Drescher’s solution to the problems of consciousness-as-awareness

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on June 13, 2011

Previously, on sarkology: We discussed but did not solve any of the various problems of consciousness.

This is straight from the insanely good book Good and Real, by Gary Drescher.[1]

For the purposes of this post think of ‘consciousness’ simply as ordinary awareness. If you are aware of X, then you know something about X. That’s all there is to it. There are other facets to consciousness, but we’ll get to those in due time.

Recall the problems:

  1. Computers and calculators seem to also be able to perform some mental operations. For example, arithmetic. But only us humans seem to be aware of what we are doing.
  2. Furthermore, our performance of such mental operations seem intrinsically conscious. A computer can flip bits unknowingly, even if we grant that it can perhaps also do it with awareness given the right programming. On the other hand, we humans just can’t seem to help our conscious awareness of performing such feats.

Drescher conclusively solves these two problems. He also solves a few others, but not all of them. We also have attempts by other people, but that’s for later posts.

The model is this. There is a Cartesian camcorder (from “Cartesian theater”, which says our consciousness is like that of an audience of one in a theater of mental events). This camcorder records and plays back mental events. But it does so at a high level of abstraction. It doesn’t record raw pixels for example, but whole sensible objects like a black crow or an orange sunset.

More specifically it records in terms of representation which the “prediction and planning” system uses. This prediction & planning system is an abstract model of what goes on in our brain. It’s pretty self-descriptive. I would only like to point out that part of our consciousness is part of our prediction & planning system. What this means is that some of the time, part of what our prediction & planning system does constitutes part of the operation of our consciousness. This system will also play a role in explaining the intrinsic value of our desires later on, but right now we are explaining different things. What is immediately relevant here is that the prediction & planning system has access to the recordings, and since some of our consciousness is part of the system, we also gain access to these recordings.

The camcorder is also recursive, it can record the playback of mental events. This corresponds to being aware of being aware of a particular mental event. Note that it can record recursively, but it doesn’t always do so.

The aim here is not to give a detailed account of how awareness of mental events is implemented. It simply assumes that a physical/mechanical system can be aware of things in the ordinary sense of knowing facts about them. This is not circular with respect to Problem no.1, we did sketch out a functional design of how mental events are to be recorded and then played back. We also have independent lines of evidence from artificial intelligence showing how software programs can be aware of other software programs, and even of their own operation.

The playback of the recordings constitutes consciousness. This ‘playback’ does not include all the ‘read’ operations on the recordings. There are also subconscious processes which can make use of the recordings. In any case, the exact demarcation of which part of your brain is conscious is not relevant to the purposes of this post.

Notice that the consciousness does not happen when the mental event is being recorded, but only when it is played back. The mental event itself wasn’t conscious. You were conscious of  it, and retrospectively too. Since not all events are recorded, nevermind those simply recorded but not played back, not all mental events are conscious. This should be obvious when you think about it. You are hardly aware of all the things your brain does at any given time. Just take your breathing as an obvious example. This explains why our conscious thoughts seem intrinsically conscious: it’s simply a selection effect. We don’t see all our mental events, only those which were played back. And since playback constitutes our consciousness of them, we notice that “they are conscious”. (It’s actually not so simple, since the noticing actually requires a consciousness of consciousness. Interestingly, there is also a meta-question: why does our consciousness of mental events seem to us to be intrinsically conscious? Since consciousness is itself a mental event, such questions of course, have the same answer [exercise].)

To summarize: Problem no.1 is explained by the abstract mechanism of mental events being recorded and played back. Problem no.2 is explained by a selection effect.

But we can go further in elaborating how the illusion of intrinsic consciousness comes about. We don’t only say we are conscious of X. We say we are conscious, period. What’s going on here is simply that we are conscious of being conscious, this seemingly impressive feat being managed by the recursive nature of the Cartesian camcorder. It’s really quite ordinary. Computer scientists will tell you that recursion is perfectly mundane. Machines don’t distinguish hierarchies, not unless we program in them such abilities. It’s all bits after all, except their patterns giving rise to a functional organization of a recursive hierarchy. Going further back in time, we remember having been conscious (of something). So there is recursive consciousness at a point in time, but also recursive consciousness through time. These two processes help blur the distinction between the subject and object of consciousness.

The non-objectivity of time-perception also contributes to the illusion. What happens when you check for consciousness? Well, you can’t check for consciousness per se. There is no such thing. You can only check if you had been conscious of a particular thought. But you cannot possibly find that you were not conscious of a particular thought, because if you are trying consider that thought at all, then you were already conscious of it. Your consciousness of it will thus have been recorded, and when played back, the result is you being conscious (aware) of you having been conscious of the thought. Which is to say you realize that thought “was conscious”. All that past tense seemed weird huh? But that was what was really going on. You cannot literally be conscious of being conscious at an instantaneous point in time. There has got to be an intervening period of recording and playback. You shouldn’t trust your sense of time so much, because it’s a product of your brain after all.

This is going to sound like a Zen koan…, but here we go: You have mental events. You are not conscious of them. Except for when you are, in which case you are not conscious of your consciousness of them. Except for when you are, in which case you are not conscious of your consciousness of your consciousness of them. Except for when you are, in which case…

The point being that when you are conscious, you are ALWAYS conscious of something. Always replace “I am conscious” with “I am conscious of _____”. Because except for being a convenient shorthand, it’s simply misleading.

[1] Well that part on time perception was my own contribution at least.


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