Tag Archives: philosophy

The opposite trap

Judith Copithorne image

Judith Copithorne image

I vaguely remember as a child that one of the ways to learn new words and get some understanding of their meaning was to learn pairs of words that were opposites. White and black, day and night, left and right, and endless pairs were presented. But in making learning easier for children, this model of how words work makes learning harder for adults.

There are ideas that people insist on seeing as opposites – more of one dictates less of the other. They can be far from opposite but it is difficult for people to abandon this relationship. It seems that a mechanism we have for words is making our understanding of reality more difficult. An example is economy and environment. The notion that what is good for the environment has to be bad for the economy and vice versa is not strictly true because there are actions that are good for both and actions that are bad for both, as well as the actions that favour only one. We do not seem to look for the win-win actions and even distrust people who do try.

Another pair is nurture against nature or environment against genetics. These are very simply not opposites, really, they are not even a little bit so. Almost every feature of our bodies is under the overlapping control of our genetics and our environment. They are interwoven factors. And, it is not just our current environment but our environmental history and also that of our parents and sometimes our grandparents that is mixed in with our genetics.

In thinking about our thoughts and actions, opposites just keep being used. We are given a picture of our heads as venues for various parts of our minds to engage in wars and wrestling matches. We can start with an old one: mind versus brain or non-material mental versus material neural dualism. This opposition is almost dead but its ghost walks still. Some people divide themselves at the neck and ask whether the brain controls the body or does the body control the brain – and they appear to actually want a clear-cut answer. There is the opposition we inherited from Freud: a thought process that is conscious and one that is unconscious presented as two opposed minds (or three in the original theory). This separation is still with us, although it has been made more reasonable in the form of system1 and system2 thinking. System2 uses working memory and is therefore registered in consciousness. It is slow, takes effort, is limited in scope and is sequential. System1 does not use working memory and therefore does not register in consciousness. It is fast, automatic, can handle many inputs and is not sequential. These are not separate minds but interlocking processes. We use them both all the time and not in opposition. But they are often presented as opposites.

Recently, there has been added a notion that the hemispheres of the brain can act separately and in opposition. This is nonsense – the two hemispheres complement each other and cooperate in their actions. But people seem to love the idea of one dominating the other and so it does not disappear.

It would be easier to think about many things without the tyranny of some aspects of language, like opposites, that we learn as very young children and have to live with for the rest of our lives. The important danger is not when we name the two ends of a spectrum, but when we name two states as mutually exclusive, they had better actually be so or we will have problems. It is fine to label a spectrum from left-handed to right-handed but if they were opposites then all the levels of ambidextrous handedness would be a problem. The current problem with the rights of LBGT would be less if the difference between women and men was viewed as a complex of a few spectra rather than a single pair of opposites.

Neuroscience and psychology need to avoid repeatedly falling into opposite-traps. It still has too many confusions, errors, things to be discovered, dots to be connected and old baggage to be discarded.

Thanks Judith for the use of your image


Which consciousness are we talking about?

Oliver Burkeman wrote an article for the Guardian on consciousness research and philosophical thinking. I was pleasantly surprised with the historical discussion of the consciousness ideas and with (what seemed to me) a fairly balanced discussion. The new Stoppard play “The Hard Question”, may have prompted him to write the article and may account for the large number of readers. Here is a link.

Despite my liking the piece there were some places that stopped me cold.

Right at the start there is a paragraph that sums up many of the problems I had with the article. “Two decades later, we know an astonishing amount about the brain … But like an obnoxious relative who invites himself to stay for a week and then won’t leave, the Hard Problem remains.” I keep encountering this idea – that we know how the brain works. What I see is the iceberg picture. We may or may not have 10% of an understanding of the brain (less I think). Our ignorance is enormous, so not understanding this or that problem should not be surprising and should not imply the it is insoluble or even particularly stubborn, as brain problems go.

After explaining Chalmer’s philosphical zombie idea (ie people who have no conscious experience but act exactly as normal people) we have Chalmer’s justification for using the idea of zombies. “If you were approached by me and my doppelgänger, not knowing which was which, not even the most powerful brain scanner in existence could tell us apart. And the fact that one can even imagine this scenario is sufficient to show that consciousness can’t just be made of ordinary physical atoms. So consciousness must, somehow, be something extra – an additional ingredient in nature.” What bearing does being able to imagine a thing have to do with its possibility, let alone its existence? That Chalmer can imagine zombies does not mean they are possible. If it is true, as I believe it is, that consciousness is required for many processes in the brain, then a zombie is impossible, even if Chalmer can imagine one. That this may sound like a logical deduction depends on ignorance of what consciousness does and how it does it. If consciousness is a physical process and if it is required for normal thought and action then a zombie is impossible. The zombie idea simply begs the question.

Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with. … However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do. ” I think it is fair to say that Dennett does not think that the physical mechanisms that are associated with consciousness are an illusion but only that the idea that consciousness is something separate from the functioning of the physical brain is an illusion. It really depends what you are calling consciousness – how it is defined. Burkeman seems to me to not make this problem, of defining consciousness, clear.

Burkeman’s closing picture of the important thinkers from both sides of this disagreement, discussing the question on an arctic trip and ending the experience without having convinced one another to change their views, is a good illustration. They are trying to explain different things that go by the same name. Their notions appear to the other side to be somewhat ridiculous and missing the point. The other side can talk but just do not address their sort of consciousness.

I am sure that Crick was right in his belief that if the neural correlates of consciousness are all found and connected that consciousness will cease to be a puzzle but will be seen as a physical process of the brain. It was this belief that prompted him to spend his later years documenting some of those correlates.

More on the definition of consciousness

In my last post, I said that the phrase “subjective mental states”, used by Mark Conard, was without meaning. I did not explain why I find it meaningless, so I will now. You can read Conard’s review of my last post (here).

First, subjective – what can it mean? A thing, an event, a process or whatever, either exists or it doesn’t exist. And if it exists, it can be viewed in different ways. I can view something subjectively or objectively; how I view the something does not change what it is. And if I can view it subjectively then I most certainly can view it objectively, and vice versa. It makes absolutely no sense to say that something is solely subjective. As it happens consciousness can be viewed by introspection, it can also be viewed by inspecting the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). Introspection does not make consciousness exclusively subjective and NCC do not make consciousness exclusively objective. I think we get a better, more useful view if we look objectively. You cannot say that the definition of consciousness is that it IS subjective. Subjectivity is in the mind of the beholder.

Second, mental – what does that mean? Mental as opposed to what? In this use it cannot mean just vaguely to do with thought. It must be taking the dualist meaning to do with mind as opposed to matter. I cannot deal in terms of magic-mind-matter, it is just meaningless.

And finally, state – what in this context can state mean? It implies that consciousness is a noun sort of thing rather than a verb sort of thing. If it is a state then it has to be somewhat static and be somewhere, but nothing in the brain seems static and in one place. We have to think of consciousness as a process and not a state.

I see consciousness as a process that is not yet clearly understood but involves the integration of a number of sources (sensory, motor/sensory prediction, emotion, volition) into a momentary perception of the world and our interaction within it. There are a number of events that are associated with this such as the synchronous two-way communication between the cortex and the thalamus, and the use of working memory. There may be many functions for consciousness, but one important one is to create experience to be stored in episodic memory. Our awareness of this moment of consciousness has the same basic form as our experience of a memory. Introspection seems to be the steering of attention on to the moment of consciousness and experiencing this as a sort of immediate memory. This way of looking at consciousness has the ring of truth about it, it is easy for me to live with.

But if consciousness has the definition of “subjective mental state” then as far as I am concerned it does not exist and I must find another name for the beautiful perceptions and emotions etc. that I experience. However, I have every right to use the word consciousness for the experiences I have and the ones others say they have, that sound to be very similar to mine. I do not accept that my consciousness is described by ‘subjective mental state’ and I insist that I have consciousness. And further I am not a freak of nature, I have a sane, working, experiencing brain.


What is consciousness?

Consciousness is a word that we can almost point at. When I say it I am fairly sure I don’t have to give a definition – I mean every one experiences consciousness and so they will know what I am talking about. But it is not so. As Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

I read in a comment somewhere, long ago, that there were three ways to approach a physical explanation of consciousness: you could claim that as consciousness is not a physical thing, the explanation is impossible; or you could claim that it is physical but too mysterious to explain, the explanation is too hard; or you may claim that it is not what it appears to be and the explanation is obvious – it is not explained but explained away. It has been said that Dennett did this in his book Consciousness Explained – just explained it away.

As I said in a previous post (seeing past the trick) you cannot explain a magic trick as it appears but you can if you don’t believe the trick and look for the sleight of hand or the misdirection. If the subjective, non-physical, experience of a conscious mind is what has to be explained then that is a dead end and will remain a mystery. We have to give up our naïve sense of what consciousness is in order to understand it.

Michael Graziano did a piece in the NewYork Times Sunday Review (here) that portrays consciousness in a useful way.

… I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do. …

How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t. The brain has arrived at a conclusion that is not correct. When we introspect and seem to find that ghostly thing — awareness, consciousness, the way green looks or pain feels — our cognitive machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is wrong. The machinery is computing an elaborate story about a magical-seeming property. And there is no way for the brain to determine through introspection that the story is wrong, because introspection always accesses the same incorrect information. …

But the argument here is that there is no subjective impression; there is only information in a data-processing device. When we look at a red apple, the brain computes information about color. It also computes information about the self and about a (physically incoherent) property of subjective experience. The brain’s cognitive machinery accesses that interlinked information and derives several conclusions: There is a self, a me; there is a red thing nearby; there is such a thing as subjective experience; and I have an experience of that red thing. Cognition is captive to those internal models. Such a brain would inescapably conclude it has subjective experience. …

In the attention schema theory, attention is the physical phenomenon and awareness is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it. In neuroscience, attention is a process of enhancing some signals at the expense of others. It’s a way of focusing resources. Attention: a real, mechanistic phenomenon that can be programmed into a computer chip. Awareness: a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.

In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature. Something — attention — really does exist, and awareness is a distorted accounting of it.”

I have picked out these bits of the argument but it is worth the time to read the original article. He (like philosophers Dennett, Churchland, Metzinger and others) is not explaining consciousness away but looking at what consciousness may actually be. Most scientists working on consciousness are also on this route – they are assuming that consciousness has a physical explanation, looking for evidence and, like Graziano, building theoretical models.

We cannot explain magic but we can explain why some things happen while appearing to be impossible. Look for what really happened and ignore what appeared to happen.

After writing this post but before posting it, I ran across a near perfect example of the problem. A philosopher called Mark Conard has a post called ‘When Science Gets Stupid’ (here). I doubt that he understood Graziano’s piece because he starts right out defining consciousness in exactly the form that it probably isn’t, “to be conscious is to be aware. It’s to have subjective mental states about one’s environment”. He does not refute Graziano’s argument but ignores it. Well, if you start with that as a firm definition, then you have already pre-judged the issue. You cannot explain scientifically ‘subjective mental states’ but possibly you can explain something that appears to be a subjective mental state. I have consciousness, personally, and I call it consciousness, but I very definitely do not feel I have subjective mental states. That is not the explanation I am looking for – I want an explanation of my consciousness not some other definition, subjective mental states, that seems meaningless. What on earth is a subjective mental state?

I found it offensive that Graziano was referred to as “a guy named Michael Graziano”. He is a very well respected scientist. Conrad also down grades Dennett and Churchland by implying that they are not somehow doing philosophy right (not with a capital P). “With it’s methods, science is wonderful, helpful, generates real knowledge about the world; but it’s incapable of investigating lived human experience in all its richness and meaningfulness. That isn’t to say, mind you, that there is no reasoned approach to human experience, no arguments to be made, no evidence to examine. It’s only to say that we need a different methodology–that of Philosophy!”As I had never encountered Conrad before, his pulling rank does not impress me. And his arguments just miss the point entirely. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

Tyson and philosophy


Neil deGrasse Tyson is a science TV star. He is very popular but perhaps not with philosophers because he often shows his low regard for their subject. He has raised a lot of ire by advising bright students to go into science rather than philosophy. He just seems to lack respect for philosophy.

Philosophers answer that he is being anti-intellectual, even philistine, but I have to say that apart from philosophy and religion, he is not critical of the arts and humanities. He does not seem anti-intellectual just anti-philosophical. I suspect that a lot of scientists would not quite agree with Tyson but come very close to it. They are just not as out-spoken.

The problem seems to be different views of what is a big, deep or important question and what is to be done with such questions. Science, philosophy and religion all deal in ‘big questions’ and their questions overlap. Each has its own criteria for what an answer would look like. They are bound to disagree often. To many, the solution is to cut up the inquiry with boundaries, but science in particular never stays within its boundaries if it sees a method to tackle a question. Thus it always seems to be muscling in on other subject’s territory and ignoring their ‘knowledge’.

Massimo Pigliucci, who claims to be his friend, has written an article (here), Neil Tyson And The Value Of Philosophy. In it Pigliucci gives a philosopher’s answers to Tyson. He is also a biologist and so his remarks are more nuanced than some. He claims not to be upset by Tyson’s amount of air time. This is obviously not true of some of Tyson’s critics.

Tyson like many people is frustrated and annoyed by semantic discussions and points out that in philosophy discussions seems to end up being about words and not ideas or actual things. It seems to me that this is one of the things that prompts some people to lean towards science and others towards philosophy. Pigliucci describes it differently but it amounts to the same division. He has philosophy as being a conceptual exploration as opposed to science as being a empirical one. Exactly – and another way of saying that is that philosophy is about verbal concepts and science is about the physical world.

Pigliucci says both science and philosophy are dwelling on the same questions. That may be, but the nature of acceptable answers is so different that the questions are actually not the same. Tyson is frustrated with the lack of pursuit of a question caused by the distractions of all the philosophical baggage that a question has accumulated. He just wants to leave the philosophy to the side and get on with solving the question.

Tyson has said that philosophy is not helpful or useful to science. Pigliucci disagrees and his main argument is that science is the child of philosophy. True, but children leave home and do not always end up the way their parents had hoped. I have noted recently that many philosophers are annoyed that neuroscience has not followed their lead in many ways. Too bad.

This brings us to the final point. Tyson says that philosophy cannot help with the frontiers of physical sciences (like quantum mechanics) because there is a limit to what can be done thinking in an armchair. We have to agree with that: quantum mechanics would not/ could not be developed without experimentation. Pigliucci seems to have only a weak answer – some good things can be just thought up.

Personnally, I think you can be interested in philosophy or not (I am moderately interested), but philosophy does not have much to do with science or how science should be done.