The more we look at the brain, the less it looks like a device for creating consciousness. Perhaps philosophers will never be able to solve the mystery.
March 28, 2012
The philosophy of mind is concerned with fundamental questions about consciousness – about its existence and nature. The science of psychology is concerned with its empirical workings – how one mental thing leads to another, basically. The former is a branch of metaphysics, the latter of dynamics. The central defining property of the mind is consciousness, so philosophy of mind is concerned with the existence and nature of consciousness: what is consciousness, why does it exist, how is it related to the body and brain, and how did it come into existence?
These are big, difficult questions. Focus on your current state of consciousness – your experience of seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, willing, and so on – and ask yourself what kind of being this consciousness is, what its function might be, how it is related to the activity of cells in your brain, what could have brought it about in the course of evolution. Allow yourself to feel the attendant puzzlement, the sense of bafflement: now you are doing philosophy of mind.
Try to imagine a world with no consciousness in it, just clashing quanta in the void and clumps of dead, insensate matter (the way our universe used to be); now add consciousness to it. What difference do you make to things, what is the point of the addition and how can you add consciousness to a world without it? Do you somehow reassemble the material particles? I predict it will seem to you that you have made an enormous difference to your imagined world but you will not understand how the unconscious world and the conscious world fit intelligibly together. It will seem to you that you have performed a miracle (contrast adding planets to a world containing only gaseous clouds). But does our world really consist of miracles?
We can distinguish five positions on consciousness: eliminativist, dualist, idealist, panpsychist and mysterianist. The eliminativist position attempts to dissolve the problem of explaining consciousness simply by declaring that there isn’t any: there is no such thing – no seeing, hearing, thinking, and so on. There is just blank matter; the impression that we are conscious is an illusion. This view is clearly absurd, a form of madness even, and anyway refutes itself since even an illusion is the presence of an experience (it certainly seems to me that I am conscious). There are some who purport to hold this view but they are a tiny (and tinny) minority: they are sentient beings loudly claiming to be mindless zombies.
More subtly, there are many who insist that consciousness just reduces to brain states – a pang of regret, say, is just a surge of chemicals across a synapse. They are collapsers rather than deniers. Though not avowedly eliminative, this kind of view is tacitly a rejection of the very
existence of consciousness, because the brain processes held to constitute conscious experience consist of physical events that can exist in the absence of consciousness. Electricity in the brain correlates with mental activity but electricity in your TV presumably does not – so how can electrical processes be the essence of conscious experience? If there is nothing happening but electrochemical activity when I say, “My finger hurts,” or, “I love her so,” then there is nothing experiential going on when I say those things. So reduction is tantamount to elimination, despite the reductionist’s intentions (it’s like maintaining that people called “witches” are nothing but harmless old ladies – which is tantamount to saying that there are no witches).
The dualist, by contrast, freely admits that consciousness exists, as well as matter, holding that reality falls into two giant spheres. There
is the physical brain, on the one hand, and the conscious mind, on the other: the twain may meet at some point but they remain distinct
entities. Dualism may be of substances, properties, or even whole universes, but its thrust is that the conscious mind is a thing apart from, and irreducible to, anything that goes on in the body. When I think, my brain indeed whirs but the thinking stands apart from the whirring, as clouds stand aloft from the earth or magnetism exists separately from gravity.
Dualism proposes to give the mind its ontological due but the problem is that it has difficulties organising a rendezvous between the two spheres: how does the mind affect the brain and the brain the mind? Whence the systematic correlation and interaction? And how did the mind come to exist, if not by dint of cerebral upsurges? Dualism makes the mind too separate, thereby precluding intelligible interaction and dependence.
At this point the idealist swooshes in: ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing but mind! There is no problem of interaction with matter because matter is mere illusion – we merely hallucinate brains. The universe is just one vast spirit, or perhaps a population of the same, consisting of nothing but free-floating consciousness, unencumbered and serene. Stars and planets are just perturbations in this cosmic sensorium.
As an imaginative fancy, idealism has its charms but taking it seriously requires an antipathy to matter bordering on the maniacal. Are we to suppose that material reality is just a dream, a baseless fantasy, and that the Big Bang was nothing but the cosmic spirit having a mental sneezing fit? Where did consciousness come from, if not from pre-existing matter? Did God just create centres of consciousness ab initio, with nothing material in the vicinity? Is my body just a figment of my imagination?
Perhaps we would do better to dial idealism back a bit: it is not that everything real is mental but that there is more mentality out there than meets the introspective eye. Perhaps all matter has its mental aspects or moments, its local injection of consciousness. Thus we have panpsychism: even the lowliest of material things has a streak of sentience running through it, like veins in marble. Not just parcels of organic matter, such as lizards and worms, but also plants and bacteria and water molecules and even electrons. Everything has its primitive feelings and minute allotment of sensation.
The cool thing about panpsychism is that it offers a seductively silky explanation of emergence. How does mind emerge from matter? Why – by virtue of the pre-existence of mind in matter. Mind is all around, so we don’t need a magic mechanism to spirit it into existence from nowhere – it was already present at the time of the Big Bang, simmering away. (What did the hydrogen atom say to the carbon atom at the time of the Big Bang? My ears are ringing.)…
Solyndra Times Seven: Why California’s high-speed rail project is an even greater waste of federal tax dollars.
March 28, 2012
The national media have devoted plenty of skeptical attention to California’s bullet-train boondoggle—from the ballooning cost of the California High-Speed Rail Authority project to its shoddy management to the baffling decision to build the first segment in the lightly populated Central Valley. But the press has yet to focus on a crucial fact: the bullet train isn’t just some quirky Left Coast fiasco; it’s also a grotesque waste of federal money. The project serves as a powerful reminder of the Obama administration’s mishandling of the $787 billion stimulus that Congress passed in February 2009 with solemn assurances of prudence and accountability. The bullet-train project, in fact, can be thought of as “Solyndra times seven”—that’s how far its costs outstrip those of the much-touted Bay Area solar panel manufacturer that burned through $528 million in federal loans before declaring bankruptcy and folding last September.
In California, the federal government is committed to spending $3.5 billion—with most of those dollars coming from the 2009 stimulus—for a project whose problems are glaring. State officials are trying to remake the bullet train on the fly, promising at a legislative hearing in Silicon Valley to implement changes that would bring down the cost and speed up construction. But none of those changes alters the fact that the bullet-train project appears clearly to violate federal regulations governing stimulus spending on transportation. The rules, published in the Federal Register on June 23, 2009, require that applications for stimulus funds to build high-speed rail projects would be approved only after “rigorous analysis,” factoring in a careful examination of the proposed project’s “financial plan (capital and operating),” “reasonableness of financial estimates,” and “quality of planning process.” Grant recipients would make regular progress reports, corroborated by Federal Railroad Administration audits. Even the most cursory analysis shows that the California bullet train falls far short of compliance with the rules.
State auditors, the University of California’s Institute for Transportation, and an ad hoc peer-review committee appointed by the legislature all lambasted the project’s financial plan as incomplete, overly ambitious, and based on unverifiable numbers. In January, the peer-review group issued its assessment: “We cannot overemphasize the fact that moving ahead on the HSR project without credible sources of adequate funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize the independent utility and value to the state, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the state of California.” The peer review followed a damning analysis published in November by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, perhaps the most respected agency in Sacramento, which concluded that rail officials had yet to address how to fund the (at least) $98-billion-system linking Los Angeles and San Francisco.
California has about $13 billion on hand to begin the first phase of the project. The rail authority and its boosters claim that the federal government and private investors will supply the remaining $85 billion. Those additional federal dollars are almost certainly not coming. Congressional budget cutters have targeted discretionary domestic spending, and the $260 billion transportation bill currently winding through Congress expressly prohibits California from diverting any highway funds for high-speed rail. Meanwhile, Wall Street isn’t enamored with the project, and private investment funds have shown zero interest in partnering with California unless they receive revenue or ridership guarantees. But guaranteeing a certain return on investment would amount to promising subsidies if the rail authority’s immense ridership forecasts don’t pan out—taxpayers would be making up the difference. And Proposition 1A—the 2008 state ballot measure providing $9.95 billion in bond money for the project—explicitly bans taxpayer-funded operating subsidies.
Rail authority executives and prominent California Democrats, including Governor Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, and former HSRA chairman Quentin Kopp, continue to talk up the chances for substantial private investment. But the record of the last two governors, both ardent champions of the project, suggests the obstacles to such investment are larger than they first appear. Arnold Schwarzenegger explored outsourcing the construction and operation of the train to the Chinese. He failed. And in January, Brown suggested that the tens of billions of dollars that companies will pay for pollution rights in coming years under the state’s nascent cap-and-trade program could fund the project—assuming, of course, he can find a way to pry those dollars from the clutches of the California Air Resources Board, which already has plans for the uncollected funds…
It’s time the Army started providing soldiers with formal training on the foreign weapons most commonly used either by the enemy or by friendly host-nation military and police forces. Nearly every conflict in which the Army has participated — including present-day operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa — has included some mission requiring soldiers to train host-nation forces. Yet we as an Army fail to adequately prepare today’s trainers on how to conduct foreign-weapons instruction to foreign militaries should the need arise…