Category: Mind

Subjects as Embodied Minds

Last year I wrote a paper on robot consciousness to submit to a conference, only to realize that there is a better approach to establishing this argument than the one I took. In Sartrean Phenomenology for Humanoid Robots, I attempted to draw a connection between Sartre’s description of self-awareness and how this can be applied to robotics, and while at the time I was more interested in this higher-order understanding of the self, it might be a better idea to start with an argument for phenomenal consciousness. I realized that technically, iCub already has phenomenal consciousness and its own type of qualia, a notion I should develop more before moving on to discuss how we can create intelligent, self-aware robots.

What I originally wanted to convey was how lower levels of consciousness act as a foundation from which higher-order consciousness emerges as the agent grows up in the world, where access consciousness is the result of childhood development. Because this paper is a bit unfocused, I only really talked about this idea in one paragraph when it should be its own paper:

“Sartre’s discussion of the body as being-for-itself is also consistent with the scientific literature on perception and action, and has inspired others to investigate enactivism and embodied cognition in greater detail (Thompson 408; Wider 385; Wilson and Foglia; Zilio 80). This broad philosophical perspective suggests cognition is dependent on features of the agent’s physical body, playing a role in the processing performed by the brain (Wilson and Foglia). Since our awareness tends to surpass our perceptual contents toward acting in response to them (Zilio 80), the body becomes our centre of reference from which the world is experienced (Zilio 79). When Sartre talks about the pen or hammer as an extension of his body, his perspective reflects the way our faculties are able to focus on other aspects of the environment or ourselves as we engage with tools for some purpose. I’d like to suggest that this ability to look past the immediate self can be achieved because we, as subjects, have matured through the sensorimotor stage and have learned to control and coordinate aspects of our bodies. The skills we develop as a result of this sensorimotor learning enables the brain to redirect cognitive resources away from controlling the body to focus primarily on performing mental operations. When we write with a pen, we don’t often think about how to shape each letter or spell each word because we learned how to do this when we were children, allowing us to focus on what we want to say rather than how to communicate it using our body. Thus, the significance of the body for perception and action is further reinforced by evidence from developmental approaches emerging from Piaget’s foundational research.”

Applying this developmental process to iCub isn’t really the exciting idea here, and although robot self-consciousness is cool and all, it’s a bit more unsettling, to me at least, to think about the fact that existing robots of this type technically already feel. They just lack the awareness to know that they are feeling, however, in order to recognize a cup, there is something it is like to see that cup. Do robots think? Not yet, but just as dogs have qualia, so does iCub and Haikonen’s XCR-1 (Law et al. 273; Haikonen 232–33). What are we to make of this?

by Vincenzo Fiorecropped

Works Cited

Haikonen, Pentti O. ‘Qualia and Conscious Machines’. International Journal of Machine Consciousness, World Scientific Publishing Company, Apr. 2012. world, www.worldscientific.com, https://doi.org/10.1142/S1793843009000207.

Law, James, et al. ‘Infants and ICubs: Applying Developmental Psychology to Robot Shaping’. Procedia Computer Science, vol. 7, Jan. 2011, pp. 272–74. ScienceDirect, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procs.2011.09.034.

Thompson, Evan. ‘Sensorimotor Subjectivity and the Enactive Approach to Experience’. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, vol. 4, no. 4, Dec. 2005, pp. 407–27. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-005-9003-x.

Wider, Kathleen. ‘Sartre, Enactivism, and the Bodily Nature of Pre-Reflective Consciousness’. Pre-Reflective Consciousness, Routledge, 2015.

Wilson, Robert A., and Lucia Foglia. ‘Embodied Cognition’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2017, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2017. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/embodied-cognition/.

Zilio, Federico. ‘The Body Surpassed Towards the World and Perception Surpassed Towards Action: A Comparison Between Enactivism and Sartre’s Phenomenology’. Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, vol. 28, no. 1, 2020, pp. 73–99. PhilPapers, https://doi.org/10.5195/jffp.2020.927.

Filling the Void

Combined, the ideas in the texts The Political: the Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology and An Awareness of What is Missing by Jürgen Habermas suggest the maintenance of peace and stability in postmetaphysical liberal democratic societies requires both a freedom of expression and a way to defer to religious content within political debate. Overall, Habermas articulates the causal relationship between secularized political spheres and societal destabilization, where a lack of connection to faith, spirituality, and religious meaning increases the potential for a culturally disconnected, and thus less cooperative, populace.

In An Awareness, Habermas provides recommendations which aim to establish a position for religion in postmetaphysical societies. He remarks that despite general historical developments in human knowledge and various cultural practices, religious thinking seems to remain a crucial component of human life in secular liberal democracies (Awareness 16). Habermas demonstrates that although postmetaphysical societies have rejected religion as a source of truth, nations and political parties still appeal to religion to gain support from voting citizens (Awareness 19-20). In general, not only does this suggest that religion remains a source of meaning for some, but these meanings are often appealed to within political discourse. Habermas is concerned about the tendency of postmetaphysical societies to reject the significance of this source of meaning, stating it risks enabling a “naive faith in science” to take its place, one which suggests a lurking sense of defeatism (Awareness 18). These situations threaten societal conceptions of morality and justice as the binding-agent necessary for ensuring harmony among communities no longer exists (Awareness 19). This missing link between human societies results in a broad destabilization of the relationship between religious communities (Awareness 20). To remedy this situation, Habermas suggests that the state ought to remain neutral toward religious groups and institutions while also recognizing their significance for citizens and their families (Awareness 21). This imposes a requirement for religious individuals and groups to acknowledge the secular epistemic environments in which they reside, and engage in reflexive scrutiny as a means of situating their ideology within this context (Awareness 21). Simultaneously, secular individuals must remain open to considering the content of religious perspectives, acknowledging and translating these contributions during political discussions (Awareness 22). This cooperation, created from the state’s open engagement with religious content and support for freedom of expression, stabilizes the relationship between various groups within society.

The Political discusses the current destabilization of societies in terms of their relation to human history and our shared cultural heritage. In a period of ancient history known as the Axial Age, politics were tightly coupled with religion such that emperors and rulers were believed to be connected to otherworldly entities and forces, considered divine by those over which they ruled (Political 17). With modernization, developments in human understanding removed the connection between the spiritual and the political, as kings were no longer viewed as incarnates of divine will or law, but just as human as their subjects (Political 18-19). In the following “era of statehood”, communities formed around identities, a topic Habermas discusses by appealing to the works of Carl Schmitt (Political 20). While Schmitt believes this depoliticization occurred during the period of modern history, Habermas argues that instead, it was the early modern period which saw this shift, due to the Reformation movements away from the Catholic Church (Political 20-21). Habermas also wonders whether modern political settings render religious content obsolete or simply alter the way it is used within political discourse (Political 21). Suggesting the latter, Habermas appeals to John Rawls’s public reason to articulate how liberal democracies can come to accept the potential significance of contributions which happen to originate from religious content (Political 23-24). Although this requires cooperation between secular and religious communities to translate various ideas into language suitable for public reason (Political 27), this dialectical process aims to generate a pluralistic society tolerant to the views and ideologies of distinct peoples (Political 28).

On page 17 of An Awareness, Habermas states “the cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged”. Can artistic works and other cultural projects serve as a bridge since the creation of artistic works, a process, aims to use scientific knowledge to represent subjective perspectives? Could public policy which secures funding for the arts or other, similar cultural projects further tolerance? If citizens are able to freely engage with representations of the perspectives of unique individuals as expressive, situated subjects, are individuals more likely to empathize with this perspective, thus increasing understanding, acceptance, and tolerance over time? Acknowledging Derrida’s philosophical contributions, we can consider artistic works and similar cultural products as entities with lives of their own. Representing a rich history of human heritage and development, do artistic works serve as a good mediator between individuals and collectives? Habermas focuses on translating language to uncover meaning, however, some knowledge cannot be adequately expressed in words.

The work below demonstrates the artist’s knowledge of colour mixing is required to produce an image which evokes a certain feeling, in addition to his ability to apply colours in such a way where the final product successfully communicates the message or idea as intended by the mind of another person.

Works Cited

Habermas, Jürgen. ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’. European Journal of Philosophy, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 1–25.

—. ‘“The Political”: The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology’. The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, by Judith Butler et al., Columbia University Press, 2011.

Weisz-Kubínčan, Arnold Peter. Mother with a Child. 1940, https://artvee.com/dl/mother-with-a-child-2/. artvee.com.

Information Warfare

It seems we are in the midst of a new world war, except now it aims to lurk in the forms of soft power, coercion, and psychological manipulation. The Cold War essentially hibernated for a few years until Putin became powerful enough to relaunch it online by using Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, targeting major western superpowers like the United States and the United Kingdom. We are witnessing the dismantling of NATO as nations erode from the inside through societal infighting. War games are not mapped out on land and sea but in the minds of groups residing within enemy nations (Meerloo 99). By destabilizing social cohesion within a particular country or region, the fighting becomes self-sustaining and obscured.

Information is key for psychological operations; as sensing living beings, information is what allows us to make good decisions which allow us to achieve our goals and keep living as best as possible. Since information has the capacity to control the behaviours of individuals, power can be generated through the production and control of information. Today, a number of key scientific organizations and individuals are drunk with power as they are in positions to control what should be considered true or false. For the sake of resource management, and likely a dash of plain ol’ human greed, the pragmatic pressures of the world have shaped what was once a methodology into a machine that provides people with purported facts about reality. As a result, we are now battling an epistemic dragon driven by collecting more gold to sit on.

This suggests that the things we believe are extremely valuable to others around the world, in addition to being one of the most valuable things you possess. The information and perspective you can provide to others is valuable, either to the society you belong to or to those interested in seeing your society crumble. The adage about ideas “living rent free in your head” seems appropriate because cultural memes are causally effective; they shape the way you think and act and such, introduces a potential psychological harm. Critical thinking and introspection are important because they are processes which counteract the influence of other people, because by forcing individuals to dig deeper from their subjective point of view, one ends up consolidating and pruning their beliefs.

Collateral damage has shifted from bodies to minds and communities will continue to be torn apart until we develop a system for individuals to combat these external influences. Socrates has shown us that philosophical inquiry tends to irritate people, and the fact that mere scientific scepticism today is being met with ad hominems suggests we are on the right track. Remember, the goal is discourse rather than concrete answers, and an important component involves considering new and conflicting ideas. Be wary of what incentivizes other people but do not judge them for it. Compassion will be the most challenging part of this entire endeavour, but I believe in you.

Works Cited

Meerloo, Joost A. M. The Rape of the Mind:  The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing. The World Publishing Company, 1956.

red

Anxiety in Creation

Thanks to my partner, I am now interested in learning to paint. I used to like to draw but painting has always been a daunting task. There are so many parameters to worry about, like colour, strokes, light, proportionality; I think it overwhelmed me. From my perspective, drawing is a little simpler; you have lines and some shading if you’re good. I think the thing that I found the most daunting, however, was picking subject matter. Why do people draw or paint the things they do? Most of the time, I couldn’t think of anything to paint, and would always worry about how the final product would turn out. My fearful immature mind would think something like “if mediocrity is the enemy, then it’s probably best that I stick to what I’m good at.” How lame is that? So, it’s time to tackle the fear of colour-matching and start by just making a mess. That’s what toddlers do with paint, so that’s what I shall do too, but a little less literally because my sensorimotor cortex has a better grip on how to move my hand. It’s not a lot better, but it’s something.

The idea for what to paint came to me, luckily, one day as I was thinking about time and reading about Cézanne. I was thinking about all the versions of still-life fruits and flowers that exist in the world, and then realized that these images were a snapshot of the object’s life, and that at one point, that one apple might have been green rather than red, for example. What if one were to paint all of the snapshots of the apple? In that moment, my mind produced a weird multi-coloured snake inside a tesseract, and it was at that point that I knew I had to try to externalize this image.

With my limited skills in visual representation, I knew I would need to take this slowly and plan every step of the image-creation project. I know I will make mistakes, but planning ahead and determining the steps I need to take beforehand helps to reduce the impact of the errors on the final product. The dimensions were the first thing to plan out: how is this going to fit within the canvas? Next, it was making sure the components of the foreground were properly set in relation to each other. Now that I am working on colour and detail, the real challenge begins.

To take a representation from the mind’s eye and depict it with high fidelity on a piece of paper or canvas is the hardest step. This is made explicit in Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind, and when I read segments of this book earlier in the year, it reminded me of the art I used to make as a kid and the feelings I had back then. That feeling of anxiety as the brain and body work together to represent a trait or idea (Derrida 36) is quite familiar, and perhaps it was this book that subconsciously rekindled my interest in creating visual art.Since skill is built up as the hand translates what the mind sees into line segments, angles, and shades of colour, I knew I would need a set “training-wheels” to get me going. By appealing to my experiences of drawing, I knew my pictures looked best when I could copy an image in front of me, as the external image is more concrete, visually, than my internal depiction. Existing still-life images act as my guide-dog as I feel around in the dark for ways of bringing this image to life. I know the vase needs to reflect light, but how? Fortunately, a quick internet search provides plenty of examples, but I am still looking for the right image, one that looks as close as possible to the scene in my imagination. I need to copy existing visual elements in order to articulate the ones produced by my neurons.

The lesson? More practice, less fretting. The expectations I place on my “art” are nothing but my own ideals, and after I challenge these ideals, the pleasure comes back. What ideals am I referring to? Productivity and achievement for the sake of bolstering one’s prospects or status, along with other notions that tend to suck the delight out of our endeavours. My partner often reminds me to enjoy the process and think less about the painting as a final product. Focus on the verb, not the noun. I am doing this for myself, not for the blog, not for my career, and certainly not for money. It’s an exercise in phenomenology, nothing more. Will thoughts of hustle-culture sneak up on me when I’m vulnerable? Yes, but that’s why this is about my inner representations, including those that make me doubt myself.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques, and Musée du Louvre. Memoirs of the blind: The self-portrait and other ruins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

What Mary Learns

Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment about qualia asks whether there are subjective facts about the colour red that are distinct from the physical facts produced through scientific inquiry (Jackson 291). The story involves an individual named Mary who grew up in a black-and-white room and has never seen any colours, but has studied everything there is to know about “redness” and how the brain processes light. As a neuroscientist, her studies have provided her with a robust theoretical understanding of colour perception without ever having experienced colour herself, leading us to wonder whether she learns anything new about the colour red after she sees red for the first time. The claim Jackson is interested in making is that there is no information about the experiences of others that Mary had not learned about while in her room. If Mary were to be released only to “realize how impoverished her conception of the mental life of others has been all along” Jackson suggests this generates a problem for physicalism (292).

William Lycan believes Mary would learn something new upon leaving the room because she is now presented with a new form of representation, namely, one produced by the act of introspection (Lycan 389). Building on Nagel’s ideas about what-it-is-like to experience things from a certain perspective, Lycan suggests the mind presents objects or features of the environment in a “special, uniquely internal point of view” (Lycan 390). More interestingly, Lycan goes on to suggest that the contents of these introspective representations are “non-physical pieces of information” (Lycan 391). This is because these internal representations are not synonymous with English words, or any other natural language words, because the internal monitors present within our bodies do not rely on linguistics. What I am assuming he means by this is that although we may use language for inner speech or verbalized thought, representations for qualia or phenomenal experiences such as redness or pain do not use language, but are intrinsic to the body and are relatively ineffable (Dennett 385). Lycan also suggests that these representations are non-physical because neuroscience is unable to provide information on introspective content, and as such, Mary could only represent other people’s experiences of red from a public, neuroscientific perspective (Lycan 393).

While this thought-experiment might pose problems for certain physicalist views, our general understanding of the world at this point in time can start to account for why Mary learns something new upon leaving the room. As she learns about how her own body generates experiences of red from a first-person perspective, she is now able to understand how others must use these internal representations as well. Since neuroscience is only interested in the functional organization of the brain and nervous system, Mary does not know how red appears to subjects engaging with particular wavelengths of light. Prior to her release, Mary could theoretically understand how individuals shop for tomatoes, but without the ability to see red, how this selection process is experienced from an individual’s perspective is still a mystery to her. The inner, subjective details of how people generally go about searching for the ideal tomato were previously off-limits, as her abilities to discriminate colours had yet to be developed. As such, Mary’s understanding of what redness means, especially when fruit shopping, would have been incomplete. Her own, internalized associative network of red objects and their commonalities would be absent or piecemeal, therefore limiting her understanding of how we collectively think about and interact with redness or red objects.

What do you think, are my tomatoes ready?

Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel C. ‘Quining Qualia’. Consciousness in Modern Science, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 381–414.

Jackson, Frank. ‘What Mary Didn’t Know’. The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 83, no. 5, JSTOR, 1986, pp. 291–95.

Lycan, William G. ‘Perspectival Representation and the Knowledge Argument’. Consciousness: New Philosophical Perspectives, OUP Oxford, 2003, p. 384.

Artificial Consciousness

With fewer courses this term, I’ve had a lot more time to work on the topic I’d like to pursue for my doctoral research, and as a result, have found the authors I need to start writing papers. This is very exciting because existing literature suggests we have a decent answer to the Chalmer’s Hard Problem, and from a nonreductive functionalist perspective, can fill in the metaphysical picture required for producing an account of phenomenal experiences (Feinberg and Mallatt; Solms; Tsou). This means we are justified in considering artificial consciousness as a serious possibility, enabling us to start discussions on what we should be doing about it. I’m currently working on papers that address the hard problem and qualia, arguing that information is the puzzle piece we are looking for.

Individuals have suggested that consciousness is virtual, similarly to computer software running on hardware (Bruiger; Haikonen; Lehar; Orpwood) Using this idea, we can posit that social robots can become conscious like humans, as the functional architectures of both rely on incoming information to construct an understanding of things, people, and itself. My research contributes to this perspective by stressing the significance of social interactions for developing conscious machines. Much of the engineering and philosophical literature focuses on internal architectures for cognition, but what seems to be missing is just how crucial other people are for the development of conscious minds. Preprocessed information in the form of knowledge is crucial for creating minds, as seen in developmental psychology literature. Children are taught labels for things they interact with, and by linguistically engaging with others about the world, they become able to express themselves as subjects with needs and desires. Therefore, meaning is generated for individuals by learning from others, contributing to the formation of conscious subjects.

Moreover, if we can discuss concepts from phenomenology in terms of the interplay of physiological functioning and information-processing, it seems reasonable to suggest that we have resolved the problems plaguing consciousness studies. Acting as an interface between first-person perspectives and a third-person perspective, information accounts for the contents, origins, and attributes of various conscious states. Though an exact mapping between disciplines may not be possible, some general ideas or common notions might be sufficiently explained by drawing connections between the two perspectives.

Works Cited

Bruiger, Dan. How the Brain Makes Up the Mind: A Heuristic Approach to the Hard Problem of Consciousness. June 2018.

Chalmers, David. ‘Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness’. Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, Mar. 1995, pp. 200–19. ResearchGate, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195311105.003.0001.

Feinberg, Todd E., and Jon Mallatt. ‘Phenomenal Consciousness and Emergence: Eliminating the Explanatory Gap’. Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 11, Frontiers, 2020. Frontiers, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01041.

Haikonen, Pentti O. Consciousness and Robot Sentience. 2nd ed., vol. 04, WORLD SCIENTIFIC, 2019. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1142/11404.

Lehar, Steven. The World in Your Head: A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003.

Orpwood, Roger. ‘Information and the Origin of Qualia’. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, vol. 11, Frontiers, 2017, p. 22.

Solms, Mark. ‘A Neuropsychoanalytical Approach to the Hard Problem of Consciousness’. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, vol. 13, no. 02, Imperial College Press, June 2014, pp. 173–85. worldscientific.com (Atypon), doi:10.1142/S0219635214400032.

Tsou, Jonathan Y. ‘Origins of the Qualitative Aspects of Consciousness: Evolutionary Answers to Chalmers’ Hard Problem’. Origins of Mind, edited by Liz Swan, Springer Netherlands, 2013, pp. 259–69. Springer Link, doi:10.1007/978-94-007-5419-5_13.

Qualia Revisited

I wrote a rhetorical post a while ago that attempts to motivate a new perspective on qualia and why we ought to consider it as something philosophically valuable. My appeals to art and cultural products aim to be persuasive by connecting qualia to everyday experiences, however, I think it still comes across as too abstract or unclear because the arguments are not well articulated. One of my supervisors has been instrumental for pushing me to abstract away from the science and evidence, and I now have a general idea of where I went wrong in my previous attempts to clarify my own perspective. Emphasis on ‘general’ because there is a lot of work to be done before I fully understand the difference between where I was and where I want to go.

Qualia, ultimately, are just concepts, which essentially boil down to information. This information is applied to the lived experience of one’s own sense data, as received from the environment, either internally in the form of bodily feelings, for example, or externally, as generated by features of the physical world. When we notice this sense data, which I consider similar to phenomenal experiences or Chalmers’ registrations (Chalmers 214), we often need a way to conceptually organize it. As a functional system, the brain receives incoming signals and processes them through various functions or streams, subsequently creating perceptions from sensations (Wolfe et al. 3). Our perceptions, however, are malleable based on information the individual has access to. This ranges from subtle, unconscious shifts in perspective to deliberate thought processes aimed at rethinking the situation at hand. As the body turns data into information (Computer Hope) through functional biological processes, qualia serve to facilitate the mind as the body’s owner or central processing unit by providing additional information which structures and curtails the process of perceiving.

Qualia as information can be passed from human to human as expressions of subjectivity as a means of connecting with others, in addition to making sense of the world. If qualia seem to be illusory or unreal, perhaps it’s because the significance of this information is lost as we try to make sense of what the mind is really doing from a scientific perspective. It probably doesn’t help that ‘information’ is abstract, conceptual, and invisible, as its inherent subtlety enables one to easily overlook or neglect its importance for structuring human thought and behaviour. Perhaps we take our theory of mind for granted and ignore subtle forms of communication, deeming the exchange of knowing glances as something less significant than a well-formed linguistic phrase. Though the information expressed through these channels may not demonstrate a high degree of fidelity to the thought as it exists in the mind of the communicator, our mere ability to communicate this way suggests that additional information already exists in the mind of the receiver, information which can contribute to shaping of the act of perceiving data about body language.

Through qualia, we are better equipped to separate the signal from the noise to determine its meaning, however, we are also reminded through the sharing of these experiences via various mediums that even in our private subjectivity, we are not alone. The “what-it-feels-like” inherent in qualia may be unique to a particular body, but similarities may also exist between individuals. The knowledge of these similarities supports our endeavours to make sense of our feelings and sensations, ultimately allowing us to accept ourselves and our experiences as they are. Although the act of sharing personal, subjective experiences serves a practical social purpose like fostering cooperation and empathy, qualia are useful for individuals as well. The exploration of our subjective selves, along with some act of expression, also allows us to feel more comfortable as we process the deluge of sense data as received by various sensory organs within the human body. Through qualia, we are reminded that the body we inhabit is not a boundary between our inner selves and the subjectivity of others, but a structure that creates and presents information based on our experiences of incoming sense data. This information may be elusive, but it still exists and is significant for structuring human consciousness.

Works Cited

Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In search of a fundamental theory. Oxford university press, 1996.

Wolfe, Jeremy M., et al. Sensation & perception. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 2015.

https://www.computerhope.com/issues/ch001629.htm

Rescuing Qualia

In Quining Qualia, Dennett states “conscious experience has no properties that are special in any of the ways qualia have been supposed to be special” where qualia are considered “special properties, in some hard-to-define way.” His appeals to intuition aim to defend these ideas, however, the examples he provides may fail to convince the reader as objections can be drawn based on an understanding of nervous system functioning and through examining human behaviour. Here, I’m interested in providing an explanation for qualia which does not rely on some intrinsic property of the mind, but a product of culture which influences, and is influenced by, individual humans and their subjective experiences.

To be facetious for a moment, if qualia did not exist, how could one explain why it is that humans feel compelled to spend energy, time, and money on creating, sharing, and experiencing art? Dennett might appeal to the nature of subjective experiences or perhaps to our motivation for seeking pleasure, however there is much more to subjective experiences than one’s feelings or mental representations evoked by some stimulus. Knowledge surrounding a particular stimulus may shape the way it feels or appears from a first-person perspective; for example, mistaking a benign object for a threat of some kind. A coat and hat hanging on a wall hook inside a dark room may be mistaken for a person, perhaps causing one to feel threatened or startled by the apparent intruder, only to discover the truth after turning on the lights. The subjective experience prompted by the sight of the coat and hat is different than if the illusion had indeed been an unexpected guest, primarily due to the relief one is likely to feel at discovering the reality of the situation. In the case of experiencing art, subjective experiences may change over time or with repeated exposure, but our minds are also influenced by the minds of others. The ability to communicate our feelings to others introduces additional perspectives surrounding a particular stimuli, potentially altering one’s own perception and subsequent experiences. These shared ideas or experiences are then represented through cultural artifacts, practices, or beliefs, and aim to depict associations between sensations and perceptions. In this way, qualia are a features of the natural world insofar as they are a result of evolution and human intelligence, becoming “real” as they shape the ways individuals experience and interact with various stimuli.

Not all subjective experiences become qualia though, as some perceptions are more difficult to articulate than others. How to articulate one’s visual experiences of red? It may remind you of something, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like much to merely look at a red object. I can infer that you probably see the colour red like I do when I consider your behaviour around colourful objects. If someone were to indicate their inability to distinguish colours in the same way that I do, I might perform a quick test to verify the experiential discrepancy. Regardless of individual perception however, there is still “something it is like” to see the colour red as most of us do and are able to create representations appealing to this visual quality. Articulating the nature of ‘red’ on its own is rather tough because its qualities aren’t a composite of other visual qualities per say, at least not in the way that ‘orange’ is. From this perspective, qualia emerge through the act of communicating our experiences to others and through identifying the various phenomenological aspects they contain. Qualia feel real to humans because we use them to engage with artistic practices, almost like Dawkins’ memes but saturated in visceral associations to various sensations and perceptions.

If qualia aren’t real, then why does a collection of piano chords remind Debussy and other listeners of clouds? Language enables us to describe our subjective experiences using similes, where one environmental feature reminds us of something else. These associations are likely to follow certain regularities given the laws and constraints of our universe and our physiology, resulting in a similarities between subjective and shared experiences. I doubt any listener will associate Debussy’s pieces with the eruption of Krakatoa, but it seems reasonable to assume some individuals may think of water rather than the sky when listening to Nuages. Thus, it could be suggested that stimuli may evoke a potential set of qualia that humans may refer to when considering their own subjective experiences. Exactly which qualia are included and excluded is roughly determined by how a stimulus affects individuals as a result of their physiological functioning.

Qualia are products of human culture, not biology. The evolution of primates along with their tendency to socialize and enjoy participating in shared activities gave rise to a shared experiences and various ways to depict or describe them. Human cultures create classifications, distinctions, and ontological categories as way to explain natural phenomena and to share knowledge. This collective idea on how our subjective experiences appear to others facilitates bonding as humans learn they are able to relate to the private experiences of others.

Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel C. “Quining qualia.” Consciousness in modern science. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Postmodern Famine

I recognize this post will seem a bit tin-foily but I think it’s time we start acknowledging the consequences of a disrupted global supply chain. Perhaps things won’t get as bad as I am predicting but I think the underlying message will be relevant at some point. Ultimately, the standard of living we grew up taking for granted is about to change to some degree.

The majority of foods we consume and enjoy are dependent on global industries which are currently altering production and transportation protocols as demand and supply continue to change. Regardless of whether shortages arise due to nations restricting exports or locusts ravaging farmlands, it seems likely that by midsummer we will lose access to a variety of foods. Today, we see restaurants only offering take-away or delivery options in an attempt to find a balance between remaining open and upholding distancing measures. Grocery stores are either running out of products or limiting which items they order, as I hear shelves tend to be more empty these days. Before long, the service workers who prepare this food are likely to disappear too, as they themselves become sick or simply refuse to continue to put themselves at risk. Facilities where ready-made meals are prepared may also see a shortage of workers, limiting options for those who do not prepare their own food. We will be required to make everything ourselves, and before you call my a whiny millenial, remember that this is just the beginning. Processed foods will be next, including frozen meals, baked goods, canned soups and sauces, cookies, chips, crackers; anything that is not considered an ingredient. Eventually, however, personnel involved with all levels of the supply chain will be impacted in some way, leading to shortages of produce, dairy, and meat. I have been working on this post for a few weeks, and recently the talk of meat shortages has only increased. While we may not see wide-scale shortages until the end of the year, the decline in numbers of human workers is approaching and it will impact access to most foods.

While you may be able to survive a year without a decent burrito, these effects are not short-term as the entire world is in the midst of readjusting. You may have heard the stories of vegetables rotting in the fields or milk being dumped, but what you may not realize is these were ingredients for future foods too. The downstream effects will be a reduction in selection, and by selection I’m not talking about brands but categorical options. The only milk you may have access to is homogenized milk and cream; no skim, no 2%, and certainly no 1%. If you’re lactose intolerant, you may only be able to buy soy beverage given the recent nature of the American agricultural economy. Unilever or Kraft may have to cut production of certain items given these shortages, and suddenly we are in the midst of a type of food shortage in a time where emotional eating is at its height.

When you no longer have access to the things you love, the things that comfort you, what will you do? There are other forms of escapism and sugar comes in many forms, but we take variety for granted. We have become dependent on satisfying our appetites to some degree, regardless of whether it’s through alcohol, sugar, fat, or caffeine. We cope by consuming these substances and take pleasure in their effects, but there may also be other associations with these foods which contributes to societal well-being. Families and mealtimes go hand-in-hand all over the world, and it is difficult to determine how changes to supply chains will impact social relations.

Another option for coping is through various forms of media, as it entertains us and distracts our minds from the horror of reality. The problem arises from the tight coupling of food and visual media, irrespective of advertising. Since food is a cultural activity enabled by peak globalism, and a source of human happiness, we may suffer if this shared experience has been diminished to some degree. This may become especially apparent if images of our favourite foods are continuously popping up in our attempts to distract ourselves. Currently, social media posts include pictures of homemade creations or recommended recipes, and scrolling through staged photos may enrage us if we can’t have what we are seeing. It will remind us of a time when we had it all but didn’t even know it.

Until then, we will begin to value normalcy as type of currency, where our motivations aim to meet a luxurious set of basic needs. First-world lifestyles are built on options and variety in the things we consume, from Netflix shows to vegetarian alternatives. Notions of scarcity in a postmodern society seem ironic because it implies a reduction in standard of living, not necessarily a threat to survival. As we take our current way of life for granted, the more we put ourselves at cognitive and emotional risk. We have to acknowledge our personal dependency on this consumeristic environment we grew up assuming was normal. This has produced a level of entitlement which is about to be threatened or at least thrust into the spotlight, and perhaps leading to a reduction in emotional well-being. Some are frustrated by the actions of those who believe their freedoms are being restricted, and those protesting lock down orders inspire others to demand things “return to normal.” I don’t see it happening. Will this lead to societal unrest, especially as unemployment numbers grow? Of course it’s difficult to determine how society will adjust to this new normal, but I don’t like the way things are going today. Throw a change of available coping mechanisms into the mix and ask yourself, how are we going to handle this adjustment to a new normal? Maybe we won’t feel it until this time next year, but I believe our collective emotional well-being is about to deteriorate, for a number of reasons.

Programming Emotions

Last summer, I was introduced to the world of hobby robotics and began building an obstacle-avoidance bot as a way to learn the basics. Once classes started last September, all projects were set aside until I graduated, allowing me to focus on school. Now that I have free time, I’ve been thinking about what kind of robot to build next. It will probably still have wheels and an ultrasonic sensor, but I want it to behave based on its internal environment as well as its external environment. Not only will it detect objects in its path, but it will also move about based on its mood or current emotional state. For example, if it were to be afraid of loud noises, it would go to “hide” against a nearby object. This specific functionality would require the robot have a microphone to detect sounds, and is something I have been thinking of adding. Otherwise, the only input the robot has is object-detection, and producing or calculating emotions based on the frequency of things in its path is kind of boring. I have also been interested in operationalizing, codifying, and programming emotions for quite a while now, and this project would be a great place to start.

One helpful theory I came across is the Three-Factor Theory (3FT) developed by Mehrabian and Russell in 1974 (Russell and Mehrabian 274). It describes emotions as ranging through a three-dimensional space consisting of values for pleasure, arousal, and dominance. For example, a state of anger is associated with -.68 for pleasure, +.22 for arousal, and +.10 for dominance (Russell and Mehrabian 277). After mulling on these averages for a second, I feel these are fairly reflective of general human nature, but let’s not forget these values are dependent on personality and contextual factors too. However, the notion of ‘dominance’ doesn’t feel quite right, and I wonder if a better paradigm could take its place. Personally, the idea of being dominant or submissive is quite similar to the approach/avoidance dichotomy used in areas of biology and psychology. ‘Dominance’ is inherently tied to social situations, and a broader theory of emotion must account for non-social circumstances as well. The compelling argument from the approach/avoidance model centers around hedonism, motivation, and goal acquisition; if a stimulus is pleasurable or beneficial, individuals are motivated to seek it out, while undesirable or dangerous stimuli are avoided in order to protect oneself (Elliot 171). Furthermore, this also works well with the Appraisal Theory of emotion, as it argues that affective states indicate an individual’s needs or goals (Scherer 638). Therefore, I will be using a value range based on approach/avoidance rather than dominance. While human emotions tend to involve much more than a simple judgement about a situation, the Appraisal Theory should suffice for a basic robot. One last modification I would like to make in my version of the 3FT is changing ‘pleasure’ to ‘valence’. This is merely to reflect the style of language used in current psychological literature, where positive values are associated with pleasure and negative values are associated with displeasure. I also like this because robots don’t feel pleasure (yet?) but they are capable of responding based on “good” and “bad” types of stimuli. ‘Arousal’ is perfectly fine as it is, as it reflects how energetic or excited the individual is. For example, being startled results in high arousal due to the relationship between the amygdala, hypothalamus, and other local and distal regions in the body, which typically prepare the individual to run or fight (Pinel 453-454).

To summarize, the three factors I will be using are valence, arousal, and approach/avoidance. As much as I would love to find a term to replace ‘approach/avoidance’, for the sake of a nice acronym, I have yet to find one which encapsulates the true nature of the phenomenon. Anyway, this modified 3FT seems to be a good start for developing emotional states in a simple robot, especially if it only receives a narrow range of sensory input and does not perform any other sophisticated behaviours. While this robot will possess internal states, it won’t be able to reflect upon them nor have any degree of control over them. Heck, I won’t even be using any type of AI algorithms in this version. So if anyone is spooked by a robot who feels, just know that it won’t be able to take over the world.

Works Cited

Elliot, Andrew J. “Approach and avoidance motivation and achievement goals.” Educational psychologist 34.3 (1999): 169-189.

Pinel, John PJ. Biopsychology. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011.

Russell, James A., and Albert Mehrabian. “Evidence for a three-factor theory of emotions.” Journal of research in Personality 11.3 (1977): 273-294.

Scherer, Klaus R. “Appraisal theory.” Handbook of cognition and emotion (1999): 637-663.