Thursday, March 6, 2008

Is this theory of yours accepted by any respectable authorities?

The long-awaited new Neuropsychologia's finally on the stands, and it's a theme issue on — wait for it — consciousness! Lots of articles on blindsight, interhemispheric signaling, anosognosia, all that cool stuff. And nestled in the heart of this month's episode is a paper by David Rosenthal entitled "Consciousness and its function".

Guess what. He doesn't think it has any.

From the abstract:
"...a number of suggestions are current about how the consciousness of those states may be useful ... I examine these and related proposals in the light of various empirical findings and theoretical considerations and conclude that the consciousness of cognitive and desiderative states is unlikely to be useful in these or related ways. This undermines a reliance on evolutionary selection pressures in explaining why such states so often occur consciously in humans."
Rosenthal's conclusion? Consciousness is just a side-effect, with no real adaptive value. And no, he didn't cite Blindsight. But we all know I went there first.

Somewhere else I went, back in 1991, has been making a few online waves over the past week or two: this brief Science article by Christner et al, suggesting that microbes play a major and hitherto-unsuspected role in shaping the world's weather. As Jeremy Ruhland pointed out a few days back, this is a wee bit reminiscent of a story I wrote in the early nineties — a post-environmental-apocalypse number in which vast colonies of cloud-dwelling weathermongering microbes had conspired to kick our asses. For a few years now I've been showing this slide whenever I want to make the point that sometimes you can hit the bullseye even when you have no fucking clue what you're talking about...


... because really, "Nimbus" was a spontaneous, unresearched brain fart based entirely on an old girlfriend's observation that "Ooh, look at those clouds... they almost look alive!" But CNN is not exactly the most prestigious source of scientific intel on the planet, and besides, Moffet was just starting to look back in 2002; he hadn't actually found anything. That was then; this is now. You can't get more prestigious than Science (well, unless you're Nature), and now we're looking at actual data.

Of course, this is nowhere near the cozy conjunction of Watts and Rosenthal. Christner et al. didn't even look at clouds per sé, only at the precipitation that had dropped out of them. And it's not like they discovered any new and alien microbes; mostly they came up with plant pathogens. (Also, my microbe-infested clouds had a kind of slow intelligence to them — and if we ever get any evidence supporting that conceit I'll eat my cats.) But what they did show was that microbes affect the weather— and at the very least, that leaves the door open for all sorts of evil, powerful, yet-to-be-discovered bugs lurking overhead.

I like that thought.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Dan said...

Good paper! Thanks for the reference. It seems as if Rosenthal basically posits that consciousness is a byproduct of the "needed" states that make humans fitter in the Darwin sense of the word. One can only think, then that consciousness may, in fact, be an "emergent behavior" of the brain, similar to the emergent behavior that ants and birds show via aggregation (e.g. flocking). It is not intentional, it just happens. Thoughts?

March 6, 2008 at 4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

link's broken.

March 6, 2008 at 8:03 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

dan-

that idea has been kicked around a lot in the past few years. that's not to say, however, that it's incorrect. indeed the concept that consciousness is not just a byproduct of complex parallel computing, but indeed BOUND to happen, is an intriguing one. in time it would not be at all surprising to find that consciousness is just as integral to high level computing as evolution is to distributed hereditary agent systems.

it seems lately that (in philosophical circles at least) studying consciousness is apt to get you beat into the ground with a log by your colleagues. it's not that it's slipping out of vogue, it just seems to make everyone angry.

March 7, 2008 at 10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anger's political in breaking accepted fundamental assumtions. Essentially a knee-jerk "religious" response.

March 9, 2008 at 10:15 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Dan said...

...Thoughts?

I've got no problems at all with the idea that consciousness is an emergent property of certain types of complex systems — in fact, that's what I tend to believe myself. To me, though, the more interesting (and more ominous) question is, are such emergent properties necessarily adaptive? So far, as far as I can tell, the jury's out.

Anonymous said...

link's broken.

Thanks. Fixed it.

March 9, 2008 at 10:56 PM  
Blogger Matt McCormick said...

Yup, PW did go there first on the "consciousness serves no adaptive purpose," point as far as I can tell.

The example I use with my students is the familiar experience that everyone has had of driving all the way home from work without being awake or aware of what you are doing until you "come to" in the driveway. I've even done it riding my bike home. And when I startle out of it when I get home, my first thought is, "well, I guess I navigated all those stop lights, traffic, and driving hazards ok--I'm still here." So if you can such an expert job of driving all the way home from work, how plausible is it to insist that consciousness must serve some adaptive function? Couldn't your whole life be like blind driving? And wouldn't some cro-mag's life be a lot easier to live this way than ours?

Consciousness is overrated.

MM

March 10, 2008 at 12:52 AM  
Blogger AR said...

Matt McCormick: The example I use with my students is the familiar experience that everyone has had of driving all the way home from work without being awake or aware of what you are doing until you "come to" in the driveway. I've even done it riding my bike home. And when I startle out of it when I get home, my first thought is, "well, I guess I navigated all those stop lights, traffic, and driving hazards ok--I'm still here."

Yeah, that's great, except when I realize I've driven to the wrong place upon returning to focus.

March 11, 2008 at 1:22 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

How about something like... consciousness as the peacock's tail?

It's plumage.

It doesn't serve any adaptive function in itself, but rather serves to entice mates.

Somebody might say, "Oh, but she has such a lovely personality!"

Well, fuck you too.

A Lovely Personality can get you laid, despite some genuinely gross physical characteristics, and that makes your genes giddy and all'aquiver with the possibilities.

Consciousness then isn't a hack on your own neurobiology to allow cheap self-reward, but a hack on some chick's neurobiology that trips her pattern recognition and mate selection systems into thinking that you- an obvious genetic deficient- are actually a giant hunk of gorgeous genes that'll make her offspring Kings of the Men.

Brains plus sexual reproduction make hacking other people's neurobiology a viable reproductive strategy. Lying to get laid might be immoral, but it works. And if your brain naturally hacks hers via this cunning exploit called "consciousness", then good on you.

"And Lo, the lord Darwin did Spake- the Nerd Shall Inherit the Earth."

And with that, I'll take my tubby nearsighted ass off for a self-congratulatory lunch, knowing that soon geek-kind will rule.

-B

April 22, 2008 at 11:57 AM  

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