Category Archives: consciousness

Beyond free will: The embodied emergence of conscious agency

Article by Mascolo, M. F., & Kallio, E. (2019). Philosophical Psychology, 1-26. Abstract follows:

“Is it possible to reconcile the concept of conscious agency with the view that humans are biological creatures subject to material causality? The problem of conscious agency is complicated by the tendency to attribute autonomous powers of control to conscious processes. In this paper, we offer an embodied process model of conscious agency. We begin with the concept of embodied emergence – the idea that psychological processes are higher-order biological processes, albeit ones that exhibit emergent properties. Although consciousness, experience, and representation are emergent properties of higher-order biological organisms, the capacity for hierarchical regulation is a property of all living systems. Thus, while the capacity for consciousness transforms the process of hierarchical regulation, consciousness is not an autonomous center of control. Instead, consciousness functions as a system for coordinating novel representations of the most pressing demands placed on the organism at any given time. While it does not regulate action directly, consciousness orients and activates preconscious control systems that mediate the construction of genuinely novel action. Far from being an epiphenomenon, consciousness plays a central albeit non-autonomous role in psychological functioning.”

Ideas of Stuart Kauffman

If you are familiar with complex systems theorist Dr. Stuart Kauffman’s ideas you know he covers a broad range of disciplines and concepts, many in considerable depth, and with a keen eye for isomorphic and integrative principles. If you peruse some of his writings and other communications, please share with us how you see Kauffman’s ideas informing our focal interests: brain, mind, intelligence (organic and inorganic), and self-aware consciousness.

Do you find Kauffman’s ideas well supported by empirical research? Which are more scientific and which, if any, more philosophical? What intrigues, provokes, or inspires you? Do any of his perspectives or claims help you better orient or understand your own interests in our focal topics?

Following are a few reference links to get the conversation going. Please add your own in the comments to this post. If you are a member and have a lot to say on a related topic, please create a new post, tag it with ‘Stuart Kauffman,’ and create a link to your post in the comments to this post.

The info processing (IP) metaphor of the brain is wrong

Psychologist Robert Epstein, the former editor of Psychology Today, challenges anyone to show the brain processing information or data. The IP metaphor, he says, is so deeply embedded in thinking about thinking it prevents us from learning how the brain really works. Epstein also takes on popular luminaries including Ray Kurzweil and Henry Markram, seeing both exemplifying the extremes of wrongness we get into with the IP metaphor and the notion mental experience could persist outside the organic body.

The Empty Brain (Aeon article with audio)

The origins and evolutionary effects of consciousness

From the Evolution Institute.

“How consciousness evolved and how consciousness has come to affect evolutionary processes are related issues. This is because biological consciousness–the only form of consciousness of which we are aware–is entailed by a particular, fairly sophisticated form of animal cognition, an open-ended ability to learn by association or, as we call it, ‘unlimited associative learning’ (UAL). Animals with UAL can assign value to novel, composite stimuli and action-sequences, remember them, and use what has been learned for subsequent (future), second-order, learning. In our work we argue that UAL is the evolutionary marker of minimal consciousness (of subjective experiencing) because if we reverse-engineer from this learning ability to the underlying system enabling it, this enabling system has all the properties and capacities that characterize consciousness. These include…” 

See the link for more.

Neuroscience on intentional breathing

From this piece:

“This recent study finally answers these questions by showing that volitionally controlling our respiration, even merely focusing on one’s breathing, yield additional access and synchrony between brain areas. This understanding may lead to greater control, focus, calmness, and emotional control.”

Looking for the metanarrative of our lives

Excellent article by David Lane. Therein he goes into Edelman’s primary and higher-order consciousness. While acknowledging that natural selection has no purpose it is indeed ironic that we humans, with our self-aware higher consciousness that creates purpose, ended up at the top of the selection process. The downside of the latter is that it is a double-edged sword; it can make up stories that serve the purpose of giving us comfort but not be true. However it also has the capacity via the scientific method to correct those stories with new insights and stories from empirical experiment, hence our superior ability to flourish. Nevertheless, the new stories are still based in natural selection versus supernatural causes. They are better, more accurate stories open to revision pending further evidence. And they are indeed the result of our higher-order consciousness.

Informative neuroscience presentations at NYU Center for Mind, Brain & Consciousness

The NYU Center for Mind, Brain & Consciousness hosts presentations, including topical debates among leading neuroscience researchers. Many of the sessions are recorded for later viewing. The upcoming debate among Joseph LeDoux (Center for Neural Science, NYU), Yaïr Pinto (Psychology, University of Amsterdam), and Elizabeth Schechter (Philosophy, Washington University in St. Louis), will tackle the question, “Do Split-brain patients have two minds?” Previous topics addressed animal consciousness, hierarchical predictive coding and perception, AI ‘machinery,’ AI ethics, unconscious perception, research replication issues, neuroscience and art, explanatory power of mirror neurons, child vs adult learning, and brain-mapping initiatives.

Neurofeedback as a tool to modulate cognition and behavior

Article here from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2017, 11:51.  The abstract (note my italicized highlighting):

“Neurofeedback is attracting renewed interest as a method to self-regulate one’s own brain activity to directly alter the underlying neural mechanisms of cognition and behavior. It not only promises new avenues as a method for cognitive enhancement in healthy subjects, but also as a therapeutic tool. In the current article, we present a review tutorial discussing key aspects relevant to the development of electroencephalography (EEG) neurofeedback studies. In addition, the putative mechanisms underlying neurofeedback learning are considered. We highlight both aspects relevant for the practical application of neurofeedback as well as rather theoretical considerations related to the development of new generation protocols. Important characteristics regarding the set-up of a neurofeedback protocol are outlined in a step-by-step way. All these practical and theoretical considerations are illustrated based on a protocol and results of a frontal-midline theta up-regulation training for the improvement of executive functions. Not least, assessment criteria for the validation of neurofeedback studies as well as general guidelines for the evaluation of training efficacy are discussed.”

Can we understand other minds? Novels and stories say: no

by Kanta Dihal

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.

This particular hyperbolic gem has been doing the rounds on Tumblr for a while. It resurfaced in April 2018, in response to a viral Twitter challenge posed by the US podcaster Whitney Reynolds: women, describe yourself the way a male writer would.

The dare hit a sweet spot. Many could summon up passages from books containing terrible, sexualised descriptions of women. Some of us recalled Haruki Murakami, whose every novel can be summarised as: ‘Protagonist is an ordinary man, except lots of really beautiful women want to sleep with him.’ Others remembered J M Coetzee, and his variations on the plot: ‘Tenured male professor in English literature sleeps with beautiful female undergraduate.’ It was a way for us to joke about the fact that so much great literature was written by men who could express perfectly detailed visual descriptions of the female body, and yet possessed such an impoverished understanding of the female mind.

This is why the philosophical project of trying to map the contours of other minds needs a reality check. If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?

I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.

It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.

I mean, ‘coffee-coloured skin’? Do I really need to find out how much milk you take in the morning to know the ethnicity you have in mind? Writers who keep banging on with food metaphors to describe darker pigmentation show that they don’t appreciate what it’s like to inhabit such skin, nor to have such metaphors applied to it.

Conversely, we recently learnt that some publishers rejected the Korean-American author Leonard Chang’s novel The Lockpicker (2017) – for failing to cater to white readers’ lack of understanding of Korean-Americans. Chang gave ‘none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us’, one publisher’s letter said. ‘For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes …’ Any failure to understand a nonwhite character, it seems, was the fault of the nonwhite author.

Fiction shows us that nonhuman minds are equally beyond our grasp. Science fiction provides a massive range of the most fanciful depictions of interstellar space travel and communication – but anthropomorphism is rife. Extraterrestrial intelligent life is imagined as Little Green Men (or Little Yellow or Red Men when the author wants to make a particularly crude point about 20th-century geopolitics). Thus alien minds have been subject to the same projections and assumptions that authors have applied to human characters, when they fundamentally differ from the authors themselves.

For instance, let’s look at a meeting of human minds and alien minds. The Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin is best known for his trilogy starting with The Three-Body Problem (2008). It appeared in English in 2014 and, in that edition, each book has footnotes – because there are some concepts that are simply not translatable from Chinese into English, and English readers need these footnotes to understand what motivates the characters. But there are also aliens in this trilogy. From a different solar system. Yet their motivations don’t need footnoting in translation.

Splendid as the trilogy is, I find that very curious. There is a linguistic-cultural barrier that prevents an understanding of the novel itself, on this planet. Imagine how many footnotes we’d need to really grapple with the motivations of extraterrestrial minds.

Our imaginings of artificial intelligence are similarly dominated by anthropomorphic fantasies. The most common depiction of AI conflates it with robots. AIs are metal men. And it doesn’t matter whether the press is reporting on swarm robots invented in Bristol or a report produced by the House of Lords: the press shall plaster their coverage with Terminator imagery. Unless the men imagining these intelligent robots want to have sex with them, in which case they’re metal women with boobily breasting metal cleavage – a trend spanning the filmic arts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the contemporary TV series Westworld (2016-). The way that we imagine nonhumans in fiction reflects how little we, as humans, really get each other.

All this supports the idea that embodiment is central to the way we understand one another. The ridiculous situations in which authors miss the mark stem from the difference between the author’s own body and that of the character. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if we can’t feel it. So, much as I enjoyed seeing a woman in high heels outrun a T-Rex in Jurassic World (2015), I knew that the person who came up with that scene clearly has no conception of what it’s like to inhabit a female body, be it human or Tyrannosaurus.

Because stories can teach compassion and empathy, some people argue that we should let AIs read fiction in order to help them understand humans. But I disagree with the idea that compassion and empathy are based on a deep insight into other minds. Sure, some fiction attempts to get us to understand one another. But we don’t need any more than a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else in order to empathise with them – and, hopefully, to not want to kill and destroy them.

As the US philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed in 1974, a human can’t know what it is like to be a bat, because they are fundamentally alien creatures: their sensory apparatus and their movements are utterly different from ours. But we can imagine ‘segments’, as Nagel wrote. This means that, despite our lack of understanding of bat minds, we can find ways to keep a bat from harm, or even nurse and raise an orphaned baby bat, as cute videos on the internet will show you.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise this segment of just a glimpse of something bigger. We don’t realise until a woman, a person of colour, or a dinosaur finds a way to point out the limits of our imagination, and the limits of our understanding. As long as other human minds are beyond our understanding, nonhuman ones certainly are, too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kanta Dihal is a postdoctoral research assistant and the research project coordinator of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.