Dan: Julia, the solution (if you can call it that) to the mind-body problem or, equivalently, the problem of consciousness that you advocate – the ontological unity of feeling and its biological function is what philosophers call a dual-aspect theory. Feeling and function are categorically different but nonetheless two aspects of one thing. Since biologists can explain biological functions in evolutionary terms, which in principle, can be reduced to physical, cause-effect terms, it follows that the feelings have the same cause-effect origin. Dual-aspect theories have been around since Spinoza, more than three centuries ago, and, as you noted, it emerged most recently in 1970 as ‘anomalous monism’. You then made an analogy to the mysterious wave/particle duality that forms the inescapable core of quantum mechanics, which has only been around since the 1920s, less than a century ago. So here’s a question: Why have physicists fully accepted – gotten used to it, as you put it – the dualism mystery of quantum mechanics, while philosophers are still hotly debating their much older consciousness-dualism mystery? The situation feeds the less than favorable opinion physicists have of philosophy.
Julia: Physicist have fully accepted wave/particle duality for only fifty years. Before then some of them, notably Einstein, believed that there must be some “hidden variables” behind quantum mechanics that, if identified, would eliminate all uncertainty in physics. But in 1964 the Irish physicist, John Stewart Bell, proved that the hidden-variable hypothesis is strictly impossible and that wave/particle duality, or quantum mechanical uncertainty, is unavoidable. Since then physicists see no alternative but to accept it and live with it. Philosophers are still waiting for their John Stewart Bell, and they might never have one. Without a JSB, the best we can do is to pile up instances in which the ontological unity of feeling and neuron firings starts to seem necessary and begins to feel natural. Then the acceptance and getting-used-to-it stage reached in physics might also happen in philosophy.
Dan: So now the project is to add examples like a pile of pillows on which to become comfortable with the idea that neurons firing for a biological purpose have, as an essential aspect of their being, the greatest of all imaginable attributes, that of being – actually being — our feelings and sensations, of being one and the same thing as our subjective experiences, that is, hormic firings are the feelings themselves; they are one and the same thing; they are ontologically united, a convergence of the physical state of the brain and the phenomenology of consciousness. I am repeating the idea in different words to emphasize that it is radical, to use Juan Roederer’s term. Without a John Stewart Bell to prove mathematically that firings and feelings are the same thing, you think we will get used to the idea by exhausting ourselves in looking for alternatives, and you expect the search for alternatives to appear ever more hopeless in the face of mounting examples while the unity of firing and feeling begins to seem natural.
Dan: OK, in the spirit of the famous Ray Bradbury quote “Life is trying things to see if they work,” let’s see if it works. To review, you have listed as feelings hunger, thirst, anger, fear, and lust. You noted that these feelings induce actions that serve biological purposes only indirectly. They aim at what you called ‘hormic’ goals: eating, drinking, confronting, fleeing, and sex, instead of their real purposes: homeostasis, sociostasis (let’s call it), survival, and procreation. And you cleverly argued that this mismatch implies that feelings must be an ineluctable property of the firings of the neuronal complex in the limbic system that gets the rest of the brain to carry out actions needed to achieve hormic goals. I think your argument is this: since hormic goals are indirectly caused by evolution – which is the biological equivalent of direct, push-pull, physical causality – the associated hormic feelings also lack direct push-pull-like causality and thus must have a different kind of cause. But there is no other way to do it for there are no extra parts to add something to the firing of the goal-imposing neuronal complex. No “feeling-paint” exists with which to coat the neurons – there are only the neurons firing. Therefore, to the extent that feelings exist they must be ontologically united with the firing of the hormic-goal-imposing neuronal complex. There is nothing extra this side of non-physical causes from which to make feelings separate from action-inducing neuronal firing. Given one, the other is necessarily there too.
Julia: You’ve got it! Very good. Except you forgot to say that ontological unity of feeling and function automatically answers the question that started this series: “How did nature fit our feelings to the functions they serve?” Answer: they are the same, or perhaps better, they are the inside versus the outside, the first person versus the third person aspects of one thing.
But enough review and clarification. Our job today is to identify other examples, besides the five you mentioned, to see if we can’t get used to this ‘ontological unity of feeling and function’, and that by demonstrating its generality we might, like physicists with quantum mechanics, just accept it and use it.
It needs a name.
Dan: Definitely. But please, nothing with ‘hormic’, it’s a terrible word. How about neurofusion (NF)?
Julia: Speaking of terrible words…but I’ll accept NF to get on with the job. And as a first example beyond the feelings you mentioned, let’s try dreams. What makes dreams especially suited to consciousness studies, as the expert in dream research, Giulio Tononi, emphasizes, is that they take place in the absence of external, sensory stimuli, which means that they are wholly products of the brain – well, not quite wholly, bodily functions can affect dreams too, like having to pee.
Now, by taking up dreams we add sense impressions like vision and hearing to our list of feelings. These are different kinds of conscious experiences. Their neural correlates lie in the cortex, higher up than the limbic system, in the more evolved part of the brain. The difference is that feelings from the limbic system are just one thing, in general – hunger, thirst, anger, fear, the need to pee – whereas sensations, like vision and hearing, are multifaceted; they have parts. For vision these are shapes, brightness, colors, distance, position, and movement, and for hearing, frequency, loudness, direction, temporality, and multiple combinations of these, for example, those we enjoy as music. Modern neuroscience with its ability to image where in the brain these submodalities lie tells us that each has its own, separate cluster of neurons. You experience the sensation of red, say, only when the neuron cluster for red fires, whether you are awake and looking at a red Tesla or asleep and dreaming of one. In addition to dreaming in colors like red, you hear sounds like people’s voices, and experience feelings like anxiety and fear, yet there are no sensory inputs to trigger them. They are pure creations of the brain; they are, according to my interpretation, the perception and feeling attributes that are ontologically united with neuron cluster firings. You might call this an application of the Sherlock Holmes principle “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” If you have eliminated external sources and know that red happens if and only if its neuron cluster fires and there is nothing else but this firing, you may infer that the firing IS the sensation of red.
Dan: Brilliant, Sherlock, but not as conclusive as John Stewart Bell’s theorem eliminating hidden variables in quantum mechanics, for you have not shown with mathematics-like finality that “there is nothing else but this firing.” Still, I concede your argument is at least plausible. Let me be clear about what you mean by the unity of feeling and neuronal firing. You don’t mean in the sense that neuronal firings cause feelings but in the sense that they are one-and-the-same thing, not the cause but the thing itself, because this side of non-physical causes there is nothing except neurons firing. And you’re building the case by adding examples where this ontological unity most parsimoniously explains the phenomena. OK, I get it. So proceed. What’s the next example?
Julia: Synesthesia, the involuntary mixing in some people of sensory modalities like letters with colors or sounds with colors – trumpets might sound orange, violins green. Franz Liszt and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, both synesthetes, famously disagreed on the colors of notes. Anomalies like synesthesia provide good tests of an idea. To cite a famous example, Darwin used the human appendix – anomalous because useless – to argue for descent from prior forms in which it helped digest leaves in herbivores. In synesthesia we have another example of something useless, in this case not in the body but in the brain, and not a vestigial remnant from evolution but a rare, 4%, genetic mutation.
Synesthesia serves me the same way as dreams, as sensations without appropriate external causes, therefore undeniably pure brain products. And we know that each sense modality has its own neuron cluster, which like a light switch must be ‘turned on’ to experience its modality, be it red, middle C, your grandma’s face, an itchy toe, or whatever. Synesthesia is a case of neurons anomalously wired. The letter ‘a’, say, tickles the red neuron cluster so that every ‘a’ comes with a red sensation. Letters triggering colors, or musical instruments triggering colors, introduces a useful novelty to our analysis because letters come at a higher level of neural processing than colors. They come at the level of meaning – that visual image means something; it’s an ‘a’. Not every letter is red; ‘e’s are green, perhaps. For this to happen the brain must first recognize that this visual sense impression means the letter ‘e’. Similarly, for trumpets to sound orange, the sound must first be recognized as a trumpet – that sound means trumpet. Synesthesia, therefore, does not just cross modalities, it crosses processing levels, from the raw sense level to the semantic level. The point of this observation is that it only takes the neuron cluster that recognizes the letter ‘a’ to reach back and anomalously tickle the red color cluster to perceive a red or red-tinged letter ‘a’. The example of synesthesia illustrates how automatic perception-creation is. Get the red neurons to fire when the letter a is recognized and you get a red-a perception. Neuron cluster firing and perception are one and the same thing.
Dan: I might be beginning to be persuaded but only to this extent. You have perhaps established a level of plausibility sufficient to justify moving from supporting the idea with indefinitely more examples to attempting to apply it, going from persuading by examples to persuading by results, that is, by showing that it works. But more examples would also help. Are there any?
Julia: Yes, the visual system has many. For example, why are there so many colors when we have only three color receptors in the eye – red, green, blue? And where does white come from anyway? Well, the answer is obvious – the many colors come from blending the three basics and white is a particular blend. The way in which this blending happens is complicated and not fully agreed on. But the relevant point is this, the brain fabricates them, including new shades and hues created, say, on Joseph Mallord William Turner’s palette or in the labs of the paint company Sherwin Williams. These are colors never before seen. They are products of blending at a level in the brain farther along the processing chain than the raw color perception first received in the visual cortex. Even farther along the processing chain the color is combined with the results of neuron clusters dedicated to defining shape. The result might be the perception of a Sherwin-Williams New Blend #99 Blue-colored rectangle. The relevance of the never-seen-before-color for us is this: It is the result of neurons firing and communicating along the visual tract that leads to this integrated perception. And because it has never been perceived before it cannot be caused by our genetic inheritance – our DNA — or our life experience. It can be caused by nothing but that particular, first-time-ever combination of neuron firings. A newly created perception from a newly combined pattern and sequence of neuron firings. There is nothing else; ergo the pattern IS the perception.
Dan: The Sherlock Holmes principle again.
Julia: Precisely, and I could continue in this vein, but I prefer to take your suggestion and argue based on results.
Dan: Are there such?
Julia: Yes, and now, finally, we discuss Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT). It is there that the results lie. But we will need another whole session to discuss it sufficiently to get to applications. Let us just end this session with some context-setting remarks.
Dan: OK. My impression is that IIT is not easy to understand, that one does not so much learn it as absorb it by “osmosis.” This is the way science journalist John Horgan described it in his December 2015 Scientific American article, “Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?” In this report on a meeting at New York University on IIT. Horgan refers to IIT as the “hard-to-understand problem,” and he attributes this to its obscurity. In his SA article he illustrates IIT’s “forbidding density” with a quote from a Tononi and Koch article titled “Consciousness, Here, There, and Everywhere?”
…the central identity of IIT can be formulated quite simply: an experience is identical to a conceptual structure that is maximally irreducible intrinsically. More precisely, a conceptual structure completely specifies both the quantity and the quality of experience: how much the system exists—the quantity or level of consciousness—is measured by its Φmax value—the intrinsic irreducibility of the conceptual structure; which way it exists—the quality or content of consciousness—is specified by the shape of the conceptual structure. If a system has Φmax = 0, meaning that its cause–effect power is completely reducible to that of its parts, it cannot lay claim to existing. If Φmax > 0, the system cannot be reduced to its parts, so it exists in and of itself. More generally, the larger Φmax, the more a system can lay claim to existing in a fuller sense than systems with lower Φmax. According to IIT, the quantity and quality of an experience are an intrinsic, fundamental property of a complex of mechanisms in a state—the property of informing or shaping the space of possibilities (past and future states) in a particular way, just as it is considered to be intrinsic to a mass to bend space–time around it.
Now, that’s obscurity, and it talks about “a conceptual structure” not neurons firing.
Julia: I fully understand and sympathize with Horgan. In my opinion Tononi makes it hard to comprehend his theory at a level sufficient to allow one to describe it in different words to make it easier to understand by someone not familiar with it. Tononi has given numerous tutorials and lectures on IIT and written a dozen or more papers on it and even a book. But in every case his descriptions use the same words, and therefore, you do not get the multiple views of it you need to restate the theory in original words. People that work with him in his institute at the University of Wisconsin also use the same words, as does his close collaborator Christof Koch, head of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. The best explanation of it that I have found using original language is in an article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness” written by Francis Fallon, who is on the faculty in the philosophy department at St. Johns College in New York (http://www.iep.utm.edu/int-info/).
Fallon cleared up many obscurities for me, including “conceptual structure,” and, though not all of them, enough to let me lay out three main points. 1. IIT is based on the ontological unity of consciousness and something dependent on but not the same as neural activity (my hobbyhorse); 2. IIT is to the world of consciousness studies what quantum physics was to the world of physics in the 1920s; and 3. It has testable applications and practical applications. These are the reasons I am interested in it.
Dan: OK, but you have exhausted me for today. Let’s continue with it next time.