Planet of Zombies

21 August 2016

Sunday


planet of zombies 2

The Fate of Mind in the Age of Turing

We are living today in the Age of Turing. Alan Turing was responsible for the theoretical work underlying contemporary computer science, but Turing’s work went far beyond the formal theory of the computer. Like Darwin, Turing’s thought ran ahead of the science he founded, and he openly speculated on the consequences of the future development of the computers that his theory made possible.

In his seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (the paper in which he introduced the “Turing Test,” which he called the “imitation game”) Turing began with the question, “Can machines think?” and went on to assert:

I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible, to programme computers, with a storage capacity of about 109, to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

A. M. Turing, “Computing machinery and intelligence,” Mind, 1950, 59, 433-460.

Turing’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass, but Turing was absolutely correct that one can speak of machines thinking without being contradicted. Indeed, Turing was more right than he could have guessed, as his idea that computers should be judged upon their performance — and even compared in the same way to human performance — rather than on a vague idea of thinking or consciousness, has become so commonplace that, if one maintains the contrary in public, one can expect to be contradicted.

Turing was, in respect to mind and consciousness, part of a larger intellectual movement that called into question “folk concepts,” which came to seem unacceptably vague and far too unwieldy in the light of the explanatory power of scientific concepts, the latter often constructed without reference to folk concepts, which came to be viewed as dispensable. Consciousness has been relegated to the status of a concept of “folk psychology” with no scientific basis.

While I am in sympathy with the need for rigorous scientific concepts, the eliminative approach to mind and consciousness has not resulted in greater explanatory power for scientific theories, but rather has reinforced an “explanatory gap” (a term made prominent by David Chalmers) that has resulted in a growing disconnect between the most rigorous sciences of human and animal behavior on the one hand, and on the other hand what we know to be true of our own experience, but which we cannot formulate or express in scientific terms. This is a problem. The perpetuation of this disconnect will only deepen our misunderstanding of ourselves and will continue to weaken the ability of science to explain anything that touches upon human experience. Moreover, this is not merely a human matter. We misunderstand the biosphere entire if we attempt to understand it while excluding the role of consciousness. More on this below.

Science has been misled in the study of consciousness by an analogy with the study of life. Life was once believed to be inexplicable in terms of pure science, and so there was a dispute between “mechanism” and “vitalism,” with the vitalists believing that there was some supernatural or other principle superadded to inanimate matter, and that possession of this distinctively vital element unaccountable in scientific terms distinguished the animate from the animate. Physics and chemistry alone could explain inanimate matter, but something more was needed, according to vitalism, to explain life. But with the progress of biology, vitalism was not so much refuted as made irrelevant. We now have a good grasp of biochemistry, and while a distinction is made between inorganic chemistry and biochemistry, it is all understood to be chemistry, and no vital spark is invoked to explain the chemistry distinctive of life.

Similarly, consciousness has been believed to be a “divine spark” within a human being that distinguishes a distinctively human perspective on the world, but consciousness “explained” in this way comes with considerable theological baggage, as explicitly theological terms like “soul” and “spirit” are typically used interchangeably with “consciousness” and “mind.” From a scientific perspective, this leaves much to be desired, and we could do much better. I agree with this. Turing’s imitation game seems to present us with an operational definition of consciousness that allows us to investigate mind and consciousness without reference to the theological baggage. There is much to gained by Turing’s approach, but the problem is that we have here no equivalent of chemistry — no underlying physical theory that could account for consciousness in the way that life is accounted for by biochemistry.

Part of the problem, and the problem that most interests me at present, is the anthropocentrism of both traditional theological formulations and contemporary scientific formulations. If we understand human consciousness not as an exception that definitively separates us from the rest of life on the planet, not as a naturalistic stand-in for a “divine spark” that would differentiate human beings from the “lower” animals, but as a distinctive development of consciousness already emergent in other forms preceding human beings, then we understand that human consciousness is continuous with other forms of consciousness in nature, and that, as conscious beings, we are part of something greater than ourselves, which is a biosphere in which consciousness is commonplace, like vision or flight.

There are naturalistic alternatives to an anthropocentric conception of consciousness, alternatives that place consciousness in the natural world, and which also have the virtue of avoiding the obvious problems of eliminativist of reductivist accounts of consciousness. I will consider the views of Antonio Damasio and John Searle. I do not fully agree with either of these authors, but I am in sympathy with these approaches, which seem to me to offer the possibility of further development, as fully scientific as Turing’s approach, but without the denial of consciousness as a distinctive constituent of the world.

Antonio R. Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens distinguished between core consciousness and extended consciousness. Core consciousness, he wrote:

“…provides the organism with a sense of self about one moment — now — and about one place — here. The scope of core consciousness is the here and now. Core consciousness does not illuminate the future, and the only past it vaguely lets us glimpse is that which occurred in the instant just before. There is no elsewhere, there is no before, there is no after.”

Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt, Inc., 1999, p. 16

…and…

“…core consciousness is a simple, biological phenomenon; it has one single level of organization; it is stable across the lifetime of the organism; it is not exclusively human; and it is not dependent on conventional memory, working memory, reasoning, or language.”

Loc. cit.

The simplicity of core consciousness gives it a generality across organisms, and across the life span of a given organism; at any one time, it is always more or less the same. Extended consciousness, on the other hand, is both more complex and less robust, dependent upon an underlying core consciousness, but constructing from core consciousness what Damasio calls the “autobiographical self” in contradistinction to the ephemeral “core self” of core consciousness. Extended consciousness, Damasio says:

“…provides the organism with an elaborate sense of self — an identity and a person, you or me, no less — and places that person at a point in individual historical time, richly aware of the lived past and of the anticipated future, and keenly cognizant of the world beside it.”

Loc. cit.

…and…

“…extended consciousness is a complex biological phenomenon; it has several levels of organization; and it evolves across the lifetime of the organism. Although I believe extended consciousness is also present in some nonhumans, at simple levels, it only attains its highest reaches in humans. It depends on conventional memory and working memory. When it attains its human peak, it is also enhanced by language.”

Loc. cit.

…but…

“…extended consciousness is not an independent variety of consciousness: on the contrary, it is built on the foundation of core consciousness.”

Op. cit., p. 17

One might add to this formulation by noting that, as extended consciousness is built on core consciousness, core consciousness is, in turn, built on the foundation of biological processes. I would probably describe consciousness in a somewhat different way, and would make different distinctions, but I find Damasio’s approach helpful, as he makes no attempt to explain away consciousness or to reduce it to something that it is not. Damasio seeks to describe and to explain consciousness as consciousness, and, moreover, sees consciousness as part of the natural world that is to be found embodied in many beings in addition to human beings, which latter constitutes, “…extended consciousness at its zenith.”

Damasio’s formulation of both core consciousness and extended consciousness as biological phenomena might be compared to what John Searle calls “biological naturalism.” What Searle, a philosopher, and Damasio, a neuroscientist, have in common is an interest in a naturalistic account of mind which is not eliminativist or reductivist. To this end, both emphasize the biological nature of consciousness. Searle has conveniently summarized his biological naturalism in six theses, as follows:

1. Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes. It has therefore a first-person ontology.

2. Because it has a first-person ontology, consciousness cannot be reduced to a third-person phenomena in the way that it is typical of other natural phenomena such as heat, liquidity, or solidity.

3. Consciousness is, above all, a biological phenomenon. Conscious processes are biological processes.

4. Conscious processes are caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain.

5. Consciousness consists of higher-level processes realized in the structure of the brain.

6. There is, as far as we know, no reason in principle why we could not build an artificial brain that also causes and realizes consciousness.

John R. Searle, Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York: Basic Books, 1999, p. 53

Searle’s formulations — again, as with Damasio, I would probably formulate these ideas a bit differently, but, on the whole, I am sympathetic to Searle’s approach — are a reaction against a reaction, i.e., against a reactionary theory of mind, which is the materialist theory of mind formulated in consciousness contradistinction to Cartesian dualism. Searle devotes a considerable portion of several books to the problems with this latter philosophy. I think the most important lesson to take away from Searle’s critique is not the technical dispute, but the thematic motives that underlie this philosophy of mind:

“How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least, seem obviously false? Extreme views in philosophy are almost never unintelligent; there are generally very deep and powerful reasons why they are held. I believe one of the unstated assumptions behind the current batch of views is that they represent the only scientifically acceptable alternatives to the antiscientism that went with traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on. Acceptance of the current views is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives.”

John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, Chap. 1

The biologism of both Damasio and Searle make it possible not only to approach human consciousness scientifically, but also to place consciousness in nature — the alternatives being denying human consciousness or approaching it non-scientifically, and denying consciousness a place in nature. These alternatives have come to have a colorful representation in contemporary philosophy in the discussion of “philosophical zombies.” Philosophical zombies are beings like ourselves, but without consciousness. The question, then, is whether we can distinguish philosophical zombies from human beings in possession of consciousness. I hope that the reader will have noticed that, in the discussion of philosophical zombies we encounter another anthropocentric formulation. (I previously touched on some of the issues related to philosophical zombies in The Limitations of Human Consciousness, A Note on Soulless Zombies, and The Prodigal Philosopher Returns.)

The anthropocentrism of philosophical zombies can be amended by addressing philosophical zombies in a more comprehensive context, in which not only human beings have consciousness, but consciousness is common in the biosphere. Then the question becomes not, “can we distinguish between philosophical zombies and conscious human beings” but “can we distinguish between a biosphere in which consciousness plays a constitutive role and a biosphere in which consciousness is entirely absent”? This is potentially a very rich question, and I could unfold it over several volumes, rather than the several paragraphs that follow, which should be understood as only the barest sketch of the problem.

As I see it, reconstructing biosphere evolution should include the reconstruction, to the extent possible, of the evolution of consciousness as a component of the biosphere — when did it emerge? When did the structures upon which is supervenes emerge? How did consciousness evolve and adapt to changing selection pressures? How did consciousness radiate, and what forms has it taken? These questions are obviously entailed by biological naturalism. Presumably consciousness evolved gradually from earlier antecedents that were not consciousness. Damasio writes, “natural low-level attention precedes consciousness,” and, “consciousness and wakefulness, as well as consciousness and low-level attention, can be separated.” Again, I would formulate this a bit differently, but, in principle, states of a central nervous system prior to the emergence of consciousness would precede even rudimentary core consciousness. If these states of a central nervous system prior to consciousness include wakefulness and low-level attention, this would constitute a particular seriation of the evolution of consciousness.

Damasio calls human consciousness, “consciousness at its zenith,” and a naturalistic conception of consciousness recognizes this by placing this zenith of human consciousness at the far end of the continuum of consciousness, but still on a continuum that we share with other beings with which we share the biosphere. A human being is not only a being among beings, but also one biological being among other biological beings. Given Searle’s biological naturalism, our common biology — especially the common biology of our central nervous systems and brains — points to our being a conscious being among other conscious beings. This seems to be borne out in our ordinary experience, as we usually understand our experience. We interact with other conscious beings on the level of consciousness, but the quality of consciousness may differ among beings. Interacting with other beings on the level of awareness means that our relationships with other conscious beings are marked by mutual awareness: not only are we aware of the other, but the other is also aware of us.

Above and beyond mere consciousness is sentient consciousness, i.e., consciousness with an emotional element superadded. We interact with other sentient beings on the level of sentience, that is to say, on the level of feeling. Our relationships with other mammals, especially those we have made part of our civilization, like dogs and horses, are intimate, personal relationships, not mediated by intelligence, but mostly mediated by the emotional lives we share with our fellow mammals, endowed, like us, with a limbic system. We intuitively understand the interactions and group dynamics of other social species, because we are ourselves a social species, Even when the institutions of, for example, gorilla society or chimpanzee society, are radically different from the institutions of human society, we can recognize that these are societies, and we can sometimes recognize the different rules that govern these societies.

Even when human beings are absent from interactions in the biosphere, there are still interactions on the level of consciousness and sentience. When a bobcat chases a hare, both interact on the level of two core consciousnesses, and also, as mammals, they interact on a sentient level. The hare has that level of fear and panic possible for core consciousness, and the bobcat, no doubt, experiences the core consciousness equivalent of satisfaction if it catches the hare, and frustration if the hare escapes. Or when a herd of wild horses panics and stampedes, their common sentient response to some environmental stimulation provides the basis of their interaction as a herd species.

All of this can be denied, and we can study nature as though consciousness were no part of it. While I have assimilated the denial of consciousness in nature to anthropocentrism, many more assimilate the attribution of consciousness to other species as a form of anthropocentrism. Clearly, we need to better define anthropocentrism, where and how it misleads us, and where and how it better helps us to understand our fellow beings with which we share the biosphere. That position that identifies consciousness as peculiarly human and denies it to the rest of the biosphere is, in effect asserting that a biosphere of zombies is indistinguishable from a biosphere of consciousness beings; I can understand how this grows out of a legitimate concern to avoid anthropocentric extrapolations, but I can also recognize the violation of the Copernican principle in this position. The view that recognizes consciousness throughout the macroscopic biosphere can also be interpreted as consistent with avoiding anthropocentrism, but also is consonant with Copernicanism broadly construed.

To adopt an eliminativist or reductionist account of consciousness, i.e., to deny the reality of consciousness, is not only to deny consciousness to human beings (a denial that would be thoroughly anthropocentric), it is to deny consciousness to the whole of nature, to deny all consciousness of all kinds throughout nature. It is to assert that consciousness has no place in nature, and that a planet of zombies is indistinguishable from a planet of consciousness agents. Without consciousness, the world entire would be a planet of zombies.

To deny consciousness is to deny that there are any other species, or any other biospheres, in the universe in which consciousness plays a role. If we deny consciousness we also deny consciousness elsewhere in the universe, unless we insist that terrestrial life is the exception, and that, again, would be a non-Copernican position to take. To deny consciousness is to deny that consciousness will ever inhere in some non-biological substrate, i.e., it is to deny that machines will never become conscious, because there is no such thing as consciousness. To deny consciousness is to constitute in place of the biosphere we have, in which conscious interaction plays a prominent role in the lifeways of megafauna, a planet of zombies in which all of these apparent interactions are mere appearance, and the reality is non-conscious beings interacting mechanically and only mechanically. I am not presenting this as a moral horror, that we should avoid because it offends us, but as naturalistically — indeed, biologically — false. Our world is not a planet of zombies.

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Saturday


brain outline

Evolutionary Psychology in an Astrobiological Context

Recently I was reading about evolutionary biology and it struck me how it might be possible to place evolutionary psychology in an astrobiological context and thereby formulate a much more comprehensive conception of astrobiology that goes beyond biology narrowly conceived (as well as a much more comprehensive conception of evolutionary psychology). Evolutionary biology itself has gone beyond the strictly biological in the form of evolutionary psychology, which applies the theoretical framework of evolutionary biology to elucidate human nature, human behavior, and human thought. Evolutionary biology has also gone beyond the terrestrial in the form of astrobiology, which applies the theoretical framework of evolutionary biology to elucidate life on Earth in a cosmological context. To join together these extrapolations of biology in an even larger synthesis would provide a impressive point of view.

I cannot mention evolutionary psychology without pausing to acknowledge the controversy of this discipline, and evolutionary biology today has the (nearly) unique status of being disparaged by both the political left and the political right, but my readers will already have guessed where I am likely to stand on this controversy, especially if they have read my Against Natural History, Right and Left. That the tender sensibilities of the politically motivated are offended by the harsh insights of evolutionary psychology ought to be counted in its favor. Here I am reminded of something Foucault said:

“I think I have in fact been situated in most of the squares on the political checkerboard, one after another and sometimes simultaneously: as anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal and so on. An American professor complained that a crypto-Marxist like me was invited in the USA, and I was denounced by the press in Eastern European countries for being an accomplice of the dissidents. None of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean.”

Foucault, Michel, “Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” in Essential Works of Foucault, edited by Paul Rabinow, Vol. 1, “Ethics,” The New Press, 1998.

Being politically denounced in this way from all possible points of view is an admission that the existing framework of thought does not yet have a convenient pigeonhole in which a person or an idea can be placed and then forgotten.

Evolutionary psychology in the context of astrobiology becomes something even more difficult to place than it is at present, although it seems to me like the logical extrapolation of astrobiology placing biology in a cosmological context. I’m not the only one who has been thinking in these terms. About the same time that I started thinking about evolutionary psychology and astrobiology together, I happened across the work of Pauli Laine, who characterizes himself as a cognitive astrobiologist. Laine spoke at the 2013 and 2014 100YSS conferences (I spoke at the 2011 and 2012 100YSS conferences, so we didn’t cross paths).

The psychology of an organism that attains to consciousness will be constrained by the evolutionary history of that organism long before it made the breakthrough the consciousness. (However, it does not follow that the conscious mind is wholly determined by biological processes; this is a distinct thesis and must be separately defended.) The biology of the organism and its species is, in turn, constrained by the biosphere in which that organism evolved. The biosphere is, in turn, constrained by the planet upon which the biosphere emerged; the parameters of the planet are constrained by the protoplanetary disk from which it and its star formed, this protoplanetary disk is in turn constrained by the galactic ecology of its local galaxy, and the galaxy is constrained by the parameters of the universe. We need not assert determinism at any level in this sequence (i.e., we need not assert that any one level of emergent complexity is wholly and exhaustively determined by the preceding level of emergent complexity) in order to acknowledge the role of an earlier state of the universe in constraining a later state of the universe.

Following the above nesting of local constraints within global constraints, the consciousness and psychology of the individual is ultimately constrained by the parameters of the universe. However, these global constraints are relatively weak in comparison to the local constraints, such as the evolutionary history of the species to which the individual organism belongs.

The next step would be to begin the above nested sequence of transitive constraints with civilization, such that civilization is constrained by the minds that produce it, the minds that produce civilization are constrained by the evolutionary history of that organism long before it made the breakthrough the consciousness, and so on. This doesn’t work so neatly, as we can intuitively see that, while civilization is a product of mind, mind is in turn influenced by the civilization it creates, so that mind and civilization are coevolutionary. This is true of the other instances of transitive constraints mentioned. For example, evolutionary biology is constrained by the biosphere, but the biosphere is in its turn influenced by the organisms that emerge within it. This added complexity does not falsify the point I am trying to make, it just means that we have to take more factors into account. It also means that mind may ultimately play a role in the universe that ultimately constrains it, and if civilization expands throughout the cosmos it is easy to see how this could happen.

Elsewhere I have suggested that astrocivilization is civilization understood in a cosmological context, as astrobiology is biology understood in a cosmological context. I have cited the NASA definition of astrobiology as, “…the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe,” which invites the parallel formulation of astrocivilization as the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe. Astrocivilization is the extended conception of civilization that follows from transcending our native geocentrism and formulating a concept of civilization free from anthropocentrism and terrestrial bias (and one way to do this is to follow the Husserlian methodology of thought experiments).

Ultimately, our civilization is constructed gradually and piecemeal from countless individual decisions made by countless individuals, each following the promptings of a mind shaped by a long evolutionary history. This evolutionary history may be pushed back in time to the origins of the universe, and when science is capable of taking us beyond this point, the same evolutionary history will be pushed back even further in time to the antecedents of the observable universe. Somewhat more narrowly, given what I call the Principle of Civilization-Intelligence Covariance, the nature of astrocivilization follows from the nature of evolutionary psychology in a cosmological context.

I could have titled this post, “From Astrophysics to Astrocivilization” rather than “From Astrobiology to Astrocivilization,” because we can employ an even more comprehensive framework than that of astrobiology, according to which astrobiology is derived from astrophysics, and particular examples of evolution, ecology, and selection are local and limited instances of what on the largest scale is galactic ecology. But we still have much work to do in placing evolutionary psychology in an astrobiological context. We can think of this synthesis of evolutionary psychology and astrobiology (or, employing Laine’s term, cognitive astrobiology) as a higher form of naturalism, where “nature” is not our planet alone, but the whole of the cosmos. Naturalism in this sense is something like cosmologism. This would then answer the question, “What comes after naturalism?” That is to say, once contemporary philosophy has exhausted naturalism, what comes next? What comes next is the universe entire, and, after that, the universe beyond the scope of contemporary science.

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Evolutionary Transcendence

7 December 2013

Saturday


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Gödel, McGinn, and the Evolution of Mind

In so far as our human, all-too-human minds supervene upon human, all-too-human bodies (i.e., brains) — subject to all the ills that flesh is heir to — the biological evolution of the brain entails the evolution of the human mind. Indeed, one of the most interesting features of hominid evolution is brain evolution, which has been called The Runaway Brain.

Brain evolution has been a distinctive constituent of human evolution.

Brain evolution has been a distinctive constituent of human evolution.

Why did the brain take off in a runaway escalating spiral among hominids but not in other species? The likely answer is that, at some point in our history — a history that extends well back in time before homo sapiens — human beings and our predecessor species engaged in direct competition engaging intellectual capacity — the survival of the smartest. The human mind, and its distinctive form of consciousness, is the result of an evolutionary “arms race” in intelligence (perhaps even constituting a Fisherian runaway, though not necessarily sexually dimorphic). The impressive brains of several mollusc species, which possess sophisticated camera eyes and a structural complexity prerequisite to controlling the coloration of the entire skin surface, never seems to have been drawn into a cognitive evolutionary spiral as happened with hominids.

It has been argued that the human brain has reached the practical limitations of biologically-based intelligence. A much larger brain would slow down signaling between the regions of the brain, and a much smaller brain would fall below the threshold necessary for consciousness, sentience, and intelligence. While this may be true for strictly biological entities, it leaves aside the possibility of the technological enhancement of an organic brain, or the possibility of pharmaceutical-based cognitive enhancement, in the form of drugs that would improve focus and concentration, or otherwise enhance cognitive function without organic changes to the basic structure and size of the human brain. So there may yet be room for improvement, even if our brains remain more-or-less the same, biologically and organically speaking.

The kind of cognitive improvement I would like to discuss here, however, is not technological or pharmaceutical, but the kind of cognitive improvement that we have seen throughout the development of hominids and the social institutions that hominids have created in order to facilitate cognitive function (like the cumulative effects of social learning, which David Christian of Big History fame has emphasized as a crucial stage in human development). This is a technology, too, if we count ideas as social technologies. The idea of zero is a mathematical technology that allows us to think much more efficiently and effectively in mathematical terms, even if our brains are not organically improved, and even if we are subject to an entire battery of logical fallacies and cognitive biases. (Brain plasticity means that learning new ideas means actual organic changes in the brain, in terms of restructuring neural pathways, but the overall structure and function of the brain remains intact; here it is useful to distinguish between ontogenic development and phylogenic development.)

The evolution of our ideas has been almost as slow as the evolution of our brains. If we look back on the long history of hominids and see the use of tools by early hominids, and eventually the use of fire, were developments of the first importance, but which remained static for literally millions of years. Later with homo sapiens came language, and later still came written language. Only in the past two hundred years have we added electronic telecommunications (the first telegraph for regular communication became operable in 1833), which have so greatly accelerated the utility of language, and allowed language to grow and branch out in new and unexpected ways, that we tend to forget that human beings spoke to each other for tens of thousands of years before anyone was able to put into practice the idea of written symbolic communication.

This at times painfully slow pace of development contrasts with our habit of speaking of “revolutions” in our intellectual development (like the Copernican revolution). Ideas build one upon another, with the earlier often being the condition of the possibility of the later, which makes these earlier ideas, in Kantian terms, the transcendental condition of later ideas. In the same way, our bodies in evolution — and our bodies as specific to our minds, i.e., our brains — are similarly constructed incrementally through history, with the earlier developments being the condition of the possibility of later developments.

The evolutionary and incremental development of our brain, our mind that supervenes on our brain, and our ideas that supervene on our minds, is slow and gradual and only reveals its radical character over the very long term. Without the discoveries of scientific historiography, which has restored to us the once-lost deep history of our species, we might assume that everything remains unchanged in an eternal and unchanging universe — which was, in fact, the dominant conception of human beings in the cosmos in the past.

The reader may find my title — evolutionary transcendence — a bit odd, perhaps not quite right, since we understand by evolution an immanent process, thoroughly integral with the mundane world, and not at all as something “above” or “independent of” the world. Indeed, it would make no sense at all to speak of evolution that is “above” the world. Nevertheless, evolution has, over the long term, repeatedly resulted in radical transcendence that supervenes upon the incremental Kantian transcendental conditions that hold for each stage of a developmental history.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, definition 1.b. of “transcendence” reads as follows:

The attribute of being above and independent of the universe; distinguished from immanence.

The relevant sense of “immanence” (adj. 1) reads as follows:

Indwelling, inherent; actually present or abiding in; remaining within.

Both of the terms — transcendence and immanence — are heavily laden with theological connotations, as the further definitions and examples from the OED make clear. This theological baggage makes the terms problematic, but, if we set aside the connotations of otherworldliness, there is no other word for the consequences of evolution over la longue durée than than later forms — of life and of ideas — transcend earlier forms. Thus is it that existential viability in an evolving world is predicated upon the ability to change, even to the point of essential change, or what Aristotle would have called metábasis eis állo génos (μετάβασις εἰς ἄλλο γένος) — a change into another kind of genus (or category — for Aristotle this was an illegitimate leap, a non sequitur). We usually think of evolution as, quite literally, a change into another kind of species, so the that idea of a change into another kind of genus presents itself as something more radical that evolution. This is merely a façon de parler, since all the biodiversity of the world — from species through genus, family, order, class, and so forth — is the result of repeated evolutionary branching that shapes geographical varieties in the shorter term and genuses and other biological classifications in the longer term.

As suggested above, the biological evolution of the brain bears upon the cognitive history of the mind, and the cognitive history of the mind bears upon the intellectual history of ideas. Driven by the imperative of existential viability, the organism must change, if it changes at all, in such a way as to remain viable — competitive — at every stage of its development. Thus each individual change is small, while the cumulative effect increases over time. And so with the mind and its ideas: at each stage of development the mind and its ideas must be viable in and of themselves, or result in catastrophic failure that marks the extinction of this particular line of development.

We have seen this incremental improvement in mind before in the work of Kurt Gödel. In my post Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics (as well as in Addendum on Technological Unemployment) I quoted Gödel as follows:

“Turing . . . gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306

Gödel here reveals an infinitistic conception of mind that is at home in an infinitistic and evolving universe. In the earlier post cited above I Further commented (referencing Fukuyama’s approach to the “end of history”):

“To suppose that human moral evolution had come to an end with the advent of the idea and implementation of liberal democracy, however admirable this condition is (or would be), is to suppose that we had tried all possible ideas for human society and that there will be no new ideas (at least, there will be no new moral ideas unless we change human nature through biotechnological intervention). I do not accept either that all ideas for society have been tried and rejected or that there will be no fundamentally new ideas.”

…and…

“Gödel is right. The human mind is always developing and changing. Because the mind is not static, it formulates novel ideas on a regular basis. It is a fallacy to conflate the failure of new ideas of achieve widespread socio-political currency with the absence of novel ideas. Among the novel ideas constantly pioneered by the dynamism of human cognition are moral and political ideas. In so far as there are new moral and political ideas, there are new possibilities for human culture, society, and civilization. The works of the human mind, like the human mind itself, are not static, but are constantly developing.”

In a similar vein I also wrote about this unlimited and incremental development of ideas and the consciousness that embodies ideas in The Growth of Historical Consciousness. Our historical experience grows with the passage of history, so that later history is experienced against a different intellectual background, which changes the nature of history and its experience. This is a social instance of an argument that Bergson formulated almost a hundred years ago, when he argued that the individual’s experience of life is cumulative and therefore plays a role in later experience, which makes life non-deterministic.

It is fallacy to suppose that we are stuck with a finite stock of ideas, or a finite number of states (or forms) of consciousness (what Gödel, following Turing, calls distinguishable states of mind), just as it is a fallacy to suppose that there are only a finite number of possibilities for political society, for economic organization, for the administration of justice, for social institutions, for science, for mathematics, for philosophy, or or any other human activity. It is a fallacy, and it is a familiar fallacy that we have previously encountered in Comte de Maistre’s Finitistic Political Theory. We do not need to settle for a static, stationary conception of the human future; our aspirations can be as dynamic as our imagination is free to conceive as-yet-unactualized possibilities.

But what is the mechanism by which incremental change comes about in the mind and its ideas? How is this even possible? In my recent post The Size of the World I quoted Colin McGinn’s book Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry and his formulation he calls Transcendental Naturalism:

“Philosophy is an attempt to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds. Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our cognitive limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle. Our epistemic architecture obstructs knowledge of the real nature of the objective world. I shall call this thesis transcendental naturalism, TN for short.”

Colin McGinn, Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, pp. 2-3

Such a position makes change in the mind and change in ideas virtually impossible, but it is an impossibility predicated upon a presumption of the unchanging nature of the mind. As Gödel pointed out, mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, and because the mind and its ideas are developing, our cognitive limits are developing, i.e., changing, at times increasing, while at times knowledge pushes these limits outward and our minds expand, mastering previously inconceivable ideas. What McGinn has called “our epistemic architecture” makes us think of the static architecture of a grand edifice, like a cathedral, but we need to think of our cognitive architecture as being something more like the familiar metaphors of rebuilding a ship at sea, as famously formulated by Otto Neurath:

“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”

Otto Neurath, “Protocol sentences,” in Logical Positivism, edited by A.J. Ayer, Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1959, p. 201.

Quine employed the same metaphor:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object

Naval architecture, then, under the constraint of rebuilding at sea while staying afloat, is a better model for our epistemic architecture, than the idea of a grand and permanent structure, a cathedral of the mind. Under these conditions, we can gradually bring within the sphere of the mind’s capability ever more refined and comprehensive conceptions that better reflect the structure of the world itself. Such conceptions are never perfect, but they are also never so inadequate as to leave us with an absolute mystery. Scientific mysteries are subject to revision, even as the formerly inconceivable comes within the scope of the mind and reveals new mysteries for the mind to tackle in turn.

In The Size of the World I further wrote:

“…while our cognitive abilities are admittedly limited (for all the reasons discussed above, as well as other reasons not discussed), these limits are not absolute, but rather admit of revision. McGinn’s position as stated above implies a false dichotomy between staying within the constitutive structure of our minds and getting outside it. This is a classic case of facing the sheer cliff of Mount Improbable: while it is impossible to get outside our cognitive architecture in one fell swoop, we can little by little transgress the boundaries of our cognitive architecture, each time ever-so-slightly expanding our capacities. Incrementally over time we improve our ability to stand outside those limits that once marked the boundaries of our cognitive architecture. Thus in an ironic twist of intellectual history, the evolutionary argument, rather than demonstrating metaphysical modesty, is rather the key to limiting the limitations on the human mind.”

Evolutionary transcendence comes about gradually, incrementally, bit-by-bit, reconfiguring our epistemic architecture just enough with each development that we can understand a little bit more than we understood before. Gödel’s “understand[ing] abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them,” such that, “more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding” is the gradual mechanism by which we “get outside the constitutive structure of our minds” — only on the margins, at the far edge of reason, and to a limited extent. Better, we revise the constitutive structure of our minds, and thereby get outside the constitutive structure of our mind as it was in the past.

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Tuesday


One of the most famous thought experiments of twentieth century philosophy of mind is presented in Thomas Nagel’s paper “What is is like to be a bat?” Nagel’s point was that consciousness involves a point of view, and that means that there is something that it is like to be in being some conscious organism. Here is the opening paragraph of Nagel’s paper:

Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.

Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”, Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979

The choice of a bat for this thought experiment is interesting. As a mammal, the bat shares much with us in its relation to the world, but its fundamental mechanism of finding its way around — echolocation — is sharply distinct from our primate experience of the world, dominated as it is by vision. Thus while what it is like to be a bat overlaps considerably with what it is like to be a hominid, there are also substantial divergences between being a bat and being a hominid. A bat has a different sensory apparatus than a hominid, and the bat’s distinctive sonar sensory apparatus presumably shapes its cognitive architecture in distinctive ways.

bat echolocation

As a philosopher I have a great fascination with the sensory organs of other species, which seem to me both to pose epistemological problems as well as to suggest really interesting thought experiments. In my post on Kantian Critters I argued that if human beings must have recourse to the transcendental aesthetic in order to sort out the barrage of sense perception that the brain and central nervous system receive, then other terrestrial species, constituted as they are much like ourselves, must also have recourse to some transcendental aesthetic of their own (or, if you prefer Husserl to Kant, and phenomenology to idealism, other species must employ their own passive synthesis). This interpretation of Kant obviously presupposes a naturalistic point of view, which Kant did not have, but if we grant this scientific realism, the Kantian insight regarding the transcendental aesthetic remains valid and may moreover be extrapolated beyond human beings.

Can the Kantian transcendental aesthetic be reinterpreted in the light of contemporary natural history?

Can the Kantian transcendental aesthetic be reinterpreted in the light of contemporary natural history?

Distinctive transcendental aesthetics of distinct species would follow from distinct sensory apparatus and the distinctive cognitive architecture required to take advantage of this sensory apparatus. This implies that distinct species “see” the world differently, with “see” here understood in a comprehensive sense and not in a purely visual sense. Although bats rely on sonar, they “see” the world in his comprehensive sense, even if their eyes are not as good as our hominid eyes, and not nearly as good as the eyes of an eagle. A couple of ethologists, Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, have written several books on the Weltanschauung of other species, How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species and Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind.

how monkeys see the world

Does a primate have more in common, Weltanschauung-wise (if you know what I mean), with a flying mammal such as a bat (since any two mammals have much life experience in common) or with a terrestrial reptile such as a serpent? Primates don’t know what it is like to fly with their own wings, but they also don’t know what it is like to move along the ground by slithering. Does a primate have more in common, again, Weltanschauung-wise, with a reptile that has given up its legs or with an octopus that never had any legs? We might be able to refine these questions a bit more by a more careful consideration of particular sensory organs and the particular cognitive architecture that both is driven by the development of the organ and makes the fullest exploitation of that organ for survival and reproductive advantage possible.

Pit Viper 2

Among the most intriguing sense organs possessed by other species but not by homo sapiens is the pit of the pit viper, which is a rudimentary sensing organ for heat. Since pit vipers are predators who typically eat small, furry animals with a high metabolism and presumably also a high body temperature, being able to sense the body heat of one’s prey would be a substantial selective advantage.

pit viper pit

Because the pit of the pit viper represents such a great selective advantage, one would expect that the pit will evolve, driven by this selective pressure. To paraphrase what Richard Dawkins said of wings, one percent of a infrared sensing organ represents a one percent selective advantage, and so on. Thus a one percent improvement of an existing pit would represent another one percent selective advantage. While it would be difficult to observe such subtle advantage in the lives of individual organisms, when in comes to species whose members number in the millions, that one percent will eventually make a significant difference in differential survival and reproduction. A statistical study would reveal what a study of individuals would likely obscure.

pit viper triangulation

There is a sense in which the pit of the pit viper is like an eye for perceiving infrared radiation. The infrared radiation spectrum lies just beyond the visible spectrum at the red end, so having a pit like a pit viper in addition to color vision would be like being able to see additional colors beyond red. Having a slightly different visible spectrum is not uncommon among other species. Many insects see a little way into the ultraviolet spectrum (at the opposite end of our visible spectrum from red) and flowers are said to present colorful displays to insects in the ultraviolet spectrum that we cannot see (except for the case I heard about some years ago about a man whose eye was injured and as a result of the injury was able to see a little way into the ultraviolet beyond the visible spectrum).

em spectrum

The eye itself, whatever portion of the electromagnetic spectrum it accesses, is a wonderful example of the power of an adaptation. The eye is so useful that it has emerged independently several times in the course of evolution of life on earth. I don’t know much about the details, but insect eyes, mollusc eyes, and vertebrate eyes (as well as several other instances) are each the result of separate and independent emergence of the eye. The mollusc eye and the vertebrate eye represent an astonishing example of convergent evolution, since the structure of the two instances of eyes is so similar. The eye is of course a provocative evolutionary example because of a famous passage from Darwin himself, who wrote about “organs of extreme perfection”:

“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.”

Of this quote Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion:

“Darwin’s fulsomely free confession turned out to be a rhetorical device. He was drawing his opponents towards him so that his punch, when it came, struck the harder. The punch, of course, was Darwin’s effortless explanation of exactly how the eye evolved by gradual degrees. Darwin may not have used the phrase ‘irreducible complexity’, or ‘the smooth gradient up Mount Improbable’, but he clearly understood the principle of both.”

Partly due to this Darwin quote, the evolution of the eye has been the topic of some very interesting research that has helped the clarify the development of the eye. There is a wonderful documentary on evolution, the first episode of which was titled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (presumably intended to echo Daniel Dennett’s well known book of the same title), which an excellent segment on the evolution of the eye which you can watch on Youtube. In this documentary the work of Dan-Eric Nilsson of the University of Lund is shown, and he demonstrates in a particularly clear and concrete way the step-by-step process of improving vision through the increasing complexity of the eye. When I was watching this documentary recently I was thinking about how the pit of the pit viper resembles the early stages of the evolution of the eye.

eye evolution

The pit of the pit viper is a depressed, folded area lined with infrared sensitive nerve endings that allows limited directional sensitivity. In the long term future of the pit of the pit viper, which at present seems to correspond to the earliest stages of the evolution of the vertebrate eye, sometimes called a “cup eye,” there would seem to be much room for improvement. Of course, the details of infrared (IR) perception are different than the details of human visible spectrum perception, but not so different that we cannot imagine a similar series of stepwise improvements to the infrared pit that might, in many millions of years, yield sharp, clear, and directional infrared vision. If this infrared vision became sufficiently effective, it is possible that brain and body resources might be redirected to focus on the pits, and the eyes could eventually degrade into a vestigial organ, as in bats and moles. After all, snakes gave up their legs, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t also give up their eyes if they have something better to fall back on.

eye_evolution

There is another possibility, and that is the evolutionary advantage that might be obtained through adding a pair of fully functional IR “eyes” to a pair of fully functional visible spectrum eyes. Such a development would be biologically costly, and it would be much more likely that a pit viper would chose one evolutionary path or the other and not both. Yet there are some rare instances of biologically costly organs (or clusters of organs) that have been successful despite the cost. The brain is a good example — or, rather, large complex brains that evolve under particular selection pressures but which later are exapted for intelligence.

Encephalization Quotient

Encephalization Quotient

Natural selection is a great economist, and often reduces organisms to the simplest structure compatible with their function. This is one of the reasons we find the shapes of plants and the bodies of animals both elegant and beautiful. The economy of nature was resulted in the fact that a large brain, and the intelligence that large brains make possible, are rare. Despite their rarity, and their biological expense, large complex brains do emerge (though not often), and, like the eye (which has emerged repeatedly in evolutionary history), large brains have emerged more than once. Interestingly enough, complex eyes and large complex brains are found together not only in primates but also in molluscs.

The octopus (among other molluscs) is bequeathed a large, complex brain because the octopus went down the evolutionary path of camouflage, and the camouflage of some molluscs became so elaborate that almost every cell on the surface of the organism’s skin is individually controlled, which means a nerve connected to every spot of color on (or under) the skin, and a nervous system that is capable of handling this. It requires a lot of processing power to put on the kind of displays seen on the skin of octopi and cuttlefish, and an evolutionary spiral that favored the benefits of camouflage also then drove the development of a large, complex brain that could optimize the use of camouflage.

The octopus also has remarkably sophisticated eyes — eyes that are, in some respects, very similar to yet more elegant in structure than primate eyes. Our eyes are “wired” from the front, which gives us a blind spot where the optic nerve passes through the retina; mollusc eyes are “wired” from the back and consequently suffer from no blind spot. (“Wired” is in scare quotes here because it is a metaphor to refer to eyes being wired to the nervous system; while electrical signals travel down nerves, the connection between distinct nerve cells is primarily biochemical and not electrical.)

cephalopod eye

How an octopus sees the world is as fascinating an inquiry as what it is like to be a bat — or a serpent, for that matter. Both the octopus and an arboreal primate live in a three dimensional habitat, and this may have something to do with their common development of sharp eyesight and large brains, although there are vastly greater number of organisms in the sea and in trees with far smaller brains and far less cognitive processing power. (A recent study reported in The New York Times suggests a link between spatial ability and intellectual innovation, and while the study was primarily concerned with the ontogenesis of creativity, it is possible that the apparatus of spatial perception and the cognitive architecture that facilitates this perception is phylogenetically linked to intellectual creativity.) This simply shows us that intelligence is one strategy among many for survival, and not the most common strategy.

Life in an arboreal niche would make spatial ability a significant selection pressure.

Life in an arboreal niche would make spatial ability a significant selection pressure.

A large, complex brain is very costly in a biological sense. In a typical human being, the brain represents less than three percent of total body weight, yet it consumes about twenty percent of the body’s resources — that’s a very big chunk of metabolism that could be directed toward running faster or jumping higher or reaching farther. Nothing as unlikely as the brain’s disproportionate consumption of resources would come about unless this expenditure of resources bequeathed some survival or reproductive advantage to the organism possessing such a high cost of ownership. The brain isn’t a luxury that produces poetry and art; it is a survival machine, optimized (in hominids) by more than five million years of development to make human beings effective hunters and foragers. The brain was so successful, in fact, that it made is possible for human beings to take over the planet entire and convert it to serving human needs. Thus the relatively rare and costly strategy of developing a large, complex brain paid off in this particular case. (One may think of it as a high risk/high reward strategy.)

brainEvolution

If the evolution of the brain and the exaptation of intelligence to produce civilization did not result in the disproportionate evolutionary success of a single species, it seems likely that we would see intelligence emerge repeatedly in evolutionary history, much as eyes have evolved repeatedly. On other worlds with other natural histories, under conditions where intelligence does not allow a single species to dominate (possibly due to some selection pressure that does not operate on Earth), it is possible that evolution results in the repeated emergence of intelligence just as on Earth evolution has resulted in the repeated emergence of eyes. On Earth, intelligence preempted another developments, and means that not only human history but also natural history were irremediably changed.

Mass extinctions have repeatedly preempted developments in terrestrial life, and now it seems that an anthropogenic mass extinction event is again preempting the development of life on Earth.

Mass extinctions have repeatedly preempted developments in terrestrial life, and now it seems that an anthropogenic mass extinction event is again preempting the development of life on Earth — further demonstrating human dominance of the planet.

In The Preemption Hypothesis I argued that industrialization preempted other developments in the history of civilization (for more on this also see my post Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection). This current line of thought makes me realize that purely biological preemption is also a force shaping history. Consciousness, and then intelligence arising from biochemically based consciousness, is one such preemption of our evolutionary history. Another preemption of natural history that has operated repeatedly is that of mass extinction. But whereas historical preemptions such as the development of large, complex brains or industrialization represent a preemption of greater complexity, mass extinctions represent a preemption of decreased complexity.

Some weedy plant species...

Some weedy plant species…

It seems that “weedy” species that are especially hearty and resilient tend to survive the rigorous of mass extinctions; the more delicate and refined productions of natural selection, which are dependent upon mature ecosystems and their many specialized niches, do not fare as well when these mature ecosystems are subject to pressure and possible catastrophic failure. One could think of mass extinctions, and indeed of all historical preemptions that favor simplicity over complexity, as a catastrophic “reset” of the evolutionary process. Events such as mass extinctions can favor rudimentary organisms that are sufficiently hardy to survive catastrophic changes, but, as we have seen, there is also the possibility of historical preemptions that favor greater complexity. The Cambrian Explosion, for example, might be considered another instance of an historical preemption.

The Cambrian explosion, or Cambrian radiation, was a preemption of historical continuity.

The Cambrian explosion, or Cambrian radiation, was a preemption of historical continuity.

There is a tension in the structure of history between continuity and preemption. In the particular case of the earth, the continuity of natural history has been interrupted by the preemption of intelligence and then industrialization. These preemptions of greater complexity — in contradistinction to preemptions of lesser complexity, as in the case of mass extinctions — may provide for the possibility of the continuity of earth-originating life beyond the terrestrial biosphere. In the case of an otherwise sterile universe, the intelligence/industrialization preemption would be a basis of a new explosion or radiation of earth-originating life in the Milky Way. In the case of a universe already living, it may be only intelligence and industrial-technological civilization that is a novelty in the natural history of the universe.

Milky Way

Whatever happens on the largest scale of life, as long as life continues to evolve on the earth, its development is likely to be marked by both continuity and preemptive developments. In thinking about the pit viper, I suggested above that the pit viper might eventually, over many millions of years, develop a fully functional pair of IR eyes in addition to its visible spectrum eyes. This suggestion points to an interesting possibility. In so far as complex life is allowed to develop in continuity, with a minimum of preemptions, specialization and refinement of existing mechanisms of survival may give rise of species of greater complexity than what we know today. While mass extinctions have repeatedly cleared the ground and given a more or less blank slate for the radiation of resilient weedy species, this may not always be the case.

An event of this magnitude becomes less likely as the solar system ages and settles down into a routine.

An event of this magnitude becomes less likely as the solar system ages and settles down into a routine.

As our earth and the solar system of which it is a part becomes older, catastrophic events may become less common. For example, stray bodies in the solar system that might collide with the earth, while once common in the early solar system, eventually end up colliding with something or getting swept out of the path of the earth’s orbit by the gravity of Jupiter. If, moreover, civilization expands extraterrestrially and seeks to protect the earth as an existential risk mitigation measure, life on earth may become even more secure and even less subject to disruption and preemption than in the past. New species might eventually come into being with a delicate complexity of sensory organs and accompanying cognitive architecture that facilitates these senses. Imagine species with a whole range of sensory organs that complement each other, without former mainstay sensory organs being reduced to vestigial status, and this might possibly be the future of life on Earth.

pit viper striking

Eventually the most interesting question may not be, “What is it like to be a serpent?” but, “What will it be like to be a serpent?”

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The reader can compare my earlier post, The Future of the Pit Viper, which was the origin and inspiration of this post.

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Crick’s Deepity

13 May 2013

Monday


James Watson and Francis Crick

James Watson and Francis Crick

The least interesting views on almost any philosophical question will inevitably (inevitably, at least, in our age of industrial-technological civilization driven by scientific innovation) be those of some eminent scientist who delivers himself of a philosophical position without bothering to inform himself on the current state of research on the philosophical question in question, and usually, at the same time, decrying the aridity of philosophical discussion. (While this is not true of all scientific opinion on matters philosophical, it is mostly true.) So as not to make such a sweeping charge without naming names, I will here name Francis Crick as a perfect embodiment of this, and to this end I will attempt to describe what I will call “Crick’s Deepity.”

“Crick’s Deepity” sounds like the name of some unusual topographical feature that would be pointed out on local maps for the amusement of travelers, so I will have to explain what I mean by this. What is “Crick’s deepity”?

The “Crick” of the title is none other than Francis Crick, famous for sharing the credit for discovering the structure of DNA with Watson. It will take a little longer to explain what a “deepity” is. I’ve gotten the term from Daniel Dennett, who has introduced the idea in several talks (available on Youtube), and since having learned about it from watching a video of a Dennett talk I found the term on the Urban Dictionary, so it has a certain currency. A deepity is a misleading statement which seems to be profound but is not; construed in one sense, it is simply false; construed in another sense, it is true, but trivially true.

The most commonly adduced deepities are those that depend upon the ambiguity of quotation marks, so they work much better when delivered as part of a lecture rather than when written down. Dennett uses this example — Love is just a word. If we are careful with our quotation marks, this becomes either “‘love’ is just a word” (trivially true) or “love is just a word” (false).

Twentieth century analytical philosophy expended much effort on clarifying the use of quotation marks, which are surprisingly important in mathematical logic and philosophical logic (Quine even formulated quasi-quotes in order to try to dispel the confusion surrounding the use-mention distinction). The use-mention distinction also became important once Tarski formulated his disquotational theory of truth, which employes the famous example, “‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.” The interested reader can pursue on his own the relationship between deepities and disquotationalism; perhaps there is a paper or a dissertation here.

In one of his lectures that mention deepities Dennett elaborates: “A deepity is a proposition that seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed.” Dennett follows his deepity, “Love is just a word,” with the assertion that, in its non-trivial sense, “whatever love is, it isn’t a word.” The logical structure of this assertion is, “Whatever x is, it isn’t an F” (or, better, “There is an x, and x is not F”). What Dennett is saying here is that it is a category mistake to assert, in this case, that “x is an F” (that “love is a word”).

Whether or not a category mistake is a logical error is perhaps open to question, while use-mention errors seem to be clearly logical errors. There is, however, a long history of treating theories of categories as part of philosophical logic, so that a category error (like conflating mind with matter, or with material processes) is a logical error. Clearly, however, Dennett is treating his examples of deepities as logically ill-formed as a result of being category errors. “Whatever love is, it isn’t a word,” he says, and he says that because it would be a category error to ascribe the property of “being a word” to love, except when love is invoked as a word. (If we liked, we could limit deepities to use/mention confusions only, and in fact the entry for “deepity” in the Urban Dictionary implies as much, but while Dennett himself used a use/mention confusion to illustrate the idea of a deepity, I don’t think that it was his intention to limit deepities to use/mention confusions only, as in his expositions of the idea he defines a deepity in terms of its being logically ill-formed.)

Now, that being said, and, I trust, being understood, we pass along to further deepities. Once we pass beyond obvious and easily identifiable confusions, fallacies, and paradoxes, the identification of deepities becomes controversial rather than merely an amusing exercise. It would be easy to identify theological deepities that Dennett’s audience would likely reject — religion is a soft target, and easy to ridicule — but it is more interesting to go after hard targets. I want to introduce the particular deepity that one find’s in Crick’s book The Amazing Hypothesis:

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carrol’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You are nothing but a pack of neurons.’ This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most of people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing.”

Francis Crick, The Amazing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, New York: Touchstone, 1994, p. 3

No one should be astonished by this hypothesis; reductionism is as old as human thought. The key passage here is “no more than,” although in similar passages by other authors one finds the expression, “nothing but,” as in, “x is nothing but y.” This is the paradigmatic form of reductionism.

Some of my readers might be a bit slack-jawed (perhaps even, might I say, astonished) to see me call this paradigmatic instance of scientific reductionism a “deepity.” In taking up Dennett’s term “deepity” and applying it to the sort of scientistic approach to which Dennet would likely be sympathetic is clearly a case of my employing the term in a manner unintended by Dennett, perhaps even constituting a use that Dennett himself would deny was valid, if he knew of it. Indeed, Dennett is quite clear about his own reductionist view of mind, and of the similarity of his own views to those of Crick.

Dennett, however, is pretty honest as a philosopher, and he freely acknowledges the possibility that he might be wrong (a position that C. S. Pierce called “fallibilism”). For example, Dennet wrote, “What about my own reductios of the views of others? Have they been any fairer? Here are a few to consider. You decide.” In the following paragraph of the same book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, Dennett described what he considers to be the over-simplification of Crick’s views on consciousness:

“You would think that Sir John Eccles, the Catholic dualist, and Francis Crick, the atheist materialist, would have very little in common, aside from their Nobel prizes. But at least for a while their respective view of consciousness shared a dubious oversimplification. many nonscientists don’t appreciate how wonderful oversimplifications can be in science; the cut through the hideous complexity with a working model that is almost right, postponing the messy details until later. Arguably the best use of ‘over’-simplification is the history of science was the end run by Crick and James Watson to find the structure of DNA while Linus Pauling and others were trudging along trying to make sense of the details. Crick was all for the trying the bold stroke just in case it solved the problem in one fell swoop, but of course that doesn’t always work.”

Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, 2. “By Parody of Reasoning”: Using Reductio ad Absurdum

Dennett then described Crick’s reductionist hypothesis (I’m leaving a lot out here; the reader is referred to the full account in Dennett’s book):

“…then [Crick] proposed a strikingly simply hypothesis: the conscious experience of red, for instance, was activity in the relevant red-sensitive neurons of that retinal area.”

Dennett, Op. cit.

Dennett followed this with counter-arguments that he himself offered (suggesting that Dennett is not himself quite the reductionist that he paints himself as being in popular lectures), but said of Crick that, “He later refined his thinking on this score, but still, he and neuroscientist Christof Koch, in their quest for what they called the NCC (the neural correlates of consciousness), never quite abandoned their allegiance to this idea.” Indeed, not only did Crick not abandon the idea, he went on to write an entire book about it.

It would be a mistake to take Crick’s reductionism in regard to consciousness in isolation, because it occupies a privileged place in a privileged scientific narrative. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran placed Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA in the venerable context of repeated conceptual revolutions since the scientific revolution itself:

The history of ideas in the last few centuries has been punctuated by major upheavals in thought that have turned our worldview upside down and created what Thomas Kuhn called “scientific revolutions.” The first of these was the Copernican revolution, that, far from being the centre of the Universe, the Earth is a mere speck of dust revolving around the Sun. Second came Darwin’s insight that we humans do not represent the pinnacle of creation, we are merely hairless neotonous apes that happen to be slightly cleverer than our cousins. Third, the Freudian revolution, the view that our behaviour is governed largely by a cauldron of unconscious motives and desires. Fourth — Crick and Watson’s elucidation of DNA structure and the genetic code, banishing vitalism forever from science. And now, thanks once again partly to Crick, we are poised for the greatest revolution of all — understanding consciousness — understanding the very mechanism that made those earlier revolutions possible! As Crick often reminded us, it’s a sobering thought that all our motives, emotions, desires, cherished values, and ambitions — even what each of us regards as his very own ‘self’ are merely the activity of a hundred billion tiny wisps of jelly in the brain. He referred to this as the “astonishing hypothesis” the title of his last book (echoed by Jim Watson’s quip “There are only molecules, everything else is sociology”).

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Perception, 2004, volume 33, pages 1151-1154

The narrative of the materialist reduction of mind to brain or to brain function fits nicely into the overarching scientific narrative of conceptual revolutions that are a rebuke to human pride. That the rebuke to human pride remains such a central theme in the ascetic practice of science merely shows the continuity of science with its medieval scholastic antecedents, in which the punishment of human pride was no less a central doctrine. Indeed, what we might call the Copernican imperative of contemporary science has become the dominant narrative to science to the point that few other narratives are taken seriously. (It is also wrong, or at very least misleading, but that is a topic for another, future, post.) Thus the Copernican imperative is a lot like the (repeatedly disputed) idea of progress in industrial-technological civilization: no matter how hard we try to find another paradigm to organize our understanding, we keep coming back to it. (For example, I have mentioned Kevin Kelly’s explicit arguments for progress in several posts, as in Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression.)

Placing Crick’s thought in the context of the narrative that furnishes much of its meaning suggests further contexts for Crick’s thought — the ultimate intellectual context that inspired Crick, as well as alternative contexts that place a very different meaning and value on Crick’s reductionism. Surprisingly, as it turns out, the ultimate context of Crick’s views is the most simple-minded theologically-tinged science imaginable, which at once makes Dennett’s above-quoted observation about Crick’s and Eccles’ common ground pregnant with meaning.

Crick’s contempt for philosophical approaches to the problem of consciousness is so thick it practically drips off the page, and furnishes a perfect example of what I have called fashionable anti-philosophy. Despite Crick’s contempt for philosophy, Crick jumps directly into the use of theological language by repeatedly invoking the idea of a human “soul” — indeed, his book is subtitled, “the scientific search for the soul.” This is an important clue. Crick rejects philosophy, but he embraces theology. In other words, Crick’s position is theological, and Crick’s theological frame of mind is at least in part responsible for Crick’s dismissive attitude to philosophy.

Many contemporary philosophers (not to mention contemporary scientists) tie themselves into knots trying to avoid saying that thought and ideas and the mind are distinct from material bodies and physical processes, not because they can’t tell the difference between the two (like G. E. Moore’s famous dream in which he couldn’t distinguish propositions from tables), but because to acknowledge the difference between thoughts and things seems to commit one to a philosophical trajectory that cannot ultimately avoid converging on Cartesian dualism — and if there is any consensus in contemporary philosophy, it is the rejection of Cartesian dualism.

How are thoughts different from things, in so far as we understand “things” in this context to be corporeal bodies? The examples are so numerous and so obvious that it scarcely seems worth the trouble to cite a few of them, but since many people — Crick and Dennett among them — give straight-faced accounts of reductionism, I guess it is necessary. So, think of a joke. Or have someone tell you a joke. If the joke is really funny, you will be amused; maybe you will even laugh. But if you had an exhaustive delineation of brain structure and brain processes that correspond with the joke, nowhere in the brain structure or processes would you find any thing funny or amusing. If you are a brain scientist you might find these brain structures and processes to be fascinating, but unless you’re a bit eccentric you are not likely to find them to be funny.

Similar considerations hold for tragedy: watch or read a great tragedy, and then see if you can find anything tragic in the brain structures and processes that correspond with viewing or reading a tragedy. If you are honest, you will find nothing tragic about brain structures and processes. Again, take two ideas, one of which is logically entailed by the other — of, if you like, take a syllogism and make it easy on yourself: Socrates is a man, All men are mortal, Therefore Socrates is mortal. Find the brain structures and processes that correspond to these three propositions, and see if there is any relationship of logical entailment between the brain structures and processes. But how in the world could a brain structure or process be logically entailed by another brain structure or process? This is simply not the kind of property that brain processes and structures possess.

Being funny or being tragic or being logically entailed by another proposition are properties that ideas might have but they are not the kind of properties that physical structures or processes possess. Physical structures have properties like length, breadth, and depth, while physical processes might have properties like temporal duration, chemical composition, or electrical charge (brain processes might have all three properties). It would be senseless, on the other hand, to speak of the length, breadth, depth, chemical composition or electrical charge of an idea. It is nonsense to say that, “The concept ‘horse’ is three inches wide.” Not true or false — just meaningless. It is equally nonsense to say that, “The pelvis is tragic.”

To conflate thoughts and things is a category mistake, and in so far as category mistakes are violations of philosophical logic, expressions that formulate category mistakes are logically ill-formed. When logically-ill formed propositions seem profound — the sort of thing which, if true, would be earth-shattering — but in fact are merely false, then you have what Dennett calls a “deepity.” Thus Crick’s deepity is his identification of “your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will” with “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” If this were true, it would be earth-shattering, but in fact it is a logically ill-formed expression that is a deepity. Whatever your joys, sorrows, and memories are, they certainly are not the behavior of nerve cells. That much should be uncontroversial, so let us call a spade a space, and a deepity a deepity.

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Astonishing Hypothesis

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Kantian Critters

7 May 2013

Tuesday


The Transcendental Aesthetic and the Finding of

Other Minds in Other Species


An extrapolation of the “problem of other minds” to other species

What philosophers call “the problem of other minds” is closely related to what philosophers call the “mind-body problem” (both fall within philosophy of mind), and both are paradigmatic metaphysical questions that have been with philosophy from the beginning. Lately I’ve written a good deal about the mind-body problem on my other blog (e.g., in Naturalism and the Mind, Of Distinctions Weak and Strong, Of Distinctions, Principled and Otherwise, Cartesian Formalism, etc.), and this has got me to thinking about the problem of other minds.

I have never found the idea of other minds in other species to be in the least problematic. When you look into the eyes of another living being, whether human being or other being, you are well aware of the moment of mutual recognition, and you are equally well aware at that moment of mutual recognition that you are sharing that moment with another consciousness (that is to say, you experience a social temporality).

In The Eye of the Other I wrote:

It is when we look into the eye of the other that we recognize the consciousness of the other. Even if we feel that the reality of other minds is beyond philosophical demonstration, even if we are skeptics of other minds, it would be extraordinarily difficult to look into the eyes of another and not experience that immediate reaction of recognition of another mind. When we look not only into the eyes of another being but also into the eyes of another species, there is simultaneously the recognition of the awareness of the other and of the alien nature of that awareness.

Some people feel obliged to deny this inter-species recognition of common consciousness on ideological grounds, although few ever think of speciesism as a ideology. As I have recently observed in relationship to geopolitics, which I characterized as an ideology that does not know itself to be an ideology, so too with speciesism: for many it is simply an unexamined presupposition and is never formalized as an explicit article of belief.

While I myself don’t find anything in the least problematic about consciousness in other species, and I think that anyone that takes a naturalistic point of view would be hard-pressed to deny it, I cannot deny that there are some persons who feel a real sense of moral horror in recognizing the consciousness of other species. I am fully aware of this moral horror, and I am utterly unsympathetic to it. To paraphrase Freud on the “oceanic” feeling, I am unable to discover this moral horror in myself.

Some of those who are uncomfortable with the ascription of consciousness to other species simply don’t like animals, and some of those similarly disposed are just completely uninterested in animals and find it peculiar that some human beings seem to be closer to their dogs and cats than they are to other human beings. Such persons sometimes become visibly discomfited at any mention of Johnson’s Hodge or Greyfriars Bobby or Hachikō, all memorialized by statues. I have personally heard individuals of this particular temperament indignantly lecture others (myself included) on the dangers of anthropomorphizing our companion animals. If I were to be so lectured today, I would lecture right back on anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind, which is utterly out of place and unbecoming of a philosopher (which in this instance includes anyone who makes, or who implies, philosophical assertions about mind, specifically, denying mind to certain classes of existents).

Such persons often live in an exclusively human world, and to them the animal world seems inexplicably alien. This in itself is an implicit recognition of an animal world, that is to say, a world constituted by animal consciousness. But, of course, not all who deny consciousness to other species can be so pigeon-holed. Some who have completely succumbed to anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind are in no sense living in an exclusively human world, and certainly when the dogma of human exceptionalism in consciousness gained currency, long before our industrial-technological civilization freed us from animal muscle power as the motive force of civilization, almost everyone lived intimately with animals.

In this latter context, prior to industrialization, there was always a theological overlay to the denial of consciousness to other species. Indeed, it is very likely that, if the terms of the philosophical problem of other minds were carefully explained, those with a theological world view might well without hesitation grant consciousness of other species, and simply deny they other species possess a “soul,” which is simply a theologically-legitimized devalorization. In practice, it comes to much the same as the denial of consciousness to other species and a sedulous distinction between the human and the animal realms.

I observed in The Origins of Physicalism that Cartesianism was the original “mechanical philosophy,” and while Cartesianism in the time of Descartes and immediately afterward incorporated human exceptionalism into the philosophy (i.e., it institutionalized anthropic bias in the philosophy of mind), the logical extrapolation of the theory was evident, and what the Cartesians practised upon other species later philosophers in the mechanistic tradition came to practise also upon human beings: the denial of consciousness.

Today we have a school of thought that is not exactly the denial of consciousness but rather the revaluation, or, better, the devaluation of consciousness, which latter is called a “user illusion” — at least, in techno-philosophy the denial of consciousness is called the “user illusion.” In traditional philosophy, the denial of the existence of consciousness is called “eliminativism,” since instead of seeking to reduce consciousness to something else that is not consciousness (and thereby exemplifying reductivism), eliminativism cuts the Gordian Knot and simply denies that there is any such thing as consciousness — meaning that there is nothing to be “explained away.” I am sure that I am not the only one who finds this to be a thoroughly unsatisfying “solution” to a perennial philosophical problem.

How then are we to understand the minds of other species, i.e., the problem of other minds as generalized to include non-human species? What philosophical framework exists that can provide a conceptual infrastructure for such an understanding? There are many possibilities, but today I would like to consider a Kantian approach.

If we take as the lesson of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic that the mind is being continually bombarded by a riot of sensations from all the various bodily sensory organs, and that the mind then constitutes a kind of conceptual sieve that shapes, channels and directs the mass of sensory experience into something coherent upon which an organism can act, we can recognize that much the same process occurs in other species. All mammals have more or less similar bodies and similar sensory endowments, so that all living mammals are constantly being bombarded by a riot of sensations which each creature must sort into coherent experience. The fact that we can play fetch with a dog, and both successfully interact in one and the same world, simultaneously recognizing the stick at the center of the game as an object that passes between two or more organism involved in a game of fetch, suggests that we and the dog constitute and cognize the world in a remarkably similar fashion.

The dog, like us, is receiving sensory signals from his eyes, ears, nose, and so forth, as well as experiencing kinesthetic sensations from the movement of his body as he exerts himself in lunging after the stick. From all of this sensation the dog successfully distills a world, and that world is remarkably similar to our world.

A few years ago I had an interesting experience that bears directly on games of fetch and shared experience, when I had an opportunity to feel what it was like to be a dog among dogs. I was at a vacation house on a river, and had brought my wetsuit along so I could swim. The river is fed by snow melt from Mt. Hood and it is one of the coldest rivers in which I have ever been swimming. I put on my wetsuit and got into the water just as others were beginning to play fetch with a large black lab that they had brought along. They threw a stick into the frigid waters of the river, and the lab plunged into to fetch the stick. The next time the stick was thrown I started swimming toward it the same time that the lab started swimming toward it. The lab looked at me and instantly saw me as a competitor for the stick. He swam all the harder and made it to the stick before me with an obvious sense of triumphalism.

Of course, most people have had experiences like this in life, and some people will dismiss such experiences as readily as Descartes dismissed his correspondent’s stories attempting to prove that animals are not mere mechanisms. However we interpret such experiences, we share and interact in a common world. Although this is utterly contrary to the spirit of Kant, I have to observe that any animal that could not distill coherent experience of the world out of its mass of sensation would never survive. Evolution selects for those organisms that can best hunt or avoid being prey in the common world in which predator and prey interact. This is a naturalistic point of view, whereas Kant’s point of view was decidedly that of idealism.

Even if one rejects Kant’s idealism, as I do, there seems to me to be some residual value in the idea of the mind being involved in the constitution of experience. I think that Kant was right that we have certain a priori intuitions that order our experience, but I think that this was much more fluid and pluralistic than Kant’s exposition of the transcendental aesthetic allows. While I wrote above that mammals all have a relatively similarly experience of the world, a function of a similar sensory and cognitive endowments, I would allow that there is some important variation. Sight plays a very large role in how human beings cognize the world; smell plays a disproportionate role in how dogs cognize the world; sound plays a disproportionate role in how dolphins cognize the world.

All terrestrial critters of a given level of cognitive complexity have to distill coherent experience of one and the same world out of a mass of sensation, but that mass of sensation differs among different species. I suspect that this sensory difference means that different species also have different a priori conceptions that help them to organize their experience into a coherent whole, and that, just sensory experience differs from species to species, but admits of degrees of greater or less, so too the a priori ideas of distinct species different from species to species but also admit of greater or less similarity. That is to say, smell may shape the world of a dog far more than it shapes our world, but we probably share far more in terms of sensory experience and organizing ideas with a dog than with a marine mammal, and probably we share much more with a marine mammal than with an octopus or other cephalopod. This is a function and an illustration of a point I recently tried to make about the relationship between mind and embodiment.

primate minds

I tried to make this point in my above referenced post, The Eye of the Other, since when I unexpectedly looked into the eyes of a sealion, a marine mammal, we immediately recognized each other, and in the same moment of recognition also recognized the profound differences between the two of us. Common mammalian minds, differently embodied and living in profoundly different environments, will involve different sensory stimulation, different kinesthetic sensations, and different a priori concepts for organizing experience. But not too different. A shark, with a mind very different from a mammalian mind, can predate marine mammals, so that both sharks and marine mammals interact in the same marine environment just as human beings and tigers interact in the same terrestrial environment.

vertebrate minds

I suspect that, at least in some senses, the tiger’s mind and the human mind share concepts derived from their common terrestrial environment, while the shark and the marine mammal share concepts derived from the common marine environment, so that a tiger’s mind is more like a human mind than a sea lion’s mind is like a human mind, and, vice versa, a sea lion’s mind is more like a shark’s mind than it is like a human mind. Nevertheless, the human mind and the sea lion mind will share some concepts due to their common mammalian constitution. To employ a Wittgensteinian turn of phrase, the different sensations, concepts, and minds of distinct species overlap and intersect.

vertebrate and other minds

The recognition of consciousness in other species is no marginal and recondite inquiry; if, in the fullness of time, we encounter other intelligent species in the universe of extraterrestrial origin, we will need a philosophical framework in which we can integrate the idea of consciousness among other organic species, and if research into artificial intelligence and machine consciousness ever issues in a self-aware mechanism, fashioned by human hands in the same way that we might build a car or a house, we will again require a philosophical framework in which we can integrate the idea of consciousness even more generally, comprehending both naturally-emergent consciousness from organic substrates and artificially emergent consciousness of non-organic substrates.

all minds

We need a robust philosophy of mind that does not stagnate in questions of whether there is mind or whether minds can be reduced to other phenomena or eliminated altogether. Such doctrines are — would be — utterly unhelpful in coming to understand what Husserl called the “structures of consciousness.” It is likely that the structures of consciousness vary incrementally among individuals of the same species, vary a little more across distinct species, and will vary even more among minds derived from different sources — different ecosystems and biospheres in the case of organically-originating extraterrestrial minds, and different mechanisms of implementation in the case of inorganically-originating minds of machine consciousness.

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Saturday


There were a number of old cars in the town, so I took this one street scene with three cars from the 1930s. There are also a couple of contemporary cars, as well as a few other clues that this is not an old photograph, but if I had been a bit more careful I see that it would have been possible to take a picture that looks like a vintage post card.

There were a number of old cars in the town, so I took this one street scene with three cars from the 1930s. There are also a couple of contemporary cars, as well as a few other clues that this is not an old photograph, but if I had been a bit more careful I see that it would have been possible to take a picture that looks like a vintage post card.

The Historic Quarter of the City of Colonia del Sacramento is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, which is always a good indication that a particular place will be worth a stop and a look. I’ve been to several UNESCO sites on the World Heritage List, and I always enjoy them, but it almost always is the case that they are different from what I expected. Colonia was not exactly what I expected, but that was great. That is why one travels: in order to have one’s concepts corrected by one’s percepts, just as one thinks in order to have one’s percepts corrected by one’s concepts. Thought and experience are an indissoluble unity; it is when we divide them and compartmentalize them that we get into trouble.

Colonia 4

Why travel? What is to be gained from travel? Travel is all about challenging assumptions. One could simply stay at home, read books, look at travel brochures, and watch travel videos, convincing oneself that one had learned all there is to know about a place, and never bother to go there oneself. But we all know that you do need to eventually go to the place — whatever the place happens to be — if you want to understand it on its own terms, rather than attempting to understand a place one has never visited on the basis of one’s preconceived idea of the place.

Colonia 1

To say that thorough knowledge of a place is not adequate to saying that one really knows a place made me realize that this suggests a generalization of a thought experiment in the philosophy of mind known as “Mary’s Room.” In the Mary’s Room thought experiment, Mary is a scientist locked in a black and white room, who studies everything that there is to know about color vision. After perfecting her knowledge of color, she leaves her black and white room, and suddenly experiences what it is like to actually see color. The question, from a philosopher’s point of view, is this: when Mary leaves her room, does she learn anything? This thought experiment is also known as the “knowledge argument,” in so far as it points to knowledge that can be attained only through conscious experience.

Colonia 3

Putting Mary’s room and the knowledge argument in the context of travel suggests a generalization of the knowledge argument: suppose, in isolation of the object of knowledge studied, one learns all that there is to learn about a given object of knowledge. Say that one learns all that there is to learn about Colonia del Sacramento. After learning about Colonia del Sacramento, does one learn anything by traveling there? Even the most experienced of travelers know that you learn something by visiting a place that you cannot learn by all the research you might possibly conduct. Another way to put this would be to say that there is something that it is like to be in a place — a formulation parallel to Nagel’s famous formulation about there being something that it is like to be a bat.

Colonia 2

The conscious experience of a place is a source of knowledge not attainable through study. As I write this I realize that this argument entails that such knowledge is ineffable, otherwise, someone who visited a place and realized what was lacking in its description could simply write it down after having visited, and every subsequent visitor would thereafter visit the place with no surprise at all, and no new knowledge would be attained by such a visit. And yet we know it isn’t like that.

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Thursday


Recently in The Limitations of Human Consciousness I reviewed a typology of “philosophical zombies,” which latter are employed as thought experiments to investigate the possibility of human (or quasi-human) existence without consciousness. One species of philosophical zombie is referred to as a “soulless zombie,” and I want to take a few minutes to think about what exactly a soulless zombie would be.

What is a soulless zombie? The Neuronarrative blog defines a soulless zombie in passing as that which, “which looks like a human, has a brain, but lacks, wait for it, a soul (as defined by said inquirer).” The Wikipedia article on philosophical zombies is similarly terse, simply saying that the soulless zombie, “lacks a ‘soul’.” Well, we knew that much from the etymology of the term. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Zombies doesn’t even mention “soulless zombies.” Given that the “soul” is a concept that many philosophers have likely consigned to the category of folk psychology, the idea of a soulless zombie may well be more discussed outside philosophy than in, but it represents a kind of moral intuition, and for that reason alone commands our attention.

Theories of soulless zombies will bifurcate based on the distinction between naturalistic and non-naturalistic explications of the soul. One can follow the lead of Aristotle’s On the Soul and give an essentially naturalistic account of the soul, or one can insist upon the irreducibly non-naturalistic character of the soul, which Plato sometimes called the “divine spark.”

The non-naturalistic interpretation is a dead end for science and philosophy and therefore uninteresting. Theologians may have something more to say on this head, but a non-naturalistic soul means that by definition no naturalistic investigation can shed light on the soul (or that part of the soul that is irreducibly non-naturalistic, if any internal complexity or structure of the soul is recognized; often the advocates of a non-naturalistic soul insist upon the simplicity of the soul, in which case the simply non-naturalistic soul is closed to naturalistic investigation). There remains the possibility that, if the surrounding naturalistic context of the non-naturalistic soul can be better elucidated, this may in turn improve the terms of the discussion surrounding the non-naturalistic soul, but I will leave that possibility aside for now.

If, on the other hand, we acknowledge the legitimacy of the naturalistic account of the soul (as in Aristotle), there is no reason to suppose that the methodological naturalism of science cannot converge upon an adequate (by which I mean non-reductive and non-eliminative) account of the soul and the ensouled person. It is only in the case of the irreducible non-naturalism of the soul and personhood (in at least one of the aspects of personhood) that the methods of science and naturalistic philosophy must fail to capture the essential nature of human persons. If it is categorically denied that naturalistic methods as such can fully account for the human person or the human soul, then it is likely that such a denier will also hold the irreducible non-naturalism of the soul (although I can think of an exception to this which I will not attempt to explicate here).

In discussing philosophical zombies, soulless zombies, and scientific philosophy, the reader may well have Daniel Dennett in mind, so I am going to quote Dennett here in order to point out the way in which the inquiry I have suggested differs in essentials from Dennett’s approach, despite the similarly of the terminology I have employed. Here’s the passage from Dennett:

There is a powerful and ubiquitous intuition that computational, mechanistic models of consciousness, of the sort we naturalists favor, must leave something out — something important. Just what must they leave out? The critics have found that it’s hard to say, exactly: qualia, feelings, emotions, the what-it’s-likeness (Nagel) or the ontological subjectivity (Searle) of consciousness. Each of these attempts to characterize the phantom residue has met with serious objections and been abandoned by many who nevertheless want to cling to the intuition, so there has been a gradual process of distillation, leaving just about all the reactionaries, for all their disagreements among themselves, united in the conviction that there is a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie — let’s call that intuition the Zombic Hunch — leading them to the thesis of Zombism: that the fundamental flaw in any mechanistic theory of consciousness is that it cannot account for this important difference. A hundred years from now, I expect this claim will be scarcely credible, but let the record show that in 1999, John Searle, David Chalmers, Colin McGinn, Joseph Levine and many other philosophers of mind don’t just feel the tug of the Zombic Hunch (I can feel the tug as well as anybody), they credit it. They are, however reluctantly, Zombists, who maintain that the zombie challenge is a serious criticism.

Daniel Dennett, The Zombic Hunch: Extinction of an Intuition?

Dennett here invokes “we naturalists,” but although I definitely count myself among the naturalists, I do not share Dennett’s point of view on this matter. What Dennett calls a “phantom residue” might be compared to what I called the “irreducible non-naturalistic” nature of the soul, but what Dennett is suggesting is far more radical. Dennett not only rejects the soul (much less the theological, non-naturalistic soul), he rejects the very existence of consciousness and subjectivity. Dennett’s is a eliminativist account, which he pursues despite admitting that he feels the tug of the intuition. Thus for Dennett, a naturalistic account is a mechanistic account, and this is a far more circumscribed conception of naturalism than I would accept or advocate.

However, when Dennett makes the distinction between, “a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie,” he does inadvertently hit upon the essential idea of a soulless zombie: it would be distinct from a conscious person. Thus Dennett’s “perfect zombie” would seem to be what I am here calling a “soulless zombie,” though I could go on to add that Dennett denies even the possibility of a perfect zombie without a naturalistic form of consciousness. In this context it would be very easy to conflate naturalistic and non-naturalistic conceptions of consciousness, but the distinction is most vital where it is most likely to be conflated.

I think that once we make the distinction we can up the ante of the soulless zombie problem, or, in Dennett’s terms, the zombie hunch. To do this we can draw upon a naturalistic account of the soul formulated for the explicit purpose of a sociological explication of religion. I am thinking here of Emile Durkheim’s conception of the soul in his seminal work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

Durkheim in famous for treating religion as an essentially social phenomenon, even in its apparently most private forms. Here is a typical passage from Durkheim:

“…it may be said that nearly all the great social institutions have been born in religion. Now in order that these principal aspects of the collective life may have commenced by being only varied aspects of the religious life, it is obviously necessary that the religious life be the eminent form and, as it were, the concentrated expression of the whole collective life. If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.”

This differs radically from, for example, Alfred North Whitehead’s conception of religion as being, “what the individual does with his solitude.”

Here is a passage from Durkheim specific to the soul, and incorporating his sociological conception of religious ideas:

“Thus the notion of the soul is a particular application of the beliefs relative to sacred beings. This is the explanation of the religious character which this idea has had from the moment when it first appeared in history, and which it still retains to-day. In fact, the soul has always been considered a sacred thing; on this ground, it is opposed to the body which is, in itself, profane. It is not merely distinguished from its material envelope as the inside from the outside; it is not merely represented as made out of a more subtle and fluid matter; but more than this, it inspires those sentiments which are everywhere reserved for that which is divine. If it is not made into a god, it is at least regarded as a spark of the divinity. This essential characteristic would be inexplicable if the idea of the soul were only a pre-scientific solution given to the problem of dreams; for there is nothing in the dream to awaken religious emotions, so the cause by which these are explained could not have such a character. But if the soul is a part of the divine substance, it represents something not ourselves that is within us; if it is made of the same mental matter as the sacred beings, it is natural that it should become the object of the same sentiments.”

EMILE DURKHEIM, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH WARD SWAIN, Chapter VIII, “The Idea of the Soul,” section IV

Durkheim’s naturalistic-socialogical conception of the soul has been formulated in a particularly compelling manner by professor Charles B. Jones:

“The soul is nothing but the image of society introjected into the individual and appropriated by the individual as his or her most essential identity. When a person has been successfully integrated into the religious life of a social group they then take that image of the group and of all the virtues and goals, the mission of the group, the ideals that it adheres to, and brings it on board as part of their own being.”

Charles B. Jones, Ph.D., University of Virginia, The Catholic University of America, Introduction to the Study of Religion, published by The Teaching Company

I think that this nicely captures the sense of necessity that people typically invoke in relation to the soul by contextualizing it as implicated in the individual’s identity and being.

Now, a perfect zombie would presumably be able to be successfully integrated into the religious life of a group (if a zombie failed to do so its behavioral emulation of human beings would be imperfect) and so would able to appropriate the group identity as its own.

Would there be a difference between a religiously socialized zombie, perhaps even a zombie that believed itself to have a soul, and if asked, “Do you have a soul?” would respond in the affirmative, and a human being who was also religiously socialized, also self-identified as having a soul, and also affirmed the possession of a soul when asked?

I think that this sharpens the dilemma a bit, because it is possible for me to imagine a soulless zombie undergoing initiation rites in the religion and mimicking all those aspects of behavior that Durkheim associated with the social manifestation of the concept of the soul, and yet still that soulless or perfect zombie would be without any feeling (i.e., qualia) of what it is like to be a member of that community and to feel the fellowship of the share ritualism of a liturgy that affirms the soul.

As far as a naturalistic conception of the soul can go, then — and I admit that it very well may not go far enough — there still seems to be room for an explanatory gap between a soulless zombie and a human being.

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Tuesday


Beyond Philosophical Zombies:

A Thought Experiment in Absolute Consciousness


One of the thought experiments in contemporary philosophy of mind that has a certain traction with popular culture is that of “philosophical zombies.” It is a little surprising that this interest in philosophical zombies should coincide with a popular culture zombie craze, but that seems to be the case — unless we posit a zombie conspiracy that seeks to acculturate and familiarize human beings with zombie being so that when the zombies take over we will be easy prey, so to speak (sort of like — but not exactly like — the plot in Aurthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End).

Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D. (Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University) begins his Teaching Company lectures on philosophy of mind with an initial lecture on philosophical zombies. Dr. Robinson distinguishes at least three (3) species of philosophical zombie (a tripartite distinction that he credits to Güven Güzeldere):

● behavioral zombies such that the zombie is behaviorally indistinguishable from a human being possessing consciousness

● functional zombies also apparently called a neurological zombie, which is physiologically indistinguishable from a conscious human being, and

● identical zombies such that the zombie is anatomically indistinguishable from a conscious human being; it is not clear to me exactly how a functional or neurological zombie is supposed to differ from an identical zombie unless we go a step further and, invoking theological language, assert that the identical zombie has no soul, while a conscious human being does have a soul (this qualification yields what is called a soulless zombie)

Given the pop-culture resonance of philosophical zombies an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the idea, and it is not my wish simply to add another discussion to an already burgeoning field of zombie studies. What I would like to do, however, is to use the idea of philosophical zombies in order to broach the possibility of a thought experiment antithetical to that of philosophical zombies.

Philosophical zombies are employed as a thought experiment in order to investigate the possibility of entities that are somehow less than full human beings. What about the possibility of entities that are somehow more than human beings? That is to say, what about superior beings, i.e., being superior to human being?

I would like to propose a thought experiment in what might be called absolute consciousness. If zombies lack all consciousness, the antithetical condition to that of a zombie would be that of greatly enhanced consciousness — i.e., consciousness enhanced or extended beyond ordinary human consciousness.

It's not only zombies that have a pop culture resonance: Megamind represents a popular culture expression of enhanced and expanded human consciousness.

In order to consider the possibility of absolute consciousness, we must attempt to investigate the limitations, weaknesses, and constraints of human consciousness, and to attempt to imagine a consciousness from which these limitations, weaknesses, and constraints have been removed. This is not easy to do. As Dr. Robinson observes in his lectures, human beings experience consciousness in the way that fish experience water — it is so pervasive and so complete that it would be difficult to even identify it. But just as we learned to investigate the air we breathe and which surrounds us our entire life — and which we also took for granted in a pre-scientific stage of civilization — so too we can learn to investigate consciousness. And we have, in fact, done so in some degree of detail.

If we consider modern psychiatry and psychology since Freud — and I specifically appeal to the Freudian tradition since Freud was a physician who sought to treat specific pathologies — we are presented with a detailed account of all the ways in which a mind can “go wrong,” as it were. So, first of all, absolute consciousness would experience no mental illness. This is a highly problematic claim, since it implies a distinction between mental health and mental pathology that may be relatively clear from the clinical standpoint but which is difficult to justify from a philosophical perspective. Are mental pathologies limitations to human consciousness? They are in so far as the inhibit the activity of consciousness, but I suspect that absolute consciousness (were it possible) would probably appear profoundly alien and, yes, pathological.

One of the most obvious forms of limitation of human consciousness is memory. Human memory is highly imperfect in terms of recall and accuracy. Absolute consciousness would be characterized by perfect recall with perfect accuracy. Borges wrote a short story about this that I discussed in ¡Feliz cumpleaños Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo! The character of Ireneo Funes, whom Borges memorably describes as a “vernacular superman” (in other words, a provincial Nietzschean Übermensch), has a perfect memory with perfectly accurate recall of everything. This story is so singularly beautiful that it is an act of vandalism to quote only an excerpt, but here is the narrator’s description of his encounter with Funes:

“He told me that previous to the rainy afternoon when the blue-tinted horse threw him, he had been — like any Christian — blind, deaf-mute, somnambulistic, memoryless. (I tried to remind him of his precise perception of time, his memory for proper names; he paid no attention to me.) For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything — almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. A little later he realized that he was crippled. This fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (or felt) that immobility was a minimum price to pay. And now, his perception and his memory were infallible.”

Ireneo Funes, then, possessed the greater part of absolute consciousness — perfect memory and perfect perception. But these things are problematic also, as Borges begins to point out, when he shows Funes to be contemplating an absolute language and an absolute catalogue of memories, which the narrator realizes neither serve the essential function of language or thought. Funes is not overwhelmed by this absolute consciousness, but he is at least staggered by it, and in seeking so way to order the vast stores of memory and perception that he has at his command, descends to a level beneath that of which limited consciousness served by limited language and limited cognitive resources command.

Human calculating power is manifestly deficient. The simplest mechanical or electronic calculator can calculate with greater rapidity or accuracy than almost any human being. Similarly, logic and mathematics, though human creations, are difficult in the extreme. Many of us go our entire lives without mastering them, and those who spend their lives on logic and mathematics master only a portion, and that at the opportunity cost of many other human endeavors. Presumably absolute consciousness would be perfect in calculation. And this, too, is problematic, since anyone who has studied logic or mathematics and passed beyond the rudiments of these subjects knows that they are fascinating disciplines torn by internal controversies precisely because they are imbued with the spirit of philosophy. The further reaches of logic and set theory are, in fact, difficult to differentiate from philosophy proper.

It was traditional to maintain that Adam knew all philosophy; it is not clear whether this knowledge preceded or followed the drawing out of Eve from his side.

And this brings us to philosophy proper, since absolute consciousness would presumably be philosophically perfect as well. At this point we have probably reached the reductio ad absurdum of the very idea of absolute consciousness, since it is almost ludicrous to speak of a philosophically perfect mind. Not that people haven’t entertained this idea. In the early modern period in Europe it was the tradition to maintain that Adam had a perfect knowledge of philosophy, that this knowledge was subsequently lost, and all philosophy since the time of Adam was simply the rediscovery of the philosophy that Adam knew in virtue of his proximity to the fons et origo of all being and knowledge. One might think of this as a Christian re-telling of the Platonic theory of knowledge as recollection.

Plato had Socrates draw an ideal knowledge out of the slave boy Meno; for Plato, knowledge was absolute, and embodied in the Forms; today we are not so likely to acknowledge an ideal and absolute knowledge.

Absolute consciousness may well be impossible for reasons given above, but even if impossible is remains an interesting thought experiment. What I have written here is only a rough first sketch of what might be done with the idea. If certain conventions are observed — the sort of conventions implicit in Plato’s theory of knowledge as recollection, most famously presented in the dialogue Meno — one can arrive at an “absolute” formulation of anything, but if we acknowledge that human thought routinely transcends established conventions, it cannot be so easily maintained that there is any absolute or perfect form that consciousness could take. And what is the investigation of the limits of consciousness but the investigation of the transcendence of such limitations? On the other hand, even if absolute and perfect consciousness is not possible, it doesn’t take much effort to conceive of a consciousness that is markedly superior to that which we now possess.

Angels, traditionally holding a place in the Great Chain of Being between divinity and humanity, can be thought of as examplars of absolute consciousness, which falls between ordinary human consciousness and omniscience in the scale of awareness.

Absolute consciousness, while it would radically outstrip the capabilities and capacities of ordinary human consciousness, still falls far short of the idea of omniscience. Indeed, we could define absolute consciousness as here sketched as personal omniscience, i.e., absolute knowledge of oneself, of one’s experiences, and of the contents of one’s own mind. Omniscience simpliciter, traditionally conceived as a divine attribute, would be absolute knowledge of everything, of all experiences, and of the contents of all minds. Thus while there is a yawning chasm between ordinary human consciousness and absolute consciousness, there is an equally yawning chasm between absolute consciousness and omniscience, and this in itself makes the thought experiment of absolute consciousness interesting, because it posits a degree of being between human being and divine being as traditionally understood. Absolute consciousness is, if you like, the consciousness of angels.

If absolute consciousness is problematic, as we have seen that it indeed is, then a fortiori the idea of omniscience itself is problematic. This is, of course, not a new idea. Radical Ockhamists like Richard Holcot and Adam Wodeham attempted to think through the logic of omniscience and came to some disturbing conclusions, but this is another story for another time.

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