Class Warfare Blog

February 16, 2020

A Little More On Consciousness

Filed under: History,Philosophy,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:38 pm
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In a blog post (on broadspeculations.com) whether the “hard problem” of consciousness could be differentiated from the “soft problem” of consciousness, the author felt that the dichotomy was unnecessary and the main question was simply “Why am I aware?” I made a comment which I have paraphrased here:

As to “Why am I aware?” I have to believe it has to do with the evolutionary benefits of having an imagination. To benefit from an imagination we need short term memory and the ability to keep a number of things “in mind” while we do the modeling that imaginations allow us to do and survive thereby (Is the wind rustling the grass or is that a predator sneaking up on me? These are two scenarios. Long term memories are also helpful but are not at the crux of the matter.) I believe this leads logically to some form of awareness of oneself as me, myself and I am a player on the stage of my consciousness. That predator may attack me or one of my family or …

I want to expand upon this a tiny bit here.

The common example of the role imagination plays in our survival of the “predator in the grass” scenario was not created by me and I don’t remember where I first encountered it. But compare the differences in responses of a typical prey animal and a human being. The prey animal hears a suspicious rustling in the grass and immediately stops what it is doing and becomes hyper vigilant. It may stand taller (to get a better view) and prick up its ears (to hear better) and swivel around (to see what is happening in other directions). But if nothing happens in short order, it goes back to what it was doing. I have seen this interaction filmed many, many times. The stalking predator seems to have learned how much it can get away with without spooking the prey, so it performs iterations of: stalk, stalk, stalk, freeze . . . repeat. Since a great many of the times, the prey figures it out and high tails it out of there and the predator goes hungry, this approach works often enough that both species pass on their genes and survive. It is not a bad survival technique

But consider the advantage the human has. He/she hears the rustling in the grass, knows that it could be a predator which it cannot see or just a zephyr of wind. Since the penalty for a misjudgment can be severe, the human moves away from that spot, making him-/her-self a less likely prey. The cost of making a mistake in the case of there being no predator is tiny compared to the cost of making a mistake and there is a predator there.

All of these scenarios play out in human imagination. We create a simulacrum of reality in our mind and we can run experiments in it. (Imagine . . . our own personal Matrix! Pun intended.) In order to run such experiments effectively we need both long and short term memories available to us. Just observing the family dog, I am quite aware that he possess both of these memory capabilities, so us having them is no big thing. The imagination function, however is quite different. In order to make the little plays in our heads that help us evaluate the merit of various courses of action, we need to keep in mind quite a few things simultaneously. We need to know what kinds of predators might prey on us. (Being attacked by a killer field mouse would frighten no one.) We need to know something about their stalking patterns. We need to have in memory other times the wind blew the tall grass around. If we have a hunting partner or family member with us, we need to have those characters there, too. So, imagining them as well as ourselves is all part of the process.

So, a sense of self and of others, at least as a form of labeling in these imagined scenarios seems reasonable.

And the characters in our little mind plays would not all have the same degree of knowledge associated with them. We would know a great deal more about our self than about them just because we are always present and they are not.

All of these aspects of imagined scenarios leads, in my mind, to a sense of awareness of us versus anyone or anything else.

These boundaries are not at all sharp, though. I am reminded that it is likely that the idea of ghosts/spirits arose from the fact that we observed our relatives dying and being dead and buried and then we dream about them; they seem to be alive again or still. Since they are not visible when we are not asleep, we assumed they were in some sort of spirit realm or that they were now invisible or. . . . The belief in spirits of this type seems to have been universal in primitive cultures.

I will be fascinated to learn, if we can, how imagination developed as an emergent property of brains with sufficient neural connections., as that is where I think the bridge to understanding consciousness begins. And, as always, I could be dead wrong!

25 Comments »

  1. I think in large part you are right.

    I have emphasized learning and memory as a processes related to or almost the same as consciousness. But imagination as you are using it is closely related.

    In your example of the prey animal, undoubtedly there is a certain amount of learning involved in both the predator and the prey before the encounter. Young predators frequently make mistakes and give away their positions. Young prey frequently fail to heed the signs and get eaten. The ones that learn are more successful in preying or escaping. Both predator and prey may learn from observation of behavior of parents and fellow creatures. At the time of the encounter itself, more learning is taking place on both sides of the relationship. Imagination involves recalling the learning, adding the new details associated with the present situation, and a sort of mental learning that involves rehearsing alternatives in a mental form. Imagination, I think, is something like future projected memories that is part of a learning process.

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    Comment by James Cross — February 16, 2020 @ 1:10 pm | Reply

    • I think that sort of learning only as the ability to associate then and now to support it. To look into the future (possible futures to be clear) is only something imagination can do. Memory is just beginning to be understood, but any memory that is triggered is from the past and an analysis of then and now to see if that memory is pertinent does not require a sense of self or awareness … I think.

      On Sun, Feb 16, 2020 at 1:10 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — February 17, 2020 @ 11:17 am | Reply

      • The only catch is that you can’t really think about the future without representations of things that might exist or happen in the future. So those things have to originate from learning and memory. But you are right they are combined in new ways with imagination.

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        Comment by James Cross — February 17, 2020 @ 11:54 am | Reply

        • Yes, that is why memory is required. Study is finding that often even the simplest organisms show some memory ability, so its utility is practically a given at this point.

          On Mon, Feb 17, 2020 at 11:54 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Comment by Steve Ruis — February 17, 2020 @ 12:12 pm | Reply

          • I noticed you did see my post The Mystery from 70,000 Years Ago since you commented on it. Andry Vyshedskiy talks a lot about imagination and makes a case for Prefrontal Synthesis (PFS) being related to human imagination and that human capabilities are related to a delay in the maturation of prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex takes about five years to develop in humans but only about one year in chimpanzees. PFS specifically requires the ability to hold multiple things in memory at the same time.

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            Comment by James Cross — February 17, 2020 @ 1:19 pm | Reply

  2. I’m always a little baffled by why people consider it a ‘problem.’ It’s an emergent thing, and as you’ve pointed out, there’s real evolutionary benefits to it. Now, if we’re to take panpsychism to be true, which it probably is, then it is diffuse throughout the universe.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by john zande — February 16, 2020 @ 1:19 pm | Reply

    • Believe it or not there was a big debate between Jerry Coyne and Bernardo Kastrup in which Coyne, the evolutionist, was arguing consciousness is an epiphenomenon, in order words of no evolutionary value.

      Kastrup was claiming consciousness could not have evolved.

      It’s hard for me to decide which argument is worse.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by James Cross — February 16, 2020 @ 1:30 pm | Reply

      • If you’re not already, follow Philip Goff on twitter. There’s been some excellent rolling debates.

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        Comment by john zande — February 16, 2020 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

        • No Twitter, no Facebook, no Snapchat, no Instagram … Hey, you kids … get off of my lawn! Shit, I can barely keep up with my blogs and Quora.

          On Sun, Feb 16, 2020 at 2:36 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — February 17, 2020 @ 11:24 am | Reply

          • I ditched FB last year and it’s wonderful. Twitter can be fun if you’re focused on who you follow.

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            Comment by john zande — February 17, 2020 @ 2:00 pm | Reply

            • It is a matter of time. I spent way too much time on this than I should. I have other goals.

              On Mon, Feb 17, 2020 at 2:00 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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              Comment by Steve Ruis — February 20, 2020 @ 7:49 am | Reply

      • If they make the arguments and then fail, it does move things along, so bless them for they know not what they do.

        On Sun, Feb 16, 2020 at 1:30 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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        Comment by Steve Ruis — February 17, 2020 @ 11:20 am | Reply

    • The problem is explaining why it exists and why more animals don’t seem to have it. Actually I see the problem of explaining what it is to be more important right now. We still do not know where thoughts come from, for example. I think this is a more important question than figuring out consciousness. But then, people pursue what intrigues them. I should just be grateful that this stuff is being shared around much more freely than in the past.

      On Sun, Feb 16, 2020 at 1:19 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — February 17, 2020 @ 11:20 am | Reply

      • It’s a matter of hardware. If it’s there, then so is consciousness.

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        Comment by john zande — February 17, 2020 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

  3. BTW. Learning and adaptive behavior goes back along way in evolution. Here is something on spider mites.

    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/B:APPA.0000006512.26242.39

    And here more generally in insects.

    https://search.proquest.com/openview/87dde950e729ae10e9a17f5b0732c6e3/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1818401

    I think it could be debated about whether this is consciousness (I would say it is some minimal level) but, at any rate, I think this is where you see the start of its emergence.

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    Comment by James Cross — February 16, 2020 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

    • This is why I like the question ‘Why am I aware?” There seems to be definition of consciousness under discussion that make panpsychism more than probable. Until we can answer that question, the question as to whether other animals share the same perception is moot or at the very least quite premature. We can describe what we see in other animals are behaviors we associate with our being consciosu but that is just an interpretation and it is closer to an opinion than an hypothesis.

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — February 17, 2020 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

  4. Can you imagine the benefits of being able to say consciousness is objectively true? Then you’d be able to discuss the subject coherently.

    As it stands, you should probably correct JZ’s assertion that panpsychism is probably true. Let him know you don’t believe truth exists.

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    Comment by John Branyan — February 16, 2020 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

    • I don’t think panpsychism is true, if I understand it at all. I don’t see how we get from one species out of millions exhibits consciousness, so everything else does, too.

      And I am very interested in how you respond to my tentative acceptance of your premise. Basically I am asking “So what?”

      On Sun, Feb 16, 2020 at 2:05 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — February 17, 2020 @ 11:23 am | Reply

      • It is astounding that you require me to make a case for objective truth. Most people not only believe truth exists, they earnestly seek it.

        The “so what” question is outrageous coming from someone who taught school. What did you think you were “teaching” your students if not truth? I am very interested in how you respond to my question. Did you grade students tests based on objective truth or did you let them answer with “their truth”?

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        Comment by John Branyan — February 17, 2020 @ 11:42 am | Reply

        • Again, you seem to be deliberately misunderstanding. What I said is I will accept, for the purposes of this discussion, the existence of objective truth. So, given that premise, what else are you going to say. You already know we disagree on the fundamental matter, but I am willing to accept your premise to see where that takes us. So, taking umbrage is not an appropriate response.

          On Mon, Feb 17, 2020 at 11:42 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Comment by Steve Ruis — February 17, 2020 @ 12:10 pm | Reply

          • It is you who seems to be deliberately misunderstanding. You have “accepted the premise to see where that takes us”. It has taken us to the question I have asked twice now. Refusing to answer is not an appropriate response.

            Third time…
            Did you grade students papers by objective truth or did you allow them to answer with “their truth”?

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            Comment by John Branyan — February 17, 2020 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

            • Again, you are dissembling. I tested students on what they were taught. They were taught what was in the course curriculum. Nobody asked me what I wanted in the course curriculum. I did, however strong arm my colleagues into adopting a set of objectives for the course I primarily taught so at least what was important was distinguished from what was not. I also remember clearly finding errors in textbooks I was teaching from and realized I could not contact all of my former students to explain the error. Errors are a fact of life in science which is why we do not use words like proof and true.

              Every thing in science is provisional because our knowledge is incomplete. That religious beliefs are never considered provisional leads me to believe that people in those faiths believe that their knowledge is perfect and complete. We have a word for people who believe their knowledge of something is perfect and complete: idiots.

              As to the question you have asked twice now, you are asking whether I think the premise that there is such a thing as objective truth. I have acceded to your use of this premise and asked, now what? (I have told you, that no I do not beleive such a thing (unless applied to abstract, very limited situations such as occur in mathematics and then even that is based upon a set of rules that are agreed upon and little else). But I am willing to listen to your argument, of which one of the premises is “there is such a thing as objective truth,” and am willing to learn if there is something to learn from. So, proceed … please.

              On Mon, Feb 17, 2020 at 12:23 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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              Comment by Steve Ruis — February 17, 2020 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

              • “I also remember clearly finding errors in textbooks I was teaching from…”

                There’s my “argument”. You just admitting to belief in objective truth. You didn’t say you found “points of disagreement” in the text. You found “errors”.

                Your accusation of “dissembling” is an error as well.

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                Comment by John Branyan — February 17, 2020 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

  5. I think this is basically right, but there’s a less sophisticated stage of functionality of just predicting simple cause and effect. It’s not as elaborate as full blown imagination, and doesn’t require episodic memory the way imagination does, but it arguably provides a utilization of primal impulses that amount to affects, or conscious feeling of emotions.

    Does the simpler goal directed behavior amount to consciousness? Or do we need to have the more elaborate scenario simulations? I don’t think there is a fact of the matter.

    Like many others, I think the hard problem is a category-mistake, a distraction, a dissociation of the whole from its parts, a remnant of Cartesian dualism that even many hard core materialists struggle to excise.

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    Comment by SelfAwarePatterns — February 17, 2020 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

    • Re “Does the simpler goal directed behavior amount to consciousness?” I don’t think so if the problem is wrapped up in the question “Why am I aware?” My dog clearly has both long and short term memory and some rudimentary function that seems like imagination (hard to tell), but when I look at him when he is looking at me, I get a distinct feeling of “there’s no one home.” I suspect that consciousness is not an all or nothing function that we will find degrees of it … if and when we every really find it. There is a call not that we need to step out of a objectivity straight jacket to get a better understanding of what is going on. I think that argument over plays a claim that science is objectivity uber alles. If it were then slapping a label of “science” on psychology would be a gross misrepresentation.

      On Mon, Feb 17, 2020 at 3:43 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — February 20, 2020 @ 7:54 am | Reply


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