Tag Archives: dualism

Meaning of consciousness – Part 2

In part 1 a particular meaning of consciousness was picked out of the group of meanings. So what can be said about this neural idea of consciousness as simply awareness of self and surrounding world, here and now? Is it as it appears? Well, no.

To start with it is questionable whether it is a continuous stream, the ‘stream of consciousness’, as it seems to be. Instead It is likely to be discrete displays. A number of experiments (replicated a number of times) have shown that consciousness is not continuous. But there are also experiments that shown that it is not a straight forward series of frames as in a movie film. There is a fairly convincing in-between theory proposed by Herzag (PLOS Biol 2016). “We experience the world as a seamless stream of percepts. However, intriguing illusions and recent experiments suggest that the world is not continuously translated into conscious perception. Instead, perception seems to operate in a discrete manner, just like movies appear continuous although they consist of discrete images. To explain how the temporal resolution of human vision can be fast compared to sluggish conscious perception, we propose a novel conceptual framework in which features of objects, such as their color, are quasi-continuously and unconsciously analyzed with high temporal resolution. Like other features, temporal features, such as duration, are coded as quantitative labels. When unconscious processing is “completed,” all features are simultaneously rendered conscious at discrete moments in time, sometimes even hundreds of milliseconds after stimuli were presented.” They have a two stage model: a first stage of unconscious processing of features and the binding of these features to entities that ends after at least 400 milliseconds with a best fit solution and the triggering of the second stage of integration into a consciously perceived output. This precept is static but is labeled with features like colour, pitch and also duration, movement, location and the like. Although the precept is unchanging, it is experienced as having duration – as a slice of time although it does not exist for that duration.

This view of consciousness implies that we have no direct knowledge of how this conscious experience is created. We can report our conscious experiences but not how they were created or how accurate they may be. Introspection as a method of observing processes of thought is not a reasonable concept – it is not possible to interrogate the ‘mind’ subjectively, from the inside. “The human mind operates largely out of view, and yet people are unaware of their unawareness, confabulating reasons for their actions and preferences.” (Wilson Science 2008). Subjectively, creating consciousness is a transparent process. It can only be understood through objective study.

If perception is not done consciously and neither is motor control, exactly why do we need the conscious experience? It is almost like consciousness has no function – an extra that the brain does not need.

Chalmers put forward the distinction of the hard question and the easy question. This appears to be a new type of dualism, separating objective knowledge of consciousness from the subjective experience of it. There is an thought experiment called philosophical zombies. Why could there not be people who have no consciousness but who act the same as someone who does? This would mean that the function of consciousness in the brain does not include the experience of consciousness. The function of the easy part, the objective part, the neural part is separate from the function-less, hard, subjective, and mystical part. The core idea here is that a physical brain cannot produce a subjective experience, or if it does then it is by way of some special process that is not known to current science. It has been put forward that consciousness is a universal primitive like mass and everything has consciousness, or it ’emerges’ through some information theory mathematics in objects that are complex enough, or it is some product of quantum mechanics that has not been studied, or it is simply not physical but spiritual. So some people who try to explain consciousness are told that they have not explained it but ‘explained it away’ because the mystery is gone. And other people who try to explain consciousness are told that they have not explained it but made it a mystery because the physical world is over-stepped. This divide is unlikely to disappear in the near future. I have to say that I personally find it impossible to be a dualist. I want a physical explanation of consciousness, preferably in biological terms .

From my biological point of view, consciousness must have a function in the brain because it is very biologically expensive. It cannot just be entertainment. What function does experiencing ourselves in the world have? Does its reason of existence help explain it? That is for part 3.

Get over the dualism

I keep running across advice on how to be happy, less afraid, more effective and similar personal improvements. Most of them are OK and I can see how they would be useful. But some are not and they are finally getting under my skin. These are the ones that propose a state of war between “you” and “your brain”. Surprising in this day and age, there are people who are not trying to help people over their dualism but actually encouraging it.



I have taken an example: “Why you should treat your brain like an unruly child” by A P Jacobs almost at random. There are many more. The first thing these articles try and instill in the reader is a separation between the self and the brain/mind and a lack of any responsibility of the “I” for what is thought and done. “I don’t trust my brain. It’s got some good qualities, sure, but it needs constant supervision. It’s like an unruly Boston terrier – left to its own devices, it will scamper off and rummage through the garbage can, spreading rotten guacamole all over the house. In my brain’s case, this means the hours spent wallowing in unrealistic worries, time-wasting regret and elaborate revenge fantasies.” This author seems to imply that he is not worrying, regretting and fantasying – it is just his brain that is doing that. It seems that he believes that it is not necessary to find out why he is doing these things and how to avoid ‘wallowing’; it is only necessary to make it stop with some sort of super determination.



I have to monitor my thoughts myself. I have appointed myself my brain’s babysitter. Which is why I spend a lot of time thinking about the contents of my thoughts. Dozens of times a day, I like to ask myself: “Hey, what are you thinking about? Is that a good use of your brain?”” So what is happening here? It is not – hey, what am I thinking about? Why am I thinking about that?



Unless I’m paying attention to it, here are some of the unpleasant areas my brain likes to wander into…Worries about absurdly unlikely scenarios… Jealousy of people about whom I know practically nothing…Indulging in absurd regrets …Stewing about perceived slights from years ago….Stewing about perceived slights that never actually happened…I have to tell my brain: Stay out of those areas.” So he tells his brain. This is probably not something that works – there is no separate brain willing to listening to some officious disembodied self. Different parts of the brain can communicate through language but not this way.



I force my cerebral cortex to get control of my limbic system. To use behavioral economics lingo, I have to make sure my System 2 is in charge of System 1.” So that is what it is? This is crazy. ‘Limbic system’ is an outdated concept that includes the parts of the cortex that are not neo-cortex, the thalamus, and the basal ganglia. Without these there is no consciousness, no memory, no decisions. They work with the neo-cortex and not in opposition. There is no way the cortex can ‘get control’ of the limbic system. They work together or not at all. The writer may be trying to say that he wants to control his emotions – the limbic system was once thought to be about emotion as opposed to rational thought. Or he may be trying to say consciousness as opposed to unconsciousness. System 1 and 2 are more reasonable ways to think of what used to be called conscious and unconscious thought. System 1 is the process that most of the brain uses most of the time. It does not use working memory (and therefore is not restricted to the amount of information being processed at a time and the lack of speed of working memory); it is fast and efficient but it is not brought to consciousness or episodic memory. System 2 uses working memory, is brought to consciousness and is stored in the episodic memory, but it is slow and can only handle a few things at a time. It is, I think, obvious that system 2 cannot control system 1. If he is not talking about avoiding emotion or steering unconscious thought, what else could he be on about. It appears from his examples that he is not a fan of his default mode network and its time-wasting on memory, imagination, day-dreaming and the like. But this impression appears not to be his intent. “Now I’m not saying you should never let your mind wander. In fact, there’s some evidence of the positive effects of daydreaming.” So, positive thoughts from the default network are welcome but not negative ones, he thinks. I have to say that negative thoughts are very often good to have. People who don’t feel pain are always hurting themselves; people who never worry make bad decisions, people who feel no regret do not learn from mistakes.



What is missing is an appreciation that the brain has evolved to keep us as safe and successful as it can. It is not bad at it either. It is also your brain, part of your body. If you are talking to your brain, it is actually your brain talking to your brain. There is no other you talking. Talking to yourself can work or not work depending on how it is done. Being macho, domineering and Pollyanna-ish is unlikely to be the best way to talk to yourself.



I explored internal speech in a previous post a way to talk to yourself a way to talk to yourself .



The Edge Question 2

In the last post I looked at some answers to this year’ Edge Question: what scientific idea is ready for retirement. (here) I agreed with those. This post is about some responses to the Edge Question that I disagree with.


There are two answers that deal with ‘culture’ – this is it, just culture; they use the single word ‘culture‘ to answer the question of what scientific idea should be retired. Betzig is against the idea that culture is something superzoological (that) shapes the course of human events. Boyer is against the use of culture to explain material phenomena— representations and behaviors—in terms of a non-material entity. So the culture they complain about is ether non-biological or even non-material. Personally, I do not believe that it is possible to understand human behaviour without the concept of culture (or something very similar with a different name). Both of these responders are anthropologists and so they may be coming from an environment where there is an over-use of culture as an explanation. If so, I would say that we need not throw out the baby with the bath water. First I will give their ideas a good airing, before countering some of their arguments.


Laura Betzig (Anthropologist; Historian)


Betzig put an historical case for viewing human civilizations as mechanism of ruler’s reproductive success. “What if the 100,000-odd year-old evidence of human social life—from the arrowheads in South Africa, to the Venus figurines at Dordogne—is the effect of nothing, more or less, but our efforts to become parents?  What if the 10,000-odd year-old record of civilization—from the tax accounts at temples in the Near East, to the inscription on a bronze statue in New York Harbor—is the product of nothing, more or less, but our struggle for genetic representation in future generations?”


The history is interesting and has a lot of credibility. Next is a jump to a different use of the word culture. “CULTURE is a 7-letter word for GOD. Good people—some of the best, and intelligent people—some of the smartest, have found meaning in religion: they have faith that something supernatural guides what we do. Other good, intelligent people have found meaning in culture: they believe that something superzoological shapes the course of human events. Their voices are often beautiful; and it’s wonderful to be part of a chorus. But in the end, I don’t get it. For me, the laws that apply to animals apply to us. And in that view of life, there is grandeur enough.”


Pascal Boyer (Anthropologist and Psychologist, Washington University in St. Louis; Author, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought)


Boyer takes aim at exactly what culture is. “Culture is like trees. Yes, there are trees around. But that does not mean that we can have a science of trees. … the notion is of no use to scientists… Don’t get me wrong—we can and should engage in a scientific study of ‘cultural stuff’. Against the weird obscurantism of many traditional sociologists, historians or anthropologists, human behavior and communication can and should be studied in terms of their natural causes. But this does not imply that there will or should be a science of culture in general….When we say that some notion or behavior is “cultural”, we are just saying that it bears some similarity to notions and behaviors of other people. That is a statistical fact. It does not tell us much about the processes that caused that behavior or notion.”


But all this is not news. So why is Boyer trying to rid science of culture. “Is the idea of culture really a Bad Thing? Yes, a belief in culture as a domain of phenomena has hindered the development of a proper science of human behavior in groups—what ought to be the domain of social sciences.”


It seems that these are not pleas to retire culture from science. They are something else, some other complaint about how culture is studied or used or something. Boyer’s comment that ‘culture’ is only a statistical similarity is true but so is ‘species’. Species cannot be understood as something divorced from the rest of science and is only a statistical similarity between real individual animals. But species is a concept within science and a very useful one. Similarly, culture is a statistical similarity between real individual animals. Culture likewise is a useful concept within science. How exactly would we go about examining behavior without using the concept of culture. Betzig seems to be saying that using the concept of culture will mean denying we are animals. But biology is also studying culture in some other animals as well as humans. Culture is not a good answer to the question: what scientific idea is ready for retirement? The word culture is being used as a scientific concept where it is useful, or it is being used as something else in which case it is not scientific. Culture as a scientific idea is not bypassing biology but part of it. Put as a dull, semantic thing – there can be more than one way to view culture and there is at least one way of viewing culture that we actually need in science.


Another response that I didn’t agree with was Lombrozo’s, she wanted to retire “the mind is just the brain”. This again seems to be a semantic problem but in this case an important rather than a dull one.


Tania Lombrozo (Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of California)


Lombrozo starts with a clear denial of dualism. “In fact, it appears the mind is just the brain. Or perhaps, to quote Marvin Minsky, “the mind is what the brain does.” But then comes a switch. “In our enthusiasm to find a scientifically-acceptable alternative to dualism, some of us have gone too far the other way, adopting a stark reductionism. Understanding the mind is not just a matter of understanding the brain.” To illustrate ‘stark reductionism’ she gives us a discussion of cake baking which I have read over and over and cannot understand what it is saying about reductionism. If mind is what the brain does, then we can try and understand mind and understand how brain does it. This is how reduction works. And when we try and understand brain we will, of course, also try and understand how cellular physiology does cells and so on down to quarks. There are hierarchies in any science and there are ways of understanding/studying/theorizing that are best suited to each level and each level tries to fit on the understanding of the one beneath it. What is the problem with this? Why is this not reductionism. Or (as it obviously is reductionism) why is reductionism not acceptable?


The third answer that struck me as wrong was Waytz response, “humans are by nature social animals”. Again it is a semantic problem. He seems to think social-animal means nice-social-animal.


Adam Waytz (Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University)


Waytz states how social we are and then puts limits on it. “Certainly sociality is a dominant force that shapes thought, behavior, physiology, and neural activity. However, enthusiasm over the social brain, social hormones, and social cognition must be tempered with evidence that being social is far from easy, automatic, or infinite.” He finds that in experiments people have to view the situation with a social context to react socially. This does not seem surprising. “Humans may be ready and willing to view the world through a social lens, but they do not do so automatically.” True, they do it in what they see as a social context.


Our social nature is not infinite. “Despite possessing capacities far beyond other animals to consider others’ minds, to empathize with others’ needs, and to transform empathy into care and generosity, we fail to employ these abilities readily, easily, or equally. We engage in acts of loyalty, moral concern, and cooperation primarily toward our inner circles, but do so at the expense of people outside of those circles. Our altruism is not unbounded; it is parochial.” True, but is there any social animal that extends its empathy easily outside its actual social groups, not wolves, chimps, elephants or bees. I cannot think of any. And finally he says, “At the same time, the concept of humans as “social by nature” has lent credibility to numerous significant ideas: that humans need other humans to survive, that humans tend to be perpetually ready for social interaction, and that studying specifically the social features of human functioning is profoundly important.” If we are not social animals then why would we live in societies?


This is the end of the semantic nit-picking. The next post will be back to positive reactions.