Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Light and darkness: consciousness and reflex

(This is another post in a series, starting with this one, on the so-called "explanatory gap" in any current, or perhaps any possible, theory of consciousness and the reality of conscious experience.)

"Why is the performance of these functions [that are 'in the vicinity of experience'] accompanied by experience?" Chalmers asks, in the paper that re-introduced the idea of an "explanatory gap" in all attempts to construct an explanation of consciousness. A little later he puts the same question a bit differently: "Why doesn't all this information-processing go on 'in the dark', free of any inner feel?" It was, presumably, his inability to find an answer to such questions that lay behind his use of the "zombie" thought-experiment to argue against a materialist, and in favor of a dualist, approach to comprehending consciousness as a phenomenon. My argument here, however, is that he gave up too quickly.

In asking why there is experience, as in an "inner feel", Chalmers appears to be asking for a functional reason for experience, not necessarily for a mechanism (which may or may not be the case, but let's assume so). With that understanding, then, we can compare a conscious response to a stimulus with another type of response which really does go on "in the dark", as Chalmers puts it -- and then ask what additional functionality does consciousness or feeling supply? That other type of response is the reflex: if you accidentally touch a hot surface, for example, your hand moves away before you're able to feel anything -- a very simple instance of information-processing "in the dark", as it were. Yet, slightly later, you still do feel the pain as well -- why? Because the feeling is an essential component of a more sophisticated kind of response-generator or behavior control. It is the bearer of necessary information, about the location, type, and severity of the injury, for example, but it also provides that information in a significantly passive form -- i.e., simply as feeling, not as a direct connection to a response -- that is the key to the functional adaptability of consciousness as a control mechanism. Of course, any sort of pain is a form of feeling that, unlike sight, say, or hearing, has a built-in motivational component of varying strength, but the point of the feeling is precisely that, while it may motivate a response, it doesn't direct one, and so the motivation may be over-ridden under dire enough circumstances -- conscious experience, in other words, is a vital component of a behavior control mechanism of astonishing flexibility, without which we would be "in the dark" in a more than just literal sense.

Which is the problem with Chalmers' hypothetical zombies -- without the "light" of experience, such entities lack the form of information that provides consciousness with the free play needed for its flexibility. Now Chalmers, of course, starts out by viewing experience as something inherently different from a mechanism of any sort, and so will always return to his insistence that, given any mechanism, even one of an allegedly "conscious" kind, one can always view it's processes as "dark", or without feeling, which therefore always makes the feeling (for him) appear as an addition to the mechanical, causal processes, or as an "epiphenomenon". In fact, Chalmers must insist not just that you can view any possible mechanical process as dark, but that you must so view it, since feeling and mechanism are fundamentally distinct.

And this, despite everything I've said to this point, might be considered to be half right -- it accurately reports one's intuition from one of two possible perspectives on a phenomenon. Consider, for example, a researcher studying the difference between reflex and conscious response in another organism, and who doesn't, obviously, have direct observational access to the experience itself, but must rely on proxies of one sort or another (e.g. verbal report, other behavioral signs, neural activity, etc.) -- from her perspective, even if she could trace every single neural signal involved in the two different processes, and even though one might be more complex than the other, both would be as apparently "dark", since no trace of "feeling" would ever be observed. As soon as the same researcher studies her own reactions to the same stimulus, on the other hand, it's immediately evident that, while the reflex is as dark as before, the conscious response is inextricably connected with feeling -- indeed, "feeling" is the very meaning of such a response. The difference between the two cases is solely one of situation or perspective -- in the first case she was external to the phenomenon; in the second, "she" was a part of the phenomenon. What Chalmers does, to generate the intuition of an "explanatory gap", is to superimpose the two perspectives, in effect, which produces a rather odd and puzzling sort of double vision, certainly, but which has nothing in itself to do with an explanatory deficiency.

UPDATE: Here's the conclusion to this series.


At 1:21 PM, January 03, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

Happy New Year, Ellis. These are very good posts. Distinguishing between explanations of function vs. mechanism is a good point.

But still: "First-person" experience itself is clearly the one phenomena which is intrinsically impervious to the "third-person" investigational techniques we use for everything else. You may think that the term "explanatory gap" is inappropriate here, but the intuition that experience is a uniquely "hard problem" stands.

I think there is a strong argument that the technique of mechanistic reduction in particular can never reach experience. This method can only explain extrinsic structural relationships, while experience is an intrinsic feature of the world.

At 9:56 AM, January 04, 2006, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

Hi Steve. Thanks for the comment, and Happy New Year yourself.

I do agree that there's a deep and significant difference between "first-person" (phenomenological) and "third-person" (mechanical/reductive) investigations, which was an important part of what I wanted to say (and will try to say again, hopefully more clearly, in a forthcoming post). But the very terms you use to label these two approaches seem to indicate that the difference is one of perspective or point of view, rather than one that inheres in the phenomenon itself. That difference in perspective, mind you, is ineradicable, so in that sense any attempt to bridge them in one "explanation" isn't just a "hard problem", it's an impossible one. But then once we understand the nature of the difference, we can let go of such impossible projects and focus on more do-able ones -- such as, for example, reproducing the phenomenon of presumptive experience (as we know it from our encounters with species likes dogs, cats, or bats) in an artificial entity (e.g., a robot).

In the end, in other words, I think these sorts of disputes will have a practical resolution.

At 1:07 PM, January 04, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

I think you are pretty clear - but there is a difference in emphasis.

Yes, we should get on with practical investigations regarding the functional role experience may play (or be an analogue to) in humans, animals, robots. But my main interest in this has been in the metaphysics. It is a mistake to extrapolate the success of third person reductive analysis into a materialist metaphysics. Experience exists, and one's metaphysics must encompass it: materialism/physicalism does not.

At 3:43 AM, January 05, 2006, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

I'll certainly grant you the difference in emphasis, Steve, but I'll also agree with you both that experience exists and that "one's metaphysics must encompass it". We diverge on whether materialism/physicalism is up to the task. It would help, I guess, to try to be clearer about what's meant by "materialism/physicalism" and the alternatives -- which might be a good topic for a future post.

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At 10:17 AM, January 19, 2013, Blogger nahidworld said...

Involuntary reactions to stimulus resulting with instantaneous movement are called reflexes . Reflexes are apparent from birth including blinking and sneezing. There are many types of reflexes in a healthy person.


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