Monday, August 6, 2012

Consciousness, Information, and the Interpretation Problem

One of the greatest mysteries of modern science involves understanding the nature of consciousness. There are currently many competing theories for the origins of consciousness. Although a clear solution is not yet in sight, nevertheless, there are many things that I believe that we can say about the problem now.

Two competing popular theories of consciousness are Material Property Dualism (MPD), and Functional Property Dualism (FPD). Both FPD and MPD are a variety of Property Dualism, that claims that something "more" than the structure and dynamics of physics is needed to explain consciousness. MPD claims that consciousness is inescapably tied to the matter that makes up our brains, while FPD claims that it is only the functional properties of our minds that is important, and that a simulation of a brain on a computer would thus have the same subjective experiences as does the biological brain. Personally, I prefer neither of these camps, but instead subscribe to a form of Representational Functionalism (RF), that claims that nothing more than the structure and dynamics of physics is needed for consciousness. Nevertheless, I think that there is value in comparing the arguments for MPD with those for FPD, since I believe that there are compelling reasons to prefer FPD over MPD if one is forced to chose between these two theories.

A major criticism of the computational model of consciousness raised by Material Property Dualists, against both FPD and RF, is that all information must be "interpreted" before it could mean anything, or have qualia or consciousness, while Functional Property Dualists claim that it is the functional properties of the system that carries the dual properties that lead to consciousness. MPD posits that only matter can carry the "property" of consciousness, a "dual" property, beyond its causal properties, which form the structure and dynamics of physics. It is easy to understand why they feel this way. After all, why would nothing more than a bunch of ones and zeros have any subjective experience, no matter how much complexity is contained in the organization of the ones and zeros. This is all very intuitively pleasing. And a similar argument seems to show that the structure and dynamics of physics alone shouldn't lead to experience either. It should lead to all the behavior we have, including our claims to experience, but (these people argue) one can imagine all that structure and dynamics taking place like the wheels of a clock, completely absent any subjective experience. RF, which I prefer, responds to this criticism by claiming that nothing "more" than the structure and dynamics of physics is actually needed, even though it intuitively feels like something more is needed (our intuitions are wrong). In contrast, FPD gets around this argument by admitting that something "more" is indeed needed, but they tie the "more" to the information/functional properties of the system instead of to the matter. Supporters of MPD usually respond to this argument by claiming that the information in the functional system needs something to help "interpret" it correctly, and that the ones and zeros by themselves are simply random bits of information, with no proper interpretation, and thus, with no experience. Thus, they claim that the "more" must reside in the fundamental properties of matter in some way.

On the surface, these arguments seem to be quite compelling. However, the Maxwell's Demon thought experiment, indicates something strange. We know from relativity that we can turn matter into energy and  vice versa. But now we also know that we can also convert INFORMATION into matter or energy and vice versaThis has important implications for the whole consciousness debate between MPD and FPD. 

Why? Because it seems to mean that the universe is made of something fundamental, namely matter / energy / information, and that these three things are nothing more than three different manifestations of the same fundamental entity. Much as water, steam, and ice are all different manifestations of the same fundamental entity. Thus, if matter can carry some "fundamental" interpretation that allows consciousness (as MPD claims), then so can information (as FPD claims). And there is no reason to suppose that matter is any "better" at carrying this fundamental property that allows for the interpretation of experience than is information. Therefore, inasmuch as the single objection to FPD (proper interpretation) has been removed, and there are compelling reasons to prefer FPD over MPD (we haven't found any evidence of specific materials that perform this function in the brain, and David Chalmer's "fading qualia" and "dancing qualia" thought experiments STRONGLY indicate that consciousness must be found in the functional aspects of the brain, not in its material properties), it seems that we should all now prefer FPD over MPD.

This observation doesn't say much about the continuing debate between Representational Functionalism (RF) and FPD, (where I strongly prefer RF for reasons related to the epiphenomenalism argument). However, it does indicate that MPD should largely be removed from consideration as a potential solution to the problem of consciousness. The remaining debate must largely be between Functional Property Dualism and Representational Functionalism. 

5 comments:

Brent.Allsop said...

Hi James,

What you say here is evidence to me you're still completely missing the gist of Material Property Dualism.

"MPD posits that only matter can carry the "property" of consciousness, a "dual" property, beyond its causal properties, which form the structure and dynamics of physics."

No, there is no 'carrying' going on - it's the other way around, fundamental properties and qualities are what 'carries' or represents abstracted information in ways that it can be interpreted as such, not the other way around.

Also you assert that MPD is that 'all information must be "interpreted"'. Again, you getting this completely backwards. You are mistakenly focusing on "interpretation", where is this is not at all important. The only important thing is what are you 'interpreting' as? Are you interpreting it as abstracted information about some structure and dynamics, or are you interpreting as some fundamental phenomenal quality, like redness? The redness, or the fundamental properties, are what is important, and what does the carrying, not the other way around.

Also, it looks like we need to start a survey topic about whether you can get it from bit, or whether these Maxwell thought experiments, and so on, constitute anything like matter being converted to information, and visa versa. As to me, this is completely mistaken and sloppy thinking. First off, what, exactly, do you mean by 'information'? Because, to me, 'information' is the way we abstractly interpret some fundamental representation, in other words, all information is merely abstracted interpretations of something physically real - whether behavioral properties or phenomenal qualities. In other words, to me, by definition, there are no ones and zeros in a computer, or no 'information' in there, such is just ways we think about or interpret the particular set of matter we've organized into a machine, so that we can think of it in a consistent, abstracted from that reality, way. All there is physical process causing the next downstream representation to be in a way that we can also, think of it as a one, no matter what physical media happens to be representing it.

In my opinion, "information" in any way I know of rigorously defining it, has nothing to do with any such "information heat pump". It's all just physical stuff organized in a way that pumps stuff - not violating any laws of entropy or anything else not already predicted by classical physics.

As usual, I sure look forward to find out how many people agree with either side of this issue, and if there are any other better explained reasons as to why. I hope you'll all help get such 'canonized'.

Brent Allsop

James Carroll said...

"Also you assert that MPD is that 'all information must be "interpreted"'. Again, you getting this completely backwards. You are mistakenly focusing on "interpretation", where is this is not at all important. The only important thing is what are you 'interpreting' as? Are you interpreting it as abstracted information about some structure and dynamics, or are you interpreting as some fundamental phenomenal quality, like redness? The redness, or the fundamental properties, are what is important, and what does the carrying, not the other way around."

If I understand you accurately here, then I don't think that what you just said is incompatible with what I was saying above. So I must conclude that I didn't communicate accurately. In any event, you have expressed to me that you problem with RF and FPD is that there is nothing to "interpret" the data appropriately as "red" or "green". And what *I* am saying here is that if some material allows this interpretation to happen (as MPD suggests), then some information could equally allow it to happen, because information IS matter just as energy IS matter.

"As to me, this is completely mistaken and sloppy thinking. First off, what, exactly, do you mean by 'information'? Because, to me, 'information' is the way we abstractly interpret some fundamental representation, in other words, all information is merely abstracted interpretations of something physically real - whether behavioral properties or phenomenal qualities."

And science has told us that this is false, which was my point. Information itself is either THE fundamental stuff out of which the universe was made, or else it is one aspect of something even more fundamental (whatever that is). You don't get to choose what is true by what you consider to be "sloppy thinking", instead, the universe tells us what is true, and we accept what it tells us, no matter how un-intuitive. A non-intuitive conclusion, drawn from data, isn't "sloppy thinking" because it doesn't match your intuition. The sloppy thinking is actually just the opposite, namely, to trust your intuition over what the data actually tells us.

For example, it wasn't intuitive that matter and energy are different aspects of the same thing. It seemed like matter was stuff, and energy was the ability to move stuff around. But this isn't true, as evidenced by the atomic bomb as just one example. NOW, we know that we can transform information into energy. It's equally un-intuitive, but it seems to be also the simple truth.

James Carroll said...

Incidentally, notice how (in the Maxwell's Demon thought experiment) the information must be "interpreted" correctly in order to transform the information into energy. You have to know what the information means in order to open the trap door appropriately based upon that information. But notice also how the information is interpreted entirely by how it is used to produce behavior.

James Carroll said...

This interaction happened in a private email conversation with Brent about this. It is relevant enough that I want to share it here (with permission of course):

Brent Wrote:

In other words, I have a rigorous definition of what 'redness' is. I see nothing but self referential abstracted information, defining qualia, in your theory. For you, it's just something that, when properly joined in consciousness, it can be interpreted as properly reporting that it is the same as my redness. Again, no fundamental definition of what redness is, at all, there. Just a bunch of self referential abstracted data, which all must be properly interpreted to know what it means, and you are not providing any way to know how to do that - other than yet more abstracted and circular data definitions.

I responded:

Exactly. I know that is what you think. NOW what I am challenging you with, is... why does a belief that matter carries phenomenal properties get you out of this quandary, while a belief that information carries phenomenal properties doesn't work? Why is one possible and conceivable to you, while the other isn't?

consciousnessthroughidentity said...

Hello James

In the interests of full disclosure, I declare myself a Materialist.
I have a bone to pick with you.

You, and others hold that consciousness can in theory be created on a synthetic substrate. Imo it may be the case that the only substrate upon which consciousness can be created may be the one that evolution has developed in Homo Sapiens and other mammels. What I mean is that the degree of miniaturization and intricate complexity that is required to pack very dense information processing into a very small space, may not be possible on any technological incarnation. It is possible that the best route to a condensed information processing system lies in biology and not in pure physics. I would contend that an exclusive commitment to PD is premature, and the grounds for eliminating monist materialism are not there.
Now, I must concede that the above is a lawyerly and argumentative response, so let me offer how I would offer to put my shoulder to the wheel. I would conceive information in a different way as per Jeff Hawkins as memory only. I suggest that information is paired with energy in order to compute. ( Information and energy are of course paired in computers - but energy is neutral to the course of computation. ) If the neutrality role is switched from energy to information, then variations in energy is instead what arbitrates in logical distinctions. The way that variations in energy would come about is that the energy required to process information varies. For instance on a digital computer it takes a certain amount of energy and resources to process the following piece of informatiion - 1000000000000. It takes more energy and resources to process 10011010111011. The historical assignation of variable to bits, and neutrality to voltage or energy is one option that has served well, but the reverse may also be possible where energy is the variable and information is neutral.
This switch opens an avenue for exploration where we don't have to commit to the notion that information is a fundamental property, and subsequently deal with the pressure to incorporate that notion into Consciousness Studies and negotiate the speculative reductionism that will follow.
To close I would offer that since we know so little about Consciousness that the matter of monism and dualism and a role for a incompletely understood notion of information fall into the vast domain of uncertainty that surrounds the question of consciousness.

Regards, Mark Munro