PSYCH 4320 / COGST 4310 / BioNB 4330

Consciousness and Free Will

Introduction

  Week 1

Week 1: introduction


The holy grail of the quest for self-knowledge: CONSCIOUSNESS

self-knowledge: religion and philosophy, East and West; also science


Self-knowledge has been highly valued by many philosophical and religious traditions, East and West. Laozi's comment "knowing others is wisdom; knowing the self is enlightenment" and the Buddha's gospel of self-knowledge would not have sounded out of place in Greece, where the entrance to the shrine of Apollo's Oracle at Delphi bore the injunction "know thyself."

Self-knowledge is, of course, what cognitive science is (or is supposed to be) all about.

self-knowledge: profit and peril (a "trigger warning" of sorts)



'Do you advise me to look?' asked Frodo.

'No,' she said. 'I do not counsel you one way or the other. I am not a counsellor. You may learn something, and whether what you see be fair or evil, that may be profitable, and yet it may not. Seeing is both good and perilous. Yet I think Frodo, that you have courage and wisdom enough for the venture, or I would not have brought you here. Do as you will!'

The Lord of the Rings
J. R. R. Tolkien

what question(s) about consciousness should we ask?


In the fall of 1917, I [Warren S. McCulloch] entered Haverford with two strings to my bow — facility in Latin and a sure foundation in mathematics. I "honored" in the latter and was seduced by it. That winter, Rufus Jones [the President of Haverford] called me in. "Warren," said he, "what is thee going to be"? And I said, "I don't know." "And what is thee going to do?" And again I said, "I have no idea; but there is one question I would like to answer: What is a number, that a man may know it, and what a man, that he may know a number?" He smiled and said, "Friend, thee will be busy as long as thee lives!"

an improved version of McCulloch's question


Our question, to emphasize it once again, is not to ask what kind of thing a number is, but to think what kind of mechanism could represent so many physically possible or impossible, and yet self-consistent, processes as number does.

Kenneth J. W. Craik (1914 — 1945)
The Nature of Explanation (1943)

the last word, from McCulloch


We have learned that the answer depends upon how we ask the question. And we have learned to ask the question so as to get an answer of a kind that we can use.

Warren S. McCulloch
Through the Den of the Metaphysician, Thales 7:37-49, 1951;
reprinted in The Embodiments of Mind, MIT Press, 1965

a pretty famous question: what are the neural correlates of consciousness?


It is probable that at any moment some active neuronal processes in your head correlate with consciousness, while others do not; what is the difference between them?

Francis Crick and Christof Koch, Consciousness and Neuroscience (1998)

"Imagine this: Through some quirk of fate it happens that you and all your associates have no knowledge whatsoever of the principle and workings of internal combustion engines. [...] No descriptions are available, and you interpret this to mean that you may be faced with quite a difficult problem. You therefore decide on a research strategy of circumspection, caution, and minimal initial assumptions, namely to study the 'material correlates of internal combustion engines.' [...] This may lead to rigorous studies of gas stations, rubber plantations on Sri Lanka, gasket retailers in Birmingham, oil prospecting in Alaska, and pattern design for automobile upholstery, all without guaranteeing convergence on the functional principle of internal combustion." — Björn Merker

a CRUCIAL methodological point


"Understanding consciousness means finding the biophysical mechanisms that generate it."

Richard Rhodes, writing in a wiki on consciousness at Wired

a CRUCIAL methodological point


"Understanding consciousness means finding the biophysical mechanisms that generate it."

Richard Rhodes, writing in a wiki on consciousness at Wired

a CRUCIAL methodological point


"Understanding consciousness means finding the biophysical mechanisms that generate it."

Richard Rhodes, writing in a wiki on consciousness at Wired

"We know that we are a compound of tissues, organs, fluids, and consciousness."

Alexis Carrel,
writing in Man, the Unknown

a CRUCIAL methodological point


"Understanding consciousness means finding the biophysical mechanisms that generate it."

Richard Rhodes, writing in a wiki on consciousness at Wired

"To which the acute and judicious proposer answers, 'Not.'"

John Locke, a propos Molyneux's Problem,
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [ii.ix.8] (1690)

a CRUCIAL methodological point


Understanding consciousness means finding out


What we're after is "a view from everywhere".

the phenomenal Self



A caveat:

The phenomenal Self ≠ the "soul" —
"Call the world if you Please 'The vale of Soul-making.' [...] Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence — There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions — but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself." [John Keats, in a letter, 1819]

the phenomenology of vision


phenomenology


phenomenology


phenomenology


phenomenology


phenomenology: not HOT


Yatima gazed at the three of them, bemused — oblivious to the ceremonial words, trying to understand what had changed inside verself. Ve saw vis friends, and the stars, and the crowd, and sensed vis own icon [...] but even as these ordinary thoughts and perceptions flowed on unimpeded, a new kind of question seemed to spin through the black space behind them all. Who is thinking this? Who is seeing these stars? Who is wondering about these thoughts, and these sights?

And the reply came back, not just in words, but in the answering hum of the one symbol among the thousands that reached out to claim all the rest. Not to mirror every thought, but to bind them. To hold them together, like skin.

Who is thinking this?

I am.

G. Egan, Orphanogenesis (1997)

the tension between phenomenology and neuroscience


You enter the brain through the eye, march up the optic nerve, round and round the cortex, looking behind every neuron, and then, before you know it, you emerge into daylight on the spike of a motor nerve impulse, scratching your head and wondering where the self is.

D. C. Dennett, Elbow Room (1984)

the tension between phenomenology and neuroscience: regarding "mere" matter


So far as one's opposition to materialism springs from one's disdain of matter as something 'crass' [...] Matter is indeed infinitely and incredibly refined. To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent, the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form ought to make matter sacred ever after. [...] That beloved incarnation was among matter's possibilities.

From Pragmatism
by William James (1907)

questions arising


  1. What makes a "mere" physical process an experience for someone?
  2. What makes a "mere" physical system a subject, or an experiencer?
  3. What does having a first-person perspective on the world consist of?

some answers re the first-person perspective (after Metzinger, 2003)

The four key components of phenomenal first-person experience:

agency, or sense of initiative;

mineness, or sense of ownership;

perspectivalness, or the perception of phenomenal space as being organized around the self;

selfhood, or the conscious experience of being someone.

  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

multi-perspective and plenoptic vision


[cf. the plenoptic framework]

sensory substitution


the first-person perspective (Metzinger)

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
    The disposition of matter and energy in the world is accessible to the brain exclusively through the mediation of its sensory apparatus (which includes both the five external senses and the various interoceptive channels). No matter how veridical some of the information provided by these senses is, the representations they feed into are necessarily virtual computational constructs.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
    The use of the virtual representations generated by the senses often involves simulation of events or situations (scene perception; language comprehension). Simulation is also central to planning and control (intended actions, etc.).
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
    According to Metzinger (2003), the phenomenal first-person experience works like a total flight simulator — a virtual reality rig that simulates the entire world along with the pilot, the latter being a model (a simulation) of the system itself.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
    To avoid infinite regress (trying to represent a system that represents a system that represents...), the model of the world (which includes a model of the system itself) is taken to be the "last word" — the ultimate reality.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
    "The transparency of the self-model is a special form of inner darkness. It consists in the fact that the representational character of the contents of self-consciousness is not accessible to subjective experience." — Metzinger (2003).
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the first-person perspective

  1. The experienced reality is virtual.
  2. The experienced reality is a simulation of the world.
  3. The simulation is not recognized by the system as such.
  4. The part of the simulation that represents the system itself is special.
    The represented reality contains one component that differs from all others in being always present. This self-model — the only representational structure that is fed by a continuous source of internally generated (interoceptive) input — is the phenomenal Self.
  • agency
  • mineness
  • perspectivalness
  • selfhood

the Self demystified


What we have been calling "the" self in the past is not a substance, an unchangeable essence, or a thing (i.e., an "individual" in the sense of philosophical metaphysics), but a very special kind of representational content: the content of a phenomenally transparent system-model. It is the content of a self-model that cannot be recognized as a model by the system using it.

T. Metzinger, Being No One (2003)

are we done?


What about neurobiology?

An excellent mapping of Metzinger's ideas onto the human vertebrate nervous system exists in the form of the (independently developed) theory of Björn Merker.

Does experience really require a first-person perspective and other trappings of a (human vertebrate-like) Self?? —

        We've seen and heard so much — what have we learned?
        Not for one moment has the Self been spurned;
        Fools gather round and hinder our release:
        When will their stale, insistent whining cease?
        We have no freedom to achieve our goal
        Until from Self and fools we free the soul.
                [from The Conference of the Birds (1177)
                by Farid ud-Din al-Attar]

questions 1, 2 still unanswered


  1. What makes a "mere" physical process an experience for someone?
  2. What makes a "mere" physical system a subject, or an experiencer?
  3. What does having a first-person perspective on the world consist of?

we need a more fundamental theory of phenomenal experience


Any theory of phenomenal experience must satisfy a number of criteria:

There are presently only two contenders for a viable theory of phenomenality:

  1. the Integrated Information Theory —
    Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as Integrated Information: a Provisional Manifesto. Biological Bulletin 215:216-242.
  2. the Geometric Theory —
    Fekete, T. & S. Edelman (2011). Towards a Computational Theory of Experience, Consciousness and Cognition 20:807-827.

this is what the rest of the course is about


The syllabus (including the technicalities of getting credit, etc.).

Please sign up for a presentation, HERE.

A bunch of supplementary readings on the brain (in particular, about combatting corticocentrism) will be posted to Blackboard. [These have been originally assembled to serve as background for my lab meetings.]

what next


What next? Bite into the apple.