Monday, January 10, 2011

While dreaming we are not conscious? Huh? What in the Wide Wide World of Sports..?

This post, from the wonderfully titled philosophical blog "Mindful Hack" concerns a review of a recent book, Antonio Damasio's Self Comes to Mind, said review having appeared in the NYT book review section back in Nov. The blog reports the reviewer, Ned Block's befuddlement at a claim made in the book. The claim appears to be a classic cases of a tendency in philosophers, or those that think philosophically, to be so wed to their points of view that they will ride that proverbial horse right off a cliff, for the sake of consistency. Here's the kernel:

We all are at least some of the time, self conscious. For instance, right now, as I type, I am aware of myself type-writing about my own typing, and also aware that I am aware that I am typing with the purpose of demonstrating something bleeding obvious, hoping to get readers to acknowledge that they too are self conscious at least part of the time.

We are not always self conscious. Now, I refrain from acknowledging any autobiographical validity to the following observation, but, if you drink enough alcohol, it is purportedly true that you will, for a time remain conscious, and while behaving in an erratic fashion, go about your business, but you will not be aware of yourself as you do so. Typically, the next day after a period of utter loss of consciousness, you will suffer what is called "anti-retrograde amnesia", and any knowledge you gain about your behavior during that "blackout" period will be third person, from others. You will have no first person memories. Or, so I am told.

Now, it is a safe assumption that most animals exists in a permanent state of non-self-conscious consciousness. However, reports indicate that they are better behaved than 'victims' of alcoholic blackout.

This is where Damasio apparently boxes himself in, according to the review. He wishes to argue that a necessary condition of consciousness is self-consciousness. This passage from the review presents a sketch of the rather obscure argument

Phenomenally conscious content — what distinguishes the experience of blue from the taste of chocolate — is, according to Damasio, a matter of associations that are processed in different brain areas at the same time. What makes a conscious state feel like something rather than nothing is explained as a fusion of mind and body in which neurons become “extensions of the flesh.” Self-consciousness is the result of a procession of neural maps of inner and outer worlds. What’s more, he argues, phenomenal consciousness depends on self-consciousness. Without a self, he writes, “the mind would lose its orientation. . . . One’s thoughts would be freewheeling, unclaimed by an owner. . . . What would we look like? Well, we would look unconscious.”

Now, one might take a charitable reading Damasio to be something like this: Without a component of consciousness that provides, at some level, a consciousness of place, a consciousness of the place of the nexus of experience, the 'haver' if you will, an organism would be disoriented."

That is no doubt true, analytic, and in some way or other, such orientation would be mediated by a sort of representative "mapping" of the world, which includes the nexus of experience as a part. And, we can imagine that such a thing is possible without the full blown self-consciousness of the type we humans have. After all, a great deal of AI is centered around doing this sort of thing. And no one ( I think) would claim that the resulting robots are self conscious, even though it is true that they run around with maps of their environment, and their place in the environment, and do all kinds of neat stuff.

So, maybe this is all Damasio is on about? Not so fast:

Even fish and lizards have a kind of minimal self, one that combines sensory integration with control of information processing and action. But Damasio’s self is not minimal. It is inflated with self-awareness, reflection, rationality, deliberation and knowledge of one’s existence and the existence of one’s surroundings, and this is what he ends up arguing a being needs in order to have phenomenal consciousness.

So we see self consciousness as being a necessary condition for the possibility of phenomenal consciousness. Now, by phenomenal consciousness, I take the reviewer and Damasio to be referring, not only to awareness of ones surroundings, and reactions thereto, but the 'feel' of all this, its phenomenal qualities, the sorts of things we can be reasonably assured, robots do not have. Here is where the review just gets damn confusing. He apparently says you can't have this latter sort of stuff going on in your noggin if you ain't a full blown self conscious entity. (Highlights mine):

Damasio also denies phenomenal consciousness because of the demand of a sophisticated self-consciousness. You may have noticed an exciting report a few years ago of a patient in a persistent vegetative state (defined behaviorally) studied by the neuroscientists Adrian Owen and Steven Laureys. On some trials, the two instructed the patient to imagine standing still on a tennis court swinging at a ball, and on others to visualize walking from room to room in her home. The patient, they found, showed the same imagistic brain activations (motor areas for tennis, spatial areas for exploring the house) as normally conscious people who were used as controls.

More such cases have since been discovered, and this year Owen and Laureys described a vegetative-state patient who was able to use the tennis/navigation alternation to give yes-or-no answers to five of six basic questions like “Is your father’s name Alexander?” These results are strong evidence — though not proof — of phenomenal consciousness in some of those who showed no behavioral signs of it. But Damasio scoffs, saying that these results “can be parsimoniously interpreted in the context of the abundant evidence that mind processes operate nonconsciously.” His skepticism appears to be grounded in the fact that these patients show no clear sign of self-consciousness and thus constitute a potential roadblock in front of his theory.

We have two cases of folks that are able to process language, spoken questions, and follow directions in answering those questions. This indicates that their brains still function, and that they are well CONSCIOUS. Call it "phenomenal" if you want, but clearly, these folks are aware of the questions, and make what are at least interpretable as attempts to answer. Now, apparently, according to Damasio, you must have full blown self consciousness of the sort I had when I was typing about typing, in order to have consciousness of ones surroundings. So, how does he explain the apparent consciousness of the patients in the above cases? He must, if he is to stick to his theoretical guns, invoke full blown self consciousness. And why not? After all, on a behavioristic reading, they sure seem to be exhibiting well..behavior indicative of consciousness. (Yeah, sure it isn't the usual sort of bodily behavior we look for, waving arms about, speaking, but it is certainly brain behavior that goes along with these things. Why rule that out tout court as behavioral confirmation?)

You would think Damasio would say "well, they are self conscious, if they are showing signs of phenomenal consciousness. They are showing such signs, so they must be self conscious, QED, as per my theory." But no..

According to Damasio, we can theorize about these patients with an Ockhamite tenacity: We can argue that there are "mind processes" going on, that are not self conscious. If so, there are not conscious processes at all inside the heads of these folks. There is awareness of environment, and understanding of language, and requisite actions taken, but no consciousness. Now, we can take him to be saying something more in line with the AI example earlier. I.e., That these patients are something like the AI robots earlier mentioned. They have a sort of consciousness, but not 'phenomenal consciousness.'

This is puzzling. No doubt, the analogy with AI is there. As is the Cartesian analogy with animals viewed as automata. The observed data is consistent with these "parsimonious" readings, but, one has to ask, when compared with the other options (1. that there is "phenomenal consciousness" without self consciousness, OR 2. "phenomenal consciousness with self-consciousness") which of the three is more likely or more plausible. Asking that question, it seems that Damasio's favored possibility is the least plausible of the bunch. The brain behavior is exactly similar to the brain behavior of folks that are not in the so called 'vegetative' state. Like phenomena give rise to like results, no? Isn't it more, rather than less likely that like brain states bring on like conscious states? In particular, like phenomenal consciousness, and like self consciousness. Why argue otherwise? Motor paralysis? Is that sufficient ground to posit a non-phenomenal consciousness? Is that sufficient ground to relegate these folks to being no different than AI robots?

Block makes a related point:

Damasio argues that a creature without sensory integration and control of thought and action would be unconscious. But even if that is true, it does not show that phenomenal consciousness requires self-awareness, reflection, wakefulness, or awareness of one’s existence or surroundings. This argument conflates the minimal self with the inflated self.

Damasio on dreams:

Damasio also stumbles over dreaming. In dreams, phenomenal consciousness can be very vivid even when the rational processes of self-consciousness are much diminished. Damasio describes dreams as “mind processes unassisted by consciousness.” Recognizing that the reader will be puzzled by this claim, he describes dreaming as “paradoxical” since the mental processes in dreaming are “not guided by a regular, properly functioning self of the kind we deploy when we reflect and deliberate.” But dreaming is paradoxical only if one has a model of phenomenal consciousness based on self-consciousness — on knowledge, rationality, reflection and wakefulness.

Damasio claims a dream is a mind process 'unassisted by consciousness.' Why does he think a dream has no tincture of "consciousness"? Apparently, because there is a diminished awareness of self during dreams, and diminished reasoning or critical capacity. We actually do believe the stuff that goes on in our dreams. Yep. But does that mean we aint conscious during that dream?

(This is a puzzling claim. When I dream about flying above a city, or being chased by a tornado, or etc.. none of that is conscious experience according to Damasio, but mere 'mind processes' sans consciousness. His grounds: I believe it, where I wouldn't be so gullible in waking life. Therefore I have no phenomenal consciousness when I dream. You too dear reader. No claim could be more obviously false. Yet Damasio makes it with a straight face.)

If these states are not conscious phenomenal states how then can I recall them as being my experiences? If I am not to some degree self conscious during dreaming, how is it that I am later able to recall those dreams, and, not to put to fine a point on it, how am I able to recall myself as having dreamt those dreams? Clearly, I had to be there, have to be here now, and I must be able to connect the two selves in order to remember those dreams as mine. Bam. Self consciousness exists in dreams.

But, ignoring that, even if I were not self conscious in dreams DOES IT FOLLOW that I am not conscious? To use the language of the review, does it follow that I am not 'phenomenally conscious'? That seems false. Unless you are willing to count your blacked out self as being non-conscious, as having no phenomenal consciousness by virtue of being non-self-conscious, you should be willing to count your dreaming self as conscious even if non-self-conscious.

Now, maybe Damasio is simply choosing to use new words "mind processes" to indicate non-self-conscious phenomenal consciousness, but he appears to want to make some bolder claim, putting animals and vegetative humans on par with an AI robot, as being incapable of phenomenal consciousness. Be that as it may, he does seem to be ignoring the obvious, driving the bike off the cliff.

Block brings up another obvious counterexample to the claims here made, one we've mentioned already; animals:

Yes. Phenomenal consciousness is what makes pain bad in itself and pleasure good. Damasio’s refusal to regard phenomenal consciousness (without the involvement of the inflated self) as real consciousness could be used to justify the brutalization of cows and chickens on the grounds that they are not self-conscious and therefore not conscious. Damasio, in response to those who have raised such criticisms in the past, declares that in fact he thinks it “highly likely” that animals do have consciousness. But this doesn’t square with the demanding theory he advances in his book, on the basis of which he denies consciousness in dreams and in “vegetative state” patients who can answer questions. He owes us an explanation of why he thinks chickens are conscious even though dreamers and the question-answering patients are not.


Dick Winters, January 21, 1918 - January 2, 2011

Story here. Why did it come out a week after his passing. Because, the man, true to form, did not like being a center of attention, I suspect. Rest Mr. Winters.

Dick Winters led a quiet life on his Fredericksburg farm and in his Hershey home until the book and miniseries “Band of Brothers” threw him into the international spotlight.

Since then, the former World War II commander of Easy Company had received hundreds of requests for interviews and appearances all over the world.

He stood at the podium with President George W. Bush in Hershey during the presidential campaign in 2007. He accepted the “Four Freedoms” award from Tom Brokaw on behalf of the Army. He was on familiar terms with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, producers of the HBO mini-series, the most expensive television series ever produced.

Winters was always gracious about his new-found celebrity, but never really comfortable with it. He never claimed to be a hero and said that he had nothing to do with the national effort to get him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.

When people asked him if he was a hero, he liked to answer the way his World War II buddy, Mike Ranney, did.

“No,” Ranney said. “But I served in a company of heroes.” That became the tag line for the miniseries.

In an interview shortly before the miniseries debuted, Winters said the war wasn’t about individual heroics. The men were able to do what they did because they became closer than brothers when faced with overwhelming hardships.