Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Consciousness and the Brain


Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our ThoughtsConsciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts by Stanislas Dehaene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an excellent survey of that particular area of brain science at the forefront of which Dehaene is working. The bibliography alone is worth the purchase, and the narrative recognizes the work of a large group of direct colleagues, all of which provide some indication of how important his area is.

I was surprised to find Julian Jaynes referenced, which makes the second (after Dawkins) respectful nod I've seen from a respected source. He also pulls in Dennett and even Chalmers by the end, though Chalmers in a pretty dismissive way. I guess what I'm saying is that here is an exceedingly thoughtful and well-read scientist who had earned my solid confidence.

I do have to confess that his placing himself among those who ascribe to the 'brain in a vat' school of consciousness theorists puts me off. This also, obviously, means that he supposes that artificial consciousness is possible. While he takes pains to distinguish his model for consciousness from those which deploy computer metaphors, he still operates strictly within a fully empirical model, no spooks allowed.

No spooks allowed to my thinking either, but while I give him full high marks for his excellent science, I do believe that he operates within an obsolete paradigm. I say this mostly because he doesn't even consider emotion as a part of consciousness. I would guess that all the believers in 'brain in a vat' suppose that emotions are some low-order epiphenomena whose existence will drop out once the hard problems are resolved. And this hard stuff is really still mathematical and computational problems as presented here, metaphor or no.

In part, I'm buying the claim for a new paradigm staked out in another recent read: How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Barrett (no mention in this book's bibliography). That book lays out a more constructivist view of reality, to be distinguished from the perceptually based theory of consciousness here. Everything about Dehaene's theory supposes a fixed and subject-independent external reality which correlates to whatever goes on in the brain.

Dehaene takes pains to distinguish those aspects of his experimental evidence which provide correlation without demonstrating causation or real findings. This is the bugaboo of all statistically-based investigation, which is most of science now. Long gone are the days of either/or billiard ball physics. All mechanism has now been replaced with either/or digital teasing out of a hidden reality (the reality beyond what we can perceive - the real real) which is so far from perception as to stretch credulity about the proof of a boson's existence, say, to almost the extent that social science might want you to see cultural relativity in the way that we construct most of our more mundane realities.

Lisa Barrett starts with how emotions are culturally grounded (not universal and inborn, as they have often been assumed to be) and constructed, like language is. Her bedrock is emotional concepts, which are also shared, often as a part of language, just as all reality is. I believe that Dehaene would agree about the language connection. He may even have been informed by Jaynes!

One way to distinguish emotional from perceptual "feeling" is that emotion is felt directly "in the mind" while perceptual feeling passes through the body, to be felt - perceived - at a distance. Indeed, one might suggest (I sure would) that most of the evidence described in this book - which relates to neuron-based brain activity as captured by varieties of instrumentation descended from fMRI and EEG - might reference more what is felt by the mind than is allowed here by its transmutation into 'readings' on the sort of instrument which stands-in for perception.

I am asking the question whether things which come to consciousness are ever emotion-free. Surely we must admit that most of what determines who we are - including our consciousness - is derived from a series of accidents more than it is derived from personal agency. Just try being born black (as has been related in ways that I fully trust).

Or in other words, much of what Dehaene defines as consciousness might be more emotive than empirically based. We can also read emotions by interpreting facial expression or heart-rate, but that doesn't mean that we've learned anything about what emotion essentially is.

To be fair, Dehaene is putting subjective reality fully front and center in his research. To be conscious is to be able to report what one is conscious of, which would include hallucinations, delusions, trompe-l'oeil, and more unreal stuff.

Dehaene provides a brilliantly comprehensive look at how most of the perceptual data which the brain receives is combined, conditioned, organized and conceptualized at the subliminal pre-conscious level. Consciousness is the coming into being of what feels to me like a kind of standing wave in a feedback loop. One of his great accomplishments is progress toward the detection of consciousness in a damaged brain, removed from bodily interaction from the world about.

Evidence for consciousness is made when all the subliminal unconscious Bayesian conjectures attempting to match what's actually "out there" with the raw perceptual data coming in finds a good match from memory 'within'. He describes the "ignition" of consciousness as happening when there is feedback from the conscious regions of the brain to where the subliminal stuff is happening. Contact!

There is a kind of match, or what I would call a kind of standing wave of resonance between subliminal constructs and what deserves or requires conscious awareness and attention. I would call it that because it might have the quality of emergence, like a snowflake, whose structure cannot be predicted from knowledge about its component parts, and their interactions. Emergent qualities put the lie to our current beliefs about causality, almost as though what emerges is a kind of primordial concept on the order of a Platonic idea. Or life itself, which is an emergent quality of matter.

In much the way that our eyes must constantly move about so that our brain can form a smooth reality in which we might navigate, this subliminal neural conjecture also jitters about on its own; not simply waiting for information to come in. Massive amounts of perceptual data turn into conscious awareness of some important 'thing' depending on our conscious attention and arousal. The subconscious mind already narrates - strings together in time - worthy candidates for conscious claiming. Consciousness is always slow to the game, taking credit for what the unconscious mind already put together from low-speed interconnections of disparate workings of the brain. Conceptualization is synchrony, where narrative builds across time. Aha!

Along with Lisa Barrett (I believe), I would call this coming to consciousness an emotive event. Like a lot of consciousness researchers, Dehaene looks for correlates in the brain for what is present to our conscious awareness. This sounds to me very much like what I would consider to be the mistaken notion that our brain contains a more or less complete "image" of the world around us. I would rather call these often so-called images what they really are, which is a collection of concepts.

One forms a concept of, say, a lion, by experience with several such creatures, likely preloaded with a name; a word from one's shared language. When confronted by an actual instance of the lion concept, and when that fills front and center of conscious awareness, we don't choose what to do about it based on conscious anything before being energized by the powerful feeling of fear.

Calling up what we think is a mental image of the lion might simply be reliving prior perceptions which are "stored" in our brain as delayed - endlessly looping - actual perceptions of actual things. This insight derives from the Spread Mind theory of Riccardo Manzotti (also not referenced in this book).

Manzotti comes from the field of artificial intelligence and not from neurology, and so is likely considered a flake from the perspective of serious brain scientists. Ironically enough, Manzotti seems to agree with me that there will be no such thing as artificial intelligence; at least not that would replicate human intelligence.

The big advantage of the Spread Mind theory as a basis to understand consciousness is that one doesn't have to decide whether objective reality is constructed. This is the same collapse that quantum physics realized, where subject can never be teased out entirely from object; where objects are a construct of probability until detected into reality. One is looking in the wrong place if one is looking for quantum features of the brain as a basis for "free will." They are already out there.

Intelligence is no more contained in and by a brain than a gene without its proper niche can describe a living host. By definition, the niche is as complex as the projected creature. Context and object, concept and percept, standing waves and particles, emotive and motive forces, conspire together for reality to emerge.

Artificial intelligence is not impossible because human intelligence is so very special. It's not. And I really doubt that human intelligence has gone very far toward what intelligence could be. Which is just another way to suggest that natural evolution isn't done yet. But what I am saying is that there would be and can be no intelligence at all without the whole of life on the planet. And I don't mean must life as it "led up" to us, but life as it is all around us. "Brain in a vat" is metaphor for intelligent life on an artificial planet or in virtual reality. Neither are possible.

(The living and conscious brain of a person who's lost their brain stem proves only the same thing that consciousness in a baby proves - neither is any way to live a full life)

Why is artificial intelligence not possible? you ask. Well, it is possible and it's all around us, but it will never be conscious.

OK, so here's my own little flaky contribution to the science of consciousness: emotion is not just in the mind, it's also out there, along with all that we perceive. Surely you might agree that lots of animals have emotions, but that's not the limit to what I mean. I mean that emotion is elemental in just the way that subatomic particles and forces are. We think the latter are what composes reality, but we know them directly only as our bodies interact with them.

Turns out that our interactions are determined by a hidden, non-perceptual reality which is only accessible by way of the conceptual gymnastics of a living mind in a living body which can handle the instrumental tools for discovery. These concepts are also shared, and not contained "inside" our minds. Gravity is the boundary between particle-mediated forces and the emotive prognostications of impingement among emergent beings. Both are equally real. Particles and concepts both pop in and out of nothingness. Reality is irony writ large.

Consciousness, even as it exists in a lizard or maybe a spider, allows us to navigate - to move - in the real world as it actually is, and even to make it more as we wish it to be, once we become human - a work still very much in progress. Our imagination helps with that. We are more intelligent in our interactions with reality, apparently, than is any other creature. That's especially so once language enters our picture and we can conspire together, as this book so powerfully demonstrates. Indeed the brain here is presented almost as a hierarchical ordering of a community of billions of otherwise independently clustering and firing neurons. It is presented as a metaphor for how society and civilization have accomplished so very much, so singularly as a social species. We are not conscious alone.

Navigating the world is, of course, directional in time and space. Our behaviors are based on the collective predictions of our neurons and our society. For physical reality, time is defined by entropy. The running out of a clock; the wearing of rocks in a river; the death of any individual life. Life moves the other way and has since the beginning of time.

In the beginning was the concept; a replicable structure for matter otherwise blowing apart. Atoms, molecules, structures, and the universal replicators of genetics. The anti-entropic direction for life - forward in time - is composed of the chance recombination of the raw stuff of physics into persistent conceptual structures. Their recombination in the direction of life makes a prognostication for the future. There are no physical forces which move us collectively that way. There is only emotive attraction and repulsion which no instrument will ever measure directly.

Emotion is what binds us to all of "creation." Emotion is what connects us to all that is alive. I mean this is the same technical sense that is meant when you call out a proton, please. I know we don't give a shit for the whales or the wolves, or even for each other based on the evidence. But that doesn't mean we're not connected. It does mean that to conceive of the cosmos as built of zeros and ones means to conceive of a cosmos in a vat, disconnected from anything else.

There is more to life than we can know by instrumental science. A mind confined to a brain - the brain in a vat, or the butterfly in the diving bell - is but a correlate to a mind and not the real thing.

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Thursday, March 17, 2022


One evening after dinner

I crave a sweet
Next day I load up
Treats indiscriminated
Deprecated by number
I crave wine
To also chug out of its
Time unappreciated
I lose my friend
I have passed
The End

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

World War III "It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us."

Fiona Hill says that WW III has already started, and we're in it. Remember her? She was a truth talker at Trump's impeachment hearings. She got a makeover before appearing on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She didn't look so Soviet grim, and her rhetoric was trimmed of all the incendiaries. 

My long-distance one-way correspondent Indi says the oxygen in the coal mine has already gone, and that his people on Sri Lanka are the canaries. No wonder we don't think twice about driving our cars Indi, when the global military dwarfs civilian desecration.

Jonathan Franzen is vilified for suggesting that since we're not going to do anything about global warming, we should at least do those things that we can and maybe will do, to save some birds, some habitat, some bits of nature which many of us still require. 

I sure won't do anything. What is there to do when you still have to slog past weirdly happy advertisements to see the newreels from Ukraine? That's just way too much cognitive dissonance for me to bear.

There is no point in trying to change minds. Humans won't be doing anything different. I know I won't. I wouldn't know what to do. I'm tending toward the Marcuse camp; woke to the fact that being presented with pre-steeped-in-money choices does not a democracy make.

But it's far more than that. Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin cross in the arena of aesthetics. Marcuse' One-Dimensional Man describes a life desublimated, where the transitive value of a concept has been reduced to the fixed, denotative, and even imperative nature of noun as thing, embedded not in an aura of contingency, but in a rational cosmos of fixed meanings.

Marcuse struggled mightily, and likely failed, to rid Marxist Dialectic of the trap that history would always be written in a progressive direction. As if history would move with the same inevitable progression that global capital does. He replaces the inevitability of progress with the built-in draw of concepts, which belong to the province of thought, toward a future where actual things remain free to move toward essence, if not toward ideal.

And yes it is mechanical reproduction writ large and populating even thought, which enacts the desublimation. Marcuse' nightmare is an instrumental world where 'what is' gets replaced with 'how to.' 

Along with Marcuse, we remain in the thrall of authenticity, now projected onto NFTs and the blockchain, as though that doesn't demarcate the final solution and never something ameliorative. It is the end and not the beginning when highest trust is also mechanical.

You must protect and own your passcode, which Trumps your identity. Your identity, authentic or not, can only exist in that aura of contingency; those know you who can identify your body after death. And even then there must be circumstance for habeas corpus. It was never your body that mattered. It was your body enlivened in the direction of life.

There is only the concept of number which requires desublimation. There is no essence to number but the number itself. And now our rational oppressively administered world is defined by digital everything. Our freedom is complete. History ends. 

It is not science which is indifferent to ought in the place of is. Only nature is indifferent. And we must not cheer for the lion or the lamb. Nature is not God. God is love, which is also the direction for life's evolution in nature. This is not something to cheer. It is something that we must align with, as with the flow of a river, or the wind which fills our sails. 

Instrumental or mechanical rampage against nature can only inflame the fight, and when we turn to the art of war, war as art, the battle is already lost, for we have become irrelevant. No different from any other species disappearance.

I don't and won't do Facebook for a bejillion reasons, some political, some as protest about how its business model lives on the corpse of our political system, but mostly because it has replaced all personal contact. I'd rather be stark raving alone than to be forced into that fake public space.

I'm certain that my problem with Facebook is that expressions of emotion always seem performative to me. Facebook changes the performance, in at least the sense that real emotions - the kind you simply can't hold back - will never appear on Facebook. You post there after bouts of extreme joy or sadness or terror. Real emotions require real contact.

The limits to what you may say on Facebook precisely disallow improper condolence or snark against a "friend." And this is precisely what allows you to forward and promote falsehood. If science is neutral, then so is falsehood. And I will not be shamed for my ignorance of the sanctioned ways.

Nature will do its thing, in any case. I know I should have embraced Zoom meetups during the depths of the pandemic, but it just reminded me of what was missing. I try not to drive my car, but sometimes I just have to. And when I do walk, which is most of the time, I'm still almost the only one on the street. Although the airport parking lots have filled again. What? The virus has won. Just like Al Qaeda had already won when we went all military on their demand. Performative emotion cubed. Dubya said we had no choice but to be enraged, and Hilary cheered.

When I observe that private cars will be gone within ten years, folks think I'm nuts or just plain cranky. I'm not reading any tea leaves; I'm just stating the obvious. The earth won't stand for it. I mean, I gaze at the vehicles passing by and wonder which one I should buy next, to support the mobile lifestyle that I miss. I'm right in there will all the others that the ads target. I'm just not as excited as the ads make me think I should be. As I guess everyone else is about buying shit.

The only place and time I see books advertised is when I'm reading on my Kindle. At least they don't interrupt my reading. Just sayin'

I'm not watching for what to do any other more than the Ukrainians were watching out for what they should be doing when Putin would inevitably send his forces in. Now they're just doing it, as we all will be doing it when nature sends the forces in. It's not like I'm really OK with that, but I guess I have to be. I try to be at least mentally prepared.

I don't want to get involved in debates about what nature means. Artifice versus nature kind of thing. Art versus schlock. Nature doesn't mean anything. Nature just is.

In my usage here, nature means the real. The real is that part of understanding that science might approach but will never reach. The real is what's always beyond us, but always there. Pretty much by definition ignorance will exceed knowledge, no matter how instrumentally powerful our science makes us feel. And science barely touches people, politics, and the weather when those move at world-changing pace and scale.

Humans have quite simply exceeded any proper scale in our homebuilding. Escape velocity leads only to the end of us.

I suspect the changes will happen a lot faster than we could ever anticipate. Faster even than the results of a nuclear war - that is if we manage to avoid nuclear war. China may be our truest friend if it comes to that brink, but somehow the only thing that both sides of our two-party political system agree on is the singular assessment that China is our greatest threat. As if being handed pre-cooked choices defined by money about whom to elect defines democracy. Sheesh.

We would and will know what to do if nuclear war breaks out. We declare emergency and then work like hell to retrieve whatever we can that comes closest to what we now have, before the fall. 

But there are also possibilities for the reconstitution of both scientific and political/social understanding which are, collectively, far more powerful than any bomb or any virus. Understanding of Einstein's equation of mass with energy enabled us to realize the release of 'mass quantities of energy' in only a few short years of engineering implementation. We still struggle to contain and make that energy useful. That also is both a political and scientific struggle for engineering to accomplish.

We won't know what to do when the economy fully collapses. Based on climate change, or a new pandemic, or mass migrations, or crop collapse or sea level rise, there won't be any going back to normal, and we have no models for a new normal.

Nuclear war would also be force majeure, an act of God, an act of nature. Just as I am at fault for all my inaction, humanity will feel our failure. We will feel that this has been an act of man, and we will perform our grief before nothing but God. Nothing less can be worthy to accept our contrition.

And anyhow how would fighting in the direction of forcing humans to do what they should and even must do make one virtuous? I wonder how many Chicken Littles were running around Ukraine last year? Our Chicken Littles call out China, because no harm can come from that, or at least the harm is minuscule compared to the political gains for whatever upcoming election. What does bankrupt mean again?

I'll tell you what the new normal had better be. It had better be us getting back together as families and as a people not as a nation. It had better be the scrapping of the style of capitalism that triggered our collapse. Where we drive off the edge of the earth like a self-driving car that's lost its electronics. Capitalism, as we've allowed it to craft us, is running on automatic and it won't stop before it ends.

That's not a prediction. That's a fact, and we'd better prepare for it. But we won't. 

Thing is that it's hard to know what to believe and even harder to know what to do. The QAnon Trumpers are my exemplar of the nightmare of waking up and realizing that you've bought a pack of lies. It could happen to any of us. Which is why we, right alongside the QAnon nutjobs, need the insurance of agreeing with those closest to us. They can't all be wrong. That's pretty much how politics works anymore. You elect someone who's willing to say out loud in public from a position of power something which reinforces a set of beliefs that you know somewhere in the recesses of your mind might not be true. Or it might be actually insane. But you need them to keep your belief alive that the other side is insane.

That something in you wants or needs it to be true, just to end your confusion. We're all insane together now. In unison across the globe.

The biggest comeuppance of all would be to realize that your version of God was never true. That priests are not good, or that scientists can sell out as easily as any class of people. 

It has long since been the case that the scientific method demonstrates that humanity must take responsibility for reality or perish. Not by engineering implemented according to what we can prove that we do actually understand. Rather, by being chastened by our more recent understanding that as subjects, we are part of and not apart from what is out there.

Obama worked for the Oligarchs as a semi-closeted neoliberal. Says the Maoist from Austin Texas fighting on the Russian side against the Ukrainians who are just working for Obama too. Then Bratton Tweets this:

How is one even to parse this? Posted just before Bratton's Strelka Institute is shuttered in solidarity with Ukraine. Couldn't the same quote apply to Trump? Is that how Bratton meant it?

We are living in a simulation, and we're glad we had it for how it helped us to survive COVID-19.

But I, for one, don't want to live in a simulation, I want to live in the real. Just not so real as where that guy from Austin is living. Just not so real that God is my copilot. I just don't want to be duped. No matter how powerful are the powers that be, they are drunk with their power and I won't be duped.

So I'll keep as quiet as I can. Until someone else notices that the truths we all live by are no longer true. Nature, so called, will give the lie. Nature is also within each of us. The boundaries shall dissolve.

We've crossed a line with what we think it means to understand something. We know what understanding means when it guides our actions and the result of those actions is what we wanted. When we take it to the vast abstraction of "living in a simulation," there's absolutely no chance that we will prove our understanding.

I'm not denigrating Zelenskyy. He has inhabited his role and become real. May it happen to each of us before it is already too late.