27 July, 2022

cover image - an array of oven baked actual cookies Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

This is not a theory of consciousness

Around October 2021, I went to a neuroscience/machine learning conference at the Champalimaud Institute. At some point in one of the presentations, there was a slide with a diagram of a deep neural network with several layers and placed in front of it, an image of a cow; the setup in the diagram was hinting at how the human visual cortex perceives objects.

The placing of the cow caught my eye and I felt something odd about it. I realized that the placement in front of the network was an artefact of how the mind mistakes objects in consciousness, by reality itself. Considering a diagram of the visual cortex, a cow shouldn't technically appear in front of it. Sure there is a causal relationship between the stuff that makes up the cow (matter) and the conscious experience of the cow. Photons bounce off the stuff that makes up the cow, they enter the visual cortex circuitry through the retina where processing happens, somehow resulting in the cow showing up in consciousness. Considering this account, the cow wouldn't appear "over there" in front of the circuit; it would be a product of the processing that takes place in the circuit itself. I anything, the cow as we can perceive it (four legs, black and white spots, etc) would "emerge" from the circuit processing.

Conflating the two things, let's call it the objective cow and subjective cow, brings along the assumption that once you explain the neural circuit and the way it picks up the cow, you've explained everything that there is to explain about the subjective cow. It means that simply explaining all the components of the circuit and the firing patterns is all there is to be said about cow labelling.

This line of reasoning creates a blind spot and once you finish doing the explanation, you've effectively left out any role for subjective experience. Your neural circuit is a zombie circuit and maybe conscious experience, the felt sense of the cow, just comes along for the ride and that's it.

Through hand waving you can argue that if anything (considering you're not arguing for conscious experience to be an illusion), consciousness is an emerging property of the system and that's it, end of explanation. But if you've made it this far into the post, I'm sure you have a suspicion that phenomenal experience is somehow related to the correct labelling of things and that we can only go so far into mechanical explanations, until we have to square up to the problem.

(This post touches well known ideas from Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers, eg, the Hard Problem, qualia and the validity of qualia as a theoretical construct.)