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Chasing Down the Ghost in the Machine

Losing consciousness in Arizona. 

By From the June 2014 issue

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Writing The Principles of Mathematics in the spring of 1901, Bertrand Russell got stuck on a simple problem in the theory of classes (we would nowadays say “sets”): “Whether the class of all classes is or is not a member of itself.” In his autobiography Russell recalled: “It seemed unworthy of a grown man to spend his time on such trivialities, but what was I to do?…Trivial or not, the matter was a challenge.”

I feel the same way about my own interest in Consciousness Studies. Surely I have better things to do than ponder Philosophy of Mind, a topic only properly of concern to salaried academics, and in which I am now much too far along in life to acquire any real expertise. Well, yes; but like the problem that snagged Russell’s attention, understanding consciousness is a challenge—a challenge, I should think, to any reflective person. 

What is this inward, private state of awareness that flickers on with the sound of the morning alarm clock and fades away on the late-night pillow? Is it made of the same stuff as stars, rocks, and flesh—of atoms and molecules—or of some different stuff? Do chimps have it? Did our remote ancestors have it? Might a computer have it? Every thoughtful person has mused on these things. Probably most have felt guiltily, as I do, that there is something absurd about such musing, unless one can support one’s family by being paid to do it.

My own way of assuaging my guilt and getting the topic out of my system for a few years at least is to attend one of the “Toward a Science of Consciousness” conferences held every other year by the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The first such conference was held in 1994, so for this year’s event the organizers had some fun basing their promotional material on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album: “It was twenty years ago today…”

There I was, then, at the University Park Marriott in Tucson during the last week of April. What follows are some random notes on the conference. The randomness is unavoidable: There were sixty-odd sessions of various kinds, most of them concurrent, so I had to pick and choose. I attended most of the plenary sessions and such side lectures as I thought would be especially interesting.

First, some background on the origin of these conferences: The nature of consciousness has of course been a topic in philosophy since ancient times. However, in spite of the efforts of some pioneers like William James, consciousness has defied attempts to bring it within the scope of systematic scientific inquiry. Its very subjective nature made objective observation and experimentation—the essence of science—impossible.

A number of twentieth-century developments offered some hope that this might change. First came quantum mechanics, with its revelations about matter at the submicroscopic level behaving in deeply counter-intuitive ways—permitting, for example, uncaused events. Then there were the remarkable discoveries in mathematical logic during the 1930s by Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel, seeming to show (the matter is disputed) that we can know abstract truths that are beyond the capacity of even the most carefully defined systems of reasoning or procedure to demonstrate.

Later in the century, advances in neuroscience raised our understanding of brain processes and our ability to observe them, suggesting the hope of an end-run around the subjectivity problem. Medical science had also accumulated a big database of knowledge about brains damaged in various ways, and about the consequences for thought and behavior that followed. Meanwhile the computing revolution had occurred. Philosophers and some scientists—notably Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA—began rethinking the issue of consciousness.

With all this as prologue, two brilliant researchers came up with the same speculation at about the same time, the late 1980s. The researchers were Stuart Hameroff, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Arizona, and Roger Penrose (since 1994 Sir Roger Penrose), a mathematical physicist at Oxford University in England.

Their speculation was that key features of human thought might be explainable by processes at the submicroscopic level where quantum-mechanical effects occur. Both men published their speculations as books: Hameroff in 1987, Penrose in 1989. Hameroff read Penrose’s book and wrote to him about it. The two met to discuss their ideas, and the first Tucson conference followed in 1994. That year also saw the publication of Francis Crick’s book on consciousness, The Astonishing Hypothesis, and the founding of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, making 1994 a convenient marker year for the beginning of modern approaches to the subject.  

The Hameroff-Penrose speculations have had mixed reviews from philosophers of mind. The common dismissal has been: “Quantum mechanics is weird; consciousness is weird; therefore, say Hameroff and Penrose, the two things must be related!” From the scientific side the usual objection has been that the living brain is “too warm and wet” for quantum mechanical processes to play a significant role. 

Nothing daunted, the duo have pressed on with their biennial conferences, opening them to a very broad field of inquirers, from neuroscientists and experimental psychologists to theologians, promoters of parapsychology, and New Age types.

I attended the 2008 conference and live-blogged it.Following developments afterward in a desultory way, it seemed to me that progress was very slow, so I skipped the 2010 and 2012 meetings. After six years, though, I thought the 2014 Tucson gathering might have something new to tell us, so I signed up. 

After some brief welcoming remarks by Stuart Hameroff the conference was opened by Australian philosopher David Chalmers, a superstar in Consciousness Studies, famous for popularizing the phrase “the hard problem of consciousness.” His talk was in fact titled “The Hard Problem of Consciousness: 342 Years On,” referring to Isaac Newton’s remark in a 1672 letter to Henry Oldenburg that “to determine by what modes or actions light produceth in our minds the phantasm of colour is not so easie.”

That, according to Chalmers, is the hard problem of consciousness. How do merely physical processes, interactions among different forms of matter, produce sensations—“the phantasm of colour,” redness, Middle C, the taste of garlic? Or as Chalmers poetically expressed it: “How does the water of the brain turn into the wine of consciousness?” 

He took us through the history of the topic and categorized current theories, including the variant of panpsychism towards which he leans. Panpsychism—you might want to sit down for this—argues that consciousness is present in matter of all kinds. Even electrons and photons may contain little specks of consciousness. It sounds preposterous, but is philosophically quite respectable, with some persuasive arguments in its support. 

Next up was philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of a 1991 book titled Consciousness Explained. Dennett is a no-nonsense materialist. He scoffed at the hard problem as a “cognitive illusion” and wondered how we might tell the difference between a conscious photon and an unconscious one. What, he snickered, if we were to replace the adjective “conscious” by “nifty”? Might we then work up a pan-nifty-ist philosophy in which photons were gifted with teeny amounts of niftiness? Philosophers are ruthless debaters.

If you remember your Introductory Philosophy course you will know that the opposite of materialism (there is only matter: mind is an illusion) is idealism (there is only mind: matter is an illusion). I had supposed philosophical idealism to have died out in this age of brain scanning and smart computers, but cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman proved me wrong.

In an astonishing presentation, Hoffman described his work on evolutionary game theory. Using a powerful computer he has modeled the evolution across thousands of generations of imaginary species with such-and-such characteristics in environments with so-and-so characteristics. He wanted to compare evolutionary fitness—how well an organism is adapted to its environment—with truth—how accurately the organism perceives its environment. In his words: “Does natural selection favor veridical perception?”

The answer from his models is no: “Truth goes extinct every time except when tuned to fitness.”

Not content with having thus disturbed us, Hoffman then described his work on a non-materialist theory of evolution, inspired by Alan Turing’s universal computer. He posits a network of conscious agents (CAs) interacting with each other and the world. As his theory develops, the world drops out and all that exists is consciousness. “What we call the physical world is a projection into CAs of other CAs…Spacetime is a species-specific hack.”

It was one of those talks that leaves you undecided as to whether what you just heard was profoundly brilliant or utter nonsense. Reading through my notes and reflecting, I lean towards the latter, but… 

Sir Roger Penrose himself gave the keynote talk: “Consciousness and the Laws of Physics.” Here was panpsychism bolstered by a great breadth of scientific and mathematical knowledge. There is, said Sir Roger, a moment of proto-consciousness when the wave function (that is the mathematical description of the state of a system in quantum mechanics) reduces to a classical, deterministic state. Wave function reduction has been generally supposed, or at least suspected, of needing subjective prompting—an observer making a measurement. Sir Roger denies this: His is a theory of objective reduction (OR).

These moments of consciousness happen everywhere, all the time; but molecular-scale structures inside the cells of the brain can orchestrate them to produce the large-scale consciousness we possess. Hence the Penrose-Hameroff theory is known as OrchOR: orchestrated objective reduction.

If you can keep up with the physics and math, it’s quite a fascinating theory. It has recently received some support from studies of photosynthesis, in which quantum effects play a part, refuting the “too warm and wet” objections. I do wish, though, that these eggheads would pay a little more attention to presentational technology. 

I know, I know: Power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely. It sure beats the old-fashioned transparencies Sir Roger favors, though, with complex mathematical formulas hand-scrawled on them and half-hidden by the shadow of a hand at presentation time. 

Consciousness studies has a lexicon of catch-phrases and parables that aficionados allude to casually in their speech, but which need explaining to outsiders: Leibniz’s Mill, the Cartesian Theater, the Chinese Room, Wittgenstein’s Beetles, the Mary Problem…I have no space to explain these notions here, but curious readers can easily find them on the Internet. 

One catch-phrase you hear a lot is “What is it like…?” with derived forms like “what-is-it-like-ness” and “what-is-it-like-ery” (both heard from the platform at Tucson). All this refers to a famous 1974 article by philosopher Thomas Nagel titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel argues that there is something that it is like to experience the world as a bat does; that this what-is-it-like-ness (there you go) is a fact in the world; but that this fact is so purely subjective it cannot be reduced to any physical phenomenon.

Novelist Rebecca Goldstein, whose doctorate in philosophy at Princeton was supervised by Nagel, gave a talk titled “Consciousness and the Novel” in which she pointed out that while philosophers argue about the metaphysical status of subjective experience, novelists are busy describing it. If you want to know What It Is Like to be an orphan, an adulteress, or an emperor, ask Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, or Robert Graves. “Stream of consciousness,” Ms. Goldstein reminded us, is a term of literary art.

She directed our attention to David Lodge’s 2001 novel Thinks as an illustration of her arguments. I hadn’t read the novel. It deals with an affair between a lady novelist and a cognitive scientist. What is that like? Ms. Goldstein suggested we read the novel to find out. She is married to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. From my notes on her talk: “No objective account of a subject can capture its subjectivity.”

As I said, the Tucson people cast their net wide, and there was a large contingent of Hindus at the conference. Their champion was New Age entrepreneur Deepak Chopra, arguing that consciousness is prior to everything, that we occidentals were asking all the wrong questions, that “matter is congealed sensation,” and that wisdom consists in “transcending the subject-object distinction.”

It all sounded like woo to me. Philosopher John Searle, another materialist of the Daniel Dennett school, or at any rate a rigorous empiricist (and author of the Chinese Room parable), was of the same mind. To Chopra’s assertion that “consciousness is the ground of existence,” Searle countered that if consciousness were to disappear, the universe would go on existing nonetheless. When Chopra said “Gödel’s Theorem [in mathematical logic] describes the universe,” Searle’s facial expression was that of a man who does not trust himself to speak.

There are interesting questions about how consciousness develops in the growing human person. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik spoke about that, framing the issue as, of course, “What is it like to be a four-year-old?” 

She contrasted the “lantern” consciousness of infants, taking in everything around them indiscriminately, with the “spotlight” consciousness of adults, which can focus attention on limited regions of its surroundings. “Children can’t not pay attention….As we know more, we see less….Children are the species’ R&D Department; we adults are Production and Marketing.”

Ms. Gopnik really got my attention with her account of “ensemble coding”: our ability to take in a collection of objects at one glance (a flock of birds, perhaps) and make instant inferences about its gross properties (the direction it’s moving in). Shown two collections of orange blobs, children can see at once which collection has the higher average size.

I asked Ms. Gopnik how good is this “inner statistician” that we all seem to be born with. Can it estimate other statistics—standard deviation, perhaps? Yes it can; but, said the lady, there is evidence that the brain gets less good at instant statistics as we age and the “lantern” becomes a “spotlight.”

As a sometime teacher of statistics, I marvel that what is so difficult to knock into the heads of eighteen-year-olds seems already to be present in the brains of four-year-olds. It brought to mind the thought I had once while watching a friend’s dog catch a thrown Frisbee: “How did the dog manage to solve those chains of differential equations so fast?” 

The shade of Bertrand Russell himself was present at Tucson, in the form of some side lectures on Neutral Monism, the philosophy he developed. (Monism is the doctrine that the universe contains only one kind of stuff, in contrast to mind-matter dualism. Neutral monism says that the one kind of stuff is neither mind nor matter but some neutral substance that generates both.) I gave these lectures a try, but the material was awfully dry and I snuck out after a few minutes.

Russell tells us that his grandmother, a Victorian lady of stern rectitude but not much intellectual curiosity, reacted thus when he told her he was studying philosophy: “What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.”

After a week of total immersion in Consciousness Studies, I am at one with Countess Russell. For six more years, at any rate, I have got it out of my system. 

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About the Author

John Derbyshire writes "Shelf Life," a books column, every other week. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum).