Science, Philosophy & Culture

I agreed months ago to talk at the Vienna Consciousness meeting which happened here yesterday (Friday). The format they do is to fly in a few big names, let them talk 30 minutes, then have local people talk for 10 minutes each afterwards. So it didn't seem like too big a deal to do the 10-minute talk. Especially since they were flying in Dan Dennett, so I already knew his work. But when John (the guy in charge) reminded me of my commitment two weeks ago I'd totally forgotten I needed to write an article as well. I panicked briefly & then decided I shouldn't write a critique of Dennett but rather play to my own strength & just talk about the consequences of his current views for robot consciousness, since I would probably know more about robots than anyone else who would turn up. I wrote something quite quickly which actually turned into a slightly longer & more complicated thing than I'd intended. It fleshed out some thinking I'd been doing about a functional role for conscious attention & how it correlated to known cognitive processes in animals. All the papers I'm talking about here are available from the link if you click on the picture, just click the link that says "program" in the upper left corner.

So John also asked me to come out to the airport with him when he went to pick up Dan Thursday. On the way there we talked about my paper which he broadly liked but then he said that the problem with Dan (& me) was that we want to take the soul out of consciousness. For myself, I totally agree -- I think "consciousness" and "soul" are two perfectly nice words with rich meanings and histories and there's no reason to confound them. In fact, it was the fact people confuse the two so often that makes me not normally want to have anything to do with writing consciousness papers. But I was perturbed to have a leading biologist act like this was a bad thing and asked him what he meant by "soul". He said essentially (as I understood it) an individual's values and moral obligation. Since I think that consciousness is involved in action selection I obviously think values would be linked to that. So I said "John, that's fine, I can see how that is related to consciousness, but 95% of the people on the planet mean by `soul' their personal chunk of the supernatural stuff that makes life meaningful. Why do you want to confuse that with a sensible idea about values and morality?" I didn't really understand his answer. I realize that people of course usually think that supernatural stuff is also where morality comes from, but it's also easy to evolve morality and he didn't really say anything to me that indicated he didn't think that could happen.

So of course I told Dennett about this conversation in advance of his talk. And at the end of my own talk, when someone asked a question about whether I was saying that everything was conscious (I'd already given an example of a conscious robot and a robot that wasn't conscious on its own), I said (among other things) "No, but it does mean a few robots and most animals would be at least a little bit conscious. And I think it's time we separate our ideas about ethics from consciousness so we can get clearer about both." Some people in the audience were quite unhappy about that, because they thought as soon as you said animals were conscious it "proved" you owed them ethical obligation. Which maybe it does, but as I said, we need to talk about why and whether and how much.

Audiences make more noise in Austria than in the UK. My talk went very well, and it was the first time I've ever had someone go "no!" when I got my warning I would need to finish talking in a few minutes from the moderator. :-)

Anyway, the previous night (Thursday, when all the speakers had flown in) we'd been at dinner, and a few of us including Dennett had been standing around talking about people's obsessions with consciousness, and I said I was starting to think that maybe the pope was sort of right, that reason did lead to nihilism. I told them about the economic idea of staples -- the things that you spend money on even when you are in an economic crisis, and how economists used to be surprised that people treated coffee as a staple, but that in the 2001 recession people had treated computer games as a staple too. I said we seemed to work very hard to find things we could immerse ourselves in so we wouldn't think too hard about the wrong things.

Well, Dennett got a second chance to talk on Friday afternoon, and this time instead of talking about basics of consciousness (his multiple drafts / fame in the brain theories he'd presented and I & others had discussed in the morning) he presented the kind of stuff I think I would have expected to hear from a philosopher when I was in highschool --- he did talk about the soul. He said humans are not only conscious but also have souls because we have language and we know responsibility and can reason about our moral obligations. It was great. One thing I'd never understood when we worked together in the 1990s was why he thought language was essential for consciousness, but his new paper says language is just a greater form of "publication" than episodic memory, so when you communicate what you are aware of you essentially have a larger conscious system. And with this point, maybe it is one he made before, but since I've been learning a lot about language and cultural evolution and stuff for the last decade, maybe I just finally understood, or maybe he's saying it better now, I don't know. But I totally buy that conscious experience is different for humans because we can label things, think about more things at once (a theory I'm working on called "cognitive compression", but Liz Spelke calls it "the boring theory of language" :-) And it was a totally beautiful move to use it to link in ethics and give the audience at least some information about a subject they really cared about.

I have to say, one of the other speakers they flew in, Giulio Tononi, had the most basic view of consciousness I've ever heard -- just when you have parts of the brain (or any information system) where together they have higher mutual information than apart, that's it. I think. I might have believed that was a model of the thalamus, but I couldn't see how that was, in itself, a model of consciousness, and I think a lot of people were also saying "but what's it for? What does it do?" And he had a lot of guts, he's like "that's all it is, it doesn't do anything, that's just consciousness." And at some point I suddenly realized that the way I felt trying to understand that must be how other people felt trying to understand my talk where I was leaving out all the stuff about souls and ethics from my simple "clean" notion of consciousness.

Sorry I haven't posted much. We had symposia at the KLI two weekends in a row, and then this Consciousness thing last weekend (it's Friday again now) and one of those weeks I was also in the UK and I am just horribly behind. Next week I will have to go to the UK also and I am talking in two towns and vivaing someone for their PhD at Bath & seeing my students there -- I have a new PhD student, Marios Richards. I don't have any new funding, but he decided to come anyway for a year. I am also trying to finish proofreading the dissertation of my student Hagen Lehmann & also Marios' MSc, and then of course I am still trying to get my own work done and papers published etc.

Will is here this week -- he wanted to see Dennett but had to go to Oslo for this huge Human Rights / International Criminal Court meeting where he met among others the US ambassador at large for war crimes issues (whom he sat next to at dinner!) So he only got to have breakfast with Dan on Sunday morning --- and had to try to explain what he was doing. Hearing him describe it to Dan was great, because suddenly it all became about how individual identity leads to language and interacts with national identity and political constructions --- very cool.

Anyway, I have to go, we are late for dinner now. I will try to remember to tell you about "shmesh" which was another important thing I learned from Dennett, but maybe next time.