Under No Illusion

[UPDATED 21-Dec-2022] I’ve often referred to Dan Dennett as my “hero” when it comes to philosophy and as a consequence I find myself defending his ideas against those that quote the errors of his (1991) “Consciousness Explained”. Even I have dubbed that work “Consciousness (Not) Explained”. As it happens I’m always looking towards – seeking – convergent agreement rather than pointing out (obvious) differences and disagreements. That’s easy, too easy. But my confidence in that quest has been dented of late.

What I’ve been doing is defending the fact that Dan’s model of consciousness has evolved in the 30+yrs since he first “explained” it. Actually it is his language, his choice of words, the explanation which has evolved. He’s always been essentially “right”.

Now here the focus is on consciousness (and free-will), big enough questions in their own right, but for me this is as much to do with the general limitations of “science” (due to the exclusion of “subjectivity”) as it is any one specific topic. Limitations which the vast majority of scientists and science-informed actors conveniently ignore.

Twice recently, I’ve had commentators point at more recent Dennett work that appears to reinforce his original position. Firstly, Kevin Mitchell pointing out his sticking to a “determinist / compatibilist” position [check / ref] in for example his recent “Just Desserts” joint work with Gregg Caruso. [A work I’m aware of / seen secondary references but not yet read.] And, most recently, regular visitor A.J.Owens reacting to my take on his recent paper “The User-Illusion of Consciousness” referring to work of Mark Solms. (AJ has in fact written further – and I owe him a further response.)

Thinking about it, it’s actually quite clear that it is Dennett’s language of argumentation and explanation that has evolved rather than his model per se. That is actually quite explicit in my own summary of his last (2017) major work “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” – that the evolution of argumentation is where progress lies.

Well, today, Dan himself shared a link to a “Closer to Truth” interview with Robert Kuhn. (Actually from a year ago.)

It’s very, very good. As Dan says, Robert does his homework and his questions give Dan perfect opportunities to clarify his position(s).

**** NOTES ADDED ****

His policy 30 years after Consciousness Explained is still elaboration and adding empirical detail to the evolving description of his main ideas, but explicitly also now working with others whose philosophical and scientific work is convergent with his. He was deliberately non-committal in some of his earlier arguments in order to leave room for debate and dialogue and not be dismissed out of hand, but he has become much more committed to expressing the beliefs he held / holds. This is exciting progress for him.

One of his “mistakes” was to mock the idea that the homunculus of the little man inside the mind had simply been replaced with a committee of homunculi – whereas he does now believe the brain / mind is indeed an organised assembly of many agents, right down to individual neurones. And the functional behaviour is very much information-processing / computation “like a computer” though working profoundly differently from the assembly of switches and registers of a digital computer device. More a social / political organisation of agents. (Akin to Minsky’s “Society of Mind”)

Fame in the Brain – as the influence of the intangible – levels of consciousness of this influence

Pan-psychism popularity as regressive, forlorn, embarrassing – it pays to be different, disagreeable to make a name in philosophy.

[Pan-psychism and qualia (and zombies) have obvious attractions to the scientific, given the exclusion of subjectivity of experience, but they are misguided “embarrassments” philosophically. I personally like pan-psychist and idealist thinking but always reject anything suggesting “all things are / everything is conscious” and all the “woo woo” mysterious stuff. For me the “stuff of consciousness” is ubiquitous, fundamental – information-processing / computation (as Dan confirms). The same pan-proto-Psychic-&-Physical monism supports both. “A wonderful bag of nature’s tricks”.]

[No, consciousness is not an illusion, it’s real. The illusion is of a first-person doing the experiencing – the “user-illusion” (As AJ pointed out earlier). Reality is the experience itself. The “illusion” is the conscious impression – user interface – of the complex “bag of tricks”. Main job is “self-control” given the challenging number of degrees of freedom we have. Noticing the noticing, the noticing – meta / recursion. A “system” for using that. Zombie / Qualia thought experiments hopelessly muddled. Figment as the mental “pigment” (paint). No “qualia” of pain independent of experiencing the pain.]

[Denial of the first-person view?  Is counter-intuitive sure. The first person – as a thing / an entity – is the illusion, the sense of it is the reality.]

AI achieving consciousness / inner experience? And, the content of a real (human) intelligence being “uploadable” to such a AI-supporting system / device? Just an “engineering” question? Possible in principle, but much more complex (and ill-advised) than most realise. Problems more to do with the meaning of life and mortality / immortality. Fragility of mortality is profoundly key to how consciousness works (and why).

Duplicate / twin me. “Minds Eye” covered this. Ship of Theseus really. Since Hume we’ve known that the idea of a self, independent of things like memory, is incoherent. The user-illusion of self – no more intrinsic, unchangeable, unitary “entity” than say “equality” is. Zen / Buddhist parallel’s with no-self, etc? Oh yes.

“Res Cogitans as the thinking thing is wrong” – obviously – but I treated is as “the stuff of thought”?)

Anyway – very good. My thoughts noted above for my interests, but very interesting to hear Dan clarify how so much of his thought is misrepresented.

It’s The Hope I Can’t Stand

Lucy Wingett’s “Thought for the Day” on @BBCR4Today was on the Christian concern for hope during the Advent approach to Christmas.

She mentioned the “It’s The Hope I Can’t Stand” quote from the John Cleese “Clockwise” film. It is of course always topical amongst football supporters everywhere at all levels from World Cups to grass roots.

It resonated with me however, not because of the football connection but because I used the whole Clockwise allusion to hopeless despair beyond personal control – not just the quote – as my orienting reference when I’d read Ishiguro’s “Unconsoled” back in 2006. Topical because it was being discussed just recently, prompted by a BBCR4 documentary broadcast in advance of the Ishiguro film “Living”.

Information Processing Illusion?

I’m reading this recent (2021) paper by Dan Dennett -“The User Illusion of Consciousness” because it’s the one where he makes very positive reference to the work of Mark Solms.

Or rather, I’m reading it today because I have again been struggling elsewhere with arguments from people who dismiss Dennett as a determinist/compatibilist who sees consciousness (and free-will) as illusory. In this paper he’s right up-front with his “user-illusion of consciousness”. My take is not that he’s saying that our consciousness and our free-will are not real, he’s saying our subjective experience of that reality is literally an illusion – a subjective impression, not an objective thing (see Solms’ Rubicon). But the original reason above is why I happen to have the paper linked on my desktop these last few weeks.

In that vein, he says:

“Cognitive scientists in general agree that the brain is a sort of computer; it isn’t a radiator for cooling the blood and it isn’t a dynamo. It is an information processing system of tremendous power that accomplishes its primary task — controlling the body in ways that enhance its chances of surviving to produce offspring — by extracting patterns from the torrent of ‘input’ signals it receives from transducers, patterns that can guide its ‘output’, which is another torrent of signals, effector or trigger signals, that can contract muscles or release hundreds of different chemical modulators, including many that create recursive cycles that refine the information available and the uses to which it is put. Is it a digital computer? Nobody knows, but even if it is, at some level, a digital computer, its architecture, and the parts it is
made of, are profoundly unlike the architectures and parts of the digital computers we understand so well. This is what opens the door to romantic surmises about how the brain might — or must — escape
the explanatory net of functionalism. Solms and I want to close that
door, not by fiat, but by showing how the brain harnesses affect to get
the many jobs done.”

And he goes on to quote more of the passages from Solms as I have about where consciousness lies in that architecture. But the key things are here:

Affect is central and architecture is everything.

And even if I might make the metaphysical claim that “all” information processing is indeed digital (or quantum, or “atomic”) all the way down to the fundaments of physics, it’s all kinds of complex categorical information through the layers of the architecture that matter here. I’ve always liked his “sorta” operator which he uses to great effect early in that quote above. We might argue exactly what we mean by information processing – but anyone who doesn’t see brains/minds as somehow processing information, gets the “so what is it doing?” question. Definitions are conclusions, not pre-conditions.

(Need to read further to get to what he is really saying about the “user-illusion”. Ho hum.)

McGilchrist & Natural Information Processing

Iain McGilchrist gave a keynote speech to the “AI (Artificial Intelligence) World Summit 2022” in the full plenary session on October 12th in Amsterdam.

The Video is available here and the full transcript here for members of Channel McGilchrist. [Can’t embed the Vimeo here.]

I thought it significant that Iain chose to redefine “AI” for the purposes of his talk as Artificial Information Processing – presumably to distinguish it from any natural or living forms of information processing? I was moved to add this comment:

The summary of his work and his position on what we can do to encourage more right/left balanced approach to the world – and why – is good to see and already well known and agreed amongst those of us familiar with his work.

In terms of the relation to “AI” and the prospect of AI-enhanced human “Cyborgs” it is telling that Iain has his own preferred translation of AI – “Artificial Information-Processing” as opposed to the “Artificial Intelligence” of the conference organisers and most participants. I agree and consider it very important that Iain follows-up on this:

Artificial Information Processing (Computation) using human-devised machines – qualified as “Artificial” correctly implies the opposite, a “Natural” form of computation too, information processes that happen naturally in living things and natural systems as “Natural Computation”. Iain’s sense of the sacred has led us to Natural Theology or Sacred Naturalism already. Even in the abstract, many information and computing scientists talk in terms of “Machines” – Turing and others – which suggests, even misdirects thinking to, artificially-devised physical machines, but in fact there is a growing body of work that properly recognises information processing / computation processes of systems generally including natural living systems, brains, hemispheres and their neuro-sub-systems. I believe this work already supports Iain’s work on different hemispheric behaviours with not just evidence of the facts and of the mental & behavioural consequences, but with descriptions and explanations of the internal processes by which different-thinking and different world-views arise in the one bi-cameral brain. (I’m thinking “Active Inference” of purposeful living systems after Friston and Solms for example.)

Quality – Pirsig in Person

Wendy, wife of the late Robert Pirsig, shared an archive gem this weekend on his son Ted’s YouTube channel. An hour-long video of Bob’s talk to a Minneapolis College of Art audience about his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on 20th May 1974, then just a month or so after its publication and becoming a best seller.

Most of the content of the talk itself was transcribed and published earlier this year as the “The Right Way” introductory chapter to “On Quality” – but here we see a lot more in person. The humour and the interaction, as he detects the artistic audience recognising shared experiences in the creative process, and his feeling his way into not just his audience but his new-found celebrity status.

The mechanics of organising his ideas as individual thoughts each on many “paper slips” will later become boxes of 3″ x 5″ index cards by the time we get to his second book Lila. But here, we discover that the actual writing process, of the book written as opposed to the one not, was quite separate to any mechanical plan to write it. The actual writing flowed from narrating the motorcycle trip as a first draft and then editing that against the ideas he’d had in mind. Fascinating.

Interesting also from the outset the mechanics of the technology – videotape recording at the time – plays the part of the motorcycle in the book, against which the romantic aspects of quality are related. The main message of the book embodied in microcosm.

A gem, as I say.

Consciousness is Solved – Goff

A very good three-way debate between Ned Block, Rebecca Goldstein and Philip Goff, in person in New York, with David Chalmers as an audience member – on how much progress there has been in Science and Philosophy “solving” Consciousness. Another of those dreadful click-baity “Mystery Unravelling” titles and starts with the usual bonus question “isn’t philosophy useless anyway” from the perspective of medical science – but actually some great lucid content from all 4 participants.

Several interesting points from Goff:

~20.00 mins beautifully and succinctly summarising his “Galileo’s Error” thesis in response to Goldstein introducing Galileo into the dialogue.

~31.00 mins when differences (disagreements) between the 3 different physical/materialist <> mysterian <> pan-psychist positions take centre-stage, and

~61.00 mins when the chair calls on Chalmers input, and Goff follows up with a clear elucidation of his own pan-psychist position.

(And several prior points where Goff puts his case that the pan-psychist position has solved the problems of consciousness – of particular interest to me since I too believe the problems are solved by his kind of thinking and I was shocked to find Goff very recently stoking the “it’s all a mystery” meme.  Goldstein – the mysterian here – even points out he’s talking like there’s no mystery?)

Also, as a big fan of Goldstein’s writing, wonderful moments when the chair is introducing titles of her books as topics and ends up choosing those that are her works of fiction. There really is a lot more to this than objective science – the reason science doesn’t have, and never will have, a solution. Brilliant stuff.

Oh, and, in Chalmers observations, he uses the word “system” half a dozen times, talking the language of physical thermodynamics. The convergence on Systems Thinking rolls on. Neither a fan of Chalmers “hard-problem” nor his “zombie” and “simulation” thought environments but seems he’s starting to get real at last. (IIT mentioned several times too.)

As ever, onward and upward.

Systems – Work(s) in Progress

I gave a talk to the ISSS last weekend.

Public link to the slides (5 Meg) here.
Members link to the recording here (November 19, 2022).

I postponed an “in conversation” session with Anatoly Levenchuk at the Russian EEMI from the previous week until early new year. I made several references to EEMI and Levenchuk in my talk above and indeed Janet Singer responded with reference to a recent Levenchuk paper being the topic of an INCOSE Workshop the previous week.

Levenchuk’s most recent paper as a post “Towards a Third-Generation Systems Ontology” here. The paper as a PDF here. And an accompanying presentation as a PDF here, and as a recording here.

The significance and the connection between Levenchuk’s work and mine above is some common ground from when we worked together professionally on Russian infrastructure projects some 15 years ago. The main references are all in Levenchuk’s paper. The specific common ground is the work under ISO and the Ontology Forum around 15926 / IIDEAS / SUO / BORO generic systems modelling language (ontology) and interoperable / extensible / evolveable libraries of definitions. Matthew West OBE is the common connection between the origins of all this work since the late 1980’s and the current (2020+) BIM/CDBB Digital Built Britain work (referenced in my talk above). Matthew and I both spoke at the 2010 Russian INCOSE “Systems Engineering Challenges” event in Moscow invited by organiser Levenchuk.

Dots Joined Up.

Newly motivated by (a) positive responses to my talk above, and (b) by the convergence and consolidation of the core “Systems Thinking” ideas, to pick-up, complete and publish my #GoodFences paper. One part of my wider writing project.

Different industrial domains, indeed different mechanistic and naturalistic domains of human activity in the widest sense, as well as different initiatives in the Systems Theory / Science / Engineering domains … each have their own standardisation initiatives for their own content and methodologies. The whole of humanity and knowledge can never be a single unified or coordinated “project”. It’s about understanding how many overlapping breakdown structures (of anything and everything) work in an evolving world.

Divisions are necessary (technically, objectively and subjectively) whilst avoiding divisiveness (politically). Hence #GoodFences.

Interestingly, my Systems Thinking motivations now are almosts entirely philosophical, epistemological and metaphysical for widest applicability to humanity in the cosmos, whereas Levenchuk’s are entirely pragmatic to engineering business applications of Systems Thinking.

Ironically, due to domestic commitments on top of the systems activities above, I missed attending the INCOSE UK Annual Systems Engineering Conference (ASEC) 2022 in Newcastle the past two days, about as close to home as any such event is ever likely to be. Ho hum.

Onward and Upward.

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