Saturday, October 24, 2009

On suffering and empathy

Suffering is the experiencing of unpleasant qualia by a conscious being. If we disregard mental suffering (which can complicate matters infinitely) and restrict ourselves to physical suffering, then it can be described completely by unpleasant qualia in the CBS. Examples would be a pin-prick on a finger to a pounding headache or even a bad odor.

Which then leads us to a question as to whether identical suffering (measured strictly on the qualia scale) experienced by two different beings are actually given the same recognition by neutral observers.

In other words, is John's pain from a pin-prick identical to that of Jane's? If we feel empathy for John or Jane because pain is felt by John or Jane, can we make the perceiver irrelevant and feel empathy just because pain is felt?

Clearly, the answer to the above is negative for the vast majority of people. We may feel empathy for our friends, or even our pets, but most of us don't think that way when we are dealing with roaches or rats in our homes.

Since there has not been any scientific explanation for qualia yet, it is not known whether rats and roaches can feel the same degree of pain as humans. Many biologists assume that they cannot because of their simpler brain architectures, but since we know nothing about what it feels to be like a rat or a bat, the truth could be anybody's guess.

Complicating matters further is the point of view adopted by many religions (and also advanced civilizations) that even if we assume that lower forms of life experience the same or even more intense pain, they don't matter as much as higher forms like humans (as well as their pets).

This is why families would grieve for a long time over their pet dog getting run over by a car, but would not think twice about the hundreds of cows or pigs slaughtered over the course of years to feed themselves as well as their dog.

Some of this is also cultural. A Chinese national may consider the slaughter of dogs for meat no different from that of cattle, but many Westerners will find it inhumane and disgusting.

It therefore seems that there are several inconsistencies in the recognition of suffering by another conscious entity. If we are to break ground in the theory of qualia someday, we need to resolve these kinds of inconsistencies in empathy and ethics. Since all religions deal with these issues, it is quite clear that this should be of paramount importance, at least in the theory of meta-ethics.

If we put aside these inconsistencies and go back to the first question, can we disregard the perceiver and accord empathy to any being that perceives the same degree of pain as John or Jane?

The simplest example will be a CBS with just the sensation of a pin-prick somewhere in it. But, according to my previous post, every qualia is a self-contained perception, which means that it brings with it its own CBS (in other words, the perceiving agent). So, we can actually go on to claim that 'a pain quale' in itself should elicit the same amount of empathy as John or Jane who feels an equivalent sensation. This would be a really condensed version of empathy, which could be taken as a fundamental axiom, corresponding to certain sets of qualia.

I also would like to reiterate that empathy will be a fundamental construct in the theory of qualia, and not something that is 'nice' or having a purely theological or moral appeal.

Only some qualia will elicit empathy - for example, a pin-prick, but not a point source of blue light. These should be rigorously derived from the theory of qualia.

One complication is the non-linearity of perceived qualia- music played at a soft volume should not elicit empathy, but that at deafening volumes should. The latter is a form of torture and has been used against prisoners.

But I suspect that the perceived non-linearities have more to do with the architecture of the human brain and not with qualia themselves. As I have postulated here, qualia are extremely linear.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The meaning of conscious identity

I had in several previous posts alluded to the existence of a single "universal consciousness" behind all conscious entities. Before we even try to embark on understanding the implications of such an argument, let us try to even define what it means in the first place. I don't think this first step in itself is necessarily straightforward.

In this post, I had formulated that every conscious entity has a collection of real and imagined qualia in its own CBS. The "Cartesian theater" roughly corresponds to the CBS, though there is no room for imagination qualia in that model, which is a serious limitation. The other problem with that model is that a homunculus seated in the theater is supposed to be the ultimate perceiver, but again, the model doesn't define what the homunculus is. So in a sense, there is not much to be gained out of that model.

In my post, I proposed that instead of attributing conscious experience to some concentrated entity like the homunculus, we change the paradigm to make the sum total of the qualia themselves to be taken as consciousness. In other words, the Cartesian theater doesn't seat the homunculus, the Cartesian theater is the homunculus. Of course, we have to include imagination qualia too in this model.

In this paradigm, the burden of consciousness shifts from a subject that perceives qualia to the CBS and the qualia within it themselves. There is no need for any additional perceiving agent.

With the above qualia-centric model of consciousness as opposed to a homuncular or subject-centric model, the concept of identity becomes murky. If we had the conventional homuncular model, then identity is defined by each individual homunculus and is relatively straightforward. Although since each homunculus itself is quite mysterious and a black box (corresponding to a "soul" in theology), in the end it doesn't really answer anything unless you turn to theological explanations.

But coming back to the qualia-centric definition, how is John's pain from a pin-prick different from Jane's then? I had already maintained several times that each conscious entity has an unique 3-dimensional space or the CBS (which would be now the same as the Cartesian theater) and the pin pricks for both John and Jane may, for all you care, be in the same co-ordinates within each theater, but the very fact that they occur in different theaters implies that they are perceived by different "entities". Now I wish to clarify the meaning of each person's CBS. Please note that each CBS is an abstract space that has no relation to one another. Even though Jane and John might be sitting next to each other, it is not as if Jane's CBS is the same as John's CBS shifted by one meter. They are abstract 3-dimensional spaces that have no interconnection. If John is asleep and having a dream, his CBS would take him to some distant vacation spot while Jane's might correspond to the immediate neighborhood. Also, unlike the case of the seat of the homunculus in the Cartesian theater, the "origin" of the CBS in the qualia-centric model enjoys no special status. It is just a reference coordinate, and is not "the seat of the mind", for there is no such thing as the latter.

In fact, according to the referenced post, the whole conscious experience (including the aforementioned "mind") is the sum of real and imaginary qualia perceived in the CBS according to predefined intensity and resolution functions. This applies to the thought process as well, which I had implied in that post to be just imagined soliloquies correspond to positions within the CBS which are the same as real ones. In this model, the intensity and resolution access functions can be quite arbitrary in theory, and the only reason they are concentrated around the origin is because of the physical correspondence with the body of the organism which serves an evolutionary purpose. Although in the case of humans, the portion of the CBS corresponding to hearing one's own voice fall within the region of the head, we can conceive of organisms which have weird shapes and intensity and resolution functions where the so-called "mind" is miles removed from the body of the being. Out-of-body experiences of humans due to drugs or illnesses also seem to reinforce this viewpoint.

I also wish to reiterate my own interpretation of the word quale. It is not just the hue, as the hue of red. I call the "redness of red" a red hue (see this post), although I have come across the same used to define the term "quale". In my dictionary, a quale is an actual embodiment of some hue or a combination of hues in some CBS. For example, seeing a tomato would cause someone to experience a red quale. This has to be differentiated from the concept of redness itself.

While some might think that they can imagine the concept of redness itself without attaching to some shape or region, I don't believe this is possible for any conscious entity. Imagining "redness" all by itself invariably results in some actual embodiment (or imagined quale) to occur in someone's CBS, even if it is just a random patch of color in front of the eyes. As implied in the aforementioned post, every conscious experience is the sum of real and imagined qualia, and the act of imagining a 'hue' by itself will invariably lead to an imagined embodiment (quale) of it.

Although the above point may seem more of a matter of terminology, please note that my definition of a quale automatically brings with it a CBS (or in other words, a conscious entity). So a quale is a self-contained perception (meaning it is the perceiver as much as the perceived). A pin-prick on your finger or the sound of a distant ambulance siren to your left are all examples of such qualia which by default imply consciousness. Under normal circumstances we may think that we are perceiving those sensations (when we also are hearing imagined soliloquies much closer- in other words, when we are thinking), but when we are about to doze off and stop thinking, we sometimes reach a state where only the real qualia are present in the CBS. (Of course, sometimes the moment we realize this, we get jolted back and then the imagination qualia again start playing out again in our CBS.)

I will address the issue of meta-ethics in the context of the qualia-centric model of consciousness in a future post. I feel that meta-ethics is intrically linked to the fundamental theory of qualia and is not just an optional "nicety" in the sense of societal/evolutionary checks/balances.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Imagination Qualia and Procedural Memory

I have wondered why we humans are gifted with imagination qualia in the first place. I have in this post indicated that the human thought process depends on us imagining a conversation with ourselves, so that imagined sound qualia seem indispensable for thought. But since every real qualia can also be imagined, I am not sure whether this is purposeful or just an artifact of the operation of the brain. Also, does this mean that lower animals (from worms to other primates) too are endowed with the power to imagine qualia? I wonder what their evolutionary purpose would be then, the same way one wonders what the evolutionary purpose of dreams is.

One scenario where imagining qualia might be helpful (at least in the case of humans) might have to do with procedural memory. As someone who is learning the guitar currently, it sometimes happens that I have some spare time when I wish I had a guitar with me so that I could practice (which unfortunately I don't always do, as when I am not at home).

On a recent short flight, having run out of books to read, I thought I would practice on an imaginary guitar. I vividly imagined myself playing a guitar, and that included missteps like fretting and picking the wrong strings and so on, and correcting myself during repetitions. And just like a "real" practice session, my fingers (especially my left pinkie) started getting tired after a while (the tiredness was again imagined). All this time, I didn't physically move my hands at all!

Please note that this wasn't me dreaming playing a guitar. Instead, from just a mental standpoint, I was involved in this virtual practice just as much as I would have been when I actually have a guitar to play. The conscious decisions made by me were no different.

Which brings about an interesting question which is, would this kind of imagined practice count towards actual improvement? Of course, there is no substitute for an actual guitar in one's hands, but I would be curious to know if an hour of imagined practice amounts to at least 10 minutes of real practice. And how does an hour of playing the guitar in one's dream count towards real practice?

I am not sure if any controlled experiments have been conducted with regards to imagined practice of some procedural task, and see if that results in any positive effect. It need not be limited to learning a musical instrument, but can extend to any other kind of motor skill like riding a bicycle or even juggling.

While the above have to do with motor skills, there are instances where imagination qualia are almost a requirement in some skill sets. For example, consider professional music composers who are able to notate and arrange music by "hearing" it their heads. Initially they might make mistakes, but with practice, they would narrow the differences between what they "hear" and what they notate correspond to.

Going back to motor skills, it seems like imagining practicing some skill is not a requirement to learn it. But it would be interesting to know if doing so does have any beneficial effect on the procedural memory for that particular skill.