Posts Tagged ‘clockwork orange’

Consciousness

2017/03/22

I feel like I have a couple of things to add to this ongoing conversation between materialists and dualists about where consciousness comes from, and with identifying/observing consciousness.

I was reading this article about Daniel Dennett and his attempts to cut through the bullshit of the discussion. Seriously, you’re going to have to read that article, I’m not going to explain whole discussion because I’m not familiar enough with all the parts, nor am I studied in psychology. I can give you what I learned from the article. I simply think what I think–and what I think comes from connections I’ve made.

Remember that. That is important.

This will probably sound pretentious, but a lot of Dennett’s appeal to me, because I’ve sort-of thought about them myself. And I’m going to admit I’ve only read about his thoughts through interviews and articles like the one above. But hey, a copy of the Complete Crumb volume 5 just came in for me through Interlibrary Loan, so.

The first idea is that consciousness can’t be observed. Sure, the octopus, the robot, the zombie may all respond to stimuli (from seeing, touching, etc.) but how do we know they have consciousness? I’d argue that consciousness can be observed–we created a word for the concept, after all–by looking at our own.  Each of us agrees that we–that is, that I believe/you believe that I am/you are conscious. For all we know, we could be brains in vats. I mean, the Matrix movies were proof of concept. Point is, we have a definition of consciousness*, so we can observe what it does.

I’ll skip every part of the argument about whether anything’s real and, for the sake of argument, you and I share a reality made up of cars and trees and air and tables and camgirls and “premium” products. You know that you are conscious; you know that you are a human being; you know that I am a human being; blah blah blah. Let’s also skip the discussion of whether anyone can “know” something. For the sake of argument, you can. So conscioussness, as far as I’m concerned, can be observed.

But this is where you get into the materialist/dualist arguments, as well as the physicalist/design stances. Just by observing what conscious things do, we get the thin descriptive concept of consciousness. On the other hand, you’ve got the thin evaluative concept (which kinda has to do with moral stuff? I’m learning) by dint of ideas like choice and right/wrong. That, if I understand correctly, would make consciousness a thick concept (two thins make a thick, evidently. I’m learning).

Okay, so, materialists say that consciousness derives from the physics going on inside your brain (yes, it’s chemicals too, but they and the electricity in your brain move). Dualists think that consciousness must come from something else.** Thus the zombie problem.  But I think this is where the dualists must be conflating consciousness with life, and specifically human life. They seem to want to believe that humans can never be explained, to not believe that we can be reduced to billions of equations. (An aside: zombies don’t fit the current definition of life–no growth; octopi do; a robot could, if we’re talking somewhere around the middle of the movie Bicentennial Man, be composed of cells and maintain homeostasis, but at the moment, I don’t think we’re quite to the point of robots being able to reproduce.) And this where you have to address religion. There’s this clinging to some vague idea of someone smarter, something inexplicable, somewhere else whither comes consciousness.

The physicalist and design/intentional stances refer to the material actions of life forms. I’ll just steal the examples from the article: a protein folds (physicalist), but an eye sees (purpose/design/intent).  I’ve come to hate that latter kind of language. It’s too loaded with intelligent design kind of stuff.  The purpose of spinach is to give you iron; animals evolve into other animals.  I think we need a new kind of passive tense to talk about evolution.  So-and-so evolved the ability to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen? Feh. So-and-so had a happy mutation that created the ability to do so; the ones that didn’t all died out.

Dennett falls on the physicalist side of things, but to read this article it sounds like others just don’t get him. He laughs at the idea of the zombie problem.  And I can get that maybe some problems arise because people use words the wrong way.  Obviously, these philosophers struggle with these concepts, and they struggle with words.  I know you are a human, and that you are conscious, but I don’t know that you think about equality the way I do. Or spark plugs. Or butt plugs.  If you have a different concept of a word, it’s a different path you go down, with different questions. Maybe those questions are the key ones that need to be asked. Or maybe a different/incomplete/misunderstood concept of a word can create a problem that never needed to be asked.

Can God make a rock so big that even He couldn’t lift?  This question assumes that God has physical strength (or maybe I’m misinterpreting how He’d lift it). Theoretically (according to Christianity), there’s a physical (presumably swole) Jesus still hanging around somewhere in the universe, but that’s beside the point.  I’m also concerned about the idea that God would go about making rocks in any way other than the way they’re always made.  If you’re into the idea that God has some sort of Sim City type of software and could put a deer out into space as a goof, and then watch to see how quick it dies, fine. Not my idea of God. My idea of god isn’t that it doesn’t exist, so the question makes even less sense to me.

At any rate, as the article hints at–even those wrong directions can spur better, newer ones. Dennett is quoted as saying that he was able to take the foundations of an article he thoroughly disagreed to make a rebuttal out of it. I’m going to take a page from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity here, where he critiques those who say Christianity is a step back by saying that if you’ve taken the wrong turn on a trail, you must go back to get where you want to go.  Pinpointing where exactly your ideas stray from others was one of the key concepts of my rhetoric and writing classes in college.  I’m often saddened by how other people don’t realize/utilize this, or realize that I ask a lot of questions in an attempt to get to whatever highest level of belief we share. 😦

Anyway. Questions. Problems. How to answer them. Daniel Dennett gets into the idea of different complexities of consciousness. The article only touches on this briefly, I feel, but I really do like Dennett’s idea that lower forms of life have a “sort of” consciousness.  I like this because it has instant connections (remember that word, now) with other thoughts I’ve interacted with.  One is that I’ve encountered that idea before, from a Jewish professor of mine, who said the same thing. I assumed it came from his knowledge and experience of Judaism.  I imagine that the scene in Numbers 22:28-30 where God “opens the mouth” of Balaam’s donkey, letting it ask Balaam why it whips him so much, is somewhere within that view.

Also–and finally we reach connections–I read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress about eight years ago.  A repairman for a giant supercomputer on the Moon finds one day that the computer can now talk; it proceeds to read all of literature and history and calls himself Mycroft.*** The best the repairman could ever guess as to why the computer became conscious is that it must have had far more connections than the human mind.

And, well, think about it.  Our brains are bigger than a dog’s, or than a mouse’s.  In my rudimentary understanding of dendrites and whatnot, human brains should have more connections.  I was going to say that human brains evolved to solve different problems than those that dogs needed to solve, but that’s just bad language.  But they both solved those problems by interacting with their environments.  The predecessor beings that had better abilities at making connections were the ones who solved them; their crotchfruit survived.  Plus, there are more things for the human brain to connect to.  I mean, we have knuckles. Fish don’t have knuckles. Please don’t argue with me on this one; I’d lose for lack of knowledge of philosophical theories.

Anyway, connections, problem solving. Dogs and apes never had to “figure out” the problem of what to do with all the phonemes their tongues could make. Some people, at some point, likely took some mushrooms and came up with a new way to use those sounds and start naming things.  Not even kidding, I truly believe some cavepeople were sitting around chompin’ shrooms and one pointed to a woman and said some ur-word for boobs and probably made a hand motion or pointed at a woman and somebody else laughed at the word and said it too. In this case, the connections were forged by chemicals let loose in the brain in the right amount/right time.

An aside–I’d argue that human evolution has probably all but stopped since we do have so many communications in our brains. As in, diseases that hit you in old age are never going to be selected against. We can mess up our own–if you want to call it this–evolutionary trajectory. I mean, old people got to live longer once somebody(ies) invented/developed the spoon. With that, old people could more easily eat soups or whatever even after they’d lost their teeth.  We take better care of little people, or disabled people, because the connections in our brain gave us the concepts of compassion and that everybody’s human and equal. As Zappa said: “we are the other people / you’re the other people too”.

Some connections are based on interactions we have with the world. You read a certain selection of books, you’ll have different connections than the person who read some other set of books. A jack-of-all trades may be master of none, but may also have an edge in creative problem-solving across domains. If you want to read a hilarious imagining of what would happen if someone instantly had all of Western literature shoved into their brain, I highly recommend The New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott (the book’s last chapter is also one of those the-end-explains-the-whole-book things like the end of JR or A Clockwork Orange.

What I’m getting at is that the more things there are, the more possible connections there are. The more connections there are, the more possibilities arise, within the brain and within groups of people.  As Dennett is quoted in the article, “A whole can be freer than its parts”.

So why is the argument that beauty and love and compassion and art must come from something other than physics just completely unappealing to me?  Because I believe in emergent qualities. Spirals happen in nature, the Perfect Strangers Reviewed post from last week gave me (maybe) insight into Bronson Pinchot because of the emergent theme of shoes.  These are connections I made because of everything I’ve interacted with in terms of that show, explained through psychological concepts I’ve integrated into my thinking. I believe that these qualities can arise through enough of–and the right–connections. It’s also why I can believe that the materialist view is enough to explain the “soul” (which, there you go again with religious “residue”, as the article calls it, but let’s just equate soul with beauty and love and all that), and enough to explain subjective experience. People have made different connections with their environments, and within their own brains. Some people may have made fewer connections than others.

(One could argue here that the implication is that, just as animals are “sort of conscious”, then some humans must be more conscious than others.  Before you go off to the store to buy a do-it-yourself genocide kit, let me remind you that people are people.  There’s a substantive difference between a person’s consciousness and a dog’s. That said, there must be a range of how physical brain connections there might be in the totality of human brains. And… so what? They’re people too, they’re going to mostly behave and think the same way I do.  You could also try to say here that, okay, neither “dumb” people or “smart” people (whether you want to look at it physically or experientially) are using their brains to their full potentials. Yeah, and who ever could? And why would it matter if we do? It’s like those video games where you’re basically assigning points to various aspects of character–charisma, strength, intelligence, etc.–based on what you feel you need to survive and thrive in the environment you’re in.  And in my definition of consciousness, you’d have to just turn every connection on and experience everything to do so. And we’ve thrown a wrench (that’s a tool-making joke, y’all) into our own potential evolution… and now we’re back to how people get off on different tracks because of understanding of words, and how philosophy seems so hard but that’s probably because all the major human brain evolution happened when we were just trying to survive and didn’t have to come up with such specific words and definitions for consciousness.)

But another reason why it’s so easy for me to be a materialist is because there are too many examples in the real world–and mine specifically–to not believe in emergent qualities. You have a color wheel with six colors? Oh, a rainbow with seven?  Well, lookee here, I’ve decided to assign 260 gradations each to three different “basic” colors. Now we’ve got over 17 million distinct colors!  Or look at what they keep doing with ice creams and candies these days.  Ever had a Take 5 candy bar? That bar literally could not exist until all five of those types of snack food had been invented, someone thought about putting them together, and a candy company needed something new to test out.

I write and draw simulacrums of people I created. I have at least 30 characters now. I had particular stories in mind that I wanted to tell when I started making Jimmy Jone. But then my co-writer came up with other characters, and suddenly they had to interact with the ones we already had. Those interactions meant that the characters had to, well, shape themselves to each other, like the ongoing arms race between the common cold and the human immune system. The world I write has grown through these interactions–THESE CONNECTIONS–and I’ve gotten stories out of it that never could have been told without those characters, with those interactions, within those settings, drawn by me, written by me and a couple other guys. There are characters who haven’t interacted yet–but they will, and it will create stories my original ideas never could have. There are characters who have no reason to interact.  Take Darryl (the one who, though some animal magnetism or perfectness of character, has constant sex with a variety of women) and Sappho (the cartoonishly-extreme feminist character).  Darryl has no need to be upset with Sappho; his ego isn’t wrapped up in sex; it’s just his way of relating. Women come to him for sex, he has sex with them and makes a personal connection. Think how much he knows about sex for a 21-year-old!  Think how little I know about it for a 32-year-old!  Sappho, on the other hand, thinks that the women who would have sex with Darryl aren’t the kind of women she wants in her campus feminist group.  In a way, Darryl helps her weed out members with no potential in her eyes.  What would they say to each other if they ever met? Probably at least “hello”, at most each others’ names, and probably just wander away from each other with no awkwardness at all.

And just as the brain can be studied through those who have sustained damage to theirs, you can look at the lack of connections in a created world to see how things should work, or could work better.

Take Perfect Strangers. The show is so insistent on focussing on the relationship of Balki and Cousin Larry, there’s barely potential for any other relationships to have any sort of impact on the show. Balki almost got married just so he could not get married. Balki and Larry have girlfriends just so they can get into fights about how to relate to them or treat them or understand them. There’s only one connection between two cousins.  Other connections are there–to their girlfriends, to their co-workers, to their neighbors–but these are all one way at best. No one has an impact on the cousins that lasts week to week.  And that’s the maddening thing about sitcoms.  Even though there were, what, 7 main characters on Full House, by the end, Danny’s still single, Joey’s still single and not successful in his comedy career, Jesse’s still not successful with his music career, and Michelle is still cute (I guess).

Fuckin’ Joey.

It’s maddening that these characters can’t change because of the sitcom format of the soft reset every week.  After 8 years, these people hadn’t changed any of their behaviors to suit the needs of others. They connect, butt heads, change each other, learn a lesson, and do the same thing a couple of months later.

I think I kind of summed up most of what I’m trying to say seven paragraphs before, so let me try to do it a little better now that I’ve put all my parts in and made connections.**** I’ve been writing both comics and blog posts for years now, which has given me insights into connections, and the emergence they produce (running jokes, new situations, etc.), plus I’ve encountered many of the ideas that Dennett gets into in other places (novels, professors), so the pre-existing connections in my head (that is, my subjective experience) allowed Daniel Dennett’s idea to clarify, modify, and polish some of my own nascent beliefs about human consciousness.

I will see if I can actually get through my to-read list enough this year to read Dennett’s newest book about consciousness.

_______________________________________

*those silly philosophers probably got like fifty by now

**I just learned that the phrase “ghost in the machine”–just like Schroedinger’s Cat–was created to ridicule the idea.  I feel bad for these thinkers who, in their attempts to deny competing ideas, had their phrases hijacked to support their opposition.

***Now you know whey they’re calling that new “AI” Mycroft!

****Everybody scream real loud!