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Now that we have a working definition of consciousness and the mystery it entails, we can start chipping away at some common intuitions. In large part, our intuitions have been shaped by natural selection to quickly provide lifesaving information, and these evolved intuitions can still serve us in modern life.
Conscious PDF Book by Annaka Harris
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For example, we have the ability to unconsciously perceive elements in our environment in threatening situations that in turn deliver an almost instantaneous assessment of danger—such as an intuition that we shouldn’t get into an elevator with someone, even though we can’t put our finger on why.
Your brain is often processing helpful cues you may not be aware of in the moment: the other person who is getting into the elevator is flushed or has dilated pupils (both are signals that he is adrenalized and about to act violently), or the door to the building, which is usually locked, has been left ajar. We can know that a situation is dangerous without having any idea how or why we know it.
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Our intuitions are also shaped through learning, culture, and other environmental factors. We sometimes have useful intuitions about life decisions—such as which apartment to rent— born of relevant information that our brain has acquired, and taken into account, through unconscious processes.
In fact, research suggests that our “gut feelings” are more reliable in many situations than the fruits of conscious reasoning.1 But our gut can deceive us as well, and “false intuitions” can arise in any number of ways, especially in domains of understanding—such as science and philosophy—that evolution could never have foreseen.
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Consider probability and statistics, where our intuitions are notoriously unreliable: Many of us are nervous fliers, despite the fact that, statistically, we would need to fly every day for about 55,000 years before being involved in a fatal plane crash (and it’s worth mentioning that although people don’t commonly have panic attacks when getting behind the wheel in preparation for a trip to the grocery store.
One’s safety on such trips is actually less secure by many orders of magnitude than while flying).2 We can barely square our intuitions with some of the most basic scientific facts —the earth seemed flat to us until breakthroughs in celestial observations revealed otherwise. And in some areas of study, such as quantum physics, our intuitions are not only useless but are an outright obstacle to progress.
An intuition is simply the powerful sense that something is true without our having an awareness or an understanding of the reasons behind this feeling —it may or may not represent something true about the world. In this chapter, we will consider our intuitions regarding how we judge whether or not something is conscious. Conscious PDF Book
And we’ll discover that the seemingly obvious answers sometimes fall apart on closer inspection. I like to begin this exploration with two questions that at first glance appear deceptively simple to answer. Note the responses that first occur to you, and keep them in mind as we explore some typical intuitions and illusions.
Imagine we’re in a future city, and a self-driving car hits a pedestrian. The response to this unfortunate event would depend on why the car didn’t stop. If it turns out its software is flawed and can’t detect pedestrians when they are bundled up in dark winter coats, for instance, that would require one response.
If the car’s sensors malfunctioned due to a defect specific to that one particular car, that would require a different response. And if the car hit the pedestrian because it was avoiding colliding with a crowded bus and pushing it into oncoming traffic, we would view this situation (and respond to it) very differently from the first two scenarios—as a “success” of the car’s advanced technology, rather than a flaw. Conscious PDF Book
Simply knowing that a self-driving car hit a pedestrian isn’t enough information to help us stop this car from becoming a repeat offender or to learn how to build better cars. It’s important to notice that in these reflections about self-driving cars, consciousness never entered the conversation.
And the brain can be viewed in an analogous way when it comes to conscious will. Knowing why someone has behaved violently, for instance, will always be relevant. There are a range of human behaviors that can be influenced by deterrence, negative consequences, and empathy, along with inculcating.
The developing brains of children with self-regulation and self-control—and all the other methods civilized societies use to keep human beings (generally) well behaved. The brain continually alters its behavior in response to input. It also changes and develops through memory, learning, and internal reasoning. Conscious PDF Book
With the proper guidance, we eventually stop collapsing onto the floor and pounding our fists when we don’t get our way. We couldn’t accomplish this without concepts such as responsibility, accountability, and consequences. But in situations in which the usual civilizing pressures are powerless (when someone is suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations, for instance).
It makes sense to treat that person and his behavior differently from someone subject to those pressures. Similarly, understanding the intentions behind violent behavior gives us relevant information about what kind of “software” someone’s brain is running. A person who plots multiple murders has a brain that is operating very from someone who has a stroke while driving and accidentally kills a number of people.
I don’t see how a system that isn’t conscious would ever have cause to produce these thoughts, let alone how an intelligent system would be able to make sense of them. Without ever having experienced consciousness, there’s no difference that the Zombie Chalmers could be referring to. Conscious PDF Book Download
Chalmers’s explanation for how a zombie is still conceivable in theory is that the language and concepts of consciousness could be built into the program of a zombie. A robot could certainly be programmed to describe specific processes like “seeing yellow” when it detects certain wavelengths of light, or even to talk about “feeling angry” under defined circumstances.
Without actually consciously seeing or feeling anything. But it seems impossible for a system to make a distinction between a conscious and unconscious experience in general without having an actual conscious experience as a reference point. When I talk about the mystery of consciousness—referring to something.
I can distinguish and wonder about and attribute (or not) to other entities—it seems highly unlikely that I would ever do this, let alone devote so much time to it, without feeling the experience I am referring to (for the qualitative experience is the entire subject, and without it, I can have no knowledge of it whatsoever). Conscious PDF Book Download
And when I turn these ideas over in my mind, the fact that my thoughts are about the experience of consciousness suggests that there is a feedback loop of sorts and that consciousness is affecting my brain processing. After all, my brain can think about consciousness only after experiencing it (one would presume).
Other than this one sinkhole I often fall into, however, most of our intuitions about what qualifies as evidence of consciousness affecting a system don’t survive scrutiny. In fact, we know that the human brain, under the right conditions, can seamlessly integrate foreign objects into its map of what constitutes its body.
The rubber-hand illusion is an example of how, when certain conditions are met, an outside object can become included in one’s conception of self. In the original experiment, the subject sits with his real hand underneath a table, while a rubber hand rests on the table in its place. When the experimenter strokes the subject’s real hand and the rubber hand simultaneously with a brush. Conscious PDF Book Download
The subject begins to feel that the rubber hand he sees on the table belongs to him. Later versions of the rubber-hand illusion have been demonstrated with the use of virtual reality. In one of these experiments, conducted by the neuroscientist Anil Seth and his team at the University of Sussex, the subject wears virtual reality goggles and experiences a virtual world in which she has a virtual hand.
Sometimes the experimenters cause the hand to flash red in sync with the subject’s heartbeat and sometimes it is out of sync. As we would expect, the subject has a greater feeling of ownership of the virtual hand when the flashing is in sync with her heartbeat.13 Seth refers to our experiences of ourselves in the world as a kind of “controlled hallucination.”
He describes the brain as a “prediction engine” and explains that “what we perceive is its best guess of what’s out there in the world.” In a sense, he says, “we predict ourselves into existence.”14 The “split-brain” phenomenon is also informative here, shedding light on both the malleability of consciousness and the concept of the self. Conscious PDF Book Free
Many people are now aware of the fascinating research conducted by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga at Caltech, beginning in the 1960s, on epilepsy patients who had undergone a corpus callosotomy. This is a surgical procedure in which the corpus callosum is cut, either partially or fully.
Separating connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain in an effort to prevent seizures from spreading. Although these splitbrain patients appeared surprisingly unchanged by the procedure, research on them revealed a bizarre and counterintuitive reality that calls into question many of our assumptions about the fluidity and boundaries of consciousness.
In experiments on people who have undergone split-brain surgery, information can be given separately to each of their two brain hemispheres through vision (in the form of pictures, written language, etc. It’s because of the value of simplicity that I tend to favor the branch of panpsychism that describes consciousness as fundamental to matter. Conscious PDF Book Free
As opposed to requiring a certain level of information processing for consciousness to exist. This, once again, is a result of the hard problem of consciousness, which crops up anywhere you attempt to draw a line— whether at neuronal processing or at simpler forms of information processing.
Although in many ways it’s more difficult to get our minds around, the view that consciousness is intrinsic to matter is a more convincing solution to me, in part because it is a simpler one (albeit only slightly). Consider the Higgs field as an analogy: Physicists knew that the Higgs field had to exist—if it didn’t, the electrons and quarks that make up all of us would be massless and travel at the speed of light.
For years before the discovery of its carrier, the Higgs boson, they posited a Higgs field. Although nothing about its confirmation supports (or provides any evidence for) theories about consciousness, it helps us understand the analogous proposition in panpsychism—that perhaps consciousness is another property of matter, or of the universe itself, that we have yet to discover. Conscious PDF Book Free
In his book Panpsychism in the West, the philosopher David Skrbina provides a survey of the history of scientific arguments for panpsychism that are based on rationalism, empirical evidence, and evolutionary principles. After Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was published (1859) and subsequent advances in the fields of physics, chemistry.
And biology revealed that human beings were composed of the same elements as other matter, the true mystery of consciousness became apparent. And the new understanding that everything in the universe consisted of the same building blocks led to further support for a scientific and evolutionary perspective entailing some form of panpsychism.
The natural tendency of scientific exploration is to arrive at as simple an explanation as possible, and the concept of consciousness emerging out of nonconscious material represents a kind of failure of the typical goal of scientific explanation. Imagine being a brain without any sense organs connected, floating in empty space or in a vast body of water. Conscious PDF Book Free
Then imagine your senses being connected, one at a time. First vision. The only content available to you is a subtle experience of sight. You can see light perhaps—pulsating light of varying brightness, coming in and out. Try to apprehend this without including the concepts of memory or language, so that there’s no sense of a self thinking, Whoa, it was just dark but now it’s light again!
Instead, try to imagine a very simple flow of “first experiences”: light and dark alternating, then brighter light, dimmer light, pulsating light. Next, imagine light that takes on shapes: a circular light, a beam of light, light that extends far into the distance. Adding color perhaps: a reddish light that transforms to orange, then yellow, then blue. Imagine feeling formless and weightless.
You’re free-floating in space, with no thoughts or concepts—no words “orange” or “red,” just the pure experience of those colors. Visualize the most basic experience imaginable. Next, bring in sounds, then tastes, then smells—each arriving one at a time in as pure a form as possible.