Monday, 10 July 2017

What is real?

If you're interested in what things might be real then read on. But if you are more like David Hume in his relaxed moods ("I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strained and ridiculous that I cannot find [it] in my heart to enter into them any farther") then do not.

(1) Alvin Plantinga has won the Templeton Prize. Who? What? Plantinga is a philosopher I first came across in the context of the ontological proof for the existence of God (Plantinga's version includes the crucial step 'maximal greatness is possibly exemplified' - do look it up). The Templeton Prize is a million dollar prize founded by Sir John Templeton for entrepreneurs of the spirit who have expanded our vision of human purpose and ultimate destiny.

But that's all by the by. What struck me most was Plantinga's use of the "evolutionary argument against naturalism": "The basis of his case involves a distinction between adaptive behaviour and true beliefs. Evolution can explain the former, [Plantinga] thinks, but not the latter. His conclusion is that while no conflict exists between Christianity and science, there is a conflict between philosophical naturalism and science, because adherents of naturalism (including atheists) have no firm basis for believing that many of their statements genuinely map reality."

This is essentially the same "argument against reality" used by Donald Hoffmann (see my earlier post here). You should read the links, but the essence of the argument is that evolution selects for fitness functions (i.e. mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction) but in the real world (whatever that might be) fitness functions don't align with the structure of reality.

It is at the very least striking that a philosopher trying to show the existence of God should use similar arguments to a cognitive scientist.

(2) The analogy of the computer desktop is one that appeals to people thinking about reality. So to Hoffmann, it is an analogy for (what we call reality): "Suppose there’s a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer’s desktop — does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not. But those are the only things that can be asserted about anything on the desktop — it has color, position and shape. Those are the only categories available to you, and yet none of them are true about the file itself or anything in the computer. They couldn’t possibly be true. That’s an interesting thing. You could not form a true description of the innards of the computer if your entire view of reality was confined to the desktop. And yet the desktop is useful."

To Hoffmann, consciousness is real, and reality is just something we see on a computer desktop. But Daniel Dennett uses the metaphor in precisely the opposite way, saying that consciousness is the illusion presented to us in the form of a computer desktop imposed on real reality. Hoffmann's use of the analogy is at least easy to understand: reality seems this way but in fact it is utterly different from how it seems. By contrast, it is hard to make sense of Dennett's analogy: it must go something like this - it seems as if things seem this way, but in fact they don't seem at all. I might be missing something here.

(3) At any rate, to scientists, thoughts, decisions and all the other varieties of consciousness are real and proper subjects for enquiry. You should read this. In short, a 23 year old woman in a vegetative state (a condition considered to be one of complete unconsciousness) after a traffic accident was given mental tasks while in an MRI scanner. "They asked her to imagine playing a game of tennis, and to imagine moving through her house, starting from the front door. When she was given the first task, significant neural activity was observed in one of the motor areas of the brain. When she was given the second, there was significant activity in the parahippocampal gyrus (a brain area responsible for scene recognition), the posterior parietal cortex (which represents planned movements and spatial reasoning) and the lateral premotor cortex (another area responsible for bodily motion). Amazingly, these patterns of neural responses were indistinguishable from those observed in healthy volunteers asked to perform exactly the same tasks in the scanner. Owen considered this to be strong evidence that the patient was, in some way, conscious. More specifically, he concluded that the patient’s “decision to cooperate with the authors by imagining particular tasks when asked to do so represents a clear act of intention, which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings”." Clearly the scientists had no difficulty in the idea that what they were looking for was evidence of the poor woman imagining, deciding, being aware and being conscious, and that these activities might be suitable topics for investigation. Here English law is ahead of the game: "the state of a man’s mind is as much a fact as the state of his digestion" (Edgington v Fitzmaurice (1885) 29 Ch D 459 per Bowen LJ).

(4) Indeed, if you listen to Hoffmann, consciousness is more real than anything else. "The idea that what we’re doing is measuring publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go. Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects."  More than that: "It’s conscious agents all the way down." Rather that than turtles anyway.

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