Monday, August 3, 2009

How can consciousness be explained?

Before reading “Out of Our Heads”, a recently published book by the philosopher Alva Noё’, I would not have questioned Francis Crick’s claim that “you, your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” (quoted by Noё on p 5).

If someone had asked me how I felt about that statement before I read this book I would probably have shrugged my shoulders and said that it was just one of those things we have to accept whether we like it or not. I might have added, however, that I thought that Friedrich Hayek made a good point over 50 years ago (in “The Sensory Order”) when he said that the type of explanation that the physical sciences aim for is not applicable to “mental events”. Hayek argued that human decisions are the result of the whole of the human mind (or personality) and we cannot reduce them to something else.

Alva Noё goes further than Hayek in casting doubt on the capacity of neuroscience to explain consciousness. He claims: It is misguided to search for neural correlates of consciousness – at least if these are understood, as they sometimes are, to be neural structures or processes that are alone sufficient for consciousness. There are no such neural structures. How could there be? (p 185).

Noё suggests: “To understand the sources of experience we need to see those neural processes in the context of the conscious being’s active relation to the world around it. ... Consciousness of the world around us is something that we do: we enact it, with the world’s help, in our dynamic living activities. It is not something that happens in us” (p 64).

He further explains: “The brain does not generate consciousness the way a stove generates heat. A better comparison would be with a musical instrument. Instruments don’t make music or generate sounds on their own. They enable people to make music or produce sounds” (p 64).

This is obviously a very different explanation of consciousness than that provided by Francis Crick. Noё doesn’t discuss the views of other neuroscientists, such as Antonio Damasio, that seem to me to be more similar to his own view. For example, Damasio writes: “The secret of making consciousness may well be this: that the plotting of a relationship between any object and the organism becomes the feeling of a feeling” (“The Feeling of What Happens”, p 313).

It will be interesting to see whether Noё’s view becomes widely accepted. Daniel Dennett’s comment (on the dust jacket) suggests that those with different views may consider this book to be a worthy challenge: “Those of us who disagree with its main conclusions have our work cut out for us”. In “Freedom Evolves” Dennett takes as his starting point that we are “each made of mindless robots and nothing else” (roughly a hundred trillion cells) and sets himself the task of explaining the evolution of human consciousness. Dennett’s explanation is that human consciousness evolved for sharing ideas i.e. it is associated with the development of language and the enhanced survival capacity of groups in which reflective agents accepted responsibility for their actions.

Noё has a very different view of when consciousness began. He views life as the lower bound of consciousness: “once you see the organism as a unity, as more than just a process, you are, in effect, recognizing its primitive agency, its possession of interests, needs, and a point of view. That is, you are recognizing its at least incipient mindfulness” (p 41).

That is the part of Noё’s view of consciousness that I have most difficulty accepting. Attempting to explain the capacity of humans to reflect upon their own actions is a different project than attempting to explain the incipient mindfulness shown by a bacterium – even accepting that both forms of behaviour are enacted with the world’s help by organisms engaged in dynamic living activities.

Finally, how would I respond now if asked how I feel about the quote from Francis Crick at the beginning of this post? I would say that Alva Noё has persuaded me that Francis Crick’s claim is as misguided as attributing music solely to the components of musical instruments.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is diaphysics?

Some readers might be wondering whether diaphysics has something to do with the views of L. Ron Hubbard. It doesn’t. If you thought it did you were probably confusing it with dianetics.

Diaphysics is the title of a book by Troy Camplin, an interdisciplinary scholar, poet and short story writer, who maintains the blog, Interdisciplinary World. The book was published recently by University Press of America. (I bought my copy from Amazon.)

Troy defines diaphysics as “a set of natural laws that manifest themselves in different ways at different levels of complexity, which then give rise to new levels of complexity” (p vi).

So, what does that mean? The levels of complexity are levels of reality (or perhaps stages in the evolution of reality). The first level is pure energy. This gives rise to the second level, quantum physics, which gives rise to chemistry. From this level we get the emergence of biology and the evolutionary processes that result eventually in various levels of human thinking (276 -278). The higher levels of reality are more complex than the lower levels of reality. “With emergence into each new level, those new levels are able to use more and different kinds of information and energy not available to the levels below them” (99).

Troy’s theory is that “a common thread” runs through the emergence from each level of complexity to the greater level of complexity that follows it. He is proposing “a mechanism for creation of more objects, and more complex objects and emergent orders of complexity ...”. “Evolution occurs such that the fitness landscapes evolve towards increasing smoothness ... . Once smoothness, or a new symmetry, is reached, a new set of fitness landscapes emerge with the emergence of the new, more complex level from the far-from-equilibrium state” (267).

The passage quoted above seems to be at the heart of the theory, but I don’t understand it. The author seems to be saying that there is a natural law at work such that as the fitness landscape becomes smoother a new fitness landscape must emerge. I don’t see a common mechanism by which smoothness of the fitness landscape always results in the emergence of a more complex level, but that may just reflect the limits of my cognitive capacities. The nature of the common mechanism that Troy is attempting to describe remains a mystery to me.

It would be nice to think that there might be a common thread, that is not beyond my understanding, that could explain the evolution of complexity from the big bang to modern civilization. I am content enough, however, to be able to understand what Friedrich Hayek wrote about the relatively recent evolution of modern society:

“It is because it was not dependent on organisation but grew up as a spontaneous order that the structure of modern society has attained that degree of complexity which it possesses and which far exceeds any that could have been achieved by deliberate organization. In fact, of course, the rules which made the growth of the complex order possible were initially not designed in expectation of that result; but those people who happened to adopt suitable rules developed a complex civilization which then often spread to others” LLL, Vol. I, p 50.

Before I end this review I must commend Troy Camplin for the many nicely written passages in his book. For example: “ ... in a region of phase transition, in an edge-of- chaos regime, we have complex interactions, swirls and eddies, a combination of the predictable and unpredictable. In other words it is like a good story, which can be neither purely ordered and predictable nor disordered and unpredictable, but must have elements of both in order to be enjoyed” (272).

Troy’s book is not just an attempt to identify a common thread in our past. He also speculates about the future direction of human development. Diaphysics is probably the most ambitious book I have ever attempted to read.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What makes a planet happy?

I find it hard to take seriously the concept of a happy planet. Is Earth happier than Mars? How would we know? It seems to me that only sentient beings can be happy, but that might just reflect the limited perspective of a sentient being. For all I know a rock might have a completely different perspective.

The happy planet index constructed by the New Economics Foundation (nef) doesn’t actually attempt to compare the happiness of different planets. What it attempts to do is to assess how happy our planet is with what is happening in different countries. I hope that makes you smile because if you take the happy planet index too seriously I think you are at risk of becoming unhappy – and that might make the planet unhappy!

The countries that are given the highest ratings in nef’s index are Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guatemala and Vietnam. These places don’t seem to me to offer the ideal of a good life for the people who live in them, even though many of these people say they are satisfied with their lives.

The authors claim that the results show that a good life is possible without “costing the earth”. Andrew Norton has pointed out that the results do not support this conclusion. Average happiness levels are relatively low in several countries that are ranked among the top 50 in the happy planet index.

As defined by the nef the happy planet index is a productivity measure. The numerator (or output measure) is happy life years, measured by multiplying average life satisfaction levels by average life expectancy. The denominator (or input measure) is a linear function of the average “ecological footprint”, which is a measure of the total amount of land required to provide all resource requirements plus the amount of vegetated land required to absorb CO2 emissions.

The basic idea seems to be that “the planet” becomes happier when people in a particular country become happier without using more “land” or when people maintain their current happiness level while using less “land”.

How do we know that this is what makes the planet happier? How do we know that the planet cares whether or not humans are happy?

My point is that the happiness of the planet only exists in the mind of the human who thought up the idea of the happy planet index. There is nothing wrong with trying to imagine what it would be like to be a planet that has feelings, but this is a game that anyone can play. Some people could imagine, for example, that the happiness of the planet will rise if more CO2 is produced. After all, CO2 is food for plants and planets like plants. Don’t they?

It would be possible for everyone on earth to have their own happy planet index that takes account of the things that they imagine that the planet might value. It would probably be preferable, however, to come down to earth and acknowledge that there is potential for everyone on the planet to vary in the extent to which they value various things that are important to them.

If nef’s happy planet index serves a useful purpose I think it is to remind us that surveys that measure our subjective well-being do not necessarily take into account all the things that are important to us. When we report how satisfied we are with life we take account of the things that are most salient to us at the time. We don’t necessarily take into account our own future well-being and the well-being of future generations of family members, let alone the well-being of other relatives and friends, the well-being of other humans, the well-being of animal pets, the well-being of other living things, or other matters that might be important to us.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Is there an issue of respect involved in climbing Uluru?

When I visited Uluru for the first time about 10 days ago I learned a little about its significance to the Anangu (western desert people) who are the traditional owners. A few days later, while we were driving home to New South Wales, the board of management of the Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park released a draft management plan for 2009-2019 which raises, among other things, the question of whether visitors should continue to be allowed to climb the rock. The board was seeking comments from the public.

Before we got home, however, Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, had weighed in with the view that it would be “sad” if people were banned from climbing the rock. While citizen Rudd is entitled to express his views on anything and everything (as he does incessantly) I think it will be sad if his intervention closes off further discussion of this issue.

The significance of Uluru to Anangu is reasonably clear. They believe that as direct descendants of the ancestral beings who created the landscape at the beginning of time they are responsible for its protection and appropriate management. They also believe that they have a responsibility to safeguard visitors to their land. The main reason that traditional owners have given to discourage visitors from climbing the rock is the danger involved: “We feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land”. The draft management plan suggests, however, that an issue of respect may also be involved. It quotes Tony Tjamiwa: “That rock is really important and sacred. You shouldn’t climb it! Climbing is not a proper tradition for this place” (p 86).

What is the significance of Uluru to visitors? Some of the literature about it suggests that it has something to do with the size of the object – it is 9.4 kilometres in circumference and rises about 340 metres above the surrounding plain. That might seem big to those who think of rocks as large stones, but Uluru is actually a remnant of an ancient mountain. It is composed of sedimentary rock that has become heavily eroded over time.

Uluru is a natural object of great beauty. The explorer Ernest Giles described it as “ancient and sublime”. Giles, however, was not the first European to visit the rock. William Gosse got there first, in 1873, and named it Ayers Rock, after Henry Ayers (a South Australian politician who is most remembered these days for having had Uluru named after him).

Tourists have been interested in travelling to Uluru for over 60 years, with the first vehicular track being constructed in 1948 in response to this interest. In the early 1950s several motels and a camping ground were built at the base of Uluru. Increasing tourism resulted, in 1958, in the area that is now the Uluru – Kata Tjuta national park being excised from an aboriginal reserve. Traditional ownership of the park was recognized in 1985 under an agreement in which it was leased back to the federal government for 99 years.

Most visitors to Uluru presumably go there primarily in order to see Australia’s most recognisable natural icon first hand. Although climbing the rock has become something of a tradition, only about one-third of visitors now choose to climb. I imagine that fewer people would climb if it was made clear in the literature distributed to visitors that an issue of respect may be involved as well as concerns about safety.

It seems to me that this is the crux of the issue. Is there a way that it would be possible for visitors to be permitted to climb the rock that would be consistent with appropriate respect for this place?