body of literature notwithstanding). To make this possible we seek methodologies that can provide an open link to objective, empirically based description. (This often implies an intermediate mediation, a second-person position, as we shall discuss below.) The overall results should be to move towards an integrated or global perspective on mind where neither experience nor external mechanisms have the final word. The global perspective requires therefore the explicit establishment of mutual constraints, a reciprocal influence and determination (Varela, 1996).”
“In brief our stance in regards to first-person methodologies is this: don't leave home without it, but do not forget to bring along third-person accounts as well. This down-to-earth pragmatic approach gives the tone to the contributions that follow. On the whole, what emerges from this material is that, in spite of all kinds of received ideas, repeated unreflectingly in recent literature of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, first-person methods are available and can be fruitfully brought to bear on a science of consciousness. The proof of the pudding is not in a priori arguments, but in actually pointing to explicit examples of practical knowledge, in case studies.”
I am not sure whether or not Dr. Salmon would agree wholly or partially or not at all with Varela's and Shear's positional methods, but I do think that these discussions are worthy of merit and that cross volleys from differing directions on this subject are helpful, even if we might on occasion disagree with their intended import.
I particularly appreciated how Dr. Salmon invoked (with obvious approval) William James' approach to the subject of consciousness. Ironically, the uber champion of mind to brain reductionism, the late Francis Crick, also found much to admire in James' approach to self-reflective awareness, as have other working neurobiologists from Gerald Edelman to V.S. Ramachandran.
In this context, I thought it might of use and perhaps of some interest if we explored how we recognize consciousness in others by focusing on examples of where individuals have mistakenly imputed human awareness upon inanimate objects only to be flabbergasted after discovering their mistaken conflations. My personal hunch is that such a pathway may give us some indications how a future science of consciousness may proceed.
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
In the late 1960s one of the more popular attractions at Disneyland was Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln which displayed one of the first audio-animatronic devices which featured President Abraham Lincoln. It was impressively life-like at the time, even though the machinery was still in a rudimentary stage.
I will never forget an incident that transpired just after the show was completed. An older lady, presumably in her 80s, had mistakenly believed that the audio-animatronic was a real human being. Indeed, she thought it was performed by a very talented actor. She was so impressed by the performance that she went up to the usher to see if she could get the performer's autograph. You can imagine her shock when she was informed that it was not a human being but a machine.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Coincidentally, the same thing happened to me when I went on the Pirates of the Caribbean went it first opened up. As we were navigating through the underground tunnels with an assortment of decorated pirates regaling their exploits, I looked on one pirate overhanging from the bridge who appeared to look me right in the eye. I turned towards my friend and said “that pirate is a real person.” Indeed, I was so convinced that the apparent audio-animatronic was an actor dressed in costume that I refused to believe otherwise until several years later when I realized that it was the lighting that had played a trick on my eyes.
The Haunted Mansion
Although it was initially billed as a scary ride, the Haunted Mansion turned out to be quite tame. However, there was one segment in the ride where a friend of mine got the creeps, since he assumed that the head (sans a body) within the crystal ball was a real person. He hadn't realized how far holographic technology had come at that point and couldn't imagine that it was merely a vaporous projection.
I bring up these three examples because they underline something fundamental in our assessment of the consciousness of others. We can be easily duped. Not only can we impute conscious intentionality onto machine operated mannequins that lack it, we can even do it photographic film.
Yet phenomenologically speaking, our own experience at the time of interacting with an audio-animatronics seems essentially the same as when we talk to certain humanoids. In other words, that which we believe is conscious turns out on closer inspection to be unconscious, at least in the commonsense ways that we use such terms in our day to day lives.
But we don't need to go Disneyland to discover this, since we already have firsthand experience of innumerable conflations when we fall asleep and dream.
In a strong dream, so many characters come alive and we interact as if each of them is real. Only when we wake up do we acknowledge that everything that occurred in the dream was simulated by us. We are, in sum, dreaming ourselves in various guises, even if we may be deceptively tricked to believe otherwise. Such is the confusing nature of our own self-awareness that we even objectify our own personas in various garbs and believe them to be ontologically apart from our own neural projections.
Consciousness is a fantastic virtual simulator and because of its inclusivity and insular engineering it has an inherent tendency to believe its own machinations as exterior to itself and not as the byproduct of its own interiority.
This is one strange loop, as Douglas Richard Hofstadter brilliantly opined in his book of the same title, I am a Strange Loop and in his earlier and now classic tome, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.
The problem of “other” minds has long been a philosophical conundrum among thinkers from centuries past. The difficulty gets even stickier when we pause and realize that we don't even have a full and complete access to our own minds and its labyrinth like permutations since there are so many processes within our own skull and body which we remain dutifully unaware.
Saying that all things are experienced through consciousness unnecessarily reifies the very word consciousness since awareness is not a “thingy” but a process as fluid as the tons of water cascading down Niagara Falls.
The Silver Mime
Not only can we confuse a robot for a human being, we can also do the reverse. I remember when my son Shaun was very young and we were walking through a shopping district and we saw a mime painted and dressed entirely in silver. He didn't move or twitch or even bat an eye lash. He was utterly frozen still, or so it seemed. My son, who was barely two or three at the time, thought it was some sort of robot and when I said it was a human being he simply refused to believe me. When the mime finally did emerge from his robotic trance, his movements were so geometrically precise that Shaun left convinced that the Silver Man was just the latest toy to come onto the market.
Why is any of this pertinent in our discussions on consciousness and what it means? The answer is simple: determining whether someone is conscious or unconscious is, as far as we can tell at this stage, the result of how we individually interpret a set of behavioral actions. Moreover, consciousness is not merely one thing, but rather a series of movements and reflections and moments turning this way and that in a constant parade of attentional space.
In the 1990s I had a student who was diagnosed with 31 different personalities. I was asked by certain school officials if I wanted her removed from the classroom since it was an unpredictable situation and had already caused discomfort for other professors and students. I declined the request since I found Becky (not her real name) to be a remarkably bright and gifted young woman, despite the fact that she would assume several different personalities during the day.
Whenever Becky attended my class, she dressed up as if she was a stuffy librarian conservatively dressed, with her hair tied up in a bun, and quite prim and proper. But an hour or so after my class, whenever she visited me in my office she dressed down as if she was a surfer hippie from the late 1960s. Occasionally she would dress up as a man and act as if she held a day job as a plumber.
I never quite knew what personality she would display on any given day, except that I told myself to remain calm and just respond normally regardless of appearances. Eventually, Becky and I became good friends and I discovered what had happened that generated such a kaleidoscope of personas. When Becky was very young she was abused by her stepfather who broke her back when she was just six years old. He subsequently stuck her in a dark closet for a year and a half. Apparently, all of this abuse was justified by her stepfather as part of his newfangled religious beliefs which centered on some peculiar and dogmatic interpretations of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Becky's way of coping with such a horrific upbringing was to dissociate different parts of herself into distinct personas, so much so that they became an inherent part of how she dealt with the world.
Unlike the vast majority of human beings who also have multiple personas or selves (as Errol Flynn, the famous movie actor of the 1930s and 1940s tellingly wrote, “I am an octagon of contradictions which in itself may be no contradiction”), but which are mostly transparent to each other, Becky had developed—consciously or unconsciously—separate walls between each of her personalities and because of this there was a jolting disconnect for those who came into contact with her.
Who was the real Becky one might venture to ask? Well, the question itself is misleading and I would suggest is unanswerable, since it assumes an agreed upon ontology about reality that (at least at this level) is unknown to us.
We are it seems in an intractable position when it comes to answering ultimate questions and as such we are forced to take a more pragmatic view of things. William James, writing a century ago, captured this when he wrote,
“The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many? – fated or free? – material or spiritual? – here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's being right.”
William James, touching upon a procedural method versus a final concluding prolegomena continues,
“Metaphysics has usually followed a very primitive kind of quest. You know how men have always hankered after unlawful magic, and you know what a great part in magic words have always played. If you have his name, or the formula of incantation that binds him, you can control the spirit, genie, afrite, or whatever the power may be. Solomon knew the names of all the spirits, and having their names, he held them subject to his will. So the universe has always appeared to the natural mind as a kind of enigma, of which the key must be sought in the shape of some illuminating or power-bringing word or name. That word names the universe's principle, and to possess it is after a fashion to possess the universe itself. 'God', 'Matter', 'Reason', 'the Absolute', 'Energy', are so many solving names. You can rest when you have them. You are at the end of your metaphysical quest.”
“But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.”
“Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don't lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work. “
William James nicely summarizes how such a practical view of things would proceed,
“No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, 'categories,' supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, fasts.”
In light of Becky's many personas and in light of our discussion of consciousness, it becomes obvious that we are stuck to the world of appearances, even the appearance of our own deeply felt self-awareness. Thus, although if we may heartily disagree with Francis Crick's radical reductionism of consciousness as merely a set of bundled neurons, we can readily see how his agenda can proffer undiscovered vistas that would otherwise be lost in a purely consciousness first approach. In other words, regardless of the ontology of what consciousness ultimately is, we can make progress by analyzing what it “appears” to be and how such appearances may be modified by food, drink, drugs, sex, meditation, and so forth. This doesn't do away with first-person explanations at all, since what we feel or experience isn't necessarily divorced from what we image. No dentist worth his reputation discounts the reportage of his patient's first-hand experiences of pain.
A doctor, for instance, may not precisely know what his or her patient is undergoing (even if she had undergone a similar procedure herself) when she performs surgery on them, but by keeping a keen eye and ear on her patient (and also monitoring internal machinations such as blood pressure and the like), the doctor can discover patterning that is correlative to the patient's internal experiences.
The hard problem in studying consciousness is oftentimes referred to as the “qualia” referendum (e.g., how can we possibly know what the subjective experience of “redness” is for another person?). It is difficult enough to even describe our own inner (and seemingly unique) subjective experiences, much less properly analyze what another person may or may not be feeling or seeing or experiencing.
Is consciousness a Skinnerian black box, whereby we are pushed to the hinterlands of behaviorism 101 just to monitor external responses to given stimuli?
Or, can we by our own self-conscious understandings somehow bridge the gap between first and third person narratives? Can we, in sum, develop a communicative system where I meets Thee? A sort of Martin Buber form of consciousness studies?
These are the kinds of questions that Dr. Solman's essay brings forth and the more practical neuroscientists working in the field today have tended to focus their research efforts on parts of the great puzzle, hoping that biting off smaller chunks the larger prey—a consciousness holistically understood—will one day become an achievable goal.
Others like Colin McGinn, the British philosopher now at the University of Miami, have argued that consciousness is an inherent mystery that is essentially non solvable. This so-called new mysterianism is explained thusly,
“New mysterians argue that their belief that the hard problem is unresolvable is not a presupposition, but is a logical conclusion reached by thinking carefully about the issue. The standard argument is as follows: Subjective experiences by their very nature cannot be shared or compared. Therefore it is impossible to know what subjective experiences a system (other than ourselves) is having. This will always be the case, no matter what clever scientific tests we invent. Therefore, although a person may know that they have qualia, they cannot meaningfully discuss these qualia from a third-person point of view, and the topic will remain mysterious and unresolvable.”
Patricia and Paul Churchland, the eminent neurophilosphers from UCSD, have little tolerance for this approach and have long argued that a robust eliminative materialism, grounded in the latest discoveries of neuroscience, can indeed unravel the mystery of consciousness itself. But in order to do such old and outdated (and misleading) folk psychological terminology has to be replaced with a more accurate neurological language. Thus, the very word consciousness has to be redefined to more accurately reflect what we ourselves experience moment to moment. It might be useful as an all-purpose touch phrase in polite conversation, but its very vagueness creates what may turn out to be an illusory and dualistic reification. For example, an untrained ear may listen to a 40 member orchestra, with a wide array of instruments, and say after the playing that it was a wonderful “song” implying a singularity of sorts since they didn't differentiate the various accompanying sounds (a flute, a piano, a violin) each of which served combinatorially to produce the desired effect. But a trained ear would realize that there were so many different sounds being produced and that the beautiful harmony within the song was the result of many varying features and that the effect of unification was itself the illusory byproduct of divergence.
Could our own “training” in self-reflection lead to similar results, whereby we unpack our perceived unity in consciousness and discover anew that it is anything but? Could an evolving neuroscience, and its attendant eliminative materialist language, lead us to a refashioning and a radical revising of how we talk about ourselves? Will the very term consciousness give way just as phlogiston and demonic possession have in the past once we have better understood the physical causes underlying such apparent phenomena?
The jury is still out on these and other questions and we will have to wait further deliberations until we can be satisfied with a final verdict.
However, there has been some remarkable progress in creating artificial systems that give at least the appearance of intentionality, intelligence, and consciousness. Ironically, by focusing on making artificially intelligent machines we may better understand what forms the “apparent” basis of self-conscious navigating systems. Just as Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double helix structure of DNA (and the secret to genetic coding) by their endless model building (none of which literally used organic material, but was rather done tinker toy like using metals), perhaps by artificially building models of what appear life-like or conscious we may get a deeper grasp of our own awareness.
From an absolutist perspective, I can appreciate Dr. Salmon's claim that “there is no scientific finding that compels us to think of 'X' as either conscious or non-conscious, living or non-living, intelligent or non-intelligent,” but the truth is that we clearly have very practical ways of going about determining such demarcations.
In fact, our very survival is predicated upon making day to day decisions over these very issues. Whenever I surf I tend not to confuse a surfboard with a surfer, neither do I confuse a mound of seaweed with a shark. When I was younger and attended a high school dance in our local gym, I didn't confuse a beautiful young girl with the basketball hoop. Moreover, whenever I have been stopped by a policeman in my car I am very clear in not conflating him with a rail guarding. We make such distinctions all the time, even if we don't have deep and persuasive philosophical reasonings justifying why. Yet, do I seriously think that our decision making processes is outside of the realm of science? No, not at all, since we can easily identify a whole set of external markers which help us make such split second decisions about whether something is living or not or whether something is conscious or not.
Our practical nature in this regard (played out in a real and observable empirical arena) is obviously amenable to an objectivist and scientific study, even if we cannot in a Kantian way get at the “thing in itself.”
Or, perhaps following Nietzsche's line of reasoning, there may be no “essence” to speak of, no “thing itself” as such, and thus our very language use betrays the subject/object dualism that we are heroically trying to resolve.
In this regard, one could better understand why a practical approach to the study of consciousness may be the most fruitful one in the long run and that resorting to tautological syllogisms at the start ends up, paradoxically, to be a nonstarter.
The Turing Dilemma
Alan Turing raised the stakes on what constitutes intelligence when he wrote “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in 1950 in the journal Mind about whether or not machines could think based on what he termed an “imitation game.” Turing explains, “It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart front the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either "X is A and Y is B" or "X is B and Y is A." The interrogator is allowed to put questions to A and B thus: C: Will X please tell me the length of his or her hair? Now suppose X is actually A, then A must answer. It is A's object in the game to try and cause C to make the wrong identification. His answer might therefore be:
"My hair is shingled, and the longest strands are about nine inches long." In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The ideal arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms. Alternatively the question and answers can be repeated by an intermediary. The object of the game for the third player (B) is to help the interrogator. The best strategy for her is probably to give truthful answers. She can add such things as "I am the woman, don't listen to him!" to her answers, but it will avail nothing as the man can make similar remarks. We now ask the question, "What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?" Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, "Can machines think?"
Later, Turing's imitation game was modified by a number of computer scientists and today it has evolved into several different versions. There is even an annual artificial intelligence competition held in Alan Turing's honor. The winner is awarded the Loebner Gold Medal. As the official website explains,
“The Loebner Prize for artificial intelligence (AI ) is the first formal instantiation of a Turing Test. The test is named after Alan Turing the brilliant British mathematician. Among his many accomplishments was basic research in computing science. In 1950, in the article Computing Machinery and Intelligence which appeared in the philosophy journal Mind, Alan Turing asked the question "Can a Machine Think?" He answered in the affirmative, but a central question was: "If a computer could think, how could we tell?" Turing's suggestion was, that if the responses from the computer were indistinguishable from that of a human,the computer could be said to be thinking. This field is generally known as natural language processing.”
“In 1990 Hugh Loebner agreed with The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies to underwrite a contest designed to implement the Turing Test. Dr. Loebner pledged a Grand Prize of $100,000 and a Gold Medal (pictured above) for the first computer whose responses were indistinguishable from a human's. Such a computer can be said "to think." Each year an annual prize of $2000 and a bronze medal is awarded to the most human-like computer. The winner of the annual contest is the best entry relative to other entries that year, irrespective of how good it is in an absolute sense.”
Not unexpectedly, given the rapid progress in technology, the Loebner Prize winners have continually gotten better at appearing “human” like.
What this test and others like it suggest is that given enough time we should be able to develop artificial devices of sufficient complexity which will consistently trick us into believing that they are human and not robotic. But this very trickery should give us a clue on how to better understand the appearance of self-awareness both to ourselves and to others.
And maybe in the not so distant future time we will be unable (or unwilling or unmotivated?) to differentiate an artificially engineered intelligent life form (replete with a convincing self-conscious display system) from a biological humanoid. Already it is becoming increasingly difficult for some to distinguish a computerized voice from a human one and given enough time and enough computational power everything a human being does so naturally may be easily mimicked. We don't have to accept every detail of Ray Kurzweil's controversial “Singularity” hypothesis to acknowledge that CGI is becoming so realistic as to become a “reality” without seams (where what is real blurs with what is artificial).
This was explicitly driven home to me when I showed a clip of a surfer riding a gigantic wave which was entitled “tsunami surfing.” The majority of my students thought it was the result of computer generated imagery. However, much to their amazement, I explained that it was genuine footage of a real surfer (Mike Parsons) riding a real wave (Jaws) in a real location (Maui).
Conversely, when I played a computerized voice named “Peter” that I had downloaded as a 99 cent app on my Apple iPad, the majority of my students believed that the voice was a human being talking, not the result of a sophisticated computer program.
Dr. Salmon ends his essay with an intriguing thought experiment in which he enjoins his readers as follows:
“If your general view is that X is conscious, spend more time studying the passage while assuming that X is non-conscious. If you think X is non-conscious, challenge yourself, see how much support you can find for the idea that X might involve consciousness or intelligence in some way.”
Interestingly, I think the idea that consciousness is a virtual simulator can dovetail nicely with thought experiments of this kind, since “imagining” what another person may consciously intend does indeed can have dramatic consequences on how we may or may not react to a given situation. Of course, the opposite is true as well, since if we believe that the object in our purview is unconscious or unintelligent our reactions may differ. But in both cases we are “simulating” a situation within our consciousness and acting accordingly.
Gerald Edelman, the distinguished Nobel laureate, has in a number of his books touched upon two fundamental forms of awareness, what he calls first and second nature. In a recent interview with Discover magazine, Edelman explains, in brief, his bipartite view of consciousness,
“There is every indirect indication that a dog is conscious—its anatomy and its nervous system organization are very similar to ours. It sleeps and its eyelids flutter during REM sleep. It acts as if it's conscious, right? But there are two states of consciousness, and the one I call primary consciousness is what animals have. It's the experience of a unitary scene in a period of seconds, at most, which I call the remembered present. If you have primary consciousness right now, your butt is feeling the seat, you're hearing my voice, you're smelling the air. Yet there's no consciousness of consciousness, nor any narrative history of the past or projected future plans.”
“Humans are conscious of being conscious, and our memories, strung together into past and future narratives, use semantics and syntax, a true language. We are the only species with true language, and we have this higher-order consciousness in its greatest form. If you kick a dog, the next time he sees you he may bite you or run away, but he doesn't sit around in the interim plotting to remove your appendage, does he? He can have long-term memory, and he can remember you and run away, but in the interim he's not figuring out, “How do I get Kruglinski?” because he does not have the tokens of language that would allow him narrative possibility. He does not have consciousness of consciousness like you.”
Edelman then goes on to explain why such a “Second” nature may be of evolutionary advantage in human beings,
“The evolutionary advantage is quite clear. Consciousness allows you the capacity to plan. Let's take a lioness ready to attack an antelope. She crouches down. She sees the prey. She's forming an image of the size of the prey and its speed, and of course she's planning a jump. Now suppose I have two animals: One, like our lioness, has that thing we call consciousness; the other only gets the signals. It's just about dusk, and all of a sudden the wind shifts and there's a whooshing sound of the sort a tiger might make when moving through the grass, and the conscious animal runs like hell but the other one doesn't. Well, guess why? Because the animal that's conscious has integrated the image of a tiger. The ability to consider alternative images in an explicit way is definitely evolutionarily advantageous.”
Going back in time, Edelman suggests how early forms of consciousness may have evolved:
“About 250 million years ago, when therapsid reptiles gave rise to birds and mammals, a neuronal structure probably evolved in some animals that allowed for interaction between those parts of the nervous system involved in carrying out perceptual categorization and those carrying out memory. At that point an animal could construct a set of discriminations: qualia. It could create a scene in its own mind and make connections with past scenes. At that point primary consciousness sets in. But that animal has no ability to narrate. It cannot construct a tale using long-term memory, even though long-term memory affects its behavior. Then, much later in hominid evolution, another event occurred: Other neural circuits connected conceptual systems, resulting in true language and higher-order consciousness. We were freed from the remembered present of primary consciousness and could invent all kinds of images, fantasies, and narrative streams.”
I think the study of consciousness is an open field of inquiry and... all thinkers on this subject are welcome to have a stab at it.
I think the study of consciousness is an open field of inquiry and, as John Searle once indicated in an interview on this subject, all thinkers on this subject are welcome to have a stab at it.
However, I do believe that there are some approaches (such as the neurobiological one) that even if they turn out to be incomplete or insufficient will undoubtedly produce more fruitful byproducts and off springs than others. In this regard, the more empirical strategies (focusing on the visual cortex or the olfactory nerve or mirror neurons) have been wildly successful in helping us understand combinatorially some of the outstanding features that often play a key feature in what we term consciousness, even if they ultimately come up short. While one may argue with Francis Crick's ultimate take on the biochemical basis of self-awareness, there is no getting around the fact that his practical approach to the subject (following one of William James' more practical routes) has paid off handsomely with regard to better appreciating how neuronal clusters interact, particularly in relation to our notions of vision.
But Crick's pathway shouldn't serve as a roadblock to others who have contrarian views on the subject. We are still in the preliminary stages in our grasp of this most fundamental of subjects and I do believe that Dr. Salmon's perspective (and others of like mind) should be taken seriously, even if it cuts across the prevalent model-making within certain neuroscientific circles.
A recent book by David Kaiser, a professor of the history of science at M.I.T., entitled How the Hippies Saved Physics provides a compelling argument that a group of rag tag physicists (most without steady jobs and most who held unorthodox ideas) changed the course of physics by following a radical and unconventional path where psychedelic drugs, psychic warfare, and Bell's theorem interfaced. As the publisher W.W. Norton & Company book summary explains,
“For physicists, the 1970s were a time of stagnation. Jobs became scarce, and conformity was encouraged, sometimes stifling exploration of the mysteries of the physical world. Dissatisfied, underemployed, and eternally curious, an eccentric group of physicists in Berkeley, California, banded together to throw off the constraints of the physics mainstream and explore the wilder side of science. Dubbing themselves the “Fundamental Fysiks Group,” they pursued an audacious, speculative approach to physics. They studied quantum entanglement and Bell's Theorem through the lens of Eastern mysticism and psychic mind-reading, discussing the latest research while lounging in hot tubs. Some even dabbled with LSD to enhance their creativity. Unlikely as it may seem, these iconoclasts spun modern physics in a new direction, forcing mainstream physicists to pay attention to the strange but exciting underpinnings of quantum theory.”
Therefore, I think it is wise that even as I and others may promote an intertheoretic and reductionistic approach to the study of consciousness, others with a more holistic viewpoint, such as the one suggested by Dr. Salmon, be given serious and deep consideration. I know for myself that I am looking forward to Dr. Salmon's future offerings, even if my skeptical antenna is pulsing out warning signals.
“The experience of consciousness is a self-referential loop, where our “I” gets irretrievably intertwined with the world we experience.” --Andrea Lane