Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bad Thinking about Consciousness

One of the reasons it is not worth writing right now is the amazing amount of circularity in discourse: assumptions, like easter eggs, are hidden and then magically found after some poor chain of thought backed up by factoids at various points. A factoid is something that looks like a fact, but actually isn't, because it does not state its framework explicitly. Today's example is from the field of so-called "science of consciousness." It is not that consciousness is beyond study, or that one cannot do science about it, but the problem with the study of consciousness is that it is more often theology, and apology, for assumptions about the world already made. The word for this is "values." A value is a postulate - a given - that a person or group of people assert as the price for their participation in a group, or more often, the price they want to extract from others to be group members and gain the advantages of being a group member.

The most obvious examples of values have a bad odor, to the point where counter-values grow up to combat them. Racism is one: the members of a group value a particular set of visible traits, and demand, explicitly or implicitly, the possession of those traits for membership in the group. While overt bigotry is out of fashion, one does not have to scratch the surface of the social arrangements of any of the developed countries to find racism, or racism coupled with religious membership, wedded into policy and society. This includes the United States, Europe, and Japan most explicitly, and as well India, and China. Closely related, as just implied, is membership in a particular community of faith. However faith and ethnic identification are not carried out by the same means, and hence one often trumps the other, even when there is an overtly racial component to a religious community.
However, there are other value sets, and these, since the older religious frameworks are not currently conducive to them, go seeking apologies in other places. Or, if you don't have a religion that shares your biases, make one.

Circularity in values assertion is simply done, but elaborate to maintain. First one must make implicit some feeling or response, and then elevate that response to an ethical principle by way of a moral one. Again, to take an egregious example, bias against homosexuality often refers to fertility as its basis, or the role of the mother in the family unit. However, underneath this not even very seemingly pseudo-scientific rationalization, is the response of the people making the argument towards male homosexuality. They are repelled by it, and therefore go in search of reasons which are seemingly, not even very seemingly or even seemly, separate from their response. Or in shorter: first a person feels a certain way out of experience or habit, then they try and ground that response in some teleological or external principle. That is, they could not feel other than how they do, because there is some purpose or reason for the response. People who are repelled by the idea of two men having sex then try and find a reason why all correctly wired people should feel as they do.

I've taken three conservative sets of values so far, but much of the corruption of discourse is done by those who seem, not even very much seem, to be on the left. In part because religion, at the present time, is mostly a reactionary force, and despite many hooks for progressive or liberal ideas in it, these are not the current attractor of religion. Religion, like the Republican Party, has become a home for people repelled by certain experiences, and who need Nature and Nature's God to agree with them. This is an obvious categorical error. Nature does not really care what we think, and if there is a God, he may well, but until it becomes manifest that he does indeed meddle in human politics directly, is as likely to be favoring hunter-gatherers in the forests of the Amazon, as anyone else.

The example I am going to point to is the creation of a pseudo-scientific rationale for excuses for an ideology grown out of the 1960's, which is however, part of a larger consumerist ideology of elite countries, and not particular to the left. We are rich, and we treat much of the rest of the world badly, so we have values which fetishize our virtues so that we can sleep well at night even though millions went to bed with out potable water, and will awake to find their 2 year old dead of some completely preventable condition, which we sell the medication for at more than the average monthly wages of the village. Or, it is a shame meant to make people in nice houses think they are nice, because they engage in some moral behavior which justifies their profiting from a genocidal economic system.

The piece is at Slate, that home of the pseudo-intellectual's pseudo-intelligentia: written by one Daniel Bor. Bor's problem is that he wants to support broad abortion rights, and vegetarianism. The second is from an excess of empathy, which, in fact, does not come from empathy at all, but from personal delicacy. The second is a necessity of the individualist society he is a part of. There are two parts to this second. In order to be able to reward and penalize individuals for "rational" decisions, one has to face the reality that reproduction is not individual maximizing rational. Evolution has stacked the deck against human beings being rational about it. Many people reading this, and the person writing it, were unplanned and against the rational interest of their parents. And yet, for the larger continuance of the species, the rational and forward projecting parts of the brain have to be dealt with. It is almost never a good, or good enough, time to have children. The same brain that makes us good at avoiding planting the wrong field, also tells us that children are a burden on sustenance. So for the good of the species, one of them has got to go.

The result is that women must have fertility control as a basic right then, both to provide the reward/penalty framework of the society, and to make it possible to have sex before marriage. As economics pushes marriage farther and farther back, the consequences of denying sex are a larger and larger group of angry, violent, frustrated, males. Large groups of frustrated males create instability: crime, war, unrest. So on one hand the society has to allow sexual relationships, on the other, push back marriage until people can pay the very high rents associated with having a home – because those who don't raise children that are sub-optimal in attainment and health.

This however, is not, as you can see plainly, a result of any science of consciousness, but a value of a particular set of social arrangements.

However, this cuts against empathy. To terminate a pregnancy, the fetus must be chattelized: an extension of the will of the parents. However, a society which is generally operational about people, will fall apart, because it will descend into the war of all against all. In order to function in a complex society, individuals must believe that they won't be left bleeding by the side of the road, and that other individuals will not nakedly harm them for some transient advantage. As our society has become suburbanized, this attachment – which is quite old in human affairs – is fetishized to the results of our own behavior only. As a screen writing manual says "always save the cat."

Now this level of empathy is part of our human heritage for many good reasons: long dependence of expensive to produce children militates against it. Cultures which have far higher early infant death are much more operational about children: infanticide, for example, is a common human practice. Humans have also been involved in the raising of animals and plants for roughly 12,000 years, the application of empathy to our domesticates is part of our success.

This creates a conflict: the fetus has to be chattelized in post-modernity, and yet we have to have a very high degree of inhibition against chattelizing everything. This is particularly acute for the individual who has made their personal empathy part of their identity. Vegetarianism, for example.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a vegetarian, but there is also nothing intrinsically moralizing about it. All vegetable diets have health benefits and ameliorate many personal discomforts. Some of the worst people in history have also been vegetarians, I'll let people look them up, however, one can see from many centuries back, that people often make a big deal about treating their non-human chattel well, and then treating actual humans poorly. The examples come from every major civilization, so it isn't particularly picking on Europe, India, or China, to cite, for example, high caste vegetarianism in India, chattel slavery based on Christianity in America, or pets just about any place.

The conflict Bor has is that he wants to chattelize a human fetus, but also elevate animals, no matter how remote. This leads to the first egregiously dishonest argument in his piece: namely to protect animals he needs to "dumb consciousness down," to the point where anything that can, however remotely, feel what he describes as "suffering" is "conscious." But a sleeping fetus, is not. By his argument is fine to kill a sleeping person, because they aren't conscious. A fetus is not in a vegetative state, this can be shown by research, fetuses respond, remember, and wire, particularly late on.

Thus a nematode is too conscious to kill, but a fetus isn't conscious enough to save. Only by having a fallacy of equivocation – to distinct and incommensurable definitions of consciousness, does this argument fly. This does not mean that the science opposes vegetarianism, or abortion rights, merely that where the line is drawn is hidden in assumptions. What particular ability defines "consciousness" allows one to draw the line where ever it is convenient to do so from "values" that were assumed in the first place: low bar for vegetarianism, high for abortion, in Bor's case. One can equally go the other way. If it is not ethical to kill a sleeping person, it is because of the "potential" for consciousness, but then, that leads back to the "life from conception" argument, because every zygote is, eventually, conscious. One could try a "before and after" line, but by that point it is clear that one is seeking rationalizations, not reasons.

The deeper circularity is the difference between demonstrations of consciousness, and definition of it. Proofs of consciousness often lie in ability to engage in certain kinds of information processing: for example, self-awareness. However, to then define consciousness as information processing itself is an error: one defined the test as something which can be observed, that is, as information processing. That does not mean one is testing for it. Since, as one can easily see, the "information processing" definition is really an argument by analogy 

Is there another definition? Certainly, there are several, the best come from defining consciousness as an attractor, not a spectrum, because really what we mean by consciousness is the remembered theatre of the mind. Sleep-walking people often pass for conscious, even though they cannot recall, and make processing mistakes. Babies do not generally form memories which can be entered. These all point to a mechanism, but they don't serve as what Bor really wants: a substitute theology of the soul, specifically a neo-Hindu one in his case.

The end of all of this is not that consciousness isn't a phenomena that needs to come from a supernatural source, but that it is not an ethical concept, it is a personal one, and as all definitions of soul, it is easy to draw the line anywhere one wishes. Consciouness, and its science, can tell us a great deal about human behavior, human experience, and social organization, but they do not offer an objective definition of "the good life" or "how we think about abortion."

The kind of dishonest and slovenly thinking that Bor uses – and it is a con job, which is highly immoral for him to engage in, one which is directly and deliberately designed to kill living people, and I don't mean abortions, but the disadvantaged of his own circumstancs – is endemic. This is because the developed world lives very well, and to no small extent from the results of others pain and suffering. Hiding from this, creating an aristocratic patina of gentility, is a process that would be familiar to a student of say, the French Ancien Regime.

The greater reality is that one does not have to argue over angels on the head of a pin, or nematode consciousness, to see that we inflict on others a great deal of pain, for our own good. This includes, one might note, women who have to have abortions because of their economic circumstances – to end a pregnancy that they more want than not, because the economic system will engage in physical violence should they, for example, lose a job and miss some rent payments.

The study of the mind has made great strides, but, sadly, as usual, people first use new knowledge, as a way of justifying the old mistakes.