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December 01, 2010

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Imagine a Papua New Guinea native who is introduced to automobiles for the first time. He is amazed by them. What particularly interests him is the Noisemaker under the hood. Perhaps, he thinks, it is logically possible to construct absolutely identical cars (even down to their atomic states, though he doesn't know what those are) which *don't* make Noise. He proceeds to write philosophical tracts about these Noiseless cars. There must be some extra-physical quantity responsible for Noise, he reasons, because it is logically possible to imagine cars which make no Noise.

See the problem? He doesn't understand how cars work, yet he believes he has the license to philosophize about them, constructing impossible scenarios while thinking he's saying something philosophically deep.

I have no idea why Chalmers believes the logical possibility of these zombies is "obvious". It's just an assumption without any grounding in reality. Yes, "But what if!!!" But what if lots of things. What if unicorns, The Force, and the Hogwarts School are real? In order to get anywhere we have to base our assumptions on good evidence. Occam's razor tells us what to do with the rest.

I just realized that I should have used Whirring instead of Noise in the above analogy. The Papua New Guinean knows about noise; it's the particular Whirring of the car engine which interests him.

We are of course talking about combustion engine cars and their identical Whirringless clones. For the sake of argument disregard electric cars and the like.

Disagreeable George, I think the difference between your whirring engine analogy and Chalmers' zombies is this:

Supervenience, which is a fancy way of talking about cause and effect, or determination. Chalmers says that consciousness is non-reducible to physical causes because you can specify all the causes in a brain, and logically not end up with consciousness.

Meaning, there is no way to be sure a physical system is conscious from all of the material inputs, outputs, and functional connections. However, if someone analyzed a car engine, it would be possible to predict that sound would be a part of its functioning.

This part does this, that part does that; all that doing creates friction, sound waves, whatever -- I'm not a sound expert, nor particularly mechanical. My point is that an expert can study the schematics of a physical system and be able to predict quite accurately whether it will be silent or make sound.

So it isn't really logically possible to imagine cars without noise, unless the cars are very physically different from current cars. Chalmers isn't talking about imagination when he refers to non-conscious zombies; he's referring to the logical possibility of a physical being that acts just like us, but without consciousness.

He can't think of any reason why this is impossible, and I agree. But a car engine that doesn't make any noise -- this contradicts physical facts.

Brian, here is an overview of the analogy:

New Guinean / us

car / human

engine / brain

whirring / consciousness

The New Guinean doesn't understand whirring. / We don't understand consciousness.

The New Guinean doesn't even have a solid description of whirring (he doesn't know about sound waves). / We have don't even have a solid description of consciousness.

The New Guinean says that because he can imagine a Whirringless car, a Whirringless car is therefore logically possible. / We say that because we can imagine a Consciousless zombie, a Consciousless zombie is therefore logically possible.

The New Guinean's ignorance about cars bolsters his certainty that engines and Whirring are logically independent. / Our ignorance about humans bolsters our certainty that brains and Consciousness are logically independent.

You've jumped over the analogy by saying that one could predict that an engine will produce sound waves. No, we are the Papua New Guinean. We don't understand the phenomenon of sound waves, so the idea of predicting a very specific waveform would be an incomprehensible one. We don't even understand engines.

"But a car engine that doesn't make any noise -- this contradicts physical facts."

Yes, and what mistake did the Papua New Guinean make? His default position should have been that whirring and engines are intertwined phenomenon. He didn't have any evidence for believing the two can be separated arbitrarily.

Shouldn't the default position be that consciousness and brains are intertwined? What evidence suggests they can be separated?

Disagreeable George, the bottom line seems to be that the hard problem of consciousness remains unsolved. No one knows why neurological processing in the brain is accompanied by an experienced inner life, a.k.a. consciousness.

All we have are theories, ideas, hypotheses. Chalmers presents his in the book I've been talking about; other people present theirs; further research and associated philosophizing may lead to an answer to the hard problem one day. Or, not.

Here's how Chalmers addresses the problem in his introduction:

"This might be seen as a Great Divide in the study of consciousness. If you hold that an answer to the 'easy' problems explains everything that needs to be explained, then you get one sort of theory; if you hold that there is a further 'hard' problem, then you get another.

After a point, it is difficult to argue across this divide, and discussions are often reduced to table pounding. To me, it seems obvious that there is something further that needs explaining here; to others, it seems acceptable that there is not... We may simply have to live with this basic division."

I like Chalmers' approach, but it may not appeal to you. That's fine. I feel like I understand the broad outlines of Chalmers' arguments, but they're philosophically subtle. A simple argument, though, involves the immediacy of conscious experience, which is utterly unlike every other sort of experience.

Meaning, my sense of being aware is very different from hearing an engine noise. I can question whether the noise is real, but not that my awareness is real. So analogies have to be carefully constructed when it comes to consciousness -- one reason why the hard problem is so hard. We're studying the entity that is doing the studying.

Brian, now you are criss-crossing the two sides of the analogy. To the Papua New Guinean, the whirring is an unknown. In order for the analogy to have any meaning, the New Guinean cannot have inside information on what the whirring "really" is, or even how to cogently describe it. The whirring represents something he doesn't understand, nothing more. From the other side of the analogy, we are in the same position with respect to consciousness.

When I discuss evolution with creationists I'll usually present a reasonable argument and ask them what is wrong with the argument. Invariably, they will ignore my question and proceed to "reset" the conversation to the "big picture", whereupon they talk about God or sin or morality, none of which are related to the simple question I asked them (often having to do with ring species http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_species ).

I'm afraid something similar has just happened here. The "bottom line" of the "hard problem" is not particularly related to the question I asked. My question is about what assumptions are reasonable in the face of non-evidence. You could replace Chalmers' arguments with anything based on an arbitrary assumption.

Furthermore this is not a merely matter of opinion--of "You have your approach, I have mine." If I thought my argument was entirely subjective then I wouldn't have bothered making it. I think there is an objective mistake being made here. And a simple one.

We both agree that the Papua New Guinean made a mistake. Think about that mistake and how he made it. Why aren't you making the same mistake? I've shown the parallels in detail. Please read my previous comment again, which ended with the unanswered question: Shouldn't the default position be that consciousness and brains are intertwined? What evidence suggests they can be separated? I'm not just asking a rhetorical question--I want to know how you reconcile that.

I am honestly interested in dialectic here. I am pointing to an objective issue which I believe you should consider. If you want to punt with "You have my ideas, I have mine" then OK, but that has never been a satisfying conclusion to any discussion. It certainly runs against the Socratic ideal.

Disagreeable George, I think I've said my piece on this subject. We can simply agree to disagree. Have you read Chalmers' book? (not just a summary)

If not, I invite you to. If you have, I invite you to reread some or all of it. I think you have some mistaken impressions of it. Chalmers clearly says that brains and consciousness are intertwined. But "all we know is that consciousness arises from the physical somehow, but we do not know in virtue of what physical processes it so arises."

Neither of us knows what the nature of consciousness is. Nobody does. All we do is share our ideas and opinions. I've done that in a couple of posts, and some comments. Thanks for sharing your own.

Like Chalmers said in the quote I shared above, there comes a point where people simply see the hard problem of consciousness differently, and no amount of discussion can bridge that gap of differing ways of looking at how we look at life.

Brian, well I'll just reiterate that my point isn't even about consciousness in particular or the hard problem in particular. As I said, you can replace Chalmers' argument with any claim that entails an arbitrary assumption. My argument, unchanged, would still be a valid objection. It addresses a clear mistake in reasoning, shown in the Papuan New Guinean example. I am addressing this mistake, which can be made in most any context. My point is a generic one.

I resent that you're misconstruing my response as push-back against hard problem, since I've repeatedly explained that I'm not even addressing that. I am pointing to a simple mistake in reasoning.

I have no idea why Chalmers believes the logical possibility of these zombies is "obvious". It's just an assumption without any grounding in reality. Yes, "But what if!!!" But what if lots of things. What if unicorns, The Force, and the Hogwarts School are real? In order to get anywhere we have to base our assumptions on good evidence.
...

I believe "the consciousness of being aware" though is a primal, suigeneris phenomenon. It just is. It's unlike fantasies of unicorns, Hogwarts, and all the meanderings of thought itself.

I agree with Chalmers that zombies are possible because we channel our "inner zombie" all the time. We may speak eloquently, win marathons, reason out conundrums. But, strangely, we can and usually do do this on auto-pilot or just with the focus and intensity of the tunnel-visioned. We're completely rapt in one-pointed action. And those feats are derivatives of our background, education, and experience. The channeled inner zombie may look and seem like the real person for all intents and purposes. Yet, in rare moments, we sense that the inner zombie is the actor and know there's a separation. We're aware of being aware. It's not a derivative of anything - it just is.

Shouldn't the default position be that consciousness and brains are intertwined? What evidence suggests they can be separated?

Undoubtedly, but you may keep bashing into a wall with the default position.

Disagreeable George - your moniker is well-chosen.

I believe "the consciousness of being aware" though is a primal, suigeneris phenomenon. It just is. It's unlike fantasies of unicorns, Hogwarts, and all the meanderings of thought itself.

This shows a rather fundamental misunderstanding. I'm obviously not denying that our experience exists. That's not the thing being likened to unicorns and Hogwarts. What does have as much evidence as unicorns and Hogwarts is the belief that experience and brains are independent -- that you can have brains without experience (zombies).

The rest of your comment seems to suggest that zombies possess the rapt attention of peak nondual experience. I guess a zombie would be a permanent Zen master in this case. Whatever you mean here, it is far afield from the definition used by Chalmers and this thread.

Chalmers clearly says that brains and consciousness are intertwined.

Except that he doesn't say that; indeed, his belief in the logical possibility of zombies suggests the opposite. A zombie means a brain without consciousness, like an internal combustion engine that doesn't make a sound.

Disagreeable George, you've misinterpreted Chalmers. This is one of the subtleties in his book that is easily missed.

A logical possibility is different from a natural possibility. In the physical universe, brains and consciousness always are intertwined. But this doesn't mean that consciousness is physical.

Chalmers posits that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, like space, time, electric charge, and such. We only are aware of space because of physical objects. That is, space is dependent on the physical to manifest.

But can we conclude that space is physical? In the same fashion, can we conclude that consciousness is physical, since it also requires materiality to manifest?

If you say that space is physical, point to it. Demonstrate the matter/energy that makes up space.

This isn't possible. That's why space (or space/time) is considered to be a fundamental property of the universe. For now, at least. Maybe superstrings or branes or something are more fundamental. But this would just move the fundamental to another level.

Some fundamental aspects of the universe can't be reduced to other aspects. This is one of Chalmers main points. For some good reasons, he sees consciousness as fundamental.

Hope this explains why Chalmers doesn't really say that it is possible for a brain to be zombie like without consciousness. This won't happen in the physical world. My reading of Chalmers is that he uses the zombie metaphor to illustrate the logical possibility of the physical world existing without consciousness, even though it doesn't.

(Meaning, consciousness can be an aspect of the universe, just not a physical aspect -- in the same sense as space/time is a immaterial aspect of the universe.)

Brian, I'm well aware that Chalmers' zombies live in a different universe, one in which the property of consciousness is not present. I am confident that I have not misinterpreted Chalmers. On the other hand you have likely misinterpreted me (again) because your response (again) does not address my argument. My point boils down to simply identifying a cognitive mistake.

So, one more time for good measure:

A Papua New Guinea native encounters a (combustion engine) car for the first time. After close examination he concludes that the car possesses a special property of the universe called Whirringness. The reason the car makes such an alien sound is because it has Whirringness. He can't point to it, so it's not physical. He also suspects Whirringness is what enables it to move without legs, a feat which would otherwise be impossible. He can imagine a universe in which cars do not have Whirringness, and this means that our universe comes specially equipped with the non-physical property of Whirringness.

* Is a Whirringless internal combustion engine a logical possiblility? Is it a natural possibility? Explain the distinction. Presumably you would employ your understanding of sound and sound waves to answer this question, but what if you didn't possess that understanding?

* What principles could the New Guinean have employed which would have prevented his erroneous conclusion? Should those same principles apply to you and me?

* What makes the car/engine/whirring case any different than our own human/brain/consciousness case? Aren't we prone to make the same mistake, given our total lack of understanding of it? Why should we employ the same standard of reasoning which lead the New Guinean down the wrong path?

The rest of your comment seems to suggest that zombies possess the rapt attention of peak nondual experience. I guess a zombie would be a permanent Zen master in this case. Whatever you mean here, it is far afield from the definition used by Chalmers and this thread.

Maybe I was mangling Chalmers but I think it's important to shed the popular, pejorative sense of the word "zombie". My read is that it's certainly not genius or madness or anything in between. It's just the absence of awareness/consciousness.

I believe there are momentary portals when we sense our own consciousness as something unique that can't be explained in terms of something else. Most of the time we're not peeking through the portal but we're obviously still conscious and functioning on various levels. Channeling my "inner zombie" certainly doesn't mean walking off a cliff. It's just that at those times, I don't feel intimately in contact with that sense of my own consciousness. However difficult to understand, I think consciousness just "is" and you can't reach back out of the rabbit hole for an explanation in materiality.

Disagreeable George, the problem with your analogy is that there is a correct answer to the question of whether a car engine has Whirringness or not. That's why you can say that the native is wrong.

The reason we know the native is wrong is because the physical workings of a car engine can be examined by a knowledgeable person, namely someone like you or me, who can demonstrate that physical stuff produces physical sound.

But in the case of consciousness no one can do this. This is why there is a "hard problem" of consciousness.

So you have your opinion of what consciousness is (something physical), and Chalmers has his opinion (something natural, but immaterial). There's no way to tell who is right, or if anybody is right.

If you have proof of what consciousness is, a Nobel prize awaits you. If not, you're just like everybody else -- clueless about the nature of consciousness, but filled with a strong opinion, just like the native.

In cases like this, as I often say on this blog, saying "I believe, but I don't know for sure" is the wisest stance to take. That's my stance about consciousness. I assume it is yours as well, unless you have that Nobel prize-to-be proof.

As noted before, we can agree to disagree, acknowledging that all we are talking about are beliefs when it comes to consciousness. Many hypotheses, none proven.

Brian, there's a communication problem here because you have repeated the same misunderstanding I just addressed. I said,

You've jumped over the analogy by saying that one could predict that an engine will produce sound waves. No, we are the Papua New Guinean. We don't understand the phenomenon of sound waves, so the idea of predicting a very specific waveform would be an incomprehensible one. We don't even understand engines.

The New Guinean's mistake has nothing to do with the fact that we happen to know how Whirring works. If we had no explanation for Whirring then the New Guinean still made a mistake! This is my point. The New Guinean's methodology is poor.

The New Guinean is wrong because he introduced an arbitrary entity for which there is no evidence, not because we happen to know that he is wrong.

The analogy is not the following: whirring has an explanation, therefore consciousness has an explanation. I've said several times now that I'm not even talking about consciousness in particular. I'm not making a positive assertion. I've said several times that my argument is purely based upon identifying a mistake in reasoning.

Suppose I believe that a ceramic teapot is in orbit around Mars. "I believe, but I don't know for sure," I say. What is wrong with this scenario? When you challenge me on this belief I respond, "You have your non-teapot belief, I have my teapot belief; we can agree to disagree." No, these two ideas are not on equal footing. One postulates an arbitrary entity without evidence, and one refrains from doing so. The latter is more reasonable, and objectively so.

Would you please consider the questions I asked previously? In so doing you might better understand what I'm talking about.

Goddamnit there seems to be an influx of Georges. I hate changing my nick, I was the original George and have been the diagreeable one at least with tAo for the past several months, now what? Oh catastrophe.

Lets say that in the (far) future a robot is built that is designed and programmed (with the most advanced computer technology) to simulate a human in every conceivable regard. This robot can distinguish and react to complex and subtle information - colors, temperature, complex shapes, shades, textures, distances etc. The technology is so advanced that the robot can respond not only to syntax but also to complex semantics... as I said, it is like a human in every conceivable way. In fact its 'engine room' is modeled on the human brain - neurons, synaptic connections etc. (except that it is made of silicone.)

Would the sum of its complex structures and interrelations add up to consciousness? This is a big question facing consciousness studies.

The alternative is that it remains 'in the dark' so to speak - it has no internal subjectivity/qualia - in other words a zombie.

George, you are the vivid original. All other "George's" are pale imitations. As the Grand Ruler of This Blog, I hereby bestow upon you the title of Original George for perpetuity.

This means that you can, and should, sign your comments as simply "George," and that anyone else who does so will be condemned for eternity in a fashion that I am unwilling to enumerate explicitly for fear of traumatizing all the other George's out there.

Brian,
tank u kindly.
George (aka Georgey Porgy)

Ok,

Now, i'm confused!!!! Which "George" is the regular poster, that has been around for a year or more. He is one of the regulars.

I have to confess I am a little disappointed that my point does not appear to be even comprehended, much less considered. It's not complex and I'm surprised that it totally failed to connect. That sort of thing happens when I converse with creationists, whose presuppositions are so strong that contrary notions simply bounce off their protective cognitive barriers.

Brian, I think the honest thing to do is to admit that your position is simply a presupposition. Some people believe in homeopathy, some believe in the healing powers of crystals, and yet others believe in a non-physical goo that gloms onto brains and makes them conscious. If you can describe an experiment which distinguishes this idea from The Force or New Age "vibrations" or whatever, then please tell us. Otherwise it's just another belief without evidence.

This is comparable to Intelligent Design, where one creates a nondescript entity to fill in the holes of our knowledge. That we don't understand something like consciousness does entitle us to start inventing entities out of the blue which are not backed by evidence. Well you're entitled to do so, but at the cost of abandoning a certain level of reasonableness; your peers become Deepak Chopra and JZ Knight.

It's not a belief. It's a hypothesis. Maybe you didn't read my last paragraph:

"Currently there aren't answers to these questions. Maybe there never will be. All we can do is keep exploring the mysteries of consciousness, which are as close to us as whatever you and I are aware of at this very moment."

If you disagree with Chalmers' considering his hypothesis, take up your objections with him. But science makes progress by studying unanswered questions, not assuming an unproven possible answer is true.

Brian, I counted six times above where I restate that I am pointing out a cognitive mistake. Really I am amazed that I cannot connect with this idea (again, this only tends to happen with creationists). Playing a semantic game with the words "belief" and "hypothesis" is quite off the mark. In this context the name doesn't matter a bit. Calling it a hypothesis instead of a belief does not change the underlying mistake.

Are you an Intelligent Design advocate? Why not? We don't know much about the origin of life; what's wrong with the hypothesis that God did it? Or perhaps The Force is responsible, or some New Agey "vibrations"? What's wrong with advancing any of those hypotheses?

Now apply the above questions to these Chalmers ideas. That should elucidate the problem. However based on the course of this thread you're likely to ignore those questions and allow the counterpoint to bounce off again.

I'm glad you mentioned scientific progress, because science never advances by inserting arbitrary entities lacking a shred of evidence into our knowledge gaps. Indeed, that is a surefire way to halt progress.

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