Qualia as information processing, and philosophical thought experimentsPosted: May 30, 2020
My good friend Mike Smith recently published two posts that I consider largely meant to counter some of my own positions. The first comes from his belief that qualia exist as processed information alone, and the second questions the validity of philosophical thought experiments. I consider the premise of qualia as the generic processing of information to require supernatural dynamics, and reasonably displayed through the “thumb pain” thought experiment that I’ve often mentioned at his site and elsewhere. I’ve decided to address these matters with this dedicated post, given how involved my response happens to be.
When we’re trying to decide if something should be believed (and I mean anything), I consider us to carry out that premise in other ways so that its implications can be explored more fully. For example, from the premise that there is a gravitational attraction regarding mass, it stands to reason that we should observe a given metal ball’s attraction to the earth to be similar at various locations around our planet. Or if the person that you’re married to is covertly having an affair with someone, then there should be evidence of that infidelity which might clue you in. And whatever people believe in a metaphysical, epistemological, or axiological sense, there should be ways to carry such ideas further to help clarify their meaning, whether directly testable or not.
My second principle of epistemology states that there is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. Here the agent takes what it thinks it knows (or evidence), and use this to assess what it’s not so sure about (or a model). As a given model continues to remain consistent with evidence, it tends to become more believed. Thus my assertion that philosophers must also be permitted to use humanity’s exclusive tool from which to figure things out.
The essential problem highlighted by the thought experiments flagged by James Wilson, I think, is not that thought experiments are referenced, but rather that the discipline of axiology resides under the social tool of morality.
For example, Peter Singer is correct to observe that I’d destroy something like my expensive Italian shoes to save a child who is drowning in front of me. It’s from this premise that he says that I should spend similar sums of money to help save the lives of even more children. He’s wrong about that however — they’re not causing me nearly as much unhappiness as a child drowning in front of me would.
This is where I get blamed for being an jerk, or I essentially get penalized through the social tool of moral persuasion. Apparently because few psychologists permit themselves to explore their field amorally (which is how all hard sciences are explored), there is a refusal to support the idea that feeling good constitutes the value of existing. It’s an obscure thesis sometimes referred to as “psychological egoism”.
So my point is that modern ethical reasoning does not fail because it’s provided with thought experiments, but rather because the social tool of morality rarely permits philosophers (and people in general) to think about these matters effectively. Until a respected community of professionals is able to agree upon something like my single principle of axiology (or that it’s possible for a machine which is not conscious to produce a value dynamic from which to drive the function of a machine which is conscious), the basic behavioral science of psychology should fail to provide a broad general theory from which to found our soft sciences.
If there is reason to believe that ethical thought experiments fail because of an existing social tool rather than because there’s anything wrong with extending a premise further in such matters, then my “thumb pain” thought experiment remains to be reckoned with. In this effort let’s consider how I responded to Mike’s first post on the matter:
Philosopher Eric May 28, 2020 at 5:33 am
It seems to me that as the term is commonly used, “information” can both be provided to a conscious entity, as well as animate the function of a given non-conscious machine. I’ll quickly display each, as well as suggest that the two shouldn’t be conflated.
If I feel a strong pain associated with the need to urinate, this will tend to “inform” me about the circumstance. Though I wouldn’t quite say that pain “exists as” information (given the conflation issue that I’m about to address), I certainly do say that I’m informed by pain.
Beyond information provided to the conscious entity, or the term’s traditional form, today it’s commonly also used in reference to non-conscious machines. A television picture may be animated by means of television signals, for example, and we’ve come to refer to such signals themselves as “information”. Note that typing provides information to your computer, and it may process that information to then provide a different set of information which helps animate a computer screen.
Regarding the conflation of the two, given that we’ve come to refer to stuff which animates our machines to exist as “information itself”, and that things like pain will inform the conscious entity in a traditional sense, it’s understandable that some today have decided that qualia probably exist as information beyond any specific mechanism — only the pattern matters here.
Beyond conflating the conscious and non-conscious forms of the word, consider a lesson that exists even from the non-conscious variety. I don’t know of anything produced by our machines which is said to exist as information alone. In all cases that I know of, specific mechanisms must be animated in order for information to help produce any output function.
Apparently some prominent scientists and philosophers have become heavily invested in qualia existing without mechanism based instantiation, however. (I’d forgotten that professor Schwitzgebel referred to information as “causality itself”, which seems like a tautological mess.) If the thus “non problem” of qualia is explained away by dismissing any need for specific mechanical instantiation, note that this frees theorists in all sorts of otherwise sci-fi ways. Few seem to have acknowledge there to be a naturalistic downside to this convention however. Wouldn’t this mean that the right set of information laden paper which is converted into another, should create what we experience when our thumbs get whacked? Strange! So it could be that causal dynamics “of this world” instead depend upon information animating the right kinds of mechanisms.
Should humanity ever grasp why any of the four forces exist? Even if further progress does happen to be made, such speculation should always end in “…because”. The naturalist however will presume that they’re mechanism based, like all else. And what mechanism might the processed information associated with brain information be animating to produce qualia? My money is on certain electromagnetic radiation produced by neurons. (And it could be that some of the popular “information only” qualia theories in neuroscience would survive such a paradigm shift anyway. Some may effectively describe what it takes to animate such mechanisms.)
Next consider Mike’s response:
SelfAwarePatterns May 28, 2020 at 9:24 am
So, on the two types of information, let’s give each of them a name. The more primal one, the one I equate with causation, represents information in the sense typically used by physicists, so let’s call it physical information, or p-info. The more restricted version involving usage by conscious minds, let’s call that conscious information, or c-info.
So, the question is, why do we use “information” to refer to both of these? I think the answer is that when we discover p-info and learn about its role, it becomes c-info. We refer to DNA as information because we recognize its role in transmission of the recipe for replicating biological organisms. But before we discovered it, it operated for billions of years as p-info. Once we discovered it, it also became c-info.
All c-info is also p-info. (If you can identify cases where this isn’t true, I’m very interested.) As far as I can tell, all p-info has the potential to be c-info, at least in principle, though there may be cases where it will never be practical.
So, while we can talk about these as different types of information, the use of the word “information” for both strikes me as both rational and coherent.
On the qualia argument, aren’t you the one always arguing that we should accept the other person’s definitions? If so, what objection remains for qualia being p-info, or at least processing of p-info? Wouldn’t any mechanism inevitably involve p-info? And once we understand those mechanisms, wouldn’t they become c-info? If not, why not?
I think the argument for electromagnetic fields playing a major role is weak, but even if they did, it seems it would be just another information processing mechanism.
To finally respond, no I can’t think of a single situation where c-info becomes p-info. For example, my understanding that electromagnetic radiation is able to animate a television, should not be equated with the electromagnetic radiation which actually does this. (There’s an irony here since I do suspect that understandings exist through the medium of electromagnetic radiation, though surely not the same kind that can animate one of our televisions!) So as I see it, separate ideas have been conflated, thus resulting in a supernatural idea regarding the creation of qualia. If qualia does exist this way, then what would be a second example of something which exists by means of information independent of any specific mechanisms?
The point of my thought experiment is to display that in order for information to create something, such as a television picture or thumb pain, causal dynamics mandate that associated mechanisms will need to be animated. Certain prominent scientists and philosophers seem to have unwittingly removed any causal instantiation mechanism for qualia, and thus presume there to be no associated “hard problem”. I consider this to be an unwitting use of a supernatural idea, to combat the one famously proposed by David Chalmers.
A simple solution does exist for those who would regress to the natural side of things, or to presume that qualia exist by means of associated mechanisms. This could be the electromagnetic radiation associated with neuron firing, or some other such medium. And note that bold proclamations for the status quo that qualia exist “as causation itself”, will concern a precarious tautology.