What do we gain if we understand conciousness? Or to put it the other way around: What would we miss if we don’t have a scientific explanation of what conciousness is, an explanation from what you call ‘a third person perspective’?

That’s a good question. Well, let’s pretend we’re Martians, and we come to Earth, and we see all these bipeds walking around, engaging in all kinds of activities, writing books, going to movies, and all the things that people do, fighting, loving, farming, eating. We want to understand this complex lifeform. If we Martians manage to translate their language so we can appreciate the sounds they make when they move the parts they eat with, and the books they write, then we’ll discover that the things they talk about are not just the weather and the food and so forth. They talk about what they’re thinking about, what’s going on in their heads. They don’t talk (or not much) about what’s going on in their lungs, their pancreas, their bowels. But they talk incessantly about what’s going on between their ears. How do they do that? And when they talk about it, is it true?
And we would learn that some of it isn’t true. Sometimes people lie, and sometimes people aren’t lying, but they just get it wrong. Yet, when we look between their ears, in their brains, it’s very hard to see how any of the electrical, chemical activity going on there - like the diffusion of neuromodulators, the buzzing of all the action potentials - is what they’re talking about. And yet something like that must be the case. It’s a puzzle, and for many of us the last scientific frontier. We now understand how reproduction happens, how earthquakes happen. We understand pretty much everything, but this is the one thing which is still bafling. Some people go further and say it’s a mystery we’ll never understand.

So you’re saying that science is basically meant for Martians? Or at least for people taking an outsider position?

Science is made for curiosity, for curious people, for curious agents, whether they’re Martians or Earthlings. We’re the species that asks why. Sometimes we want to know the reasons for people’s actions - why do we wear clothes? Sometimes we’re asking for the raison-d’être of facts. And sometimes we’re asking how things get the way they are. Why is there that pattern of cracks in the mud? That’s not for a purpose, it’s just a physical process. There’s a process narrative that says: When the mud dries it shrinks, the water evaporates, and the cracks have to be somewhere. That’s how you get this pattern, and you can get far more specific if you want. When we ask why about conciousness, it turns out that both the ‘What for?’ and the ‘How come?’ are very hard to answer. We’re making progress though.
Of course one doesn’t have to be curious about everything, or about all aspects. I wonder if Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Cervantes or Marcel Proust… Let’s think about him. Would Marcel Proust have an interest in contemporary cognitive neuroscience? I rather doubt it. He has his own way of satisfying his curiosity about the mind. But I would be very disappointed in him if he didn’t understand this other way of being curious, even if he didn’t want to pursue it himself. I would expect him to appreciate that there’s more than one set of questions that are worth exploring, and that his way of being curious about the mind is only one way. He might even contribute to it. I once called conciousness the Joycean machine, which is my crude name for the set of processes in the brain that underlie human conciousness.

In your books and articles you call this mechanistic or materialistic approach to the workings of the mind ‘heterophenomenology’. Meaning that people say things about what they’re experiencing, while in their brains quite different processes are going on. People are basically formulating their beliefs about what’s happening, and it is up to science to formulate what’s really going on.

In a sense all you ever express are your beliefs, whether they’re scientific beliefs or beliefs about what’s going on inside your own head. But the important thing is that we ask before we begin our theorizing: What are our data? What’s the set of phenomena that science has to explain? I suggest: Don’t jump in and say it’s people’s inner feelings. Those are not the data, because we don’t have access to these feelings. We only have access to what people think their inner feelings are, which they can tell us when we ask them. In addition to speaking about these feelings, they can also tell us by pushing buttons, or steering a car or drawing a line on a diagram. Take the behavioral manifestations of conciousness, not described as a behaviorist would, but describing them as attemps by a person to tell somebody else: This is what it’s like to be me. This is the world according to me, this is my world. John Irving wrote the novel The World According to Garp, and this is a common enough meme That gives you, I claim, the maximal set of data. If there are things going on in X that X cannot tell us about because X has no beliefs, true or false, about them, than that’s not part of our access to X’s conciousness—and not part of X’s own access either.

If somebody’s explaining what they’re feeling, you said, they might be lying. How can you ever check that?

First of all, in addition to the crude polygraph lie detectors that are used by police departments all over the world, there are now far more sophisticated ways to probe people’s brain activities. So a lie detector can be quite a reliable research instrument. And secondly, the heterophenomenological method prepares subjects in ways that prevent them from having beliefs about what you want them to say. That’s a huge difference between this kind of research and other forms of science. As a chemist in a laboratory you don’t have to whisper for fear of the materials hear what you want them to do. In the heterophenomenology lab you don’t even whisper, you’re very careful to conceal the point of the experiments so that there’s no motivation to lie.

Lying is basically: you know what’s true, and then you tell something different. But people often tell the truth and still science isn’t really interested. I saw on television two ordinary people talking about their near death experiences. A man told how he drowned in a lake, and suddenly felt he was going towards this light, there was happiness and peace flowing towards him, and then suddenly some old friends who had died years before showed up and told him to go back, he had to go on living. And he said how sad he was he had to get back. That was a very emotional story about a life changing experience. And here comes the scientist, and he said: Oh, that’s a case of anoxia, there wasn’t enough oxygen in his brains, it’s a well known phenomena, the same thing happens with people who are exremely drunk or do strangle sex. This made me think that the conversation between the first and third person perspective will never come about. Here we have somebody who had an existential experience. Maybe it’s an illusion, but it’s a fundamental one. And on the other hand we have somebody who’s talking about oxygen and peculiar sex. To me the first person perspective here is far more interesting and convincing than the third persion explanation.

I think they’re both interesting. I don’t think that the one is that much more interesting than the other. If you think that the first person experience has some extra warrant, is somehow looking into realms of meaning that are otherwise inaccesable, and that we’re getting accurate tales from a traveler in a different realm, you’re imagining something that could be true. But we have every reason to believe it isn’t true. Imagine somebody who says: I’m just back from the planet Venus, and let me tell you how amazing that is, and he has wonderful tales to tell. If you just like the stories and don’t want to find out if the guy actually went to Venus, well fine, then you’re a science fiction novelist, and that can be great. But you’d be a fool to take this tale teller at his word without checking it if you want to get to the truth. And when we check what’s happening during a near death experience, it all unravels. The experiences are predictable, explainable in a sort of deflationary way. Maybe that’s too bad, maybe we’d rather not deflate stories because they are so thrilling. But we should know what we’re doing. We’ve chosen fiction over fact because we like fiction.

It’s not just fiction what these people are telling. They had an intens experience, and are trying to find the right imagery to explain or come to grips with what happened…

This is true. My friend and collegue Nicholas Humphrey and I studied multiple personality disorder for quite a number of years back in the ‘80’s. He pursued further research with people who claimed to have had close encounters of the 3d kind, who had been abducted and taken off in space ships. A lot of people love these stories and take them very seriously. But in every case he looked closely into he found very persuasive if inconclusive evidence that these people were victims of sexual abuse. They were looking for a way to tell their tale, and this was an available fiction which was more gratifying for them than the truth. What he was saying was, if you just pauze, put the marvelousness on hold, and ask yourself: What is it these people are talking about? You might discover they’re all victims of crimes, and we should jolly well explore that.

This makes me think of Marcel Proust again, as an author of fiction. From whom can we learn more about the actual functioning of conciousness, or of memory as with Proust: from the perspective of a huge project like his novels of In Search of Time Lost, or from cognitive science and the philosophy of conciousness?

We can’t learn anything from neuroscience unless neuroscience learns a lot from Proust. It is from the wealth of literature, and the narratives that people tell, that neuroscientists get all their ideas. Where else could they get them? The history of cognitive neuroscience is only 25 years old, maybe 50 years if you stretch the term a bit. There was nothing that even looked like or deserved to be called cognitive neuroscience when I first got involved. To say ‘cognitive’ neuroscience is to say: This is neuroscience that attemps, for the first time, to look at the brain from the perspective of the mind, and to think about it as a thinking thing, a hoping, believing, remembering, wondering, daydreaming, attending thing. And so where do you start if you want to do cognitive neuroscience?
For all their accounts of hoping, wondering, daydreaming, scheming, fearing you go to the novelists and autobiographies. Every novel can be viewed as a rich collection of possible phenomena to be examined. And notice there is a potent self-correcting force in the world of literature. People who like novels like novels that are not directly credible as factual tales, but somehow true to life. But look at all the bad novels, and all the novels that don’t get published in the first place: Most novelists aren’t very good at portraying the life of a mind from a first or even third person perspective. The ones that are great we have identified. We can see and we agree that they’re great. We have a consensus that Proust, Jane Austen, Joyce, Dickens, Flaubert are really capturing something we recognise, even if it’s heightened, distorted, portraying circumstances that we never lived through - think of Crime and Punishment. It’s not a mistake to treat novels as a treasuretrove of information about human conciousness.

You have come up with a model of how the brain works in order to produce memories and conciousness that you call Fame in the Brain. If information is repeated regularly in the brain it becomes part of memory and of conciousness. On the one hand Fame in the Brain sounds rather like television to me…

Oh no, the whole point of Fame in the Brain is that it’s not like television. The source was a paper I wrote which said: Conciousness is more like fame than like television. The whole idea was to come up with a suitable counter-image, an antidote to the otherwise almost irresistible image of conciousness as being an inner show that goes on on a special private screen in the Cartesian theater of the mind. This image is deeply wrong, no matter how seductive. I wanted to find a way to break out of that pattern, and I came up with fame. Being on television is one thing, being famous is something else obviously. Lots of people come on television that never get famous, lots of people are famous that you don’t see on tv. If you think about the difference between those two phenomena, you are ipso facto thinking about the difference between fame and television, and conciousness is more like fame in the brain.

Fame in the sense that a thing keeps coming back…

Fame is a sort of political influence. Some events in the brain manage to dominate the topics. Others happen, and are oblivious in no time. They evaporate. In America we speak of a person who has clout, which is a sort of political power. It’s not quite the same thing as fame, but then what’s happening in the brain is neither fame. The brain is not a society with newspapers and so forth. But some contents in the brain have more clout than others, and those are the ones that get concious. And the way to get clout in the brain is the same way you get clout in a human society. It’s by interacting vigorously and effectively with lots of different things, so that you play a bigger and bigger role in the activities that are going on around you.

In later texts you propose instead of Fame in the Brain something you call the Fantasy Echo model. I love that term because for one thing it comes from a mistake, a student thought his professor was explaining about Fantasy Echo when in fact he was talking about fin de siècle.

A wonderful mistake, yes. A sort of serendipity that’s hard to resist.

Indeed. Fantasy Echo means that basically everything we experience is fantasy, or illusion, or belief, but then if it gets echoed enough in the brain it somehow becomes part of conciousness. And that’s just what artists and novelists hope to achieve with their viewers or readers: get their fantasies echoing and because of that to get them stuck in the brain as a memory.

One of the features of the metaphor or the analogy that is attractive to me is that we finally have the right sort of phenomena to start modelling on actual brain activity. We’re beginning to get from the neuroscience models of recurrent re-entry circuits, which are a sort of echo in themselves. Neurologists are moving towards a model of neural activity which consists of loops within loops within loops. Little short echoes, bigger echoes, and then great big echoes that go from hemisphere to hemisphere, that rebound through the body in various ways. And they’re all recurrent loops in one form or another. Doug Hofstadlers wonderful book I Am a Strange Loop is simply the best metaphorical and evocative account of this. But much more technical versions of the same idea are sprouting about.

And then the question is: How long does the echo last?

Till you die. And maybe beyond that if you write an autobiography.

But you also mention that in dogs the echo only lasts for a few days at the most, and then it’s forgotten. Which makes me wonder how a dog thinks if all he has is a three days time horizon?

What makes you think a dog thinks?

They make decisions, they look at situations and then do one thing instead of another. Apparently there is some process of rationality going on.

Let me be deliberately provocative. Since we know that people attach important moral significance to this question, and there’s a 500 years old tradition of outrage agains Descartes’ suggestion that animals can’t think, because of what this suggests about what is permissable to do to animals, we know this is a morally charged issue. So we should anticipate that people in general err on the side of contributing much more human-like thinking to animals than they have reason to believe. They simply err on the side of humaneness, not humanity, because they’re enlarging the circle to include animals because they think the way we do. What I want to say is: Go ahead, but do not make the mistake of saying you’re enlarging the circle because they think the way we do, because we have precious little evidence that they do. And we know lots of reasons for saying that animal thinking, animal conciousness, and animal experience are just orders of magnitudes cruder, simpler, impoverished compared to ours. The difference between the conciousness of a dog and the conciousness of a three year old child is like the difference between bird song and human language. It’s a huge difference. Bird song is a communicative event, it has some structure, syntax, phonology, but you can’t tell a lie, make a joke, or describe your youth. There’s very little you can say in bird song.

Are we entirely sure here?

Yes, we are. Somebody once said about dolphins: “It’s possible that they’re really intelligent, even more intelligent than we are. But if so, they’re doing a brilliant job of hiding that.” For every experiment that shows animal cleverness - and humans love those stories - there are ten experiments that show animal stupidity. Of course you can say: O, it was just a bad day for the animal, or this is an experiment that isn’t getting to the true inner wonderfullness of the animal. Well, if you insist you can always try to discredit the studies. But the fact is that in the good studies there is always a behavior that would be very much in the interest of the animal to execute at this point. It would be a way of getting something it wants, or get away from something it doesn’t want, and you provide it the information in a form that it plausibly will be able to recognize, and it just doesn’t.
One of my favourite examples is dolphins with their fabled intelligence. Yes, they are mammals so they’re far more intelligent than any fish. But stop for a moment and think: Why do tuna fishers have to have scuba divers in the water to help the dolphins get out of their nets? Those dolphins are great leapers. All they have to do is jump over the nets. That’s not rocket science. But they have to be helped as if they were new-born infants. Can they not see that this is the way to get out? Are they so flustered or disoriented? You would think they would be resourceful escapers, but they’re not.

But you acknowledge that there is something like animal conciousness?

Sure, there is something like animal conciousness.

But is there the same Fantasy Echo phenomenon going on?

Yes and no. Nowhere near as much echo, and nowhere near as much fantasy. First of all, again to play the devils advocate, I want to point out to people how strong the arguments are for scepticism on many of the issues we’re talking about. There are many things that animals do for very good reasons, but the animals don’t have to recognise them. The piping plover, the low nesting bird that does the famous distraction display, lures the predator from the nest. Very clever behavior. But it’s a mistake to think that the bird is thinking: Let’s see now, I can save my young by luring that fox away. I must make sure I’m close enough to the fox for the fox to think it has a chance, so I must keep just out of reach. And if the fox loses interest in me I have to raise the volume, I have to become more pathetic. And they do all that. But there’s no reason to think they think about the fox. This is a very clever instinct. They are the beneficiaries, but they don’t have to think about it.

For an animal to be rational, it doesn’t have to think?

For an animal to be the beneficiary of a rational strategy it doesn’t have to be able to think the rational strategy. Suppose a bird is building its nest outside a childs bedroom. The child watches the bird build the nest, and then builds a nest very much like the birds nest. The child is going to be thinking: why am I doing this? I need a piece that’s just fit to do what I need for the nest, and it would be a very sophisticated thought process that governs the childs nest building. It’s a mistake to think the birds process is that sophisticated. It’s wonderful, and we can do experiments, we can induce birds to build nests and we can set out different materials and see how clever they are, and how much they’re simply the beneficiaries of habits that they don’t have to understand. There are a lot of things we do that we don’t have to undertand: we sneeze, we shiver when we’re cold, we vomit when we get poisoned in our stomachs. There’s good reasons to do so, but they are not our reasons. We don’t have to understand why we vomit. Evolution has provided lots of good reasons for doing things that we don’t understand.

So why do we humans need a conciousness, or why do we need to be able to think if it goes without thinking?

The short answer of course is: because other people think. If you’re in a group of thinkers, you better be a thinker yourself. It’s a self-sustaining talent.

But why would humans have started thinking? Is it an evolutionary advantageous strategy?

Now that you’ve asked that question, you really have to make sure that you have a new playing field. And you should recognise that maybe the evolution of conciousness wasn’t a good idea. Maybe it just caught on, and there’s a kind of run-away sexual selection going on here. It’s like the peacocks tail. Once that has started you’re in a tremendous disadvantage if you don’t put a lot of energy in the making of a great big tail. Maybe we’d all be better off if we’d never become concious and never had language. Once our brains got infected with language there was a huge reaction of growth and change that has turned us into these amazing large brain creatures that spend so much energy thinking. It may turn out to be an evolutionary dead-end.
After all, look what we’ve done. 10,000 years ago, at the birth of agriculture there were around 500,000 people, maybe a bit more. Paul McCready calculated that at that time Homo sapiens plus their domesticated animals, their livestock and their dogs, amounted of a fraction of 1 procent of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass, that is of the animals. We were outnumberd 99,9 procent by all the other animals. We’re not including the fish in the sea and the insects, etc. Today, 10,000 years later, which in evolutionary terms is a twinkle, what percent is that you suppose? We plus our lifestock - most of it cattle - are 98 percent of the vertebrate biomass on the planet.
There is no important genetic difference between humans beings 20,000 years ago and today. It’s culture that makes the difference. It’s the language, the conciousness, and the culture that’s perhaps the greatest leap in the history of evolution on the planet, the quickest change.

To me being concious means that we as humans can imagine things might be different.

Oh yes. When we look at evolutionary processes we see that in general they are hill climbing processes. They’re local improvements. Nobody until us was able to say: Look over there, there’s a possible peak, we have to go down through the valley to get there, so let’s first put our heads together if there’s some way we can get there from where we’re now. That capacity to imagine alternatives is tremendously potent and apparently there’s nothing like it in other species.

Arjen Mulder (1955) is bioloog van opleiding en essayist van roeping. Zijn meest recente boeken zijn: Wat is leven? (2014, bekroond met de Dr. Wijnaendts Franckenprijs 2018), De successtaker (2016) en het spraakmakende Vanuit de plant gezien (2019).

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