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Posts Tagged ‘consciousness

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life”*…

 

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Peter Carruthers, Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, is an expert on the philosophy of mind who draws heavily on empirical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He outlined many of his ideas on conscious thinking in his 2015 book The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us about the Nature of Human Thought. More recently, in 2017, he published a paper with the astonishing title of “The Illusion of Conscious Thought.”…

Philosopher Peter Carruthers insists that conscious thought, judgment and volition are illusions. They arise from processes of which we are forever unaware.  He explains to Steve Ayan the reasons for his provocative proposal: “There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought.”

See also: “An Anthropologist Investigates How We Think About How We Think.”

* Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

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As we think about thought, we might spare one for Georg Ferdinand Ludwig Philipp Cantor; he died on this date in 1918.  Cantor was the mathematician who created set theory, now fundamental to math,  His proof that the real numbers are more numerous than the natural numbers implies the existence of an “infinity of infinities”… a result that generated a great deal of resistance, both mathematical (from the likes of Henri Poincaré) and philosophical (most notably from Wittgenstein).  Some Christian theologians (particularly neo-Scholastics) saw Cantor’s work as a challenge to the uniqueness of the absolute infinity in the nature of God – on one occasion equating the theory of transfinite numbers with pantheism – a proposition that Cantor, a devout Lutheran, vigorously rejected.

These harsh criticisms fueled Cantor’s bouts of depression (retrospectively judged by some to have been bipolar disorder); he died in a mental institution.

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Written by LW

January 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”*…

 

Consciousness permeates reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human subjective experience, it’s the foundation of the universe, present in every particle and all physical matter.

This sounds like easily-dismissible bunkum, but as traditional attempts to explain consciousness continue to fail, the “panpsychist” view is increasingly being taken seriously by credible philosophers, neuroscientists, and physicists, including figures such as neuroscientist Christof Koch and physicist Roger Penrose…

The materialist viewpoint states that consciousness is derived entirely from physical matter. It’s unclear, though, exactly how this could work. “It’s very hard to get consciousness out of non-consciousness,” says [David Chalmers, a philosophy of mind professor at New York University]. “Physics is just structure. It can explain biology, but there’s a gap: Consciousness.” Dualism holds that consciousness is separate and distinct from physical matter—but that then raises the question of how consciousness interacts and has an effect on the physical world.

Panpsychism offers an attractive alternative solution: Consciousness is a fundamental feature of physical matter; every single particle in existence has an “unimaginably simple” form of consciousness, says [Philip Goff, a philosophy professor at Central European University in Budapest]. These particles then come together to form more complex forms of consciousness, such as humans’ subjective experiences. This isn’t meant to imply that particles have a coherent worldview or actively think, merely that there’s some inherent subjective experience of consciousness in even the tiniest particle…

More at “The idea that everything from spoons to stones are conscious is gaining academic credibility.”

(For a speculative playing out of this notion (and a basketful of other mind-twisting conceits of consciousness) at a cosmic scale, enjoy Vernor Vinge’s exquisite A Fire Upon the Deep…)

* Stephen Hawking  (Panpsychists argue that consciousness is the answer to his question.)

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As we treat inanimate objects with more respect, we might send carefully-catalogued and phrased birthday greetings to Émile Maximilien Paul Littré; he was born on this date in 1801. A philosopher (friend and supporter of Auguste Comte, and contributor, with Comte, to the development of positivism), he is better remembered for his Dictionnaire de la langue française, commonly called “The Littré,” a project that ran from 1844-1872, and was originally issued in 30 parts– the largest lexicographical work on the French language at that time.

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Written by LW

February 1, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Artificial intelligence is growing up fast”*…

 

Every moment of your waking life and whenever you dream, you have the distinct inner feeling of being “you.” When you see the warm hues of a sunrise, smell the aroma of morning coffee or mull over a new idea, you are having conscious experience. But could an artificial intelligence (AI) ever have experience, like some of the androids depicted in Westworld or the synthetic beings in Blade Runner?

The question is not so far-fetched. Robots are currently being developed to work inside nuclear reactors, fight wars and care for the elderly. As AIs grow more sophisticated, they are projected to take over many human jobs within the next few decades. So we must ponder the question: Could AIs develop conscious experience?…

It’s not easy, but a newly proposed test might be able to detect consciousness in a machine: “Is anyone home? A way to find out if AI has become self-aware.

* Diane Ackerman

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As we ponder personhood, we might recall that it was on this date in 1967 that US Navy recalled Captain Grace Murray Hopper to active duty to help develop the programming language COBOL.  With a team drawn from several computer manufacturers and the Pentagon, Hopper – who had worked on the Mark I and II computers at Harvard in the 1940s – created the specifications for COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language) with business uses in mind.  These early COBOL efforts aimed at creating easily-readable computer programs with as much machine independence as possible.

A seminal computer scientist and ultimately Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, “Amazing Grace” (as she was known to many in her field) had invented the first compiler for a computer programming language, and appears also to have also been the first to coin the word “bug” in the context of computer science, taping into her logbook a moth which had fallen into a relay of the Harvard Mark II computer.

She has both a ship (the guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper) and a super-computer (the Cray XE6 “Hopper” at NERSC) named in her honor.

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Written by LW

August 1, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way”*…

 

The nature of consciousness seems to be unique among scientific puzzles. Not only do neuroscientists have no fundamental explanation for how it arises from physical states of the brain, we are not even sure whether we ever will. Astronomers wonder what dark matter is, geologists seek the origins of life, and biologists try to understand cancer—all difficult problems, of course, yet at least we have some idea of how to go about investigating them and rough conceptions of what their solutions could look like. Our first-person experience, on the other hand, lies beyond the traditional methods of science. Following the philosopher David Chalmers, we call it the hard problem of consciousness.

But perhaps consciousness is not uniquely troublesome. Going back to Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant, philosophers of science have struggled with a lesser known, but equally hard, problem of matter. What is physical matter in and of itself, behind the mathematical structure described by physics? This problem, too, seems to lie beyond the traditional methods of science, because all we can observe is what matter does, not what it is in itself—the “software” of the universe but not its ultimate “hardware.” On the surface, these problems seem entirely separate. But a closer look reveals that they might be deeply connected…

Find out how the central problem in neuroscience is mirrored in physics at “Is Matter Conscious?

For more on the conscious controversy– what is it?  who/what has it?– see also “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”

* Kingsley Amis

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As we think, therefore are, we might send analytic birthday greetings to Sigismund Schlomo Freud; he was born on this date in 1856.  The father of psychoanalysis, he revolutionized the field of psychotherapy– so much so that later practitioners have often failed to recognize Freud’s scientific predecessors.  Throughout his work (in such books as Interpretation of Dreams and the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis) he emphasized the role of unconscious and non-rational functioning, going against most contemporary thought by suggesting that dreams and “mistakes” may have affirmative meaning.

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Written by LW

May 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

“He does nothing, but he does it very well”*…

 

It might look like a simple chess problem, but this puzzle could finally help scientists uncover what makes the human mind so unique, and why it may never be matched by a computer…

The chess problem – originally drawn by Sir Roger Penrose – has been devised to defeat an artificially intelligent (AI) computer but be solvable for humans. The Penrose Institute scientists are inviting readers to workout how white can win, or force a stalemate and then share their reasoning…

The backstory– and a chance to crack the puzzle– at “Can you solve the chess problem which holds key to human consciousness?

P.H. Clarke after his match with Tigran Petrosian

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As we make our moves, we might note that today is International Tabletop Day, a day devoted to the celebration of tabletop gaming.  Find a place to play here.

 

 

Written by LW

April 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”*…

 

Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:

But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

– Richard Wilbur

Materialism holds the high ground these days in debates over that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness. When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of brains lighting up like Christmas trees while test subjects eat apples, watch movies or dream. And aren’t all the underlying physical laws already known?

From this seemly hard-nosed vantage, the problem of consciousness seems to be just one of wiring, as the American physicist Michio Kaku argued in The Future of the Mind (2014). In the very public version of the debate over consciousness, those who advocate that understanding the mind might require something other than a ‘nothing but matter’ position are often painted as victims of wishful thinking, imprecise reasoning or, worst of all, an adherence to a mystical ‘woo.’

It’s hard not to feel the intuitional weight of today’s metaphysical sobriety. Like Pickett’s Charge up the hill at Gettysburg, who wants to argue with the superior position of those armed with ever more precise fMRIs, EEGs and the other material artefacts of the materialist position? There is, however, a significant weakness hiding in the imposing-looking materialist redoubt. It is as simple as it is undeniable: after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is. Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself…

The closer you look, the more the materialist explanation of consciousness (and physics) appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground: “Minding matter.”

Pair with the two parts of Tim Park‘s conversation with Riccardo Manzotti: “Am I the Apple?” and  “The Mind in the Whirlwind.”

For dessert, “Atom, Archetype, and the Invention of Synchronicity: How Iconic Psychiatrist Carl Jung and Nobel-Winning Physicist Wolfgang Pauli Bridged Mind and Matter.”

* Albert Einstein, riffing on his friend Kurt Gödel

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As we think about thinking, we might spare a thought for Frederick Winslow Taylor; he died on this date in 1915.  An engineer and inventor (42 patents), he’s best remembered as the father of “Scientific Management,” the discipline rooted in efficiency studies and standardization.  Quoth Peter Drucker:

Frederick W. Taylor was the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study. On Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last seventy-five years which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded before, even for the well-to-do. Taylor, though the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work, laid only first foundations, however. Not much has been added to them since – even though he has been dead all of sixty years.

Taylor’s work encouraged many followers (including Frank “Cheaper by the Dozen” Gilbreth) and effectively spawned the field of management consulting.  But Taylor practiced what he preached, and found time to become a champion tennis player as well:  he won the first doubles tournament (1881) in U.S. National Championships, the precursor of the U.S. Open (with partner Clarence Clark).

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“Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”*…

 

As a neuroscientist, I am frequently asked about consciousness. In academic discourse, the celebrated problem of consciousness is often divided into two parts: the “Easy Problem” involves identifying the processes in the brain that correlate with particular conscious experiences. The “Hard Problem” involves murkier questions: what are conscious experiences, and why do they exist at all? This neat separation into Easy and Hard problems, which comes courtesy the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, seems to indicate a division of labor. The neuroscientists, neurologists and psychologists can, at least in principle, systematically uncover the neural correlates of consciousness. Most of them agree that calling this the “Easy Problem” somewhat underestimates the theoretical and experimental challenges involved. It may not be the Hard Problem, but at the very least it’s A Rather Hard Problem. And many philosophers and scientists think that the Hard Problem may well be a non-problem, or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said, the kind of problem that philosophers typically devise in order to maximize unsolvability.

One might assume that as a neuroscientist, I should be gung-ho to prove the imperious philosophers wrong, and to defend the belief that science can solve any sort of problem one might throw at it: hard, soft, or half-baked. But I have become increasingly convinced that science is severely limited in what it can say about consciousness. In a very important sense, consciousness is invisible to science…

Yohan John on “Why some neuroscientists call consciousness ‘the C-word’.”  Via the always-illuminating 3 Quarks Daily.

* Erwin Schrödinger

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As we muse on mind, we might spare a thought for Mary Whiton Calkins; she died on this date in 1930.  A psychologist and philosopher, Calkins studied psychology at Harvard as a “guest” (since women could not officially register there in her day).  Though she completed all requirements for a doctorate, and had the strong support of William James and her other professors, Harvard still refused to grant a degree to a woman. She went on to become the first prominent woman in her fields:  After leaving Harvard, she established the first psychology laboratory at a women’s college (Wellesley), and later became the first female president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association.

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