The famous hard question

Elusiveself in a critical look at Raymond Tallis’ ideas (here) gives this quote of Tallis’ straw man: “Consciousness is, at the basic level, appearances or appearings-to, but neither nerve impulses nor the material world have appearances.”


There have been many other similar statements about the hard problem and how it is that by definition consciousness cannot have a scientific explanation.


By this logic nothing can have a scientific explanation. Suppose we try something else, say a bicycle. I can give a drawing of a bicycle and accompany it with a wordy explanation of how and why it works the way it does. It can include the physics with some equations, even the history of how it came to be. This is, I could say, an explanation, an understanding and a model of a bicycle, therefore there is no mystery left about what a bicycle is. Would you say, “but this is not an explanation of a bicycle because I cannot get on it and ride down the street.”


But some would say that my bicycle story missed the point. Consciousness is not like riding. Consciousness is not physical and therefore cannot have a physical explanation. But this is a semantic thing, an arbitrary definition, a word play. Why is consciousness not physical? Because someone says so. What is the proof? None that I can think of. I could say that riding is not physical. What is my proof? It is about as non-physical as consciousness so if consciousness is non-physical so is riding.


Anyone that wants to talk about magic non-physical mind stuff, has nothing useful or valid to tell science. Mind is not a place, not an object, not a container – it is an activity, it is what brains do. And someday science will explain the brain’s activity. The hard question is a lot harder for dualist philosophers than it will be for scientists.

List of constraints

Human Nature Review has a review by M. Ghin of a book by T. Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. (here) In it there is a list of constraints ‘which help us to judge whether a given representational state is also a conscious state’ which I find an interesting list.

  1. Global availability – an item that is in consciousness is integrated into an overall world-model.

  1. Presentationality- consciousness is experienced as in the now.

  2. Convolved holism- objects in consciousness are made up of other objects in a heirarchy.

  3. Dyamicity – experience is constantly changing or flow of events.

  4. Perspectivalness – we are the point of view for conscious experience

  5. Transparency – we do not see the construction of the conscious experience but have the illusion of direct contact with the world.

  6. Offline activation – there can be consciousness without sensory input (daydreams, hallucinations etc.)

  7. Representation of intensities – we can experience levels of intensity of qualia.

  8. Homogeneity – qualia are not mixtures of two other qualia.

  9. Adaptivity – consciousness has features that can be evolved

It sounds interesting. I will have to follow up on this, especially those constraints that we have not touched on much: convolved holism, representation of intensities and homogeneity.

Folk knowledge

A child growing up learns to predict – that is how the child becomes capable of moving without injury and obtaining the things it needs or wants. This is the first bit of folk knowledge the child has, ‘events have causes’. Whether the child gains this knowledge by experience or is born with it (or more likely both), it becomes a foundation of our relationship with the world and our movement in it. It is a piece of folk knowledge because we all tend to believe it, we use it as a tool of thought and action, but a modern theoretical physicist would find it a difficult idea to accept without caveats. Like most of folk knowledge it is a fairly good first approximation, it will usually do, it is good enough for most occasions. Other adjectives that often replace folk are naïve, vernacular, and commonsense.

Another example is ‘things fall down’ which is pretty good for most situations; we can think differently but still find this a useful idea. ‘The sun goes around the earth’, is one bit of knowledge that we no longer accept even as a first approximation. It has become just a idiom of our language.

But as well as the folk knowledge that we use to interact with the inanimate physical world, there is also a folk knowledge that we use in social contexts. This has been called folk psychology as opposed to folk physics. Again we have a spectrum from principles that we can hardly operate without, through useful approximations, to ideas that have completely failed us. One recent picture of folk psychology as most of us experience it is the Theory of Mind. We not not actually know which parts of this theory are with us to stay, which will not be believed but still used and which will be completely rejected.

The notion of intention is probably one that is with us for good and something we cannot operate without, even probably something we are born with. Our folk ideas about emotion might turn out to be useful for a long time if a bit simplistic. On the other hand, the notion of consciousness has been drifting about for centuries, changing in nature, importance and connections to other ideas. It continues to drift. What most would think of as commonsense about consciousness has become untenable scientifically. The folk version of consciousness is likely to go the way of the geocentric universe.

Metaphor 2

A couple of months ago, Sing your own Lullaby posted a list of theories of meaning (here). I intended to comment on the list but never got my act together. There is more commonality then difference between various ways of looking at meaning. So we have constructs, frames, schema, conceptual networks, models – different but similar ways of explaining how we think and communicate. For years I have thought in terms of models and metaphors. These ideas are no better (or worse) then others but easier for me to write about.

Here is an old piece of mine about metaphor.

The problem with meaning is that we often think that something has meaning: a word has meaning, a symbol has, an event has. But this is wrong – a single thing cannot have meaning. Meaning is the relationship between things. We see this clearly in a dictionary. Every word is defined in terms of other words, which in turn are defined by others, and so on. When we have a large number of things that have mutual relationships so that each contributes meaning to the whole and each gets meaning from its place in the whole, then we have one of these structures that have been called constructs, schema, conceptual networks, maps of the territory, models and so on. They comprise our understanding. By blending or metaphor or elaboration, we can built more complex and larger structures – we can increase our understanding.

But this still leaves a problem. With the circular dictionary, we have to ground it by relating a few words to the world. We have to do some ‘pointing’ to shared, real experiences. Similarly, to make our meaningful structures we have to have some starting point. We have to be born with some primitive concepts with primitive relationships been them in order to ‘boot up’ our understanding. We need a foundation on which to build a structure. We have to have the first few schema or maps of the territory in order to get the process of creating metaphors started. Once started, a structure of metaphors or models or maps of reality can grow in number and size to form the sum total of a person’s concepts.

Some basic metaphors would be so natural that very little ‘hard wiring’ would be needed to make them close to universal. An article in Psychological Science, The Thermometer of Social Relations – Mapping Social Proximity on Temperature, by H. Ijerman and G.R. Semin, examines the two-way relationship between physical warmth and positive social feelings. (here)

In this view, abstract concepts and concrete experiences that are jointly expressed in a metaphor are coexperienced. In the case of ‘‘warmth is affection,’’ Lakoff and Johnson (1999, pp. 45–60) argued that this coexperience is primary: Babies experience the feeling of being held affectionately by their mothers, and being so held induces a warm sensation. This association is underlined by evidence that the insular cortex is involved in processing both psychological and physical warmth (see Williams & Bargh, 2008a). As a result, people express and share the abstract notion of affection in terms of the coexperienced sensation of warmth. Examples are abundant in mainstream culture: ‘‘The cold shoulder’’ and ‘‘a cold fish’’ are examples of metaphors relating lack of warmth to social distance, whereas ‘‘warm embrace’’ and ‘‘giving a warm welcome’’ are metaphors linking warmth to social proximity.

Interestingly, we can see here both a social learning path and a brain architecture path to this metaphor. I think it is likely that either alone could be a foundation for this particular complex of metaphors, but, in what is normal situations, they are both present and re-enforce each other. Lakoff and Johnson proposed that concrete experiences (e.g., temperature) ground abstract concepts (e.g., affection). This perspective is referred to as embodied realism. Some other pairings include: cleanliness and moral purity, physical dirtiness and self-disgust, physical and emotional pain (here), time and space, muscular movement and any effort or accomplishment.

We need metaphors because we have limited resources. Imagine the simplest nervous system – some sensory neurons with synapses with some motor neurons, like spinal cord reflexes. What allows sophisticated responses, memory, learning, thinking etc. is the complexity of networks of inter-neurons separating the sensory side from the motor side, in other words, a brain. But in the end the only thing that enters the brain is sensory signals and the only thing that leaves is motor (and glandular/chemical/emotional) signals. These primary signals must ground the metaphoric meanings we use to think with. The concepts and words we use have meaning by their relationships grounded in basic, primitive, hard-wired sensory, motor and chemical processes.

Where are the concepts?

A couple of months ago D. Kumaran and group published a paper on the formation of concepts and this was reported (here) and (here). The hippocampus appears to form concepts and the prefrontal cortex seems to use them in decision making.

The ability to use prior knowledge when dealing with new situations …. is made possible through the use of concepts, which are formed by abstracting away the common essence from multiple distinct but related entities. “Although a Poodle and a Golden Retriever look very different from each other, we can easily appreciate their similar attributes because they can be recognized as instances of a particular concept, in this case a dog.” … It has long been suggested that the hippocampus, a brain structure critical for memory formation, plays a critical role in the acquisition of conceptual knowledge. …Dr. Kumaran and colleagues designed an experimental paradigm that would allow them to track the emergence and application of conceptual knowledge.

Participants played a game in which they had the opportunity to win money by correctly predicting whether it would be sunny or rainy based on the appearance of the night sky, denoted by patterns on a computer screen. Early on in the experiment, participants simply memorized the outcome associated with each pattern in isolation. However, they quickly noticed that groups of patterns were conceptually related, much in the same way as Poodles and Golden Retrievers. By structuring the problem in this fashion, participants were able to solve the task, and even successfully apply their knowledge to a different setting where the concepts were similar but the patterns themselves new.

By using parallel behavioral and neural measures, the researchers found that a functionally coupled circuit involving the hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex underpinned the emergence of conceptual knowledge. Interestingly, however, it was the hippocampus alone that predicted which participants would be able to successfully apply the concepts they had learned to a visually novel setting. “What this suggests is that perhaps the hippocampus creates and stores these concepts, and passes this information to the prefrontal cortex where it can be put to use, for example in making choices where financial reward is at stake.”

The maps in our minds

ScienceDaily reports research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology on the mapping facility of the brain. (here) The research was done on rats but the investigators believe it applies to humans because the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex (site of spatial mapping) are the oldest and best conserved areas, across evolution, of all the forebrain structures.

The rat brain mapping system thus consists of a series of small maps, not just a single large one. … A recently discovered cell type, border cells, which are active along certain walls in a given environment, may shed light on this question. Border cells describe the limits of how an environment ends and another begins.

The same report includes research by K. Kjelstrup and how the multiple maps are used.

“We need maps of varying resolution, some small detailed maps, and other, larger rougher maps … and the brain sorts these very systematically.”…The maps are stored as extremely thin cards in a deck in the hippocampus, the area that is regarded as the brain’s memory focal point. The deck is sorted by rank, so that the fine-grained detail maps located at the top, with the biggest, most coarsely drawn maps the further down in the deck that you come.

So it appears that in its simplest (probably too simple) visualization the mapping facility with its four types of cell (place, grid, direction, border) works in the following way:

- We recognize which map we are in from the sensory match with a place using place cells and that activates a memory map in the hippocampus

- This current map is laid out on the grid cell array in the entorhinal cortex. The grid and place cells indicating where we are on the map and the direction cells indicating our heading (in orientation or movement). Reaching border cells indicates the need for a new map.

- A new map is fetched from the hippocampus as indicated by the heading and/or the place information.

- New maps would be formed (as memories) and old ones updated as needed.

What aspects of all this would enter consciousness? We are aware of where we are usually and of our heading. When we do not, we have the fringe feeling of being lost or a fringe feeling of being in an entirely new place, or both. But although usually we have this sense of where we are, it is usually not the focus of attention – in awareness but not in focus.

Fruits of introspection

T. Natsoulas has kindly sent me an email with a paper attached, ‘On the Intrinsic Nature of States of Consciousness: attempted Inroads from the First-Person Perspective’, T Natsoulas, The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 2001. The paper deals with the ideas of W. James from the 1890s and F. Bradley from the 1910s, both having explored consciousness using introspection as their tool.

I have not had much hope that introspection would yield much except the preconceptions of the introspector. Maybe I was wrong, and a diligent, intelligent, open-minded person can learn something about the nature of consciousness by introspection. James seems to have found in his introspection reason to believe four very important ideas: consciousness is about awareness, it is a stream of individual moments/states/pulses of mentality, there is only one stream at a time that we can experience, and finally, a individual state in the stream has an indivisible unity. Well I think that is surprisingly good returns for just thinking about one’s own thinking, with practically no additional material from psychology or neurology.

Looking forward to a generally acceptable theory of consciousness – the theory must be able to describe consciousness in ways and vocabularies that fit with:

  • some theory of the brain function and its biology, chemistry and physics,

  • some theory of mental cognition, emotion and memory in psychological terms,

  • a way to philosophically interpret our own introspective experiences.

Criticizing a critic of Pinker

I have encountered the notion of dualism again in an odd way. Someone was trying to maintain that Steven Pinker is a Platonist Dualist. Well really, how bizarre. See link to ‘Do we need a biological theory of human nature?’ by David Large here .

On the surface the article seems to be another philosopher complaining that a scientist on encroaching on his patch.

“ (Pinker) walks straight into a whole set of long-discussed philosophical arguments which he appears woefully equipped to deal with. True, he’s not a philosopher, and The Blank Slate is not a philosophy book, but ignorance is no excuse for engaging in areas where these arguments apply and for coming up with positions that miss the point.”

It seems to me that it is usually Large that is missing the point.

Large puts that he thinks is Pinker’s position in this little paragraph.

“If you say, as Pinker does, the mind is what the brain does, you are advancing cartesian dualism. If you say, as Pinker does, the proper theory of human nature is a biological theory of human nature, you are advancing biological monism,… So Pinker appears to be both a cartesian dualist and a biological monist. This is a philosophically tricky place to be.” Or in this one, “Here we see Pinker at his most incisive and at his most philosophically naive. Having analysed the problem, summarised the research and given a critique of the outcome he refers to human dispositions and behaviours, in terms of ‘wiring’ in the brain and brain development. This is mind/brain dualism of the standard cartesian kind. It is commonly found among psychologists and other scientists commenting on the mind. This sits alongside his platonic commitment to a biological theory of human nature

How does the idea that mind is what the brain does, become dualism? How is any scientific theory Platonic as opposed to empirical? Why is an Alice in Wonderland world being created here?

If we state some clearer examples:

  • circulation is what the heart does

  • digestion is what the gut does

  • movement is what muscle does

  • mind is what brain does

What is dualist about any of these statements?

Let us put one of these functions in this statement:

“On this view, human nature and dispositions do not reduce below the level of the person. The most we can say for the biological approach is that while human nature is connected to human biology and to Pinker’s new sciences, human nature is not constituted by human biology, and human nature is not explained by a biological approach alone.”

What we would get is:

“On this view, circulation and blood flow do not reduce below the level of the person. The most we can say for the biological approach is that while circulation is connected to human biology and to Pinker’s new sciences, circulation is not constituted by human biology, and circulation is not explained by a biological approach alone.”

Where would you look for an explanation of a bodily function then in the biology of the body? And in the case of the mind the explanation will be found in the anatomy, physiology, chemistry, development and genetics of the brain in particular and the body in general. Of course the investigations need to go below the level of the person – that is the whole point of the investigations.

What is easy and what is not

There is a podcast interview with Chris Frith (here) that is very interesting. I am planning to do a few posts on his ideas, starting with the difficulty in understanding the mind through introspection.

…But the way our brain works in a sense makes us tend to be dualists, so it’s very difficult for us to think about how the mental and the physical interact. And this is partly because the way the brain works is that it hides from us most of the work it does.

Something like 90% of brain activity never reaches consciousness at all. And so, we don’t know about it through introspection…

…In the 40′s when computers came into action, people thought they would be able to build electronic brains – as newspapers called it in those days – which would do the sort of things the humans could do. And they made a very bid mistake, because what they thought at that time was that the easy thing for these electronic brains to do would be to perceive the world, because that’s so easy for us, whereas the difficult things for these computers to do would be to play chess, because that’s so difficult for us. But it turns out – not that long ago, that the computer has been built that beat the best chess player in the world, by they’re still very bad at perceiving things, or reading handwriting, or anything like that.

My friend, Daniel Wolpert, has this nice example that you can make a computer that can play chess but no one has really developed a computer that’s particularly good at picking up the chess piece and moving it to the new position on the board. So, we get a very strange idea of what’s easy and what’s difficult from our introspection.

Movement as the foundation

If we think of the human mind, it is a very elaborate structure and so it is hard to see clearly the foundation of the structure. People have thought that the mind was a device for solving logical problems, or for living socially with others, or for predicting the future, or for creating new things… How you judge a mind depends on where you are coming from in terms of the ‘what is it for?’ question.

Let’s follow the clues from a biological point of view. The simplest thing with some weensy, teensy whiff of mind-like something is a free-living, single-celled creature that moves. It has two of the characteristics of life, mobility and irritability, among the others. These two seem to go together; the more the mobility, the more the irritability; the less of one, the less of the other. These little creatures can sense which side of them is warmer, or more lit, or has more nutrients, or has less poison. Having sensed a difference, the organism can move along the gradients, attracted by some things and repelled by others. All cells have this ability to some extent whether they are free-living or part of a multicellular organism.

As soon as we have multicellular organisms, there is a tendency for cells to specialize. Some take over the duty of digestion, some of respiration, some of elimination, some of reproduction and so on including irritability and mobility. All the cells retain at least some ability at all the characteristics of cells but specialize in a narrower range. They form organs with different functions contributing to the well-being of the whole organism. The mobility function is taken over by primitive muscle cells and the irritability function is taken over by primitive sensing cells. The sense cell senses something and communicates this directly to the muscle cell. There is no more mind here then in the free-living cell – very, very, very little. The organism senses the environment and reacts to it in an absolutely fixed manner.

Now we add neurons connecting the sensing cells to the acting cells. Even the first layers of inter-neurons make a difference; they allow rhythms of action, patterns of action, sensing of patterns and simple learning. The synapses in the pathways between sensing and doing allow processing. As the number of inter-neurons increases, the sophistication of processing increases.

Layers take on different tasks. A predator would have layers of neurons that integrated sensory signals to recognize the pattern of the animal’s prey. Others might track the direction of moving prey. Others choose patterns of muscle movements and so on. So a toad will flick its tongue out and catch a fly that flies too close by. This is a very stereotypical action, almost reflexive, but it does imply an operational concept of a fly object and of a flick of the tongue action. To that extent they are elements in a rudimentary model of the environment and the animals interaction with it.

More layers of neurons allow action that is less stereotypic. An animal that finds and tracks its prey, sneaks up on it and picks the right moment to spring, has to have a very elaborate model of itself in its environment. The animal must have a goal and a plan. It must predict outcomes. It must have an integrated picture of the world and itself in it. It must have memories of events and have learned from those memories. By this level of neuron layers between the senses and the muscles, we have consciousness although perhaps we do not have full self-consciousness until we add the need to work in a social group.

The roots of mind go back to very primitive organism and it was built on the foundation of movement. What is it for? It is for successful behaviour. Its for knowing where you stand and where you will land before you decide to jump.