Recent viewpoints on consciousness

Consciousness research, the nature of the self, free will, artificial intelligence and so on are endlessly fascinating topics for me and definitely my main interests besides physics. Here are a few viewpoints I’ve been reading lately on these topics.

First off, Bruce Hood on the Edge believes the self to be an illusion, and yet makes an interesting case for essentialism:

Well, my big thing is essentialism. Its origins probably can be traced to the notion of ideal forms, which is a platonic idea. I discovered essentialism basically by reading Susan Gelman’s work, and essentialism has an experimental tradition, not that old by the way, in naïve biology. The way that children reason about the world, there’s a lot of good evidence to suggest that there are domains of knowledge: physical, reasoning about the physical world; reasoning about the living world, the biological one; and reasoning about the psychological world. Those three domains are the physics, the biology and the psychology, and are deemed to cover the majority of what we do when we’re thinking about concepts.

Next, Eddy Nahmias on 3AM Magazine questions willusionism, the idea that free will is an illusion:

As you say, determinism is often presented as the opposite of free will (if that’s what ‘determinism’ meant, it’d be silly to debate whether it is compatible with free will). But people understand ‘determinism’ in many ways, and it’s not always clear how it is meant to threaten free will. In my dissertation I used a metaphor of a many-headed monster – if we can distinguish, and take on, the various heads one by one, we can see more clearly what the threats are supposed to be and how they might each be confronted (hopefully, it is not a hydra that will grow back two heads for each we cut off). We also learn more about free will and responsibility by seeing more clearly what exactly it contrasts with- what we are free from (hint: it does not really make sense to say we are free from determinism).

Then we have two posts from the excellent Conscious Entities blog.

In the first one, Peter reviews Jim Holt’s new book “Why does the World Exist?”. He summarizes the various viewpoints presented there (amongst others by Deutch and Penrose) and goes on to present his own twist:

Anyway, what has all this got to do with consciousness? Puzzlement over the existence of the world is partly, I submit, puzzlement over why there are such specific and apparently arbitrary details to it. Why anything, yes, but even if something, why on earth all this? That is strongly related to the questions why me? and What on earth am I?

He continues on to tackle the hard problem from this angle in his next post:

Last time I suggested that we might approach the Hard Problem of qualia by first solving the impossible problem of why the world exists at all (what the hell, eh?). How would that work?

My case is that a large part, perhaps all, of the strange ineffability of qualia arises because what we’re doing is mismatching theory and actuality. It should not really be a surprise that the theory of red coloration does not itself deliver the actual experience of redness, but there is some mysterious element in actual real-life experience that puzzles us. I suggest the mysterious extra is in fact haecceity, or thisness; the oddly arbitrary specificity of real life, which sits oddly with the abstract generalities of a theoretical description.

I’m not quite sure if I understand his argument entirely, but it surely is an interesting take.

To me personally it’s clear that the self is to a large degree an illusion, but that doesn’t get at consciousness at all, nor does it preclude free will. As for why there exists anything, I think is impossible to answer at the moment. Ideas like the multiverse combined a variation of the anthropic principle might be relevant, but judging that will depend on whether any accessible experimental evidence can be found.

As Peter warns (love the quote):

Speculative metaphysics is like hard drink; a little now and then is great, but you need to know when to stop or you may find your credibility, if not your coherence, diminishing.


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