Giulio Tononi on Consciousness as Integrated Information

On Wednesday I attended the inaugural lecture of the new NYU Center for Mind and Brain by Giulio Tononi. Tononi’s basic idea is that where there is information there is consciousness, but when you have integrated complex information then you get the kind of consciousness that matters to us. I don’t have time to lay out the thesis in detail but you can see something along these lines in this Youtube video or see the full paper here. (I also recommend this talk by Christof Koch especially around the 23 minute mark)

The discussion afterwards was very interesting in particular because he addressed Eric Schwitzgabel’s recent argument that if Tononi is right the the United States is (probably) conscious. His response was that this was rued out by one of his phenomenological axioms. In particular the one he called exclusion. The intuitive idea behind this is that the system with the highest amount of integrated information (what he calls phi) wins out and is the locus of phenomenal consciousness, all other information (and so low levels of consciousness) are excluded. So, in a system like the U.S. he denies that the U.S. has a higher phi than any of us individuals. Thus by the exclusion principle the U.S. is not conscious even though we are. He did admit that if it ever became the case that the U.S. came to have a higher phi than any of its individuals then it would become a conscious subject and that individual would cease to be conscious! Dave Chalmers asked him if some person were shrunk down and used to replace one of his (Dave’s) neurons would it then be the case that they (the person shrunk) would case to be conscious, and he said yes!

Another interesting idea that came out was that Tononi thinks that there can be consciousness in the absence of any nerual firing at all. This is because the mathematical formalization of phi works using the possible states the system could be in not the ones that it is actually in. In fact teh phi will be at its highest value when the system is in good working order but is not actually being used. This is because no actual states are ruling out possible past or future states. He mentioned contemplative states as one possible case where this happens, and it may help to explain certain studies that found deactivation of brain activity in association with intense hallucinogenic experience. I asked him if he thought that this would be the case even if there were absolutely no activity in the brain and he said yes. That is, yes, as long as it is the case that the neurons could be stimulated and function normally. So, according to him, if you take out on component of that system so that it is damaged instead of just not doig anything then you will lower the phi and so should expect a change in the conscious experience of the system. He went so far as to say that if we were able to do this experiment and there were no change in conscious experience then he would take his theory as empirically refuted.

I didn’t follow up with him on this but I wondered whether on his view this would account for near death experiences. I think it is pretty standardly thought that if there is conscious experience when there is no brain activity at all then this would show that physicalism was not true. Tononi would seem to have an interesting response to this. In the few moments when there is brain death but the neurons have not ceased being functional he would predict very vivid consciousness, (though perhaps without content?) I am not sure about this, as I tend to be on the other side of this issue. When I have looked at near death cases (I commented on a paper making this argument against physicalism a few years back and did some research) it seems fairly clear that the conscious experience is occurring just before and just after the stoping and starting of brain activity respectively. So I am unconvinced that there is any good evidence that there is indeed conscious experience in the total absence of brain activity. Still, very interesting…

There is a lot more interesting stuff that came up but I don’t have the time to talk about it now.

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Aristotle on Pleasure

Is pleasure an intrinsic good according to Aristotle? Let’s say that something is intrinsically good when it is valuable just because of the kind of thing that it is and never valuable for relational reasons. To answer this question I had to re-read Book VII ch. 11-14 of the Nicomachean Ethics (forget about Book X -for now-). At first it may seem that he does think so. He certainly seems to think that pleasure is necessarily good and to be honest, I find that I am mostly sympathetic to the kinds of things he says (e.g. that pleasure must be good in some sense for otherwise it could not be a part of the virtuous life, that if pain is bad then pleasure must be good, that both humans and animals pursue it and that should tell us something, that it is a mistake to think that if it is bad for this or that task then it is bad full stop, that pleasure is a byproduct of an activity rather than a state, etc). But after thinking about it a bit I think that he is committed to the claim that pleasure is not intrinsically good. Let us turn to the text.

In particular in Book VII ch 12 he seems to be making a distinction between that which really is a pleasure and that which merely seems to be a pleasure. For instance at 1152b 30 he says

…while others are not even pleasures, but seem to be so, viz. all those which involve pain and whose end is curative, e.g. the processes that go on in a sick person” (Barnes translation, yes I am old).

Further on, at 1153a 5, he elaborates this into a distinction between pleasures that are so by nature and those that are merely incidentally pleasures.

…that the others are incidental is indicated by the fact that men do not enjoy the same things when their nature is in its settled state as they do when it is being replenished, but in the former case they enjoy the things that are pleasant without qualification, in the latter state the contraries as well; for then they enjoy even sharp and bitter things, none of which is pleasant either by nature or without qualitifaction. Nor then are the pleasures; for as pleasant things differ, so do the pleasures arising from them.

The idea here seems to be that that natural pleasures are produced by those things which are naturally pleasant and so if something which is not naturally pleasant produces something then whatever it produces cannot be naturally pleasant.

He goes on to say a bit later in ch 14 (1154b 15-20),

But the pleasures that do not involve pains do not admit of excess; and these are among the things pleasant by nature and not incidentally. By things pleasant incidentally I mean those that act as cures…things naturally pleasant are those that stimulate the action of a healthy nature

Ok, so it seems clear that Aristotle thinks that when we are not in our natural healthy state we may mistake as a pleasure something which really isn’t a pleasure (or: the pleasure is merely incidental pleasure not natural pleasure). But then the crucial questions is: Is the vicious person in their natural and healthy state? It seems to me that the only answer we can give, from Aristotle’s point of view, is that they are not. But if that is the case then we seem to be lead to the conclusion that the ‘pleasure’ derived from wicked activity is not really pleasure, it merely seem to be pleasure to the vicious person. Or to put it the other way, these are only incidental pleasures and are not natural pleasures.

So now it seems to me the lesson from the above is that pleasure is not to be desired for its own sake but rather is only desirable when it ‘stimulates the action of a healthy nature’. That is, whether we should desire a certain pleasure is a function of how that pleasure was produced and not merely a function of the kind of thing it is (pleasure). The alternative to this, it seems, is to hold that only the natural pleasures are really pleasures and they are intrinsically good. But this seems like a very strange view. The pleasure the serial killer experiences as he sees his victim squirm and beg for their life is (I assume) phenomenologically indistinguishable from the pleasure one may have when they see their offspring flourishing. If so then it is highly artificial and contrived to call only one of those ‘pleasure’.

If this is right then pleasures must be instrumentally good, and this seems right to me (on Aristotle’s view). They are instrumentally good in that they are the chief sources of actions and so can be used to produce virtuous activity. In fact this seems to be what he recommends when he discuses moral education.

[P.S. in case anyone cares, this was prompted by my writing an exam for my Ethics and Moral Issues course :]

The Nature of Phenomenal Consciousness

Well it has been a month since I gave my talk at the Graduate Center. I have been meaning to write something on this, but have been swamped with the beginning of the semester. I will try to reconstruct some of the discussion, as I am finalizing my slides for my upcoming talk at the Metro-Area Research Group on Awareness and Meditation, which will include some of the stuff from this one (hopefully improved by the discussion of course! :))

I finally edited and uploaded a rehearsal version of the talk, which you can view below.

During the discussion there were several very interesting themes, but I will focus on the stuff relating to HOROR theory. One theme, brought up by David Chalmers, was that on my view first-order states are never phenomenally conscious. Phenomenal consciousness, on the view I was defending, just is a higher-order representation. But this seems very odd! How could a first-order pain, say, never be phenomenally conscious?!?! I agree that this is counter-intuitive. But if that is where the path of inquiry takes us, then so be it. It is also, by the way, counter-intuitive that I am currently in motion as i sit in my chair and type this, but I am. It is also counter-intuitive that there is no absolute simultaneity, but there are good reasons to think that this is the case none the less. So, I agree that if there were no evidence at all for this view then the counter-intuitiveness of it would count against it. But there is good evidence for it, at least enough to see that it is a legitimate possibility. We have philosophical evidence from thinking about overflow and misrepresentation and we have empirical evidence from Lau’s results.

Another theme, brought up by David Rosenthal and is in some ways the flip side of Dave’s worry, was that the term ‘phenomenal consciousness’ brings with it the assumption that we are talking about a first-order property. If that is the case, that is, if it is the case that ‘phenomenal consciousness’ is defined in such a way so as to guarantee that it is a first-order property, it is contradictory, or nonsensical, to argue that it is really a higher-order property. In response I think it is important that we start with a conception of the data that is neutral about these kind of metaphysical assumptions. I think it is common for people to think of phenomenal consciousness as the property of there being something that it is like for one to be in certain states. It may be true that people then go on to make the metaphysical assumption that this is a property of first-order states but that is something additional. To say that a state is phenomenally conscious is just to say that there is something that it is like for me to be in that state. It is then an open question whether this property is a property of first-order states or a property of higher-order states. We can quibble about which words to use, and for which reasons, but there is no doubt that there is something that it is like for me to have a conscious pain and we want to know the nature of that property.

This brings up another very interesting theme of the discussion, which was what reason we have for thinking that the higher-order state is the phenomenally conscious state. Why not say, as David Rosenthal does, that the phenomenally conscious state is the state that you are conscious of yourself as being in (i.e. the first-order state)? This avoids the two previous problems. I find this move hard to accept for the following reasons. First, in the case of empty higher-order states one would then have to say that the phenomenally conscious state is not the first-order state, but rather the notional state. That is pretty weird, and I have talked about the weirdness before. To say that there are phenomenally conscious states that have no neural correlates is very, very unsettling! Of course, it may still be true (counter-intuitiveness not all by itself a strike, etc). But, just to be clear it seems to me that if one says this in the empty case, then one must also say it in the normal case. Isn’t it extremely ad hoc to say that in the good case the first-order state has the property of being phenomenally conscious but in the bad case it is the notional state? So, I think it has to be the notional state in all cases, but then no first-order state is every phenomenally conscious! Only notional states are! In addition to this I think there is a good reason to think that it is the higher-order state that is phenomenally conscious (I mean, according to the higher-orde view). When we ask which state is phenomenally conscious we want to know ‘which state is it that there is something that it is like for the creature to be in?’ That is, we are looking for the state in virtue of which there is something that it is like for the subject. According to the higher-order view this is just the higher-order representation.

Related to this, Dan Shargel brought up the following worry. I identify the higher-order conception of phenomenal consciousness with mental appearances. Phenomenal consciousness just is a matter of how one’s mental life appears to one. Dan suggested that this in itself pushed towards phenomenal consciousness being a property of first-order states. If phenomenal consciousness is a matter of mental appearances, then it should be a matter of what appears to me, and what appears to me is my first-order states. To an extent this is right. When I have an appropriate higher-order representation I am conscious of myself as being in some first-order state. So, the way my mental life appears to me is as though I am in the first-order state. This is in fact why it is that it seems to us common sensically that phenomenal consciousness goes with the first-order states. And this is exactly what the higher-order representation is supposed to do! And we know (or at least suspect) that it can do this in the absence of the first-order state. This is why Rosenthal has said that it is a mistake to think of the higher-order state as conferring some new property onto the first-order state. The empty higher-order representation argument shows us this. So I agree that the higher-order representation makes it the case that it appears to me as though I am in some first-order state, and which state I appear to be in is just the content of the higher-order representation but I deny that this means that the first-order state comes to have some new property that it did not have before. If anything, the person has the new property, as Jake likes to point out, but of course the person has that property in virtue of being in the higher-order state, which is all that matters to me!

In many ways I see this debate as analogous to the debate between the representationist and the naive realist and there is a lot more to say about this and the other interesting questions (e.g. Cressida asked an interesting question about the ‘argument from concept acquisition’ (I think she asked how one picked out the sensory quality if one didn’t know what to look for, or whether acquiring the concept required having a phenomenally conscious experience in the first place) and Rosie asked about mental appearances (basically she pointed out that I phrased my argument as ‘all phenomenal consciousness is mental appearance’ but what I needed was ‘all mental appearances is phenomenal consciousness’ since without that one could hold, as Rosenthal does, that there are mental appearances that are not involved in phenomenal consciousness (e.g. HOTs about cognitive states on his view), and Peter Godfrey-Smith asked about my notion of ‘what it is likeness’ and what I would say about fish) but I have to get to work! Hopefully I can come back to those other issues at a later date…at some point I am going to write this up as a paper but that will have to wait a bit…