When Your Laptop Crashes, Does It Suffer?

Fred. His patience makes up for his wooden demeanour.
K’12 Ink & watercolour sketch. Triad, Yellow.

In 1995, David Chalmers stated what he calls the hard problem of consciousness: why do we feel alive, why do we experience the world? He separates this from what he terms the “easy” problems or functions like reportability, attention focus etc. He answers his own question by positing a new fundamental unit, not part of the physical universe. In Red Mary I explained why I disagree with the answer, but I do think it’s a good question.

A detractor of Chalmers’, Daniel Dennett, maintains that the functions of consciousness alone are the explanation of subjective experience. That’s clearly nonsense. We can replicate all the functions in computers or other machines without these being aware. Therefore the functions alone do not explain our subjective awareness.

Consciousness  It’s not a bug, it’s a feature
Chalmers’ list of “easy” problems
The ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli “Incorrect password. Please try again.”
The integration of information by a cognitive system CPU
The reportability of mental states “Insufficient memory. Please free up some disc space.”
The ability of a system to access its own internal states Going into sleep mode due to low battery.
The focus of attention Allocation of processors.
The deliberate control of behavior Control processes on production systems.
The difference between wakefulness and sleep Sleep mode
Dennett’s functions
Delight and dismay* Motor running smoothly vs. motor makes weird screeching noises.
Distraction and concentration Allocation of processors
Feelings of foreboding* “Are you sure you want to delete this?”
Disregard of perceptual details Cache not cleared
Obsessions Do you know how often an SAP run reads the company code customising? Talk about OCD!
Oversights Allocation of processors
Inability to hold more than a few items in consciousness Insufficient RAM
My ability to be moved to tears by X.* Plant watering automat – the rest is subjective “feeling”.
Inability to catch myself in the act of Y. “An unexpected error has occurred.”
*Delight, dismay, sinking feeling of foreboding, being moved to tears: these are subjective emotions, not functions. I’ve given parallels to what we may do functionally when these states occur.
Some of my own
Bad hair day / Getting out of bed on the wrong side. Processes stuck in loops, caches not cleared. This is why IT support tells you to “turn it off and on again” – a new day for the computer.
We’re stuck because we want to eat our cake and have it. Two processes are waiting for each other.

Now, I don’t believe my laptop is conscious. Nor will it become conscious when I add an app that measures things like available disc space, CPU capacity, and battery state, and says: “I’m feeling stressed out!” when the CPU is at more than 98% capacity, “I feel sick” when it’s out of disc space, and “I’m hungry” when the battery’s going. Actually, my iPod already does this: “Low battery,” it says mournfully.

But, I hear myself saying, that’s not how I work. I have no idea how high my blood-sugar is. But when it’s too low, I feel hungry. And that’s where the “extra” bit comes in. I feel.

Emotions have a function, or quite a few different functions. And we “feel” them. This is not a necessary consequence of the functions – we can write computer programmes that fulfill these functions without the computers suffering. But the path nature took to solve these issues is one that made us aware.

For my part: I’m happy it did. Aren’t you?

Red Mary

K’12 Watercolour sketch from a photo.
Trying Chris Carter’s Colour Scheme Game.
The die came up as Monochrome / Red-Orange.

I just read a blog-post taking up the story of Red Mary, a philosophical thought-experiment. Mary is a neuroscientist who has never seen colours, but has studied them scientifically. For the sake of the argument Mary is taken to have learnt everything that can be learnt about colours, without ever seeing them. The question philosophers now debate is whether Mary learns anything new when she is released from her monochrome prison and sees colour for the first time.

Intuitively, we agree Mary “learns” something new, namely “what it’s like” to see red etc. A similar conundrum “What is it like to be a bat” discusses the fact that we may know much about bats, but not what it’s like to be one. Both are intended to prove dualism, or the idea that there is something non-phyiscal in the world, the carrier of the so-called qualia – from qualis est  or lat. what / how is it, or  “how-ness”.

Reading these things feels a bit like watching a dog trying to catch its own tail. Of course, dogs eventually learn the trick of leaning against something…

Seeing is a skill

To make it easier, suppose Mary’s new experience is not seeing colour, but riding a bike, where she has no previous experience with anything wobbly on wheels. It’s fairly obvious that the outcome would simply be that she cannot ride a bike.

I would argue it’s the same with seeing colour. After a lifetime in monochrome Mary’s eyes might “see” the colours, i.e. the photo-sensitive cells might still be there, and they might react to the photons, but her visual apparatus would simply not have developed a reaction to it. Neurons that have never fired will not be connected to the visual cortex: she will not visualise or experience red at all.

We are not passive spectators of our experience; consciousness is a process, a skill that has to be learnt, just like riding a bike. We start with something quite basic and build it up as we develop. If we never use it, particularly in childhood, it atrophies and disappears.

This in itself is a fantastic quality of our brain. This is how we each develop an ear to detect and differentiate the sounds characteristic of our own language – how marvelous is that? And this is why our eyes are attracted to writing, as we’ve learnt this carries meaning, yet we ignore scratches on the pavement. In former times we’d have learnt to watch out for traces of sabre-toothed tigers…

Mental filing cabinet

An independent point is that seeing colour is a physical sensation. Neurons carry impulses to the part in my brain that maps information onto a body outline, to tell me what’s going on where. Knowing something theoretical, like “my phone number is 431234” is also an electrical impulse in my brain, but it’s in a completely different circuit. Everything I learn by reading, say, is put into the top mental drawer, body information is in the bottom one. This is brain-hardware.

No piece of information Mary can learn about colour is the same as “seeing” it in her visual cortex. Nothing you put in the top drawer is then in the bottom one. On a smaller scale there is no colour seeing which is “like” having a toothache (though some modern artists do try), and no smell is “like” a butterfly kiss. And no piece of information I learn about your height will make me believe you are a good cook (this one is brain software: I could, illogically, have learnt that the best cooks are 5’7” and vice versa).

That doesn’t mean we need to multiply metaphysical entities as carriers of the how-ness of smells, of colours, of touch etc. Not to mention of height and of being a good cook. If we have separate drawers in our mental filing cabinet, that is a quality of our brains, and it doesn’t imply that there is a top-drawer world separate from a bottom-drawer one, any more than the world we hear must be separate from the world we see.

Similarly, the reason I can’t know what it’s like to be a bat is simply that I don’t have a bat’s body. My body-feeling brain circuits are not built the way a bat’s are, nor are my cognitive processes.

What I find telling, is that in trying to prove the existence of “more than” the physical world, the dualist philosophers manage to ignore so much about the physical world. In particular the physical, very much awe-and-wonder-inspiring bodies we are so lucky to have.

P.S. Bats and colours

Bats obviously don’t see colours (different wavelengths of light) as they “see” by ultrasound echoes, i.e. sound waves. Biologist Richard Dawkins once speculated that bats might use what in our brains is used to visualise colours, to represent different textures of surfaces. I find this idea totally fascinating: would blue be smooth, and red be rough?

Why I Feel What You Feel

Watercolour from leaflet photo.

Emotions are the source of empathy and connection. We cannot read each others thoughts, but we can feel each others feelings. This can work in different ways.

1. Feeling and form

We show what we feel in our posture, our gestures and facial expressions, even our voice. This also works the other way round: smile and you will feel slightly more relaxed, let your spine droop and your morale will drop a little too. When we look at someone we unthinkingly mirror their general demeanor. Sometimes we can’t help smiling when someone smiles, or yawning when we hear someone yawn.

So we have a chain here. You feel, you express, I copy your expression (a tiny little bit), and I feel what you are feeling (at least a little bit).

Incidentally, this is what makes portraiture so difficult. Painting a face is not intrinsically more difficult than painting a tree, but we look at the result far more critically because so much brainpower is dedicated to “reading” each other’s faces.

2. Imagination, or “as if”

If you tell me, your neighbour has just won a major award, I can imagine he must be feeling happy and proud. If you tell me he’s just been fired from his job, you don’t need to tell me he’s upset.

We can put ourselves in another person’s situation, and imagine what we would be feeling if we were in their shoes. It’s not accurate, as in many situations our feelings can differ, but it gives us a starting point.

3. Knowledge

We can learn to interpret signals. I remember a teacher whose jerseys came in two colours: red and …mud-coloured. When he was happy, he wore red. When the mud-colour came out, we knew he was in a foul mood.

And we can interpret language, such as journals or blog-posts, to understand what the person writing them is feeling.

* * *

When we look into someone’s eyes, when we imagine their situation, we can feel what they are feeling. Not only every man’s death diminishes me, but every person’s – every creature’s – pain is in a way mine and their joy also. This is where our sense of connection, and of oneness comes from.

To my mind this is what makes us human. Not that it separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom – e.g. dogs and dolphins share this trait – and why would we want it to? Being fully human is also being part of the big animal family.

I do not think we are rational creatures, but regardless of that I’ve always rejected the tag of “thinking thing”. As sentient beings, I think we are far more than that.

Why Hate Hurts

Urban garden

A single flower can be my garden,
a single friend my world.
Leo Buscaglia

In Embracing fear I discussed the importance of accepting our emotions as they are. Yet our emotions do not come about entirely by chance.

Our reality is an inner stage representing the real world. We can see the glass as half-full or half-empty: one will tend to make us happy, the other anxious. I’m not talking about positive thinking, or trying to keep an unrealistically bright view of the world, but about thinking positively or looking on the bright side. Looking at the photo I can see a sorry excuse for a garden or someone’s personal little paradise – my choice.

This is especially important when we think about our relationships with others. The same interactions can be viewed in many different ways. Two people may have widely different ideas about their relationship with one another.

When I think about a person and our relationship, I am envisioning two little avatars on my own inner stage: a little “me” and a little “them”. All the thoughts and feelings I have about that person are messages in my brain, transmitters flooding my synapses, hormones coursing through my veins.

When I hate someone, I may do something to hurt or even kill them, but feeling the hatred makes me suffer, not them. By nourishing angry or hateful thoughts I am poisoning my own life. Why on earth would I want to do that? Conversely, when I feel kindness or compassion towards someone, endorphins flood my system.

Viewing our relationships with others through rose-tinted glasses would only create unrealistic expectations of their behaviour. But it’s a good idea to avoid nourishing grievances (Heresy n°2 helps) and to accept a share of the responsibility in a conflict. Not only can we then approach the other person more compassionately, we can also focus our attention the part in the relationship we have the power to change: our own. Denying responsibility always makes us powerless.

Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.
Eph. 4:26 KJV

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
The Dalai Lama

Throughout history, spiritual teachers have advocated practicing compassion, tolerance,  forgiveness, and gratitude. Not because of any moral imperatives, not because we “should”, but because doing so will make us happier.

Self Construction

Urban Construction

It’s difficult to believe in yourself
because the idea of self
is an artificial construction.
You are, in fact,
part of the glorious oneness
of the universe.

Russell Brand

In an internet discussion earlier this week, I mentioned that I’ve never understood the discussion on selfish / altruistic behaviour, as everything we do is selfish (in the sense that we do it because we want to) and we show so-called altruistic behaviour because we are social animals. Being a social animal carries or is correlated with immense evolutionary advantages, e.g. it is needed for the ability to learn: longer learning phase for an animal means longer immaturity and thus need for parental or group protection.

I was non-plussed when someone answered, we might as well question the concept of self. Well, of course we should!

We have (or are) bodies, and I can move my hand by thinking about it, but not yours. If you have a toothache I may empathize, but it’s different from having one myself.  So far, so good, but usually that’s not what we mean by self. It’s much more … ethereal? … my thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears etc.

These needn’t be constant. What I think today, may not be what I thought yesterday. Tomorrow’s  desires may not the the same as today’s. If up to now I always turned left, there is no reason why I today I cannot go right if I really want to. Even at one moment in time, I may want to go jogging to improve my fitness, yet also feel far too tired or comfortable to do this now. But these are independent brain circuits, so why should  they agree?

So why do I feel “me”?

We see ourselves from an inside perspective, with our thoughts and feelings, others from an outside perspective, which creates a divide.
We remember the past in that same way. I  believe people who suffer from (total) memory loss have problems “identifying” with their past selves. In a small way we all experience this when we come across evidence of our own past we have no recollection of. Annotations, say, in a book we don’t remember even reading, though we recognise our own handwriting.
And when we think the same thought many times, it burns itself into our brain, and it’s hard to think differently the next time – I think this is what “habits” actually are, well-worn brain paths.
Our culture also reinforces the idea of self. We are taught to think: A is lazy. B is to blame. You have to be consistent.

And here the construct becomes dangerous. It is true that A, B, and I are physical units, that act in one way or another. But while I may not have access to the inner perspective of A and B the way I do to mine, I do know it’s there. When we ignore the fact that each individual acts in a context, we become selfish and judgmental. This leads to a feeling of isolation and a fragmented society.

When we practice compassion and see ourselves as connected with each other, the divide between self and other narrows, or even disappears (for advanced learners).

Like all my heresies, these ideas are not new, and this particular one was beautifully expressed by John Donne in Meditation XVII.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

To be, or not to be

Pink or purple?

Yesterday I wrote about the SEP article on existence. Today I’ll describe what I think it means to say something exists, and what that implies for “reality“.

All the world’s a stage

When we think about the world, we have an image in our minds, though it’s not necessarily visual. I think of this as our inner or mental stage. It can become a blasted heath, the banquet hall in Hogwarts, the office, or our dream holiday location: let’s call these different sets. When we imagine something or someone to be “there”, we add a placeholder or avatar on our stage to that particular set (e.g. “blasted heath”) with mental notes describing the properties we attribute to that object or person.

A placeholder for a chair may have notes like: can sit on this, stand on it to reach top shelf, take it apart and throw in fire (n.b. owner might not like this), best not collide with it, as may hurt.

Let us say something exists with these properties relative to a mental set if adding the mental placeholder and notes there leads to good results, i.e. accurate predictions and appropriate actions. If I walk into the chair, I’ll hurt myself, just as I thought, and hopefully avoid it in future.

Appropriate properties are needed for these predictions: if I believe the bugblatter beast makes a good meal for tourists, rather than of tourists, our poor hitchhiker may well get eaten.

Both properties and existence belong to their mental set. When Harry Potter grabs his broomstick (note: it flies!), I’ll know what to expect, even though I’m aware my own broomstick can’t do that. And I can talk about Harry Potter, although I know he’s a fictional character.

Say thy opinion

For some things, we all agree they exist in this sense.

I’ve never met anyone who chooses to sit down just beside the chair rather than on it. I’m not talking about metaphysical beliefs. You may believe the world is an illusion; you’ll still take care to sit in the place where-the-chair-isn’t. That’s because if you step out in front of the tram you don’t believe exists, or walk off the roof you believe is an illusion, even once, I’ll never meet you.

For other things, it’s not quite as clear.

I accept that protons, electrons, and photons exist in this sense because the predictions based on them seem fairly accurate to me. I’m not sure what a photon is exactly, as it’s one of these strange things that is sort-of-a-wave and sort-of-a-particle, but I’m happy to stick a mental toothpick in my stage set for the “real world” with notes like: flies around, lets me see things, best not worry about it too much.

Some people think they see things just because those things are there. These people don’t feel the need to allow for weird things like photons and say, “mmm, whatever” – like I do when the physicists start talking superstrings.

It’s when we consider supernatural entities, e.g. God, that things get complicated.

For some people, God is an integral part of their life. They agree you can’t touch him like a chair, but they “feel” him, talk to him etc. They have a God-placeholder in their world, with varying properties depending on their particular faith, and that works just fine for them.

Others cannot imagine a world with God in it. When they  try to put a God-placeholder on their mental stage, it leads to all kinds of contradictions, and is generally unpleasant – so they remove it, and are completely happy without it.

Airy nothing

As both mental worlds work well, I believe both views, both truths, are equally valid. Whether or not you believe God exists*, you can come to a working view of the world – though the two will be rather different. And questions about truth aside, you may like one of these worlds better than the other.

*Caveat: I am talking only about the claim that God exists, not about claims concerning creation or miracles.

Now, on my mental stage there isn’t a place for God.

In my view, people who believe that morality comes from God are in fact creating their own morality. They pick which Bible stories to use and which to ignore for deciding what is right or good. And then they attribute this to God because having a clear moral authority makes them feel more comfortable than believing they have to make things up as they go along. But this line of reasoning is in my head. On my mental stage. With the placeholders and properties I put there.

I assume that conversely, people who believe in God think I’ve somehow derived my morality from God and just don’t realise it. On their inner stage the set for “the real world” looks quite different from mine.

To conclude with truth

I wish we could all accept that there is no absolute truth, no final answer to questions about concepts and supernatural entities!

If people from all sides accepted this, maybe we could stop arguing about who is right, and try to find common ground. On how to live together, on how to make this world a better place. Regardless of whether we believe in another one. O brave new world.


The quotes: 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06.

Next week I want to write on why hate hurts – a continuation of Heresy n°3.

Good Samaritans?


We tend to see actions of others in terms of their characters. An action to us seems to prove someone is kind, or courageous, or selfish. We rarely stop to think about what situation the person is in.

Perhaps one of the most important experiments on human behaviour ever done is Darley & Batson 1973. It suggests that whether or not we help someone in need depends more on what that means to our current situation – in this case the test subjects were in a hurry – than whether or not we are “kind” or “helpful” people.

If we could stop judging people by their actions, and try instead to understand why they act as they do, it could be a whole new world. 

A glorious blaze
Trees are one of my favourite subjects.