144 — August 5, 2004
EDGE SUMMER READING
During the month of August, two more Edge-related books will hit the bookstores. From the publisher announcements...
engrossing treat of a book...crammed with hugely enjoyable
anecdotes...you'll have a wonderful time reading these reminiscences." — New
Gell-Mann, Nicholas Humphrey, Freeman Dyson, Daniel C. Dennett, Lynn
Margulis, V. S. Ramachandran, Howard Gardner, Richard Dawkins, and more
than a dozen others tell their own entertaining and often inspiring
stories of the deciding moment. Illuminating memoir meets superb science
writing in essays that invite us to consider what it is—and isn’t—that
sets the scientific mind apart and into action.
Edge ... "Brilliant!" The Sunday Times • "Deep" New Scientist • "Thoughtful" Bill Gates: New York Times Column • "Stimulating" The Sunday Times (London) •"Fascinating" American Scientist • "Terrific" Guardian Unlimited • "Heady" Kevin Kelly (Editor-At-Large, Wired) • "Influential" The Times • "Lively" The Independent • "A-List" Wired • "Inspired" The Sunday Times •"Awesome" Wired •"Stunning" Arts & Letters Daily •"Entertaining" San Jose Mercury News •"Wonderful" The Times (London) •"Interesting" The New York Times • "Prestigious" Wired News • "Marvellous" Prospect
SCIENCE AT THE EDGE
on many of the best Edge features, revised for the book.
"A compact, if bumpy, tour through the minds of some of the world's preeminent players in science and technology." — Philadelphia Inquirer
"[Brockman] wisely exits the stage after a brief monologue and turns the rest of the show over to his guests. What a show they put on!" — San Jose Mercury News
New Scientist •
Daily Telegraph •
Higher Education Supplement •
"Great fun" Physics
Dallas Morning News •
Post Book World •
NEXT FIFTY YEARS: SCIENCE IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
Responses (in order received) by Daniel C. Dennett, Jaron Lanier, Dylan Evans, Daniel Moerman, George Dyson, Thomas Metzinger, Jesse Prinz, Alva Noë, Rupert Sheldrake, Natika Newton, John Skoyles, Geoffrey Miller
C. Dennett: If
only more scientists were as willing as Nick is to show us
the "early" parts
of their thinking—the thinking you do before you present
your findings, or design your experiments, or formulate your hypotheses,
or even choose your field! — the wishful, impressionistic
explorations in imagination that uncover the hunches that then
actually motivate your life's work. [more]
only more scientists were as willing as Nick is to show us the "early" parts
of their thinking—the thinking you do before you present
your findings, or design your experiments, or formulate your
hypotheses, or even choose your field!—the wishful, impressionistic
explorations in imagination that uncover the hunches that then
actually motivate your life's work. If you want to know why scientists
disagree so vehemently with each other, resist each other's arguments
so pigheadedly, persist for so long in the effort to refute the
competition, you often have to delve back into the way their
imaginations have formed their unspoken setting of the issues.
Nick tells us not just how he got there but why he wants the
science of consciousness to turn out his way, and I daresay he
is not alone in much or all of his motivation, so he manages
to uncover a hidden agenda that probably drives a lot of others
as well. Since I have been gamely resisting much of this drift
for many years—with scant success!—I find it is always
valuable to get a glimpse into what may be driving it.
Bravo! The beauty of Humphrey's work is that his mind is active on so many levels at once. He quixotically attacks the problem of "Consciousness," but in the process he generates huge new ideas that are not only testable, but potentially useful.
Since Humphrey's style is almost Proustian, I'll briefly report that while reading his new idea of Placebo, I experienced the internal flux of contradictory reactions that collectively form the intuition that his is not only a "Big" new idea, but one with legs.
First you're certain that something so elegant and obvious in hindsight can't possibly be new. Surely you've even thought of it yourself. Alas, not. Then the flash of jealousy. Then the rush of associations. See how it compares with ideas in economics about perceptions of future values in individuals and markets. Draw a metaphor between the immune system and Muhammad Ali's "Rope-a-Dope." Hurry, hook it up to Csikszentmihalyi's idea of "Flow."
We already knew our paranoid genes build up our fat even when famine is unlikely and we'd prefer they butt out, and now it turns out they might withhold vital immune responses as well. A metaphor presents itself in which national policy maps to the body. Why so many uninsured in America? Because of an excessively conservative philosophy! What if this is a moment when the Polis can afford to heal itself after all?
The "Self" problem ought to be differentiated from the "Consciousness" problem. A "Self" can be thought of as one part of a system which models, predicts, and to some degree directs the rest of the system within its environment. There are purported states in which human subjects are said to have lost some significant degree of self while retaining some significant degree of consciousness, including some forms of hypnosis, non-metaphorical (Haitian) zombiehood, and recreational drug use. I don't claim to be an expert on these phenomena, but I do think there's something to be lost if people think of their selves as merely being functional parts. (I've described my pragmatic objection to a cousin of self-blindness, the artificial intelligence worldview, elsewhere on edge.org. Briefly: AIers will tend to create poor quality user interface designs, because they are willing to reduce their human standards to achieve parity with whatever it is computers can do at the time.)
Dan Dennett has his own charming blindsight, in that he certainly displays a robust sense of self but seems to either not experience himself internally or be immune to awe at that sense of experience. As always, I suspect he is secretly as mystified by his internal life as anyone else, but enjoys the reactions he can provoke by pretending to be a sophisticated zombie.
share Dan Dennett's misgivings about Nick Humphrey's belief in
the "wonderfulness in its own right" of consciousness.
Wonderfulness is surely a relational property — a two place
predicate — so nothing, not even Nick's consciousness — can
be "wonderful in its own right".
Nick Humhrey and I have worked together for the last several years in the "Placebo Group" organized by Anne Harrington through the Harvard University Mind /Brain /Behavior Center. We have often found ourselves with different positions on things, always with great interest and good humor.
I have not thought about consciousness the way Nick Humphrey has; as an anthropologist, I've always assumed it as the essence of human being-ness, and gone on from there. And, thinking about it now as Nick sticks his intellectual elbows into my virtual ribs to do so, I come again to a conclusion with which he probably won't agree. I find it hard to believe that there is any adaptive explanation for consciousness.
Consciousness is a gift, and perhaps one from the Devil. It makes no sense. Five thousand other mammals from platypus to dolphin manage without anything remotely like a human system of consciousness, language, meaning, recursion, uncountable sets, aesthetics, etc. Yes, all animals (mammals and planaria) probably have some sense of self (although in some cases, like slime molds, it's hard to know where it would reside); all sexual animals, at least, communicate at least once in a while (well, oysters do it without much communication that makes any sense to me; so let me change it to "most sexual animals"). Some stuff may mean things to primates; although that obviously depends on the definition of "mean," something that would be hard to discuss with the wisest chimpanzee (which is, I guess, the point). And, of course, I know lots of human beings who have utterly no sense at all of aesthetics, even if they can "talk," in some sense of the word.
All this says that human beings are the result of an evolutionary process, and that we have close animal kin. But we only need look at the anatomy of the hand, or the liver, to know that. When it comes to consciousness, to the "individualized life" as Nick calls it, we have, in my view, no peer, nothing even close; this is the land of saltation. What I've said about the lack of non-human consciousness is obviously controversial (see Dan Deanne's comments), but among the most successful living forms on the planet are plants, in the broad sense — ferns and redwoods, mosses and roses, alga and fungi — where I doubt much controversy exists regarding consciousness; I once marveled to see a veil of green alga growing around the glowing blue radioactive rods of a nuclear power plant under 20 feet of water; they will outlive us all.
given a) the astonishing persistence of non-individualized life,
of life free of human-style consciousness (for tens of thousands
of animal species, and hundreds of thousands of plant species),
and b) the damage that we consciousness-rich persons have done
to the whole ecosystem, to the evolutionary system which has
been going on for a billion years (more damaging than a streaking
asteroid, than a billion volcanos, than the drifting of continents;
or whatever), it seems to me that we have to look at consciousness
as not an evolutionary (and specifically adaptive) development
(which Nick notes is incredibly hard to account for, in the way
that we can account for other adaptations, like sickle cell anemia,
or tool making), but an accident, or a gift, or both. Similarly,
I find it hard to account for, say, art (e.g., Chauvet, Lascaux,
MOMA) in such terms; art seems to me a decisive element in human
evolution, but it's not something which can be accounted for
in terms of differential reproduction.
lucky Nick Humphrey did not solve the Consciousness Problem 40
years ago. We might have missed out on some of the wonderful
details he's been exploring along the way. In my opinion, the
Consciousness Problem (and a Theory of Everything for physics)
is Nature's way of keeping us humble while drawing our attention
to some of the details that really count. One of these is the
A Metallica of science! This one is going to haunt me for a while. Can we have a Patti Smith and a Sid Vicious of science too? And another Hendrix, some Primal Scream and a bit of early African Headcharge? Kerouac? A Cezanne of science? A Buddha?
course, no such things as selves exist in the world: nobody ever was or had a
self. A self could never be something you have — like
a bicycle or book by Dostoyevsky. You could only be one.
What the organism as a whole can have is an internal model of
itself as a whole: all that ever existed were conscious
self-models that could not be recognized as models. The
phenomenal self is not a thing, but a process — and the
subjective experience of being someone emerges if a conscious
information-processing system operates under a transparent self-model.
You are such a system right now, as you read these sentences.
Because you cannot recognize your self-model as a model,
it is transparent: you look right through it. You don't see it.
But you see with it. In other, more metaphorical, words
you constantly confuse yourself with the content of the
self-model currently activated by your brain.
Nick Humphrey is right that introspection is absolutely central for social cognition: it allows you to discover that you are a representational system at all, that you generate internal states which may be true or false. At the same time allows you to inspect the results, which your low-level mind-reading systems — your mirror neurons in F5 of your premotor cortex — automatically spit up all the time. It allows you to understand that your mind is driven by other agents in the environment, and that you can drive them. But in order to "intro"spect, you need a coherent, first-order self-model in place first! Then you can start to fool other people.
Placebos work via the human self-model too: it has a conscious tip-of the-iceberg, which is neurocomputationally anchored in low-level processes of constantly drawing a self-world boundary, like the immune system or homeodynamic autoregulation in the upper brainstem/hypothalamus. Change the representational content of the conscious self-model in the right way, get some unconscious microfunctional output, get an effect for free.
Believe in the magic of consciousness, get an effect for free as well. It is obvious how false beliefs can be highly advantageous: just think of the idea that one can be permanently happy with members of the other sex or that children automatically give meaning to your life. Here is some terrible philosopher's jargon for you: functional adequacy is not epistemic justification. And it would be great to live in a world where Magic Happens! Come on, Dan! Admit it: there are aspects of the scientific world-view which may be damaging to our mental well-being, and that is what everybody intuitively feels, and that is why people look for back doors and placebos.
The incentive Nick speaks about is not in consciousness as at such, but in the transparency of the conscious human self-model: the new functional property is that it makes a system maximally egotistic, a true believer in itself, in whatever its reward system and its emotions currently tell it. Why? Remember: it cannot recognize it's own self-model as a model. Nick is also right about the relevance of the thick present, the phenomenal Now: computationally speaking it is the simplest form of explicit time-representation, it allows for explicit predictions in time, creates a virtual window of presence and allows an animal for the first time to represent the fact that a world is present (my own minimal notion of consciousness, by the way).
The system is in time. Things explode when you combine these two: have a coherent world model integrated with a thick moment and then put a rich, transparent self-model into it. What you get is Being Someone the phenomenal experience of a self currently being present in a world. Is that worth having? Is it in our interest to have this form of consciousness?
Flowery placebo or not, the merit of Nick's contribution lies in drawing attention to a truly deep, highly relevant and constantly neglected issue. It is not at all clear if the biological form of consciousness, as so far brought about by evolution on our planet, is a desirable form of experience, an actual good in itself. Let me further provoke Nick by playing the Gloomy German here.
The theoretical blind spot of current philosophy of mind is the issue of conscious suffering: thousands of pages are being written about color qualia or the contents of thought, but almost no theoretical work is devoted to ubiquitous phenomenal states like physical pain or simple everyday sadness ("subclinical depression"), or to the phenomenal content associated with panic, despair and melancholy — let alone to the conscious experience of mortality or of losing one's dignity. There may be deeper evolutionary reasons behind this cognitive scotoma, but I am not going to pursue this point here (didn't Jaron Lanier talk of "death-denial" some years ago?)
The ethical/normative issue is of greater relevance. If one dares to take a closer look at the actual phenomenology of biological systems on our planet, the many different kinds of conscious suffering are at least as dominant a feature as are color vision or conscious thought, both of which appeared only very recently. Evolution is not something to be glorified. One way — out of countless others — to look at biological evolution on our planet is as a process that has created an expanding ocean of suffering and confusion where there previously was none. As not only the simple number of individual conscious subjects, but also the dimensionality of their phenomenal state-spaces is continuously increasing, this ocean is also deepening. For me, this is also a strong argument against creating artificial consciousness: we shouldn't add to this terrible mess before we have truly understood what actually is going on here. I admit that there exists unfathomable beauty in phenomenal experience.
Humphrey's "magical richness" may not be intrinsic, and it certainly
is open to functional explanations. But nobody seems to see how
we pay a high price for that beauty — which raises
the normative issue if it is a value, a good "in itself". Personally,
I have my doubts that the conscious self-models we have today
are worth having. We better stop glorifying our own neurophenomenological status
quo, and find the courage to think about positive alternatives
in a rational way.
There aren't enough idea people in science. There are dangers in being overly data driven. Too many good people spend careers tweaking experimental paradigms rather than charting out new terrain. Too many people are slaves to statistical significance. Nick Humphrey is always refreshing. To read him is to experience the rush or vertigo that inevitably accompanies any trip out on a limb. Should we follow Nick through his latest forest of tenuous stalks and twisting branches? Perhaps we should — as long as we don't grasp for those nimble leaves that cluster fetchingly at the tips.
Might consciousness have evolved to give us a sense of self? That depends. The self is not any one thing. We have biographical selves, self conceptions, and self-defining long-term goals. It's pretty likely that consciousness is functionally independent of these things. Indeed, the idea of a single, enduring self, which these notions tend to presuppose, may be a cultural construct. Is my biographical self really the same person as my self of aspirations? Do I really have just one biographical self? The Egyptians believed in seven souls. The Greeks (like Freud) believed in three. Which one is me? Perhaps we need conscious minds to raise such questions, but to suggest that consciousness arose for this lofty purpose (or for the purpose of postulating other minds) is an engrandizement of experience.
There is, however, a more minimal sense of self. It is captured in a feeling of agency. We sometimes do things deliberately. We sometimes exert executive power over mental events. These "controlled processes" constitute a thin kind of self-ownership. If consciousness is linked to that skinny self, then Nick's idea may be vindicated. I think there is reason to believe in such a link. I have been defending the view that consciousness arises when perception becomes accessible to working memory by means of attention. If that is right, then consciousness arises under just those conditions when perception becomes available for deliberative response. Human blindsighters (what to say about Helen?) do not respond spontaneously to visual inputs, because those inputs usually don't get to working memory. When blindsighters have phenomenal experience in the blind fields when and only when stimulus parameters are such that working memory can be entrained.
In a word, I think consciousness is a precondition for control. If minimal me-ness consists in control, then consciousness is a precondition for one kind of self. Moreover, it is plausible that consciousness was selected for this purpose. I think consciousness came on the scene with working memory. If working memory is an adaptation, then so perhaps is the process by which information becomes available to working memory.
In sum, I think Nick is right to pursue the connection between consciousness and self. He may also be right about the placebo effect. And, if the minimal-me is a control hub, then there may be much to gain in bringing our native healing powers into consciousness. I hope that Nick's speculations take root.
Humphrey's work on consciousness is important. It is original;
it is also sometimes maddening. His key insight that consciousness
depends on action continues to bear fruit. More specifically,
Nick is on to something fundamental when he proposes that a crucial
station in the evolution of consciousness is the appearance of
creatures who can decouple motor response from sensory stimulation.
That's what simpler organisms, with their simpler bodies, cannot
do. For the amoeba there is a direct bio-chemical linkage between
stimulus and response. For the spider, or squirrel, or person,
there is not.
"A self worth having" is a fascinating synthesis of Nicholas Humphrey's ideas over the last forty years. Although I have known Nick throughout that entire period, I've never seen such a clear summary of his various approaches to consciousness.
What struck me more forcibly now than ever before was the resemblance between Nick's ideas about the nature of sensation and the philosophy of Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Conscious feeling, Nick suggests is a "remarkable kind of intentional doing". Feelings enter consciousness not as events that happen to us but as activities that we ourselves engender and participate in. The basis of Bergson's view was that "perception is entirely directed towards actions". Bergson, like Nick Humphrey, saw perception as concerned with virtual actions. "I see that my perception appears to follow all the vibratory detail of the so called sensitive nerves; and on the other hand I know that the role of their vibrations is solely to prepare the reaction of my body on neighbouring bodies, to sketch out my virtual actions. Perception, therefore, consists in detaching, from the totality of objects, the possible action of my body upon them."[Matter And Memory, 1911 edition].
Again, like Nick Humphrey, Bergson thinks a key ingredient is the enclosure of time within the brain, through memory. "The growing complexity of the nervous system shunts the excitation received onto an ever larger variety of motor mechanisms, and so sketches out simultaneously an ever larger number of possible actions." In relation to memory, "By allowing us to grasp in a single intuition multiple moments of duration it frees us from the movement of the flow of things, that is to say, from the rhythm of necessity….The memory of a living being appears indeed to measure, above all, its powers of action upon things." Perhaps it is this resonance with Bergson's philosophy that makes some people see Nick as a romantic.
However like Dan Dennnett, I was not convinced by Nick's argument that consciousness gives us a reason for waking up every day. All other species wake up every day and get on with their lives without our kind of consciousness.
Nick emphasizes that "our experience of being conscious encourages us as nothing else could to take ourselves seriously as selves. We find new value in our lives, and, just as important, in the lives of other people." What he does not discuss is that in practically all traditional human societies, if not all, the experience of being conscious is associated with a belief that human consciousness is part of a much wider realm of consciousness which includes spirits, gods and God. This sense of being special goes beyond the nearly human realm. Human beings feel special because they share in something that goes beyond their usual limitations, linking them to other realms of consciousness, experienced in moments of insight and ecstasy.
In Nick’s interesting theory of the placebo effect, he draws attention to the importance of a mechanism for keeping something in reserve, which the placebo effect partially overrides. When I worked in the field of tropical plant physiology, I came across an interesting parallel for this process. In annual plants, which die after fruiting, there is no need to keep anything in reserve. They give all they have got, continuing to form fruits until they run out of resources, with the result that the later-formed fruits get smaller and smaller. By contrast, in perennial plants, which need to keep something in reserve for the next year, the fruits formed early and late in the season are more or less the same size. Perennial plants yield less than their full capacity, because they hold back reserves for the following season. We are like perennials.
Dennett congratulates Humphrey on showing us the "early parts" of his thinking in this essay. But there are even earlier parts that I wish were reflected more here. He refers to his theory that "conscious feeling ... is a remarkable kind of 'intentional doing'."Conscious feelings, he holds, are activities, not events that happen to us. Humphrey mentions possible mechanisms underlying the experienced "thick moment of the conscious present": that reentrant circuits constituting conscious states originated as bodily activities, and that evolution has modified these circuits so that they are now internal. The thickness of the present emerges from an "as-if" time dimension in which the signals for the fossil-like action patterns are monitered.
Now Humphrey leaps ahead of that proposal to a teleological account of temporal thickness: it evolved because it enhances our appreciation of a valuable selfhood. It may do that, but there is so much more of interest to be said about action circuits themselves, that it seems both premature and disappointing for him to turn to adaptationist speculations at this point (the related objection by Dylan Evans is well-taken). It also seems, at this stage, unnecessary. If having conscious experience is acting, then there is no deep mystery about how (or why) consciousness evolved. The structure of current action, taken together with the reentrant loops of perception in creatures like humans who rely on perception to create action plans, predicts a temporally extended conscious present.
may be in internalized remnants of overt perceptual acts, which
contribute to the subjective feel of consciousness. But even
without these, if consciousness itself is an activity, then that
activity seems sufficient to account for temporal thickness.
One has a goal — to find food, to satisfy curiosity drives, even to protect a restful state against perturbations — to which the stimulus is relevant, with a positive or negative valence. Consciousness of the present includes retention of the immediate past (at minimum for the purpose of context and continuity)and also anticipation of the immediate future, as well as alternative longer-range futures (at minimum for evaluating the affordances of the stimulus). If what we are conscious of is our activity — our agency, some say - then all three essential parts of the action must be contained in our experience: past, present, and future. It is the past and the future of the current activity of conscious agency that creates the temporal thickness that Humphrey, in my view, correctly identifies as the basis of consciousness. If our experience of the "now" is extended in such a way that qualitative properties of perceived objects can take on a substantive and enduring presence, then it is at least plausible that this (illusory) presence is what gives consciousness its ineffable and unique features.
It is important to recognize the motivation behind identifying the thick present with action stages. It is just as Humph says: we need to understand "why evolution [has] taken this remarkable course." The function of causing us to value our selves cannot be the whole story; we know that evolution builds on existing structures, so what structure could underly the tripartate nature of present experience? If present experience is the experience of agency, then the structure comes built-in. We are not forced to hypothesize tiny internalized remnants of ancient perceptual activity, although these may well be components of ongoing experience.
Nick Humphrey a fox or a hedgehog (to use Isaiah Berlin's famous
division of intellectuals)? His diversity of ideas hints at him
being a fox. But maybe Nick under his fox-like guise is a hedgehog
with a big vision. Blind sight, sensation, Machiavellian intelligence,
the nature of consciousness — and now placebos — below
the surface of Nick bubbles an imagination and curiosity befitting
a Hobbes, a Kant or a Descartes. Nick, I am sure will be embarrassed
by that suggestion, as he will by the following one: that he
is staking out a path in the study of the mind and body that
might do what heliocentricism did in an earlier age for the study
of the heavens. But rather than put the Earth on the periphery,
Nick's new 'heliocentricism' does this for inputs and outputs.
as a corporate pep rally.
If Dan Dennett and I are bookends, then we are bookends that meet up round the back. Though I may be more impressed than he is by the "magical qualities" of consciousness, I count myself as good a functionalist and anti-mysterian as anyone — and have learnt many of the philosophical moves from Dan. In fact if I were to set out to criticise my own position, I would do it in very much the terms that he does here (which is why, in so far as I continue to disagree with him, it is not for want of seeing his side of the argument).
The commentaries are provocative and helpful. (What have I done to deserve such a kind reception? Dan Dennett and Rupert Sheldrake both being positive!) Since Dan's commentary came first and set the tone, let me respond to him and pick up others' contributions along the way (though there's no way I will get to all of them).
Dan says I have read more into Frege than is warranted, and maybe I have. True, Frege never actually said that a subject has to be the subject of something. What he did say, in "The Thought: a Logical Inquiry", is:
It seems absurd to us that a pain, a mood, a wish should rove about the world without a bearer, independently. An experience is impossible without an experient. The inner world presupposes the person whose inner world it is.
So, I agree, Frege's point (like Kant's, much earlier) was that subjective experience requires a subject, not that a subject requires subjective experience. Still, I'd say the second point is not only just as logical as the former, but in some ways more important — at any rate more psychologically salient. Because, for anyone who reflects on it, it leads beyond the dull analytic conclusion that "I have such and such experiences, therefore I am" to the much more interesting revelation that "I am because I have such and such experiences." And, at the level of individual psychology, this surely is — or can be — headline news: the discovery that "This is what it means to be me!"
I'm not saying of course that most people (let alone most animals) articulate this discovery. But the revelation — at whatever level it gets through — that "This is what I am" is nonetheless something with the potential to inspire new forms of self-interest and self-respect. Thus I can (and indeed do) like being the subject of my experience. I can be amazed, proud, tickled to be "the person whose inner world this is".
I don't agree for a moment with Alva Nöe, Jesse Prinz or Thomas Metzinger (or Hume) that "no such things as selves exist in the world". I think selves exist just in so far as there are subjects who recognise certain sets of intentional states as their own — which is to say, since in my view it all boils down to action, subjects who represent themselves as the agents or authors of those states. In fact (though I realise this begs some questions) I'm happy to make this the definition of a "self": namely, that my self is the representation in my mind (which is certainly part of the world) of "I", the author of my intentional states, continually-updated.
I'd ask you to note, pace Nöe, that this set of mental states -- the states of which I am the author, as distinct from the states of which you are or he is — constitutes much more than a mere Humean "bundle". In fact this set of states is quite obviously a well marked natural kind: every mental state that's mine is in it, nothing else is (which is arguably about as well marked and natural as any kind can get.)
The set may include, of course, a variety of different types of mental state: sensations, percepts, thoughts, desires, beliefs, volitions, higher level thoughts about sensations, thoughts about thoughts, and so on. I think it's fair to assume that a self of sorts could be constituted through the subject recognising his authorship at any of these levels. (In fact I've argued elsewhere that a single individual may originally, soon after birth, house several different types of self in parallel, and that they come together only as and when they turn out to be engaged in a single project). But it's the thrust of my new argument, as I outlined it in the Interview, that not all such selves would be equally. capable of motivating adaptive thinking and behaviour — or as I put it, be selves "worth having". In this regard, I contend that the author of phenomenal sensations, the subject of the thick moment, is uniquely privileged.
Now, Dan and others challenge me to be more specific about how an interest in this type of self, let's call it the "phenomenal self", translates into biological survival, and at what level of the evolutionary tree I suppose that it kicks in -- earthworms, foxes, homo erectus, Bertrand Russell?
My answer is that I see it as happening in several stages, with the phenomenal self revealing latent strengths as new demands and crises have occurred. As the saying goes, there are horses — or rather selves — for courses. Different types of "I"s come into their own as and when different kinds of biological and cultural niches open up opportunities for them.
I've argued before that the neural architecture that is required for "thick sensations" evolved only with the mammalian brain (though there may have been a similar development in birds). So earthworms are out. But foxes are surely in. I'd guess that a fox does indeed have a phenomenal self, and that this self is an asset to the fox's planning for its future. Nonetheless the "I" of a fox has a much less demanding role than the "I" of a modern human being.
Still, Dan , endorsed by Dylan Evans and Rupert Sheldrake, chides me for arguing that, even at the most basic level of the life-game, human beings are in a different league. What's good enough for foxes, they suggest, ought to be good enough for us. Why should human beings need novel incentives to, as I put it, "get up in the morning and get on with life"? But the reductio of this suggestion would be that what's good enough for worms is good enough for foxes, and what's good enough for bacteria is good enough for worms — so that all that's ever been required for an organism to get on with life is a basic "life instinct". And this is absurd.
In reality, new challenges — and new temptations to abandon the struggle — must have arisen with each advance in biological complexity. The fact that we and other living species are here today is testament to the fact that we have each evolved to find, on our own terms, reasons to carry on. And I think it's obvious that our terms, human terms, are quite unlike any other.
Dylan hints that I may have a hidden agenda when I talk about human "reasons to live". And (as he knows, since he and I have discussed it) actually I do. But this is not the place to start on my ideas about the deep (million year deep!) history of existential anxiety (which soon enough I hope to turn into another book).
Suffice it to say that I believe that about 50,000 years ago, the human species faced a crisis: human beings were in danger of becoming victims of their own mental evolution. Under pressure from ideas they were beginning to lose heart.
minds had been extending progressively — and safely — into areas
never yet visited by our ape ancestors. But everything changed
once intelligence and culture crossed a certain threshold. The
critical event was the development of a mind that, on the one hand,
demanded meaning and, on the other, was capable of the dreadful
realisation that human existence ultimately has none — that
life ends as nothing. From that point on, no one was safe from
the destructive self-questioning: why bother? what's the point?
The philosopher Tom Nagel has put it like this: "There are elements which, if added to one's experience, make life better; there are other elements which, if added to one's experience make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. Therefore life is worth living even when the bad elements of experience are plentiful, and the good ones too meagre to outweigh the bad ones on their own. The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its contents."
But why is conscious experience emphatically positive? Why should it be? Ah, that's the question (or, as Dan might say, the wrong question).
In the Interview I said, perhaps incautiously, "the more I try to make sense of it, the more I come back to the fact that we've evolved to regard consciousness as a wonderfully good thing in its own right — which could just be because consciousness is a wonderfully good thing in its own right!"
Dan and Dylan take me to task for this talk of "good in its own right". Values, they point out, are relational. Something is good or bad in the estimation of someone, not good or bad intrinsically. I agree of course. So let me explain better what I meant.
Because values are indeed relational, there can be two ways by which something gets to be valued in the course of evolution: there can be evolution of the evaluator and/or evolution of the valued thing. But if and in so far as it is the second way — the thing as such has evolved — then I think it fair to say the thing has come to be valued "in its own right."
Consider, for example, why honeysuckle is attractive to bees The answer may be (a) that bees have evolved to like the look and smell of honeysuckle, and/or (b) that honeysuckle has evolved to have a look and smell that appeals to bees. In the latter case honeysuckle would be attractive to bees in its own right.
then, consider again why consciousness is seen as a wonderfully
good thing by human beings. The answer may be (a) that human beings
have evolved to like the peculiar qualities of consciousness, and/or (b)
that consciousness has evolved to have peculiar qualities that
appeal to human beings.
The human beings who carried such genes for phenomenal consciousness would, ex hypothesi, have taken themselves — as hosts to something so remarkable — more seriously as selves . Indeed the more mysterious the qualities of consciousness, the more seriously significant the self. In which case, it's easy to see how the very qualities of consciousness that philosophers such as Colin McGinn and David Chalmers deem"metaphysically problematical" would have been the occasion for consciousness becoming a runaway evolutionary success. In fact these qualities would soon have been designed in.
And yet, contra-Dennett, I'd stick with my point that, because humans who valued their consciousness would have enjoyed greater biological fitness, this would have been a symbiotic mutualism between the host organism and the new genes — not a parasitic exploitation.
the long and the short of my argument is this. (I'm glad to see
that Alva saw it coming). There has very likely been positive
selection in the course of evolution for precisely the qualities
of consciousness that we have most trouble in explaining..
In the jargon of computer programming, the baffling qualities of
phenomenal consciousness aren't "bugs", they're "features".
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