Sunday, January 27, 2008

[CAS-Group] Shadow emergence

There is a discussion of consciousness on the CAS mailing list. I posted the following.
On an abstract level I agree with Telmo that saying that consciousness emerges from neurons does not lead to a theoretical problem. The problem it seems to me is that we experience consciousness. The 'hard' problem is all about qualia, which is subjective experience. We don't have any way of explaining how that comes about. Either it's 'just' emergence, which doesn't provide a satisfying explanation for our subjective experience, or it's something else, which obviously doesn't explain anything.

The problem with subjective experience is that we all have it. It seems so real. Emergent phenomena don't quite have that quality of personal immediacy. Yes we see ant colonies doing their things. That's real. But it doesn't have the sting of a pin prick. It seems to me that it's at the level of understanding how qualia can seem as real as they do that we're stuck.

The 'emergence' answer is that it's all an illusion. But that's no answer. Other than saying that we are built so that we experience these emergence effects as subjective experience it doesn't seem like much of an explanation. Perhaps that's the best we will be able to do.

1 comment:

p0m said...

If one starts out with the belief or assumption that "dead matter" does not feel anything, then it becomes difficult to explain at what level of complexity and how organisms begin to feel. If the graphite in your pencil doesn't feel, how can a virus feel anything? If a virus doesn't feel anything, what happens at the level of a single-cell organism? Do earthworms feel anything when they are impaled on a hook? Are they in pain and frantic to regain the moisture and safety of the earth when someone drops them on the sidewalk? Do cats cry? Do dogs mourn the death of their primary human companions? Do elephants hold funeral services? Why do bears stare at the sunset? Do baby boys feel anything when they are circumcised? Or do they just make a fuss on general principles?

The internal state of a rock sitting on a foam pad in a room with a stable temperature gives a pretty good mapping of external factors. Its temperature is pretty closely linked to the temperature of the room. If it possesses a "temperature feeling," what kind of a thing might it be? Besides the increased molecular bopping around, might there be something else? If there is, it doesn't seem to be anything that is easily shared with other things, even other things close to it.

We were unaware of electro-magnetic phenomena until very recently because we do not have any sensors that can do things like pick up the static raised by a distant thunder storm. But electrons rushing up and down a radio transmitter antenna produce electro-magnetic radiation that can be picked up by radios. The motion of electrons in a transmitter circuit is not a perfect analog for the more random motion of molecules in a hot body. But the electron motion does set up an oscillating field, and it happens that the field can be "felt" far from the transmitting antenna. If there is a field associated with the motions of molecules, a field that is something other than a magnetic field, then it seems that it does not reach far and/or it does not influence other things.

Being available to a wide broadcast area is not a requirement for a "feeling field." An electron that is moving back and forth in a regular way will create an oscillating electro-magnetic field in space and time. Perhaps a group of molecules that are moving in relation to each other also produce a field, but one that either falls off more rapidly than an electro-magnetic field does, or perhaps produces a field that extends into another dimension. (The extra dimensions required in string theory might have something to do with this kind of vibration.)

The emotional awareness of humans and other complex organisms is likely to be somewhat different from that of organisms that are not organized into ramified structures of functional units. The brain learns of the pain of the foot via the nervous system that somehow relays the sensation upwards.

Some nerve cells are at one end of the feeling of pressure. Other nerve cells are at one end of the feeling of pain. Functionally, what the nerves do is to report a message, either "pressure" or "pain."

Message transmission can be very efficient. If a bird flies across your field of vision, there are networks of retinal cells connected in such a way that if they fire consecutively a simple message is fired off to your brain: Motion!

The bird has a complex location in space and time, but one message that is very pertinent to survival goes directly to the part of your brain that shifts attention from, e.g., daydreaming to fight/flight decisions.

In the next few fractions of a second the eyes are trying to track the bird and if successful something interesting happens. The brain starts to assemble incoming information. For a brief fraction of a second the observer may see a flying model airplane, but the image is swapped out so fast that most people can't believe what they experienced and discount the airplane appearance. The brain settles on a "bird" identity and then starts looking for details that can help further identify what kind of bird it might be. This process is active and is at the other end of a chain of physical/chemical interactions from the bird in the air to some state in the brain. But if you don't get caught up in the "Universe and I" dichotomy, it is clear that it is one process distributed over space and time. The bird is at one end and the perception comes into interaction with the human body at the other end.

Now apply the same picture to a broken toe. The damage to bone, muscle tissue, nerves, etc. is at one end of the process and the perception of pain is at the other end. But that doesn't mean that the pain is in the brain any more than the motion of the bird was in the human brain.