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All posts for the month December, 2005

Interview and review in New Scientist with Leonard Susskind, author of “Cosmic Landscape – string theory and the illusion of intelligent design”. Linking string theory, the cosmological constant, the anthropic principle, the multiverse, and the plausibility for an intelligent design creationist conclusion to explain the conditions that support intelligent life. [via Jorn]

For those who, like me, responded to Daniel Dennett’s 1991 “Consciousness Explained” with “Hardly” [*], I must heartily recommend his short 2005 book “Sweet Dreams – Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness” and his interview with Sue Blackmore in her 2005 “Conversations on Consciousness” as altogether more satisfying.

As he admits “Fantasy Echo”, his main thesis in Sweet Dreams, is really a rewrite of his earlier “Fame-in-the-Brain / Cerebral-Celebrity” model, which itself was a re-write of his earlier “Multiple-Drafts / Workspace” model, but it’s all the better for the re-telling, and for the exposition of all the recent debates with his detractors, over the Zombie, Qualia, Mary-the-Colour-Scientist, and the residual “Hard Problem” of the subjective aspect of consciousness. David Chalmers is the archetypical arch-rival naturally.

Firstly, let me declare that whilst I am one of those who does still harbour some oustanding issues with the subjective aspect – the first-person identity of the subject itself – not being fully explained, I’ve never had any reason to doubt that it will yield to a physicalist explanation, and for me the explanatory gap may always have been one of residual detail, or quality of explanation, rather than any omission of fundamentals. Maybe that ineffable quality of qualia does remain in need of better explanation, and maybe therefore some sort of “hard problem” does remain. It certainly remains hard to grasp an entirely third-person description of third-person behaviours (inlcuding reporting of first person experiences and beliefs) can ever literally be the same as the first person experience itself – but we shouldn’t be surprised to find that’s more a matter of what our first person brains can easily grasp, in our environment of cultural intuitions – than any failing in the science.

For me, Zombie Twin (exactly identical to me physically and behaviourally in every way, but without any first person awareness) and Mary (Living from birth in a grey world, but with learned onmniscient knowledge of the science of colour preception, yet still suprised at her first first-hand experience of colour) both simply beg the question that subjective consciousness can be physical from the outset, so have limited value as thought experiments on this topic. Dennett yet again expounds many other arguments around these thought experiments and variations on their themes to discredit them. But I’m convinced already. For me Mary should be surprised of course, but not by the experience of the colour, more by the confirmation of her omniscience in pre-knowing that experience – now that should be mind-blowing for anyone (real). What Dennett does show is that these legendary thought experiments are in fact “intuition pumps” that re-inforce intuitive prejudice about what consciousness might be. These myths are now part of the problem in understanding consciousness, more than they are part of the solution.

In terms of explaining consciousness – everything up to high-level reflective first-person awareness – I’d say Dennett’s “Fantasy Echo” must get the benefit of the doubt as the fullest explanation, likely to be re-inforced rather than undermined by additional detail. It’s really only a variation of the Pandemonium model – many “Informations” clamouring for attention in the non-hierarchical and massively interconnected, multi-level mental processsing software, the emergence of only some of which become conscious awareness – really is enough to explain what happens. The key to the Fantasy Echo “re-naming opportunity” :-) is the reflective re-playing of not only “lessons” (information learned), but of “situations” from which informations provide learning. A reflective consciousness may learn (and generalise) from a one-shot (or none-shot) experience, rather than the experience / behaviour re-inforcment cycle that would be needed for a less reflective sentient being to learn. Like all good explanations it seems obvious when you see it. The conscious awareness itself is simply the high-level interactions of the clamouring informations – the winning memes, the famous thoughts that carry political power and influence, the cerebral celebrities have the clout that counts.

Clout is the word.

Dennett stops short of using the meme machine as his model in itself. He is reserving reflective echoing of thoughts, which are what is giving rise the the awarness internal to any first person being, being distinct from the sharing of such thoughts by communication between individuals. Maybe sentient beings (like a dog say) could have the same reflective first-person aware consciousness, without a language rich enough to communicate the same externally. Either way it’s the same meme-machine model – intra-mind-memes and inter-mind-memes – depending on whether or not inter-individual communications are in play. Very powerful.

Two other thoughts, beyond Dennett’s scope here, and more relevant to Sue’s work.

Firstly, he spends all his efforts here on the scientific / behavioural evidence for first person conscious awareness and the mental processes involved. And succeeds as far as I am concerned. What he doesn’t do here is get onto free-will and causation arising from that first-person-aware consciousness.

Secondly, what neither he nor Sue seem to latch onto, is the whole game of meme-plexes in microcosm being played out amongst the thought experiments and intuitions pumps of scientists and philosophers in the science of consciousness domain. It’s not the truth per se, but the attraction in the ideas that re-inforce prejudice, that carry the clout. Twas ever thus.

Meta-Memes ?

And finally, to clear up any confusions from his critics, what does Dennett really believe ?
Is consciousness an illusion ? No.
Do we have free-will ? Yes.
Does he take explaining consciousness seriously ? You cannot be serious.

Both books very readable and sprinkled with the ironic wit so characteristic of their authors. Go Read.

[* Post Note : I’ve always suspected his title was ironic, and the “hardly” response his intent. ie he was presenting best available explanations, in order to demonstrate it wasn’t really explained by them, but that it could be … ]

Not a million miles away from Lisa Jardine’s point in the previous post. Scott Kaufmann reports a bizarre “sexual harrassment” story, that almost got out of hand when formal responses to official channels were actually moving in completely opposite directions. A funny read anyway.
[Original Report] [ Final Update] [via Gimbo]

This is the key quote

“From there our attempts to aid each other according to the policies which bind us both were doomed to fail.”

Lisa Jardine’s contribution to the BBC’s annual poll is pretty well my own agenda.

She says Health and Safety controls life today. Rules rule – it’s kinda obvious. Her objection was to those people entrusted with applying the rules in every walk of life. Rules like HS&E get authority from their rationlality. You’d be hard pushed to argue they weren’t good rules if preserving health and safety were your prime objective. The problem is how to apply them when your prime aim is creativity. One of my oft quoted adages is “Rules are for the guidance of wise men, not the enslavement of fools.” (Jeff Turnell, quoting Douglas Bader I believe)

The value of a human biological life is very high, but it’s not all-important.
It doesn’t automatically over-ride every other consideration.
(Couldn’t help thinking that a dozen times during the ongoing fuel depot blaze fiasco.)
What’s the management buzzword ? “paramount”.

The rules of codes and standards can only be applied in stable, pre-planned situations, where their rationale fits. Any situation more dynamic needs wisdom and judgement, not rules. The kind of knowledge that makes up that wisdom and judgement is the point of this blog.

Pinter pulls no punches in pretty extreme anti-American stuff from Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. [via Robot Wisdom]

The heavy morality of international politics you can read for yourself, but I was struck by this opening quote of something Pinter wrote in 1958.

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.

They (and the biting cold wind) keep the red flags flying
in Tiananmen Square

It’s that man again, overlooking those entering the Forbidden City

No stealing the photons now,

Red is not the only colour,

Does the guard on the bridge know he’s 6 inches off centre ?