Category: Metaphysics

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.

Coin Toss in an Alternate Universe

I came across this reddit post a couple years ago and thought it was quite funny. I can see Randall Munroe of xkcd comics drawing up a really good depiction of this imaginary phenomenon too.

“According to the multi-world theory, there is a universe where every flipped coin has landed on heads, completely by chance. Imagine rooms full of machines, just flipping coins with scientists baffled as to why it happens”

According to OP in the comments of the reddit post, this world “would have identical physics, [where] this just happens by chance” and “physics aren’t different in this universe, the incident with coins only landing on heads is pure probability, not a law.” I like to imagine that there would be individuals dedicating their entire research careers to this phenomenon, maybe pulling out their hair as no solid evidence is able to suggest why this happens.

If you, dear reader, felt inspired to fulfill my dream of depicting this scenario in an illustration of this scene, I would excitedly add it to the bottom of this post with full credit to you! Wilfred is tired and would like to retire; in this universe he studied the coin toss phenomenon in his free time.

Works Cited

Is Opacity a Fundamental Property of Complex Systems?

While operational opacity generated by machine learning algorithms presents a wide range of problems for ethics and computer science (Burrell 10), one type in particular may be unavoidable due to the nature of complex processes. The physical underpinnings of functional systems may be difficult to understand because of the way data is stored and transmitted. Just as patterns of neural activity seem conceptually distant from first-person accounts of subjective experiences, the missing explanation for why or how a DCNN arrives at a particular decision may actually be a feature of the system rather than a bug. Systems capable of storing or processing large amounts of data may only be capable of doing so because of the way nested relationships are embedded in the structure. Furthermore, many of the human behaviours or capacities researchers are trying to understand and copy are both complex and emergent, making them difficult to fully trace back to the physical level of implementation. When we do, it often looks strange and quite chaotic. For example, molecular genetics suggests various combinations of nucleotides give rise to different types of cells and proteins, each with highly specialized and synergistic functions. Additionally, complex phenotypes like disease dispositions are typically the result of many interacting genotypic factors in conjunction with the presence of certain environmental variables. If it turns out to be the case that a degree of opacity is a necessary component of convoluted functionality, we may need to rethink our expectations of how ethics can inform the future of AI development.

Works Cited

Burrell, Jenna. “How the machine ‘thinks’: Understanding opacity in machine learning algorithms.” Big Data & Society 3.1 (2016).

Ontic Structural Realism

John Worrall’s paper “Structural realism: The best of both worlds?” mostly outlines the debate occurring within the Philosophy of Science surrounding whether scientific realism or anti-realism best captures our intuitions and intentions regarding the scientific process and its history. Although this topic on its own is a fascinating discussion, it will not the focus of this article. Instead, I’d like to explore Worrall’s reply and its implications when approached from a metaphysical perspective. At the end of his paper, Worrall concludes that combining an aspect of realism with an anti-realist attitude produces a potential solution to the dilemma. Structural realism describes a perspective which can account for the predictive success of science while also explaining how scientific revolutions changed theories and research practices throughout history (Worrall 123). Structural realists believe that when scientific theories undergo conceptual change, their form or structure remains constant while the content of a theory may be modified based on new empirical findings (Worrall 117). He believes this account is able to explain how scientific theories are able to undergo both growth and replacement over time (Worrall 120).

However, structural realism can be further divided into two different categories which support differing views. The epistemic structural realist (ESR) believes all we can learn through scientific inquiry is the accuracy of a theory’s inherent structure, and not the concepts or entities themselves (Ladyman SEP). The more extreme version, ontic structural realism (OSR), states that there are no objects or things, and the universe is only comprised of structures, forms, and relations (Ladyman SEP). Van Fraassen describes this position as “radical structuralism” (van Fraassen 280) and appeals to science’s use of mathematical formulas to serve as motivation for this view (van Fraassen 304). Since physics uses math to describe how the physical world operates, and complex bodies of organic machinery operate based on the rules of physics, objects found in nature can theoretically be explained in mathematical terms. Although our conceptions of these entities may change dramatically over time, their mathematical descriptions and relations tend to expand as new discoveries are incorporated into existing theories (van Fraassen 305).

Although the discussion surrounding structural realism originally aimed to answer problems in the philosophy of science, OSR eventually became its own metaphysical view. This is partly due to discoveries made in physics over the previous century, shaping how we think about the natural world, especially in the subatomic domain (Ladyman SEP). At one point, an atom was thought to be the smallest unit of matter in the universe, with its original Greek word atomos meaning ‘indivisible’ (merriam-webster.com). Today however, we are able to run tests which not only divide atoms, but smash them together in order to inspect the pieces which make up the subatomic particles themselves. Furthermore, as our understanding of quantum physics grows, the less neat-and-tidy the world seems to be packaged.

My goal here is not to convince you to fully adopt the OSR perspective, but to consider it as a tool for drafting instances of artificial general intelligence and artificial consciousness. Personally, I find this approach to understanding reality very interesting and am compelled by the notion of “structures all the way down.” However, some may find this problematic as the relata seem to be missing. What is the ‘stuff’ that the structure is made out of? What exactly is being organized in a structural way? In a nutshell, segments of miniature structures. An example of this is the relationship between chemical bonds and the physical laws which binds them together. Or a Swiss army knife made of small metal parts, where these pieces consist entirely of a combination of metal atoms arranged into shapes. But these atoms themselves are just structures of subatomic particles, consisting of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Moreover, if we continue to zoom in, it turns out that these particles are just comprised of other particles arranged in different relations. Each contemporary understanding of “matter” and “mass” changes based on  technological improvements, assisting in the production and interpretation scientific experiments. It may turn out that OSR becomes a useful perspective for conceptualizing our universe, especially as old assumptions are reworked to include new and possibly contradictory empirical discoveries.

Speaking of perception, if there are no objects, then does everything exist in the mind like Berekely thought? I think the answer to this is a little ‘yes’ and a little ‘no’: the brain creates representations of concepts which are based on learned regularities from interacting within an environment. From an evolutionary perspective, the brain adapted to help promote an individual’s survival by learning to recognize patterns and recall previous events. As neuronal structures developed to support new and more complex functions, the individual’s subjective awareness of their abilities grew as well, eventually producing mental concepts and linguistic labels. For example, neurons in the primary auditory cortex are arranged tonotopically, where particular cells responding to specific frequencies are arranged by pitch from low to high (Romani, Williamson, and Kaufman 1339). In this sense then, a C major scale played on a piano can be viewed as isomorphic to the way these frequencies are physically realized in the brain. Rather than the world or universe containing ‘a C major scale’, from an OSR perspective, reality only contains the laws which govern how sound pressures and vibrations must exist and operate such that a musical scale can be realized in a human brain. From an individual’s perspective however, this type of stimuli is represented as ‘music’ or ‘the sound of a piano’.

An unpublished article by Brian Cantwell Smith called Non-Conceptual World discusses a similar perspective to structural realism, claiming that concepts only exist in the mind (Cantwell Smith 8). One example Cantwell Smith mentions is the aftermath of the volcanic eruption which occurred in ancient Pompeii (see photo below). While he uses this as an example of how object recognition is an intentional process (Cantwell Smith 16), I was reminded of an optical illusion which shares important similarities to depictions of Pompeii. The Dalmation Illusion (see photo below) is just a series of black and white dots, yet somehow the brain manages to pick out the form of a dog. In reality however, there is no dog and the image is deemed an illusion. However, the image of the Pompeii disaster indicates that there really is a person amidst the variety of grey blotches. In both instances, the incoming visual information seems to be quite similar at first, but the stored contextual information associated with the visual stimuli creates a contrast in the conceptual representation of each “object”. I tend to agree with Cantwell Smith when he says “there aren’t any objects out there” (8) because an evolutionary perspective suggests the brain generated object-based concepts, not the universe.

If this is so, what can be said about human consciousness? Natural selection is the process of increasing genetic diversity through reproduction, as well as constraining it through environmental pressures, producing a mechanism for building and refining chemical and physiological structures. It seems likely that psychological structures are also subject to this same type of development, or at least impacted by it. Random genetic mutations may produce functional changes which impact neighbouring structures, requiring other neurons to update their internal and external organization as a result. If this change produces a large enough effect, a small patch of cortex or connected regions may also be impacted, leading the individual to notice alterations in their motor or perceptual abilities. By viewing the brain as a structure of networks and configurations, it can be suggested that consciousness may have emerged as a result of one or more self-organizing structures interacting within both internal and external environments over time.

Therefore, consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, but there may be more to this story, as will be discussed in future articles. Briefly though, consciousness, or some version of intelligent self-awareness, may be a direct result of the self-organizing system which constitutes evolution. Furthermore, could consciousness be an inevitable outcome of an instance of natural selection? Is there a threshold in the variables which makes this outcome necessity to occur, like an action potential in a neuron? I am also looking forward to discussing Dynamical Systems Theory and Information Theory as they relate to these ideas as well.

The reason OSR is important for designing artificial minds is because of its power to generate isomorphic versions of laws from the natural world. If an object or entity can be conceptualized as a series of structures with functional regularities, machine code and mathematical systems may be able to generate models which produce similar behaviours or results. Since neural networks and deep learning have found success in perceptual recognition, perhaps it will be beneficial for taking a developmental approach to artificial consciousness as well.

Edited version:

Works Cited

“Atom.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 26 May 2018.

Blauw, Laura. Bodies in Pompeii. 2008, digital photograph. https://lauraotms.deviantart.com/art/Bodies-in-Pompeii-83587124

Ladyman, James, “Structural Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/structural-realism/>.

Romani, Gian Luca, Samuel J. Williamson, and Lloyd Kaufman. “Tonotopic organization of the human auditory cortex.” Science 216.4552 (1982): 1339-1340.

Van Fraassen, Bas C. “Structure: Its shadow and substance.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57.2 (2006): 275-307.

Worrall, John. “Structural realism: The best of both worlds?.” Dialectica 43.1‐2 (1989): 99-124.