Some Myths and Productive Ideas About Consciousness

This is the third and probably final installment in a series of posts in preparation for the 2015–02–22 Beacon Humanist Group’s meeting on “consciousness”. (It was due to occur at the end of January but I couldn’t make that date in the end.)

There is more material here than I can get through in my brief presentation. Make a note of what you’d like to discuss during the meeting. If I skip a statement of interest to you, we can hopefully return to it in the discussion.

I won’t be lecturing on what consciousness is or how it works. Instead I will briefly present common myths about consciousness and propose some helpful ideas to better understand conscious and nearly conscious experience. Then as usual we will have a moderated discussion.

Myths about Consciousness

here’s how to use the following list:

  1. Ask yourself whether you understand what the myth is. If not, what are different meanings might be entailed here. Make a list of information you don’t understand (or use an annotation).
  2. If you understand it, have you ever heard it before?
  3. Is a straw man being criticized?
  4. Why might the supposed myth be true? False?
  5. Has this reflection enriched your understanding of the mind?

Here’s the list.

  1. Myth. The meaning of the term consciousness can be inferred through conceptual analysis. This myth is rarely explicit, but it is often implicit in discussions of the form “What is X?”. I do believe conceptual analysis is important, but conceptual analysis is not normally strictly about discovering the meaning of terms. (Contrast logical cartography and logical topography.)
  2. Myth. I clearly and distinct feel I have consciousness, philosophers and scientists discuss consciousness, there are articles , journals and books with “consciousness” in the title; therefore, there is a substantive thing which we may call consciousness. (Compare the still popular yet nonsensical notion of “god”, ether, and Michael Graziano’s example of the delusional man who thought he had a squirrel in his head.)
  3. Myth. There is a sharp, qualitative distinction between agents (artificial or natural) with consciousness and those without.
  4. Myth. There is a gradual, quantitative distinction between agents with consciousness and those without.
  5. Myth. Only humans (and not machines) can experience qualia. You cannot make a machine that is conscious.
  6. Myth. We know what we mean by statements like “I experience qualia.”
  7. Myth. Because you (think you) can imagine something it is true; because you cannot imagine something it is impossible. (This is an example of a faulty “inference ticket”, to extend Gilbert Ryle’s concept. Tip: try using that reasoning in a mathematics exam at university and see how far it gets you. Cf. William Paley in 1802, and many folk even today, who can’t imagine design without a designer.)
  8. Myth. Consciousness is about the present, present experience. (Contrast Marvin Minsky’s The Society of Mind.)
  9. Myth. People have previleged, immediate, direct, and/or indubitable access to their own “consciousness” (Descartes) or consciousness experience.
  10. Myths. (This one shows up in ACT.) There is an “observing self”, with the following properties, per chapter 23 of Russ Harris’s otherwise excellent book, The Happiness Trap )
    • It observes everything you do.
    • It is the fundamental source of acceptance; it does not ever never judge you.
    • “It is there from birth to death, unchanging, cannot be damaged, unimprovable.”
      (Hint: In the 1970s Max Clowes of Sussex Universisty had a very powerful way of refuting such nonsense. I’ll add the quote if I can find it. But for now just think cases of brain damage, ontogenesis, and engineering. This is a good example of why, while acceptance and commitment therapy has a lot to offer, its supposedly behaviorst basis is a non-starter. Sorry, Dr. Steven Hayes: just as one can’t do physics without embracing the science of physics, when one is making claims about psychology and the mind, sooner or later, one has to embrace cognitive science. Compare Ch. 13 of Cognitive Productivity. )
  11. Myth. Mental experience can be fully explained in terms of the brain (reductionism). (Hint: virtual machines. What I describe in Cognitive Productivity as World 2′, an improvement of Karl Popper’s World 2 concept.)
  12. Myth the concept of self (as in “the self”) is meaning and helpful in psychological discussions. (Hint: Yes, Skinner was skinned; but Ryle was not. There are some expressions that need to be banished from cognitive scientific vocabulary, and with regrets to Dr. Damasio, “the self” is one of them. Consciousness is on probation. But conceptual analysis is not.)
  13. Myth. Consciousness is completely intra-personal. (Hint: Popper’s World–3, and culture more broadly. NB: Donald [2001, pp. 250–251], proposes a key solution to the problem of the evolution of World 3 driven driven “consciousness”: Expression came first.)

Helpful Ideas

General Methodological Considerations

I will remind you that, while I’m not a behaviorist, I am uneasy with the term “consciousness”. I don’t think that colloquial terms should necessarily get a free ride in substantive discussions. “Consciousness” is particularly problematic. Understanding myths around the use of the term might also make you skeptical. Having said that, I do think that the term often points to scientifically interesting phenomena. (Some would even say that strictly speaking you can’t have phenomena without consciousness.)

  1. When trying to understand consciousness, think in terms of the major functions of minds, and the space of possible designs to satisfy them, and hence the space of possible minds. (See note entry about designer stance below.)
  2. Understanding mental phenomena is always work in progress, and it requires combining different types of information and inquiry (neuroscience, designs, psychological data, semenatics/conceptual analysis). Some psychological data don’t require sophisticated equipment or large samples.
  3. Thought experiments are helpful, but even more than other research methods, they have limits. In particular, beware of arguments of the form “this is not possible because I cannot imagine it.”
  4. In order to make progress on “consciousness”, we must take a designer stance, i.e., to explore the space of possible minds. This involves both an exploration of the states of real mind/brains (as Merlin Donald has done), and an exploration of the space of possibly uninstantiated possible minds (that is a broad program of Artificial Intelligence). No space to describe the design stance here. See Ch. 2 of my Ph.d. thesis.
  5. Remember that one can only understand the actual through reference to the possible. Logically possible is broader than actually possible, but because of AI, the realm of actually possible is larger than it otherwise would be.
  6. Beware of theories of consciousness that rely too heavily on neuroscience (The Self Comes to Mind comes to mind), i.e., that are insufficiently grounded in the designer stance or conceptual analysis. Consciousness must depend on information processing constructs. Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary science. And AI is the core discipline of cognitive science. It’s not a coincidence that Bernard Baars’ is well grounded in the core disciplines of cognitive science.
  7. There is no accepted definition of consciousness. Here, communication and progress require stipulation.

Substantial Considerations

  1. A provocative experiment that illustrates the limitations of the ordinary concept of consciousness: The trespassers experiment. (I will provide a handout. )
  2. Consider, contrast and relate: attention, awareness (content), “consciousness”, states of consciousness (awake and attending, awake and mind wandering; sleep-onset period drowsiness, asleep but not dreaming, asleep and dreaming, meditation, intense emotion, intense pleasure, and intense pain), types of consciousness content (simuli, percepts of different and sometimes mixed sorts, phrases, tunes, sounds, motivators, affective feelings, etc.) functional architecture of mind (overall structure of mind);
  3. The concept of layering in communication protocols and software engineering are extremely relevant to understanding consciousness; so is the concept of virtual machine. (It is admittedly difficult, but not impossible, to grasp the concepts without using them in practice. They are discussed in Cognitive Productivity. See also Virtual machine concepts for consciousness).
  4. Attention
    1. Attention involves processes (selecting what to attend to, shifting attention, engaging attention, disengaging).
    2. Attention involves different virtual or actual “buffers” (e.g., working memory).
    3. Biological minds have “limited attentional capacity”.
    4. There are significant constraints on high-level parallel processing. Why? cf. Ch 4 of my 1994 Ph.D. thesis which provides some answers and claims that this would apply to non-biological resource-bounded autonomous agents too. (Bernard Baars’ 1988 book also has answers to this question.)
  5. The brain uses more memory buffers than are postulated in the traditional notion of “working memory” ; and they may be of different types.
  6. The notion of intermediate-term memory and long-term working memory are critical. Compare Merlin Donald’s book. Our information processing utilizes many more information items than 7+2. E.g., you will likely not repeatedly ask the same question an hour later in a conversation (when your short term memory has been updated many times), unless you have dementia or are not satisfied with the answer (cf. children and suspicious lovers). In Cognitive Productivity I deal with long-term working memory at length, which is a concept proposed by K. Anders Ericsson, but not with intermediate-term memory.
  7. Imminence illusion. However, we don’t perceive as much as we sometimes think we do.
  8. The notion of connectome as used by Murray Shanahan: Major communication pathways that are engaged as we perform a mentally demanding task.
  9. Focus not so much on “consciousness” but on conscious capacity (Donald’s concept).
  10. Consider the concept of collective mentality (Donald, again).
  11. Ultimately to assess a concept of consciousness one needs to assess the theory in which it is embedded; concepts do not exist in isolation nor can they be assessed in isolation. (E.g., you can’t asses Eistein’s concept of energy without reference to the other concepts it involves.) Chapter 11 of Cognitive Productivity provides an extensive toolkit of criteria to help with the assessment of theories (more than are found in typical text books on research methods).

Merlin Donald’s Suite of Executive Functions

(How) does each function in different species

  • Monkeys,
  • wild apes,
  • enculturated apes,
  • humans?

Notice my use of “how”!

“Domain general skill clusters that fall within the primate zone of proximal evolution and are very highly evolved in humans”

  1. Self-monitoring
  2. divided attention,
  3. self reminding,
  4. auto-cueing,
  5. self-recognition
  6. rehearsal and review,
  7. whole body imitation,
  8. pedagogy,
  9. gesture,
  10. symbolic convention,
  11. complex skill hierarchies.

his book: p. 139.

According to Merlin Donald, consciousness is about:

  • “building and sustaining mental models of reality,”
  • “constructing meaning,”
  • autonomously controlling one’s thought process over the intermediate term, even without public language.
    his book: p. 75.

Notice the use of the term “about” rather than simply “is”.


To distill this even further:

A. Concepts of consciousness

  • The term “Consciousness” does not denote a unique technical concept, it is a collection of loose ballpark concepts. To use them productively we must treat them as an invitation to explain integrative, executive capabilities of automous, resource-bounded agentic minds from the designer stance, supported by empirical and analytical approaches. (Compare chapter 2 of my Ph.D. on Goal Processing in autonomous agents for requirements of autonomous agency.)
  • Beware of imperious definitions of consciousness. Treat definitions of consciousness as stipulative at best. Don’t get hung up on the term consciousness. Don’t waste your time on “What really is consciousness?”
  • Qualia are less important than the real, documented capabilities referenced above. Focusing on qualia is not a progressive way to understand mentation/minds. Cf. Imre Lakatos on progressive vs degenerative research programs. Lakatos, I. (1980). The methodology of scientific research programmes: Philosophical papers (Vol. 1). Cambridge University Press. And: Cooper, R. P. (2007). The role of falsification in the development of cognitive architectures: Insights from a Lakatosian analysis. Cognitive Science, 31, 509–533.

B. The executive suite

If you accept the foregoing invitation to treat consciousness in terms of mental architecture, then consider Merlin Donald’s Suite of Executive Functions above, Baars (1988), and Ch. 6 of The Computer Revolution in Philosophy.

Adherence to this thesis distinguishes productive from degenerative research on, and discussions about, consciousness.

Recommended Readings

While we often work from one or two books, this is not a reading club. The recommend readings are just that. You can also follow some of the hyperlinks in the blog posts here.

Sloman, 2010. Why the “hard” problem of consciousness is easy and the “easy” problem hard. (And how to make progress)

Donald, M. (2001). A mind so rare: The evolution of human consciousness. W. W. Norton & Company.. Though it is not recognized as such, to my knowledge, this is one of the most important books in cognitive science.

See also reading lists in my previous entries on this subject.

Revision history

2015–02–21: Several minor updates.
2015–02–22: Extended every section. Added a thesis section.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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