Sunday, September 22, 2013


read Koch's "confessions of a romantic reductionist" this weekend. nice book, and he's such an interesting character. i was slightly disappointed that there wasn't more to learn - it was thin (i don't normally finish a book in 2 days). not that it wasn't full of things to learn, but most of it wasn't new to me, i guess because i'm familiar enough with the literature.

it did spark one interesting thought that i'd never really had before, and it wasn't really in the book itself - you know how these things work, you might be primed in some way for something, and then someone says the right thing in the right way, and something new appears. here's what i thought:

(as a warning, the book is all about consciousness, the science of trying to explain what consciousness, i.e. subjective consciousness is. all discussion of this topic needs to be prefaced with warning that you're getting into something deep. so there it is.)

information theories of consciousness, like Tononi's or Chalmers' (such as it is), are basically dualist theories. they say that the stuff of reality has two aspects - one is the objective, measurable, interactive aspect, that we can measure in terms of physics (in the familiar sense of the word). the other aspect is subjective, intrinsic, and emergent - emergence in the sense of information, of a systematic quality that is real and not conceptual or based in observation - and it can be calculated or understood in theoretical terms (e.g. in the terms of Tononi's theory), but it cannot be measured in a relational sense.

this is not the new thought that occurred to me. i'm already on their side. i'm not a physicalist, which i think is a small-minded position, in that it shows that the person just hasn't gone far enough in thinking about the difficulty of the problem (i.e. the Hardness in Chalmers' terms). physicalism says there is only the objective stuff, and that whatever emergence there is a function of observation - i.e. a system is described by some agent, like a human scientist, and the scientist recognizes that the system has properties that are not included in the components of the system, and yet which flow from the combination of the component qualities - this kind of emergence is more a fact of higher-order recognition on the part of the observer. there is nothing actually there in the system that corresponds to the emergent quality.

still, this is not the new thought. here it is: idealism. not a new thought, but new for me. i've always been much more set against idealism than against physicalism - not agreeing with either, but mostly agreeing with physicalism, just that there's something missing there. but idealism, all wrong. but for the first time, on reading the Koch book, I got a reasonable picture of idealism in my head, and he wasn't even talking about it. the picture is this: say that all reality is subjective, and there is no objective reality at all. this is ultimate panpsychism, that everything is psyche of some level. but what makes a mind special? what is consciousness? why does there seem to be such a divide between the inner substance of our minds and the 'physical' character of the biological brain? i figured it out (in this system): physical qualities are just mental representations. the representations cannot be identical with the things they represent, of course. when i see a dog, the 'seeing' is a set of representations of various aspects of dogness. this seems fine, because i have no reason to be confused about the mismatch between my perception of a dog and the dog itself, because i am not a dog. same goes for rocks, clouds, houses, etc. but when i see a brain, or study a neural system or a neuron, knowing that i am a brain, the mismatch is so pronounced that i can't miss it. i am - my consciousness is - a brain, and yet, this representation of a brain is so fundamentally unlike my consciousness. where, in there, in that thing, does the consciousness emerge? what explains it?

in the idealist view, the explanation is purely psychological, cognitive. there is no actual distinction between mind and brain. the brain i am studying is just as much of a subjective entity as i am, but my representation is vastly inadequate. i can only 'understand' a bit of it at a time, and only in abstractions or formulations or approximations, no matter how clever i am. brains and neurons and other objective, physical, phenomena are only the limited psychological efforts of human consciousness to represent essentially unrepresentable other consciousnesses. the limitation might just be of design - the brain isn't evolved for the purpose of representing or emulating other brains. if it were, if it had equipment making such emulation possible, then observing other brains would be equivalent to observing their consciousnesses. but there may be computational limits - there must be - that make this impossible or very unfeasible. so, if a dualist theory of consciousness like Tononi's is perfected, it may be translatable into idealist terms as explaining the difficulty or intractability of emulating one idealist system on another.

a lot of this sounds very familiar - the idea that we are confused, naturally, into thinking that our percepts or our concepts, which are neural descriptions of the real world, are the real world in a direct sense. there are few direct realists out there, who believe that the dog is the dog - most of us realize that the dog is a mental representation of the dog out there. but we then invoke physicalism in noting that the dog out there is objective and 'real' and physical in a sense that is somehow different from the subjective world of qualia that interfaces between our minds and the world. this is different from what i'm getting at here - in the idealist view, out there and in here are qualitatively the same. qualia everywhere, within and without. the only difference is that our qualia are representational, while non-brain qualia aren't (usually).

this all sounds reminiscent of certain religious ideas, very buddhist or maybe hindu, the idea that everything is ultimately consciousness, and that the 'real' world is an illusion or a cognitive mistake. not saying i believe it, just that it was a sort of realization of a possibility that i had while reading an interesting book this weekend.

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