The Hard Problem

I promised in the last blog to explain how Model Theory addresses Chalmers’ “hard problem”.  Well here we go…

Consciousness, it seems to me, is simply information organised in such a way that it observes itself.

I’m proposing that the way the mind works is in terms of a model or simulation of the known universe which includes a model of the self.  The challenge is to explain how the running of this model results in conscious experience.  My answer is that the mind model, just like any complex simulation, generates a huge amount of information.  This information is available to the sub-model of the self which uses selective attention to observe the model in action, including the sub-model itself.  The result is conscious experience.  How could it be otherwise?

Still not convinced?  OK, a little more about information.  Chalmers, as I understand him, more or less accepts that consciousness is an emergent property of information processing in the form of brain activity, but because he sees no acceptable reductive explanation of how this activity actually results in conscious experience he comes to the conclusion that consciousness is another “fundamental” property of the universe like matter, space or time (all of which are ultimately just as mysterious as consciousness!)  Interestingly, he then goes on to speculate that information is an important part of consciousness, but he makes a distinction between two aspects of information: the physical and the phenomenal.  Well as far as I’m concerned they’re the same.  Both the information in the mental model and the information available to us when we’re conscious is the same old information, which as an entity is reasonably well understood – we don’t need anything else in the form of a new fundamental property.

Admittedly, information is a rather slippery concept.  We can’t touch or feel it and in order to exist it needs to be encoded in some sort of substrate then accessed by some sort of information processing system.  Within a computer simulation the information is encoded in hardware and accessed by sub-systems implemented in software routines.  Within a mind the information is encoded in patterns of neuronal activity and accessed by other neuronal structures.  Of course we don’t have direct access to the information encoded at the lowest level of neurons firing.  The information is abstracted and aggregated into an enormously rich structure of symbols, concepts, algorithms and the like.  But this is true of information whatever its substrate.  The information in a book is abstracted into letters, sentences, descriptions, metaphors, analogies and narratives.  The information in a computer simulation is ultimately ones and zeroes – bits – but is manipulated, accessed and reported in the form of a range of complex data structures – numbers, characters, formulae, matrices, sets, images and so on, which are related in some way to the physical process being modelled.  I take it that the same sort of rich symbolic information processing underlies conscious experience.

Take any movie.  We know that it can be encoded entirely digitally.  In other words the movie is nothing more nor less than pure information encoded as a huge string of ones and zeroes.  This information is then re-encoded into patterns of pixels and sound waves and fed into our brains via our eyes, ears and sensory processing parts of the brain where it is experienced as being more or less identical to a narrative unfolding in the real world.  Now the information must have been re-encoded into the substrate of our mental model but it is still just the same information.  The only thing which has been added is our knowledge, partly innate, partly built up from experience, of how the physical world works – spatial structures, causal relationships, language and so on, which is presumably just more information, certainly in terms of Model Theory.  Note in particular that “qualia” within the movie – the redness of a rose, the sound of a gunshot – have also been encoded entirely digitally in the original movie, and that same information is presumably encoded within the mind, so I stand by my claim in an earlier blog that qualia too are in this sense “just” information.

OK, so the hypothesis is that consciousness is just information.  It’s not physical “stuff” but neither is it some mysterious ineffable quality.  There is a distinction between mind and matter but we don’t need to postulate some new sort of dualism.  The distinction is exactly the same in principle as that between the hardware and software on a computer or the narrative of a novel and the paper it’s printed on.  And there’s absolutely no problem about mind and matter interacting with each other.  The physical world impinges on us via sensory data which is experienced as information within a mental model.  And the information within our mental model can be used to fire motorneurons which send signals to our muscles which can impact the physical world.

At this point Chalmers would probably say that’s all very well but you still haven’t cracked the hard problem because just having the information in our heads isn’t enough; there’s a missing ingredient; you need something or someone to observe the information in order for it to become conscious experience.  Otherwise we might just as well be “zombies” as he puts it.

Well I propose that the missing ingredient is the recursive relationship between the model of the self and the overall mental model which contains the model of the self.  This is where our old friend J W Dunne comes in, as discussed in an earlier blog.  Recall that Dunne regards explanations in terms of an infinite regress as perfectly respectable and makes the point that we can only really understand systems which feature an infinite regress (of which there are many examples) when we examine the second term and its relationship with the first and third terms.  In the case of Model Theory I take this as meaning that the self model observes the model as a whole and is in its turn observed by a higher order model and so on.  Or more generally, the mental model both observes and is observed by itself.  I find it inconceivable that something like this could be going on without a “me” being conscious of it.

Another way of looking at this is in terms of the ancient and much derided idea of a homunculus or “little man” sitting inside our heads.  As explained in the earlier blog, I’m not sure this analogy is quite as outlandish as it’s usually painted and at least it has the virtue of feeling plausible in a common sense sort of way.  There is also some similarity between what I’m proposing and the ideas of Douglas Hofstadter and his “strange loops”.  Hofstadter wrote the celebrated book “Godel, Escher, Bach” and followed this up with “I am a Strange Loop”.  I think, like me, he’s claiming that the essence of consciousness is some kind of recursive or paradoxical feedback loop between different symbolic processing levels of the mind.  Unfortunately I find his writing almost completely impenetrable.  And like Metzinger and Dennet he concludes that the self is an illusion.  I simply don’t buy that.

So there you have it, for the time being!  My proposition is that I’m an information processing system and that my conscious experience is of information which is aware of itself.  Anyone out there like to comment?


3 Responses to “The Hard Problem”

  1. 1 Brain Molecule Marketing September 30, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    eh, philosophy is a dead language, since it opposes brain science. Consciousness is a pop cultural myth…big waste of time. Endless studies to debunk, for example, just today …decision-making behavior in bumblebees that is analogous to optimism in humans and may reflect positive affect in both humans and other species. Moreover, the behavior appears to depend on the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the processing of reward in humans.” Gee, where is hard problem of consciousness in bees!?

    • 2 nickcollin October 3, 2016 at 3:11 pm

      Thanks for the comment @Brain Molecule Marketing but I’m afraid I just don’t understand what your point is! Regarding consciousness in minds other than humans, I would say that animals such as dogs and cats definitely have some consciousness, but probably not insects, and not thermostats or even elementary particles as has been suggested by proponents of Panpsychism. In other words consciousness is experienced to a greater or lesser extent by any information system with a mental model which includes a model of itself – so that would include machines in the future. An interesting related but separate question is whether all matter is ultimately made up of information – a subject for a future blog!

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