Weekly Newsletter #5, August 29th 2014: Consciousness.
I apologize in advance if this weeks email is too abstruse or technical. Consciousness is a difficult topic and there's only so much one can do without jargon. As a famous man once said, "make things as simple as possible, not simpler."
The Memetic Stratosphere
There are some technical ideas that draw people like flies. Quantum mechanics is one of them. Everyone from Einstein to Deepak Chopra has something to say about it. Evolution is another. Networks are a third. There was a time when logic was in a similar situation, but with Godel being dead for a while, it's not clear if logic will have the same status in the future. On the other hand, computation is everywhere and it's only a matter of time before someone comes along and says that computation is different from what we think it to be.
When an idea reaches the memetic stratosphere, it attracts attention from cranks as well as geniuses. To a certain kind of person, these ideas are like a flame to a moth. Most people get burned when they come too close. At the same time, it's impossible to create a lasting intellectual impression if you haven't said something important about one of those paradigmatic concepts. That's to say, Fields medals and Nobel prizes will come and go, but a good idea will last for ever. How's that for a Platonic view of reality?
Consciousness is one of those topics that gets everyone's heart racing. Think of the various ways in which we have used this word:
Conscious Experience, i.e., what it feels to see red or blue.
Unconscious experience, i.e., the Freudian account of experiences that are below the surface.
Neural Correlates of Consciousness, i.e., the parts of the brain in which consciousness resides.
Higher Consciousness, i.e., people who have evolved to a greater stage than the normal human being. Perhaps one day machines will attain that state more often than we will.
False Consciousness, i.e., the Marxist idea of beliefs that makes you go against your class interests.
Quantum Consciousness, i.e., the idea that consciousness lives at the quantum level. This one rings two memetic registers at once - quantum and consciousness, so it isn't surprising that it draws even more attention.
Krishna Consciousness. Ask your robed friend at the airport.
Suffixials and Prefixials
We could go on and on. Consciousness is like salt or pepper in food. It can go on top of any intellectual dish and draw out flavors that were missing otherwise. Consciousness is a suffixial, for it goes after the entity it's enhancing - see all seven above. Network is also a suffixial concept; social network, media network etc. Quantum is a prefixial concept - quantum physics, quantum mechanics, quantum healing etc. If I had an infinite amount of time, I would investigate the differences between prefixial and suffixial memes, but since I don't, I am going to mention that difference in passing and let it be.
My Name is Red
These days, people are obsessed about scientific accounts of consciousness. They want to know how something like subjective experience arose in a world of mindless matter. Philosophers and scientists are kept awake at night by a deadly question: Where in that network of neural firing patterns is my experience of red?
I find such questions strange. They assume that Humpty Dumpty has broken down and shattered into a million pieces. Some consciousness theorists look at the mess on the floor and wonder how they can put HD back together again. Others think consciousness itself is fundamental, that matter arises out consciousness. If that seems outlandish, then talk to quantum physicists, who are increasingly thinking that information comes before matter. Information based approaches to consciousness are hot these days. The new kid on the block is integrated information theory, IIT, due to Guilio Tononi and enhanced by Christof Koch. I will attempt a thorough analysis of Tononi's ideas in a future newsletter. Meanwhile, Ngram viewer confirms that we're living in the age of information.
While scientists are hot on the chase, some wonder if consciousness can ever be understood scientifically. Phenomenologically oriented philosophers (try saying that phrase five times without stumbling!) argue that the dilemma arises only because we are adopting a naturalistic frame i.e., we are thinking like a scientists, but that's not the only frame that's available to us. In any case, consciousness might live at a higher level than the naturalistic frame; it's what makes any form of framing possible. The debate is endless and I am only flagging some of the debating points this time around. For now, I am flagging consciousness as a topic that plays a starring role in my explorations. Stories, math and code are some of the others. We will cycle through the list again and again before one of us is exhausted.
This Weeks Links
Let's start with Christof Koch's summary of Tononi's account of integrated information theory. I was with Christof when he tried to convince the Dalai Lama that the internet is conscious. HHDL wasn't convinced.
Scott Aaronson's take down of IIT. Scott is a quantum information theorist; I guess he isn't interested in the combined power of quanta and consciousness.
Ray Monk's Wittgensteinian view that consciousness isn't about science at all.