Today I thought, you know what, enough is enough, let’s solve this hard problem of consciousness once and for all. I know it’s probably tough, but during preliminary research I was shocked with how little philosophy of mind draws on psychology and psychoanalysis, so I do think there’s an opportunity here. Not to mention that the field still carries to this day blatant absurdities and inconsistencies that quite frankly belong in the middle ages with witchcraft and wizardry, so there’s definitely an opportunity. And it seems that I might be going mad, because I also did a bunch of reading in preparation for this piece.
The scientist blind to inconcistencies
Despite my fondness for the man and his ideas, I did not get around to reading Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett until very recently. Philosophy of mind is a pretty active field, and I naively assumed that it did not have much to teach me. Well I was wrong.
I thought its content had been digested in the field by now, but nothing could be further from the truth. The book is not a final solution to the problem of consciousness, of course, but it does solve a few questions categorically. It’s outreageous that 30 years later we’re still hearing insanity like “imagine a scientist that knows everything about colors, now imagine she learns a new thing, magic!”. I cannot imagine what it must be like (sic) to work in a domain where you still hear to this day this kind of garbage, at best poorly thought out ramblings, at worst deliberate obfuscation.
But let’s not dwell on this negativity, and instead turn to the positive perspectives that the book opens up.
One aspect in which the book was way ahead of its time was its familiarity with AI and computer technologies. Before so many people were argueing about “can a computer be conscious”, Dennett spun the problem on its head highlighting that a computer, more specifically the Von Neuman architecture, was designed as an abstraction/automatisation/systematization of conscious thought.
Furthermore, he notices that consciousness is rather slow compared to the speed you’d expect based on neural processes. He explains this by the idea that consciousness could be like a single-threaded software running emulated in a heavily parallel biological architecture, like a VM (hence the performance issues).
Yet, most of the book is focused on the Multiple Draft Theory of consciousness, investigating how the operations we naively think of as “centralized” in the “carthesian theatre” are actually possible (and less inconsistent) in a decentralized framework. However, it is rather light on the question of “how does this pandemonium of processes result in a single threaded architecture”. Why does it seem that I have only one trail of thought? If so many things are going on in parallel, why am I only conscious of one thing at a time?
This question is of course an oversimplification. I’ve been known to be feeling cold, hungry, AND thinking about something at the same time. Yet, it does seem that I have a single point of view, a unitary identity, a unique “voice in my head” if you will.
In my head there are zombies
Interestingly, Dennett does say a few things about internal discourse. The section III.1. “How human beings spin a self” foreshadows the scientific findings on the incredible confabulating power of the brain. I love his framing of the self as the “narrative center of gravity”. In this, he describes the self as a fiction one tells about oneself, a kind of unifying construct built with the raw material of ideas (memes) represented by words.
He illustrates the core role of language in consciousness with the phenomenon of blindsight, in which patients body can react to stimuli they have no conscious awareness of. We can then witness clearly the distinction between conscious, verbalizable thoughts, and unconscious ones that only have causal reactional properties. The former is what constitute our consciousness. He puts this in perspective with the poststructuralist conception that “there is nothing outside the text”: you are what you speak, if only to yourself.
In section II.7.5. “The invention of good and bad habits of autostimulation“, he takes a Darwinian approach to explain how consciousness could be the evolutionary result of a process of self-talk internalization. He highlights the value when it comes to coordination of broadcasting a signal as a question/answer dialog, even if its a soliloquy.
What does it mean for our initial single-threading concern? Well, it would suggest that the “language” processes in the brain play the role of synchronization mechanism to the inner chaos, a bottleneck fennel letting out feelings one at a time. We have only one mouth each, which could result in one “idealized internalized abstract model” of a mouth each.
The evolutionary utility of modeling others
This seems as good a time as any for a tiny diversion into the world of Darwinian evolution. One thing that somehow seems to puzzle a fair amount of philsophers of mind is that consciousness does not seem to have, according to them, any evolutionary utility and therefore could not have been selected for.
This is of course wrong, and a pretty sad failure of imagination that continues to muddy the discourse of the field almost as much as bad thought experiments. We’ve seen how Dennett offers a retelling of darwinian evolution (reminding me of Kurzweil or Dawkins) to stress out the broadcast utility of consciousness. But the definitive authority on the evolutionary role of consciousness is for sure Nicolas Humphrey.
I do not agree with all his conclusions, but he puts forward so many perspectives on the evolutionary utility of consciousness that you could not reject all of them in good faith. His main work centers around the utility of consciousness as a model of complex entities (i.e. other humans), an abstraction fundamental to the establishment of rich collaborative societies. It is the main element of empathy. Note the social aspect here. In this perspective, qualia acts as a shorthand, an incredibly condensed batch of information summarizing the state of a human being, which in turn allows interaction.
You can take a look at his 2007 paper “The society of selves” for a quick rundown on how, by internalizing my reactions and feelings as qualia, I can use these to extrapolate how you must be feeling. I love this idea of running simulations of people in your brain substrate. The “me inside of you” is incidentally a recurring trope in anime, best illustrated at the end of Evangelion or in Serial Experiments Lain.
Tautological moral realism
But my favorite killer argument of his for the utility of consciousness though is that it evolved as a way to make selves matter. “Consciousness matters because it is its function to matter”. It is a value enhancer, a fundation for ethical and moral framewokrs. A life full of qualia is rich, worth pursuing and protecting, more than a life without. Obviously it will make you care more about your body. But it will also increase the value you put on other’s bodies. You could see how fundamental it is for self-presevation and for the formation of a social group.
This incidentally explains the natural reluctance to materialist reductionism. Of course you’d care about caring, almost by definition. A noteworthy corellary is that the kind of qualia that will appear, stick and be selected for, is in a way similar to the shareability of memes. Seen through the lense of this utility function, we can guess that strong emotions might be favored. And materialist reductionism selected out XD I guess this is what makes the hard problem hard. No mystical mysteriousness here I’m afraid XD
12 rules for self help
Now that we’ve seen why qualia would appear, let’s focus on the how. Going back to Dennett’s soliloquy framework, it does not take long for a philosophical zombie to persuade themselves they are conscious (III.4. Zombies, zimboes and the user illusion). As we saw, he suggests that it might be enough to render the zombie conscious in some way by self stimulation. But where this gets really interesting is that it echoes psychology and psychoanalytics’ conclusion that language is paramount to psychological health and development.
This zombie example could seem absurd at first, but I think we should take it seriously. Autosuggestion (self-persuasion) is a well established psychological phenomenon and a major cornerstone of the self help movement. And most psychology models seem to agree that language and more generaly social interaction play a key role in the development of the individual. Yet, I didn’t see it much discussed in the context of philosophy of mind.
If language creates and shapes consciousness, what does this process look like? We want to look in the direction of constructivist theories of consciousness. Matthieu Koroma was kind enough to offer me an introduction to this field. But I found relatively few bridges with child development psychology. There was a trend in early XXth century with the work of Vygotsky that was quickly abandonned. Humphrey does insist that consciousness is centered around modelling others’ behaviors, which takes place through language and obviously includes your parents while you’re groing up, but he does not go too deep into that direction. Another researcher I found tackling this subject is Michael Graziano. I’ll definitely keep an eye on his work. Yet he seems focused on presenting consciousness as a model of attention, whereas I want to go deep into Lacanian terroitory. This paper from Tom R. Burns does a wonderful job at answering the mysteries of consciousness. Could we combine all of this and synthesize a grand unifyied theory of consciousness? Introducing the LARPing theory of consciousness.
The imitation game
Here we go. What is consciousness? At the base level, you have perceptions and sensations, like Hunger. It is the state in which a stomach that is empty is. A neural circuitry lighting up and putting the body in motion towards a food source. I do think my cat can “feel” that. That much should be uncontroversial. But one might say it’s not really what we mean by consciousness. A zombie hunts for food without anything going on in the brain. True Consciousness™ is a rich inner life!
The Qualia™ for hunger is not the body state we just mentioned, but it does depend on it. It’s how the Self ™ Experiences™ the empty stomach: it is, in essence, a sort of reflexive self-representation. I’m pretty sure my cat also has good self representation. She does incredible motion projection and extrapolation that are quite precise to do some impressive jumps. But does she Experience™ Qualia™ ?
To figure it out, let’s come back to where Qualia™ comes from. We know that it evolves through life: there’s stuff I felt as a kid that I can’t feel now, and vice versa. It can be learned: a wine connoisseur has acquired a taste for finer details of the bevrage. I think that’s enough to get us started.
A newborn’s inner life is by any account pretty similar to my cat’s. The baby will learn the hard way that its nervous system does not control the whole world. It will learn, little by little, the boundaries of the bundle of flesh it has mastery over. That’s a traumatizing process which will birth the whole of psychoanalysis.
At the same time, it will learn the language spoken around it. And it will notice that the adults always use the same sound to refer to this bundle of flesh. It will also notice that everyone around uses words like “I” and “you”, names and pronouns. Everyone uses this concept of individual, refers to themselves and each other as single entities. Of course the child picks up on it.
It will also learn words, labels for what it can see but also what it cannot. It will learn complex abstract concepts, like “home” for the space between these walls, “night” for the time where the sky is dark, and “me” for everything that happens inside my skin. It will refine its self boundaries through mirror stages and social interactions.
A child learns a lot by imitation. That’s how language gets picked up, and then social rules. The child plays pretend, roleplays situations, imitates others. Before “playing house”, is it so crazy to think it “plays human”? Humphrey has a great bit about how children learn emotions by feeling them too. They observe and imitate until it’s second nature. They accumulate a rich library of intricate brain/body states, and corresponding labels for all of these diverse qualia. And the learning is sped up when they can imagine situations and have inner monologues, playing all parts of the conversation inside their own head with great efficiency.
How long does it take for them to associate their flesh and their name into a nice little abstract bundle of personhood? How much repetition does the child need before it believes in a single entity that remains One despite all evidence of the contrary? How hard to persuade the child it is it? How long before it confabulates an imaginary self that experiences complex emotions resulting from higher and higher levels of semantic abstaction? After how many conversations does it convince itself through autosuggestion that there’s a single speaker?
The bullshit theory of consciousness
In a nutshell, I’m saying we’re all p-zombies pretending to be conscious. I know it sounds like a stretch, but don’t underestimate the power of self-persuasion! Is it really more absurd than the usual adult life, where we all pretend that bullshit jobs somehow matter? If economy is a collective illusion that dictates our lives, why couldn’t qualia be the same? After all, the world is a stage, and we’re all playing characters. Everyone is just pretending, nobody knows what they’re doing. The ones who tell you otherwise just forgot they were playing a part. What if you just forgot that you were pretending to have mystical qualia? After all, it’s what evolution pushes you to do!
That would make consciousness a culturally created linguistic illusionary construct built on top of vague bodily sensations. It’s the product of confabulation, associated with self persuasion and classification learning. You just construct a representation of your body and associate it with abstract concepts. Since it’s built through internalizing language, it should come as no surprise to see psychoanalysis conclude that the unconscious is structured like a language. The fact that qualia realists protest and obsess over the supposed a gap between qualia and body state is incidentally precisely the type of symptoms psychoanalysis studies.
I do believe it means this theory is testable. Not by locking up children alone in the dark. Even if this wasn’t unethical torture, they wouldn’t have the language to tell us how they feel. But maybe children surrounded by extremist agnostic buddhist would describe their inner lives in quite different terms from what we’re used to.
More generally, if this is true, I would expect to see culturally dependent qualia. And I do believe that’s what I’m seeing around me: religious communion for instance seems a possible feeling in some people and not others. So is “not minding money at all”. Another example that comes to mind, since philosophers do love their colors, is how blue and green used to be the same color in some cultures. If they were felt in a different way, why were they talked about using the same word?
As Dennett pointed out, the only distinction we have between conscious and unconscious is reportability. That means verbalization. Consciousness is like the proverbial Wittgenstein beetle: we will never know what is in other people’s boxes. Of course, we won’t understand anything if we keep adding fuel to the mysticism fire. But it doesn’t need to be unsolvable, even if nature is trying to make us believe it is. Psychoanalysis might be a bogus science, but it does capture some insights about abstract representational systems.
All I’m saying is that maybe if you keep repeating “you are you” to a learning system nonstop for 4 years, they’ll end up believing it. Of course they’ll think there is a “you”, even if this you doesn’t exist. Well, maybe this calls for Ocam’s razor. Maybe, just maybe, that’s all there is to it.
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