The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Is the mind the same as the body? What is consciousness? Can machines have it?

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Graeme M
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The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Graeme M » Tue Aug 04, 2015 3:52 am

I recently began tackling the question of mind and how it arises from the brain. I'm always pressed for free time but have made a start reading articles on the web. My first serious book on the subject is Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett.

Given my relatively early stage of understanding about the consciousness question, I've found Dennett's book tough going. In particular, I'm struggling with what appears to me a central dichotomy of definition. I'm hoping someone can clarify for me.

Dennett presents his Multiple Drafts model in which he argues against what he terms the Cartesian Theatre - the idea that there is some central stage or place where the outcomes of experience arise in a comprehensible form for consciousness to observe. He suggests that events in the brain are spatially and temporally smeared across the neural substrates concerned and only when a probe occurs does a particular event arise to the level of consciousness.

While I follow that, I don't see exactly how he can argue there is no privileged internal observer and yet have mental events visible in consciousness. Consciousness itself must be that privileged observer else we should not have any conscious awareness of our experiences, or so it seems to me.

Clearly I misunderstand what he means.

To explain a little more clearly, his current approximation is what he calls Fame in the Brain. Events in the brain play out and multiple 'drafts' of experience are prepared, but it is only when a proble occurs (ie the focus of attention is placed on an aspect of the experiential stream) that a particular draft becomes elevated in priority such that it modifies behaviour and leaves its traces in memory.

Yet clearly the observed or consciously experienced draft is observed by some thing. Even if this does not happen immediately and depends on memory fixation of behavioural responses, surely it still implies a central observer. If there is NO observer to form the narrative explanation of those events, then there is no ME.

Similarly I do not see how only events that rise to conscious awareness and thence memory are reportable. We act in many ways without conscious thought - for example during an animated discussion over dinner I reach for the salt. My focus is on the discussion and the salt reaching is something of an automatic act, or at least it is an act beneath conscious consideration, and yet I remain aware that I did it. Even if I am not aware that I did it, it was an act of conscious appreciation of my world. Being so inconsequential, or perhaps mundane, the act does not remain in memory for long (it does not achieve 'Fame') yet it cannot have been anything other than a conscious act (or perhaps more exactly an act of consciousness).

It seems to me that much of my everyday life involves events - mental events - that result in behavioural outcomes and yet which are not directly conscious in the form that Dennett is proposing.

Can anyone shed light on where I am going wrong in appreciating Dennett's model?

Obvious Leo
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Obvious Leo » Tue Aug 04, 2015 4:34 am

Try and think of consciousness as a dynamic process, Graeme, and you'll find that this statement is true.
Graeme M wrote: If there is NO observer to form the narrative explanation of those events, then there is no ME.
There is no definable self that is YOU because you are not the same person from one moment to the next. This is not to say that your experience of a continuity of existence is false, merely that your fixed definition of the self is illusory.

As a matter of fact I was talking on a related subject with my dentist only this morning. We've been mates for many years and were both bellyaching about the fact that as we age our bodies start to betray us and we can't do the things we used to be able to 30 years ago etc. He put it this way. "Its funny how you don't FEEL any different but you know bloody well that you ARE different". Although such changes are obvious when you think about them over long time intervals they must equally apply over the tiniest of time intervals, such as the time it takes to think a thought and then become aware of having thought it.

I haven't read Dennett in quite a while but I think this is more or less what he's driving at.

Graeme M
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Graeme M » Tue Aug 04, 2015 9:09 am

But isn't that simply relabeling the problem to make it go away? Regardless of whether you define consciousness as a self or a dynamic process, there is nonetheless something which represents consciousness as we know it. Dennett seems to be saying that consciousness, while not what we typically think of as a 'self', is nonetheless a state in which some but not all underlying neural events are given priority over others.

He argues that there is no special time or finishing line at or over which internal representations become conscious, yet he then suggests that probes cause some representations to achieve a state of 'Fame' or awareness. What is awareness if not an observing thing?

There is still something which it is to have awareness of a continuity of experience. How can one speak of a continuity of existence, of continuity of experience or experiential relationships over time, and to be able to describe that in a narrative form, if there is no thing to do that?

When I experience an event or series of events and I then describe that subsequently, Dennett argues that I am being truthful in describing the internal states/representations of which I was aware, even though I may not be right in how that representation matches temporal physical reality. The "I" that describes that narrative, whether a self or a soul or a dynamic process must still have a physical reality of some sort.

A computer that composes an image from a collection of binary elements represented as magnetic changes on a media and as a stream of electrons travelling in a circuit has no place in which the image exists as a discrete object, but by 'probing' the output stream with a monitor I can see the form of that image. The monitor is a thing, but so too is the representation of that image without the monitor. With or without the monitor, the image exists in some potential form. It's just that to be visible, the representation, the potential form, must be realised.

What I am saying is that even if I do not exist as a discrete physical entity but rather as a dynamic process, there is nonetheless a real sense in which that process gathers available data and assembles a representation of events for that process to be aware of, even if the awareness is no more than a registration in fixed memory.

Ginkgo
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Ginkgo » Tue Aug 04, 2015 10:09 am

Graeme M wrote:But isn't that simply relabeling the problem to make it go away? Regardless of whether you define consciousness as a self or a dynamic process, there is nonetheless something which represents consciousness as we know it. Dennett seems to be saying that consciousness, while not what we typically think of as a 'self', is nonetheless a state in which some but not all underlying neural events are given priority over others.

He argues that there is no special time or finishing line at or over which internal representations become conscious, yet he then suggests that probes cause some representations to achieve a state of 'Fame' or awareness. What is awareness if not an observing thing?

There is still something which it is to have awareness of a continuity of experience. How can one speak of a continuity of existence, of continuity of experience or experiential relationships over time, and to be able to describe that in a narrative form, if there is no thing to do that?

When I experience an event or series of events and I then describe that subsequently, Dennett argues that I am being truthful in describing the internal states/representations of which I was aware, even though I may not be right in how that representation matches temporal physical reality. The "I" that describes that narrative, whether a self or a soul or a dynamic process must still have a physical reality of some sort.

A computer that composes an image from a collection of binary elements represented as magnetic changes on a media and as a stream of electrons travelling in a circuit has no place in which the image exists as a discrete object, but by 'probing' the output stream with a monitor I can see the form of that image. The monitor is a thing, but so too is the representation of that image without the monitor. With or without the monitor, the image exists in some potential form. It's just that to be visible, the representation, the potential form, must be realised.

What I am saying is that even if I do not exist as a discrete physical entity but rather as a dynamic process, there is nonetheless a real sense in which that process gathers available data and assembles a representation of events for that process to be aware of, even if the awareness is no more than a registration in fixed memory.

Intermediate Level Representational Theory by Jesse Prinz is as close as we can get at this stage to a first person perspective that satisfies a neurological account.

P.S. In my opinion

Wyman
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Wyman » Tue Aug 04, 2015 2:47 pm

Graeme M wrote:I recently began tackling the question of mind and how it arises from the brain. I'm always pressed for free time but have made a start reading articles on the web. My first serious book on the subject is Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett.

Given my relatively early stage of understanding about the consciousness question, I've found Dennett's book tough going. In particular, I'm struggling with what appears to me a central dichotomy of definition. I'm hoping someone can clarify for me.

Dennett presents his Multiple Drafts model in which he argues against what he terms the Cartesian Theatre - the idea that there is some central stage or place where the outcomes of experience arise in a comprehensible form for consciousness to observe. He suggests that events in the brain are spatially and temporally smeared across the neural substrates concerned and only when a probe occurs does a particular event arise to the level of consciousness.

While I follow that, I don't see exactly how he can argue there is no privileged internal observer and yet have mental events visible in consciousness. Consciousness itself must be that privileged observer else we should not have any conscious awareness of our experiences, or so it seems to me.

Clearly I misunderstand what he means.

To explain a little more clearly, his current approximation is what he calls Fame in the Brain. Events in the brain play out and multiple 'drafts' of experience are prepared, but it is only when a proble occurs (ie the focus of attention is placed on an aspect of the experiential stream) that a particular draft becomes elevated in priority such that it modifies behaviour and leaves its traces in memory.

Yet clearly the observed or consciously experienced draft is observed by some thing. Even if this does not happen immediately and depends on memory fixation of behavioural responses, surely it still implies a central observer. If there is NO observer to form the narrative explanation of those events, then there is no ME.

Similarly I do not see how only events that rise to conscious awareness and thence memory are reportable. We act in many ways without conscious thought - for example during an animated discussion over dinner I reach for the salt. My focus is on the discussion and the salt reaching is something of an automatic act, or at least it is an act beneath conscious consideration, and yet I remain aware that I did it. Even if I am not aware that I did it, it was an act of conscious appreciation of my world. Being so inconsequential, or perhaps mundane, the act does not remain in memory for long (it does not achieve 'Fa
me') yet it cannot have been anything other than a conscious act (or perhaps more exactly an act of consciousness).

It seems to me that much of my everyday life involves events - mental events - that result in behavioural outcomes and yet which are not directly conscious in the form that Dennett is proposing.

Can anyone shed light on where I am going wrong in appreciating Dennett's model?
You're not wrong, you're correct. The consciously observed experience is observed by something. If he had a theory to address this point, he could explain it in a ten page paper. Instead, he dances around it for four or five hundred pages to dazzle you with his erudition.

It's the same problem that philosophers have argued about for hundreds of years. The question used to be 'How is knowledge possible?' This of course presupposes something called 'knowledge' and deals with how mind and body relate to each other in a way the allows the mind to come to know things. Now, the question is often framed as 'How is consciousness possible' which presupposes something called 'consciousness' as distinct from the rest of experience. The question is still how they relate to each other. The materialist claim that there is only experience runs in to the problem that it cannot adequately answer either question.

Graeme M
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Graeme M » Tue Aug 04, 2015 9:31 pm

Ginkgo wrote: Intermediate Level Representational Theory by Jesse Prinz is as close as we can get at this stage to a first person perspective that satisfies a neurological account.
Hmmm... I'll have to get that book won't I? :)

As far as Dennett goes, in my opinion he isn't too far off course. I like his multiple drafts model although it hardly seems novel. From my limited knowledge of the matter the idea that the brain is constantly juggling various sensory inputs and mixing it with retrieved memories etc in a sort of drafting process seems quite an accurate description of how the neurological evidence can be interpreted.

I just think he's trying to hard to negate something that is quite simply obvious - there has to be something observing. It might not be me in the sense that I am some kind of disembodied entity but it still has to occur as far as I can see. He simply pushes the problem out of reach with a lot of words.

However I am only halfway into the book so will not pretend to know better than Dennett - I'm just observing that this is a stumbling block for me in grasping fully his model.

Obvious Leo
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Obvious Leo » Wed Aug 05, 2015 12:03 am

Graeme M wrote:the idea that the brain is constantly juggling various sensory inputs and mixing it with retrieved memories etc in a sort of drafting process seems quite an accurate description of how the neurological evidence can be interpreted.
I'll go along with this as well, Graeme, but highlighted the "retrieved memories" bit to make a point which I can't remember if Dennett makes. We don't retrieve our memories from some sort of database in the way our linear computers do. We actually rebuild them from the ground up so that each act of memory recall is actually a uniquely new process of cognition. We often manage to delude ourselves that we can have a precise recollection of past events but this is bollocks. We never remember the same past event in precisely the same way twice. We are always making up our internal narrative on the fly.

Graeme M
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Graeme M » Wed Aug 05, 2015 1:32 am

I'd agree with that Leo, although in an intuitive sense as I know little about memory processing in the brain. I'd go further and suggest that applies to everything about 'me' - my thinking is that 'I' am in a constant state of flux. Or more to the point, there is no particular you or me, simply states of the brain at any particular point in time. I think this is similar or the same as your suggestion that 'I' am a dynamical process. I don't think that means though that there isn't a sense of a continuous awareness - the state of the brain at any particular time is a construction from past experience (or brain states) and present input. But no state is independent of other or preceding states - I guess it's a fluid state in some sense. I still think there IS a single overarching "I" that collates the fluid states into a conscious experience, but then again, I don't think that consciousness is at all what most people think.

Here I completely agree with Dennett - almost every 'theory' I've read seems unable to shake off that lingering idea that the self is some kind of aware entity. However I think Dennett tries too hard to expunge that notion by denying that an aware state can exist and have a central place in cognition. In fact, I think he himself still thinks at heart that "he" exists.

Obvious Leo
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Obvious Leo » Wed Aug 05, 2015 1:58 am

I'm not a great fan of Dennett but I tend to agree with him on some things. I doubt the utility of denying the notion of the Self altogether because even if our sense of being a Self is illusory we still need to examine the consequences of this illusion as if it were real. As far as I'm, concerned it is this sort of shit that gives many lay people the impression that philosophers are just a pack of self-indulgent navel-gazers. I feel a bit the same way about Chalmers and his so-called "hard problem of consciousness". I actually know David Chalmers personally and find him a very charming bloke but in my opinion no such "hard problem" exists and he's simply looking for complications where no complications exist. As far as I'm concerned cognitive neuroscience is a complicated enough discipline without cluttering it up further with such pseudo-mystical bullshit.

I try not to be too cynical but I fear that a lot of modern academic philosophy is more about keeping snouts in the public trough than it is about the getting of wisdom and I say this from the perspective of someone who has devoted his life to philosophy.

Graeme M
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Graeme M » Wed Aug 05, 2015 3:14 am

What is the 'hard problem' of consciousness, at least so far as David Chalmers sees it?

By the way, this still brings me back to my problem expressed on the Soul and Afterlife thread about what consciousness is. I don't think Dennett clearly explained his idea of consciousness in the part of his book I've read so far.The briefest of looks at Jesse Prinz's AIR theory of consciousness appears to suggest he shares Dennett's underlying idea of conscious attention as being a defining quality of consciousness but I am not sure why that should be so (having not read his book as yet). I suspect I am confused between consciousness and awareness.

Might I suggest that one is not conscious at all?

Obvious Leo
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Obvious Leo » Wed Aug 05, 2015 3:33 am

Graeme M wrote:What is the 'hard problem' of consciousness, at least so far as David Chalmers sees it?
This is too big a question to answer briefly, Graeme, but it's tied up with the controversial notion of "qualia". There are a couple of threads on qualia on the go here at the moment although they're not very illuminating ones. Unfortunately most scholars seem to have lined themselves up into two camps: "those in favour" and "those against" and there's little common ground to be found between them. I'm squarely in with the nay-sayers but I generally try to steer clear of the arguments because nothing much ever seems to be resolved. To be honest I don't think the "hard problem" is worth wasting much intellectual effort on for anybody and certainly not for a process philosopher such as me. If you were to ask me if I see the same colour red as you see when you see the colour red I'm afraid my answer would be "Who gives a fuck?"

Obvious Leo
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Obvious Leo » Wed Aug 05, 2015 3:38 am

Graeme M wrote:I suspect I am confused between consciousness and awareness.
In my view this is an important distinction which must always be maintained. In the embodied cognition model, which I favour, consciousness is an all-embracing concept which covers practically all of our neuro-chemical activity whereas awareness is applied only to that which we attend as a process of thought. Awareness is better thought of as a higher-order emergent consequence of consciousness.

Graeme M
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Graeme M » Wed Aug 05, 2015 3:54 am

Ahhh... now I like that.
Obvious Leo wrote:consciousness is an all-embracing concept which covers practically all of our neuro-chemical activity
Then you view consciousness as an entirely physical process - that is, "one" is not "conscious" in the sense that one is observing the world as an entity somewhere in mind space, rather one is conscious by virtue of being an organism responding to events. Awareness is something else again - you say it is applied only to that which we attend as a process of thought.

But what is "attending" and what is "thought"? What thing decides to attend and then think?

Obvious Leo
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Obvious Leo » Wed Aug 05, 2015 4:48 am

Graeme M wrote:Then you view consciousness as an entirely physical process
Absolutely. Consciousness is an entirely physical process involving perfectly natural interactions between different forms of matter and energy. However in process philosophy consciousness is not definable in terms of what these various forms of matter and energy ARE but rather in terms of what they ARE DOING. Consciousness is an EVENT rather than an object. Awareness is simply an emergent property of this event in much the same way that wetness is an emergent property of the combination of 2 hydrogen and an oxygen atoms under certain physical conditions. Once again the wetness of water is not determined by what these atoms are but by what they are doing.
Graeme M wrote: "one" is not "conscious" in the sense that one is observing the world as an entity somewhere in mind space, rather one is conscious by virtue of being an organism responding to events
Exactly. In the Santiago school of cognition to which I adhere consciousness is defined extremely broadly so we can say that a plant is conscious of its surroundings because it exchanges information with its external environment and changes its behaviour accordingly. It doesn't mean your lettuces are thinking about what they're doing. I even extend the principle to inanimate matter and say that the moon cognises the earth and orbits accordingly. All this means is that INFORMATION is exchanged and that this information is what determines future events.

Awareness is obviously a totally different thing and can only be applied to organisms with a central nervous system and a central processing unit, i.e. a brain. I have no interest in going into the argument about how much of a brain an organism needs to have before we can define it as being aware because awareness is obviously a spectrum phenomenon. Suffice to say that assuming that only homo has this ability is nothing more than an anthropocentric vanity. Our minds are quantitatively different from other minds in the animal kingdom but to suggest that they are qualitatively different is not a logically defensible position.
Graeme M wrote: What thing decides to attend and then think?
I'm not sure that this is a meaningful question. Could you elaborate on it?

Graeme M
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Re: The Cartesian Theatre - What Is It?

Post by Graeme M » Wed Aug 05, 2015 9:24 am

Not sure I can elaborate simply. But here goes. I agree with the notion that all living things are conscious, though for me I'd not accept the idea that exchanging 'information' represents some form of cognition. I suspect that idea is rooted in a quantum view of the universe? I prefer to think more practically I suppose, my personal outlook is that things just are what they are.

My definition of consciousness is merely that a living organism interacts with its environment. To be sure there are additional levels of complexity, but I base this view on the fact that evolution has simply built upon a common base and the chemistry and physics remains the same.

That said, it *seems* to me that there is more than just interaction happening. Take vision. If all I need to do is process visual input in order to interact with my environment, I do not have any need to "see" anything. Why present me with a visual representation? Image processing can go on within neural circuitry and modify behaviour quite happily without the additional overhead of a representation. But there IS a representation and there is something which perceives that.

It's like the monitor analogy above - the representation is simply signals and connections within the circuitry until I intercept that with a mechanism for realisation of that representation as a perceived image.

So something is what it is to perceive and represent it as a somewhat unified coherent analog of the external environment.

In other words, if all I have to do to exist as an organism is receive external stimuli, process them and then react, there is simply no need for a perceived coherent analog.

You've called that awareness, yet for me that does little more than move the problem of perception of this analog to some other conceptual space.

I am not positing a homunculus, but I can't quite get my head around the suggestion that there is not some central perception/direction happening.

That said, I actually do not think that we do anything more elaborate than react to our environment. I don't think we are conscious in the way that most people might imagine.

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