Friday, 23 May 2014

Pianos, Consciousness and John Searle's “Chinese Burn”

Like some surreal eruption from the unconscious (the kind you would see in a Buñuel film), a gleaming grand piano has appeared in the office of my Vice-Chancellor. To me, it's a giant question mark - the question being “what is going on in a consciousness that suddenly decides it wants to display (I haven’t heard it played) a grand piano in its environment?” (There’s another question, “Who paid for it?”, but others can ask that!) But regarding the consciousness question, I've been lucky this week to have an authority to help me.

I went to hear John Searle talk about consciousness in Cambridge yesterday. I like Searle’s recent work on social ontology very much, and my feeling from reading “Making the Social World” was that he had softened his analytical, post Wittgensteinian language-centred view to acknowledge that there are things in the world like social institutions, families – and pianos – which have existence independent of intensional processes and about which objective knowledge is possible. The  lecture room in Wolfson college was packed: “good turnout for a philosophy lecture,” said someone sitting behind me, as people crammed in standing at the back and sitting on the floor at the front. Searle is very much the celebrity philosopher: engaging and confident; almost brash.

He spoke about his belief that a proper scientific understanding consciousness is possible, important and urgent. He says clearly (and I agree): "The subjectivity of a domain is not a barrier to objective knowledge". He then talked of the empirical priority to understand the neurocognitive correlates (like MRI scans as people think about elephants), determine regularities and explain them with new theories. [Hmm - not so sure about that.] He discussed his picture of consciousness as a conscious field which is disturbed by events. He spoke about the causality of consciousness, highlighting the failure of the mind-body separation, by saying “if I think of raising my arm, my arm raises” (and he raises his arm). (It’s the closest philosophers get to exploding sodium in water.) He then talked about the coexistence of different levels of description of conscious states. I took him to say that consciousness is a state of coordination between different levels of description (quite a cybernetic idea). If we could understand how these different levels of description inter-relate, we would understand consciousness. He then went on to say how metaphysical mysteries could be scientifically resolved (his conviction reminded me of the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus).

I was beginning to get a bit uncomfortable by this stage – not just because I was sat on the floor. I like the idea of simultaneous different levels of description. But these levels of description are, in effect, discourses: different ways of explaining things by different kinds of scientists. And yes, we live with multiple descriptions of the world and somehow pick our way through them. But the map is not the territory, and a level of description is not the same as the thing described. What a neuron actually does is not the same order of thing as what we think it does. Why does this matter? Because if you conflate the map and the territory in the description of neurons, you exclude the sociological dimension that supports the production of the description in the first place.

Searle engaged in an entertaining presentation of his Chinese Room argument (which challenges the Turing test for artificial intelligence, and also refutes the view that human cognition involves computer-like symbolic manipulation). I've been thinking about an alternative thought experiment to illustrate the problem of the social participation in levels of description: "The Chinese Burn".

It’s very simple: Person A believes they have a perfect understanding of consciousness in themselves and in others. Person A tests this by inflicting a “Chinese burn” on person B. Conscious thought is causal, so consequently, Person A grabs Person B’s arm with both hands and twists and stretches the skin to give them a ‘Chinese Burn’. Person B says “Ouuuch! You bastard!” Person A perceives these sound vibrations, believing them to confirm their theory, and simultaneously resists attempts of Person B to escape. Neurons fire away in Person A, and their conscious field adjusts to the stimulation in ways they expect. “Stop it! You’re really hurting me!” says Person B (loudly, turning red). The different levels of description in Person A readjust their conscious field as they twist harder, gazing intently into Person B’s eyes and picking up new stimuli relating to Person B’s consciousness, further confirming their theory. Satisfied about the correctness of their understanding, Person A eventually releases Person B (now in tears) and Person B runs away clutching their arm.

What does the “Chinese Burn” tell us? There are a number of lessons:
  1. If human beings tune-out any level of description, they become capable of cruelty. 
  2. Tuning-out is a process of forgetting that levels of description are social discourses
  3. The levels of description most commonly tuned-out by science are those levels which relate to human nature, the will, ethics and politics
  4. Tuning-out and tuning-in are practices: Mindlessness is what we call the former; Mindfulness is the name we give to the latter
I suggested to Searle that if a scientific understanding of consciousness was possible, it would introduce new political problems. “Ah, yes – consciousness pills!” he said, “How conscious is your child?!” … “Well, I’m willing to take the risk!” he said. I didn't respond, but that’s exactly what I mean by “tuning out a level of description”.

So what of pianos? The difference between artists and scientists is that artists open themselves to all levels of description. What would the artist Joseph Bueys make of my Vice-Chancellor’s consciousness? His piece of 1966, “Homogenous Infiltration for Piano” says it all – the silencing of a possibility of a voice. I worry that this is also the case with Searle's confidence in consciousness science.

Ironically, it’s the lost voices in consciousness research that Searle is trying to reinvigorate – particularly at his Tucson Consciousness Conferences. But I suspect that in order to get close to what he wants (and I think there is something there), we would have to reframe what we mean by two practices: “scientific” and “artistic”. That might be the best thing to come out of this.

Finally, there is a fundamental question (perhaps the question I should have asked Searle, but I hadn’t thought of it then…):
  • How is a theory of consciousness possible that doesn't tune-out any level of description?
Or more succinctly,
  • How might an understanding of consciousness heal?
Maybe that's what the VC's piano is about...

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