Towards A Science of Consciousness Conference – University of Helsinki June 2015

This is the second time I’ve attended this conference. The  first time was in Stockholm and I came away very impressed by the difficulty of the problem and by the diversity of the speakers.

The conference is largely driven by the Hard Problem: how is consciousness – the very ability to even have an exoperience, to be the kind of entity X of which some could ask “what is it like to be an X?” – even possible? Some people have argued that intellectual progress, at least in the West, has been  marked  by revolutions: The Copernican revolution, the Newtonian revolution, the Darwinian revolution, the Einsteinian revolution, the computer revolution, and the next revolution will be the explanation of consciousness itself.


Day 1

An introduction to the conference  and some musing about the difference between useful discussion betwen participants from different disciplines, on the one hand, and confused disagreement, on the other.

The highlight of the day for me was a super technical set of papers discussing the possibility of philosophical zombies. This  is a  version of Chalmers’ argument.

  1. Philosophical zombies are micro- identical to me but have no conscious experiences.
  2. We can conceive of phil zombies.
  3. If we can conceive of them, it’s possible for them to exist.
  4. If it’s possible for phil zombies  to exist, then materialism must be false, since ex hypothesis, there is no physical difference between conscious humans  and zombies.

The discussion quickly got very technical, especially the leap from 2 to 3. Lot of discussion as  to whether the concepts “semantically stable”. One presenter observed that our ability to “conceive” some state of affairs is historically unreliable. 17th century vitalists could not conceive, perhaps even in principle, how not living matter could  give rise to life. Organic chemistry proved this intuition simply wrongheaded. He therefore cautioned  humility and patience, since modern brain studies is still in tits infancy, and there is no reason yet to abandon materialism.

 It reminded me superficially of the problems inherent in Plantinga’s modal logical version of  the ontological argument for God’s  existence, especially the precise definition of “possible”.

Hintikka’s keynote address at the end of the day was a bit of  a disappointment. A good reception thrown by the rector was  well-attended by academics seeking free food and wine.

Day 2

Good plenary session on hypnosis and dreaming this morning. The two speakers on dreaming argued persuasively that dreams were conscious states that simulated reality. They speculated what the function of dreaming might be, but I’m skeptical of this form of panselectionism, since even if dreaming is universal and profoundly important to  many. It might be just a side effect or spandrel of waking consciousness. 

Session on consciousness as an emergent property (where “emergence” is generally defined as  a higher-level property which is nomologically necessitated by, but not reducible to or logically necessiatated by, lower-level properties).

Panpsychism: This paper was also motivated by Chalmers’ argument above. If physalism is true then humans  acquire their consciousness from non-experiential fundametal particles (but this is brute  emergentism and false) OR fundamental particles have experiential properties.

Objections: microexperiences are radically different to our own; it’s incoherent toi posit properties of which we can have no conception; if particles have experiences, then we  may have moral obligations to them,  and this is absurd. Howe focussed on the moral objection,  but agreed with my suggestion that moral intuitions are irrelevant to the metaphysical makeup of the world. An interesting suggestion nonetheless. I always consisidered panpscychism to be an antiquated and implausible  theory.  But on some interpretations of Chalmers’ argument, it might be the only way to save physicalism.

Then a very well-informed and moving paper on the philosophical and organizational complexity of rehabilitating severely brain damaged patients in Moscow.

Now on to the evening poster session! Here I had  a very good chat with Paricia Churchland, Susan Blackwell, Stuart Hameroff, a phil grad student from U  Hawaii, and a prof from Brazil.

Day 3

Plenary session on Quantum  Mechanics and Consciousness. Some very strained and overworked analogies between QM and the mind. Some examples:

  • The rule of commutativity (a X b = b X a) does not hold. I was surprised to hear QM implies this, but the speaker watered it down to mean mere temporal ordering. So generally we think that the order of measuring mass or volume of an object  makes little difference to the product volume X mass, but in QM, it matters. Turns out this is true in public opinion polls as well! The order of questions (“Did you know Smith is a crook?”, “Will you vote for Smith?”) makes a difference. And we never knew this before QM!
  • If we think of a concept, it brings up other concepts (elephant –> trunk, grey, big ears). So concepts are “entangled”, just like QM particles!
  • Some concepts (“apple chip”) are ambiguous and therefore “unstable” and you can prime a subject with other words (potato, computer, banana) to think of one or another interpretation.  And you can make up equations about the probabilities, just like QM!
  • Unlike classical physics,QM claims we can never know everything about a particle. Just like human knowledge generally! News to everyone who never read Plato or Descartes.
  • Human knowledge itself is not linear.  Ideas drift in and out of conscious awareness, and it is only post hoc confabulation that imposes order on thought.  I don’t know how QM implies this but the examples offered by speakers (the Necker cube, the duck/rabbit illusion) were entirely effective but have  nothing to do with QM.

 The Great Hall during this session 

Plenary session on the  metaphysics of consciousness: 

John Heil. Heil points out that understanding consciousness  is a subset of understanding whether scientific theories of matter are more credible than common sense views. So if materialism is true, do we have to choose between emergentism or panpsychism? We have bifucated mental and physical and properties and powers. Experiences are not technicolor; the objects that cause them are. So there is no special problem to consciousness. Asking for a clear path from fun`damental particles to consciousness is an impossibe task, and we don’t require this explanation for, say, tomatoes.

Alyssa Ley. Physics is complete (PC) in the sense that it cannot apeal to any special sui generis causes to explain any phenomenon, since al physical  effects have physical causes.

  1. The inductive argument for PC; the historical success of scientific explanations.
  2. Argument from physiology. We only find physical things in living things.

Against microphysical causation: non-deterministic, and are not dependent on temporality. So two properties can cause each other. But we do find time assymetry in macrophysics. Macrophysical states are distinguished from micro  states because the former are multiply realizable. Microphysical states are not. Does Macrophysical causation support PC? If so we an rule out specail  casuses (mental events, psychons) to expliain consciouness.

Or we can adopt strategy II: We don’t need to talk about causation at  all. But PC  requires prior causes. Ley proposes we modfy PC to require entailment, not causation, as the  expanatory principle. So skepticism about microphysical causation may be no reason to reject physicalism.

David Papineau. Folows Ley’s talk very closely. Occam’sRazor knocks out epiphenomenalism and overdetermination, and PC eliminates dualism. But basic dynamics  is non-causal, while mental events are. Causation is assymetric (causes precede effects). So causation must involve more than basic dynamics.

Afternoon: Session on Subjectivity and Time

Analogy: Stalin changed records of what happenened in the past; Big Brother changes records in the present. Similarly, we can occurently or retroactively change our own memories.

Some properties are scale dependent: they only instantiate at certain scales. Folk psychological concepts probaly only apply at the macroscale. Folk individuation decides what counts as a mental event. So very short events won’t make it.

Temporal experience

How is anticipation possible?

How does psychopathology disturb temporal experience? 

Explicit time (estimating time, where time is the object of experience) vs. implicit time (time merely structures experience, but is not experienced). Delusions are always changes in anticipation. Question: Is this really true? After all, delusions are beliefs, and not al beliefs are essentially  anticipatory. My beief that  the dark sde of the moon is made of rock or lost socks can be couched in anticipatory  terms, but need not be. Surely what is more importance is their manifest falsity and their sometimes disastrous effects on behaviour.

Temporality is necessary for any experience.

“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouing the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory.”

 – Henry Bergson

Illusions of Duration

Experience  of time is fundamental to experience, but if tempiral issuions are possible (where we seeorder or duration incorrectly)…?

We think novel stimuli last longer. And the speaker argues that ifthat’s the way it seems, then that’s the way it is. Time measurement is apparently subjective, since no standard is better than any other. After all, he  argues, they tried to introduce  a decimal clock! And he bites the bullet, applying the same standard (or non-standard) to distance. Maddening.

Second hand seems  to move slower when we first see them. 

terrifying experiences (like falling) seem longer.

Keynote: David Chalmers and Kelvin McQueen on consciousness and the collapse of the [quantum] wave function.


Chalmers argues that it consciousness specifically that collapses wave function when properties (of photons, for example) are measured. He contrasts this Penrose/Hameroff who argue that wave collapses  cause consciousness.

A tip o’ the Chalmers hat to Max Born for his work on the Schrodinger equation, and to his grand-daughter, (Australia’s greatest philosopher ofscience) Olivia Newton Born, well known for her materialist maxim “Let’s get Physical”.:)

Day 4

Plenary Session on  Consciousness and Quantum Theory

Some very technical neurological papers on the brain, focussing on microtubules. I was surprised to learn that Deepak Chopra has done serious research and has PLOS pubicatins  to his name. And David Chalmers happened to be sitting in front of me and confirmed it.

 Hameroff:tackles the big question: when did cosciousness begin? Before the universe began?Only when life began? Later? Did life create consciousness – or was it the other way around? Quantum activity has been shown to occur in photosynthesis and elsewhere.

Hameroff argues quantum activity  creates proto-consciousness and motivates organisms to strive in natural selective environments to “feel good”. Paramecium one-celled bacteria can seek food, avoid predators, and have sex – without any synapses.

Plenary Session on Consciousness and Structuralism

Goff: The facts of consciousness ad phenomenal experience are serious constraints on any theory of mind. 

Question: does the prior success of scientific explanations impy that sience can ever give us a compete understanding of nature, and no just causal expanations? Or is science restricted to ony causal structures? If science can’t explain consciousness, that supports metaphysical dualism. So let’s give up ondeadend physicalism and do ore metaphysics.

Ladyman: Structuraism (df): entities rel onrelations fo their existence/ndividuation. There are no self-sufficient entities. It’s difficult to define physicalism, but no rason to think consciousness is a special problem for structuralism. The fact tat we can’t see how consciousness can be a physical thing is not relevant. After all, we can’t fullyunderstand how the :manifest world” of medium sized objects could be composed of fundamental particles.

Keynote: Pat Churchland ” Getting Bamboozled by Modal Logic”

The Zombie argument: If zombies are possible, then physicalism is false and brain events are perhaps irrelevant. Neuroscience has advanced in the 30 years since the zombie argument was devised. Cites study showing that stimulating one brain part elicits a show of determination, and this is reproducable.

We can always imagine a zombie with some behaviour, but no consciousness. The Z-arg relies on an identity claim being true in all possible worlds (or necessariy true). And we use “modal intuition” to determine if a claim is necessariy true or not. But this intuition is fallible (ex.: god exists, spce is Euclidean). The human brain is evolved, and therefore not that different from other mammalian brains. Quine: no principled way to separate meanings from beliefs. But some identity claims are just contingent. “light = EM radiation”, “temp = molecular energy”, “genes = DNA”. Who cares if they are not true in some other possible world? Why don’t we just gather evidence about the actual world?  Churchland lists numerous relevant research entry points. 

Levels of organization: CNS-Systems-Maps-Networks-Neurons-Synapses-Molecules 

Endorses Carl Craver’s book outlining the causal role of consciousness. The collapse of vitalism didn’t occur overnight. Lists unsolved problems. But we do have expanatory linkages for addiction, sleep, decision-making, self-control, and sociality & empathy.

Cnclusion: no need to be dogmatic; too soon to adopt dualism. The brain is still the best bet.

Session on Machine Consciousness

Physicalism: Physical process –> consciousness

Abstract Computationalism: computation –> consciousness

AC doesn’t seem plausible if instantialized on, say, a computer made of ropes and pulleys. Information depends on interpretation. Without interpretation , any system can be said to be (trivially) instantiating any computation. 

Chalmers: AC = Combinatorial state automation + causal topology

Ambiguities: what level does the computation occur at? What counts as a computation? 

How do we know if AI can think? Involves the mind/body problem and the problem of other minds.  Lovelace: Machines cannot originate thought; only do what we program them to do. 

Turing: This relies on the mistaken belief that a human mind can anticipate al iplications of some piece of info.

AI tests: Turing test, mirror test, creativity, total Turing, ADM axioms, OMC scale, insight testing, Phi, higher order comprehension, inner  speech and awareness, presence of qualia, jazz improvisation, etc.

Study compared various tests on 12 criteria. 10  of 21 tests showed strong Turing influence. Most common test search was for perception and self. Tring received the highes number of citatins by far. a wide range of disciplines publish on AI, largely in the US, UK, and Europe.

From Primordial Sleep to Cnsciousness. A really specuative paper claiming that the universe was in metasleep before waking up.  The most boring and useless session in the whole conference so far.

Plenary Session: East vs. West on the Hard Problem

Susan Blackmore recounts a marjuana-enhanced out-of-body experience (OBE) she had as a student in 1970. Memoriesnof travelling down a leafy tunnel. Ineffable, sometimes frightening. The experience  leads to belief in parapsychology, and a career innresearch, which eventually upsets her belief. Dualism vs. non-dualism is not an east/west issue.

OBE is distinct from autoscopy, wherein the person remains in body but sees a doppleganger. OBEs occur, but that doesn’t imly that anything leaves the body. B’s test for veridical BE  was negative. Nor can people who report near-death OBE describe hidden messages. Blanke (2002) was to induce OBEs and bodily illusions via electrodes to the temporoaprietal junction, which constructs a bodily schema.

So what? The discovery of the “God spot” was used to justify theistic and non-theistic explanations of religious experience. The self requires embodiment, first person perspective, ownership, and agency. All these aspects can be separated (ex. rubber hand ilusion). It’s also possible to use virtual reality to induce OBE.

The self is an illusion; it’s just  a model. If the self doesn’t exist, then we’re just part of the cosmos – and that is ennobling (Ramachandran).

Deepak Chopra: all understanding is based on models.A fewobvious and often heard objections: The hard problem! And pictures created in imagination are not in the brain! Science is not independent of cosciousness, since science occurs in consciousness! We can’t locate experience! We can’t know what it’s like to be a bat!

His solution: yoga. Because there is no taste without a sense of taste! And double blind study shows people who meditate are happier! (How do you prevent people from knowing thy’re meditating?) And gene function is enhanced! 

The brain is a model in consciousness. His concusion: all reality is consciousness.  All evolution is evolution of consciousness. But at least this year he had a bit of an argument.

Skipped out the last half hour of this talk to change for the conference dinner. A long day, starting at 8:30 and ending with dessert at 10:00 pm, after a very good conference dinner at the Old Students’ House.


Day 5 (Final Day)

Session on  Consciusness and Vegetative states

Report of research showing which areas of the brain are activated during various stimuli.

Skepticism about the possibility of inferring specific states  of consciousness from MRI scans. What we need are full corelates between brain activity (N) and some state of consciousess (C). Both the direct strategy  (N = C) and the indirect strategy (N is good evidence for C) fail on this account. After all, unconscious processing is possible.(Occam’s razor trumps analogical argument?)

Why should we think that neural activity N is evidence of consciousness C in the abscence of behaviour B? What if the behaviour occurs but no neural activity? N is supposed cause both both C and B. 

Structal View N –> C –> B. So zombies are impossible? This implies a reductive approach:

Old school reductioism: Define As in term of Bs, then laws that derive B from A.

New school reductionism: no definition of As in terms of Bs. Measurement + correlation. Causal rather than nomic implication. Ex.: we can’t define define genes clearly yet, but we have a pretty good idea that genes = DNA. Defends Owen Lab approach.

Weijer: Ethical issues of neuroimaging after serious brain injury

Importance of ethics integration

Owen Lab investigates neural activity in chronic and recently injured brain patients.

  1. Should results be shared with family members? If reliable results, with consent, benefits outweigh costs, and discosure does not impair research.
  2. How do results affect families? Needs research into family perception.
  3.  What is the quality of life for vegetative patients? We have no idea.

 Evolution II session

Huxley: Consciousness is epiphenomenal.

James: Consciousness is an evolved process and is functional.

Cairns-Smith: Then qualia exist in the physical world.

What is the implication for free will?

Delboeuf: Sensation implies free will. To be sensitive to pain/pleasure is to be able to choose to respond to them. This is an empirical claim, not a metaphysical one. Pain/pleasure persuade us rather than force us to action.

Can’t help thinking this doesn’t prove anything.

Penary Session: Ultrasound and Consciousness

Depression is common and hard to treat. Focussed ultrasound (5-8 megahertz) has promise. Sonograms are safe and rely on transmitter and reciever.

Low intensity US does no harm. Studes shows benefits from stimulating Right hand side of brain. More research undeway.


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