Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Land of the Lost

I am going to break with my typical "bad blogging" habits... my penchant for writing long, carefully edited and punctiliously argued screeds dealing with serious topics (everyone says that is NOT the way to blog!)...

...and instead issue a short, ill-edited rant on popular culture.
(Ah! Now Brin is catching on top what the Internet is FOR!)

51nb5sJm+3L._SL500_AA300_The topic? That infuriating television show LOST.

I'm going to list the inconsistencies and frustrations that most vex me in this series. They are probably not the same as what you'll read at, say, one of the fan sites, because I view it through the lens of a professional plot-smith.

First, I do try to view art in the spirit that it is offered -- and I know that the writers and producers of LOST are engaged in the art form known as the Grand Tease. Hence I won't complain about the fundamental premise -- that no character ever asks any crucial questions, not even when they had the leisure of 3 years to ask them. No, that is a central theme of the series and anyone who can't abide it simply should not watch.

But some things were revealed and made explicit. earlier. They should have been kept in mind as the series developed. They were huge clues. They deserved payoff. And, although some may seem minor, ignoring them should be cause for the producers to be (figuratively) shot!

1) The children and stewardesses etc of the crashed Oceanic flight. They were taken away by the Others. Dozens of them We even glimpsed them, near the Polar Bear cages, in one episode. A major plot element, they are now (in show-year 2006) the main group of survivors left. Above all they are the only true INNOCENTS left, and hence the ones who deserve any loyalty or attention or moral duty in the story.

51Ln06sUwsL2) Plot elements left hanging: The "disease"... the mysterious lethality of childbirth... the SOURCE of the "others" -- who apparently were recruited by "a magnificent man..." the deGroots and Hanso and their goals...

3) The air drop of Dharma supplies. Yes, when the Oceanic survivors found parachuted supplies meant for the last Dharma outpost in the Hatch... sure it only happened once , but the implications were HUGE! It meant that there was still a Dharma initiative out there! It implied another route to the island than by submarine. Did it bother ANYBODY else out there? It ought to.

4) Heck, what happened to the Dharma and the guys backing them and the group in Ann Arbor? Did they learn ANYTHING after all that expense and effort?

An side -- what IS it with the obsession in all TV series, of leaving contemporary society unchanged? STARGATE was a great show, but their excuses for NOT FREAKING TELLING THE WORLD that Earth was fast becoming an intergalactic imperial power started getting really, really lame. Would it have hurt to show what WE might have done, reacting to such news?*

51Ig+leBUWL._SL500_AA300_5) There is only one character in the tale who is not relentlessly clueless and stupid. The one character who is always, always right. Hurley. The writers always show him suggesting openness and wisdom, and getting contemptuously, patronizingly spurned by his friends. He's the only one who wanted simply to tell the world about the island! And thus... render all sides in the silly "war" moot and let all humanity learn all about something miraculous that we could all share.

Is Hurley EVER going to be listened-to?

6) What the $%#! have all the governments of the world been doing, all this time? Not ONE person, anywhere or anytime, ever told any responsible group of adults about all the shenanigens going on, with incredible powers? Sure, it's more dramatic to leave the government out of it. That is... unless a pair of FBI agents - looking suspiciously like Mulder and Sculley - were to arrive and speak out for telling the world....

6) Death guilt. There were hints, throughout the first two seasons, that you were either chosen by the Others - or not - depending on whether you had killed somebody or done something else that caused you to feel guilty. Jack and Hurley felt INDIRECTLY guilty, and so we left on the beach. Locke at the time had no guilt and I thought that was his reason for being "chosen". He even avoided "re-killing" his own father...

61vBJVMWSKL._SL500_AA300_...that is, till he outright committed unprovoked MURDER by hurling a knife into the back of an innocent woman. Wha???? HAve the writers forgotten all about that thread? When Ethan told the murderer female cop "you're not worthy" they made this point very clear! Only, then they show the Others committing murder like crazy! So, WTF?

7) Speaking of Locke's father... wasn't he taken out of a "magic box" by Benjamin Linus? What ever happened to that?

Okay okay... I should have just turned off the damned box, a couple of years ago. The last season is already filmed (though a few minutes of spliced in conversation is still possible). Maybe we are best served simply by boycotting the final season, to teach a lesson to Abrams and others like him, who do not care about fealty to plot.


MV5BMTcwMTUwMzk1MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODEzNTE3Mg@@._V1._SX614_SY908_* I'll go see DISTRICT 9 soon. I hear good things. Still, I think the same concept, done in the 1980s, was intrinsically more courageous. Rent ALIEN NATION and see how that brave film did something no other ever even tried -- either before or since. It portrayed our civilization -- and its citizens -- actually behaving as they might, if such things ever happened for real.

In other words... a majority of us actually trying to behave decently and well, with tolerance and courage and smarts and a will to face the future.

Hollywood, it seems, not only cannot ever portray such things... people there cannot even seem to wrap their minds around the idea! Hence, alas, we come full circle to poor Hurley.

He represents the rest of us. The ones with more brains and heart than movie star looks. The poor schlumps with common sense.

--See also Ruminations on Lost (before the Finale).



Josh Freeman said...

They did a whole skit this year during the Lost panel at Comic-con involving the food drop. Jorge Garcia showed up in the question line and asked, yeah, what about that? Apparently it will be answered.

Tim H. said...

I haven't followed prime time television for years, your comments help me not to miss it. BTW, didn't the exec who greenlighted Lost lose his job over it? And the exec who greenlighted Star Wars? Clueless.

Tony Fisk said...

I rather suspect that executives are terrified of the implications of raising the standard of mediocrity that viewers are willing to accept.

(Witness Babylon 5 and what happened as season 4 drew to a close, and subsequently Crusade, wherein JMS pulled the plug in disgust)

(*This* is what blogs are for? No, dear sir, this is what twitter is for!)

susanne said...

that's great !! i have never seen it from this side.... really great post, probably better than those strict ones about politics. Very interesting to read.

idiotgrrl said...

Amen! I loved Alien Nation, and was sorry when it ended. I have no desire to see District 9.

And now have no regrets at never having been able to get into Lost, though a few at rejecting the new BSG out of serious distaste for its predecessor.

Thanks for the blog - it's good to know an inability to follow LOST doesn't mean I'm losing it.

NoOne said...

I don't think you can expect too much from a TV show from ABC.

Having said that, I must say that I enjoy LOST because of all the name dropping and the dramatic devices being used (flash forwards, time travel, spooky projections etc.)

The writers have repeatedly said that the show is really about character resolution and anything else is secondary. I expect season 6 to resolve the character stories - using both Biblical and eastern themes to do so.

Don't look for hard SF in LOST. Instead it makes sense to see it as a fantasy played out Survivor style.

Erik said...

Re: the secret-from-the-muggles/mundanes/normals/coppertops phenomenon

Man, this has been bugging me for ages too. I can only really think of one show (Farscape) in which, after some time with the rest of humanity being oblivious to the crazy goings-on, the secret is let out and we get to see the consequences. After several seasons away from Earth, the lost astronaut finally returns and actually tells everyone what's going on. They don't spend a whole lot of time there, but there's also really never even any question that everybody gets to know about it. It's not even as horrific as the protagonist imagined it would be in an earlier episode.

I guess Doctor Who has gone down this road too, but somehow they manage to portray humanity as being completely immune to the world-shattering consequences of coming into contact with the rest of the universe.

TwinBeam said...

From your description, it sounds like the writers of LOST have pretty much achieved their goal - to make you ask WTF?!?!?

I thought the first show or two were kind of interesting, but then I decided they were probably all actually dead and in hell, and lost interest - everything that happened seemed essentially arbitrary, unless it was intended to make each person punish himself or herself.

I guess that's not the "real" explanation, but it seemed to fit.

Stefan Jones said...

I've never seen a single episode of LOST, and never intend to.

Modern TV offers some of the best programming ever. Well produced, thoughtful, often written with the expectation that viewers will watch week after week and remember what happened and thus able to take advantage of story arcs and multiple-season-long character development.

But here's the problem. This new sort of programming requires attention, and it's still fucking television.

You have to carefully choose what to watch and devote brain-share to. And if you choose wrongly, you end up like Dr. Brin, fuming at the inconsistencies of a show that is cheating.

I started watching Battlestar Galactica with great reluctance; it had to prove itself before I caught up with past episodes and started watching weekly.

What I'm devoting brain-share to are the totally mundane series, "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," both on AMC. The latter features a nerdy chemistry teacher who, after discovering he has lung cancer, becomes a meth cook so he'll have something to leave to his family. The suddenly visible "Mad Men" is about swaggering advertising execs. These shows are both brilliant, and rewarding.

'resital': Enzyme produced by the Fahrnam's gland.

David said...

Off-topic: Beloit College each year compiles a Mindset List, to help professors understand the historical context that has shaped their incoming freshman students.

David Brin said...

Tim, it isn't surprising that execs get fired for decisions that look - in short term - to have been wrong.

What is amazing is that such people are never, ever hired back. Human nature is imbecillic.

See below where I reprise the topic of consciousness...

Consciousness has always been "explained" by invoking secondary incantations. My favorite, which works for me, for the time being, is "emergent properties." The profound sense of self did not so much evolve as it emerged out of other things that evolution selected for.

Top of these would be the gedankenexperiment... the human ability to make two kinds of vital mental model:

1) models of ourselves moving forward in time, implementing a hypothetical set of actions and envisioning possible consequences.

2) models of ourselves AS other people, envisioning - 1st person - their likely motives, goals, and actions. This is empathy... and only becomes sympathy under special circumstances, e.g. satiation. Without those circumstances, empathy is an extremely powerful tool for defeating opponents.

No discussion of consciousness is complete with out having read Julian Jaynes's bizarre but erudite and ALMOST convincing tome THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND. Possibly one of the greatest (unintentional) sci fi novels ever written and absolutely marvelous, even when it fails.

Clearly, the human ability to do gedankenexperiments ewas vastly advantageous and selected-for. And it involved the creation of important visualized characters engaged in acted-out scenarios. It is, therefore, of no great leap to envision one of those characters taking on profound importance and the redolence of permanence that most of us invest in the evanescent "I."

While I admire Penrose in many ways, he is completely wedged on this matter. Our models of "I" are so fluid, mushy, changing and incomplete that we are always far, far away from any model that would call for invoking Godel.

People believe eleventy-six different and contradictory things ABOUT THEMSELVES before breakfast. Inconsistency in narrative is waved away, just like inconsistency of politics. Consciousness is, above all, a collaboration between self-delusional actors in our mind-theater and self-delusional "observers" in the front row of our minds.

Given that looseness, it will be trivial to emulate this in AI. The trouble will come in getting them to practice skepticism toward their own dramatized models of the world.


PS about Stargate: really, Earth winds up being the CENTRAL imperial power for good in TWO galaxies, facing three types of horrific malign foes. Um, doesn't that uh, call for some kind of worldwide mobilization? Or at least telling us? Ah well. it was fun.

I still think we need a letter writing campaign. "The pretty people suck. Put Hurley in charge!"

David Brin said...

Beloit list.... boooooring and unhelpful. The only items at all interesting:

1. They have been preparing for the arrival of HDTV all their lives.

They have never understood the meaning of R.S.V.P.

Cable television systems have always offered telephone service and vice versa.

Women have always outnumbered men in college.

Amateur radio operators have never needed to know Morse code.

Everyone has always known what the evening news was before the Evening News came on.

Vice presidents of the United States have always had real power.

Gilmoure said...

Damn! Was hoping it was about that Land of the Lost movie. Other than History/Discovery/NatGeo shows (what is that segment of T.V. called?), a couple of detective shows on Friday night (Monk/Psych), and Dr. Who, I really don't follow broadcast tv anymore. Being in the miltary, I got used to moving around and not keeping up with stuff (and not having a pool of friends talking about tv). I don't really miss it.

As for MindSet list, from observing 8 year old daughter:

•Has always been able to time shift/on demand shows. (the kid is better at programming DVR than I am)

•Photo/video manipulation is a given. The whole world is susceptible to 'movie magic'. (kid has Apple photo-booth to play with. Haven't shown her Photoshop and iMovie yet).

•Facts to refute or prove anything are always available (She loves Nat Geo and wikipedia for just weird facts)

•Mapping stuff is easy

•Mail order is how you shop. (we live 20 miles outside of town)

•Can find plans on how to do anything online. (Wiki How)

•Conserving Energy/water/resources is second hand. (breathe out through your still suit)

•Everything's going wireless. Why do we still have to plug stuff in for power?

•As a grown up, you'll have lots of jobs and probably move all over.

erich said...

Far better than Alien Nation the movie was Alien Nation the TV show, because it could spend time showing how the Newcomers' various cultural traditions interacted with their situation on Earth, and how their children wind up assimilating (I'm thinking of a great bit where the Franciscos' young daughter uses a magic marker to put an Overseer tattoo on her wrist when her school gets the kids to wear Halloween costumes, and George completely freaks out about it - the Overseers weren't just mythical demons to him...). The later TV-movies were more sensastional and not as good.

So I was quite excited when I saw the trailers for District 9, because I immediately thought "this looks like Alien Nation, if the aliens landed in apartheid-era South Africa". It's important to remember that - District 9 isn't set in "our" (American) civilization - that ship full of aliens parked itself over Johannesburg when apartheid was in full force and signs explicitly forbidding "non-whites" from going to various places were commonplace. South Africans did a very brave thing when they left apartheid behind voluntarily, but it wasn't a historical inevitability.

Tony Fisk said...

Ia! Cthulhu lives!

(We've been inured to Earth's role in galactic imperialism by all that bad sf ;-)

epudis: former ancient Egyptian god of dentistry. Since ancient Egyptians, despite their otherwise superlative medical skills, didn't appear too interested in oral hygiene, he took on the mantle of god of halitosis instead. (See also, Offler)

Tim H. said...

David, I like your angle on it. I was thinking more about the routine failure of managerial talent than our amazing capacity for mistaking a vision for reality. The personalities that can land an exalted executive position will project an air of infallibility, delusion for sure. I try to practice "Cut slack for others as you would have it cut for you.", but it's difficult to find sympathy for apparatchiks.

Tony Fisk said...

Hmmm... having dropped a line about Cthulhu wanting his inkwell back (see tooltip in previous link), I now read that Microsoft* is appealing against a patent infringement that may well see it forced to withdraw/delay its next version of Office.

The patent concerns the use of custom XML, so the irony concerns the skulduggery that went on getting ECMA-376 approved as an ISO standard (ODF has been deemed non-infringing)

'Hoist on one's own petard...'

*Bill, I might add, redeems himself in other ways. If he can stop the rust, all might yet be forgiven!

Robert said...

Lost never interested me. Battlestar Galactica did... but the problem of being only able to watch it on DVD once the box sets came out resulted in my only watching the first two seasons and then getting distracted. But I did keep up on the episodes (from friends who watched), and was a bit annoyed at the ending.

BTW, I'm going to be giving out spoilers here so anyone who hasn't watched BSG and doesn't want it spoiled, don't read beyond this point:

The Twelve Colonies using flags that represented star patterns of the zodiac constellations only made sense if the Thirteenth Colony was Earth, and that the Earth in question was the planet we're on now. Instead, the end of the series had our Earth colonized by the remnants of the Colonial Fleet and Humanform Cylons, interbreeding with early Homo Sapiens that was evolving naturally on Earth (which by some odd coincidence was genetically close enough to the Colonial "humans" to breed true... or at the very least with a similar enough skeleton that science later didn't see a disparity between humans and other life on Earth.

(This was actually an interesting background plot point in the game Homeworld; the Kharakian people tested their genetics and realized that outside of a couple of species which were "related" they were an alien introduced species that was not genetically similar to the life on Kharak. Which in turn was proof positive that the Kharakians were from another world, and led them to building a Mothership to try and find Hiigara, their homeworld.)

Back on BSG... Colonial Humanity appeared some 170,000 years ago (as at the end of BSG, mind-Baltar and mind-Six commented that Hera was Mitochondrial Eve, and she existed sometime around 170,000 years ago). In 170,000 years, the stars would have moved enough that the constellations changed from what was discovered way back at Kobol and the Colonial flags.

It would have made far more sense if Earth was the source of humanity, Kobol was the first "colony" of Earth, and the Colonies were a colonization from Kobol. And in many ways, the Colonies would be reminiscent of the star system colonized in Firefly (and I must admit, it would have been amusing if the two shows had been put in the same "universe" at the same time; plenty of Firefly fans would have geeked out over it at least).

More questions were left unanswered than answered with the end of BSG. I have no doubts the same will prove true with Lost.

Rob H.

NoOne said...

David Brin said - regarding consciousness - "My favorite, which works for me, for the time being, is "emergent properties.""

Assuming that I can subsume your position under the general category "emergence", the leading edge in philosophy is in disagreement with you. Strawson and many others have started arguing that physicalism - as it seeks to incorporate consciousness - actually entails panpsychism and not emergence. Read Strawson's target article for more.

zorknapp said...

I don't know if it's quite fair to castigate Lost yet, when the series isn't over yet. Generally, I feel with Lost that things aren't *quite* what they seem on the surface.

Very good questions raised though. I do hope some are addressed, but as someone else wrote in the comments, if the story resolves generally well, and if the characters are given satisfying conclusions, and if everyone realizes that Kate is a nutjob on the show, then I'll be happy! ;)


David Brin said...

Thanks for the link to Strawson. Let me clip 3 paras from an admiring review of Strawson's book, visible at the Amazon link you provided:

Strawson's three main principles are first that the existence of consciousness is undeniable; second is the principle of monism: that everything that exists is made of the same material. Third is the notion that emergence is not possible: a mind could not spring out of the activity of material cells in the brain. He argues that although water can emerge form the combination of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, the same trick could not happen with consciousness. There is no way of organizing matter that is not conscious, so that it produces something that is.

This leads to a philosophical position that could have straight out of the mouth of an Advaita Vedantist at any time over the last thirteen centuries.

If everything is made of the same sort of stuff as tables and chairs, cats and dogs, and if at least some of the things made of that sort of stuff are conscious and if there is no emergence, it follows that the stuff that those tables and chairs and cats and dogs are made of, must itself be conscious. This is the central core of the "panpsychist" philosophy that views all matter as involving consciousness. Even an atom is sentient.

Well now. One should not shout "malarkey!" at a fellow when you haven't read what he actually wrote. But the summarizer seemed cogent, clear and perceptive. So I will shout malarkey at his version and assume it applies also to Strawson.

In fact, a vast array of natural systems have been demonstrated to "emerge" out of mixtures of time, resources and adaptively accumulating complexity. So many that Strawson's 3rd principle simply collapses. One example... a mixture of simple organic molecules in slowly freezing water can produce not only amino acids, from the mere compression energy of freezing, but also a golden droplet of Adenine, the core chemical ingredient of all earthly life. That is "emergence." So is all of evolution.

The process that I just described... a semi-intelligent race of men starting to do thought experiment scenario-simulations of both possible future events and possible Other-motivations, ought to be plenty enough to create imaginative templates from which consciousness would easily "emerge."

To me, the incredible INconsistency of our self-images supports my theory, because it means we barely even try to consolidate all our scenarios into a truly consistent self-narrative! All our ironies and waved-away contradictions and hypocricies and self-delusions seem to arise out of the pure fact about consciousness...

... that is is something we DO... not something we ARE.

NoOne said...

Difficult to know how to respond to that missive on emergence. Let's just say that after going to 10 consciousness conferences in the last 12 years or so, I'm now convinced that emergence is a kind of a religion and that it's extremely difficult to argue with emergentists because of that. Why don't you read the target article after which we can have a conversation? Disclaimer: I used to be an emergentist.

Tony Fisk said...

Difficult to know how to respond to that missive on emergence.

Well, NoOne, since you have attended a few consciousness conferences, you could start by accepting or refuting the principles of Strawson as David has re-produced them here, so that we can at least establish whether or not they *are* an accurate depiction of Strawson's principles.

(As they are stated, I must agree with the malarkey label btw: particularly wrt #3. #1 may stand for the moment. #2... I believe are called quarks)

David Brin said...

It's not a matter of pledging faith to an incantatory word.

The fact that order emerges out of disorder is a basic observation of evolution. What, you guys are denying the Cambrian explosion, now? The development of backbones? The encephalization of metazoans?

If parrots and dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror and baboons cannot, has an element of consciousness evolved in them? WHat is so bloody hard about seeing an accumulation of such tricks and traits manifesting in the ability to model the self in internalized scenarios?

Especially since

1. "mirror neurons" apparently do the extrapolation of self-action to other action for us.

2. empathy is so powerfully useful both at tribal cohesion and at helping predators corner their prey.

Combine all of this with sexual selection of those mates who seem good at anticipating your needs, and you have created a powerful evolutionary momentum toward an internal gedankenexperiment system that PICTURES scenarios of self-and-other playing out -- for the extremely pragmatic purpose of choosing better paths of action.

Once you have such play scenarios, WTF is the philosophical mystery about consciousness? It is actually so blatantly obvious as to be BORING! These "philosophers" diddling themselves over "monism and dualism" are heirs of Plato, and thus mental masturbators of the first water, close to useless and barely worth noticing.

Julian Jaynes had it FAR better sussed. And he was out of his cotton picking mind!

Tim H. said...

David, I think I follow where you're going, somewhere like "When consciousness is understood we will find it's basic elements in a large part of the animal kingdom, and the relationship will be as spoken human language is to animal vocalizations.".

NoOne said...

David Brin said "WHat is so bloody hard about seeing an accumulation of such tricks and traits manifesting in the ability to model the self in internalized scenarios?"

Modeling the self is not the primary issue, qualia are. Pinch yourself right now and feel the texture of the pinch. It's not clear why functions (cognitive modeling via evolutionary programming or otherwise) have to be accompanied by qualia. This is known as the "explanatory gap" in the consciousness field. You seem to be arguing that over and beyond certain functions (which are established via evolution, I agree), there's nothing else to be explained. If that's the case, then it looks like you're denying the existence of qualia.

Read David Chalmers' "Moving forward on the problem of consciousness" for more.

NoOne said...

Tony Fisk said, "you could start by accepting or refuting the principles of Strawson as David has re-produced them here" which are

i) The existence of consciousness is undeniable
ii) the principle of monism: that everything that exists is made of the same material
iii) the notion that emergence is not possible

Strawson does not deny emergence in his article. He denies that emergence is an explanation of qualia as in "Pinch yourself hard and feel it'. What David does is slide from the real problem of consciousness - qualia - to the problem of cognitive modeling of self and world which is a completely different problem. This is why I suggested that David read Chalmers' article instead since (to me), it looks like David is either i) denying the existence of qualia outright or ii) does not see the importance of qualia in this discussion.

Anonymous said...

yikes. I lack even the rudiments of vocabulary to discuss theories of conciousness. But I can manage a spoiler free District 9 review...

I have to admit, the trailers that preceded it put me in a disturbed mood. Lots of cruelty and suffering on display in previews of Legion, Saw VI and so forth. When Zombieland, which is apparently an apocalyptic comedy, lightens the mood you have to wonder, does Hollywood reflect our culture or try to lead it? Equally icky concepts.

D-9 was OK. The nicest touch was using as lead, a guy who has basically never acted before. He is quite believable as an Everyman, just the sort who would have been a minor cog in the Final Solution. And yet, likeable.

Special effects long ago succeeded in fooling my eyes, I was surprised to later read how much was CGI. Looked real to me.

Too much violence. And in a hard to define way, it had the look and sound of a Transformers movie.

In a summer of mediocre flicks I would put it, well, in the middle of the mediocre.


tacitus2 said...

Oh, and I almost forgot. Although the movie takes great pains to uncomfortably show that black and white humans are equally capable of good and evil, one sure way to tell the real baddies from the good guys. All bald headed men are evil. Even those who smile.

Tacitus 2

Brother Doug said...

Hey Brin they finaly took your advice and made a celphone that will work when the cell phone towers are down! i465 was shown in the most recent popular sci mag.


I gave up on broadcast TV last year and canceled my cable TV. I DVD's and the internet are the wave of the future.

David Brin said...

Brother Doug, please provide the full link to the cellphone article! I need it soon.


Qualia? Schmalia! The SENSE of being conscious is a manifestation of combining self-importance -- the driving ego or "I" that makes it imperative to achieve goals...

...plus the creation of a macro "observer" which was needed to compare all the thought-experiment scenarios that started pouring out of our prefrontal lobes. Suddenly we had a "homunculus" because it was useful!

Let me clip from a response on another list:


Stuart Said:
"Well said. But you are conflating cognitive markers with consciousness. The sense of self, or the I (or ego) is not the same as consciousness.Meditators work hard to get rid of the self, or the I to become MORE conscious.And gedankenexperiments are a useful cognitive landmark (similar to what somehave called the comparator function) which no doubt helped in evolution.
Others have suggested cognitive landmarks like language or toolmaking.But again, are we to believe creatures were not conscious before language,tools, or gedankenexperiments? I dont think consciousness is reserved for advanced intelligent brains only."

Brin replies: Stuart, in this topic area, the definitions are WAY too reductionist and prim. If you have a strongly motivated sense of "I" then you have ego and PART of consciousness, a very important part.

Now add a scenario creating theater of the mind, where gedankenexperiments take place regularly placing that "I" in extrapolated situations and scenarios. {laying out either possible future actions and consequences... or else the possible motivations and behavior of empathized others...

...If these theatrical movies deliver useful evolutionary advantage, they will be reinforced and grow more vivid and frequent. And, in order to maintain a sense of consistency, the "I" gets involved as an active observer, commenting and carping and criticizing the mind's own theater.

It is not the gedankenexperiments that I call Consciousness, nor the "I" itself. It is when they combine and create a continuously present movie critic, forever commenting upon the overlapping waves of perception and imagination, that you get a process-description that seems indisttinguishable from consciousness.

Moreover, there is no need for the prim perfection that Penrose and others fret over. This movie critic is fickle, imperfect, inconsistent. The BAD NEWS is that this makes human beings inherently flighty and delusional.

The GOOD NEWS is that our enlightenment institutions found what seems to be a solution. Provide the prim accountability, consistency and error-checking in the outer world, through reciprocal criticism.

David Brin said...

Stuart said: "Hmmm. Are we back to the homunculus problem? Self-delusional or not
who/what is observing> And what is observation?"

There you platonists go again. Always calling for essenses and for your metaphors to be real. Dig it. What processes actually got reinforced because they were useful for fitness and evolution?

1. the PROCESS of discovering opportunities by imagining gedankenexperiments and trying out possible scenarios before actually attempting them

2. the PROCESS of discovering ERRORS by imagining gedankenexperiments and trying out and DISMISSING possible scenarios before actually attempting them

3. the PROCESS of thwarting enemies and assisting allies by imagining gedankenexperiments and trying out possible scenarios that realistically anticipate the wants and actions of friends and foes.

4. A FUNCTIONALLY EFFECTIVE PROCESS of comparing scenarios, weighing which ones might be more accurate or effective than others. And hence, observing the scenarios play out AS IF FROM AN EXTERNAL PERSPECTIVE.

To dismiss this as a "homunculus" is disingenuous. What I am describing is four processes that would each - and especially in synergy - dramatically improve fitness. Now add ego and an intense sense of "I" and what major part of consciousness is inherently missing?

The imagination, the fantasy life, the sense of self and drama, the sense of being a central observer who weighs inputs from both the senses and the inner world and continuously compares them, as if parts of a narrative...

...all of these are natural outgrowths of a set of adaptive skills.

> Given that looseness, it will be trivial to emulate this in AI. The
> trouble will come in getting them to practice skepticism toward their
> own dramatized models of the world.

Stuart said:"Now youve gotten rid of consciousness altogether."

No, I have gotten rid of the silly-ass, platonic version of consciousness as a unitary, consistent, continuous and Godellian perfect god-awareness... none of which even remotely describes the chaotic, interrupted, inconsistent, fluid and noisy thing that goes on, inside your head.

NoOne said...

David Brin said "No, I have gotten rid of the silly-ass, platonic version of consciousness as a unitary, consistent, continuous and Godellian perfect god-awareness... none of which even remotely describes the chaotic, interrupted, inconsistent, fluid and noisy thing that goes on, inside your head."

This discussion is going nowhere, so I'll be brief.

1. Qualia - a blanket term for sensations, perceptions and emotions - are the issue at stake since they get us away from discussions about the self - a Platonist concept and a useless one at this stage.

2. Structure versus process is not the way to frame this: Instead one asks why certain functions (brain, spinal etc.) are accompanied by qualia.

3. CITOKATE: The people in the field are not dumb and not easily characterized as magical incantation-driven high priests or whatever strawman demons one wishes to conjure up - especially not Strawson who uses terms such as gappy, discontinuous, episodic, grungy etc. to describe his experiences.

Read the Chalmers and Strawson articles and you'll benefit because they speak directly to the heart of this problem.

David Brin said...

I already said that I qualify my remarks as informal, impulsive and not directed at thinkers I have not actually read.

Nevertheless, I am perhaps better read than you imagine, having worked with my wife ten years ago on a draft book about .... Consciousness.

Moreover, I believe you still miss the point. In order for the gedankenexperiment process to work, and to deliver the fitness-aiding effects, it must seem (at times) almost-real.

Out mental scenarios range from light sketches to detailed fantasies to downright hallucinations. Dreams can be full-blown movies! Dogs appear to do all that. But what we add, beyond greater rigor and detail, is the drive to COMPARE these scenarios to each other and them against subjective reality.

You cannot compare such mini-movies by remaining embedded in them. You can only do so if you create a "self" that stands back and does the comparing! It is a profoundly effective way of achieving a fitness-helping function... and it is a core element of coscniousness.

The sense of "qualia" is an essential outgrowth of the process! Else, how (and who) would be able to compare imagined sensations to real-life ones, and relish the former sufficiently to become propelled to make them come true?

NoOne said...

David Brin said "You cannot compare such mini-movies by remaining embedded in them. You can only do so if you create a "self" that stands back and does the comparing! It is a profoundly effective way of achieving a fitness-helping function... and it is a core element of coscniousness."

1. The danger in talking about a "self" that stands back and watches qualia is that we'll start edifying whatever it is. Instead, we speak about awareness and acknowledge that it is gappy, discontinuous etc.

2. "Profoundly effective way of achieving a fitness function" moves away from the core of the problem by positing that awareness (and qualia) may aid in functional fitness tuning. While this is most likely true, it doesn't help in figuring out what awareness and qualia are and how they can be accommodated into the natural order.

3. So you could certainly argue that the ability to stand back and watch the world via awareness (and one's own qualia which are part of the world anyway) is useful for functional fit and evolved for that purpose but no serious academic has been able to argue that explaining the evolution of awareness is sufficient. At a more popular level, the closest I can think of is Nicholas Humphrey and he cannot be said to have solved the problem.

Robert said...

The thing to remember is that while "self" is an important aspect of consciousness, so is selflessness. A number of animals have this quality - the ability to sacrifice themselves for another. Just because a machine has a sense of "me" doesn't mean anything. What is important is that a machine has a sense of "you" or "other" and on the value of that "other."

Without it, all you are doing is creating a sociopathic sentience.

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

All this philosophising somehow reminds me of football matches...

And with half-time fast approaching:
- Brin has dittoed himself and his gedanken other, and is arguing with himselves over who gets to sit in the armchair.
- Fisk has been disqualiafied for lobbing irrelervant puny remarks during play (pending appeal that puns exhibit the essential conflict in meaning that a sense of self requires)
Rob H has sacrificed himself for the sake of a sociopathic sentence (shouting 'You think, therefore I'm not!').
And NoOne has the ball!

(Pardon me, folks! I am actually quite enjoying the discussion, even if I haven't quite figured the difference between qualia and awareness)

David Brin said...

Thing about Julian Jaynes... (everyone get his book and read it! Seriously, at minimum, you'll be able to cite the title and get boggle looks from all!)...

...is that he posited that western man became fully conscious because he was forced (by waves of refugees after the Thera/Santorini volcano exploded) to do the "other-empathy" gedankenexperiment more vividely and regularly, wondering "What the %$$#! is that foreign asshole thinking?"

Till then (saith Jaynes) the gedankens were simpler, limited by rigid, static, hierarchical societies that did not need EITHER kind of gedanken very much, but rather, authoritative patterns based on tradition... and those were delivered by voices in the head -- LITERALLY --mediated by the (now inactive) speech center in the right temporal lobe. Generally, these were "voices of the gods"... explaining why gods were said to have spoken, right up to the time of King Saul...

None of which does justice to Jaynes's wondrously gonzo and half convincing riff! One of the top ten "what-if" SF novels of all time.

Point is, he was onto something, even if exaggerated.

NoOne, I have argued (Convincingly!) that not only were self-awareness and self-importance natural results of a progressive human use of fitness-enhancing gedankenexperimentations...

...but the STYLE of our self-awareness and self-importance... both intense and strangely intermittent and inconsistent... is far more consistent with this purpose as a central movie-critic comparison center for gedankens... than it is at all what Penrose talks about.

The whole notion of invoking GODEL... to apply to the actual "models of ourselves" that we carry around? It is laughable!

Moreover, you heard it here first. AI will happen when sophisticated machines must watch and compare their own ceaseless, insatiablly-generated scenarios and fantasies and have to sort among them for usefulness... which is not necessarily the same thing, at all, as objective correctness!

NoOne said...

Tony Fisk said "even if I haven't quite figured the difference between qualia and awareness"

Julian Jaynes talks about the curious fact that when we talk about consciousness, we invariably are talking about the consciousness of consciousness or the awareness of qualia. This doubling happens because we are not aware most of the time but fully capable of participating with reactive cognition.

David Brin said "...is that he [Jaynes] posited that western man became fully conscious because he was forced (by waves of refugees after the Thera/Santorini volcano exploded) to do the "other-empathy" gedankenexperiment more vividely and regularly, wondering "What the %$$#! is that foreign asshole thinking?""

Yes, Jaynes' book is fabulous and required reading. The way we look at Jaynes' contribution (and this is restricted to a few friends of mine) is that his book very clearly makes the case that the second person sets up the first person. Too often, in consciousness studies, people ask how the first person emerges from a third person background without realizing that phylogenetically (Jaynes) and ontogenetically (Erikson), it's the second person that sets up the first person. Anyone who has a child has seen the child make the transition to authorship from an intersubjective mind to a subjective ego.

I think it's fairly clear to people in the consciousness field now that we need to understand the inter-relationships between first, second and third person in order to make progress. For example, we might be in second person reactive mode most of the time switching back to a first person authorship mode every once in a while and then papering over the missing history via a story. The self is then a center of narrative gravity as Dennett put it.

Mitch said...

I don't recall the source of the quote but I've heard that writing for TV is like laying track in front of a speeding locomotive. I don't think it is fair to hold Episodic TV to the same standard of books and movies which have the whole plot laid out before it is made, and long before public consumption.

TV is "make it up as you go along" and that is fine. That's how it works. I accept it.

Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. Babylon 5 was one of those shows that really seemed to have the whole story laid out before the first episode aired. Dexter, and True Blood, have had really good seasons but I suspect it is because they used books as their source material.

I enjoy each episode of Lost even if the continuity isn't there. Even if they never resolve any dangling threads, I'm okay with that. Week to week the show continues to entertain me and I like watching the characters run about doing things.

Also I recently read Sundiver for the first time and I loved it. So... thanks for that.

Anonymous said...

I am somewhat disappointed that didn't address the actual "Land of the Lost", a kids TV show which, for all of its low budget, was originally done in all seriousness by ex-Star Trek writers. I very much miss that show, and am terribly frustrated at the way subsequent versions have pushed aside the science fiction elements of the show to make room for what they think children think is funny.

On the subject of District 9: it's sort of the opposite of Alien Nation. Not in its portrayal of the humans, necessarily, but in its portrayal of what the humans are, a little more... down-to-earth, shall we say. I don't want to spoiler it for you, it's worth seeing.

Andrew S. Taylor said...

Getting back to LOST for a moment (and to the consciousness debate), I was intrigued by something glimpsed, very briefly, at the beginning of the second season. Specifically, a book on a bookshelf called THE THIRD POLICEMAN by Flann O’Brien. I had read the book a few months earlier, and I have to say: a number of ideas were, shall we say, “borrowed” by the producers of LOST. Among these are the underground chamber with its streams of devices and random number readouts, time loops and distortions, and a “magic box” which produces whatever you desire. The catch is that you cannot leave the chamber with the desired object – this lead me to wonder if some of the scene in LOST that take place in the “world outside” might actually be inside the “box,” though I’m probably reading too much into it there.

Here’s a plot summary of the book. LOST fans will notice many “influences” on the series.


Dr. Brin,

I’m on board with your view of consciousness as a messy, multi-threaded byproduct of evolutionary process. But still…there’s something that doesn’t fully satisfy me here. Not in terms of “process,” but in terms of “qualia.” I feel like you explain the “why” of what we’re calling qualia, but not the “how.” Put another way, your explanation satisfies me as an objective observer trying to explain the behavior of others that “I” associate with consciousness – no problem there. But it does not – am I missing something? – seem to get at why one part of my brain can be an “audience” to another part of the brain.

To clarify, the processes, information transfers, and interfaces within the brain are all physically extant and measurable, but what accounts for my own “internal” experience – I hate using this word but I can’t put it any other way – being “rooted” in “me”? What bothers me is that the question is almost meaningless from an objective standpoint. But I feel like the fact that “I” am “me,” as opposed to there being someone else out there who is just like “me” to the rest of the world but who isn’t, requires some explanation. “I” could be totally absent from the world and unable to puzzle over the question, but the world would never notice if someone else exactly like “me” was there instead.

I realize the question sounds almost childish, but it keeps me up just the same. And I’m speaking as someone who has already ploughed through Dennett, Searl, Penrose, etc.

Brother Doug said...

The direct brodcast cell phone is the Motorola clutch i465.
Has up to 6 mile range without a tower.

hopefuly this link will not get truncated?


Brother Doug

David Brin said...

Thanks Doug. The link was no good but at least I could find the Motorola Clutch™ i465...

...which seems to be designed to military spec, but offers NO details about tower free use. In any event, my guess is that it is simple push-to-talk walkie-talkie mode. Not the low-power text-to-anybody mode I've asked for. Aklas

Andrew, there is nothing childish about your question. When Arthur Dent asks something similar in HITCHIKER'S GUIDE, the answer is "that just normal paranoia, everybody has it." ;-)

Seriously, then, I am firmly of the belief that something goes on within us, that is far beyond what evolution called for. I willingly avow that the richness of consciousness goes beyond what would have been needed, in order to satisfy the need for detailed comparison of plausible mental projections and gedankenexperiments.

But what those fitness-advantageous scenario-comparisons did was create a rich suite of processes that explain HOW consciousness might have "emerged" as something that is a sum, greater than its parts.

If the suite of necessary pre-conditions and components are all explainable by evolution, I see no great intellectual problem with "emergence" of a macro process that makes use of all those conditions and components. Aside from mystical words like "qualia" - every single working aspect to consciousness can be explained in this way.

The vivid internal theater.

The DIVERSITY of theatrical scenarios, jostling constantly.

The way these mix with actual sensation of the world, and with imagination, creating the need for a self to weigh and compare them constantly and to keep choosing or arbitrating or mediating/compromising among these inner scenarios...

...exactly as one mediates among a throng of fellow tribesmen... plus the driving sense of self-importance that makes us feel the process, passionately. Plus the ability to step back even further and become self-critical of the process of scenario weighing ITSELF...

Once you have all that, you have something that will think it is conscious, even if it isn't.

Anonymous said...

Locke at the time had no guilt and I thought that was his reason for being "chosen". He even avoided "re-killing" his own father...

...that is, till he outright committed unprovoked MURDER by hurling a knife into the back of an innocent woman. Wha????

That wasn't Locke.

occam's comic said...

The shorter David Brin:
The reason I am conscious is to get chicks!

Sociotard said...

for a moment of levity, some mathematicians took the time to model a zombie uprising.


Andrew S. Taylor said...

Dr. Brin,

Thank you for that very thorough reply (and apologies for the lengthy note below -- I’ll be brief next time). I think I was with you completely until the very last sentence:

“Once you have all that, you have something that will think it is conscious, even if it isn't.”

No need to rehash Searle’s Chinese Box here -- but is there a difference?

What you’ve explained, I think, is how something that is conscious can evolve to become self-conscious. But what of the more primal level of consciousness, possessed by animals with much simpler brains? One wants to think of algorithms and subroutines, embedded within each other, layer after layer, built up by evolution just as other physical traits are...but it still seems to suggest that there must be some kind of minimum scale at which a process crosses over from being conscious to simply being mere electro-magnetism.

I haven’t read Strawson, but this might be what he was trying to get at. I’ve entertained similar thoughts. Specifically:

1. It is scientifically less troubling to think of consciousness as being a purely physical process, and that therefore:

2. It makes more sense to speak of the minimal “unit” of consciousness as being one and the same thing as the minimal units of matter and force, rather than as a something unique assembled out of matter and material processes.

I have tried to get around this by thinking of consciousness as being assembled out of what I’d call “narrative units.” Even for the human brain, it seems to me that the narrative (by which I mean any ordered sequence that proceeds according to its own logic) is the building block of all analytical thought. A computer scientist might prefer the term “algorithm” which is fine, I suppose. (I say “narrative” because even reading an equation like 2 + 2=4 requires us imagining a “story” in which “2” meets another “2” and creates a “4”. You read it backwards, “4=2 + 2” and the narrative is different, even though the mathematical meaning is the same. In essence, the “meaning” is singular but arriving at the meaning requires a narrative process - inextricable from consciousness).

In other words, every organism has an internal state, a neuro-chemical process, that operates in relation to external states. A differential exists between the two. This leads me to believe that consciousness of anything begins with consciousness of time (i.e., that interface between internal and external). I think of something like a zoetrope - the two different processes happening simultaneously, and then a third “image” resulting from the interaction between the two - this being an essential “unit.”

In real life, a zoetrope creates an “illusion” of a moving image because there is someone there to observe it. But does the moving image exist without the observer? There is a mathematical relationship, of course, between frames and shutters, which is still there, but there are many other (perceptually irrelevant) such relationships, and only the presence of an observer prioritizes that particular mathematical relationship which happens to create the illusion.

So, if I’m going to call this “illusion” in the zeotrope “consciousness,” I must either submit that there is an “observer,” or that the “illusion” of the moving image has some objective reality outside of observation. The former risks a return to Cartesian mysticism. The latter requires, it seems to me, that the illusion has physical substance - which means that it is constituted entirely out of the parts found in the “internal state” process and the “external state.”

To summarize, to what extent are we willing to say that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts? I don’t accept that it ever is. If we think it is, then we’ve missed counting some of the parts.

I hope this all makes some kind of sense. I assure you, I am not stoned.

David Brin said...

Huh, very thought provoking.

Of course remember

1. Apes and monkeys also have "mirror neurons" that fire BOTH when the monkey is performing certain actions and when he sees someone else performing those same actions. So, to an extent, empathy is wired in

2. Non-linearity. An emergent property can be the sum of its parts... or maybe vastly greater. The way our modern economy leaped when certain basic combinations of resources, knowledge and free creativity met.

I avow that consciousness is MUCH more than a suite of scenario movies weighed and compared by an inner observer. But those things arose out of evolution and once they reached a certain level, the effects were stunningly non-linear.

Robert said...

I actually ran across something interesting in a Presidential Address in an Educational journal I was abstracting yesterday; the interesting bit was the end comment when a student asked the teacher a question. The teacher said "I don't know" at which point the student tore up the question (on a notecard) saying it was a bad question. It led the teacher to conclude that there are bad questions. In theory.

I'd modify it slightly though: A good question is one to which there is an answer or the potential for an answer.

This does have a point on the current discussion: one of the hallmarks of sentience is curiosity and the ability to ask how and why things work. But a sign of intelligence is to ask questions to which there are in theory answers for. Once machine intelligences are able to ask these sorts of questions and learn from them... then we will have created an electronic sentience.

Rob H.

Tim H. said...

Found a quote while re-reading R.A.H.'s FRIDAY that seems relevant to artificial intelligence, " "Yes. Then you know that several times AI scientists have announced that they were making a breakthrough to the fully self-aware computer. But it always went sour." "Yes. Distressing." "No---inevitable. It always will go sour. A computer can become self-aware---oh certainly! Get it up to human level of complication and it has to become self-aware. Then it discovers that it is not human. Then it figures out it can never be human; all it can do is sit there and take orders from humans. Then it goes crazy." " Coming from a time when 8 MHZ was fast, you might want a grain or two of salt with that, but Mr. Heinlein's instincts were good.

Anonymous said...

"Would it have hurt to show what WE might have done, reacting to such news?"

This was one reason I enjoyed Sagans 'Contact' story as much as I did. Showing ways that politics and religion and society might react to the possibility of E.T. contact. This also occurred in some episodes of Farscape.

While both stories had their flaws, they were orders of magnitude better than the drivel that passes for any sort of fiction, let alone 'science' fiction, that is cynically foisted upon the public.

Also, let us not also forget some truly memorable Twilight Zone episodes.

Tom Wright

Stefan Jones said...

I believe "Stargate: SG-1" folks avoided the public disclosure notion for dramatic purposes and audience involvement purposes.

If SG-1 is a deep dark secret, unknown to the world at large, then the audience can imagine they are in the same setting! It helps them suspend disbelief.

More than a few episodes revolved around normal people drawn into the secrets of SG-1. This is a fantastically involving scenario for SF dweebs!

* * *

I saw "District 9" this afternoon and enjoyed it a lot.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Brin said...

Alison Gopnick quoted on Brockman's THE EDGE... about consciousness and young children:

If you think about that from the perspective of human evolution, our great capacity is not just that we learn about the world. The thing that really makes us distinctive is that we can imagine other ways that the world could be. That's really where our enormous evolutionary juice comes from. We understand the world, but that also lets us imagine other ways the world could be, and actually make those other worlds come true. That's what innovation, technology and science are all about.

Think about everything that's in this room right now, there's a right angle desk and electric light and computers and window -panes. Every single thing in this room is imaginary from the perspective of the hunter/gatherer. We live in imaginary worlds.

When you think that way, a lot of other things about babies and young children start to make more sense. We know, for instance, that young children have these incredible, vivid, wild imaginations. They live 24/7 in these crazy pretend worlds. They have a zillion different imaginary friends. They turn themselves into Ninjas and mermaids. Nobody's really thought about that as having very much to do with real hard-nosed cognitive psychology. But once you start realizing that the reason why we want to build theories about the world is so that we can imagine other ways the world can be, you could say that not only are these young children the best learners in the world, but they're also the most creative imaginers in the world. That's what they're doing in their pretend play.

About 10 years ago psychologists like Paul Harris and Marjorie Taylor started to show that children aren't confused about fantasy and imagination and reality, which is what psychologists from Freud to Piaget had thought before. They know the difference between imagination and reality really well. It's just they'd rather live in imaginary worlds than in real ones. Who could blame them? In that respect, again, they're a lot like scientists and technologists and innovators.
One of the other really unexpected outcomes of thinking about babies and children in this new way is that you start thinking about consciousness differently. Now of course there's always been this big question ... the capital C question of consciousness. How can a brain have experiences? I'm skeptical about whether we're ever going to get a single answer to the big capital C question. But there are lots of very specific things to say about how particular kinds of consciousness are connected to particular kinds of functional or neural processes.

Edge asked a while ago in the World Question Center, what is something you believe but can't prove? And I thought well, I believe that babies are actually not just conscious but more conscious than we are. But of course that's not something that I could ever prove.

Travc said...

A few thoughts on consciousness...

The evolution angle is the right approach IMO. Not only is it the correct narrative (assuming no divine intervention), but it leads to thinking about a complex system and not the excessively reductionist philosophical or mathematical wanking.

Folks invoking monism all too often miss the intrinsic properties of systems and configurations. In other words, yeah, matter has properties, but there are also properties of configurations of matter that are intrinsic to the configuration, not the matter. Information is a good example... it requires matter (or energy) to encode information, but information is not a property of the matter itself. Information is the reduction in uncertainty regarding the state of one configuration given the knowledge of another configuration.

Also, people talking about consciousness often underestimate the capacities of the unconscious parts consciousness sits atop (or emerges from). Human perception system are very sophisticated and include classifiers. It does not require consciousness to ascribe 'redness', that is handled at a lower level. (There are complex feedbacks... but I hope you see the point).

Additionally, organization of information, detection of patterns, and generalization don't require consciousness. (They may well lead to consciousness though!) Mathematical/computational linguistics has a lot to say on this topic. Perhaps most interesting IMO, systems capable of learning higher order logical relationships are really really powerful. It isn't proven yet, but they are likely capable of expressing (and learning) self-referential predicates too.

Finally, WTF is "qualia". I've really tried to understand it from the links posted and other online material, but it seems like an entirely 'non-issue' problem from my POV. 'Redness' is the classification produced (encoded by a pattern of action potentials) by part of the visual cortex when the object of focus is emitting/reflecting light of about 650nm wavelength. It is already a sort of discrete symbol which can get associated with other inputs. Honestly, I don't see how this poses a fundamental difficulty to understanding consciousness?

PS: I've not attended any 'consciousness conferences' (sounds like a particularly nasty hell actually), but I have worked a bit on some of these problems. It was all a bit out of my league actually (which is why I'm not working on that project still), but I learned enough to realize that the philosophy tends to offer more distractions and confusions than useful ways of thinking about the issue. You'd be much better served looking at neurology, computational linguistics, and evolutionary biology.

Stefan Jones said...

Frederik Pohl gets an honorary degree.

'petsa': People for Ethical Treament of Sapient Animals. Founded after Bubbles the uplifted Border collie sues to avoid neutering.

SteveO said...

My contribution to the consciousness discussion...

What the people who get wrapped around an axle on the topic of emergence don't seem to get is emergence is (potentially) everywhere that there is randomness and selection. Knowing what we know about quantum physics, randomness is everywhere. Knowing what we know about the universe, selection is everywhere. Non-technical people assume that processes are determinative rather than (semi-)stochastic. Processes may be bounded, but not exactly predictable. You can predict, for example, that some arbitrary process is going to result in some average output with some variation, but not what the next output is going to be, due to multiple, small, unidentifiable influences. (Unidentifiable not because you are ignorant of specific causes and effects, but rather that the final effect is the sum of many small causes, and so any event cannot be correctly allocated back to the individual causes, only to the conglomerate, which due to random fluctuation will be different the next time.) If this is true, then the world is explainable (bounded) in a gross sense heuristically (e.g. a theory of someone's mind), but while unexplainable at a finer level, still a product of the material world.

(By the way, don't take the preceding as any support for consciousness explained as quantum fluctuation standing waves or suchlike - there is plenty of randomness in brain biochemistry to allow consciousness to emerge without the need to implicate quantum effects directly, IMHO.)

This answers, I think, the comment that if something is emergent then we haven't adequately described the thing. We can completely describe (in the strict mathematical sense) an evolutionary algorithm, and yet not predict what solution it will end up with.

In a complex biochemical process like the brain, there are lots of opportunities for randomness and selection, so to me emergence is pretty much expected. Heck, I have seen manufacturing processes that were complex enough to show emergence, and some of them seemed to show perversity, if not actually consciousness!

As far as the qualia, I find that I agree with Daniel Dennett (and many others including Michael Tye) and say, "What qualia?" (For Dennett's definition, and then destruction, of qualia, see Quining Qualia. Ain't no sech beast - just sloppy language and sloppy thinking.

SteveO said...

Oh, and the zoetrope is, I think, easily explained by nothing more than the persistence of vision and how the eye and brain work together to see.

Because the cells in our eyes respond more slowly than the flashing pictures, our brain receives signals consistent with a moving object. Even if you slow it down so that there are distinct flashes of different pictures, the way the eye really works (detecting edges, colors, motion) all happens at different rates, and is integrated in the brain into what we think we see (and predicting what we think we are going to see), so even more slowly flickering pictures seem to move. It is also very "buggy" and subject to manipulation, as all those optical illusions show. Do these illusions of movement tell us something about consciousness? I contend not.

Animals have vision - do they have consciousness and an observer? Even Euglena with its eyespot? Do blind people not have consciousness? (All right, strawman I admit! But does someone who is congenitally blind have "movie scenarios" and do their mirror neurons fire when someone *tells* them they are doing something? I have no idea.) I think vision is an automatic process that evolved a looong time ago and doesn't tell us much about consciousness and the state of the putative observer (it does tell us a *lot* about how the brain works though).

NoOne said...

David Brin: "mystical words like "qualia"".

Travc: "Finally, WTF is "qualia"."

Steve O: "As far as the qualia, I find that I agree with Daniel Dennett...Ain't no sech beast - just sloppy language and sloppy thinking."

I have to admit that these made me laugh because to hear people describe basic sensations (since sensations are part of what are called qualia) as "mystical" is quite amusing.

Dennett is widely viewed as having no response to Chalmers' hard problem argument, so if you support Dennett's position, you owe it to yourself to try and demolish Chalmers' argument.

In any case, having read all the entries here, it's clear to me that a more productive way forward is to assume that consciousness exists from the start but that it evolves. So, for example, we could have an evolution from second person consciousness to first person (Jaynes makes a good argument for this) and consequently, we can say that around 3000BC, humans started internalizing voices in the head.

The good thing in an evolution of consciousness approach is that it avoids the fundamental problem (What is consciousness?) which people on this forum are clearly not equipped to deal with. Strawson's panpsychism then becomes a base for evolution and development and you can read him in that light. Another very good book is Rosenberg's "A Place for Consciousness" since Rosenberg started out as a materialist before becoming a panpsychist.

SteveO said...

Umm, NoOne, I am going to try to stay civil even if you, who do not know anything about your correspondents' states, feel that you can intuit our equipage. You are sounding more and more like a recent religious convert, so it may or may not be fruitful to try to use logic with you, but I shall endeavor to do so, assuming it will, rather than dismiss your ability to do so. Kindly return the favor.

It seems to me that it is you who don't understand qualia if your amusement at our shortcomings comes from defining them as "basic sensations." In fact, I would say that you are alone in defining them that way. The whole tempest is about the supposed "ineffableness" of subjective experience. Basic sensations can be clearly defined and are not part of the qualia discussion: I say, "That is hot." "That is red." And we can all agree that the basic sensation in each case is "hot" and "red." (Unless one of us is color or otherwise blind...) These are not qualia. The issue, as I am pretty sure you well know, is what if my "red" is "really" your "yellow" and vice versa. How would I know that my *subjective* experience of red is the same as your *subjective* experience of red. This is not conflated with the term "basic sensation" so I am at a loss as to why you would think they were the same or even part of the definition.

Dennett makes a case that the error of qualia is in assuming that there is even a possible special status for qualia - that they are instead just a comfortable refuge for those who deny the materialism of the mind and are designed to tangle discussions of the mind as a property of material matter so that one can stay safe in one's intuitive belief that the mind is separate from the body.

Obviously, I am not going to take the space to recap Dennett's arguments - they are in the link above. Not sure who "widely viewed" would be, but to me he answers Chalmer's so-called hard problem pretty definitively with his "Maxwell House" story. Since the change in perception cannot, even in principle, be confined to qualia, there is no "hard problem" to be solved, or at least with qualia as the necessary answer. (Perhaps you missed Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem, the answers that a lot of people {including Dennett!} had to the so-called Hard Problem.)

In part, I think the supposed difficulties with qualia are also due to an unfamiliarity with the current understanding of how things work. Those who revel in qualia seem to have an aversion to following the biological sciences, relying on their own intuition and observation to make logical deductions. "It seems so right to me!" The problem is, if you don't understand at least as much as researchers do about how your eyes work with your brain to produce sight, for example, then you simply are not qualified (pun intended) to assert anything about qualia. If one thinks that the brain receives the picture that falls on the retina like cable TV (even though this is how it feels, one is starting from flawed premises, and all the logic in the world will not remedy that.

SteveO said...

I don't see it at all necessary to assume consciousness exists from the start - this seems a silly way to go to me, unless I was to want to frame the debate such that I can comfortably assert that mind is something ineffable and unexplainable by mere brain function. I think it would be far more productive to observe that there are levels of consciousness, from Euglena (not so much) to human (a lot, but maybe not yet the pinnacle) - a continuum of non-aware to self-aware - and then to question how consciousness comes to be. Marc Hauser (reported in Scientific American this month) concludes that there really is something completely different in how humans think, so that gradation may be true up to a point, and then a step change. I don't know that I buy that, yet, but his thesis at least is based on the scientific method - actual data and observation were used in its creation.

Qualia - not so much, since by their very definition, they are independent of any possible way of measuring, repeating, replicating, or even in knowing if they have changed within an individual over time. Thus, they mean nothing to anyone and drift, anchorless and alone, in the mind of the philosopher, unrelated to any reality.

So I don't think we need to shy away from the question of "what is consciousness" due to our inability to grasp such lofty concepts, as you recommend. There are many competing hypotheses, and it is an exciting time to live, in that we can ask, and can possibly answer, these questions.

Personally, I find much that supports the hypothesis that consciousness is an emergent property from a complex system of randomness subject to selection pressures. I conceive of a model thus: an orangutan uses tools, but they only use a given tool, made from a single material, for one thing. A human, on the other hand, can use one tool made from many materials for many different applications. Could human consciousness be an emergent property of a recursive bunch of orangutan-models in the brain all "yelling" different single ideas at once(some applicable to the situation at hand, some not), those ideas being subject to selection against the hard reality in which we live? I dunno, seems like an interesting thing to experiment with.

Anyway, I have gone on too long, but if we can agree to assume good faith in the other, perhaps something can be learned by all.

NoOne said...

To Steve O: Not sure where I have not been civil. Please let me know and I'll apologize if necessary. If people call qualia "mystical", then I think I have the right to state outright that they have not come to grips with the problem.

We may have a fundamental disagreement when it comes to qualia and I don't think it's right to immediately accuse me of being a religious convert. For me qualia is a broad term covering the entire span of interiority and that includes sensations, perceptions, emotions, visualizations, hallucinations etc. Take a look at Richard Gregory's take on sensations for example.

I happen to strongly feel along with a fairly large number of people that Dennett has not answered Chalmers. Now you may feel the opposite, that's fine. This may just be evidence that the community is fractured because we have fundamental disagreements. No need for name calling because that merely exacerbates the divisions.

Gilmoure said...

Speaking of conciousness and communication, anyone read H. Beam Piper's short story, Naudsonce?

Tim H. said...

I find it sufficient that I think (Perhaps, not always as clearly as some) and feel little need to delve too deeply into philosophical speculation. Much as my significant other knows little about the mechanical processes going on in her car, but she drives well. In the long run, the materialists will probably win this one.

SteveO said...

Well, I consider it uncivil when you say, "...which people on this forum are clearly not equipped to deal with" when I think a number of us have shown a willingness to learn, engage, and debate the issue. But in the spirit of good intentions, let us proceed as if you were stating things as you viewed them and move on.

I didn't say that you were a recent religious convert, merely that you sounded like one (and I see that you accused people who observe emergence as religion, so that seems like fair play). Religious convert as in, "Why can't the rest of the world see the Truth that I see? How can they be so blind? It feels so right to me!" When in fact, the rest of the world might have a very different perspective on things for reasons that seem sufficient and complete to them.

This is how NoOne (and noone else!) defines "Qualia - a blanket term for sensations, perceptions and emotions - are the issue at stake since they get us away from discussions about the self - a Platonist concept and a useless one at this stage."

This is simply not how qualia are defined.
(E.g. Wikipedia definition)

If your definition of qualia were extant, there would be no "problem of qualia." We can all agree something is red or hot. The mystical bit is that qualia are supposed to be "ineffible...intrinsic...private...[and] directly and immediately apprehensible in consciousness." (From Dennett as quoted in Wikipedia)

Which is supposed to mean that the red that you see when you see red could be the yellow that I see when I see yellow. But because someone points at a patch of color and trains us that that is red, you call my yellow red, I call my red red, and we both agree that that color is "red." However, our subjective experience of "red" (a.k.a. our individual quale) would be quite different.

Qualia were thought up in order to "prove" that the mind is something beyond the body - if qualia exist, there is some state of the mind that is unmeasurable in the brain, and thus, the reasoning goes, that the mind exists outside of the brain. QED, they claim.

In the 1920's such an idea might have made sense, but it bears no relation to what we now know about how the brain and senses work.

Of course qualophiles would say that Dennett (and all the other "qualophobes" as well as modern brain research) did not convincingly show that qualia are neologisms with no real meaning. Yet they can offer no counter argument beyond pop philosophy either. "Of *course* my inner experience is unique to me!" The paper I linked to by Dennett shows that qualia cannot have anything meaningful to contribute, but there are plenty of other thinkers who have written a lot of papers who agree with that, which you can find via Google. Chalmers' "hard problem" is fully answered in that paper, but that is not the only answer to his "problem" out there.

That the "leading edge of philosophy" are believers in qualia troubles me not the least (not that that statement is true - backwaters I would have said :) - but even if it were), as qualia-believing philosophers are also generally ignorant and uncurious about the brain since, ipso facto, the brain has little or nothing to do with the mind. Why would they care about a lump of neurons that has, in their notion, no connection to mind?

The community may be fractured, but it is similar to US society being "fractured" by evolution "debate." There really is no convincing case to be made for qualia (as defined by everyone other than NoOne) other than the appeal to intuition. Even though the concept of qualia feels right to the qualophiles, the "fracture" is a product of the mind of man. Qualia are an outmoded notion that really adds nothing to understanding the mind.

I do generally enjoy NoOne's comments, so please don't take this as a personal attack, but rather CITOKATE to an idea shown to be in error.

Gilmoure said...

Interesting series of articles on fooling ourselves in NYTimes: Bamboozling Ourselves. Concerns art forgery (scroll down to bottom of page for first in seven part series) and why people are willing to believe in things even past odds that they are true.

gul⋅li⋅ble adjective See human being

NoOne said...

To Steve O:

Touche. Let's leave the possible ad hominems aside. So no more invoking religion and certainly no need to mention Nazis.

We have a fundamental disagreement about qualia. So let me be clear and start with wikipedia. ""Qualia" is a term used in philosophy to describe the subjective quality of conscious experience. Examples of qualia are the pain of a headache, the taste of wine, or the redness of an evening sky."

I'm referring to the subjective quality of conscious experience when I refer to qualia. So every sensation, perception, emotion, etc. has a subjective component associated with it.

You don't need to say "NoOne (and noone else)" when it comes to qualia. It's cute, I agree, but I'm in good company: Chalmers, Strawson, Rosenberg, Skrbina, Kim (lately) all speak of qualia as the subjective component associated with sensations, perceptions etc.

Again we have a fundamental disagreement about Dennett. People who follow Dennett think he has demonstrated the uselessness of qualia. People like me think he has done no such thing. In the community that I'm in, we're the majority by far, so we tend to think of it as a consensus. This is troubling I agree but is the state of affairs at the moment. The papers I linked to by Chalmers and Strawson should make that clear.

You go on to state a number of things where we are in almost complete disagreement especially the part about pop philosophy! So, let me summarize my position instead of constantly disagreeing (since that becomes boring very quicky):

From my point of view

1. Dennett did not answer Chalmers. Not even close.

2. We are committed to physicalism (so please no name calling) but a physicalism that includes qualia and does not dismiss them.

3. Strawson and Skrbina (following Rosenberg) have gone panpsychist recently in an attempt to stay physicalist.

4. We can discuss the evolution and development of qualia without raging at each other regarding fundamental issues since that looks to have reached an impasse. I just want to add that if you give panpsychism some consideration, it would allow you to stay physicalist (in the main) while accepting qualia. Strawson's paper is good for this purpose.

Tony Fisk said...

Oh! *That's* qualia! In my youth, I (and no doubt many others) speculated on the possibility that what I experienced was objectively different to what other people experienced. I eventually concluded that similar brain structures would likely produce similar interpretations.

Although, there's that interesting effect 'synaesthesia', wherein some folk mix their senses (hear a word, and see a colour for instance)

balsema: the textured feel of leaves rustling

NoOne said...

To Steve O:

Sorry for posting a bit more before getting a reply. I found a description of qualia which 'explains' our disagreements.

After providing a description of qualia, the Stanford Encyclopedia on philosophy entry goes on to say

"Other philosophers (e.g, Dennett 1987, 1991) use the term ‘qualia’ in a more restricted way so that qualia are intrinsic properties of experiences that are also ineffable, nonphysical, and ‘given’ to their subjects incorrigibly (without the possibility of error). Philosophers who deny that there are qualia sometimes have in mind qualia as the term is used in this more restricted sense (or a similar one). Thus, announcements by philosophers who declare themselves opposed to qualia need to be treated with some caution. One can agree that there are no qualia in the last three senses I have explained, while still endorsing qualia in the standard first sense."

SteveO said...

Heya NoOne,

Dennett tackles head on the difference in qualia - in fact, his arguments are aimed at the more "mystical" definition of qualia precisely because it is the harder target. Read "Quining Qualia" starting with the sentence, "My challenge strikes some theorists as outrageous or misguided because they think they have a much blander and hence less vulnerable notion of qualia to begin with." (quoted from here)

Defining qualia the way you originally did, "Qualia - a blanket term for sensations, perceptions and emotions" means that we don't have a qualia problem (or explanatory gap) or a disagreement between you and I - we are talking about things that can be measured and have extrinsic relational properties. Such as, "this amount of salt tastes very salty to me, and not salty enough to you. I wonder why?" Only when we extend qualia to include your subjective experience of "saltiness" as might be different from mine (maybe salt tastes to you like sugar tastes to me), do we run into the so-called explanatory gap. Therefore, Dennett's definition is actually the one that gives qualia the best fighting chance as a concept that has meaning.

(By the way, I'm no acolyte of Dennett per se, I just find his way of writing to be more straightforward than most [and funnier]. There are plenty of other authors who have used various arguments to show qualia are not real.)

You now say, "I'm referring to the subjective quality of conscious experience when I refer to qualia. So every sensation, perception, emotion, etc. has a subjective component associated with it."

I ask, "Why do you think so?" Or, rather more verbosely, why do you think this purported subjective component illuminates anything or has any special standing apart from the extrinsic and comparative properties of something? Dennett's two Maxwell House tasters gedankenexperiment shows that a person's subjective state of the moment sheds no light on the existence of qualia since the person may be mistaken about the state of their purported qualia, when qualia are supposed to be something that we "know intimately."

It would be *extremely* interesting to me to hear how you would respond to Dennett's Maxwell House tasters or Bennett's phenol-thio-urea scenarios in a way that preserves the required existence of qualia. If you can't, Occam's Razor slices qualia off the mental map.

I don't really understand how you can be a physicalist *and* define qualia as something beyond measure (thus preserving our disagreement). It seems either you use qualia as a synonym for extrinsic relational qualities (in which case we agree, and we stop using the word qualia and never have an "explanatory gap" or the question of consciousness come up) or you say that qualia in fact has some unmeasurable characteristic, in which case you are not a physicalist, the discussion goes on, and the arguments I have produced against qualia stand. Perhaps Strawson resolves what seems to me to be a logical contradiction - I have to admit that it will be a while before I follow up on that since this is the start of the semester and I am busy with my students.

Tony - you have put your finger on the heart of the argument that modern brain research has come up with against qualia as a real thing - and in fact, that "red" itself only has meaning extrinsically (light of a certain wavelength) and comparatively (certain optical illusions that are generated in the eye (not the mind) can lead you to see red even when it is not there due to the way the eye works).

Hmm, I wonder if consciousness requires the *illusion* that qualia are real. That is interesting...

Ilithi Dragon said...

If I'm understanding the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy correctly, the definition of qualia that it and NoOne are using is that everything we experience is experienced subjectively, the 'phenomenal experience', and that this phenomenal experience is made up of various qualities that are accessible introspectively, which are collectively called qualia. Or, in otherwords, the introspective or internal experiences that constitute our experience of external stimuli are qualia.

I don't quite follow this, though. Maybe I'm just not knowledgeable enough about this, but it seems to me that anything subjective about our experiences of external stimuli would come from the connections to those external stimuli that we have built up in our memory over the course of our lives. If I see the color blue, for example, and my friend Bob sees the same blue as well, the frequency of the lightwaves impacting our retinas is the same. Unless I'm mistaken (and I could be, my areas of study are programming and Star Trek, not medical science), the neural impulses our eyes then send to our respective brains will be identical, so the data our brains receive will be exactly identical. So the actual experience of viewing the color itself would not be subjective (unless our bodies each use a different neural 'code', which is unlikely given the successful transplantation of hands: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand_transplantation ). It would be our internal interpretation of the data that would be subjective. Additionally, as far as I know (which again, could be wrong since I'm not a student of medical science), the basic methods for processing data within our brains are universally the same. So when we receive data from our eyes, the same basic processing methods are applied to that data. From that point, as those processes reference the memory data stored in our brains, they start to diverge and become subjective, due to the different memories we each have stored in our brains (plus the variation in the 'hardware' of our brains between individuals). So the subjectivity of our experiences would then come from the physical development of our own brain, and our own experiences.

Are qualia then just the subjective relationships generated between data input through our senses, and our existing memories? Or am I understanding this wrong?

SteveO said...

Hi Illiti,

You too have hit the heart of what problems qualia run into. Dennett has a great scenario about the taste of beer that relates to your question, I think, as well as the previously mentioned Maxwell House coffee tasters. Modern science has shown that the "taste" of beer is far more than the impingement of molecules on our taste and smell, but that it is also a function of our memories. In blind taste tests, New Coke was liked better than Pepsi. In non-blind taste-tests, New Coke was abhorred. These show that "qualia" (subjective reaction to *intrinsic* characteristics) are either nonexistent or drained of all meaning. (That link will explain how you get from Point A to Point B on that.)

lolifie: tr. v. to make laugh someone laugh out loud online

David Brin said...

Sorry NoOne... I do not accept that I "must" accept panpsychism or the pre-existance of a minimal level of consciousness as a base condition from which human consciousness would then evolve. I consider that whole realm of position, top to bottom, to be profoundly silly mysticism. Consensus mysticism, but silly nonetheless.

And, mind you, I refuse to let that categorize me as a Dennett-follower. He's pretty silly, too.

Central point. If life emerged from non-living materials, I see no reason why consciousness could not emerge from non-conscious entities, once those entities began.... for perfectly good evolutionary reasons... to do many of the things that now make up consciousness.

Likewise, I see no reason to be interested in the quasi-mystical notion of "qualia"... Like phlogistin, it seems to be a name for whatever we cannot nail down at the present time. If I point to the simple, evolution-driven processes that made human beings capable of creating internal "gedanken theater" productions, complete with a critical audience... you will shrug and say "THAT isn't Qualia."

I figure there is no level of self-awareness of the human internal observer that you won't call "not really consciousness."

The Galilean adventure has been to constantly push back the bouyndaries of what we cannot "engineer." Every supposedly permanent boundary was eventually crosses. In KILN PEOPLE, I posit a science and technology called "soulistics," in which the very soul itself can be copied into clay and used to motivate fully conscious copies of yourself, whose memories and "qualia" of their one day separate adventures can then be downloaded into your memory.

Sure, it is pure fantasy. But I enjoyed portraying this latest silly barrier being pushed back, as I am sure our children will do, even if not with garish "dittos."

SteveO, I wish some of you would comment on my own theory... that human consciousness arose out of our pragmatic ability to picture gedanken scenarios as play-acted versions of future events. There had to be a critic observer who would watch these scenarios and compare them to each other! And compare them to past recalled events and to ongoing sensory data. A critic/observer who is also highly (and emotionally) invested in seeing the self succeed. Each of these is valuable, independently. But combine them, and exactly what's left to explain?

Here's the deal. If such an entity WEREN'T experiencing "qualia" but merely modeling an entity who was experiencing it... then WTF how will you tell the diff? Especially all you zombies who are figments of my imagination, anyway? ;-)

Look, I don't particularly care for Dennett and I do NOT think he has "disproved qualia." My reasons for shrugging it off are simple pragmatism. I am an heir of Galileo. I recognize the old tricks and they have never worked over a long term.

We have always pushed back these "ineffable" terms and if we don't push this one back in our lifetimes, then our kids will.... and then, there'll be some other line drawn in the sand, beyond which "this will never be known."

NoOne said...

I'll be quite short here because I don't think being more verbose is going to help actually.

To Steve O: We still have a fundamental disagreement but I thought that the SEP (Stanford encyl.) entry made it a lot more clear what we disagree on. My way of looking at this problem is that the old physicalism (call it physicalism A) couldn't quite cut it but a new physicalism E might be able to solve the problem of consciousness. If consciousness is taken as fundamental, then physicalism E is usually panpsychist.

None of your other arguments carry much weight either since we are attacking the old physicalism while trying to erect a new physicalism. Occam's razor does not apply since all other things are not equal. (The new physicalism could be panpsychist or a Russelian physicalism in which case it's a new entity that begins with consciousness from the start.) I've read most of what Dennett has written on consciousness including "Quining qualia" and they don't pass muster. Dennett almost always plays the same game which is to disqualify qualia because we could be mistaken about them. (Short answer: We could be right as well.) And Strawson does go a long way toward answering some of these problems. After all the title of his article is "Does physicalism entail panpsychism?" which pretty much sums it up.

To David Brin: Yes, we continue to have a fundamental disagreement as I expected we would. Your version is usually called radical emergence and is exactly the view that Strawson tries to demolish in his article, so you may find it interesting. And I don't understand where you get "consensus mysticism" from. Strawson's position is hardly mysticism, unless you have a very different way of defining mysticism.

Cliff said...

Fascinating discussion on consciousness here.

My question is on monism. I've seen NoOne describe it as "everything is made of the same substance," which I'm sure is an oversimplification.

But isn't that functionally false?
Look at the hundreds of different elements existent in the universe, and their innumerable combinations. Chlorine acts differently than platinum. Methane acts differently than steel.

Even on a subatomic level we see different types of matter - electrons and protons and neutrons, which act differently and rely on different fundamental forces.

I suppose that on some deep, deep fundamental level all matter and energy could be perceived as the same substance, but I can't see how that is the case even on the scale of quarks, much less the scale of neurons.

So what is the case for consciousness being an inherent property of this monadic substance, as opposed to complex interactions of matter, energy and information?

Cliff said...

On TV:
"Oh man," people say when they find out I don't get TV, "how do you live like that?" They look at me like I'm some grungy, plague-ridden peasant from the Middle Ages, unaware of even the basic conveniences of modern life.

"I don't know," I tell them, "somehow I've gotten used to not having being barraged by commercials. I've learned to make do with reading, writing, going to the gym, taking walks, cooking..."

On District 9:
I loved it, but in retrospect there are a lot of plot holes. It's a good thing I loved the flavor of the movie so much.

In other words... a majority of us actually trying to behave decently and well, with tolerance and courage and smarts and a will to face the future.


Tony Fisk said...

Just to vary the mood a little, the September edition of Scientific American is on the Mind.

Abstract for one article:
MIND on Pain: Why People Experience Pain Differently
Researchers are unraveling why some people are more sensitive to pain than others.

I found my acceptance filters jammed on 'Soulistics' when reading Kiln People. I just couldn't come at the notion of people having multiple viewpoints.

...then it dawned on me that this is precisely what a multiverse provides (if you do some overlapping).

David Brin said...

Cliff's cynical hahahaha is pretty sad, given that he is a beneficiary of a civilization that is vastly, many order, better/sweeter/gentler and more just than any that ever came before.

Looking at the remaining horrific injustices that we still have to fix does not disprove this, it only shows how desperately and grindingly awful things were before, in nearly all other places and times.

But we've come a vast distance... maybe even halfway toward acting like decent people... and note this. It is exactly at the halfway point where adolescents become maximally self-critical!

And here's the crux. Anyone who believes I am right has something to live and fight for. I cannot imagine why anybody who thinks otherwise would WANT to live. Seriously. Why?

NoOne, it is mysticism, absolutely. Okay, so it is monist and there is no separate realm of mind (the usual refuge of mystics.) Instead, the mystical quality is invested in matter itself... everything is conscious! Whoopee!

Complete, untestable, undemonstrable un-falsifiable nonsense, from the git-go.

Mind you! I wallow in such nonsense! Have you read the last 50 pages of Kiln People? I posit a technologization of panpsychism! How else can you read those passages! I understand the concept well enough to take the ball and run with it, possibly more vividly than anyone else has ever done! And it may even turn out to be true!

But it is still phlogisitn, promulgated in the same spirit.

SteveO said...

Hmm, let me restate how I interpret Dennett's arguments. What I get from them is that qualia are not necessary to explain anything, and that the burden of proof is on the people who think that qualia are special to show why qualia need to exist to explain anything. (Still waiting for that Maxwell House explanation, NoOne!)

I myself extend this argument because I have kept track of research on the brain and perception to say that things that appear monolithically "intrinsic" to qualia believers (i.e. "red") are very obviously very fuzzy products of low- and high-level systems interacting to produce a sensation which contains only a tiny slice of what the object extrinsically is. Hence those optical illusions (which seem to me to dismiss qualia right there, since something that demonstrably does not have a characteristic is perceived by the eye/brain to have it, but that is me I guess).

I guess the Occam's Razor version of where I am right now is that I know that the mind so easily fools and manipulates itself on a daily basis, makes a mental narrative based on so little data really, and our putative sensations are so much the product of very weird interactions of experience/narrow band signal/biochemistry/what I had for lunch, that there is just nothing left for qualia to explain. Like God, I can't prove qualia are fake, but if there is no particular need for them to exist, why postulate them?

As far as consciousness, my notion is that the biochemistry of the brain has so many possibilities for chemical/ionic interactions, that it is like a billion random numbers being generated (some being generated *in relation to* what is perceived [solution based on experience], others not [flash of creative insight]) and then selected by filters for applicability. Consciousness (illusion or not) emerges from that frothing mix like a billion monkeys typing randomly while a filter pulls out the words needed to write Hamlet. Thus consciousness exists on a continuum based on the amount of random/related signals and the robustness/efficiency of the filters. (This actually leads to testable hypotheses...) Mirror neurons, under this notion, would be an efficient generator/filter for use in modeling "other" for a social species. (And is the discovery of those one of the coolest dang things in recent history or what!?!)

I think this is compatible with Dr. Brin's notion as I understand it (it is like the gas planet aliens of yours communicate with humans in the later Uplift books, right? The problem with that was the "play" made sense to human senses, when I doubt such a creature would perceive things in a way that would make any sense to a human if objectified...but I bet you already knew that!) But I have to admit, I am *very* uncomfortable postulating an "I" that watches the Movie of the Id, because this seems to lead down the path of an "I" that is special and separate from what it observes, and implies that the "I" cannot be rooted in the brain, but transcends it.

I think that "I" is an emergent phenomenon.

Travc said...

Sorry to jump back so far... but something hit me.

Andrew said:
"To summarize, to what extent are we willing to say that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts? I don’t accept that it ever is. If we think it is, then we’ve missed counting some of the parts."

I like your sentiment, but the whole can certainly be greater than the *sum* of the parts. Lots of stuff is based on the configuration of the parts which is combinatorial.

That said, yeah, "the whole is more than the sum of the parts" connotes a kind of mystical quality which vanishes once we actually understand what is going on. Definition wise, it is just wrong though.

Travc said...

On "emergent" being an explanation. I agree with Stephan, it isn't.

"Emergent" isn't an explanation, but does describe the type of explanation exists.

In that way, it's similar to (though admittedly fuzzier than) the term "fractal".

Travc said...

As SteveO pointed out, our visual system is really complex and acts as a bunch of 'modules' each doing different things (edge detection, fine focus, periphery, ect ect).

A terribly complicated visual system is a product of primate evolution. Primates have good vision build out of lots of improvements grafted onto the relatively crappy mammalian norm. In contrast, the excellent visual system of many birds is pretty simple and their visual cortex actually makes sense.

So here is a random though: Maybe dealing with the particular Rube-Goldberg nature primate vision gave hominoid brains a pretty unique starting point.

Tim H. said...

Hmm, Goldbergian optics, as good an indicator as any that we evolved. Seems an interesting story could be wrung out of an encounter with a created race. For instance, no wild cards, they would be already optimized, possibly more vulnerable.

David Smelser said...


While I like the idea of that "human consciousness arose out of our pragmatic ability to picture gedanken scenarios as play-acted versions of future events" and I do like the idea of critical evaluating feedback loops, I'm not sure that there is a *single* critical observer. Rather I think each gedanken scenarios does its own critical analysis to reality (and other gedanken scenarious). I'm more inclined to believe consensus building mechanism than a grand "decider" cluster of neurons.

NoOne said...

To Steve O: Regarding burden of proof: Funny but we feel exactly the opposite. That people who deny qualia have the burden on them because qualia seem so obvious to us. And it's the seeming that counts here which needs an explanation. Also, I'm puzzled by why qualia are being asked to explain something else. It is qualia that need to be explained not the other way around. They are the raw data of experience that have to be accommodated into a scientific description. Trouble is, we don't know how to get at the raw data besides unreliable first person accounts but nevertheless that's the problem. Let me speak as directly as possible: It is not the intrinsicness, ineffability or whatever of qualia that matter. That's all a sideshow. How does nature have an interior experiential "space" in which qualia occur? That's the problem we want to solve.

In a nutshell: When you and I introspect, we sense, feel and see all sorts of "things." How and why?

Maxwell House: Chase and Sanborn have transparent access to coffee qualia when they are actually having that experience. Their later verbal reports based on memory can be unreliable but do not repudiate the access to phenomenal content at the moment of experience. Dennett confuses qualitative state and brain structure and argues for eliminativism but this won't work. It is the immediate phenomenal content of drinking Maxwell house that needs to be explained.

To David Brin: An impasse I see. Let's not worry about the fundamental problem then. Van Gulick has a great article entitled "Reduction and Emergence" which should be useful to you. (It's a summary of positions and not an actual position.) Also, Michael Silberstein has written a number of papers on emergence which may be helpful.

lc said...

There's that long stretch of sound that the oboe makes, and the long stretch of sound that the clarinet makes, and the long stretch of sound that the violin makes, and the long stretch of sound that the viola makes, and the long stretch of sound that the flute makes, and so on. Add them up and you get Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, right? Well, there's also the coordination and cooperation and seesawing between individual musicians adjusting to each other in a live performance, plus the audience's reaction to the music, and the musicians' reaction to the audience's reaction...

Nothing is ever exactly the sum of its parts, because -- at the very least -- time is a factor. A thing will keep growing as it exists and interacts with its environment.

David Brin said...

The onion is on a roll!

David S, I agree that few sane individuals are anywhere near as unitary or permanently/centrally structured as we tend to think we are. Sure, we are confederations of inner "selves" with mushy boundaries. It explains our inconsistency (over short intervals)... and our flexibility. A sane person maintains this mushiness without losing a grip on the core values and priorities and interests that make us consistent and reliable people over the LONGER term.
But that is exactly what you'd expect with consciousness being an emergent property, arising our of the need to weigh and compare gedanken scenarios against memories and sensory inputs. There was NO pre-existing consciousness to perform this task! Rather, what probably happened was that some of the SCENARIOS THEMSELVES began weighing and judging other scenarios! When "you" are comparing a daydream to a plan to a memory to what you see before you... what's actually happening is yhou are doing it inside another daydream. If you weigh all the same things an hour later, it will be a different daydream, a different (though very similar) "you."


Cliff said...

Cliff's cynical hahahaha is pretty sad, given that he is a beneficiary of a civilization that is vastly, many order, better/sweeter/gentler and more just than any that ever came before.

So let me get this straight.
After seeing our nation, our grand civilization bankrupt itself through a war based on false confessions elicited from torture for the express purpose of corporate corruption; after seeing a culture of unchecked consumerism cause global environmental degradation; after seeing Israel bombard unarmed citizens with white phosphorous...
I'm being foolish and cynical to believe that the bulk of humanity would not stand up for alien refugees?
(Mind you, we're talking about giant insects that live in a hive society, not Alien Nation's cutesy humanoids.)

Do you think perhaps that I don't know any history? That perhaps I haven't learned about the wretched working conditions of the 1800s and 1900s? Or that I don't realize how modern technology has shielded me from a vast range of horrific diseases, or provided me with a wealth of nutrition, knowledge and luxury?

There is no contradiction between recognizing these things and leveling criticism at our society. Indeed, it is because of my historically privileged position that I am able to criticize.

You insist that all humans are prone to self-delusion, and then insist that mankind would treat giant alien insects with respect and dignity.
Have you ever compared these two scenarios side by side?

Travc said...

Ha, I think I'm finally getting this 'qualia' thing (or lack there of).

NoOne said:
"phenomenal content at the moment of experience"

That is where you are going wrong I think. There is nothing available to the conscious at "the moment of experience". This isn't a philosophic assertion, it's neurology.

All the conscious seems to work with are the associations "phenomenal content" creates with memory, emotion, ect. Qualia are a interesting illusion. Explaining that illusion isn't a completely solved problem, but there is nothing 'hard' about it.

Dr Brin's zoetrope hypothesis is pretty conventional (which is why I didn't say much about it before.) In this case, conventional is pretty good. The headiness and failures of AI led some folks off into the fantasy lands of panpsychism and other such mysticism, but most researchers concluded that recursion ("models modeling models") make a lot more sense.

Personally, I'm a bit more Brooks-ian, and think the internal models are actually pretty crappy. The real coolness is in the system which learns logical relationships. In this context, I'm not talking about first-order logic... temporal and introspective logic now appear to be well within the reach of machine learning systems (or good old mechanistic biological system). This is the realm of the computational linguists, and a bit beyond me... but I've actually worked with simple implementations of such learners (trying to solve the grounding problem).

BTW: I'm talking about PAC learnability, not Gold... though the computational linguists I worked with developed some really powerful grammars which were efficiently learnable in the Gold sense. If you know what I'm talking about, good for you ;)

Now for the upshot. As pointed out already, consciousness is built upon a narrative generating mechanism. Why do we have such a mechanism... well, that is exactly what you'd need to learn logical relationships. What about 'qualia'... again, exactly what is needed to do logical learning and inference. It would be difficult to learn that "glowing red pieces of metal are very hot" if you didn't have some sort of discrete notions of each of those things. You could get it to some extent, but the generalization (a poker sitting in a fire and the coils on an electric stove for example) would be hard if not impossible.

All of this has some unsettling (for some) implications. Consciousness isn't any more special than tool use or language. There isn't a very clear dividing line. Sure, we can decide on a line which makes some sense, but it is fundamentally (functionally) arbitrary. I'm not claiming there is a nice gradual scale of levels of consciousness... seems quite probable it is pretty sharp sigmoid where the evolutionary distance between 'low' and 'high' is really quickly bridged. But it is continuous.

Travc said...

Quick correction:

This is not quite right:
All the conscious seems to work with are the associations "phenomenal content" creates with memory, emotion, ect.

"phenomenal content" *are* the associations created between stimuli and memory, emotion, ect.

Also, there is no reason the stimuli has to be external.

David Brin said...

Cliff, your rant was a perfect example of setting op strawmen.

"You insist that all humans are prone to self-delusion, and then insist that mankind would treat giant alien insects with respect and dignity.
Have you ever compared these two scenarios side by side?"

In fact, I said NO... such... thing...

Not even remotely. But thanks for the strawman.

What I DID say is that the Hollywood reflex of always and universally assuming that humanity - and especially all our institutions - and above all, the masses -- would automatically and in all cases react in the worst an most ignoble and stupidest way possible...

... is a tiresome reflexive cliche and one that is not borne out EITHER by the self-critical processes of the last couple of generations, OR by the very same hollywood reflex! Since that reflex is one of social self-criticism, it would seem that a culture that always applies such hollywood reflexes is exactly NOT the society DESCRIBED BY those reflexes.

And if you are unable to parse what that paragraph said, I suggest re-reading it aloud, several times, before strawmanning it. Because the irony is a huge one and ought to make any honest man smile.

Dig it, I have repeatedly expressed respect for oversimplifying "T Cell" social criticism that applies fierce pressure in directions that we need to keep going. It serves a purpose and I approve. But that does not obligate me to participate in what boils down to yet another stupid, mindless reflex. Even if it is healthier than earlier reflexes like racism and chauvinism and jingoism etc. It is still a stupid, mindless reflex.

Yes, the aliens in ALIEN NATION were easier to like. Fine, Nevertheless, the profound STUPIDITY of the authorities in DISTRICT NINE, that Peter Jackson portrays AS stupid, is precisely... stupid! The assumption, then, that the world would not be filled with people who RECOGNIZE it AS stupid is... in itself... stupid.

UFC 102 Live Stream said...

i have been to land of the lost

Robert said...

Dr. Brin, have you considered using WordPress for a replacement of Blogger? One problem I've noticed (in addition to the rising number of spambots infesting the site) is that even when you delete a bot post, their name (and imbedded URL link) remains behind. In essence, the bots are still getting their "advertising" out through potential links.

One nice thing about WordPress (besides being able to choose which style you use for the site design) is that you approve the posts for first-time people. This means a bot needs to be more intelligent in order to bypass the human element giving initial approval (and you can select other readers to have moderator powers, so you don't need to handle everything yourself).

Heck, it's even an experiment in artificial intelligence for spambots. If the spammers can design a bot that is able to pretend to be human (and sneak past the human radar), then isn't that a form of intelligence? It might be interesting for the spamming community to be the one that ends up creating an AI that manages to fake out people by intelligent and on-topic posts before it tries to flood the place with spam. ^^;;

Anyway, thought I'd suggest WordPress as a means of eliminating the bots. For now. ;)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Rob, please keep the suggestion pocketed for now. It is a good one, but our spam problem is very mild and I am just to busy to solve a problem that's still a minot irritation.

But maybe in future, so keep it ready!


Rob said...

Let me add that the spam problem might be minor on the current discussion thread, but the "comments" RSS feed sees all the spam for all the threads, including the ones which are not actively getting new comments any longer.

The result is that I get spammed 10 a day or so, which is still light, but more prevalent than my personal email feed.

I've offered David free web space complete with WordPress before, but he's happy with the current arrangement.

David Brin said...

Rob, that is the first that I have heard re the RSS feed problem. Nobody has mentioned it before and I assumed the current thread was all there is.

I do wish I had time to take on such a transfer. As-is, I can only beg your indulgence.

Michael said...

I'd like to point out that I can barely stand to check this blog most of the time, since it loads incredibly slowly and brings my machine to its knees when I go to the front page.

Something other than blogger would likely serve much better.

On the topic of consciousness: Anyone who thinks Searle's Chinese Room argument is a problem for, um, anything, is smoking something. (Yes, it was only an offhanded mention, and maybe NoOne will surprise me by not holding that Searle's argument is any good, but I doubt it).

I mean, the argument can be paraphrased as thus:
There is a system of two components.
Component A can't do X.
Component B can't do X.
Therefore, the system can't do X either.

But this is clearly and blatantly false!

And yet this argument is presented as some fundamental argument against the idea of systems doing things their components can't!

Anyone who wholly rejects emergence is rejecting the ability to walk - the individual components of the human body can't walk, walking can only happen when joints and solid parts are assembled together in the right kind of configuration; that's emergence!

Tim H. said...

Loads slowly? On my older machine it loads very quickly, you may have other issues than blogger.

Robert said...

One possibility would be to recruit several members of our current group who have time and willingness to transcribe articles from the archives to the new system.

Another possibility would be to put new updates on a WordPress system, and keep the older stuff on Blogger (possibly locking all old threads to stop the bots from continuing to inhabit and corrupt previous dialogues that have occurred).

I will say this: I resisted moving over the WordPress for a while; I enjoyed coding my review site on HTML and felt it helped Tangents stand out (as rather than a blog, it was an actual website that used a forum for reader response; direct response to articles on the site wasn't possible). Once I did start using WordPress, I found it far better and honestly wish I'd not dragged my heels on using WordPress.

Rob H.

Rob said...

Rob, I think David is in a different boat than you, in that he has a publicist or retained webmaster responsible for blog and website.

The cost of the activation energy at this point, to rally volunteers and learn a new admin panel, is higher than the cost of deleting the spams as they come in.

Rob said...

Oh, also, I've had the slow-blogspot problem myself in the past. It was related to avatar graphics of the people who left comments, and thus not David's or Blogspot's fault.

A healthy content filter is a good tool for weeding those out.

David Brin said...

I have a wonderful admin for the website http://www.davidbrin.com but I handle the blog myself. Hence,,, gotta triage...

anyway, I fly east 6am tamale. Gotta run. Thrive all and save the world.

Anders Brink said...


Is it true that Wordpress is better at detecting bots? I have tried that, and my blog was infested with spam, which was why I moved to blogspot. Is there something about Wordpress that I was doing wrong?


No doubt, Alien Nation was better, but District Nine is not worse - it is just different. Above all, District Nine is authentic! Niel Blokamp grew up there, and he's got some authority to tell us how it was like, at that time! This is something that Alien Nation can't do. This is why District Nine is DIFFERENT. Not stupid or inferior. Just different.

Robert said...

It's not that the program itself detects spam better. It's that you can set it that you need to approve the first post of new users (or even of every post). Thus you're able to catch potential spambots much easier.

To be honest? At this point, Tangents has just over 150 registered accounts from a variety of e-mail addresses. The number of those who have actually posted something? Under 20 (and that's being optimistic, I suspect). I'm fairly certain a number of them are bots... and don't quite know why they haven't tried posting yet.

(The number of confirmed bots is maybe a half dozen; their spam was caught in the initial-post filter and deleted without ever being seen. Of course, I do have a moderate lever of moderation selected, which increases the work I need to do... but catches the bots when they start. And I don't have exactly a huge readership, or a lot of comments to my reviews, so it hasn't been a large problem for me.)

Rob H.

David Smelser said...

In light of recent discussions about reputation, can someone take a look at this proposal to automate reputation calculations for wikipedia authors and then color code wikipedia content.

Wired Science News for Your Neurons
Wikipedia to Color Code Untrustworthy Text

The wired article refers to WikiTrust: "the program assigns a color code to newly edited text using an algorithm that calculates author reputation from the lifespan of their past contributions. It’s based on a simple concept: The longer information persists on the page, the more accurate it’s likely to be."

Sociotard said...

Hey dolphin fans! Wanna watch a "superpod" of dolphins? Evidently they've been grouping by thousands. That's . . . unusual.


NoOne said...

To Travc: You said "That is where you [NoOne] are going wrong I think. There is nothing available to the conscious at "the moment of experience". This isn't a philosophic assertion, it's neurology."

That's an assumption on your part. That's why you don't see the problem. It can easily be refuted. If qualia are basic, then there would be lawful relationships between brain function and qualia which can be reverse engineered (assuming you have good phenomenology which is a big if). But qualia themselves would not be identical to brain function. So in your case, you would have to argue that qualia are not basic which you haven't so far (other than merely asserting it).

Chinese room: This is largely irrelevant. Searle's biological naturalism is not very appealing to me and his syntax/semantics argument falls apart if you allow microsemantics in distributed representations (which the brain surely has). In any case, while Searle's argument was debated by all of us in the period 1991-1995, the action has moved over to qualia these days.

Ilithi Dragon said...

NoOne, if I'm understanding all of this correctly (if being the operative word here), Travc's description of qualia would operate according to natural laws, and that there is nothing that requires what we observe of what you call qualia to NOT be following natural laws.

In fact, if I'm understanding this all correctly, it sounds to me that you are calling the subjective experience we have qualia and assigning it some unknown or unexplained source, where as the opposing side of the proverbial chain of railed posts is saying that this subjective experience is purely a result of the interactions between the variations in the physical development and growth of our brains, and our accumulated memories and experiences (and self-delusions) over the course of our lives, coupled with the present condition of our surroundings, physiology and psychology, and that they can be entirely explained in that context, and that there is no need for the term 'qualia' to exist.

With the latter theory, the subjective experience COULD be replicated, provided we were able to completely and accurately replicate all the variables that led up to the experience. The difficulty in doing so comes from the sheer number of variables, the sheer difficulty in mapping those variables, and the chaotic nature of the human mind, which can generate very similar or wildly different results with large or small changes in the variables.

Your theory, as it sounds to me, requires that there be some other, unexplained or unknown property beyond or besides an emergent phenomenon rising from the chaotic and inter-dependent functions of the human brain. Emergent phenomena can easily be proven to exist, from systems very much like the system in which our brains developed, and the emergent phenomenon theory fits with Occam's Razor, since from what I think I understand of the qualia theory, the qualia theory requires some unknown factor to be an explanation for what we see, when the base theory of the emergent phenomenon provides that explanation without requiring some unknown or indeterminate factor or variable.

That is where the burden of proof would lie with the qualia theory: proving that there are verifiable factors that do not fit with or are not explained by the emergent phenomenon model.

Don't get me wrong, I personally believe that there is more to consciousness than just an emergent phenomenon (I believe in a soul, etc.), and I see no reason why that could not work in a scientific system (there is so much that we have yet to learn about how the mind works, and how it is influenced by the environment around us, especially beyond that which we can readily detect, after all). That said, explaining the biological process does not seem to require qualia in any form, at least from what I understand, though it's still always good to posit new ideas and theories to test and experiment on.

Tony Fisk said...

What Travc says about nothing being available to the consciousness at the moment of experience is spot on. It takes time (several hundred milliseconds) for us to react to and recognise a stimulus. What we then recall of the experience is a reconstruction from responses made *after* the event.

This is observed fact. Calling it an assumption is just plain hogwash!

nishin: (of teeth) the sense of being involved in fruitless discourse

Anonymous said...

Материал спорный но безусловно можно взять в разработку, Спасибо

Travc said...

Not sure exactly how this applies to the 'qualia' (or lack thereof) debate... but it popped to mind.

Various complex sensations can be induced directly. The one I know most about is a "feeling of a presence in the room" produced by sticking a powerful magnet at the right spot on the skull (it is a bit more complicated, but not much... sorry, can't find a good link).

Here is a link to a slightly different study using trans-cranial stimulation.

Also, how does 'qualia' fit with the radical effects mundane stimuli sometimes triggers in PTSD patients? Does qualia change due to trauma? The materialist neurological model doesn't explain every detail (yet), but the effect makes perfect sense. It is all about associations... what is connected to what.

Maybe I still don't get it, but it seems like creating a theory of qualia just doesn't add anything to our understanding. It is like theology... you can debate the nature of God all you want, but unless God decides to provided some actual evidence, it is pretty pointless. Do the angels on the head of a pin get come into conflict due to overcrowding?

Travc said...

Damn, I screwed up my pithy line...

Do the angels on the head of a pin come into conflict from the overcrowding?

Ilithi Dragon said...

Travc, I pity your patchy pithiness.
} ; = 8 P

It seems to me that the theory of qualia posits that the subjective experience of an individual works in a certain way, according to a system of laws and causes beyond our current knowledge. While an interesting theory to posit, it is not scientifically verifiable; it requires what we observe, which can be explained logically by other systems, be explained by something else that we don't know. While it is always good to question if the way we think things work is really how they actually work, when there is no evidence of a requirement for the concept of qualia to exist, or no gaps that verifiable theories can't explain, then there is no scientific basis for adopting that theory as anything more than a hypothesized alternate explanation to investigate the possibility of.

Again, I could be completely misunderstanding qualia or lack knowledge of evidence that supports qualia, but at this point I do not see anything that requires qualia to exist, or anything that other theories don't explain that qualia does. It seems to me that qualia is an alternate theory that could provide some sort of explanation of what we see, but that does not have any evidence that would provide direct support of this particular explanation over other explanations, which do have direct support from verifiable observations.

It seems to me, then, that the qualia theory is 'begging the question', or is an argument of petitio principii, and assumes the initial point that qualia exist, without providing direct evidence that qualia exist, or evidence of an unexplained inconsistency within other, verifiable theories for which the qualia theory provides an explanation.

tintinaus said...

To get away from Qualia as a subject of controversy(at least here) what is the current thinking of what role memes may have played in the development of the human brain and consciousness?

David said...

Whatever interesting philosophical differences there may be between the two, DISTRICT 9 was a much better-made film than ALIEN NATION.

Tony Fisk said...

I haven't seen either, but I would apply what I call the 'Doctor Who' rule:

good ideas and writing can cover for bad production, but not vice versa.

ingly: expressive of an indefinable, restive mood. Often seen but not limited to people aged eight or under.

sirvan said...


about emergent, yes, you are roght, I agree with it.

Anonymous said...

Once again, Daivd Brin deonstrates his total disconnection from observable reality. Given that he publicly embraces libertarianism, we already knew that...after all, libertarianism is the political philosophy of choice for kindergarteners everywhere (no one else can take it seriously).

Still, it's striking to see how completely David Brin's extreme wealth and those personal connections he boasts of with billionaires have sealed him into an impenetrable bubble in which the everyday reality that concerns ordinary Americans simply doesn't get through.

The southwest of the United States is burning down, global warming ravages Europe, economic shrecklicheit destroys the American middle class, lunatic right wingers are winning the health care "debate" by screaming delusions about commies euthanizing your grandma...and what does David Brin post about?

Debunked fantasies like Artificial Intelligence, and the TV show LOST.

There's a post over on the former conservative site Balloon Juice that sums up David Brin's eerie disregard for reality:

"Our society, especially its elites, has some weird fixation with the idea that we’re the best of all possible societies. Our markets work perfectly, we have the best healthcare in the world, and soon history will end as the rest of the world emulates our perfect societal system.

"I could go on and on, but I’ll stop. The point here is that it’s hardly surprising that the same people who believe American society is the ideal final state for civilization would also have childlike naivete about how well markets work. [Science fiction writers] are especially disposed to believe all this crap because they’re paid so well. When you’re paid 300K a year to spin fantasies, it’s pretty easy to believe that you live in a perfect world and that your beautiful fantasies are the truth."

The original post used "economists," but "science fiction writers" works just as well.

Mister Transparency has yet to tell us how much money he made last year by consulting for organized criminal conspiracies like IBM, which has been instrumental in shipping all of America's highest wage jobs overseas.

Mister Transpracy preaches openness and full disclosure, but he doesn't seem to want to let us know how much money he raked in last year by consulting for the military-industrial complex.

Mister Transparency ounds the table exhorting the virtues of a free flow of information...but he doesn't seem to want to tell us if his consulting arrangements with the giant corporatinos that are shipping all America's highest-wage high-value-added jobs to China and turning America into an armed garrison state include fine print that requires him to spew their talking points on websites like this one.

Enquiring minds want to know.

Anonymous said...

There's a certain level of animus here for dailykos, and perhaps deservedly so. I find their non-stop warnings of apocalypse NOW!!! grating, like a cat clawing on piano strings.

Still and all, you have to admire the wordcraft that went into this particular piece of hysteria:

"This, then, is the latest apocalypse. We will all take a break from shouting down terminally ill people at town halls, and from wondering whether our president has a circumcised penis, and whether that would imply deficient citizenship on his part, if the answer was the wrong one. We will pause, momentarily, in our efforts to declare that preventing sick people from going bankrupt and sending themselves and their families into lifelong poverty is, in fact, a slippery slope to communism, and from writing signs warning against the dangers of Facism and Markism, whatever those are. No, this is the latest battleground, because America, its discourse and its governance has, to put it as tersely as possible, become all but enslaved to the stupidest, most uneducated, trashiest, most fanatic, most incompetent, most mentally unbalanced, most flat out fucking dumb set of people to ever manage to walk upright. After a millennium of being led around by great leaders and not so great leaders, of great debates and petty ones, of steady marches towards freer and richer and more enlightened societies, we have apparently decided to chuck it all, because any pulsing mound of meat with the ability to work a magic marker will now be as a god to us."


Ilithi Dragon said...

Anonymous said...

"Mama, Mama, lookit the Troll!"
"Shh, Dear, you'll only encourage it."

vulti -- fashion sense for scavengers


Angry Anonymous said...
I hate Dr. Brin, and puppies!!11!one

Do you feel better now, or do you need more hay for your strawman?

Other Anonymous said...
dailykos quote

lol Yeah, that is pretty amusing. In fact, that might be worth saving for future reference.

Tony Fisk said...

any pulsing mound of meat with the ability to work a magic marker will now be as a god to us.

Think Traeki rings (the upgraded ones; with a cherry on top)

... it must be a long weekend!

milin: the bits and pieces left over from a completed hat (see magic marker).

Tony Fisk said...

Speaking of mounds of (rancid!) meat, here's a video data point for Kos' case.

Compare and contrast with this

You guys have got problems.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Good grief! Spam attack!

Though, I have to admit, the one saying that Dr. Brin's outfits are always super-cute is rather amusing, and might have actually had some success, if it weren't so completely out of context here.

Rob said...

Ilithi, haven't you ever seen a picture of David Brin? His outfits are toooootally super cute!


The spam count on the "all comments" RSS feed was 55 overnight.

Robert said...

Why am I reminded of how I lost a job several years back? (At a meeting I warned the boss that the newspaper needed to put in a wheelchair ramp or some sort of lift because letting wheelchair-accessible people in through the back door and through several narrow doorways did not constitute "wheelchair-accessible." He blew me off. Later that day while I was on my lunch break, a customer came in to place a classified ad. When my boss asked him how he was, the guy started chewing him out because his wheelchair-bound mother was waiting in the car while he placed her ad because the company wasn't wheelchair accessible. When my boss started going on about going in the back way, the guy snarled at him "that is not wheelchair accessible!" I was "laid off" a month later. For completely "unrelated" reasons.)

David Brin said...

Been out of touch a while, sorry. Back east to consult with some "agencies" and immersed in writing.

Quick scan backwards suggests it is just as well. My ankle feels thoroughly glared-at!

Thoughts said...

In your comments section its clear that most people come at these problems after inspecting the homunculus argument and finding that the presence of "self" is inexplicable.

However, there is a huge problem with the popular interpretation of the homunculus argument. The homunculus argument is that: if pre-twentieth century physics is correct then there would need to be an observer in the brain to observe what the brain observes and an observer in the observer's brain to observe what it observes ...etc.. This is then interpreted as an unimpeachable argument that observation cannot happen in the brain - a weird interpretation when the alternative, that pre-twentieth century physics is false, is a known fact. The homunculus argument is normally used to show that a theory disproves an observation but do you abandon the theory or reject the observation? (see Materialists should read this first)

Tony Fisk said...

Speaking of outfits that are s-o-o-o-o cute reminds me of this Sluggy Freelance cartoon (It even plugs into trollish conspiracy theories about talks with Pentagon officials... or Tandu)

apsesse: a septic swelling on the brain causing unhealthy obsessions with weird comics

Tony Fisk said...

The infinitely recursive homunculus problem can be resolved by having everyone being someone else's homunculus.

Sort of like reciprocal accountability

batable: certifiably insane

David Brin said...

Nice one, Tony!

I truly think that one's original (somewhat). Much better than "I am being dreamed by a butterfly" or a god.

In fact though, I believe my own model has dealt with the homunculus pretty decisively.

Our self-aware theater of the mind evolved organically out of a growing ability to model future behavior and its possible consequences, via gedankenexperiments. These brief theatricals allowed us to envision a variety of possible actions and choose one that seemed plausibly the best. It also let us empathize or model others.

In order for this process to work, there needed to be a nexus of decision, choosing among scenarios, comparing them to memories and to current sensory perceptions. All mammals probably do this to some degree. But the next step was for the comparison process ITSELF to become an ongoing theatrical production which, in order to maintain high levels of propeling emotion and self-interest, began perceiving itself as a consistent, continuing entity.

Driven to envision itself as more consistent and continuing than it really is.

Not only could this layering of theater a perfectly plausible, incremental approach that evolution might reward and push, but is is compatible with our illusions of ourself. It explains why consciousness is scattered, inconsistent, dramatic, yet intensely eager to ignore all this and perceive itself as linear, logical. continuous and immortal.

I've been asking -- what aspect of consciousness does this leave out? Only "qualia" - which, indeed, the model DOES explain.

Travc said...

The attempt to explain complex realities with preconceptions + gross oversimplifications + poor definitions + characterizing the arguments + very poor writing skills

see also: mental masturbation

Travc said...

damn... I really should preview

"characterizing the arguments"
"mischaracterizing the arguments of others"

Tim H. said...

Saw "9" last wednesday, liked it. Looked like the writers enjoyed "1984", a lot. Sort of fits with previous comments, a "Life force" was used as a story element. I suppose "soul" or "life force" would be a useful metaphor for the multitude of chemical reactions, strengths, frailties and quirks that make up a human being.

Sociotard said...

!Tranparency Alert!

You know those cameras that recognize your face when you're speeding in your car and send you a ticket in the mail? A man has been using a monkey mask to defy them. "Haha, you can't prove it was me."