Monday, April 5, 2010
While looking up various references in order to understand what biosemiotics is about, a thought occurred to me. I've read various attempts to explain what the consciousness problem is about (esp. Daniel Dennett) and wonder whether a technique that I used in my own work might help. Fox's Method consists of inventing an explanation for a phenomenon which may have no basis in fact. The issue is not whether or not the solution contains any truth, but rather whether or not the solution is psychologically satisfying. This tells us something of the properties that the real solution must have in order to be accepted.
For example, an AM radio is highly complex, consisting of various interacting circuits. We know that an explanation of how they function together is complex (in Howard's sense), but it is possible to make people understand the component functions of various elements of the circuit and how they come together to produce sound from radio waves. At the end of an explanation of this complex system a person is likely to say "I understand." This is our goal. If the radio fell from the sky in the laps of a primitive people with no conception of diodes, waves, modulation, etc., how could their shaman explain the voices? As my high school physics teacher did when confronted with a question beyond his ken, he might simply say, "God made it that way." Some might be satisfied with that.
"Consciousness" is difficult to define and difficult to explain. Daniel Dennett for one, has written an entire book on the subject, "Consciousness Explained." His book has been dismissed by unsatisfied critics as simply begging the question. Suppose we try to put together a fictionalized explanation of consciousness and see if it can be satisfying. According to Fox's Method, it doesn't matter how erroneous the explanation is, as long as it's satisfying. Let's make what I'll call a "false start." With some help from Descartes, we'll say that each of us has an ethereal "soul" that can communicate with the brain via a radio transmitter situated on the moon. The receivers are in special cells located in the brain while other cells can simultaneously sense the condition of the body and its environment and transmit the data to the moon. The soul's claim to fame is it's ability to integrate data, apply logical rules and use stored information about previous experience concerning survival to make and transmit decisions cues for "phantom" images, audio and other reprocessed sensations to the host on earth. (In the world of undersea robotics this is nearly the case using a system called telepresence in which there is a very realistic feedback loop between the operator and the remote operational device.) The trouble with this solution is that the story has simply displaced the consciousness problem to a remote location without telling us much about it. On the other hand, this dualist kind of mind-body separation is helpful at a psychological level. People who would be upset at the notion that consciousness is an illusion and that the brain is just a complex computer might be quite comfortable with the soul or a neural net computer being located on the moon sending directions to the body on earth. I don't know why this is so.
In our story, we might escape the use of a mysterious ethereal material or the use of a remote computer by postulating a human on the moon remotely operating the human on Earth. This human is operated by a human located on Mars who is operated by a human on Venus, ad infinitum or however many planets there are in the universe. (Sounds like the homunculus problem to me.) In the end a guy called God operates the whole thing. But, we only have one consciousness and free will to deal with.