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.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Complex Qualia Space

In many of my previous posts, I have indicated the presence of an "imaginary qualia space" which is a counterpart of the real qualia space. The real qualia space corresponds to "real" sensations while the imaginary space corresponds to imagined sensations. Both of these can exist simultaneously at a certain point in the CBS. For example, even though I might be seeing a red object, in my mind I can be imagining it to be blue at the same exact spot. As I had indicated in this post, the imagined qualia can for all practical intent and purposes be compared against other real or imagined qualia and the normal operators associated with qualia apply to them as much as real qualia.

Can I take this a step further and imagine an imagined qualia? I do not count dreams as pure imagination states (since dreams have both real and imagination states and are indistinguishable from the waking state in this regard). So, imagining something in one's dream is the same as imagining something in one's waking state. When I try to imagine a red ball where none exists and try to imagine it being blue, the original red gets replaced by blue. This is unlike the case where I imagine a real red ball being blue. The real hue of red is always there and my imagination of it becoming blue does not change the red that I am perceiving all along.

Basically I am saying that there can exist only one imagination qualia space that can co-exist with the real one. This applies to all qualia (sight, hearing, touch, etc).

If this hypothesis is true, is this some kind of species-specific limitation? In other words, are there other species, or even other extra-terrestrial beings in our universe that can have overlapping imagination spaces? Or is this an arbitrary constraint imposed by the "program" that simulates our universe, something that could easily be changed by the master programmer? Or, is this because of some fundamental mathematical truth that imposes a limit of one imagination space and something that is program-independent ?

If the answer is the third one, then we can possibly club the real and imagination qualia spaces into one complex space, where the real part corresponds to our real qualia and the imaginary part corresponds to our imagined qualia. Since the accesses for both real and imagination states are the same (see this post), there is no reason why this cannot be acheived. Alongside, there exist operators which can act on the real and imaginary parts, or some combination thereof. For example, I can compare the hue of an imagined blue region with that of a real blue wall and decide which one is lighter.

So what are we going to acheive by making our qualia complex values, you may ask. One thing is, we just have one qualia space instead of two. Another way of putting it is, to specify the complete qualia state of a conscious entity at a given time, the dimension of the qualia space required is cut in half.

But this aside, are there any other advantages to doing this that follow from the properties of complex numbers? Let us take the case of conjugate qualia. For example the two states corresponding to imagining touching a hot object and a cold object with my index finger. If I am not actually touching any object at that time, the two states are purely imaginary and conjugates of each other. If on the other hand I am actually touching some hot (or cold) object with that finger, then the two states correspond to complex conjugate values. (Actually, in this example, I have ignored other parts of the CBS that correspond to the rest of the body as well as other sensations - we can always take only the subspaces corresponding to particular sensations and the regions of the CBS within the subspaces that are of interest to us - in this case, only the one corresponding to the index finger).

At this point, it is not apparent if there is anything to be gained out of this. But assuming a theory of qualia ever gets developed, it would be interesting to see if representing qualia as complex values in the above manner is compatible with it (if not encouraged by it).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The dimensionality of the CBS - part 2

In this post, I had indicated that the common binding space (CBS) is 3-dimensional and that this holds true of a mosquito as much as a human.

When someone/something becomes conscious (including a newborn mite), its CBS unfurls. And it doesn't really go through a phase where it is first one-dimensional, followed by two dimensional. While a man might feel drowsy at the time of waking up, there is no sense of a flattened or restricted CBS. The alarm that woke him up seems to come from the correct direction, and from the moment he opens his eyes, he is aware of the 3-D space that extends out in its entirety.

As I had suggested in this post, every conscious entity is associated with an instance of the CBS. Given the vast discrepancy in sizes between the brain of a human and that of a mite, how is this possible? What is the smallest structure that would create a new instance of the CBS? (In other words, what is the smallest structure that is needed to create consciousness?) This is a question that would have a profound impact for both philosophy and theology.

But is the CBS always 3-dimensional? Can there be drug-induced effects that can actually add extra dimensions to it? I have maintained that it isn't the case. But when I was going through a Wikipedia article on LSD, this is what I found:

"Users commonly report that the inanimate world appears to animate in an unexplained way; for instance, objects that are static in three dimensions can seem to be moving relative to one or more additional spatial dimensions" and

"Higher doses often cause intense and fundamental distortions of sensory perception such as synaesthesia, the experience of additional spatial or temporal dimensions.."

Agreed that Wikipedia is never the final authority, and the entries also keep morphing constantly. But I was curious to find out more about these "extra" spatial and temporal dimensions. If these are indeed possible, that would be a counter argument to my earlier suggestion of the CBS being always 3-dimensional.

I googled many articles on LSD (including the one that was cited by the first statement), but never really came up with any that actually backed these two claims. I get the feeling that those who think they experienced additional dimensions (whether spatial or temporal) really are confusing them with something more mundane. For example, a 3-D picture of a box on a sheet of paper is still 2-D. In a similar manner, I think what some people think are additional dimensions are simply heightened perceptions which nevertheless occur in the same 3-dimensional Cartesian theater. I also think that what some people might refer to as being extra dimensional do it in a purely metaphorical sense.

I think I will continue to stick to my earlier claim about the CBS being always 3-dimensional.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Meta ethics and black holes

One of the fundamental aspects of ethics that I have always found puzzling is why it even exists in the first place. Sure enough, if we go by Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", concepts like ethics and altruism have to do entirely with survival strategies. The whole concept of ethics would then seem an unnecessary complication, since it would be reducible to functional strategy that helps a species survive. Going by this argument, one shouldn't read too much into altruism.

But, if ethics can be denied by this argument, then so could qualia. Indeed, why couldn't zombie creatures evolve exactly in the same manner as humans and normal creatures around us? Dawkins doesn't even mention qualia anywhere in his book (at least to my memory).

But, the whole point of the philosophy of qualia is that qualia do exist. Which then portrays the concept of ethics in a different light altogether.

If we acknowledge that others around us are able to feel pain qualia due to some of our actions, ethics would dictate that we refrain from performing those actions (in a broad sense). This, I would call, the fundamental premise of ethics. Virtually every religion and many proverbs convey the same in one form or the other. For example, ""Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you" is probably the most obvious and direct of them all.

I have two issues with this reductionist approach to ethics. The first one is the dichotomy associated with some assemblages of atoms versus others. It is ethical to break a computer (a particular arrangement of atoms) but is unethical to kill a puppy (another arrangement of atoms). It hardly matters whether the computer is simulating the same puppy. In fact, any credible theory of qualia, in my opinion, should resolve these kinds of inconsistencies in a seamless manner, even if it has to closely parallel solipsism. As of now, that seems to be the only one that, in my view, treats the two on the same footing and presents no such contradictions.

The more troubling issue is, even if I do acknowledge that the other being can feel pain, why should that prevent me from causing that pain to that other creature? At least, if it is not going to affect me later. Of course, for "normal" human beings, there is an inherent "moral compass" that would discourage them from doing so. But again, is this merely a product of evolution as would be argued by Dawkins?

In fact, if there are no checks and balances, the whole premise of ethics seems vacuous to me, no matter how noble it may seem otherwise. If there is no retribution, then it makes no logical sense to have a code of ethics for the perpetrator when he is assured he can get away with any crime that he commits.

Which is perhaps the reason why most religions threaten its followers with some kind of punishment for crimes in an afterlife. Not only is this more practical in keeping its followers in line, it perhaps is the only logical rationalization in enforcing such behavior, if we cast aside its survivalist value (of the Dawkins variety).

Religions lead us to believe that there is some kind of an afterlife retribution. But, as I have suggested in this post, there is an automatic "retribution" of sorts if we assume that all qualia are ultimately felt by the same entity. This way, by not unnecessarily causing pain to another creature, we spare ourselves that agony, so that in the end we benefit. Note that, this assumption is all that is needed to make the subject of ethics a logically deductible one. And we need not even be bothered about Darwin or Dawkins here.

A fundamental question with such an universal consciousness is how it relates to living beings (including humans) which are physical assemblages of atoms. I have discussed this issue in several of my previous posts, and have even hinted that quantum uncertainty principle might have a role to play here.

It is easier to buy into this if we assume a connected universe. But what happens when there are regions of space-time which are disconnected from the universe we are in? In such cases, how does meta ethics hold true?

To give an example, take the case of a simple black hole (non-rotating and non-charged). Associated with such a black hole is an event horizon, and once an object crosses it, there can be no communication back to the rest of the universe. Now let us do a small though experiment here. Let us have a puppy cross it, so that it can no longer communicate with the rest of the universe. Now we can shoot the puppy from the outside once it has already crossed the horizon. (The bullet can be made smart enough to catch up and actually knock down the puppy theoretically, although there is no way the shooter would come to know of it, assuming he stays outside the event horizon.) If the puppy hadn't been shot, it would have survived till old age happily in its spaceship. (For supermassive black holes, the tidal effects are so weak that this is a real possibility.)

If we assume that meta ethics is a logical fallout of a single universal consciousness, and that the qualia of all conscious entities are mediated by quantum processes, then it follows that conscious entities in regions of space such as the inside of the event horizon cannot be "connected" to any universal consciousness outside, because according to present-day physics, the whole region inside of the even horizon is shut out from the rest of the universe. According to the "no hairs theorem", the only things that matter as far as a black hole is concerned are its mass, charge and angular momentum.

Which then raises the question as to whether shooting a puppy from the outside of the event horizon actually is unethical from a meta-ethical standpoint. If we go by the "no hairs theorem", then it should not matter to the rest of the universe whether living beings inside of the event horizon of a black hole feel pain. And also there would be no accountability on the part of outsiders who decide to torment those inside.

As of my understanding, the Hawking radiation is the only reverse communication that is possible, but this is so weak, especially in the case of supermassive black holes that it probably has no significance anyway. I seriously doubt if meta-ethics is dependent on this phenomenon.

The conundrum regarding black holes and ethics needs to be reconciled.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

A model for human consciousness experience

I wondered if there is a crude way of representing human experience, once we accept physical qualia as something as they were. Of course, the human state of mind at any instant is more than just an instantaneous physical qualia state. Or so it seems.

The most common objection to representing the human experience as just the sum of physical qualia states has to do with emotional qualia. But as in the previous post, I am less inclined to believe that there exist the so-called emotional qualia which cannot be seen as just constructs of physical qualia. In fact, now I see no convincing reason as to why the concept of emotional qualia cannot be fully abandoned in describing human experience completely.

My model of human experience consists of three different entities -

1. The universal or mother consciousness that is ultimately the experiencer of all qualia of all conscious entities in a given physical universe. (Arguably, the title of the post is unnecessarily restrictive since it implies only human consciousness.) See this post for a discussion on universal consciousness.

2. A functional block which I call the "Dennettian complex" which basically embodies the various functional blocks which would seemingly explain human behavior completely (although not quite true) .

3. The forward communication link between the Dennettian complex and the universal consciousness, which reside in eigenhue recognition units (ERUs).

The Dennettian complex is not a monolithic block (and that's the reason why I call it a complex). It has many functions -
a. converting sensory inputs from the various sense organs into a form that interface with the ERUs, so that the universal consciousness experiences sensory qualia (in the associated 3-dimensional space called the CBS).
b. Perform many logical and housekeeping activities that can be reduced to pure functionalism. The "Multiple Drafts Model" deals with this aspect.
c. Also interface with ERUs (the same as in a. or different) to allow the universal consciousness to experience simultaneous imagination states in the same CBS as in a.
d. It is very likely that the universal consciousness, instead of just being a passive observer of both real and imagination states, also influences the functional aspect given in c. This would be the equivalent of the exercise of "free will", and the presence of this would preclude the existence of true zombies. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense since if qualia cannot influence behavior, they would be useless from a natural selection point of view. Also this would imply that the inverse of ERUs exists, since the universal consciousness has to communicate back to the Dennettian complex somehow.

Please note that the real qualia states do not always have to correspond to reality. Examples are dream and hallucination states.

Also one wonders what are the ERUs and their inverses. Could QM provide the link in both cases?

The imagination states are very important in human experience. As argued in the previous post, the whole thought process can be seen as an imagined conversation orchestrated by the Dennettian complex that is "heard" by the universal consciousness. Of course, the universal consciousness is not a passive audience member (like the homunculus in the Cartesian theater), but actually controls the script (through the inverse ERUs).

I also wonder how temporal pattern recognition of qualia (such as recognizing and enjoying music) is achieved. Is the above model adequate in explaining the same? Or do we have to bring in other constructs that cannot be adequately explained by the above model?

And what about the general state of the mind itself? Can the action of mood elevators or even alcohol be explained by physical qualia alone? I raised this issue in the previous post, and am now inclined to believe that the answer is yes.