The Hidden Spring – Round-Up

The night before last, I completed
Mark Solms (2021) “The Hidden Spring
– A Journey to the Source of Consciousness
“.

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The Preamble / Previously on Psybertron

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The Review

That Conscious Feeling

Human exceptionalism? I’m not one of those that deny the human species being special. We are very special in terms of our roles and responsibilities in the cosmic ecosystem. However, what has tended to happen, even amongst those scientists that see humanity as a temporary local difficulty amidst their gods-eye view of the whole of objective reality, is that we get blinded by the obvious fact that the ascent of man has been accompanied by development of the relatively enormous cerebral hemispheres in our great-ape lineage.

This has led to a prejudice – the cortical fallacy – that all the important aspects of our undoubted higher intelligence, rational capabilities and social complexity as a species must be primarily associated with these hemispheres, or at least as the default place to start to look for explanations. It’s not that modern neuro-scientists don’t actually understand this, simply that this perspective is baked into so many resources. Some of the alternatives are equally caricatures – that our animal instincts are built into lower / animalian / limbic / reptilian brain structures – and that these emotions are therefore somehow inferior (bad) relative to our “higher” (good) rational cortical capabilities.

The first six chapters of Solms’ book thoroughly nail this.

Our intelligent consciousness, on which we rightly focus as key to our highest intellectual capabilities and our models of how we work as intelligent beings, is thoroughly embedded in our mid-brain structures. Specifically Solms identifies the Mid-Brain Decision-Making Triangle (after Merker) – the “periaqueductal grey” (PAG), the “superior colliculi” (SC) and the “reticular activating system” (RAS) in the “mid-brain locomotor region” as the very source of our sentient being (after Panksepp). This subsystem is constantly processing a three-way appraisal and orchestration of priorities of inputs (in SC), with feelings (in PAG), with available options (in RAS). Where of course, the great majority of component inputs are actually the results of our internal simulations of the options, and the great majority of the processes are subconsciously (semi-)automated. The elements brought to our conscious attention are the exceptions (departures from default expectations) which we sense as feelings – qualitative / categorical / good / bad – and which guide those decisions.

Consciousness “is” affect.
It’s feeling all the way down.

How do I feel
about what I know
and what, if anything,
should I do about it?

For the science – the biology, the neuroscience and the psychology – that really ought to be it.

All Solms’ empirical resources and rational arguments follow the orthodox and thoroughly referenced considerations of those sciences over several decades. Nevertheless having demoted the hemispheres and promoted the subjective, there a quite a few corollaries and loose ends to resolve.

The Point of Life Itself

The first avenue is that whilst the whole of the above stands fine with neuroscience and psychology as biological sciences, it is fully supported by the more fundamental sciences of physical systems generally. How life itself arises from the self-organisation of non-living systems and how the basics of conscious intelligence are a natural part of that evolution. Prompted by the work of Karl Friston (since 2010) and working together with him (since 2017) Solms elaborates in this biological neuroscience domain the arguments rehearsed over many decades in the information science domain. (For that reason I can only skim over the topics here, but if the terms are not already meaningful to you, Solms provides as good a case as I’ve seen outside information science.)

Life as the battle against entropy.
Entropy as an informational property.
Consciousness as part of the armoury in that battle.

Homeostasis: The efficient minimisation of free-energy. The self-organisation of a system, an organism, as an entity bounded by a so-called Markov-blanket, with as many sub-systems as may similarly emerge ad-infinitum. The independence of each system / sub-system processing its internal resources yet “sensing” external information at its boundary. The irony of this information processing line of thinking – a computing machine with algorithms –  which appears to reduce life and consciousness to mechanistic processes and yet it is these Markov-blankets separating the levels which ensure the qualitative categorical existence of the emergent entities.

Solms provides an excellent extended metaphor of an engineering organisation set-up to maintain a leaky dam protecting a local community – the little Dutch boy (girl in Solms’ case) comes of age.

If that weren’t impressive enough, having emphasised the “feeling” nature of consciousness as affect in the first half of his book, Solms shows that – considered as such a subsystem – the mid-brain decision triangle providing these intentional, intelligent capabilities of consciousness is itself our subjective experience of it. It’s worth dwelling on that.

We have an explanation of
how our consciousness works
and
we have an explanation of
our subjective experience of it.

Having effectively disposed of qualia and the hard-problem en-passant, he does pay much respect to David Chalmers influence on his earlier thought journey throughout as well as spending a full 30 pages on arguments arising from Chalmers’ work.

The Home Straight

He sets the record straight on the cortical fallacy and this from the opening of Ch10 probably says all that needs to be said:

“As we have seen repeatedly throughout [the book], the cortical fallacy has a lot to answer for. Had the pioneers of behavioural neuroscience not been so impressed by the large expanse of our cortex or been so blinded by the philosophical idea that mental life arises from associating memory images, we might have discovered the real source of consciousness a good deal earlier. It is a tantalising irony of the history of mental science that Freud possessed so many pieces of the puzzle more than a century ago. The clues, both neurological and psychological, were staring him in the face. But when it came to consciousness, even he fell prey to our collective fixation with the cortex – an obsession whose cost, in case we forget, may be measured in more than just wasted time.”

This reminder of how much damage has been done by misunderstanding and misapplying our own received rationality in the past century or more is similarly echoed in Iain McGilchrist’s recent work “The Matter With Things”. Like Solms, McGilchrist also documents the damage caused by the cortical fallacy. Entirely complementary to Solms’ focus on the higher(newer)-lower(older) distinction, McGilchrist’s focus is on the left-right brain differences mediated by the lower(older) structures. Both bring a fundamentally systems architecture perspective to understanding how our minds work and how our misunderstandings of our minds’ subsystems are leading us astray.

Given the scale of such a change in human understanding, it is perhaps un-warranted icing on the cake that Solms also demonstrates that the same arguments can be applied to the creation of artificial minds. However, I can only echo the existing blurbs for “The Hidden Spring”

“A remarkable book.
It changes everything.”
– Brian Eno

Solms’ vital work has never ignored  the lived, felt experience of human beings. His ideas look a lot like the future to me.”
– Siri Hustvedt

The big challenge is precisely there, and Solms acknowledges it.

Crossing that Rubicon

He calls it inviting the scientific sceptics to “cross the Rubicon” with him. Without that it will change nothing and the future will look the same as the past.

“[Mind is primarily affective, felt subjectively.] To rule the subjective perspective out is to exclude from science the most essential feature of the mind.”

Solms (and I too, having called this hurdle “Catch-22” for decades) invite you to take that perspective of subjective self-hood, the one you already “have in mind” into your scientific considerations of mind.

“I am asking you to replace the third-person objective perspective we have taken so far on the dynamics [of the neuro-science] with a first-person one: with the subjective perspective of the self-evidencing system itself. I am asking you to adopt the system’s point of view, to empathise with it.”

Without accepting that shift of perspective, we are indeed ruling out scientific progress in understanding our minds.

14 thoughts on “The Hidden Spring – Round-Up”

  1. The book sounds interesting enough that I’ve put myself on the waiting list at the local library. It’s a short waiting list. In your discussion over the past few posts, there’s a whole lot going on in terms of unexplained or heavily abbreviated connections with many other influences on your thought, which makes it hard for me to follow the thread.

  2. Sure, in the posts, it’s all abbreviations and connections – my own thought journey – my own rough notes. (Obviously, if there are recurring references you don’t get, please ask.)

    Be interested in the section entitled “Review” without any links?
    Should be a standalone read.

    Ian

  3. True, some parts flow more smoothly than others, but even so, I can have a hard time following; I feel like I’m missing some of the background. There’s still an occasional disconcerting jumpiness in content and formatting. . . the abrupt italicized section on homeostasis, or the unexplained concept of Markov blankets, for example. Obviously I can Google that, but I don’t know what you think, as a background. And how Solms dissolves the hard problem is not obvious from the review — it seems to be asserted rather than explained.

    But it might just be me and my set ways. Anyway, I’ll investigate the book, if only for the 30 pages addressing David Chalmer’s ideas.

  4. No, that’s good.

    That abrupt italicised section was precisely that – inset / insert – section of technical issues that couldn’t possibly be elaborated in a review.
    (Homeostasis is mentioned only in that section, along with Markov chains / blankets also only in one of the pre-amble notes.)

    These have been the information science topics of my cybernetic / evolutionary / epistemology blog for 20 years – you’ve either seen them before, or you haven’t.

    And of course Solms’ assertions are not argued in my review – that’s what the book is for.
    But I’m telling you they are there and they are true.
    They are truths that have been true in my blog for 20 years as I say.
    The hard problem isn’t any kind of problem, never has been, except for scientists that deny the subjective.
    That’s THE POINT and it’s not new, so I didn’t feel the need to elaborate – AGAIN.

    Interesting pointers to which topics I should elaborate on next.
    But I’m reading some Russian literature for a while 🙂

  5. I would be interested in some elaboration of how you think our misunderstandings of our minds’ subsystems (higher vs. lower) are leading us astray. Are you talking about personal and social decisions we make as we live our lives, or judgments we make about how to build artificial intelligence, or are you just referring to a failure to understand the brain itself?

    Thanks

  6. Hi Tim,

    I guess our common point is Pirsig, so as a generalisation, we humans have become wedded to the received wisdom of a “church of reason”.

    That is we “value” patterns that use objective models of the world, to which we apply the decision-making powers of logic and science.
    Mystics (Goethe / Faust / the Buddha, continuing our Pirsig connection) have long pointed out that no, it’s not really like that, there’s something ineffable / sacred beyond that model. People who see that and come back to tell the rest of us, in that church of reason, are often branded insane.
    Society – social patterns – have adopted that particular intellectual model – the church of reason. If it doesn’t look like that kind of reason, you must be mad.

    Philosophers have been pointing out the limitations of a deterministic scientific objectivity for millennia of course – many particularly in the early 20th C.
    Most science – even neuroscience trying to understand the brain / mind – have continued to ignore this.
    Recently (eg McGilchrist and Solms here) have been showing the truth of that error (and better alternatives) at the level of neuroscience and psychology.

    We are misled individually and socially by the misunderstanding that our minds work and should work according to objective models – it’s a shared mental illness.

    (The AI bit was as I said “unwarranted” ie irrelevant distraction to this point. But incidentally proper understanding of how a mind works does indeed also show that artificial minds are also possible.)

  7. Thanks Ian, and a few further questions if you’re still in the mood to talk about this:

    Your phrase “leading us astray” seems to refer to incorrect personal and social decisions we make, but most of your answer appears to key on our misunderstanding of how the brain works.

    If we can ignore brain function for a moment, I would like to discuss some examples of those personal and social decisions. I think you are referring to (1) a lack of “caring” in the Pirsigian sense of identifying with what one is doing, and (2) a failure to identify as a part of nature. But isn’t it possible to arrive at the correct attitudes toward those things solely by applying the decision-making powers of logic and science? Can’t we use the LH to build an appreciation for the RH? Isn’t that what McGilchrist has done?

    I’m asking because the limitations of a deterministic scientific objectivity do not appear to have much consequence for personal and social decisions. The uncertainty principle, the incompleteness theorems, and quantum paradoxes are all pretty far away from the physical phenomena of everyday life. So if caring and affect and the Buddha nature can all be accommodated without crossing into those realms, how is scientific objectivity leading us astray?

    I agree completely on the absolute necessity of sacred mystery. But I believe that mystery is not at the root; it’s in the branches.

  8. Your phrase “leading us astray” seems to refer to incorrect personal and social decisions we make, but most of your answer appears to key on our misunderstanding of how the brain works.
    [IG] not “how the brain works” – but “how our minds work (individually & collectively)” – it just so happens (functional) brain science is catching-up with supporting such understanding. (Remember both the references here are looking at both “neuroscience” AND “psychology”.)

    If we can ignore brain function for a moment, I would like to discuss some examples of those personal and social decisions. I think you are referring to (1) a lack of “caring” in the Pirsigian sense of identifying with what one is doing,
    [IG] I wasn’t particularly thinking of this mindful “flow” aspect here … but I do address it elsewhere as one of our “levels” of consciousness.

    and (2) a failure to identify as a part of nature.
    [IG] and I wasn’t really thinking of this either – but yes, failing to understand what is natural about us (our minds).

    But isn’t it possible to arrive at the correct attitudes toward those things solely by applying the decision-making powers of logic and science? Can’t we use the LH to build an appreciation for the RH? Isn’t that what McGilchrist has done?
    [IG] I think the key word here is “solely”. Obviously LH tools and models are useful and powerful and we (inc Iain McG) are using them to build arguments and descriptions (models), but having done so we mustn’t lose sight of the RH role in determining the “quality” and “value” (limitations to value) of that model. We remember to keep the RH in the loop. (Contrary to received scientific wisdom).

    I’m asking because the limitations of a deterministic scientific objectivity do not appear to have much consequence for personal and social decisions.
    [IG] Ah, right. In normal, intuitively-balanced rational mode “we” don’t (shouldn’t) need to have any of this in mind – it comes natural (if allowed) – but social patterns justified by received wisdom of science are constantly undermining it, telling us our rationality is much simpler than that and because of determinism, our free will is only an illusion, we must be “science-led”, etc. (The original point – our understanding of how our own minds work is being distorted by “bad science” – causing our “mental illness” in denying our natural decision-making process)

    The uncertainty principle, the incompleteness theorems, and quantum paradoxes are all pretty far away from the physical phenomena of everyday life. So if caring and affect and the Buddha nature can all be accommodated without crossing into those realms, how is scientific objectivity leading us astray?
    [IG] I think this is what I’ve described above? These things are only important when we’re analysing why, how and what alternatives to the received “scientific” wisdom.

    I agree completely on the absolute necessity of sacred mystery. But I believe that mystery is not at the root; it’s in the branches.
    [IG] I think this is a bigger topic 😉 … all I’m saying here is that some of this “mysterious” stuff is a valid part of nature, beyond orthodox science, EVEN THOUGH science would deny it?

  9. To answer your request to ‘Tell me what you read into it up the point *BOOM*’ (referring to your earlier post), my reading would require considerable interpolation, presumably drawing upon a background of systems engineering, which is not my specialty. Through entropy, I gather, things (aka whatever is) settle into an efficient state. When I think of self-organization under entropy, the best I can come up with is the slope of a sand heap, or the regularity of a crystal. I’m also keeping in mind the concept of a local minimum; what is most efficient within a particular “valley” may not be most efficient globally, and unable to reach greater efficiency without an external disturbance. These represent points of skepticism on my part. The local efficiencies of self-organization are resting points, but nothing about that makes them expressive of a higher form of being, unless one explicitly calls such concepts into play (through something like Platonic forms or a transcendent view of mathematical relationships).

    “Predictive hierarchy” means nothing to me, but it sounds like you’re suggesting that pockets of efficiency combine by the same entropic process into larger complexes of efficiency. By Markov blankets, I think you mean immediate connections from the point of view of any node interacting with other nodes. My points of skepticism still apply; these manifestations likewise do not inherently suggest a higher form of being.

    When it comes to consciousness arising, subjective or otherwise, you lose me. Everything up to this point–the talk about entropy and self-organization–is fully explicable in terms of ordinary materialistic science, without appeal to something like Platonic forms or other transcendent principles suggestive of higher conditions of being. Emergence, such as it is, cannot get beyond that boundary. Thus to explain consciousness, one has to posit it as fundamental to the original relationships which find themselves under the influence of entropy. There is no reason for it to appear that does not presuppose higher forms of being, and no reason to suppose higher forms of being to explain the appearance of self-organization.

  10. Hi AJ, first an apology, when I made that reference to *BOOM* – I’d mis-remembered where it came in the piece (amidst the rough notes preamble, not the text of the review).

    As I said in the sentence before the inset piece, these are: “arguments rehearsed over many decades in the information science domain”
    No one is suggesting platonic forms or transcendent principles ? And absolutely no-one is suggesting a higher form of being – these are all (potentially offensive) straw-men?

    It’s not “ordinary” materialist science – the orthodox forms are determinist and see “emergent” structures as nevertheless causally dependent on their elements. With Markov-blankets and non-ergodicity, the emergent objects cells, organisms, etc have distinct existence with their own causality, independent of their component determinism (including their conscious, intelligent will).

    The predictive hierarchy is really saying the same for our organised processes of decision-making, not just actual causal effects on the outside world. Prediction using the same emergent objects, without needed to know all their internal elemental detail.

  11. Hi,Psybertron. My comments were based on what I could read into the text, not necessarily on what youmeant by it. I didn’t mean to give any offense over straw men.

    When I spoke of “higher being” I didn’t mean this in a grand way. My conception of self-organization, at its simplest, would be the slope that organizes itself when sand is piled up. I’m merely focussing on the “being,” or ontological status, of that slope It “exists,” but to take it as an instantiation of an emergent reality that now contains entities such as “slopes” runs the risk of misplaced concreteness.

    I probably don’t grasp Markov blankets, but I wonder if my own preliminary notions on levels of existence share any similarities. They are sketched in a series of four short blog posts beginning with Do Motorcycles Have Experiences? and connected by Next-Prev inks.

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