Yes, science does affect culture
A major aspect of postmodernism as I understand it (and please jump in, any art historians or the like who know better than I do) was a response to the mechanized nature of modern life and especially the way mechanized societies marched into two catastrophic world wars. To analyze and deconstruct the place of the human within a machine, which points the focus at impersonal forces. I don’t know Skinner’s motivation, but who knows, this may have been in his mind as well. That would make the scientific turn away from consciousness itself a consequence downstream of technological changes and the way those technologies were integrated into society. By way of comparison, I agree with you that AI is likely to have a similarly major impact on how we view ourselves, our interiority, and our relation to the world. We’ll see exactly how, but I expect it to be weirder than “merely” a consciousness winter.
I've been fairly vocal about the unlikely prospects for a scientific theory of consciousness, absent a major conceptual upheaval on par with Copernicus or Darwin.
The present status quo is committed to physicalism/materialism, reductionism, and a form of naturalism knitting them together (which includes certain anti-metaphysical claims and claims about the authority of science, in addition to the preceding) which makes it logically impossible to speak of subjectivity, consciousness, or properties thereof without literal magic.
No one will squeeze the blood of mind from a material stone. And that is the entire problem with a scientific approach as things stand. I don't believe we ever exited the consciousness winter. The legacies of behaviorism and logical positivism have haunted cognitive science and AI since McCulloch and Pitts. Jerome Bruner lamented how cog-sci turned into computationalism and information theory after the post-behaviorist cognitivist turn. These theories are physicalist from their founding philosophical and conceptual assumptions.
Always engaging Erik. I recently read a paper from DeepMind. Its purpose was to frame the path to AGI. I would imagine that AI and consciousness research has needed many adjustments in theory through the years. It seems there has been an "unconscious" desire for them to have a confluence. The paper does a very good job explaining why thought, constructed in machines can certainly get where human insight has managed to bring us and go far beyond its capabilities. It may very well be we get to advanced knowledge, insight and understanding and it doesn't necessarily require consciousness at all! It was simply required for us due to the limitations of our biological capacities. https://arxiv.org/pdf/2311.02462.pdf
Humans as biological language models 🤣 I’m laughing, not laughing because I’m sure that the AI metaphors will soon abound in texts written by biological language models (BLMs?) just like everything was quantum mechanics for a while, from quantum mechanics to, well, astrology and tarot. But if we forget our intrinsic perspective we’ll just all (LLMs, BLMs) cannibalize on the same corpora of data until we only regurgitate gibberish. What a wonderful society that will be!
Could there have been an influence from physics ? The early 20th physics showed conclusively that what seems a certain truth from our lived experience is often demonstrably wrong in the real world. Letting go of intuitions on things as simple and certain as energy, position, momentum, even time, was a big part of what scientists had to do in that time.
So if all one had to believe in the existence of consciousness, something far more abstract than time or position, was this intuitive certainty that we exist as conscious beings, it's quite logical that many would not trust intuition and instead argue that science starts where measurements do. This input/output black box model of organism that you describe for behaviourism is basically the matrix form of quantum mechanics, applied to living systems.
Pushing the analogy a bit, relativity, where even energy is in the eye of the beholder, brought phenomenology, where the Subject reigns supreme. Quantum matrix, which worked best when not asking too many questions as to whether the cat inside is dead or alive, brought behaviourism, where the Subject is denied even the right to be thought about.
Indulging in more speculation, I would say the evolution of physics away from matrix and into quantum field theory, where fields move stuff and stuff move fields, is a framework that better accommodates consciousness as object of study. Perhaps scientists in the first half of the 20th did not stop believing that lived experience including consciousness must have some material, physical basis (that stuff move fields, if you will, if one pictures consciousness as a field). What was perhaps harder to posit until QFT was that consciousness moves stuff that moves consciousness. (BTW, you don't mention Penrose as Nobel from a (really) unrelated field that worked in consciousness.)
That "thought moves stuff and stuff moves thought" is easy to accept if most of physics just accepts that fields move stuff and stuff move fields.
Brilliant as ever, Erik. With an expected dosage of push-backs from espoused erudites. No hate intended here.
One quibble with your treatment of postmodernism: Too textually framed. Culturally-driven PM works ala Derrida seek to 'deconstruct' through discourse social reality . We draw distinctions on material v the socially constructed.
I'm betting you find, as I do, Foucault's work on discourse within institutions (medicine, the law) a bit more sophisticated. The often self-serving interests of Science to the detriment of enhancing new knowledge /refining prior understandings might be a project worth undertaking. The knowledge "base" of consciousness seems fluid, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing...
I'd think Carl Jung would be a part of your introduction.
I intuitively disgorge all isms, although my thoughts and values have been formed by many. That's probably why I can get behind metamodernism without wanting to be labelled a metamodernist.
On one side, I see how postmodernism has contributed to putting out the inner fire. I also worry that humans will intuitively think of humans as AIs. On the other hand, I sense a shift in that people are craving more meaning, mystical experiences, consciousness, and other aspects of life that require constant exploration rather than categorical explanations.
Maybe a cultural shift towards metamodernism is what we need.
"[metamodernism] oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. ...Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony; the moment its irony sways toward apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm."
-- Vermeulen and van den Akker
I attended Harvey Mudd College in the early 2000s, where I did my B.S. in Mathematical Biology. I was always interested in the brain, the mind, and approaching consciousness from some kind of mathematical framework, with the tools I learned. I remember feeling extremely out of place with these interests, or really, trying to do anything at the time that was a fusion, crossover etc. in any way, as everyone’s research projects seemed to be focused on 11-dimensional manifolds or using systems of partial differential equations to model the expression of a single gene. When, after finally having free electives after nearly 2 years of mandatory courses, I finally got to take a neuroscience class and philosophy of mind one, a professor asked me about my research interests and plans.
“Well, I want to study consciousness and how to understand the mind from a mathematical framework.”
He said, “there’s not a lot of jobs in that sort of thing, but there’s plenty if you want to model joints biomechanically!”
Thus ended my career in science.
(I also tried to read some of Koch’s books back then as well—I don’t think I understood much, or else it didn’t make much of an impression on me, even though in THEORY, it was exactly what I was looking for—but it’s not clear to me what the impact on that kind of research has been on understanding our actual minds vs just thorough and insightful psychological work, for instance, Bessel Van Der Kolk’s masterful, “The Body Keeps the Score”). It also seems to me most neuroscience research has not progressed since then much beyond very linear thinking/cell biology type work, which I personally think is exactly NOT how to understand the most complex, nonlinear, subjective system in the universe, or something like it).
A joke my favorite literature professor in college used to tell us: Two behaviorists have sex. Afterwards, one says to the other, "That was wonderful for you - how was it for me?"
I find the article insightful. I personally think that we should be concerned with all aspects of what I call #TheHumanAdvantage. It encompasses the aspects of being human which differentiate us from being a machine like #intuition, #consciousness, #imagination, moral #agency, #creativity and artistic expresssion, among others. Looking at the conclusion of the article, I would add that according to me humans already think of themselves as an AI or machine without realizing it. We do it every time when we by place more importance and higher value over pure knowledge, quantative data and analytical thinking over intuition for example. Also when we attach our identity to what we know, what we are expert in (as far as knowing) as opposed to who we are as a whole human being.
I find myself leaning these days toward the idea that the brain is more like a radio amplifying a signal than an originator of the signal itself. That would locate consciousness outside the brain, using the brain, which goes much more easily toward explaining some phenomena (shamanic abilities, for one) than saying it’s all happening between the ears. But I do agree that consciousness is quite worthy of a scientific look, whatever the staring point.
Late to the party because I am just a college student catching up on fun reading during break :)
I think your assertion about high intelligence and low consciousness not being true in humans is interesting. I would have initially disagreed, but I am wrestling with various thoughts now. What would you make of a high IQ individual with an overactive default mode network? Do you consider the default mode network in your understanding of consciousness?
That’s an interesting point you made, that GPT can be intelligent but not conscious, in contrast to humans. It brings to mind Moravec’s paradox and, though it doesn’t explain anything, highlights that ineffable something that being human seems to necessarily contain. I understand the urge to dualism.
Do you know David Bentley Hart already? He has a book on consciousness coming in spring 2024.
Here's a taste of it, I suppose... https://open.substack.com/pub/davidbentleyhart/p/reflections-on-life-and-mind?r=1jz4y2&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
I find a lot of the details in your essay fascinating, so thanks for an interesting read. But I'm not sure where you are going with this warning about wintry weather.
First, you talk about a lack of scientific work on consciousness during the heyday of behaviorism. During that time there was a great deal of philosophical debate about physicalism, informed by various psychological experiments, linguistics, neurological science and computational ideas. My question is, why would one expect much more than that, i.e., work specifically on the science of consciousness, at this point? You refer to James as having set off on a course of investigating consciousness which was then lost with the advent of behaviorism; but James, who got his concept of thought from Peirce, was exploring the phenomenology - he had no idea of the neural correlates of consciousness, except at a very high level. Ditto for those who followed him, the New Realists, Russell's neutral monism, etc. There really wasn't much of a basis for scientific study of consciousness until a lot more work was done at every level - brain biochemistry, studies of brain injuries and the conditions they lead to, psychological lab experiments, computer science and networking. Crick and Koch's 1990 hypothesis that Gamma waves might be responsible for cognitive binding (which is still being debated) was a kind of starting point, I think, not a revival. So I'm not sure what this "winter" amounts to; maybe just an acknowledgment that the tools were not there to go much beyond what James (and Husserl, and other phenomenologists) had already said. It's not clear to me that logical positivism stood in the way of scientific study of consciousness; what they opposed was what Frege called "psychologism" in the philosophy of language and logic, not the scientific study of the mind per se.
Then you refer to the revival of consciousness studies in the 1980's, but if I'm not mistaken, it wasn't just Chomsky and innateness and the decline of behaviorism but Tom Nagel's "What Is It Like To Be a Bat?" (1974) that got things going. That is, I think the philosophical interest in consciousness, which resulted in hundreds of essays and dozens of books, sparked a more general interest, including the scientific project, because it was a direct challenge to physicalism: for all the scientists had learned about the brain so far, they couldn't say two words about how conscious experience is produced. So that set things off, and even the distinction between philosophers and cognitive scientists got very fuzzy with people like Dennett, the Churchlands, etc. Also it became much better recognized among neuroscientists that without a phenomenology you could not say what you were looking for correlates of, so they had to start taking the philosophical work more seriously. Now, in this glorious summer, there are journals and conferences and degree programs devoted to consciousness studies, but if you look at virtually every book published by a neuroscientist (Gazzaniga. Dehane, Humphrey, Edelman, Thagard... I think I have at least a dozen of these) they all enthusiastically spin out their theory of consciousness until they get to qualia, and then they wave their hands around and tell you why they don't need to answer that ("we are only interested in conscious *access* here", or whatever) or they hand you a promissory note. Worse, they don't even agree on the function of consciousness, or even whether it has one, which makes it very difficult to see how they are supposed to discover its neural basis. (The neural basis of a something-I-know-not-what?) The progress amounts to everyone having a competing theory that doesn't answer essential questions. It's not just IIT vs. "global workspace" (or "neuronal workspace") vs. "semantic pointers", it's all over the place. While brain science and cognitive science have made advances leading to useful discoveries (e.g., how to move cursors or prosthetic limbs with the mind) it is not clear to me that the "consciousness summer" we are in has been very useful for understanding consciousness. Wittgenstein had more interesting things to say about consciousness than anything I have found in a neuroscientific book on consciousness, even though he hardly ever used the term (Bewusstsein).
Finally you express concern about a new "consciousness winter". Since I don't see much gain from the warmer climate you report, I am not sure why we need to worry about this. The letter on Integrated Information Theory correctly points out that it is not science, though it's not "pseudoscience" either, in the sense of phrenology - it's more like a prescriptive statement about how we should use the word "conscious". Ned Block pointed out long ago that having the entire population of China connected by telephone would not create what we generally call a conscious entity, so I don't know that we really needed that letter - but in any case, there is no real science of consciousness happening at the moment, so I think the weather is going to stay about the same whether more neuroscientists jump into the fray or not.