Friday, September 3, 2010

Consciousness Step 1: What is love, what am I?

Today I what I plan to be a four series on the philosophy of the mind/consciousness. Before I go further I would like to thank the insightful Professor Clough and the entire Ghost in the Machine course I took at O(regon)SU, which provided most of my background and sparked many of my thoughts. Today I am hoping to introduce some important terms in the field, give my position on consciousness as best I can, and close with some questions for you to mull on your own and, hopefully, spark discussion in the comments.

Let us begin with the pleasant prospect of love. Not the platonic or familial kind, but they raw overwhelming feeling of one who is full blown smitten. Try to remember how your object of affection made/makes you feel... Your body thrums to your racing pulse, adrenaline and endorphin levels climb, you feel heat rising due to increased blood flow. Of course, quantitatively, this is quite similar to how one reacts to imminent threat, perhaps why Stockholm Syndrome and intense attachment after experiencing a dangerous situation occurs. However, I assume most would agree that there is something different to the experience of feeling threatened than that of interacting with a dearly loved one.

This illustrates one of the important dichotomies in the philosophy of consciousness, the difference between quanta and qualia. Quanta measure amounts, such as how fast your heart is beating, your blood pressure, chemical levels, and temperature. Qualia is the term for how you experience a situation, information much harder to access. For example, while I can tell you the wavelength of a particular shade of red, a bit of it's quanta, it is much harder for me to describe the rich vibrancy of the color I experience, the qualia. Perhaps a more dramatic example comes from the synesthetes, who observe some things with different or additional sensory information than most of us. For example, some see numbers in different colors, regardless of the shade of ink with which they are written. So, the quanta remain constant, same number written on the same page, but to a synesthete a 3 might appear blue while a 4 is magenta. Hopefully this is sufficient to give you a rough idea on the difference between quanta and qualia.

The second important issue I would like to raise today is that of what makes up minds. There are three basic schools of thought here, minds are material objects that obey purely physical laws, minds are the product of ephemeral souls acting on some higher plane, or minds are an interaction of both physical and spiritual processes. Interestingly enough, a philosopher's view of what the mind is made of often is their opinion of what reality is made of. Those who believe only in one type of stuff are called monists, those who opt for both are dualists.

One's opinion on this debate greatly affects how one views consciousness. In today's age of rational, scientific inquiry, very few spiritual monists survive, so let us consider physical monists and dualists. To a physical monist, the idea of artificial consciousness, that is a manufactured machine that is self aware, is usually plausible, although the philosopher Searle, who we will see more of later, might be an exception. If our mind arises from interactions that are purely physical in nature, then any system that emulates these interactions should produce a consciousness similar to our own. On the other hand, dualists tend to be more skeptical of artificial consciousness, wondering if building the correct computer can simply summon the necessary soul to inhabit it. In his books Xenocide and Children of the Mind, Orson Scott Card presents an interesting notion of artificial awareness that is, essentially, dualist in nature.

So then, what is consciousness? Some have characterized it as experiencing qualia, which is in the spirit of the definition that I prefer. I think that, in order to be considered conscious one must be an observer rather than simply a recorder. For example, compare taping a movie with a rickety, failing, old VHS recorder with sitting in front of the TV and observing the movie yourself (knowing that the tape from that recorder is going to be hopelessly messed up). In both cases a flawed copy of the broadcast movie is made and stored, either on VHS or in a human mind. However, we wouldn't say that the VHS recorder watched the movie, only when a human sits down in front of the TV is the movie watched, or experienced.

Next time we can take these definitions and ideas and build on them, to talk about some of the interesting thought experiments that the philosophy of consciousness has inspired. For now, some questions for you. What do you think minds are made from, why, and is this the same as what you think all reality is made from? Can you describe the color blue, not as a wavelength, but as something you see? What do you think consciousness is, and do you think that you have it, how about humans in general?

Please feel free to ask questions or for clarification. Definitely leave your feedback, or further questions for thought, if the spirit moves you. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.


elfarmy17 said...

Fascinating stuff, this.
Xenocide and Children of the Mind are amazing. The Ender and Shadow quartets are among my favorite books.

Frank said...

So my first thought is that my head hurts. I found this very interesting, Kenny,but wow, you went deep, at least for me. I don't think I would have made it past an introductory philosophy class. I am very interested in the "Ghost in the machine" concept and hope you will elaborate in future days. Anyway, here is my stab at your questions.

What do you think minds are made from, why, and is this the same as what you think all reality is made from? Oh crap, Kenny, thank for starting out with a softball. I think the mind is a spiritual entity that will live on after the body is dead. Obviously, this is a religious view, as all sorts of religions would hold to this,or some form of it. By "all reality," I am assuming you are referring to the temporal world, and if this is the case I would say "no," for I believe the mind is spiritual while the temporal world is material.

Can you describe the color blue, not as a wavelength, but as something you see? I once had a blind friend who told me that the color blue meant cool. When I asked him why, he told me that when he was little his dad put his hand into a lake and told him that the lake was blue. To my friend, since the lake was cool to the touch, blue became equated with cool. I kind of like that.

What do you think consciousness is, and do you think that you have it, how about humans in general? Oh, C-R-A-P, Kenny. Are you kidding me. I believe there are certain levels of consciousness, all of which deal with awareness. At the most basic level, are we aware that we are human and can reason and think? Most people, but not all, specifically the severely mentally challenged, have this type of consciousness. But then there are deeper and deeper levels of consciousness and some attain this and some not. When I read this question I thought of Jesus quoting Isaiah, "Seeing they don't see and hearing they don't hear." And I've done both of them Kenny, looking right at something and not comprehending it; hearing truth and just not getting it. And at that point my consciousness is such that I do not possess that higher level, which I guess makes me unconscious at that point.

Thanks for a great post, sir.

Kenny said...

@elfarmy17: If you recall the part where he talks about entities being controlled by something, and conscious beings controlled by particularly "strong" ones. Then Ender's being strong enough to manage two separate entities, but not three, that is what to which I am referring.

@Frank: I suppose I was unclear as to what I meant by "all reality," sorry. To clarify, if you think humans are just one thing, is that thing all that exists, if you think humans are a combination of spiritual and material, is everything, if not are there purely material things, purely spiritual things? It sounds like you believe in a purely physical world, a purely spiritual world, and humans as the center of that Venn diagram, which is sort of an interesting thought. I've never given this thought too much consideration, I hope that pets have some eternal piece to them, but have no real opinion on the matter. On the flip side, I believe God can affect the physical world, so it seems God has some material component to work with.

Regarding color, that is an interesting observation, but it does make sense, there does seem to be something "cool" about blue, just as there is something "hot" about red. My next challenge is to explain the difference between the colors orange and red.

Levels of consciousness is a very astute observation. Perhaps I should have expected it considering you watch students climb the rungs of consciousness in front of you in class. I think that I had planned for the ghost in the machine to make an appearance in one of the last two posts, but now I shall make sure that it does.