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December 03, 2015


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Hi Brian,

longtime reader here (keep up the good work!) but this is the first post that's prompted me to leave a comment.

I don't hold to any single opinion about the nature of consciousness, but am very interested in the debate - and especially in the enormous room for various sides to misunderstand what the other sides are saying... and as someone who is at least sympathetic to the notion that there is a 'hard problem' - and that it's well-named - I often get the feeling that it's one of the arguments that's most often subtly missed by some of the other camps (of course, the reverse may often be true as well, which is what makes this whole shebang so knotted, and much fun!)

Anyhoo - my take on the 'hard problem' is most easily illustrated by a thought-experiment:

Consider a scenario in which 'consciousness' - in the sense of the subjectively-felt sense of 'what it's like to be' - has been explained, in terms of mechanism, pattern, behaviour etc.
- Assuming this is possible - which it might indeed be - the question is: how do you go about proving it?
If you simply build a mechanism or patterned system - in whatever medium will support the patterns of information flow such that the system functions according to the theories - then we can perhaps assume that the machine, or whatever, is 'conscious' - but the only way to attempt to prove that is through some kind of Turing test. I.e. we, the judges, are still external to the 'what it is like to be' that the machine supposedly experiences.

On the other hand, one could argue that if the theory of consciousness is sufficiently advanced to produce such a mechanism, then perhaps that same mechanism (independent to some extent from the actual substrate upon which it runs - since it would be the specific patterned processes that matter, not the 'hardware' or 'wetware' that supports those processes, that matters) could be uploaded into the brain of a 'consciousness tester' as a program - a virtual machine - which would be intended to run on the neural substrate of the 'tester' in a manner analogous to how a Mac, say, can run an emulation of a Windows computer.

The idea would be that if such a patterned program does produce an actual consciousness, then the 'tester' would perhaps be able to experience that consciousness directly, 'from within'.

But again, there is a problem - or two, depending on how the situation is approached.

i) if an experience of consciousness is indeed taken part in, or directly witnessed, by the 'tester', there's no way to tell whether this is just a portion of the already-existing subjective sense of consciousness of the 'tester' that has been recruited by the subsystem or program: effectively, an existing 'subjective substrate' that is looking through the (purely mechanical) subsystem as an eye through a shaped lens - or, on the contrary, whether that 'consciousness' is indeed a separate 'entity' that can be 'experienced' from the inside in some manner that presumably does not supplant the supposedly preexisting consciousness of that system.

ii) on the other hand, there's the much more prosaic problem associated with taking any program into any larger information-processing system: how will it act once it's released? After all, whether or not there is anything that it is 'like to be' that pattern, it might nevertheless take over some or all of the host patterning. I'm reminded of 'Count Zero' by William Gibson, in which people end up being infected by computer programs that 'think' they are Vodoun Loa, and hence behave accordingly. These people end up acting as if possessed by gods - the question is whether they really are possessed by any genuinely conscious entities, or whether they have instead effectively become zombies - emptied shells controlled, puppet-like, by 'dumb' programs.

Apologies for the somewhat lengthy attempt to explain what I'm getting at - my point is really that the 'mysterian' camp seems to me to be extremely well-justified when the issue of 'proof' of consciousness is examined - only because there is no way, as far as we can tell, to 'put on' another entity's subjective experience and so 'check' that it really exists or not - and therefore, any statement that such-and-such a patterned system is conscious seems, to me, to be always doomed to be an act of faith. Of belief. Hence, mysterianism.

I have to say that I think what I've said here is really a defence of a kind of 'weak mysterianism' - i.e. it doesn't suggest that the mechanisms that go to generate consciousness are necessarily forever unknowable; rather, it suggests that the final decision as to whether or not these mechanisms actually do produce an 'interiority', a feeling of 'what it is like to be' that system, will remain forever an act of faith.

To me, the 'hard problem' seems not only hard; when stated in the above form, it appears to be intrinsically insoluble. It's the same as the 'being me, not being someone else' problem, if you like. I've never experienced being anyone else... at least, I don't think I have. But if I did, would I be 'me', experiencing someone else? Or would 'I' just be someone else? In which case, how could 'I' possibly remember the experience?

Why the focus on "particles." Matter can be seen both as a particle and a wave, and I think it's the interfering wave patterns that hold more promise as the substrate of consciousness.

The reason is that particles are additive and so more particles should be more conscious, which is clearly not so. But waves either add or subtract from each other, and waves have to be in phase to add up--as does happen in the brain.

Look to brain waves, not brain particles, as the basis of consciousness.


I read today

Life is what happens to you, . . while you'r busy making other plans

Might be from RUMI


@ 777 - I think that was John Lennon!

@ Rick Heller - I'm kind of inclined to agree with you - in the sense that such a view also lends itself to the idea that in a certain sense the mind exists in the same way that music exists: viewed in one way, music is 'nothing but' vibrations; sounds... but viewed another way - by 'getting into' the music (and what does that really mean? Perhaps a kind of entrainment, a merging-with?) it can be an entire way of feeling, being, seeing... The article linked to below makes a point similar to that suggested by Douglas Hofstadter - than music is in some way maybe the best analogue of the 'soul' that we can have - but of course, here we're not talking about a metaphysical, eternal entity, but rather a dynamic pattern that requires some kind of physical substrate in order to exist - much like Max Tegmark is suggesting consciousness might be...


On the other hand, I'm not sure that the particle/wave issue is really an issue, at the deepest level: a particle can be viewed as a standing-wave phenomenon. Just like a steady, sinusoidal wave between 20Hz and 20,000Hz can be thought of as 'a note'- a specific vibrational pattern that remains relatively stable in spacetime - so a particle can be thought of as a specific patterned process in some number of dimensions... And just as music is built out of 'notes' - though those notes themselves are also patterned processes - so I don't have a problem with the idea that - at some level of explanation - a mind could be made out of 'particles' - though at a deeper level, perhaps those particles themselves are also patterned processes.

(How far down might the patterning go, I wonder?)

I realize before that I didn't actually mention Max Tegmark's explanation at all... I actually thought it was really excellent - I have no problem with the idea of minds being emergent phenomena; my point was really more to highlight that regardless of the explanations we come up with, when it comes to subjective experience it seems to me that the final decision as to whether any system is conscious must remain, quite literally, an act of faith, of belief. Just in the same way that I believe (and I do!) that other people I meet day-to-day are genuinely conscious beings.

I guess maybe that was my real point in my first comment: as socialized humans (unless we're psychopathic solipsists!) we are all necessarily 'believers' - without 100% adequate proof of our belief - in that our 'theories of mind', when applied to other people (our belief that other people, animals... etc. are also conscious beings) necessarily remains forever a theory that cannot be proven conclusively by any means.

@Pazuzu said with force :
Just in the same way that I believe (and I do!) that other people I meet day-to-day are genuinely conscious beings. ""

and animals

What is strange in solipsism while everybody sees
that one seqoia grain is a continent full of them
but I agree that it's silly for that grain to say he s the forest

However most Philosophers ( the vegetarians under them )
acclaimed solopism

Isn't it cool
You start with admiring music, love it, . . can't forget it
hear the songs day and night, be absorbed in it,
it never stops; it always grows

but one has to be somewhat interested <3


Quoting Pazuzu: "I've never experienced being anyone else... "
Neither have "i", ............neither being in, or out of the body. I have definitely "viewed" other human "images" of humans different from my self, as the present Jim, but "i" have no doubt, the very same Consciousness that is me as Jim, now, was the same in those other human images i viewed during either dreams, or OBEs. The only difference is, I always bring all of my up to date memories and experiences with me, no matter how far back i travel in OBEs. I have even looked at my self in a mirror while having an OBE, and wanted to see if i was Jim, or some else, and the mirror image was a totally different Male image than Jim! I was holding a hand mirror behind my head to see if I had the same bald spot i had during that time as Jim. Sure enough, I had it, but the Male image was not Jim, but must have been a past life that the same Consciousness, ,....i.e. Knotted mind/soul was experiencing life in during another time. I also was flying over my neighborhood, and wondered if I was a bird, but then stretched out my arms, and began to fly like Superman. I could even lean right or left, and control steering my Astral Vehicle , but many times, crashed in to walls or roofs, but went right through! My Consciousness was entertaining me while "Out of Brain!" :-)
Jim Sutherland, reporting from some where off the Coast of New Zealand. ( Physical Body of Jim) Astral Jim has checked on Home Base, Virginia nightly.

Pazuzu, a belated comment on your most interesting comment...

I find it difficult to add much to what you've said, because you said it so well. Yes, from a certain point of view "mysterianism" does seem like a tough nut to crack. The subjective side of consciousness does indeed seem to be a mystery to anybody but the subject who is conscious.

My intuitive reactions to your comment may not make much sense to anybody but me. But, hey, that's what we're talking about here -- subjectivity.

First, the problem of attributing consciousness to a computer or other person seems to be the same in regards to our own self. How does someone else know that I am conscious? There's no way to tell. Going further... How do I know that I am conscious? Is there any way to tell?

What I'm getting at here is the definition/meaning of "consciousness." We assume we know what the word means, but I have the feeling that what we mean by it is culturally determined, not necessarily reality determined.

This is the case with everything, I suppose. But the problem is deeper with "consciousness," because this supposedly is how we come to know about everything else. What is the "quantum world"? It does seem to exist objectively. But I suspect that alien beings might view "quantum world" much differently than we do.

Can the same be true of "consciousness"? We tend to assume that this is a special state, something that either exists or doesn't exist. But wiser minds than mine have argued that consciousness could be akin to the "wetness" of water. Water is H2O. Wetness is just what water is. Wetness is how we humans describe the feel of water. But wetness and water really are the same thing.

Likewise (perhaps), a complex brain has certain attributes. We call one of them, "consciousness." However, this seems to just be what a complex brain with gobs of interconnections feels like to us humans. It isn't anything separate and distinct, just as wetness isn't separate and distinct from water. Consciousness is what brains do whey they are complexly configured in a certain way.

So I still resonate with the basic thrust of this post. It may not be correct. Or it may be. Intuitively I feel like we're more in the realm of point-of-view here, than in the realm of what-is-truly-real.

It'd be crazy for me to search for the meaning of "movement" when this is just what happens when an object is in motion. Maybe we humans are abstracting "consciousness" as something extra, when it is better viewed as just what complex information feels like to some types of brains (or more generally, information processors).

Hi Brian,

I too think we're probably in the realm of point-of-view here, rather than in the realm of what-is-truly-real... partly that's what makes the conversation about consciousness so ongoing and interesting I think. I found myself nodding as I read through your comment, and basically I agree with all the points you make - while at the same time still seeing no way out of the continual 'at bottom' need for some kind of 'undefined' ground (not necessarily in a cosmic, Ground-of-Being kind of way, but just in the sense that there is something that is still being assumed - though not necessarily acknowledged explicitly) as a kind of 'container' or preliminary situation within which all discussions of consciousness are still occurring.

I guess it's what I'd raise in response to e.g. the 'wetness' analogy: sure, water is only 'wet' when encountered above a certain level of resolution - i.e. trillions of H2O molecules together exhibit a macrostate that is qualitatively 'wet' - an emergent property that single molecules themselves do not possess. But that 'wetness' itself is only experienced by an observer who is herself operating at a massively macromolecular level... Whether or not it's even possible to have an observer who can observe and be aware of observing (be 'conscious'?) at the molecular level, it's still the case that 'wetness' as an emergent property is an experience that a conscious entity has when encountering water molecules in sufficient quantities... and thus 'wetness' does not exist objectively. Maybe this turns into just another way of approaching the 'qualia' debate, but here my point is that still we have some kind of property - 'wetness' - coming into being in the interaction of one macromolecular bundle of stuff (water) with another (human observer) - the latter being organized in such a way that she somehow 'feels' the wetness... And we're back to what it is that 'feels' or experiences, once again...

If I say 'wetness is the way water feels', though, I'm obviously stating a truism - it doesn't actually communicate anything about what it is to 'feel' - let alone what it is to feel water. And the structure of that statement is identical to the structure of the heading of this post: 'consciousness is the way information feels'... The big difference there is that the post heading can also be taken to imply (and I think is meant to) that it is information itself that is doing the feeling. Which is somewhat bizarre to me... Do we attribute the ability to feel to water itself? If not, how much stranger it is to attribute the ability to feel to something as extraordinarily abstract as information (which, we have to remember, is also an abstract concept - a human-brain-mind-constructed idea, rather than something existing independently and objectively 'out there').

So the blog post seems to be implying that an idea can feel! Interpreted that way, that's way beyond anthropomorphism!

I'm only playing here ;) just recontextualizing one ostensible 'context' (information) as a subset of what was previously considered in terms of 'detail' (subjective experience).

Re: the notion of consciousness being something akin to e.g. 'movement' - I quite agree, and, like 'energy', 'consciousness' may be only a sometimes-convenient label we use to refer to a certain kind of process... but the difference here is still a special one: just as 'movement' is an abstraction, a label, that refers to something outside itself, so 'consciousness' is an abstract label... but in the latter case it refers seemingly to itself. A process that labels itself, and incorporates that label as an informational 'counter' in its own dynamic patterning? That's a pretty interesting, unique, and specific kind of behaviour, and strikes me as a whole step beyond 'simple' emergence; here we're seemingly talking about an emergent property that can then somehow interact with a counter that represents that (reified) emergent property itself.

I'm probably just meandering too much now; this is just where the 'rabbit-hole' seems to head, when I start thinking about this stuff too much!

Really, I'm not even sure such an enquiry has any 'ending' (after all, you keep up a pretty regular blog, and issues of consciousness, 'soul'/self or lack thereof etc. keep coming up in new guises - it never gets boring!) And I have no problem with that, since it all strikes me as another game that information/our minds/brains/ play - conversations and thoughts have their own patterns and shapes just like river networks and trees... My pragmatic approach - and it's getting increasingly that way as I get older - is just to remember to try to enjoy the process as it unfolds - since if 'I' am just another something the Universe is doing, then life gets a whole lot more river-like, and a lot less worrisome.


(Sorry about this addition to an already-long comment - I guess the issue just doesn't go away once I get the bit between my 'teeth!)

- The thing that still comes back to tap me on the shoulder (and grin like some annoying demon) is linked to the use of those two words: 'feels like'. It's not the labelling of that 'feeling' - the attribution of 'consciousness' - that I'm getting at with my interpretation of mysterianism not the 'finger'; it's the underlying feeling itself: the 'moon'. That's the nub that seems so liquid-like it keeps slipping through my attempts to even point at it, let alone grasp it.

Subjectivity itself - the underlying feeling, whether or not it self-labels as 'consciousness'. The private singularity of the process that's still there, being-doing-feeling, even in states when the sense of 'I' drops briefly away. That's what I think I'm getting at when I refer to the notion of some assumed, though usually implicit, 'ground' that doesn't even get touched by the debate about consciousness. And here I'm specifically not talking about whether or not that's something 'special' or not in terms of the idea of it - here I'm referring to the actual, experiential specialness of its 'uniqueness-to-me-ness'.

It's not just the idea of a self-labelling process that makes it special; it's that the self-labelling process that labels itself 'me' is - to itself - absolutely unique. Slippery to be sure, but that point - 'to itself' - is the real 'hard' one. Saying that consciousness is the way information 'feels' wraps up the entire debate in one word - 'feels' - and then effectively ignores it completely. The 'hard problem' is right there, in that one word, a kind of black box that serves to make the sentence 'make sense', yet seems to be impossible to actually unpack meaningfully.

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