Consciousness: Creeping up on the Hard Problem

Jeffrey A. Gray, Consciousness: Creeping up on the Hard Problem.

I find this book very interesting. The author considers in the book actually conscious experience only, for him consciousness == conscious experience. In other words, the book is about qualia from the viewpoint of neuroscience.

p. 4. “This, then, are the ‘consciousness experiences’ that this book is about: and ‘consciousness’ refers to the (unknown) process by which they come about”.

Below there are some quotes from the book that I have divided in the three category. First is The World is Inside the Head where the author conveys that what we experience is exclusively constructed by the brain. The in Perception, Qualia and Hard Problem there is a description of the main problem considered in the book. Finally in Illusions of the Will there are quotes about casual power of consciousness. Please note that the author does believe that  consciousness has casual power.

The World is Inside the Head

 p. 1. “For, just like those inner sensations, that world out there is constructed by our brains and exists within our consciousness. In a very real sense, the world as we consciously experience it is not out there at all: it is inside each and every of us.”

p. 9. “I do not mean that there no real external world out there at all: there is one, and it is not located inside the skull. But our knowledge of the real external world is indirect only; and despite all appearances to the contrary, the consciously perceived world is not that real world. Rather, as I shall justify throughout the book, it is a simulation of the real world – one so effective that take it be the real world. And that simulation is made by, and exists within, the brain.”

p. 10. “The experience is constructed – on the basis of, and constrained by, what the real external world affords – by brains inside our heads. And only when the experience is constructed does consciousness – and with it the Hard Problem – enter the story.”

p. 11. “… because our brains are all built in roughly the same way, with similar tendencies to construct similar experiences given similar inputs from the world outside.

p. 18. “Philosophers sometimes endow conscious experience with an inviolable privacy, rendering it incapable of meeting the scientific requirement for replicability of empirical observations. Nothing could be further from the truth, as attested by the reliability of visual illusions, among many other phenomena.”

p. 63. “For the good fit between conscious experience and outside reality, the idealist philosopher Berkley called in God. In this more materialist age, it is Evolution that we must thank.”

p. 135. “These experiments demonstrate yet again, by the way, that the ‘privacy’ of conscious experience offers no barrier to good science. Synaesthetes claim a form of experience that is, from the point of view of most people, idiosyncratic in the extreme. Yet it can be successfully brought into the laboratory.”

Perception, Qualia and Hard Problem

 p.5. “To put this Hard Problem into a preliminary nut-shell: it arises because nothing in our current theoretical models of brain and behavior accounts for the existence of conscious experience, still less for its detailed properties.”

p. 6. “The non-scientific stance comes in two versions. The first version is philosophical. It accepts that there is an apparently Hard Problem, but attributes it entirely to sloppy thinking. What looks like a Hard Problem will cease to be one when we have understood the errors in our ways of speaking about the issues involved. If the route were successful, we would rejoin the normal stance: once our head have been straightened out, science could again just get on with the job of filling in the details of empirical knowledge.”

p. 10. “Vibrations are not music. If the Beethoven sonata was played on a gramophone and no-one was there to listen, there would be no music – just vibrations on the air.”

p. 12. “The brain does not even need visual stimuli impinging upon retina in order to construct colours. There are many everyday examples of this, such as dreaming in colour with the eyes closed. A more dramatic example of this, now well-documented experimentally, lies in a group of individuals (nearly always women) known as ‘coloured hearing synaestetes'”.

p. 18. “You should be surprised by the capacity of the perceptual system to achieve the just the same three-dimensional effect by viewing flat surfaces – a capacity well-known and thoroughly exploited since at least the time of the Renaissance, when painters discovered the laws of perceptive. … Oddly, one doesn’t normally think of this kind of painterly use of perspective as creating ‘illusion’, though that is surely what it does.”

p. 19. “Visual illusions (like the whole of perception) are given: they are constructed unconsciously and then pop, fully made, into conscious awareness. … And this despite the fact that the brain knows the truth all along. It knows it, however, in another system: not in perception but in action.”

p. 37. “This ‘unity of consciousness’ sits uneasily next to the evidence that each of our sensory systems, all the way from sense organ (eye, ear, tongue, etc.) to brain (where there are quite different regions specialized for vision, hearing, taste, etc.), is rather strictly segregated from the others. … Nonetheless, all the senses do come together in consciousness – at any particular moment there is just one unified scene. The first binding problem is that there is yet no known counterpart in the brain where this unification might take place.”

p. 66. “This (zombie) is a philosophical invention intended to cover the possibility that there may exists beings which act just like humankind but do not experience any qualia. It is a stark illustration of our lack of understanding of the functions of consciousness that no-one is at present sure whether zombies could or could not exist in reality. That is to say, we do not have a theory from which it can be deduced what kind (if any) of information processing or behaviour could or could not be executed in the absence of qualia.”

p. 66. “Qualia are exclusively perceptual. Furthermore, the Hard Problem of consciousness lies exclusively in the existence of qualia.”

p. 66. “We would need to know of qualia (in terms that link up effectively with the rest of natural science):
1) What are they?
2) How does the brain produce them?
3) Why does the brain produce them (given that it can perform so many complex operations, even to the level of intentionality, without them)?
4) What do they do?
5) How did they evolve?
6) What survival value do they confer?
7) Is it only brains that can produce them?”

p. 232. “Might it be the case that, if one put a slice of V4 in a dish in this way, it could continue to sustain colour qualia? Functionalists have a clear answer to this question: no, because a slice of V4, disconnected from its normal visual inputs and motor outputs, cannot discharge the functions associated with the experience of colour. But, if we had a theory that started, not from function, but from brain tissue, maybe it would give a different answer. Alas, no such theory is to hand. Worse, even one had been proposed, there is no known way of detecting qualia in a brain slice!”.

p. 320 “The notion that an isolated piece of brain tissue might sustain conscious experience is no more fantastic per se than the notion of that a system, like a computer, made of quite different materials might do so. Yet the latter is taken for granted by probably the majority of functionalists; and these are the dominant force in today’s science and philosophy of consciousness.”

p. 321. “Alternatively, no such new arrangement of the existing laws of physics and chemistry will turn out to be possible. The fundamental laws of physics themselves will need supplementation. It is difficult to see how new fundamental laws could come into play only during biological evolution, or they would not be fundamental. So it is probably inevitable that any theory which seeks to account for consciousness in terms of fundamental physical processes will involve ‘panpsychism’. That is to say, it will be a theory in which the elements of conscious experience are to be found pretty well in everything, animate or inanimate, large or small. TO most people this prospect will seem even less palatable that that of consciousness in computers or brain slices. But the state of our ignorance in this daunting field is so profound that we should rule out nothing a priori on the grounds absurdity alone. Bear in mind the absurdity of quantum mechanics!”

Illusions of the Will

 p. 7. “So be prepared to discover that much of your consciousness life is illusory. But cling, nonetheless, to that fundamental rock upon which Descartes built his great conceptual edifice (no matter how unsatisfactory it turned out to be in other respects): whatever else may be an illusion, the fact that you have a conscious life cannot be. For it is in consciousness that illusions are created: no consciousness, no possibility of illusion.

p. 8. “First, most behavior takes place too quickly for it to depend upon conscious perception. This takes time. Estimates of just how much time vary somewhat, depending upon particular experimental designs, but a common estimate is that it takes about 250 milliseconds (a full quarter of second) after an event has impinged upon one of the sense organs before you become consciously aware of it.”

p. 9. “That one does become consciously aware of fast-moving lions and tennis balls is undeniable; but that conscious awareness should guide immediate behavioural reactions to them is – on the experimental evidence – impossible.”

p. 21. “Second, there is good experimental evidence that decisions are taken a long time before the subject becomes consciously aware of having made the decision”.

p. 22. “Causes must precede their effects; brain activity causes mental events; ergo, brain activity must precede that particular metal event that is the making of a conscious intention to do something. From this point of view, then, the only surprise in Libet’s results should have lain in the duration of the delay between brain activity and conscious volition: 350 milliseconds is on any view a remarkably long time.”

p. 40. “Given, that there is a scientific story that goes seamlessly from sensory input to behavioural output without reference to consciousness then, when we try to add conscious experience back into the story, we can’t find anything for it to do. Consciousness, it seems, has no casual powers, it stands outside the casual chain.”

p. 73. “If conscious experiences are epiphenomenal, like the melody whistled by the steam engine, there is not much more, scientifically speaking, to say about them. So to adopt epiphenomenalism is a way of giving up on the Hard Problem. But it is too early to give up. Science has only committed itself to serious consideration of the problem within the last couple of decades. To find casual powers for conscious events will not be easy. But the search should be continued. And, if it leads us back to dualism, so be it.”

p. 76. “For we don’t at present understand how conscious experience, whether or not seemingly equipped with the right kind of survival value, can have causal effects in its own rights, as distinct from those of the brain processes it accompanies.”

p. 110. “(1) the unconscious brain constructs a display in a medium, that of conscious perception, fundamentally different from its usual medium of electrochemical activity in and between nerve cells;

(2) it inspects the conscious constructed display;

(3) it uses the results of the display to change the working of its usual electrochemical medium.”


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  1. Dick Gordon says:

    Dear Evgenii,
    I’ve avoided consciousness for the simpler problem of perception. Here’s an hypothesis about how the brain simulates an image of the world:

    Gordon, R. & H.V.B. Hirsch (1977). Vision begins with direct reconstruction of the retinal image, how the brain sees and stores pictures. In: Gegenstrom, Für Helmut Hirsch zum Siebzigsten/Against the Stream, for Helmut Hirsch on His 70th Birthday. Eds.: H. Schallenberger & H. Schrey. Wuppertal, Peter Hammer Verlag GmbH: 201-214.

    A simple thought experiment shows that the image perceived is not the retinal image. Imagine wearing a tiny camera on glasses that track eye movements, and move the camera accordingly. Record the movie, then watch it. The image will jump around with your eyes’ saccadic motions, and thus not match what you saw. What you see is therefore a computed image.
    -Dick Gordon, gordonr@cc.umanitoba.ca