Archive for the ‘consciousness’ Category

The Separateness of Persons

Monday, January 16th, 2012

We are born into this world profoundly alone, our strange, unbounded minds trapped in our ordinary, earthwormy bodies—the condition that led Nietzche to refer to us, wonderingly, as “hybrids of plants and of ghosts.” We spend our lives trying to overcome this fundamental separation, but we can never entirely surmount it. Try as we might, we can’t gain direct access to other people’s inner worlds—to their thoughts and feelings, their private histories, their secret desires, their deepest beliefs. Nor can we grant them direct access to our own. [Schulz, 2010, p 252]

The feeling of separateness from other people, so eloquently expressed by Kathryn Schulz in her book, Being Wrong, is rooted in a theory which almost all of us learn at our mother’s knee between the ages of three and six—the theory of other minds.

Human beings are self-conscious creatures. Your brain supports a model of the world, part of which is a model of yourself. When you were around four, your self-model became sophisticated enough to support a secondary, higher-level model—a model of your model of the world, and within that, a model of your model of yourself. You began to draw the subjective-objective distinction. Or to put it more simply, as Kathryn Schulz has, you realized you could be wrong about things. Reality was not always the way you perceived and believed it to be. (more…)

Kolak: I Am You

Friday, September 30th, 2011

People who think deeply about the puzzle cases of personal identity have come up with a variety of bold and radical responses. Like Alexander hacking through the Gordian knot, Parfit wielded an analytical scalpel to divide personal identity from what matters in personal survival, reaching the conclusion that ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and replaced by a replica. Robert Nozick was so impressed by the difficulties posed by fission cases that he decided personal identity must depend on extrinsic factors: you are identical to whatever person is your closest continuer at any future time, a thesis with the odd consequence that, if your closest continuer after fission dies, you may suddenly find yourself being someone who until that time was someone else, your second-closest continuer. David Lewis’ solution to was to abandon the tried-and-true principle that persons can be counted by counting heads. Since there are two persons after fission, there were two all along, even though, before fission, they occupied the same body and were unaware of their duality. (Bizarre though it sounds, I support Lewis’ solution as one that inflicts the least damage to the traditional concept of a person.) Thomas Metzinger’s analysis led him to conclude that “no such things as selves exist in the world.”

In his book, I am You, Daniel Kolak offers yet another radical theory of personal identity: There is only one person, and that person is all of us.  What are commonly understood to be boundaries between individuals, he says, do not “merit the metaphysical significance ordinarily accorded to them.”

Our borders do not signify boundaries between persons. We are all the same person. [Kolak, 2010, p 1] (more…)

Is the Google Car Conscious? Ethics and Artificial Minds

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

As a software developer, I am attracted by Thomas Metzinger’s functional level of description because it can be read as a high-level functional specification for consciousness and the self.  If someone could build an artificial system that meets the specification, he or she would have created a conscious being!   That would certainly be an interesting project.  Perhaps having a philosopher write the functional spec is exactly what’s called for to rescue AI from the back-eddies in which it has slowly revolved for several decades.

Although computers have made impressive progress in competing with human beings—advancing from checkers to chess championships, winning at trivia games and outperforming human experts in knowledge of specific domains—this success is due more to faster hardware, improved search techniques, and truly massive storage than to breakthrough advances in software architecture.  Yes, software can ‘learn,’ by using feedback from its own failures and successes to modify its behaviour when attempting similar problems in the future.  Yet the holy grail of AI, the Turing Test—to pass which a computer must be able to successfully masquerade as a human being by carrying on a convincing conversation with human interlocutors who are trying to tell the difference—still seems as distant a goal as it did when Alan Turing proposed it in 1950.  It is likely to remain so until we develop machine analogues of consciousness and emotion, by which I mean emotions both of self-concern and of concern for others. (more…)

A Special Form of Darkness: Metzinger on Subjectivity

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Our brains represent ourselves, to ourselves, by means of a Phenomenal Self-Model (PSM).  According to Thomas Metzinger, the PSM is characterized by transparency, and a phenomenal quality of ‘mineness.’  Its transparency consists in our unawareness of it as a model.  We look and act ‘right through it’ – we take our models for our real selves.  ‘Mineness’ is a quality that infuses all of our experience which we take to be experience of ourselves.  Although Metzinger uses the terms “mineness” and  “ownership,” it is more than an experience of ownership.  I think “me-ness” aptly captures what Metzinger is after. (more…)

Metzinger: Being No One

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

Being No One is a substantial work by German philosopher Thomas Metzinger about “consciousness, the phenomenal self, and the first-person perspective.”  Its main thesis “is that no such things as selves exist in the world.  Nobody ever was or had a self.”

I have spent some time with the book, making, from its 634 densely-printed pages, 104 pages of notes.  After all that, I still question Metzinger’s ‘main thesis.’  But I have no doubts about the value of the book.  It irrevocably raises the standard for what philosophy of mind must explain.  In its early pages, Metzinger echoes Paul Churchland’s complaint, that “theoretical approaches to the mental, still intuitively rooted in folk psychology, have generated very little growth of knowledge in the last twenty-five centuries.”  Being No One goes a long way towards burying that era. (more…)

Rationality and its Limits

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Rationality depends on emotion.  A.R. Damasio’s Descartes’ Error – Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain reveals how the human ability to make rational, prudent choices fails unless it is supported by normal emotional responses.  His findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom which portrays emotions as enemies to reason – impulsive forces which urge us to make poor choices, and which must be held in check by cool logic and deduction.

Damasio shows that rational behaviour results from a bottom-up process that begins with subconsciously learned emotional responses that can be detected in galvanic skin responses (GSR’s), and other physical signs.  This unconscious learning preceeds, and helps to facilitate, cognitive learning.

Moreover, people require these learned emotional responses to make rational, self-interested choices, even after they have cognitively ‘figured out’ what choices are in their interests.

Both results seem counterintuitive, the latter most strikingly.  Most people who consider themselves sane think that if they know what is in their best interests, they will choose accordingly.  They won’t, says Damasio, unless that knowledge is supported by feeling. (more…)

Parfit on What Matters

Friday, January 1st, 2010

Parfit's Division1Part Three of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons is titled “Personal Identity”.  One of its central claims is what Parfit calls the Reductionist View: that persons are not “separately existing entities” over and above their brains and bodies.  What is important about being the same person at different times consists primarily in psychological continuity and connectedness.

Another, related claim is that being the same person is not in itself very important.  In particular, it is not a rational justification for self-concern.  If I know that someone in the future will not be myself, that is not a good reason not to anticipate having that person’s experiences.  What is important are the underlying, real relations of psychological continuity and connectedness.  And even they do not have exactly the same importance that we tend to believe personal identity has.

Part Three of Reasons and Persons contains 150 pages of closely-reasoned arguments which are by and large original, compelling, and illuminating.  I will not try to restate all of Parfit’s arguments, or to comment on them all; instead, I strongly recommend his book to anyone interested in this subject.   In this post, I will review one of Parfit’s more important lines of argument in Chapter 12, “Why Our Identity is Not What Matters.”


Parfit begins this chapter by making a refreshing break from the philosophical practice of thought-experiments, building instead on actual cases documented in medical literature.  These are the famous ‘split-brain’ cases, in which surgeons severed the corpus callosum, the main bundle of nerve fibres connecting the left and right hemispheres of the human brain, as a treatment for epilepsy.  Cutting the connection reduces the severity of epileptic attacks by preventing seizures from spreading from one hemisphere to the other.  But there are side-effects.

The effect, in the words of one surgeon, was the creation of ‘two separate spheres of consciousness’.  (p 245) (more…)

The Phantom Neuroscientist

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Cubist KingIn recent weeks, I have been devouring V.S. Ramachandran’s books and videos on what can be learned about the brain by studying patients with neurological damage.  To clarify my title, Ramachandran is not a phantom himself, but a doctor of phantoms – actually a ‘phantom-buster’.  He is famous for curing phantom-limb syndrome – an amputee’s stubborn, often debilitating, physical awareness of a limb that has been surgically removed – by an amazingly simple, low-tech trick with mirrors.

The ‘Phantom-Buster’ Mirror Trick

One of Ramachandran’s patients was desperate for relief from pain in his phantom arm, which he felt to be cramped and paralyzed.  As described in A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness:

We propped up a mirror vertically on a table…so that it was at right angles to his chest, and asked him to position his paralyzed phantom left arm on the left of the mirror and mimic its posture with his right hand, which was on the right side of the mirror.  We then asked him to look into the right-hand side of the mirror so that he saw the mirror reflection of his intact hand optically superimposed on the felt location of the phantom.  We then asked him to try to make symmetrical movements of both hands, such as clapping or conducting an orchestra, while looking in the mirror.  Imagine his amazement and ours when suddenly he not only saw the phantom move but felt it move as well.