What it’s like to be a philosopher

A: I’ve been thinking about your definition of consciousness. You said it was an “affordance-seeking predictive engine”, which really wasn’t very helpful.

B: Sorry…

A: All good, you did say a bunch of other stuff that was interesting…

B: I do try my best.

A: Well, that’s all I ask. Aaaaaaanyway, I was listening to a podcast about consciousness and the host discussed another definition. I’m sure you probably heard before, but it seemed intuitively correct to me, so I’m wondering if you have any comments.

B: Fire away.

A: OK, so they said that consciousness is just “what it’s like to be something”. Like, what it’s like to be me is my consciousness, what it’s like to be….

B: A bat?

A: Yeah, they did use that example. They credited it to some philosopher.

B: Thomas Nagel. But really I think it’s just an extension of Descartes

A: Slow down…

B: Sorry. Nagel wrote a famous and influential essay called “What is it like to be a bat?”. He argued that if it is like something to be something, meaning that something has subjective states, then that something is conscious.

A: Stop saying “something” – what is the relevance of bats?

B: Nagel thought that they were an interesting example because they perceive the world with different senses from us.

A: Ah, like echolocation.

B: Yep – he thought that thinking about the difference between the way a bat perceives a moth with echolocation and the way we do with our eyes would make the difference between the subjective and the objective clear.

A: Right – the moth is objective but our perceptions of it are subjective.

B: That’s the idea. And I agree, it seems intuitive and innocent enough.

A: But?

B: But….well, there are multiple “buts” actually.

A: Are they big?

B: What?

A: Are these big butts? I hope so, I cannot lie…

B: Grow up. Philosophy is serious business.

A: No wonder it’s so tedious. OK OK, go on.

B: It’s not uncommon to hear people that like this definition add that consciousness is also the one thing we can really “Know” (with a capital K, mind you) exists.

A: Actually yeah, that’s exactly what they said….

B: Well it’s part of Nagel’s thesis, which is basically Subjectivism – the only thing we can really know is our own subjective experience. And that is really just a step from Solipsism – “the only thing that exists is my own consciousness”. And this argument about “what it’s like” is also tied up with the idea that consciousness is immaterial, a “mental phenomenon”, that can’t be reduced to a scientific, physical theory. There’s so much philosophical baggage here I hardly know where to start.

A: Well I don’t think all that applies here really, the guy I heard this from is very scientific, he doesn’t even believe in free will….

B: Uh oh, he’s almost certainly a closet dualist in that case. That line of reasoning, even though it might not be explicit, goes something like: “the physical universe is a closed causal system, but our conscious thoughts, or our awareness of them, are clearly mental, thus not physical. We don’t know how the mental could possibly interact with the physical, therefore our thoughts are acausal and we don’t have free will, QED.” A lot of this goes back to Descartes and problems with his thesis.

A: That’s the second time you’ve mentioned him.

B: Well, he has a lot to answer for! Probably his most famous claim, maybe the most famous claim in all of Western Philosophy, is “cogito ergo sum” – I think, therefore I am. I’ve always liked to parody this as “cogito ergo inconditus” – I think, therefore I am confused.

A: Ha. I see that philosophy doesn’t ban humour altogether, it’s just that philosophers aren’t very good at it.

B: Anyway. Descartes’ philosophy was deeply dualistic – he divided the world into “res cogitans”, mental stuff, and “res extensa”, physical stuff. That’s not exactly unique in itself of course because the majority of people in 17th Century Europe were dualists, and he was just formalising that in his own way. There were other options available to him, mind you, there have been many monist philosophers throughout history in both the West and the East, and even Descartes’ correspondent, the Princess….

A: Is this turning into a history lesson or what?

B: Sorry. His claim “cogito ergo sum” was the end result of his experiment with skepticism – he wanted to discover if he had any certain knowledge that he could ground the rest of his philosophy on, and he came up with this Matrix-style thought experiment…

A: Hey cool, the Matrix is cool!

B: Yeah, but not very original…

A: Hold up. You’re telling me Descartes thought about dodging bullets, jumping from building to building and learning martial arts from a computer?

B: No.

A: Soooooo the Matrix is original!

B: My mistake. What Descartes imagined was that there might be an evil demon systematically deceiving his senses. Maybe the world he thought he was perceiving didn’t exist at all, but was just one big deception.

A: That is kinda like the Matrix…

B: And he therefore concluded that the only thing he could really know was that he was perceiving something, but that he couldn’t know what that something really was. So his only certainty was the fact of his consciousness itself. He later decided he was certain that God existed and a bunch of other stuff, but you get the gist.

A: Ah. So what’s wrong with “I think, therefore I am” exactly?

B: Well, we might start by inverting it – “I am, therefore I think”. What Descartes is trying to establish is something fundamental, something given, a foundation from which reasoning can begin. But his choice is arbitrary and egocentric really. He implies that the world is in his head, but he could just as easily have concluded that his head was in the world.

A: Eh?

B: He might have said that the only thing he could be certain of was that there is a world. He might be deceived about that world – maybe it’s just him and the evil demon hanging out in the void and all the rest is illusory, but nonetheless there is a world and he is in it.

A: I’m not convinced that makes much difference.

B: It’s subtle, but it’s like Chaos theory – extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. This very subtle difference in the choice of foundations for a system of philosophy can have a profound impact on the conclusions reached “higher up” the chain of reasoning. Ultimately it’s not surprising Descartes went the way he did because he believed in an immortal soul that was separate from the physical world. He was begging the question – his choice of “foundations” was really constrained by his higher level beliefs from the get go and his exercise in skepticism was purely a technical exhibition.

A: Uh huh. It still makes intuitive sense to me though.

B: Well of course, yeah – it does to most Westerners, which is what I mean by “philosophical baggage”. Our dominant philosophical heritage is dualism, and Descartes himself is a big part of that – his ideas make sense to you because you were raised in a philosophical tradition influenced by his ideas (and the ideas that influenced his ideas).

A: If you say so. I’m not sure you’ve successfully linked this to the “what it’s like” definition yet.

B: That definition comes directly out of this dualist tradition. It is an earlier version of the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, the question of why we have any subjective experience at all….

A: That problem sounds hard, let’s deal with one at a time please.

B: It’s the same problem really, but OK, aside from prompting us to do silly things like imagining the subjective experience of a bat from inside the subjective experience of a human (which is allegedly all we can know, remember), the issue is that it privileges subjective experience in the first place. Nagel does a switcheroo when he substitutes “what it’s like to be a bat” for “what a moth is like for a bat”. Like the “hard problem”, this presupposes that there is some core kernel of subjectivity, of consciousness, that is distinct from the contents of consciousness, and this connects with Descartes’ claim that it is this thing, this core kernel, that is the only thing we can be sure of, since can be fooled about any of the contents of consciousness. But the thing is, the claim that there is any consciousness without contents is simply assumed!

A: Hmmmmmmmmm. You seem a bit excited about this.

B: You asked – I don’t like the “what it’s like” definition because it’s the same as the hard problem, which is a pseudo-problem that ultimately derives from a Cartesian split of the world into the mental and the physical. I admit that at the level of the definition itself this might not seem obvious, but I think it can lead to a lot of sloppy thinking further down the line.

A: Well, I like it and I think you philosophers get your knickers in a twist about silly things, which is why people prefer watching cute cat videos on Youtube to studying philosophy……check this one out, for example.

B: Pass.

Rational altruism and selfish selflessness.

A: I saw an interesting lecture on the YouTube recently…

B: You’re watching lectures on there now? I thought you were mostly into cat videos?

A: The cat videos are getting old…… I have this weird desire to learn stuff now.

B: Careful, that can become addictive.

A: Anyway, the guy was saying that altruism isn’t rational, that really just exploiting others and trying to take everything for yourself is rational. He said that’s why we need religious frameworks to make us ethical people and we can’t just rely on rational arguments. Not that we have to actually be religious now, but we wouldn’t have been moral in the first place without religion and our current sense of morality comes from the fact that we live in a society with a religious underpinning. What do you think about that?

B: Well, it’s true we live in a society that has been shaped by religion. That’s true of all human societies. It’s also true that culture provides a framework for our value judgements, including those in the ethical or moral dimension. That’s definitely one of the most important functions of society. However, it’s not true that morals, ethics and altruism began with religion and it’s certainly not true that a superficial “every man for himself” approach to life is the most “rational” approach to take. So, whilst “the YouTube guy” made some good points, his thesis that altruism isn’t rational, which seems like a fundamental claim here, is false.

A: I knew you’d disagree. You disagree with everything.

B: No, I don’t…

A: I rest my case.

B: Ha. What I actually do is I criticise everything – that’s how I learn.

A: Uh huh. Righto then, criticise away.

B: Don’t mind if I do! For starters, we know that plenty of non-human animals can be altruistic, particularly social species. There are plenty of examples amongst mammals, but even social insects can be thought of as altruistic – think of a bee sacrificing itself for the protection of the hive. Bees don’t have religion and neither do monkeys grooming each other, warning each other with alarm calls, or forgoing food rewards, even starving themselves, to prevent other monkeys receiving electric shocks. Altruism is common in pre-linguistic animals….

A: Why?

B: I’m getting there. With the bees it’s fairly simple – it’s kin selection. The only way the genes carried by an infertile worker bee can get passed on, can be replicated, is through the queen. The queen’s fate is the fate of the hive, so the worker will sacrifice itself to safeguard that fate, to increase the chances of its genes being replicated. Maybe this is where altruism, and ultimately morality, begins – ethics and morality are social phenomena and the first social groups were groups of related individuals.

A: Sure, that makes sense, but it goes way beyond that with humans. We don’t just look out for our family members, we sometimes make extraordinary sacrifices for total strangers.

B: We do indeed, and it’s not only humans that display altruistic behaviour towards unrelated individuals. That sort of thing isn’t restricted to mammals either, even animals that seem completely unfeeling to us, like caimans…

A: Hold up, you forget that I’m not a biologist – what’s a caiman?

B: A type of crocodylian.

A: Like an alligator?

B: Close enough. When there are droughts and the wetlands they inhabit start to dry up, caiman mothers will lead their babies on long journeys over land to find any remaining pools of water. Sometimes there are so few pools that caimans converge on them from all over the place and they become crowded. There isn’t space for all the adult caimans, so most of them leave their babies behind to be looked after by just a few surrogate mums, like a crèche…

A: A caiman daycare centre.

B: Exactly. The mums that stay behind look after all the babies, protecting them from predators even though they are unrelated to the majority of them.

A: That seems pretty altruistic.

B: For sure, and it’s equally possible to think of those that leave, braving the drought, as the ones making the sacrifice – they seem to know their babies will be better off if they don’t compete for space with the other mothers. Anyway, it’s common for animals to make some sort of personal sacrifice for the “greater good”. There are heaps of examples amongst birds and mammals – we could spend all day discussing examples. The key thing that unites them though, and that takes things further than kin selection, is something known as “reciprocal altruism”.

A: Like “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”?

B: Pretty much. Right, let’s talk humans – we’re social, and we know that we’re descended from social ancestors. Our closest surviving relatives, the chimps and bonobos, are highly social. So are the majority of primates. In these sorts of social groups reciprocal altruism is common, whether it is manifested in grooming behaviour, babies being raised by multiple group members, political alliances, or whatever. Again, there is a huge number of examples, but let’s stick to humans.

A: Yes, let’s do that – there’s only so long I can resist the urge to check my Twitter feed.

B: Until only 12,000 years or so ago, humans were all hunter-gatherers. Back in those days, groups really had to stick together – group members had to look out for each other. Hunting and gathering are capricious, especially hunting. Some days, some weeks, you just can’t catch a break; every game animal you see is one step ahead of you; your spear finds only air. During these lean times, when the gods of the hunt have turned their backs on you….

A: Now you’re being silly.

B: Not at all. The point is that if you weren’t having any luck hunting, but other members of your group were, then you’d better hope they were feeling well-disposed toward you. If you’d been a jerk, stealing their furs, turning them away from the warmth of your fire, playing your bone flute at all hours of the night, they probably wouldn’t feel like sharing their meat with you. Incidentally, this is probably why polygamy was rare prior to the advent of agriculture – group cohesion had to be maintained by the sharing of resources.

A: Interesting point. Does that suggest that when guys say it’s “only natural” for them to want multiple women that is just a bad excuse for bad behaviour?

B: Um, let’s not go there right now. It does, however, remind me of an important point: ultimately what behaviour counts as ethical and what counts as rational is context-dependent. That context can be pretty broad, like the context of being human, or it can be narrow, depending on what sort of behaviour we’re discussing. It doesn’t necessarily matter what is “natural” – if you’ve agreed to be faithful and you are unfaithful, that is unethical. Being an arsehole might be totally “natural”, but it’s still being an arsehole. Anyway, back to the hunter-gatherers. It’s easy to see that in that context refusing to help your neighbour when they are in need, adopting a superficial “every man for himself” attitude, would not be at all rational. It would be a surefire way of convincing others not to help you when the shoe is on the other foot. So, altruism is perfectly rational in that context.

A: Does that mean you think religion is totally irrelevant?

B: I didn’t say that, but it’s not where morals originate and it’s not something we require because the supposed “purely rational” alternative is being completely immoral. There are other issues with pure rationalism, but that’s for another day. Religions, anyway, are more like descriptions or codifications of morals than ultimate sources of them. They are one way, perhaps the most potent way for much of human history, of providing a framework that can stabilise morality….which is not always a good thing, mind you. Today, partly thanks to religion, but also due to our deep evolutionary history, we live in societies full of ethical and moral norms – checks and balances. Certain kinds of unethical behaviour are severely punished with everything from loss of reputation and ostracism to life-imprisonment or even execution in some places. Again, this is not uniquely human – being unethical can be extremely costly for many social animals, especially amongst primates, none of which have complex language and therefore lack detailed codifications of morality such as religions. In any social system in which there can be punishment for ethical transgression along with rewards for generosity, either direct or indirect, immediate or across longer time periods, altruism is rational.

A: I guess that makes sense. It kinda makes you think about our definition of “altruism” though doesn’t it? I mean, if being altruistic is good for you, it doesn’t really seem like altruism, it seems almost selfish…

B: Exactly. Altruism is selfish. Everyone from Buddha to Ayn Rand knows that.

A: Buddha and Ayn Rand? I don’t see the connection. Ayn Rand is evil.

B: Rand is a victim of her own clever use of language, a bit like Richard Dawkins. Did you know he has claimed he could just as easily have named “The Selfish Gene” “The Altruistic Gene”?

A: No, and I must say this is all deeply counterintuitive – altruism and selfishness are meant to be opposites!

B: Language games are fun, aren’t they? But sometimes being too clever, or perhaps using a buzzword like “selfish” to increase the exposure of your ideas, invites misinterpretation. A big part Dawkins’ book is about reciprocal altruism and how it evolves not really in spite of, but actually because of the “selfishness” of our genes – in evolution, selfishness leads to altruism, secondary to the evolution of sociality. Rand had a similar idea in mind when she claimed that if people really understood what was best for them, thus what was maximally “selfish” behaviour, they would see that it meant doing what was best for those around them as well – maximally selfish behaviour leads to altruism. Why? Because we are social organisms, dependent on those around us in so many ways.

A: Every man for himself equals every man for each other?

B: Yep! A lovely evolutionary paradox. A snake biting its own tail. The ouroborus strikes again.

A: You and your bloody ouroborus, you have snakes on the brain. How does Buddha fit in?

B: Well, compassion for all sentient beings is very central in Buddhism. But it’s made quite clear that this is for soteriological reasons….

A: Sauté-what now?

B: Soteriological. Reasons concerning personal salvation. Meditating on compassion, on universal, unconditional loving kindness, is a core part of the Buddhist path towards enlightenment, towards freedom from suffering. The idea is that we suffer less when we are more compassionate. Interestingly, recent brain-imaging studies suggest that this compassionate meditation, amongst all the various Buddhist mind-training techniques, is the one most strongly associated with the reduction of personal suffering – with happiness, with joy.

A: So being compassionate is selfish.

B: Bingo. It’s the best way to reduce your own suffering. Being maximally compassionate towards others is the best thing you can do for yourself, or so the claim goes – maximal altruism is maximal selfishness. It’s just a matter of really understanding what’s best for yourself.

A: Which is not necessarily easy to know.

B: True, but you can’t use that ignorance to claim that exploiting others is rational. That’s an oxymoron – ignorance cannot be rational, even if sometimes it might be blissful. So, as far as I’m concerned, enlightened selfishness is altruism and that’s as rational as it gets. Make sense?

A: Sorry what? I was distracted…..have you seen what Trump just tweeted?

Talking about free will, part 1

A: I recently read that it’s a scientific fact that we don’t have free will.

B: Yeah, well, don’t believe everything you read.

A: Ha! The author had a response for people like you – belief in free will is so comforting that people will deny all evidence to the contrary.

B: Wow, that really is a knockdown argument……not. The truth to me seems something like the opposite.

A: Huh?

B: Belief in the non-existence of free will is comforting. It’s the ultimate conspiracy theory.

A: How do you figure?

B: Conspiracy theories, no matter what flavour, are essentially the idea that some force or some agent outside of us is controlling our actions or influencing their outcomes. Thus, it’s not “my fault” if my life sucks, it’s because I’m not part of the “in group”. And that can obviously range from being somewhat true to completely ridiculous. In the latter cases it’s just a failure to take responsibility for our own predicament. Sartre called this “bad faith” and he tied it to people’s fear of freedom – to be free is to be forced to accept responsibility for your own life. Anyway, most people who deny the existence of free will do so purely intellectually.

A: What do you mean by that?

B: Their behaviour and pronouncements often reveal the fact that they do believe in free will after all. Kant pretty much got it right when he said that one can’t act “except under the idea of freedom”. What that means is no matter what you think you believe about free will, in order to act you will tacitly accept its existence. Even choosing not to act or choosing not to believe in free will is making a decision – “I choose not to believe that I am free to choose not to believe” – it’s a paradox.

A: Er….

B: Look, I’ll give you some paraphrased examples of the kinds of arguments made by people who publish works claiming that free will doesn’t exist:

People need to know they don’t have free will so they can stop holding other people responsible for their actions!

Give up your illusion of free will and become truly free!

People need to know they are slaves of circumstance….”

To which I might respond, “Why do they need to know that? Will this knowledge affect the choices that they make about how to live their lives?” Do you see how this all seems just a teensy bit paradoxical? Why write a piece about free will at all if we don’t have it? Because you didn’t have a choice but to write it? You mean you have no intentions regarding the influence that this piece might have on other people; you just had no choice in writing it? Maybe you also want to argue you have no choice in believing that your work can influence the actions of others? Hmmmm…..I really want to invoke Ockham at some point here….

A: OK, I get your point.

B: Don’t get me wrong though; there is genuine insight in the idea that surrendering, giving up our attempts to control everything, is a way to achieve greater freedom. Here’s a nice quote on the subject:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. 

A: I thought you were an atheist…

B: Doesn’t mean I don’t recognise wisdom when I see it. But sure, how about a “secular Buddhist” version then – surrender “the illusion of self” (i.e. that which controls things) and break free from the suffering caused by desire (for things to be other than they are). A wise Buddhist once said something to me, which struck home and has stayed with me ever since:

Happiness is wanting what you have, not getting what you want.

A: That is definitely wise, but I don’t think you’re really getting at the free will issue here are you? The article I read had all sorts of arguments against free will.

B: No doubt, there are many such arguments. A great deal of ink has been spilled over the issue of free will. To dive into the literature on the subject is to enter into a warren of rabbit holes from which one may never return. People have been writing about this for millennia and unfortunately if you really want to get a grip on the subject you are going to have to do a whole lot of reading….

A: Nah, that’s what I have you for!

B: Fair call, I’m always happy to be of service by wading into philosophical quagmires on behalf of the less motivated. The thing is that a lot of the debate is a storm in a teacup, a paper tiger, a naked emperor – a lot of it is just people debating the concepts that have arisen during the debate itself. It’s an ouroborus, a snake biting its own tail.

A: That’s probably enough metaphors.

B: Never! Anyway, Kant’s argument proactively refutes pretty much any argument that comes after it, at least as far as “acting”, doing stuff, is concerned. Nonetheless, the free will debate is absolutely fascinating and engaging with it will involve taking a close look at some fairly major concepts like causation, dualism, and of course evolution. So if you want to go there, you better strap in….or you could just ignore it all and get on with your life.

A: I’m interested….but I have to get to work, so can we continue this later?

B: Absolutely.

Physicalism and consciousness

A: You’re always banging on about “physicalism” and “physicalist monism”. Frankly it all sounds like “goo goo ga joob” to me…..

B: Monism is just the belief that there is only one kind of “stuff” in the universe, and physicalism is the belief that that stuff is physical stuff.

A: Right. But what about consciousness? That doesn’t seem very physical to me.

B: Fair enough, there is definitely a sense in which it will always seem like there is more than just the physical. As you say, the contents of our consciousness, our “qualia“, seem profoundly non-physical….and in a sense they are, but not in any sense that requires there to be more “stuff” than the physical.

But I agree – this question of how qualia can exist in a physical universe still needs to be dealt with, it’s a BIG question. You can say “they are just illusions”, and that’s true, but it doesn’t answer the question, it just dodges it. Illusions are things that aren’t what they seem, not things that don’t exist. No one can deny the existence of qualia, not even the most ardent behaviourist, not BF Skinner himself.

A: Uh huh…..deal with it then please.

B: I’ll try. To be honest, I’m not sure anyone has really dealt with it yet, but the way we move forward with all tricky questions is to throw out conjectures which can be critically interrogated, both by others and ourselves. They can be interrogated experimentally, or purely through rational criticism. It’s all part of the process….

A: Righto, conjecture away.

B: We actually have plenty of examples of things that are real, physical phenomena, but seem not to be – rainbows, holograms etc. We also know about things that exist in different states – recordings of any kind, digital storage of information, etc. But any of these analogies can still only get you part of the way to consciousness, because these are things that are experienced, not things that experience.

From a physicalist perspective, consciousness is literally the experience of being part of the physical universe. That sounds like panpsychism….

A: Pan- what now….?

B: “Panpsychism” – the belief that consciousness is fundamental, and thus suffuses everything in the universe.

A: Is that like the Hindu concept of “Brahman”?

B: Something like that yes, I’m no expert on Hinduism, but I think that the concept of “oneness”, of an “ultimate reality”, can be either physicalist or “psychist”. Either way these are forms of monism, it’s just that the psychist form considers consciousness to be fundamental, and believes that the physical somehow emanates from that unified field of consciousness. Theoretical physicists also believe in a oneness and a “unified field”, quite literally – unified field theory is an attempt to unite all fundamental forces and particles in a single field…..which really is a pretty similar idea to Brahman, as I understand it, at least in monist forms of Hinduism.

A: Yeah, sounds kinda similar to me….physicists often use a sort of mystical terminology when they get excited too. They might even start talking about the “mind of God”, and then hastily point out that they mean the “God” of Spinoza, not some man in the sky…

B: Well, yeah, Spinoza was also a monist. Doesn’t he say something like “There is only one substance in the world, and that substance is God,”?

A: Sounds familiar, I never really paid attention in philosophy lectures to be honest – “talk talk talk drone drone drone yawn yawn yawn”. Anyway, get back to your droning about panpsychism, or whatever….

B: I’m not going to rise to that. Come to think of it, a panpsychist could probably either believe that consciousness is fundamental, or that the physical is but that all physical entities are imbued with consciousness, even fundamental particles.

A: Conscious particles?

B: Well, sort of. It’s a bit of a convoluted argument….

A: Can we skip it then?

B: I think it’s important, because it concerns a very deep divide in human thought. If you are a monist, you are committed to the idea that every fundamental building block of reality has a little bit of what it takes to make consciousness. For a physicalist that much should be uncontroversial, because we believe that consciousness is part of the physical universe along with everything else. The disagreement seems to be about whether we should call those building blocks “conscious”, or if we should reserve that term for organisms that are more obviously “aware”, but which are nevertheless built of those blocks. In some traditions, and I think this might apply to monist Hinduism, “consciousness” really seems to mean something like “that from which all other things are constructed”, so it’s sort of built into that definition that consciousness will always be fundamental, no matter what physics has to say….

A: Sheesh….do you ever wonder why people think that philosophy is all just arguing about the number of angels that can fit on a pinhead?

B: It’s true that a lot of the deepest schisms in philosophy are the result of semantic disagreements. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important, or that they don’t have a massive causal impact in our world – people will fight and die over their semantic distinctions, and they guide the way we think about and interact with the world in general. This is true of all of us, even scientists. Once we have the fairly basic philosophical insight that words are not entirely precise, and don’t really map onto reality in the same way for everybody, we develop this anxiety about the influence of words and try to escape it altogether. I think this is why some scientists claim philosophy is unimportant – because they think it’s “just” words, and words are unreliable as descriptions of reality. The thing is we can’t escape words – they have been central to human evolution and all our world views are necessarily built from them….which is exactly why philosophy is so important!!

A: Yep yep, off your high horse and on with the story please.

B: Personally, I’m no panpsychist. I feel there is every reason to believe that only very special parts of the physical universe, parts that perform a particular kind and rate of “information processing”, give rise to experience. And it’s not as if there’s this kind of information processing that just happens to give rise to experience, like it’s a coincidence or something. No, that’s epiphenomenalism, which is incoherent. There is…

A: Hang on, hang on….you and your “isms”….

B: “Epiphenomenalism” is the idea that consciousness is non-functional, that it’s just there, we’re experiencing it, but actually it has no influence on “reality”……whatever reality is supposed to be….

A: That sounds pretty stupid.

B: It is. There is an evolutionary context for consciousness. It’s not that our brains perform a particular kind of information processing and so we have experiences; it’s that our brains perform a particular kind of information processing because it gives rise to experience. Consciousness is functional. It is the solution to a design problem – that of how to integrate diverse sources of sensory input so that an organism can act effectively in the world. And consciousness is also about predicting the future…

A: Huh? Like clairvoyance? Now you sound like a mystic.

B: There’s nothing mystical about it, although it might be the source of some of our mystical beliefs. I can make it sound really dry if you want – consciousness is an “affordance-seeking predictive engine”.

A: Yeah, that’s dry. And boring. Stick to the mysticism, it’s more fun.

B: It’s not at all boring! It’s just a way of saying that consciousness allows us to imagine future scenarios, to envision the way the world around us is likely to change over a given time period, so that we can be best placed to either get the things we want, or avoid the things we don’t want to interact with, like predators or other hazards. When you stand on the edge of something tall, it’s not uncommon to have a vision of yourself falling off it – that’s one of the functions of consciousness, to warn us about dangerous things in our environment by predicting what might happen if we get too close…..

A: Hold on, how do you differ between “consciousness” and just “awareness”? Couldn’t I be aware of dangerous things in the environment without actually having visions of them, or without any kind of prediction of the future?

B: It’s difficult to disentangle awareness and consciousness in either an evolutionary context or in terms of the words themselves. I mean, to be “conscious” of something is to be aware of it, right? And if you consider human consciousness as some sort of end point of an evolutionary series that stretches all the way back to our distant single-celled ancestors, it’s going to be pretty hard to draw a line with consciousness on one side of it and “mere awareness” on the other side of it. Single-celled organisms are aware of their environments; they can sense them in a number of ways. Our consciousness, whatever it is, is descended from that awareness. I don’t really know to what extent the sensorium of an amoeba is integrated, but as organisms become more complex and their ability to sense the world becomes more refined, I imagine there is a greater need to integrate sensory inputs to create a unified picture of the world, and that is consciousness.

A: That sounds pretty straight-forward, but I’m not getting the “prediction” part, and I don’t get how all this leads to dreams and imagination and all the things that fill our consciousness and seem completely un-physical.

B: Yeah, it’s really hard to connect all those dots and articulate a simple explanation that really nails human consciousness. It’s hard to even do that for oneself, let alone put it into words that can give someone else that “Ah-ha!” moment…

A: Aw, life’s so hard to understand, isn’t it? Anyway, your “Ah-ha!” moments don’t mean you really understand, do they? They could just be the standard illusion of certainty everybody suffers from….

B: That’s very true. Regardless, I think it’s something like this: the integration of sensory inputs serves to create a sort of coherent “model” of the world, full of relevant affordances…

A: What are those again?

B: “Affordances” are basically things we can interact with. The thing is, the brain doesn’t create this model from scratch every moment of the day, that would be way too inefficient. It builds a model and then updates it only as new and unexpected things are detected. So the model is always a sort of expectation of how the world is going to be, which is only really updated whenever something that wasn’t included in that prediction occurs. That’s called “prediction error”. And since the brain has this capacity to actually build this integrated model based on sensory inputs, when those sensory inputs stop, the modelling capacity doesn’t just switch off. That’s essentially what dreams are – the brain continuing its task of model-building, but now unconstrained by sensory input. So really, the brain is always making predictions, and as predictive abilities become more sophisticated, organisms can benefit from anticipating potential future occurrences by ensuring they are in the right place at the right time to take advantage of, or avoid, anything that might come their way. When some organisms actually became “meta-aware”, of this…

A: What? You’re going off the deep-end now….

B: Aware of being aware. Like we are. Being aware of this predictive process means being able to control it to some degree, to actually plan for the future. But there’s a bit of a danger there I think, because obviously our predictions aren’t always accurate and a lot of our modern neuroses come from us doing too much predicting – we get caught up in our fantasies and can no longer tell which of the threats in our environment are actual, and which are the products of our own minds.

A: Right, like paranoia.

B: Exactly. It’s important for us to stop paying attention to that stuff from time to time, to take a break from all the self-generated predictive activity that usually fills up consciousness. It’s basically taking a break from our “selves” and directing our attention outwards and just enjoying the sensation of being a conscious part of the physical universe…..

A: That kinda makes sense, but now you’re starting to sound like a mystic of the self-help guru variety. I’m not sure I entirely got your explanation of consciousness as predictive though, and none of this is really convincing me about physicalism, either.

B: It’s a tough sell. Anyway, I’m tired, you’re tired – let’s talk about this again another time….

– TNWJ

 

Painting by Genevieve Camille Jackson – Cadeau de la Terre-Mere (A gift from Mother Earth), 2017 Acrylic on canvas 100×80

 

Permanent Evolution

Permanent evolution

A: What is “evolution”?

B: Evolution is descent with modification.

A: Oh? As simple as that? So……can we go home now?

B: Slow down – sometimes simple explanations are the hardest to understand – so let me unpack this one a bit.

Evolution is the ubiquitous process through which all that was came to be all that is, and through which all that is will become all that will be. That might seem cryptic or hand-wavy, but it’s just a simple statement. Evolution is prosaic.

Evolution is not “natural selection”. Natural selection is not a “type” of evolution. Natural selection is a particular kind of constraint that shapes the consequences of evolution in biological systems. It is not the only kind of constraint that shapes biological evolution, but it’s an important one. Natural selection is one of the best ideas ever produced by hairless apes, because it explains why some of the results of evolution look the way they do (to us).

Evolution is just descent with modification. The future states of a system depend upon (are descended from) prior states. Systems (ones that are actual) are not static – future states are different from prior states. That is evolution: breathtakingly simple and utterly universal.

There are those that wish to defend the word “evolution” from this interpretation, as though it might be tarnished by it. “Following this argument,” they (might) say, “the weathering of a rock, its transformation from a boulder into sand, would be considered its ‘evolution’.” Indeed. As would the transformation of the sand back into rock, were that the sand’s fate. I repeat: evolution is prosaic.

“Change is the only constant.” A truism that happens to be true. Aristotle thought that the default state for all things was for them to be at rest. He thought energy had to enter a system in order for movement to be initiated. He used this logic to construct his “prime mover”, or “unmoved mover”, argument. Aristotle was wrong. Heraclitus (a precursor of Aristotle) was closer when he said “everything is in flux and nothing is at rest”. Modern physics refutes Aristotle’s argument – at the “bottom” all is change, all is movement. In fact, Aristotle had it precisely backwards – “energy” is required to prevent change, not to cause it, and even then it’s just a temporary preservation of some “pattern” or another. “All patterns are ephemeral!”, cries the evolutionist.

A: A bit morbid, these evolutionists…

B: Death and taxes, my friend.

Anyway, change is constant, but not all change is permissible, because future states descend from prior states. Future states are constrained by prior states. Evolution, as manifest in the actual universe, is a process that takes place across time. Yes my dear, time is real! The past constrains the future and the deepest level at which we can observe this is by considering the laws of physics themselves. Since evolution is a process in time, if evolution is ubiquitous time must be fundamental and the laws of physics therefore cannot be “outside time”. Lee Smolin hits the nail on the noggin: the laws of physics evolved. Once evolved, they constrained all future evolution. They are one of the earliest “selection pressures”.

A: Why don’t the laws of physics keep evolving then?

B: Huh? I dunno….maybe they do, but maybe they are heavily constrained by something else. I didn’t claim to know everything…..and I was on a roll, do you have to keep interrupting?

A: Sorry….

B: That’s OK, it was a good question. Anyway, let me sum this up so we can get on with our lives.

Evolution is like this: change is constant, but every system has a set of degrees of freedom which constrain its possible future states. These are the selection pressures or “principles of selection”, or whatever semantically isomorphic phrase one wishes to coin. Different systems….

A: Semantically what?

B: “Semantically isomorphic” – it just means a different choice of words with the same meaning.

A: Well why didn’t you just say that?

B: I think my facial expression says it all right now. Aaaaaanyway:

Different systems have different principles of selection (and working these out is the hard, explanatory task of the evolutionary sciences). Selection pressures themselves evolve, of course, and the laws of physics are an example. The biological sciences have identified thousands of examples, some of which constitute “natural selection”. Systems of ethics are another example – they evolved and they constrain future evolution.

Got it?

A: Sorry what? I was just checking my Instagram feed…

B: Ah. Fair enough I guess. Have you ever read any Marx?

A: Huh? I thought we were done with all this intellectualising once you got through the evolution schtick?

B: We are, but this is funny – one of Marx’s most famous slogans was “permanent revolution!”; little did he know that reality was in a state of permanent evolution!

A: That’s not funny.

B: Oh.

– TNWJ