Tuesday 26 January 2010

Information & consciousness

One of the reasons I'm so interested in information is the link to consciousness. Consciousness is surely on the front line of our struggle to make sense of the world, it is one of the really big problems. See what Dennett wrote in 1969:
THOSE who are convinced of the futility of philosophy are fond of pointing to its history and claiming that there is no progress to be discerned there. In no area of philosophy is this claim easier to support than in philosophy of mind, the history of which, when viewed through a wide-angle lens, appears to be a fruitless pendulum swing from Descartes' dualism to Hobbes’ materialism, to Berkeley’s idealism, and then back to dualism, idealism and materialism, with a few ingenious but implausible adjustments and changes of terminology. The innovations of one generation have been rescinded by the next so that despite a growing intricacy of argument and a burgeoning vocabulary of abstruse jargon, supplemented in each era by the fashionable scientific terms of the day, there have been no real and permanent gains.

The question that defined the pendulum is what the relation is between mind and body, and the problem that set the pendulum in motion was Descartes' dilemma of interaction. If, as seems plausible at first glance, there are minds and mental events on the one hand and bodies and physical events on the other, then these two spheres either interact or not.

"Content and Consciousness", D. C. Dennett, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1969
Of course since that was written 40 years ago it could all of changed - maybe the problem of the mind has been solved, but I don't think so.

Information surely lies at the boundary of these two spheres.

In the London Review of Books there was recently a review of a work by the philosopher Galen Strawson [1]. There's lots of really intriguing ideas in there, like the suggestion that
...the subjective experience of the self does not require that it persist beyond the lived present, which lasts for less than a second
so not only am I not that same person when I wake up in the morning as the person who went to sleep the night before, but I am a different person from one second to the next.
Not only does the self not persist across gaps in consciousness; it also doesn’t persist across the shifts in the content of consciousness that occur constantly in the course of waking life.

But that's not really what I wanted to highlight here. What I want to raise (which I have just discovered was not in that LRB article, but in an earlier one [2]!) is Strawson's panpsychism:
Strawson ... stands revealed as a panpsychist: basic things (protons, for example) are loci of conscious experience
Having been reading about native American religions over the Christmas it is quite nice to come across a (modern, Western) philosopher with an argument that might support the idea that trees, rocks and rivers might be conscious, but it is a lot to swallow and I'm not quite there yet!

One of the steps in the argument that leads Strawson to panpsychism is that he doesn't believe in emergence. So, since we are conscious, so too must the stuff we are made of also be conscious. And since that stuff is the same stuff that trees, rocks and rivers are made of, so too might they be conscious. Well, I think that is where I can point to a straightforward disagreement: I do believe in emergence. I think information is an emergent property. The information carried by the bits in a digital communication channel is not in the bits, but 'emerges' from the order in which they are put together.


1 The I in me, Thomes Nagel, review of Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics by Galen Strawson, London Review of Books Vol. 31 No. 21 · 5 November 2009 pp33-34

2 Headaches have themselves Jerry Fodor review of Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism? by Galen Strawson et al, LRB v29 n10 24 may 2007)


Robin Faichney said...

Hi David,

In my opinion the "mind problem" has been largely solved. On the other hand, only a minority of philosophers would share that opinion. But a helluva lot has happened since 1969. I think you should read some of Dennett's more recent work. It's not his most recent, but as I'm reading it right now, and I'm sure little or nothing of significance in his thinking has changed, I'll mention Kinds of Minds. Then have a look at my blog post "No wonder people don't like Dennett" for what has to be added in to complete the picture! :)

David Chapman said...

Hi Robin,

Thanks for your comment, and the recommendation of 'Kinds of Minds'. I'm intrigued that you say the Mind Problem has been solved.

I'd seen your Blog post (and the comment it provoked). It caught my attention because from what little I have read of Dennett, I've not warmed to him!

Are you familiar with Strawson? Do you have any thoughts on his work?

Robin Faichney said...

It's been solved, IMNSHO, but not yet clearly explained all in one place. Dennett got a great deal right but neglected empathy/affect/simulation, which people like Gallese have made great strides on.

I've read some Strawson (we're talking about Galen, the son of PF), and heard him speak at a conference in July 09. He's very plausible in person, with a confident, Oxbridge-type manner, but I'm afraid I'm not at all keen on his thinking. It doesn't seem right to dismiss him in a few words, though, so I'll leave it at that.

David Chapman said...

"It's been solved, IMNSHO, but not yet clearly explained all in one place."

Perhaps you should have a go at doing it - writing a clear explanation.

Robin Faichney said...

Thanks for thinking I'm up to it, but I've very recently come to the conclusion that, given the "state of the arts", I'd rather work on information than consciousness. I think I have more to offer regarding info. You're right, of course, to think they're closely connected, but they're a long way from being the same thing. I hope to either do a PhD on info in phil of mind starting Sept 11 (too late this year), or else a book on the subject (or maybe, given time, both).