WHAT'S IT LIKE TO BE YOU?
How many of you have heard the saying, "I think therefore I am?"
My name is Wayne Hall and I write the ideaFestival web log. My fondest hope is that you won't leave here thinking, "you know, he's a pretty good writer!"
Renee Descartes, who among other things was a famous mathematician, was searching for something that he could not doubt. He eventually decided that he could not doubt that his reflective inner life signified that he was. In philosophy, this formulation came to be known as dualism - the idea that there are two fundamental properties – two kinds of stuff - that make up the human being.
It's an old thought, isn't it? Many if not most religious traditions describe in an ineffable quality in us often referred to as the soul. But dualism fell on hard times for much of the last couple hundred years or so when a search began to explain the deepest mysteries using naturalism, or the language of cause and effect.
Today I'm going to very briefly discuss a particular problem in philosophy of mind called the Hard Problem of Consciousness, which resists cause and effect kinds of answers.
The "hard problem" really gained currency in the decade following 1994 symposium at the Center for Consciousness Studies in Arizona attended by Australian philosopher David Chalmers. He differentiated what he believed was an important characteristic of the mind from the so-called easy problems.
We know, for example, that the pre-frontal cortex lights up when people experience emotions. We know that the brain is much more plastic than first believed. For example, neural scans have shown that meditation can physically change the shape of those areas of the brain responsible for compassion, which means with practice monks have literally grown their compassion centers.
In terms of functions - systems - mechanics - the brain can be mapped. Our understanding of brain functions continues to develop and it's conceivable that in next couple of hundred years science will demonstrate how the brain works, how, for example, it controls respiration or experiences stress or emotions like love.
Given enough time, the easy problems may come to very satisfying conclusions.
But at that 1994 meeting, Chalmers suggested another problem of consciousness, essentially asking Where IS THAT inner voice? Why does our biology give rise to subjective experience? Or conversely, how exactly do immaterial thoughts result in bodily movements? He asked what is it like to be ME?
The hard problem describes those things that we intuit directly, without thinking about the matter. It's the way things appear to us and it raises the so-far unanswered question, just how do we get from the physical facts to completely subjective and individual experiences?
It's also controversial because of what it suggests about physicalism, the idea that ultimately there is nothing but physical stuff.
Tracing a path from what we directly intuit to the physical facts of the matter has been notoriously difficult.
Rationalism hasn't so far penetrated the mystery. One common argument against a physical basis for consciousness is called the Knowledge argument - it says that experience brings facts to bear that aren't captured by physical explanation. Physical objects seem to us, and what's more, seem to us in many cases differently depending on the individual.
While in theory, the sciences like chemistry and physics ought to be completely reducible to each other without remainder, as a practical matter inter-theoretical reductions are rare.
Mathematicians have shown that axiomatic systems cannot be whole and whole systems cannot be fully axiomatic.
What should we make of this?
While one can say that that we are made of physical stuff, it's a much, much different thing to say that everything can be explained by physical law.
If meaning and consciousness are roughly aligned, what is the geography of meaning? Where specifically is it located? Does it occur in our brains, or does happen elsewhere? This question is of very practical importance, for example, to the field of artificial intelligence.
I've recently been reading a book by Michael Wheeler about the rational assumptions of AI research that suggests that its assumptions are flawed. Traditional research into artificial intelligence had broken “how thing appear” into a sequence of events -- sense - represent - plan - act, drawn directly from Descartes’ playbook. He believe the mind was confined to the skull.
But do we in fact build mental models in our heads to which we apply reason to take action? If the answer is no, then research built on that rational superstructure is bound to provide incomplete results and the intelligence we seek to build into machines will be limited.
What would you say is one this screen? [it's a picture of the color red, the photo above.]
How many of you answered with the hexadecimal value #FF0000 or gave the RGB value of 255,0,0? If you did, you'd be partially right. This is how the color red is represented on the Web.
The point here is not that color doesn't have properties that can be conceptualized, abstracted or represented by a color code, or that the visual acuity can't be broken into discreet physical processes.
The point is that as humans we neither start nor end there. Meaning is something we apprehend directly.
Remember the knowledge argument? This is a famous argument that's been used many times.
Let's a assume that there is a neuroscientist who knows everything that there is to know about color vision, but she is blind. One day and for the very first time, she sees the color red and realizes that she has missed a very key element of color. Despite knowing everything that there was to know about the color red she had missed its very redness.
What can we conclude from that?
1. We know all the facts about the color red.
2. Experience is an additional fact.
3. Therefore, the physical facts do not exhaust all of the facts.
4. Experience, or consciousness, cannot be deduced from physical facts.
It may have been a while, but you just did some philosophy!
In my view, consciousness is more easily understood in the language of intention. In philosophy there is branch of reasoning called phenomenology that seeks to explain what is by studying how things appear to us. Phenomenon like love, benevolence, self sacrifice, charity are the mechanisms science can point to but not fully explain.
BY INTENDING THOSE THINGS, we might experience interpersonal harmony, warmth, ease and grace.
Every one of you are host to a sentient, reflective, inner world completely unique to you. Rational, reductive, physical and symbolic processes are of limited use in accounting for that experience. How special is THAT?
What's it like to be You? Only You know.
The HARD PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS IS YOUR EVERYDAY EXPERIENCE.