Thursday, October 11, 2018

Two Problems with Extending Theories of Consciousness to the Case of the Garden Snail

In an earlier post, I argued that the question “is there something it’s like to be a garden snail?” or equivalently “are garden snails conscious?” admits of three possible answers – yes, no, and *gong* (that is, neither yes nor no) – and that each of these answers has some antecedent plausibility. That is, prior to detailed theoretical argument, all three answers should be regarded as viable possibilities (even if we have a favorite). To settle the question, then, we need a good theoretical argument that would reasonably convince people who are antecedently attracted to a different view.

It is difficult to see how such an argument could go, for two related reasons: (1.) lack of sufficient theoretical common ground and (2.) the species-specificity of introspective and verbal evidence.


Lack of sufficient theoretical common ground.

Existing theories of consciousness, by leading researchers, range over practically the whole space of possibilities from panpsychism on one end, according to which consciousness is ubiquitous, to very restrictive meta-representational views on the other end that deny consciousness even to dogs.

The most common (which is not to say the best) arguments against these extreme views illustrate the common ground problem. The most common argument against panpsychism -- the reason most people reject it, I suspect -- is just that it seems absurd to suppose that consciousness is literally everywhere, even in, say, protons or simple logic gates. We know, we think, prior to our theory-building, that the range of conscious entities does not include protons or simple logic gates! Some of us -- including those who become panpsychists -- might hold that commitment only lightly, ready to abandon it if presented attractive theoretical arguments to the contrary. However, many of us strongly prefer more moderate views. We feel, not unreasonably, more confident that there is nothing it is like to be a proton than we could ever be that a clever philosophical argument to the contrary was in fact sound. Thus, we construct and accept our moderate views of consciousness partly from the starting background assumption that consciousness isn’t that abundant. If a theory looks like it implies that protons are conscious, we reject the theory rather than accepting the implication; and no doubt we can find some dubious-enough step in the panpsychist argument if we are motivated to do so.

Similarly, the most common argument against extremely sparse views that deny consciousness to dogs and babies is that it seems absurd to suppose that dogs and babies are not conscious. We know, we think, prior to our theory-building, that the range of conscious entities includes dogs and babies. Thus, we construct and accept our moderate views of consciousness partly on the starting background assumption that consciousness isn’t that sparse.

In order to develop a general theory of consciousness, one needs to make some initial assumptions about the approximate prevalence of consciousness. Some theories, from the start, will be plainly liberal in their implications about the abundance of consciousness. Others will be plainly conservative. Such theories will rightly be unattractive to people whose initial assumptions are very different; and if those initial assumptions are sufficiently strongly held, theoretical arguments with the type of at-best-moderate force that we normally see in the philosophy and psychology of consciousness will be insufficiently strong to reasonably dislodge those initial assumptions.

For example, Integrated Information Theory is a lovely theory of consciousness. Well, maybe it has a few problems, but it is renowned, and it has a certain elegance. It is also very nearly panpsychist, holding that consciousness is present wherever information is integrated, even in tiny little systems with simple connectivity, like simple logic gates. For a reader who enters the debates about consciousness attracted to the idea that consciousness might be sparsely distributed in the universe, it’s hard to imagine any sort of foreseeably attainable evidence that ought rightly to lead them to reject that sparse view in favor of a view so close to panpsychism. They might love IIT, but they could reasonably regard it as a theory of something other than conscious experience – a valuable mathematical measure of information integration, for example.

Or consider a moderate view, articulated by Zohar Bronfman, Simona Ginsburg, and Eva Jablonka. Bronfman and colleagues generate a list of features of consciousness previously identified by consciousness theorists, including “flexible value systems and goals”, “sensory binding leading to the formation of a compound stimulus”, a “representation of [the entity’s] body as distinct from the external world, yet embedded in it”, and several other features (p. 2). It’s an intriguing idea. Determining the universal features of consciousness and then looking for a measureable functional relationship that reliably accompanies that set of features -- theoretically, I can see how that is a very attractive move. But why those features? Perhaps they are universal to the human case (though even that is not clear), but it’s doubtful that someone antecedently attracted to a more liberal theory is likely to agree that flexible value systems are necessary for low-grade consciousness. If you like snails... well, why not think they have integration enough, learning enough, flexibility enough? Bronfman and colleagues’ criteria are more stipulated than argued for.


The species-specificity of verbal and introspective evidence.

The study of consciousness appears to rely, partly, but in an important way, on researchers’ or participants’ introspections, judgments about their experiences, or verbal reports, which need somehow to be related to physical or functional processes. We know about dream experiences, or inner speech, or visual imagery, or the presence or absence of an experience of unattended phenomena in our perceptual fields, partly because of what people judge or say about their experiences. Despite disagreements about ontology and method, this appears to be broadly accepted among theorists of consciousness.

Behavior and physiology are directly observable (or close enough), but the presence or absence of consciousness must normally be inferred -- or at least this is so once we move beyond the most familiar cases of intuitive consensus. However, the evidential base grounding such inferences is limited. The farther we move away from the familiar human case, the shakier our ground. We have to extrapolate in a risky way, far beyond the scope of our direct introspective and verbal evidence. Perhaps an argument for extrapolation to nearby species (apes? all mammals? all vertebrates?) can be made on grounds of evolutionary continuity and morphological similarity. Extrapolating beyond the familiar cases to, for example, garden snails will inevitably be conjectural and uncertain. The uncertainties involved provide basis for ample reasonable doubt among theorists who are antecedently attracted to very different views.

Let’s optimistically suppose that we learn that, in humans, consciousness involves X, Y, and Z physiological or functional features. Now, in snails we see X’, Y’, and Z’, or maybe W and Z”. Are X’, Y’, and Z’, or W and Z”, close enough? Maybe consciousness in humans requires recurrent neural loops of a certain sort (Humphrey 2011; Lamme 2018). Well, snail brains have some recurrent processing too. But of course it doesn’t look either entirely like the recurrent processing that we see in the human case when we are conscious, nor entirely like the recurrent processing that we see in the human case when we’re not conscious. Or maybe consciousness involves availability to, or presence in, working memory or a “global workspace” (Baars 1988; Dehaene and Changeux 2011; Prinz 2012). Well, information travels broadly through snail brains, enabling coordinated action. Is that global workspace enough? It’s like our workspace in some ways, unlike it in others. In the human case, we might be able to -- if things go very well! -- rely on introspective reports to help ground a theory about how broadly information must be shared within our cognitive system for that information to be consciously experienced, but it is by no means clear how we should then generalize such findings to the case of the garden snail.

So we can imagine that the snail is conscious, extrapolating from the human case on grounds of properties we share with the snail; or we can imagine that the snail is not conscious, extrapolating from the human case on grounds of properties we don’t share with the snail. Both ways of doing it seem defensible, and we can construct attractive, non-empirically-falsified theories that deliver either conclusion. We can also think, again with some plausibility, that the presence of some relevant properties and the lack of other relevant properties makes it a case where the human concept of consciousness fails to determinately apply.


[image source]


  1. Eric,

    (The most common argument against panpsychism -- the reason most people reject it, I suspect -- is just that it seems absurd to suppose that consciousness is literally everywhere, even in, say, protons or simple logic gates.)

    Talk about absurd, what I find ironic is homo sapiens willingness to accept, embrace and venerate the mystical notion of the Laws of Physics and Nature. How far have we come as a species, really. Analysis demonstrates that we've merely replaced the eternal Gods of the Greeks for the eternal Laws of Nature, both of which are a paradigm of mysticism.

    The rationale underwriting the very notion of Law is grounded in Mysticism, where this unexplained magical thing called "Law" commands unwavering, unquestioning obedience from its unknowing unsuspecting subjects. Within our current paradigm there are only two discrete outcomes of Law, either obedience or disobedience. On the other hand, if consciousness is universal then consciousness becomes fundamental in explaining the complex and intricate relationships we observe in our phenomenal realm, the very relationships physics attempts to explain by the mystical construct of the Laws of Nature. Universal consciousness accommodates and encourages the novelty of expression that we observe within the natural world, just like the novelty of expression we observe between two human beings. Can we imagine what type of relationships we would have as human beings if our only choice within a relationship was based upon obedience or disobedience to some mysterious thing called law. Human being are too sophisticated and complex to be constrained by only two discrete outcomes in a meaningful relationship and so is the natural world.

  2. I agree about the oddness of assuming discreteness in most things, and the use the seemingly legal concept of “law” to describe physical relationships is a bit odd and maybe telling!

  3. Eric, I think your observation of the need/lack of common ground is insightful. That seems to me the key hold up for developing a generally acceptable theory of consciousness, and I think that need should be the target of future work. (Except that I don’t think there will be a General Theory of Consciousness, just as there is no general theory of “Life”. See below.)

    I also agree that part of the problem is that we have a unique perspective on one kind of consciousness, our own, and that tends to blind us from other aspects of consciousness. (Consider the statement “the field of consciousness is unified”.) We didn’t have that same problem when we were considering the question of “life”. In the case of life, our perspective on human life was pretty much the same as our perspective on, say, dog life. Our perspective was/is external. Regarding life, we came up with lots of theories that pertain to various aspects of life, like homeostasis, metabolism, reproduction, etc., but we never came up with just a “theory of life”. I take that back. There was the theory of “elan vital”, and we know how that worked out.

    So I propose trying to find the common ground. I will start with the assumption that, like life, “consciousness” is not about stuff, but is about things that happen: events, phenomena.

    So what does a proton have in common with a human brain with regard to events? Well, they both interact with their environment. Let’s make that the (panpsychic) baseline.

    How about a bacterium? A bacterium can interact with its environment in a way we would call purposeful. It can react to good molecules by, say, transporting them inside.

    What about purposeful interactions that have the beneficial result happening at a distance from the recognition (the interaction with the environment)? This type of interaction becomes evident in multicellular creatures.

    Now how about interactions where the result, the output, is an arbitrary indicator that serves no function other than to be a signal that the specific interaction with the environment happened? I give you: the transduction neuron.

    Now consider interactions where the environmental input is a symbolic symbol (an arbitrary indicator) and the purposeful response to that symbol is something which has value with respect to the reference of that symbol. I give you: the slug.

    This keeps going on up to humans. At each of these levels there is a theory, and there will be more as we get to concepts, complex (combined) concepts, self-referential concepts, memory (and “workspace”), attention, etc.

    My point is: none of these levels is exclusively THE level of consciousness. All of them are about consciousness. They are the common ground. Pick your hill.


  4. Excellent points Eric.

    On definitions that lead to panpsychism, I think Peter Hankins gave one of the best criticisms that I've seen: any definition of consciousness that obliges us to consider a dead brain to be conscious is not a productive one.

    From the inside, as healthy mature humans, any time we're fully awake, we're both aware and aware of our awareness. This meta-awareness is such a part of our own experience that we take it as a given, part of the "richness" of experience, part of the "lights being on".

    When we see another organism that is awake, we have an intuition that it's having the same meta-awareness we have when awake. When that other organism is another healthy mature human, that's probably a safe assumption. When the other organism is a newborn or non-human animal, it becomes an assumption that is very difficult to test.

    There have been behavioral experiments that attempt to measure the level of metacognition in animals. Depending on the criteria, only a few species demonstrate it. Using a more permissive standard, testing for displays of uncertainty, dolphins and some primates pass. Using a more restrictive standard, specifically testing for meta-memory, only a few primates pass.

    If we only look for simple awareness without the meta-variety, what some call primary consciousness, sensory consciousness, or first order consciousness, then all vertebrates are in, as well as many arthropods and cephalopods. But we have to remember that most of them are missing significant parts of the human version of experience.

  5. Forgot to mention that being awake doesn't require even simple awareness. C-elegans worms, which only have 302 neurons, display sleep / wake cycles without any sign of more than reflexive behavior.

  6. I am somewhat troubled by the short sighted view that somehow, homo sapiens own experience of consciousness should be the "standard" by which consciousness is defined. This model is deeply rooted in the ideology of anthropocentrism, a paradigm that is shared by materialism, idealism, substance dualism and property dualism. The only model of consciousness that does not have its origins grounded in anthropocentrism is a model based upon noumenalism.

    By simple observation, it is clear that the phenomenal realm has functioned extraordinarily well without our participation and/or intellectual contribution for billions of years. The combination of micro-forms of consciousness which emerge from and give rise to the more complex macro-forms of consciousness is only problematic because there is no metaphysical definition of consciousness, a definition that is rudimentary enough, broad enough, explicit enough, concise enough, succinct enough and inclusive enough to address the infamous combination problem with all three of its sub-problems.

  7. There's a pretty good exchange on IIT here with Aaronson, Tononi, Chalmers, and Koch.

    I would say integrated information is required but not sufficient for consciousness.

    Although I have at various points leaned towards panpsychism, I now think the problem with it is that it is still wedded to a mind-body/mind-matter duality. It tries to explain how consciousness exists in matter by saying all matter is conscious.

    Ultimately all we know comes to us through consciousness so even the distinction between mind and matter, mind and body is "knowledge" in consciousness. The world as it is, and however it is, is contaminated by the tools and artifacts of our consciousness to an extent that we might as well declare the world to be our consciousness of it.

  8. Jim Cross..

    The paradox of duality is rooted in the underlying architecture which postulates that the phenomenal realm is the reality and therefore, our own experience of consciousness becomes our concise reference point. If we continue to insist upon utilizing this model, duality in all of its forms cannot be avoided.

    To avoid the paradox of duality, a paradigm shift is required which then postulates that the noumenal realm is the Reality and our phenomenal realm is the Appearance of that reality. The panpsychist model of consciousness can then be understood in the context of an expression of that noumenal realm where consciousness then becomes the form of that expression. Reasoning is just the latest form of consciousness to arrive on the scene after billions of years of evolution. This model corresponds to what we observe and the micro-panpsychism model can then be used to replace our current model which is grounded in the Immortal Laws of Nature which is a discrete system. A discrete system is limited in scope, a discrete system is not capable of accommodating nor encouraging the novelty of expression we observe. A linear system of consciousness does.

    If we choose to insist solely upon our own reference point, then we are lead to the unavoidable conclusion that our own experience is one of Solipsism.

  9. On the first argument: I think it's false that one has to have some initial assumptions about the prevalence of consciousness to build a general theory -- unless by that you mean just that one has to have some initial paradigm cases, which is true. I can try to find out about what makes hair brown and start with clear cases of brown hair without knowing how prevalent it is in a population.
    So I suspect you were a bit too quick there.

    On the second argument: could it just be that we don't have enough independent sources of evidence yet to cross-check or corroborate?

  10. (To help avoid confusion perhaps I could be referred to here as P Eric?)


    Excellent report on impediments to nailing down the nature of consciousness. Yes different people tend to be more and less inclusive with their definitions. Furthermore we can’t really verify our ability to grasp what it’s like to be something else. Thus consciousness exploration currently seems quite futile.

    It may be however that we’ve been set up to fail by inheriting a flawed question. What if there actually is no true definition for “consciousness”, but rather only more and less useful definitions in respect to a given argument? That would suggest that we’ve been trying to determine the true nature of something when it actually has no true nature!

    This is what I believe, and so to potentially help I offer my first principle of epistemology. It states that there are no true or false definitions for any of our terms, but rather only more and less useful ones regarding a given argument. It suggests that anyone’s definition for consciousness, whether dualist, naturalist, panpsychist, or whatever, must be accepted in order to assess their positions in general. It mandates that no true definition for “force” exists, for example, though rather just the very useful one instituted by the great Sir Isaac Newton, or “accelerated mass”. Consciousness should achieve a similarly useful definition some day, though we may first need a respected community of epistemologists who are armed with their own generally accepted principles.

    We don’t know each other very well yet Eric, but I believe that our soft sciences largely remain this way given the traditionally speculative state of philosophy. Thus I’m for the creation of a community of professionals that has its own generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. I believe that such a community will ultimately found the institution of science itself. I wonder if you could get behind the creation of such a community as well?

  11. I believe the crucial question is whether IIT is Mathosophy or Philomatics.


  13. "A chord progression or harmonic progression is a succession of musical chords, which are two or more notes...", like the sounds of wind...

    That progression promotes "whats next", as answering questions, so life can go on...
    ...isn't it what antecedents do...