The extended mind and the problem of consciousness

How the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience (i.e., what is it like to be a bird or dog or whatever) has been labeled as ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness. Science journaloist Michael Hanlon writes that claims to be making progress on solving this using the latest developments in neuroscience, computation, and evolutionary science have proved to be premature.

For long periods, it is as if science gives up on the subject in disgust. But the hard problem is back in the news, and a growing number of scientists believe that they have consciousness, if not licked, then at least in their sights.

Despite such obstacles, the idea is taking root that consciousness isn’t really mysterious at all; complicated, yes, and far from fully understood, but in the end just another biological process that, with a bit more prodding and poking, will soon go the way of DNA, evolution, the circulation of blood, and the biochemistry of photosynthesis.

Committed materialists believe that consciousness arises as the result of purely physical processes — neurones and synapses and so forth. But there are further divisions within this camp.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today. I do not think that the evolutionary ‘explanations’ for consciousness that are currently doing the rounds are going to get us anywhere. These explanations do not address the hard problem itself, but merely the ‘easy’ problems that orbit it like a swarm of planets around a star. The hard problem’s fascination is that it has, to date, completely and utterly defeated science. Nothing else is like it. We know how genes work, we have (probably) found the Higgs Boson; but we understand the weather on Jupiter better than we understand what is going on in our own heads. This is remarkable.

This interview discusses the question with a neuroscientist who explains what is meant by an extended mind.

In this interview with Robert Lawrence Kuhn for the PBS series Closer to Truth, the UK philosopher, writer and retired neuroscientist Raymond Tallis offers his nuanced view of the extended mind thesis, proposed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998. Their paper ‘The Extended Mind’ shifted the bedrock of modern philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, and eventually became the most cited philosophy paper of the decade. Its thesis was that our consciousnesses are constantly integrating and being moulded by outside objects, including other people, in ways that suggest that the mind extends far beyond the confines of the skull, or even the skin. Somewhat controversial upon its publication, the paper’s central idea gained greater popular traction as innovations in technologies such as medical implants and smart devices seemed to narrow the gap between human cognition and external objects. Two decades on from the paper’s publication, Tallis finds much to admire and to critique in its central contention, embracing the notion that our minds are in no way constrained to the brain, while rejecting the idea that devices such as smartphones open up novel pathways for understanding consciousness.

I did not find Tallis’s argument’s persuasive and it seemed like the interviewer Kuhn, although working hard to understand what Tallis was saying, shared my skepticism. While it is undoubtedly true that the workings of our mind and consciousness manifest themselves through their interaction with the external world, and that new technologies can change the way that we interact, that does not mean that those external entities are parts of our mind and consciousness, as Tallis seems to be suggesting, unless I am reading him incorrectly.

As one might expect from my above comments, I am a materialist. It seems to me to be a perfectly sound basis for understanding the world. That does not mean that we have materialist explanations for everything as yet. One of the things that I find hard to understand is how people can think that there exists something, whether it be a soul, mind, consciousness, or whatever, that is somehow disconnected from the brain and can operate independently of it. Hence the idea that it is somehow extended and can exist outside of the brain puzzles me though some philosophers take this idea seriously. To me it has always seemed somewhat obvious that what we call the mind and consciousness are embodied in the brain and have no existence outside of it. It dies when we die. Just because we have not worked it out completely does not mean that there is something mysteriously different going on,

Physicist Adam Frank argues that the well-known interpretation problems of quantum mechanics undermines the current confidence in the materialist position.

Today, though, it is hard to reconcile that confidence with the multiple interpretations of quantum mechanics. Newtonian mechanics might be fine for explaining the activity of the brain. It can handle things such as blood flow through capillaries and chemical diffusion across synapses, but the ground of materialism becomes far more shaky when we attempt to grapple with the more profound mystery of the mind, meaning the weirdness of being an experiencing subject. In this domain, there is no avoiding the scientific and philosophical complications that come with quantum mechanics.

Rather than sweeping away the mystery of mind by attributing it to the mechanisms of matter, we can begin to move forward by acknowledging where the multiple interpretations of quantum mechanics leave us. It’s been more than 20 years since the Australian philosopher David Chalmers introduced the idea of a ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Following work by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, Chalmers pointed to the vividness – the intrinsic presence – of the perceiving subject’s experience as a problem no explanatory account of consciousness seems capable of embracing. Chalmers’s position struck a nerve with many philosophers, articulating the sense that there was fundamentally something more occurring in consciousness than just computing with meat. But what is that ‘more’?

Some consciousness researchers see the hard problem as real but inherently unsolvable; others posit a range of options for its account. Those solutions include possibilities that overly project mind into matter. Consciousness might, for example, be an example of the emergence of a new entity in the Universe not contained in the laws of particles. There is also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things, such as mass or electric charge, that the world is built of.

To be quite honest, I do not understand the point that Frank is making. Yes, we have not as yet solved the problem of consciousness and it is clear that finding a solution is not going to be easy. Whenever there is a difficult problem in science that has withstood solution for a long time, scientists tend to loosen and vary the assumptions used to address the problem. But to posit that this difficulty is a sign that consciousness has non-materialist elements does not seem to be warranted.


  1. says

    What if a process control loop got complicated enough that some subroutine said “I think, therefore I am!”

    I don’t see what the big deal is about, frankly. It has been obvious for a long time that there’s nothing “there” except what’s in our skulls, and what’s in our skulls is entirely dependent on sensory inputs. (Thank you, David Hume) You can, obviously, do a lot with those -- but so can a dog or a dolphin or an elephant or a rat.

  2. flex says

    I think Tallis’ argument is a reflection of the observation that behavior changes, often drastically, depending on the environment a person is in. To the extent that a person may even profess strongly held but contradictory opinions because of a change in the environment. This can even occur without a person consciously recognizing it. A person feels they are the same person whether they are in an office or a pub, but if no identifying attributes are used (e.g. face is masked and voice is disguised) an independent observer may think the same person in different environments are different people.

    This is not to suggest that the environment which people exist in is responsible for their actions. Agency still resides with the person. But it is an interesting view of the concept of mind (as opposed to brain); expanding the concept of mind to include the environment which greatly shapes our personality, and even thoughts. The classic example of this is embedded in the phrase, “it seemed like a good idea at the time”. While this phrase used to suggest that someone didn’t think things through, the reality is that the person, their mind and personality, probably really did think it was a good idea at the time, under the conditions of the environment they were in.

    None of the people who work with this theory of mind believe that there are interactions with the brain beyond the known sensory inputs, only that the concept of mind is complex and the boundaries may not be precisely where we’ve established them historically. This theory of mind is a useful tool which can explain some behaviors. Like any tool it has its limitations, and may not be as useful in the longer-term as hoped. But it’s an interesting idea.

  3. Sam N says

    Anyone who isn’t tackling this problem via information theory reeks to my of not being serious.

    There are people who are publishing and proposing very good ideas about what consciousness could be. By far, I favor Tononi’s idea of consciousness being related to integrated information.

    The wikipedia article on Integrated Information Theory is reasonably good starting explanation.

    I truly don’t fathom why people bring quantum mechanics into it at this stage. I’ve yet to hear a sensible argument, just wild speculation that isn’t grounded in observation of the brain and behavior.

    Marcus’ simple statement is far more sensible to me, though hardly fleshed out, than any of the blathering from the excerpts in Mano’s post.

  4. Jean says

    I agree with Marcus above with one exception. It’s not just dependent on sensory inputs but on all environmental conditions. Change the amount of O2 or the chemicals flowing through the body and you have different results, some temporary others more permanent. Actually they are all permanent because they become prior experiences which do shape any future response.

    I think the main issue is that no one ‘feels’ like just a meat machine and think they have some sort of free will. So the premise in studying this is skewed from the start. It’s difficult to see ourselves as having about as much actual say in what we do as a complex weather pattern has in what damages it will cause.

  5. Sam N says

    Which is too bad, because Chalmers, who I believe is a strong advocate for IIT, has what I feel is an entirely unrelated, and unimportant quote in the first excerpt. Just noting it’s a difficult problem with a quote? Instead of tackling the meat of the problem?

    I didn’t read the full articles…

  6. springa73 says

    I’ve heard of speculation that quantum physics is somehow involved with consciousness, but as far as I can tell these are pretty fringe speculations that are rejected by most scientists. I agree that it doesn’t seem necessary to invoke quantum physics or some fundamental “conscious” property of the universe at this time when there is so much more we need to study from a materialist perspective.

    I think it’s common among people, even among very intelligent people, to think that because something is very complex that there is a “magical” element to it that is beyond our current methods of understanding.

  7. Sam N says

    Frustratingly, I think people make this problem out to be far, far, more difficult than it needs to be.

    Philosophers of dualism do back flips to explain away very simple phenomena, such as that taking drugs strongly influence perception, when the obvious explanation is because they act on brain receptors.

    If we take perception as essentially systems carrying information about themselves. That boat on the ocean that I see, it has this distance and form relationship to myself. If the natural result of that information IS subjective experience, then where is the problem?

    That we need to acknowledge that very simple creatures or even electronic circuits have conscious perception? If it’s very limited and simple and of course will be qualitatively different than the absurd number of loops, millions if not billions, occurring in our own brains.

    I actually don’t get where the hard problem lies, really. It may not be correct, but what is inconsistent about that explanation and any observation made about the universe to this point?

  8. consciousness razor says

    I did not find Tallis’s argument’s persuasive and it seemed like the interviewer Kuhn, although working hard to understand what Tallis was saying, shared my skepticism. While it is undoubtedly true that the workings of our mind and consciousness manifest themselves through their interaction with the external world, and that new technologies can change the way that we interact, that does not mean that those external entities are parts of our mind and consciousness, as Tallis seems to be suggesting, unless I am reading him incorrectly.

    I don’t think the arguments for externalism are very convincing either, so take my comment here with a grain of salt. This is just as close as I can get to believing it’s a (possibly) constructive/useful line of thought, while we’re still trying to sort out what’s actually going on.
    The idea seems to be that, if we were careful about how we think about the term – not just working with a naive, intuitive folk psychology that’s obviously wrong/misleading in many ways – then we might decide that it should mean that, although that’s not how you may think about it now.
    Near the end of the video, Tallis said about a person with a prosthetic leg, “when you’re walking, you’re not ‘using it to walk’ – you’re simply ‘walking.’” That does make a bit of sense. There isn’t a very compelling reason for us to distinguish between walking-with-biological-legs and walking-with-prosthetic-legs. And so in that case, it’s not a distinction we take seriously. Either one satisfies the activity we wanted to describe, which is simply walking. You might be inclined to say that’s meaningfully different from something like shoes or crutches, which are “used to walk.”
    Of course, you could correctly say that legs (biological and prosthetic ones) are “used to walk,” but there’s an important sense in which this fails to capture the fact that legs are part of the person which is “using” them. You may be okay with saying that you “use your brain,” for instance, but you don’t want that to be understood as implying that your brain is something separate from yourself – some other thing “out there,” which you “use” and isn’t the same thing as you (or part of you).
    So with all that said, there are questions to ask (not necessarily empirical ones) about where we should be drawing the line between “me” and “my environment,” when it comes to my mental activities. (Not to mention all sorts of other things. Is it “okay” to talk of an object that consists of all my undetached body parts, plus a copy of the federal tax codes and a pair of socks that Elvis used to wear? Well… that’s a weird and almost certainly pointless thing to do, but why exactly wouldn’t that be okay?)
    After all, compared to molecules and electrons and so forth, human beings are already these huge, complicated, composite things, and there don’t seem to be any well-defined physical boundaries between “me” and “my environment.” Like I said, I’m not very sympathetic to externalism, but I think it’s at least worth questioning the ways we draw such boundaries, whether those choices are justifiable and well-motivated, whether that belongs in the best picture of the world we can come up with, etc.
    I mean, if I’m supposed to paint an accurate portrait of a person with a prosthetic leg, I’m happy to say there wouldn’t be anything wrong with including that leg, which is (now) a part of them. “You want the person? Okay, there they are: I showed you the person. Done.” You could have that attitude about it.
    But somebody could paint a different portrait of the person, which (also accurately) shows them without the leg. At that point, you might just wonder which picture will probably be more useful to you, rather than which one is “more accurate” or something like that. (Think of these as theories, not paintings, if you want to have the right concept of them being “useful.”)
    Although it’s definitely strange, I’ll at least say it’s not obviously wrong like many other positions that people have. But if someone tries try to argue internalism is obviously wrong, that’s also a load of crap. (And as others said above, quantum mechanics, or whatever the mystery of the week is, has basically nothing to do with it. Frank is a crank.)

  9. Sam N says

    @5 Jean, ugh, regarding free will. The amount of absurd confusion people have about it. That my actions are determined don’t make them any less mine. That IS my will, and it IS caused by an organ that I can, somewhat arbitrarily, distinguish from the environment.

    But my brain, or any other decision-making mechanism that we arbitrarily distinguish from its environment, whether it’s some magical soul, God, or a random number generator, may only operate in one of two ways: Either there was a reason for the outcome, and hence it was determined. Or there was some randomly drawn outcome from a distribution. I hardly find it more comforting that my decisions are randomly drawn than occurred for a reason.

    Those are the two options. Random drawing or determinism. Either way, people who want to believe in free will pretend there is some third option that simply does not exist. Once they confront that, there is nothing interesting left to say.

  10. Sam N says

    @01, But somebody could paint a different portrait of the person, which (also accurately) shows them without the leg. At that point, you might just wonder which picture will probably be more useful to you, rather than which one is “more accurate” or something like that.

    That all depends on whether we’re in a discussion on a blog or I’m asking for help to move into a new apartment.
    I think one of those two items is fundamentally more related to what I attribute to being a ‘person’.

  11. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Re the hard problem of consciousness.
    I think the problem has been carefully formulated to be forever outside the bounds of empirical inquiry. Therefore, I don’t care much about it. Practically speaking, one of my presuppositions is something like a generalized Copernican principle, from which follows that if I have first-person conscious experience, then all these other meat-brains do too. That seems to be about the maximum extent of useful inquiry that can be made on this topic.

  12. consciousness razor says

    That all depends on whether we’re in a discussion on a blog or I’m asking for help to move into a new apartment.

    Then you don’t have one answer? Why not? There’s only this one, single reality for you to describe. So why don’t you just do that? Maybe that’s not so easy to do, but I’m sure it makes no difference whether you’re discussing things on a blog, for example.

    I think one of those two items is fundamentally more related to what I attribute to being a ‘person’.

    But that’s not the end of it. It’s not as if your attributions must be correct, because you say so. If you think you’re right (or even roughly on the right track, etc.), you should be able to explain why, in a way that might help others understand it and possibly agree with you. This isn’t to say we disagree. (I don’t really know.)
    One thing I didn’t point out before is that the issue is about the nature of minds in general. So there’s no reason to limit this only to human beings. What exactly would you say about something like an AI system which is a “person” in all the ways that matter? Something like that could have a very different type of body than mine or yours (or multiple distributed bodies), interact with the world in very different ways than we do, and so forth. What do you say then, and where do you go for an answer? Maybe you already have a lot of pre-cooked notions about this sort of thing, but to me, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to trust those or to put much stock into them. I know we have a hard enough time understanding much simpler and more familiar things very well, and stuff like that is definitely foreign territory.

  13. Sam N says


    Of course I don’t have a single answer, my response was intended to expound on the usefulness of expanding boundaries to include things that are not essential--as far as externalism goes with our current tech, I’d say. And I’m massively uncertain. But I could define hard bounds. Such as removal and destruction of our brains certainly destroys anything we would consider as a person (which I acknowledge is a rather lame and careful bound). I could become slightly, but honestly, only slightly more specific. You can scoop out my occipital cortex and I will not see complex visual features, so may lose a lot of important concept and features, but in some respects my behavior would still be me.

    Would you agree with this statement? External factors can be sufficient, but not necessary for modifying conscious experience as us meat-bags feel it?

    In the second part, I started to create a reply, but you ask far too much and it becomes difficult to even know where to begin. Maybe with the distinction in people who suffer the lose of an eye, people who suffer the loss of visual area 1 (V1), and people who suffer loss of basal ganglia function. Two of those I view as relatively trivial (not pragmatically but in my conception of their being a person), one I view as much more fundamental.

  14. Sam N says

    Hmm. Why don’t I describe things as one reality. Because I have uncertainty, and depending on my goal I want to minimize certain types of error variance, right?

  15. Sam N says

    And that hmm wasn’t meant to be condescending. I was just typing my perception of sound corresponding to the thought in my mind (with some error, apparently).

  16. Sam N says

    @12, why is the problem hard? Newton’s laws were sufficient, but wrong, for useful understanding of most things we deal with day to day so we accepted them, right? I think it has to do with the implication on how we run society. A person held at gunpoint who hands over money is distinct from giving that money to charity. We would like to call the 2nd action free (although in some society that 2nd action may have just as much pressure as that gun). All of the interesting aspects of this question have to do with how we want to run a society. In general, I would like to optimize benefit for all, but there is so much uncertainty, and we worry about setting examples and norms. Which means even someone who apparently did something awful (but for extraordinarily good reason) might be sacrificed. Those are ideas worth talking about.

    I think people cling to dumb conceptions of free will because it supports something about their world view and how they run society. Or maybe their own intuitions about themselves. But if they could discard all of that, if they could view it with as much detachment as we view photosynthesis. I don’t think the problem is hard at all. (Not optimization of society, just consciousness). This is a rather strong wording of my feelings on this subject.

    But I don’t think it was ‘designed’ to be hard. I think it just conflicts with what people want to believe.

  17. Bruce says

    I’m amused by the quote from Tallis, which suggests what we sense is integrated in to our minds. One interpretation of this could be that a prehistoric person 100,000 years ago observed the sun. So they got integrated with the solar system. Then they died. So Tillis has “proved” apparently that the solar system was destroyed 100,000 years ago. It’s great how philosophy can “prove” things.

  18. file thirteen says

    The brain is a concept making machine. One of those concepts is the self, which consists of not only the brain, but everything attached to it, including non-living parts (teeth, hair, nails, attached prosthetics). The image of self can change, and while it is designed to match the locomotive body that the brain is embedded in as much as possible, some people have problems with their brain model, eg. anorexics who see their image as being unbearably different to how they would have it, people who suffer pain (so-called phantom pain, but very real) “in” missing limbs, and people who are convinced that parts of their body are “alien”, or otherwise not part of the self they recognise (Somatoparaphrenia).

    Remove the brain’s bias in this area, and you could easily view the world and everything in it as a sea of matter and energy juggled by forces that balance how divided any part is from other parts. What exactly is a person other than our mental image of one? There are no hard and fast divisions in nature, but human brains (at least) hold a solid image where the space within and between the atoms held in our stretchy body lattice is ignored, as is the eating/excreting/aging cycle. Our brains handle the discrete better than the continuous. But if you supersede the brain’s view, it’s easy to expand the concept of mind to include things beyond what our brain is programmed to see as the division it keeps between the “self” and the “other”.

    The temptation though, is to do the opposite, a reductionist approach, and hold that only your brain is “you”. But where to draw the line? Surely there are parts of your brain that are no more part of your self than your limbs. But as you drill down towards a nanoscopic scale, eventually the trees obscure the wood, and you realise you’ve overshot what you were searching for. Consider that beehives exhibit signs of intelligence that individual bees don’t. Compare the bees to the neurons in our brain, and apart from the fact that the latter are held in a static lattice, it’s the same boat.

    When you view things at the nanoscopic scale, it’s easy to understand the argument that consciousness is an illusion, and I expect that in time we’ll identify the way the brain composes it. The problem I find much more puzzling is one of identity. I don’t find it hard to imagine a machine capable of reacting as though it has a mind. But why am “I” the mind of this one? What makes there be an “I” at all?

  19. flex says

    @file thirteen, #20,

    But why am “I” the mind of this one? What makes there be an “I” at all?

    Which is a re-phrasing of the hard problem.

    A lot of things can be explained. The phantom limb phenomenon can be understood as spurious nervous impulses in the brain which are triggering even though there is no input. That sort of thing does happen, so it shouldn’t be too unexpected. As I think about it, it would be an interesting question whether phantom limb sensations have happened in people who were born with birth defects and never had the limb. I know it happens in amputees, but I’ve never looked to see if it happens in people who never had the limb in the first place. I imagine that if it does happen it would be rare, because of the plasticity of the brain, but it would be an interesting question.

    The other phenomena you describe can all be attributed to some organic difference in the brain, developmental or accidentally induced, and while they are interesting in possibly illuminating the functions of the brain, so far they haven’t led to any insights into the hard problem of mind. Please note, I say difference, not defect, for a reason. The people with these differences, may not consider it a defect, so I shouldn’t make that assumption for them.

    I would suggest that the problem of free will is slightly different than the problem of what constitutes the mind. We all have personal experience with mind. Free will, on the other hand, is something we don’t know if we have experience with. Our minds may be completely deterministic through the brain processes, and with sufficient understanding of an individual brain process, including all it’s history and environment the decision of the mind could possibly be successfully predicted. Which is the ultimate goal of advertising. Which suggests there is no such thing as free will.

    On the other hand, our minds may be deterministic to an extent, but an unpredictable random element could be involved. While I’m not an neuroscientist, I would hazard that memory retention is the main unpredictable aspect of the brain which impacts the illusion, or reality, of free will. Current neuroscience suggests that memory in the brain is not preserved in a simple data-storage fashion like computer data, but is reconstructed from stored elements every time it is recalled. For example, a ski lodge may contain ski’s, poles, a fireplace, various furniture, etc., and the brain stores the elements along with the connections which make that particular skiing trip unique. When you remember that trip, the brain recalls all the elements, as well as the unique aspects, and re-creates the memory rather than uploading a photograph of it. This is why smells and sounds can trigger memories if they are the same as a previous experience.

    The result of this is that as a brain develops, the connections in the brain which allow a mind to occur are semi-random and based on how effective the brain is at storing specific memories. Making every brain, and every mind, unique. Also creating the reality, or illusion, of free will. This also leads into Tallis’ suggestion that a model of mind may need to be expanded beyond the brain, beyond the brain’s support system, and into the sensory environment.

    The best fictional depiction I’ve read of the impacts of brain development on the formation of mind was C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen which both overtly, and very subtly, explores how a developing brain will impact a mind.

  20. consciousness razor says

    On the other hand, our minds may be deterministic to an extent, but an unpredictable random element could be involved. While I’m not an neuroscientist, I would hazard that memory retention is the main unpredictable aspect of the brain which impacts the illusion, or reality, of free will.
    The result of this is that as a brain develops, the connections in the brain which allow a mind to occur are semi-random and based on how effective the brain is at storing specific memories. Making every brain, and every mind, unique. Also creating the reality, or illusion, of free will.

    Maybe an illusion, if you think you’re experiencing such an illusion. If by that you mean feeling like my will isn’t caused, I’m fairly sure I don’t experience that. I also suspect that people who say they do are mistaken: they’re not actually experiencing that either. They’re just confused, or they’re talking in a sloppy or misleading way, or something like that.
    And the reality of it? I don’t get that either. If the world (or just the part that’s you) is indeterministic, so that some objectively random/stochastic thing happens, how does that correspond to your will or your agency as a person, or anything that even remotely resembles that? If, say, a random chemical/physical event triggers a cascade of other events, that doesn’t sound at all like you (a person) willing something to happen.
    Maybe it’s fair to say you got half of the idea, if we were being very generous and not disputing whether this somehow constitutes the kind of “freedom” anyone is ever talking about (doubtful as that is … freedom from what?). But it’s not the other half, which is about “will.” That never even made an appearance in your story, much less was it explained. So maybe that scores 50%, if we’re being generous. Where I went to school, that was not a passing grade.
    Let me say something about this “predictable” business. This isn’t really a question of what you (or anybody) can predict, practically speaking, given some amount of time, resources, smart people working hard on it, etc. Our human limitations are very real, but they are not the issue at the moment.
    Suppose Laplace’s demon doesn’t have such limitations. Don’t assume anything about how it does its hypothetical thing. Just suppose this: Given the exact, microscopic details of the world at some time T and given the physical laws that correctly describe the physics (of which we may have neither), the demon can predict what the distribution of matter will be like 10 minutes in the future of T. (It also gets any other time relative to T … 10 minutes later is only meant to be a friendly example.)
    If that’s strictly and literally impossible, with all practical limitations set aside, because the world itself is indeterministic and we’re not interested in discussing a fictional demon or its silly properties, then you have the right sort of idea about indeterminism vs. determinism. In the case I just described, the world simply does not have a single state for T+10min, which is consistent both with the state at T and the correct dynamical laws that say how states evolve over time. In that kind of world, there are multiple states for T+10min which are consistent with T and the physical laws, not only one. At some level, this is just basic counting and is not complicated. The relevant numbers here are greater than one.
    If instead the world’s deterministic, there’s only one such state. But what we are capable of doing, what we do know or can know, etc., is a completely different set of questions.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    1e11 neurons and 1e15 synapses. Who would guess there might be emergent properties of such a system which would be hard, if not effectively impossible, to understand?

    Even in the supposedly simple and well-understood Standard Model, it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve been able to tentatively calculate the masses of light hadrons (proton, neutron, pion, etc) to within a few percent of the observed values. And that was using lattice gauge theory and a lot of computing power.

  22. Sam N says

    @23, and experts in computation are terrible at figuring out the intended function of artificial networks created with as few as 5 neurons without being able to observe them with the intended inputs and outputs. There’s a reason advances in neuroscience have mostly been at the brain edges. Where neurons are clearly processing sensory input or creating motor outputs.

    But I have strong doubts that such emergent phenomena like consciousness depend on the degree of complexity you describe. I would posit that only our type of experience of consciousness depends on it.

  23. file thirteen says

    But why am “I” the mind of this one? What makes there be an “I” at all?

    Which is a re-phrasing of the hard problem.

    Not at all. Let me try again.

    The trouble is that I really should formulate new words to describe what I’m talking about, but it’s very difficult to express what I mean as all the words I think to use have meanings I don’t intend entrenched within them.

    My quoted “I” was a cop-out. I meant it to be to an identity experiencing a consciousness without it actually *being* the consciousness (the latter being the hard problem). I’ll try and put together an example.

    The question you should ask at each point marked Q? is, does your identity continue, even if you’ve become totally different? Or is it someone else, in the same sense as what you currently consider another person?

    1: You are cryogenically frozen, and then “brought back to life” (here I’m trying to avoid the question of whether you’re actually dead while in the frozen state). Q?

    2: You are dissected while frozen, then joined together again, then revived. Q?

    3: Your component atoms are separated while frozen. Then they are tumbled in a landslide. Q? They are then brought back together in their original configuration, and your body is revived. Q?

    4: Your component atoms are rebuilt in a different configuration (like your next-door-neighbour’s body) but one that is capable of consciousness. Q? Reassembled as a dolphin. Q? Reassembled in your own body shape, but with the atoms in your head and feet swapped. Q?

    5: Some of your brain is replaced by a mechanical prosthesis that performs identically to the original (inputs and outputs and interfacing with living tissue). Q?

    Note that none of the thought experiments above relate to consciousness. They state consciousness is achieved or not (the landslide!) but that’s not the issue. The question is one of continuity, if you like, and identity, ie. saying why does there need to be an identity experiencing my consciousness. The combination is what I call me, but if there wasn’t an “identity” (here’s where words fail me again, because there’s no word for this) within this consciousness, it would still react entirely the same way.

    The hard problem of consciousness is not the above; it’s about eg. how your brain constructs the subjective feelings of the colour blue or the note C sharp.

  24. flex says

    @consciousness razor, #22,

    I get what you are saying. Regardless of the method, if we could find an answer to whether we can, or can’t, predict at T+10 min we could make a claim about determinism or indeterminism. You could even make an argument that the universe is deterministic for T <10 min, but indeterministic beyond that. But where does that get you on the question of free will? It doesn't matter that our will is free at T+10 min but not in smaller time scales, or if T+10 is theoretically completely predictable, in either case free will is only an illusion. While Laplace's demon may not be able to predict beyond 10 minutes into the future, our wills are constrained within those 10 minutes. We will never reach 10 minutes unto the future because even as we advance in time, so does the 10 minute threshold. Like Alice, it's jam tomorrow but never jam today. This thought experiment eliminates free will at least down to the quantum level, potentially even lower.

    But let's talk about the illusion of free will, what is required to make us believe that our decisions are made in our minds and not a result of physical process of our brains. This is a far murkier area than determinism vs. indeterminism. There are a few baseline things we can start with: mind is not a thing but a manifestation or emergent property of a process; and minds are not identical, that is, we have never experienced a mind which mirrors our own in every way. Which leads us to the conclusion that the processes which allow minds to form are both similar in a lot of ways but are also unique. The processes must be similar for any mind to form at all, but unique in order for every person to be an individual (aside from the fellow in Life of Brian).
    Now it may be, and some researchers believe this, that mind is a very easy to reach emergent property. Given enough complexity in a process, some mind will emerge. I'm a little more skeptical than that because my personal knowledge of minds suggests that a key element in a mind is memory. Not photographic memory, records without error, but inaccurate memory which is accessed only partially. And not only inaccurate memory of past events, but inaccurate memory of language holds a key role in the process of mind emerging. It is the differences in the inputs to the process which forms minds, like language memory, which accounts for the differences we experience every day when we interact with other people, or animals.
    Granted, we don't have any grasp of the process which allows a mind to form. Is it strictly a complexity thing, or do certain types of processes have to be included? I incline to the latter simply because our mind is not in the same state when we sleep, and certain brain processes are functioning differently. Does this mean mind is deterministic? Yes; in theory you could create 10 identical robots with the same processes, and the same inputs to the processes, and they should respond in the same way. If they are in identical rooms and an identical loud-speaker said, "Hello" to them, they would all respond back in the same way. But the point Tallis was making is that one difference, like a different scent in one of the rooms, may (not definitely) create a situation where the response is different. A different scent in one room may be enough to make the process which forms the mind different, leading to a different response. This result may be entirely predictable to Laplace's demon, but to an observer without that extensive knowledge it appears that one of the identical robots has a different mind than the others.
    Yet, on the other hand, the uniqueness of an individual mind means that it is unpredictable to other minds. So, barring Laplace's demon's perfect knowledge of mind, minds are not deterministic. We are each unique individuals, who respond differently to similar environmental conditions (e.g. "Would you like to go out to dinner tonight" can lead to different answers). This difference in response in not predictable to other minds, which gives the illusion of free will to both ourselves and others.
    In our lives, our experiences and memories of those experiences, are unique. Which makes us unique individuals. The differences in our biological development make a difference, as well as our inaccurate memories, and even our sensory inputs from our current environment are different between people. For forty years, frostbite in three of my fingers has reduced their sensitivity. How different would my mind be had I never had frostbitten fingers?
    The summation of our biology, all the differences in our unique bodies, our varied experiences, our inaccurate memory, and our current environment all go to make up the process we call mind. Which gives us the illusion of free will when compared to the minds of others. Is the illusion of free will sufficient to say we really have free will? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

  25. flex says

    @file thirteen #25,

    A simpler question is whether you at the age you are today are the same person you were 20 years ago? Has your identity changed in that time?

    My answer to that question is that, in my opinion, you are not the same person, your identity has changed. My identity has changed in the hour it took me to respond to consciousness razor. Maybe not much, but some of the ideas I wrote above are more concise, and I hope clearer, than the ideas which originally formed in my mind. The process which creates my mind has changed in the last hour, and thus my identity has as well.

    This doesn’t mean you lack memories of your identity from 20 years ago, or a memory of the continuity of your self through that time (barring sleep or other periods of unconsciousness), but what you call “me” is different than it was 20 years ago.

    Every one of your Q points involves a change in the process which creates mind and thus your identity. There may not be much of a change (that is, your friends may say you are the same), and you may not believe any change happened. But unless you posit an external soul which does not change due to physical changes, you are trapped into the conclusion that a change in environment will change your identity, in however minor a way. The idea is a bit scary, we are constantly becoming different people. But if you recognize this is happening, you can direct it (what? free-will again?). You can become a more patient person, or a more aggressive one. You can acquire a broad education, or specialize in a topic of interest only to you and a handful of people around the world. You can even have different facets of your identity expressed during different environments, and someone who is a real impatient asshole at work may be loving and patient with their family. We know this is possible because people do act in these ways, and change in these ways over time.

    The greatest attribute of mind is that the process of mind does change over time, enabling us to get joy from a symphony or loose ourselves in a novel. These are things which do not appear to be natural to humans, something natural like our reaction to a child’s smile. But are a reflection of the adaptability of mind on encountering new sensory inputs and memories to change the process that forms a mind to change our identity and expand our abilities to understand the world, and even create ideas outside of physical reality. Ideas like novels, democracy, and boredom.

  26. consciousness razor says

    I get what you are saying. Regardless of the method, if we could find an answer to whether we can, or can’t, predict at T+10 min we could make a claim about determinism or indeterminism.

    Well, I’d put a little differently.
    We have several different quantum theories/interpretations on the table right now. Some are deterministic and some are not. They’re all empirically adequate, given our current abilities to test them. Ones like many-worlds and Bohmian mechanics are deterministic, while spontaneous collapse theories like GRW are not. Some aren’t very clear about it, if they’re saying anything. (Also, general relativity is deterministic, but we don’t yet know how to combine that in a completely satisfactory with quantum theories. However, for our purposes here, regarding human behavior and such, that will almost certainly make no difference whatsoever.)
    So since, as far as we can tell, they’re all empirically fine as far as it goes, that means we can’t answer the question right now, by simply checking the evidence available to us right now. (Experimentally, we seem to be a long way off from doing anything like that.) Anyway, even now, you can take the quantum theory you think is best. Assuming it has coherent things to say about the world (not like QBism and so forth), then those claims made by that theory will imply determinism or indeterminism.
    I’m not impressed with collapse theories (for reasons having nothing to do with the indeterminism), and I’m a lot more satisfied with Bohmian mechanics (also not because of the determinism). So that means determinism, if you’re asking me, although it doesn’t particularly matter to me either way. And I think a very watered-down type of “free will” is compatible with both determinism and indeterminism, so that also isn’t really part of this. Of course, I may be wrong about any of that, but if I thought I was wrong, i would just think something else.

    You could even make an argument that the universe is deterministic for T <10 min, but indeterministic beyond that.

    I don’t think so. I mean, it’s logically possible that someday the physics could radically change, with a whole other set of physical laws or whatever. But assuming no miracles, that we’re not being tricked by an evil demon (a Cartesian demon this time), etc., so we can just put aside things like that, take what we’ve got and run with it, then that’s not really an option.
    If anything, it’s more like the opposite case, so that there may be indeterminism which is most evident at extremely short time scales (according to certain theories). But we wouldn’t have accepted QM as an improvement, if it didn’t come into agreement with the classical results we already knew, regarding phenomena at much larger times/distances (still small in ordinary human terms, but not so very extremely small). Whatever else they may disagree about, things like wavefunction collapse, branching universes, decoherence and so forth don’t take a whole 10 minutes. I think if you have indeterminism by then, then you’ve really had it for at least 10 minutes before that (plus about 13.8 billion years).

  27. Sam N says

    @26, flex

    The distinction between a deterministic world view and one with random draws doesn’t make any difference to us. Our incomplete, and somewhat biased and inaccurate, measurements of the world result in noise such that we will never be able to distinguish between those two possibilities. So I don’t bother with worrying about it. Importantly, even if you do believe in random draws, all evidence points to weighted distributions that tend to average out at large scales to make things as predictable as could be expected given our measurement error.

    “Now it may be, and some researchers believe this, that mind is a very easy to reach emergent property.”

    If you take a look at the details some researchers require for that emergence, it invariably requires feedback, or a component that can be considered memory (i.e. a record of past measurement to compare the present measurement to). Memory is actually an extraordinarily simple element. Our explicit memories, not so much, but we have rather complex internal representations of the world (ug, there’s a whole nomenclature of types of memory that I don’t want to get into, I am a neuroscientist, at least I’m presently publishing a paper on spatial navigation and memory in PLoS Bio that should be accepted in about a week). I’d call paired pulse plasticity (two quick injections of current to a neuron resulting in different magnitude of response) a rudimentary type of memory, and anything with even 1 neuron (or muscle) has that.

    I wouldn’t call our minds as an easy to reach phenomena. But I see no reason that our loops of information about ourselves should have such a qualitatively distinct effect on the universe such as to create perception that simpler loops could also not accomplish.

  28. Sam N says

    @29 “Some are deterministic and some are not. They’re all empirically adequate, given our current abilities to test them.”

    OK, OK, you got there first :), I take too long to get my thoughts together.

  29. file thirteen says

    @flex 27

    A simpler question is whether you at the age you are today are the same person you were 20 years ago? Has your identity changed in that time?

    Once again language leads us down different paths. That is (again) the polar opposite of what I’m talking about. When I said “identity”, I was trying to get across a concept of constance across a changing body and mind, over time. Talking of a “change” to this constance doesn’t make any kind of sense. My body may not be the same as it was yesterday, my mind may not be the same, but “I” am still in it.

    Can I guarantee that that’s always been the case? No, “I” could be a new… I need a word for it now. Not “I”. Not “me”. Not “identity”. Not “soul”, because of the baggage that associates “soul” to the body image. Not “heart” or “core”, they’re too physical. I’m going to call it, er, “quantum observer”, or qo for short, something constant to a person but stripped of mind, body, image, memory, thinking ability, everything.

    I’m now going to use the term “I” to mean the qo currently bound to this body and mind, because that’s easier. The way I define it, if a different qo was bound to this body and mind, that would, even with my body and memories, be a different person. That’s why I am me and you are you and not vice versa, because the qos are different and they (I hypothesise) stay the same.

    But do they stay the same? I can’t be sure there wasn’t a different qo living my life in the past, as memory isn’t reliable. Nor can I be sure I (qo) wasn’t bound to another body and mind previously. But I can demonstrate it remains the same going forward, by means of a thought experiment. I know I’m me currently. A second later, I check again, and I’m still me, so I can be sure I (qo) didn’t swap to another body and mind. Wait, how can I be sure I (qo) didn’t just arrive here, with a misleading memory of me just having done this test? I can’t, but I can do it again. Memories of having done it in the past are unreliable, but I can always do it again, and again.

    Now I am going to presume that other people (and animals) contain qos as well, “living their lives”. But it’s a presumption with no evidence to back it up, because I can’t think of any experimental way to test it. It’s like the old philosophical question of “am I the only real person that exists”.

    Anyway, all this is really tangential to the topic of the post, which was more about whether mind (not qo) should be defined as residing entirely within the body (as defined by the body image). I only go on about it because I hate being misunderstood. The only thing I’ll add is that my concept of qo can be useful in the context of a discussion like what this post is about because it can be made clear that this discussion is not about that, so “mind” and “consciousness” can be talked about without qo muddling what “mind” means (ie. objectively rather than a mix of objectively and subjectively).

  30. file thirteen says

    Further to my last comment, I’ll describe what I call quantum observer (qo) by means of some examples. It’s probably a deficiency of my hypothesis (or of myself) that I can’t give real world examples, but fantasy ones seem to be intuitively understandable so given my mental limitations they’ll have to do..

    1. A witch turns you into a dog. You begin to howl, knowing you’d once been a person. (same qo)

    2. A witch turns you into a dog. You run off to bark at and play with the other dogs, never realising you had once been a person. (same qo)

    3. A witch blasted you into dust. Out of that dust, they made a dog, which ran off to bark at and play with the other dogs. You were no more. You had been blasted into dust. (new qo)

    4. A witch made a dog from dust. The dog ran off to bark at and play with other dogs, and no dog could tell the difference, but the dog was an automaton devoid of true life. It lived, but had no soul. (no qo)

  31. file thirteen says

    @33 Rob Grigjanis

    Good question. I would probably use the term “soul” except for the conflation of that term with that of a disembodied body image, which is exactly not what I’m talking about. It’s the reverse, a persistency, or maybe what physics might call an observer, bound to a state of body and mind. Quantum in the sense that it may not be possible for it to exist alone, similar to the way you can’t have a single quark. But all this is mere musings on what might be, so I wouldn’t read too much into my spur-of-the-moment term.

  32. file thirteen says

    There is another reason I refer to it as quantum, in that I’m talking about a single observer. That may turn out to make as much sense as considering the single piece of space/time that an atom is in in isolation rather than it being in the space/time continuum, but I’m perhaps not quite ready to theorise that qos are spikes in a space/time/subjectivity continuum.

  33. Rob Grigjanis says

    file thirteen @34:

    Quantum in the sense that it may not be possible for it to exist alone, similar to the way you can’t have a single quark.

    There’s nothing quantum about not being able to exist alone. If you had a classical system consisting of an equal number of positively and negatively charged particles, and they were moving slowly enough, they would combine into neutral composites*. Would you call that scenario “quantum” even though it was entirely classical?

    I just don’t care for the gratuitous use of “quantum”.

    *Pretty much what happened with quarks in the early universe, if we replace “neutral” with “colorless“.

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