Monday, August 16, 2010

Originally here, but I've come across a lot of related discussions recently. It seemed appropriate for other reasons as well, having to do with the philosophy of expertise: Timothy Williamson telling just so stories about why we tell stories, and Joshua Marshall trying to avoid or elide the fact that Palestinians are Muslims, and that he's a Zionist. "We grew up in America where Islam, as a domestic social or cultural reality, was close to invisible." And this from someone who's called the founding of Israel "a necessary crime".

There's no understanding of consciousness without acknowledging that it's multilayered and conflicted, that our actions often contradict our words and each other. No amount of expertise will change that.
-What is consciousness?
-What is pain, as an aspect of consciousness?

Pain evolved as a way to make us aware of damage or disease, and as a mechanism by which our bodies make it difficult for us to engage in things that make that damage worse. If I'm working and strain a muscle, the pain tells me not to use the muscle so that it will heal more quickly, or it allows me to gauge the degree to which the muscle is or is not capable of doing its job. But pain is not a simple signal or transfer of data, it is a kind of gestalt, the result of a bombardment of data which we "experience" as a specific form of "qualia".

Imagine that I'm out hunting and am attacked by a lion, who claws me leaving a deep gash in my leg. I run away but the pain slows me down. If I run I increase the injury, but if I stay I'll be killed. The choice is obvious yet my body continues to experience a division. Endorphins and adrenaline are partial overrides but they're autonomic, and very rarely if ever does the pain or the division go away completely. Pain has a regulating function that has nothing to do with decision-making itself. It's not subject to rational controls and yet it's part of what we call consciousness.

We rely both on rationality and instinct. If we react habitually in a given way to a specific range of situations, but now face a problem that fits largely in that range but logically demands an alternate response, something has to give way to allow us to break the pattern. But it doesn't give way easily. We can't turn off instinct any more than we can turn off pain. Habit is reflex and reflexes have a purpose. A neurotic activity is one that the mind has been conditioned to perform because at some unconscious level it facilitates psychic continuity and by logical extension physical survival. Neuroses continue patterns learned in childhood, affecting our relations with people and experiences that have little to do with those of the past except in terms of structure. We never stop being influenced by this sort of learned response, or by others more benign; everybody is neurotic.

It's common now for people to talk about mental activity in biological terms. There are studies of behavior that link social activities to chemicals and genetics. Yet there are also studies showing that an infant’s brain constructs itself by reinforcing the most often used neural pathways. We're born with an immense number of connections and in the act of living we program ourselves, experiencing not only psychological but also biological adaptation. And once such adaptation is complete it can't be erased. This seems to me to be a more interesting explanation for our linguistic capabilities than Chomsky’s LAD or innate universal grammar. Rather than specific tools that allow us to create and acquire language, and that apparently wither away within a few years if not used, why not imagine a network that may or may not be constructed? If we think of the mind as a glass that can be filled with different sorts of liquids, that blend together each time we add more, then this doesn't fit what we know. But if we think not in terms of liquids but solids this explanation makes sense. If we fill a glass first with sand, then with gravel, and then with dirt, how can we reverse or rearrange the order? Adding more sand at the top will change the ratio of sand to gravel, but the same amount of sand is at the bottom of the glass. A 14 year old without language would have great difficulty picking it up because the synaptic pathways, the foundation of her psyche, will have been constructed without it. It would be interesting to think that in some instances mental disorders which we now associate with chemical imbalances could be reattributed, chemicals included, to learned responses.

We call living creatures sentient, conscious, or aware, but these words only describe the sensations of our experience of ‘consciousness’. We slide quickly into tautology. What separates us from computers is not consciousness, which we have had such a bad time trying to define, but the unconscious. Desire and fear, reflexes and pain stay with us even when they're inappropriate. If we don't follow them we still sense their shadow. Our desires/instincts/neuroses may also be contradictory, or even self-destructive. But all of them are sensory before they're intellectual. Consciousness is the state produced by the body/brain's negotiation of the conflict between conditioned response and reason. That is its beauty and why we find it so difficult to understand. We experience consciousness as one thing, but only can define it as the space between two. We experience it a as a thing ‘being’, but can only define it as the place where it exists.

The first moment of indecision is the first act of consciousness. Any creature capable of indecision is conscious.
11/09 Consciousness in machines
...Biological machines are capable of reason but are programmed also by conditioning, and reason and reflex can produce contradictory imperatives. If there's a "choice" to be made, which mechanism is it that "makes" the choice?

Consciousness is not complex calculation it's indecision. Create an indecisive computer, a neurotic computer, torn (having been given the imperative to survive) between the heuristics of conditioned response and calculation, and you'll have a conscious non-biological machine.

Mary the color scientist, seeing -sensing- color for the first time, will learn nothing new about color itself but will now give it a place among the trillions of sense impressions over the course of her life which she has compartmentalized, characterized, and like as not narrativized into her personal logic. She will have a new understanding of color not as independent but in relation to herself as a form of experience within the totality of her imagined and imagining life.
Mary will see, construct, and experience her red.

...What exactly are qualitative states? In its definition of qualia at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begs the question. Perception is physical: experience, sandpaper etc. When animals sense we categorize things in the history of our perceptions (patterning as comfort). Our history is foggy, and facts and values are confused from the start. The machines we make do not have this complex conflicted relation to the world; they’re not desirous or anxious. They have no sense of telos, even a blind drive for survival.

It seems easier to want to ascribe qualitative states to man-made machines than to describe the mechanics of qualitative “experience” and “perception.” To a machine the blueprint for a building and the building itself are identical, while animals require the presence of the building to understand the thing. And as with the color red we’re not understanding the building but our categorization of it, and all the details that we analogize in relation to what we’ve already stored away. We’re bombarded by perceptions and evocations resulting from perceptions. But all of that can be described in quantitative terms. What’s private -as experience- is that each of us contextualize the data according to our own history. Every animal has his or her own filing system and her own adaptive conditioning. Animals are drunken machines, each of us drunk in our own way.

The limits of conceptualism it seems to me are in the unwillingness to mark the distinction between blueprints and buildings, between ideas and experience, because ideas are universally available and one’s experience of a building is private and therefore considered secondary. But what this means is that the ability to communicate always private experience atrophies, while experience is still our primary relation to the world. This conversation above seems more about desire than the world we will always only know as experience, while shying away from real questions regarding our biological machinery.