Yet even more long blatheryness about consciousness

My family and I are off to see the musical Wicked tomorrow.  Should be fun.  It will be the closest to thing to a vacation I’ve gotten and will get for a while, methinks.

The rest of this long blathery post will be yet some more thoughts I think I thought while reading Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett.

Funny little story

Here’s just a funny little story from page 59 of Conscious Explained by Daniel C. Dennett:

A neurosurgeon once told me about operating on the brain of a young man with epilepsy … [he was] making sure that the parts tentatively to be removed were not absolutely vital by stimulating them electrically and asking the patient what he experienced … one spot produced a delighted response from the patient: “It’s ‘Outta Get Me’ by Guns N’ Roses, my favorite heavy metal band!”

I asked the neurosurgeon if he had asked the patient to sing or hum along with the music, since it would be fascinating to learn how ‘high fidelity’ the provoked memory was.  Would it be in exactly the same key and tempo as the record? … The surgeon hadn’t asked the patient to sing along.  “Why not?” I asked, and he replied: “I hate rock music!”

Later in the conversation the neurosurgeon happened to remark that he was going to have to operate again on the same young man, and I expressed the hope that he would just check to see if he could restimulate the rock music, and this time ask the fellow to sing along.  “I can’t do it,” replied the neurosurgeon, “since I cut out that part.”  “It was part of the epileptic focus?” I asked, and he replied, “No, I already told you — I hate rock music!”

I wonder if I could make everyone in the world love my music and hate other people’s music by operating on their brains?  I wonder if I could also religiously convert them too, so that they will all think I’m a god.  But, of course, I believe that would be morally wrong, so I would have to operate on my own brain first.  Then I will believe it to be right.

Ha ha ha!

On page 62, Dennett writes:

There is a species of primate in South America, more gregarious than most other mammals, with a curious behavior.  The members of this species often gather in groups, large and small, and in the course of their mutual chattering, under a wide variety of circumstances, they are induced to engage in bouts of involuntary, convulsive respiration, a sort of loud, helpless, mutually reinforcing group panting that sometimes is so severe as to incapacitate them.  Far from being aversive, however, these attacks seem to be sought out by most members of the species, some of whom even appear to be addicted to them.

When I realized he was talking about humans and our habit of laughing, I could not help but engage in involuntary convulsive respiration myself.  When you laugh at the thought of how strange laughter is, you can create an internal infinite laugh loop.

Thoughts on the whyness of things and such

On page 64, Dennett writes:

We can give a perfectly sound biological account of why there should be pain and pain-behavior … what we want is a similarly anchored account of why there should be hilarity and laughter.

I think one has to be careful in asking “why?” because it can mean two different things.  There’s the cause-and-effect why and the purpose why.  For example, if I ask “why does the heart pump blood?” you could either answer “to get blood to other parts of the body, duh” (purpose why) or “because the brain tells it to, duh” (cause-effect why).

The thing is, purpose why applies only to human actions (and perhaps animal actions); consciousness and planning create purpose why.  Nature works only with cause-effect why.  But we tend to project a purpose why understanding of the world sometimes, especially on things like evolution and living systems.  Why do we have hands?  Not to grab things; nature doesn’t know anything, and it doesn’t care about grabbing.  You could argue that being able to grab things has provided an evolutionary advantage.  OK, but that still doesn’t answer how hands came to be.  Before creatures could grab things, nature didn’t say “it would be nice to have a body part that could grab things!”

Ultimately I think the reason we have hands, the reason we laugh, the reason we cry, feel pain, etc., all lie in the complexity of DNA replication over many millions of years (and the effect of having physical advantages (which is not to say that all elements of the human body have some evolutionary advantage; I doubt they do; why only one thumb, for instance?  There’s no advantage to having only one thumb)), and since that system is too complex for us to understand at the moment (and there are things about it we may never be able to fully know anyway, like the entire DNA structures of all of our ancestors), we might as well say that it’s random, that there is no reason.

All that said, asking [the right kind of] why might still help us learn something, but we should realize that it might be something we can never know.  Dennett might call this “defeatist thinking” … but oh well.  (Oh well?  More defeatist thinking!)

Knowing thyself

On page 67, Dennett writes:

Perhaps we are fooling ourselves about the high reliability of introspection, our personal powers of self-observation of our own conscious mind. … We are either “infallible” — always guaranteed to be right — or at least “incorrigible” — right or wrong, no one else could correct us.

This reminds me of a post I wrote a long while ago in which I blathered about why I hated being a teenager.  (It has nothing to do with a “maturing brain” and everything to do with society and parents trying to continue to maintain power and control over “teens,” which is a pretty new word/concept in the scope of human history.)  If you read the comments, someone says:

Though I can’t say I agree with the phrase “That’s why” in cases like this… “That’s what made me moody and depressed” — I really don’t think anyone has the authority on how their responses work to stimuli. If you’re on that level, you ought to be able to supersede them and establish control over your mind; however, I think that inability to control goes hand in hand with deficit understanding.

To which I responded:

Yikes! But then, who does? Does anyone? Shouldn’t I be the authority on how I feel, if I speak for myself at least? Can’t I know what’s making me miserable?

Now, I’d still defend the notion that teens being forced to do things makes them miserable. I think it makes just about everyone miserable.  Would parents in their 30s or 40s really want to trade places with their teens? I think not (though some might not admit it). But then, how many teens would agree with me? What are the reasons teens give for being so “moody”? The world is stupid and no one understands them?

So, I still agree with myself on the issue of “the myth of the teen brain” (and the myth that there even is a “teen” stage of psychological development), but I also agree that in many circumstances (uh… except this one) we should be cautious of thinking we can understand why we feel what we feel.

In fact, I think this is kind of exploited in works of fiction like the show House, when a character might say something like “I’m trying to help you!” and House will say something like “no, you don’t care about me, you just feel guilty about about what you said to Chase” or some other psychological twist that sheds new light everyone’s motivations, which is one of the reasons the show is fun to watch… the characters’ true motivations for everything is almost always in question (OK, maybe not always, but still).

How well can we truly understand our own motivations and causes of our feelings and our own thought processes and whatever? How are we to know?

On a side note, I’ve always thought it not only useless, but also a bit dangerous to too deeply psychoanalyze yourself (or believe someone else’s psychoanalysis of you). You’re probably likely to be wrong about yourself, and then acting on your own psychoanalytical conclusions, you may destroy yourself even further whilst thinking you’re helping yourself.

Though maybe I’m just saying that because I’m uncomfortable being too self-conscious… oh wait, oops, I was psychoanalyzing myself there…

But, really, if someone tried to convince me that they knew how their own mind worked, and what their subconscious desires were, I’d think “oh brother” and not believe them. Unless they agree with me on the teenager issue, of course.

That’s all folks

OK, is that enough?  I think so.  I kind of rambled, and I’m not sure I’ll fully agree with everything I said a few days from now, but writing all this helped the spare time go by today at work, and it made me feel as if I was doing something useful with that spare time, even though you can probably tell that that was not case.

A little thought on consciousness and stuff

I hope this blog isn’t becoming too self-conscious… aha… ahahaha…


On pages 39-40 of Daniel C. Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained, Dennett writes:

Some people are convinced that we can’t [understand consciousness] in any case. Such defeatism, today, in the midst of a cornucopia of scientific advances ready to be exploited, strikes me as ludicrous, even pathetic, but I suppose it could be the sad truth.

It might be the sad truth, but that won’t be the failing of science, it will be the failing of consciousness itself. For example, we can theorize about the big bang, about the nature of time, about string theory, but we can’t conceive four or more spatial dimensions, we can’t think about time not existing, we can’t even imagine ourselves not existing. (If you’d like to get religious: we can’t understand the nature of God.) These are the limits of our mind. Why do these limits exist? Are they based on limits of the real physical world, or are they purely mental? A dog can’t conceive suicide, yet he might run out in front of a car. Just because he can’t conceive it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Is it the same with humans?

So… what if consciousness fits into this category? Well, we know it exists, that’s not the issue. The issue is why? How? Perhaps that is beyond our consciousness’ ability to know; it is not a failing of our reasoning or our science, it is just a limit of the nature of our existence.

Funny Leo Laporte videos

Lastly, since I’m now going to post Stuff I Found stuff here (and kill that blog), here are some funny videos of clueless people calling Leo Laporte (former host of that wonderful show of my yesteryears, The Screen Savers). Enjoy.

Phantom of the Opera sequel

I’m listening to the Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies, on Rhapsody right now and it’s… uh… interesting. I hate how musical soundtracks these days have no reverb. I like the old musical recordings, when it sounded like the singers were on a stage, when it made me feel like I was in a theater. Music wise, it’s good, but not very Phantomy… or at least with a huge atmospheric twist, since the story takes place on… Coney Island. Not very… gothicy… more like the haunted fairgrounds of a Scooby Doo episode. It’s just… odd. A very different spirit to thing.

I wonder if they can get Michael Crawford to sing some of the songs… just to hear what it would’ve been like.

Gah, so annoying with no reverb…

More boring thoughts on consciousness

I’ve heard that later this month, Google’s Blogger will be discontinuing the FTP upload feature, which means my other two blogs, Stuff I Found and Book Quotes, will sadly have to come to an end. I could convert them to WordPress or move them to, but I think I will just kill them off, and integrate future posts that would’ve belonged to them into this blog here. It’s probably a better idea just to have everything in one place anyway, yes? So I shan’t be using Google Blogger ever again; it’s all WordPress from now on.

And now on to our regularly scheduled blog post. On page 24 of Daniel C. Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained, Dennett says:

Love is one of those phenomena that depend on their concepts, to put it oversimply for the time being. There are others; money is a clear instance. If everyone forgot what money was, there wouldn’t be any money anymore; there would be stacks of engraved paper slips, embossed metal disks, computerized records of account balances, granite and marble bank buildings — but no money: no inflation or deflation or exchange rates or interest — or monetary value. The very property of those variously engraved slips of paper that explains — as nothing else could — their trajectories from hand to hand in the wake of various deeds and exchanges would evaporate.

Basically I think he’s saying that things like money and love are things of the mind, concepts that come from the mind. How we act in relation to them is dependent on how we think of them, how we understand them. And we can disagree about our philosophies toward them, but there’s not some tangible non-psychological objective evidence in the outside world we can ever use as evidence to support our position. For other things, this is not true. The examples the author uses are diseases and earthquakes. Our understanding of those phenomena can and has changed through the years, but those phenomena remain the same. An earthquake doesn’t shake differently when you understand; but how you spend your money does change depending on how you understand it. Money’s very existence is dependent on our understanding of it.

Of course, the author is then planning to apply this concept to consciousness. Is consciousness more like love or an earthquake? The author will argue it’s more like love… but to me it seems a confusing question, and may require me to think differently about the concept. I’ve always thought of consciousness as a purely physical phenomena, right? What if love is understood as a purely physical phenomena, as an emergent property of chemicals moving around in the brain? Is love then like an earthquake?

The trouble is, creating this dividing line between things like love and money and things like earthquakes and diseases seems a bit fake. It’s like, there are these physical things that tangibly exist, and then there are concepts, emergent properties in the mind. Usually I’m OK with creating that dividing line, but consciousness sits right on it, it links the two. It leads to the philosophical questions of solipsism… everything you see, everything you feel, hear, sense, they are all physically in your mind… what is the nature of existence in general? It’s like asking on what side the dividing line is in relation to itself.

So I disagree with the author and would say that the question is invalid; it’s too oversimplified. Still, its implications are worth exploring, and oversimplifying may be necessary to get anywhere, so I’ll keep reading.

As I was reading this part of the book, I also thought, hmmmm, what about religion? Where would God fit into this? Is God like love or an earthquake?

Atheists and theists argue about whether or not God exists, but not about the nature of the existence of money (or at least don’t argue about it nearly as often). We don’t say that money isn’t real, though we do understand that it’s more a psychological concept than a tangible property of the world. We don’t say that money’s existence is relative to our beliefs, yet we have no problem in having different understandings of it.

Whether or not you believe in God, you’d probably believe that the nature of His existence doesn’t change with your beliefs, but how you act in life and towards God (or lack of God) and other people does depend on your beliefs.

So it’s like God is perpendicular to the dividing line between psychological concepts and tangible worldly concretes. Both theists and atheists treat the belief in God more like it’s an earthquake on some distant planet nobody can see, and that makes it like love, because that sort of understanding is all that’s left.


And then the question is: so what? What can we do with this way of thinking about the nature of the existence of God? Anything?

Perhaps understand that the dividing line itself doesn’t exist? That we are part of both understandings of the world, both psychological and physical beings, and, most importantly, that both understandings of the world are the same world? Can that understanding change the way we act?

Or, if you don’t feel like thinking about God, what about the nature of an objective difference between moral right and wrong? What about the nature of Truth itself?

Obviously, I don’t really know, and I’m really just confusing myself. Argh!

The author says on page 24 and 25:

If the concept of consciousness were to “fall to science,” what would happen to our sense of moral agency and free will? If conscious experience were “reduced” somehow to mere matter in motion, what would happen to our appreciation of love and pain and dreams and joy?

I am confident that these fears are misguided…

… let us remind ourselves of what has happened in the wake of earlier demystifications. We find no diminution of wonder; on the contrary, we find deeper beauties and more dazzling visions of the complexity of the universe than the protectors of mystery ever conceived.

Yes, yes, I agree, because I are smart. I’ve heard similar fears from composers and music lovers who think that if we could explain why we think certain melodies sound so beautiful then they might not sound beautiful anymore, as if the beauty is in the mystery of why it’s beautiful. A “we-murder-to-dissect” kinda thing, understanding it might kill the wonder of it. Nonsense! The only beauty I see in a mystery is born of the desire to solve it, to one day truly know.

Some boring thoughts on consciousness

I’m reading a book from 1991 called Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett. (I’m not sure I’ll read the whole thing, as I have a habit of reading the first third or fourth of a book and then having my interests shift to other interesting-looking books.) These are just my thoughts / reactions to some things I read in the book.

In the first few pages, the author talks about the “brain in the vat” thought experiment, the thought being that your brain might actually be in a vat with a bunch of wires providing your complete neural stimulation. Basically, The Matrix. The question is: is there anyway to realize you are actually in a vat? (In short, I can’t see how. If we’re in a matrix, we’re stuck here. Even if we got woken up, what’s to say we wouldn’t just wake up in another matrix? A question never considered in the Matrix films, I think (I only saw the first one).)

Anyway, the author spends some time talking about how technologically sophisticated such a vat-brain-machine would have to be. And I was thinking, well wait a sec, what’s to say we even have to be a brain at all? If consciousness can be broken down to just a number of physical atoms moving (A LOT of them of course, but keep in mind that “a lot” just means too much for our minds to comprehend; it is not an objective term, it stems from what we are able to fathom, there is no “a lot” in the universe, only in our minds), then couldn’t we really be anything? An air conditioning system? Pebbles on a shoreline? Quocks in a billver? (I made those words up, it might as well be something we can’t fathom.) Or what if consciousness can’t be broken down to just a number of physical movements? What does that leave? I have no idea. My point is, our consciousness doesn’t have to be a brain in a vat having its senses tricked, it could be just about anything. And we can only judge how technologically complex such a system must be by comparing it to the technology we have available in this world. What if, in the world that our consciousness really sits, things our unfathomably more complex? And our world, to whatever conscious beings are out there, is an extremely simple simulation? I mean, isn’t complexity itself a rather subjective thing, determined by our own mental powers? Not new thoughts at all, I’m sure.

Also, there’s the subject of free will. It’s probably natural to think that the wires hooked up to our brain in the vat would also have to read our thoughts to determine our decisions, such as us deciding to move a finger, so that the wires can determine what sort of sensual feedback we should receive. But couldn’t the wires just tell us to move a finger, and also tell us to think that it was our own decision? I mean, aren’t our own thoughts, decisions, beliefs, memories, etc., all senses? Senses from one part of the brain to another? Couldn’t that all therefore be controlled by the wires as well? (The author does mention this line of thought later on. Aren’t I smart?)

Consciousness doesn’t have to be a feedback loop, does it? Couldn’t it be completely feedfoward?

Another idea that interests me is the idea of a meta-consciousness. What if we are all part of some other conscious being that we can barely fathom, and everytime we talk to each other, it’s like neurons sending messages to each other?

Anyway, the author ends up saying by page 7:

One conclusion we can draw from this is that we are not brains in vats–in case you were worried.

What?! Seems a rather large assumption. Both religiously and scientifically, I don’t think we have any way of knowing what we truly are, nor do we have any way of finding out. Maybe it will be revealed to us through we call death?

Overall, though, of the 23 pages I’ve read so far, this is a pretty interesting book, it’s giving me lots to think about.