Consciousness at last.

This is what kept me awake for many nights, and occupied a lot of my time for far too many years. Following my unhealthy intellectual ambition, I’ve written a paper, intended for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and tried submitting it. The title is suitably grandiose:Evolutionary Theory of Consciousness: a comprehensive model”, the short name is ETC (see links below for the Abstract). It turns out that the road to publication isn’t smooth sailing (what a surprise, eh?). For one, the intended primary audience is Cognitive Neuroscientists and thereabout, but the paper is 100% theoretical, and that doesn’t fit well in journals that publish experimental data. Secondarily, I’m not exactly playing it safe: what the paper is actually saying can be seen as openly adversarial by many, certainly a problem in purely tactical terms. The fact that it’s long doesn’t help either: the first rejection was mostly on length-grounds, the editor, reviewers and I all agreed that it was simply impossible to thoroughly expose my argument within the word-limits imposed by that particular journal.

Thus, following two rejections via peer review and one rejection from an editor (“Sorry, too philosophical for us”), I’ve decided to play it even less safe, pre-publish the paper, and see if I can get a useful amount of feedback in this way. Perhaps one day I’ll tell the peer-review story of ETC, it has been encouraging and frustrating, usually both at the same time.

By self/pre-publishing, I have a few aims, but they are all about collecting feedback and criticism, with the secondary hope of understanding if I should keep this effort alive. As I don’t swim in neuroscience waters any more,  I’d like to collect impressions on whether the theory can indeed be useful to neuroscientists (as I hope). If it may be useful, I’d like suggestions on how/where to get it published. Of course, feedback on how to improve the paper will always be welcome. Criticism on the theory itself would be even better, from any background. If ETC is of no use for neuroscience, I’d still like to understand if it would be worth publishing it under the badge of “neurophilosophy”.

Thus, a few things will happen:

First, you’ll find below a very short survey, a quick and dirty way to collect impressions without asking you to engage in a time-consuming dialogue. If you’ll read the paper, please make sure you’ll also fill-in the survey, it takes 3 minutes max. The current results should be visible once you complete the survey and I will certainly try to crunch the numbers if I’ll get enough data. In all cases, data or not, I will make the results public.

Second: on figshare, where the paper is available, it is possible to post comments. I will read them all, and reply there if my reply is short, otherwise I’ll write a full post in here. Please feel free to comment on this blog with all your thoughts and criticism as well. I’m notoriously slow in replying, by the way…

Third: I will also write a series of posts on ETC, focussing on particular aspects, and mostly concentrating on how ETC agrees or disagrees with various alternative theories of consciousness. ETC is designed to be rather inclusive, a high-level conceptual approach that should allow to interpret and organise lots of different kind of data and lower-level theories. This part should be fun!
Note also that I’ve already tried to address the criticism that could arrive from those who object to computational accounts of consciousness, Peter Hankins was generous enough to publish my thoughts in two posts on his Conscious Entities: “Sergio’s Computational Functionalism” and “Sergio Resurgent“.

Fourth: if you think ETC has some value, please feel free to disseminate as much as you like. I’d like to get plenty of feedback, so I’ll rely on your willingness to share. You can use the built-in sharing functions below, the ones available on figshare, and/or your own channels. If you’ll comment on ETC via your blog or other medium, a pingback should appear here (if you link to this page), otherwise, please notify me in some way, so that I’ll get a chance to read your thoughts and reply. Note also that I don’t use Facebook and have no plans to start now! [Incidentally, this is also an experiment on self-publishing and on open, post-publication peer review: I’m keen to see if it works!]

After all this, I don’t know what will happen. I may drop the subject, I may try again to get the paper peer-reviewed and published, or keep pushing in other ways. It will all depend on the kind and amount of feedback that I’ll be able to collect.

The full paper is available here:, the full DOI url is http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1520439.

After reading the paper, please fill-in the survey:

Thanks!

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Posted in Consciousness, Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Psychology, Science
9 comments on “Consciousness at last.
  1. Hi, Sergio! You’ll definitely get some feedback from me in a couple of days, can’t wait to read it! I recall that I have your gmail, would it be OK if I write out my reaction there?

  2. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Thanks Alexander,
    In here or Gmail, whichever suits you best really. I *am* looking forward to reading your thoughts, thanks for giving it a shot.

  3. […] pre publishing the Evolutionary Theory of Consciousness (ETC) paper, it’s time to provide a little context, […]

  4. ihtio says:

    Sergio,

    how much time did you spend on writing the paper? I’m asking about the total approximate number of hours spent and a time range (e.g. from 2011).

    Two or three rejections is not very much, IMHO. It is probably a “standard” in the scientific circles.
    Did you try asking the elders about publishing opportunities (Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers)?

    How about making it a book? Peter Hankins from Conscious Entities did a great job that way.

    Am I asking too many questions? :p

  5. ihtio says:

    Sergio,

    You write that you would like to “collect impressions on whether the theory can indeed be useful to neuroscientists”. In your opinion, how the theory would help neuroscientists in their work? How would their methods or experiments change after reading the paper? What will they look for in the brain?

  6. Sergio Graziosi says:

    ihtio,
    I believe I’ve answered the questions you pose in the second comment in my long reply under the “how, why and what” post. Do let me know if I didn’t.

    how much time did you spend on writing the paper? I’m asking about the total approximate number of hours spent and a time range (e.g. from 2011).

    Well, I can’t say anything about numbers of hours spent writing, and I don’t want to know, because it’s a lot!
    My first version was finished in the Summer 2013. It was huge, with a whopping 35K words. I then produced a second version for my first submission, just under 9K and it was agreed that there was no way I could lay down the argument properly within those limits. The third version was around 12K words, finished in Summer 2014 and rejected for reasons that I still fail to find capricious. The version I’ve uploaded incorporates the feedback that I got in 2014, at least, the parts that I found reasonable, of which there where plenty, to say it all.

    As to when I seriously started thinking about consciousness as such, it would have been sometime in 2012, during which I took the decision that I had to try solidifying the thoughts that haunted me. Before that, in the late ’90 I was exposed to the problem for the neurophysiology perspective, and then spent some 10 years living and breathing neuroscience as a postgrad student first and as the local IT specialist afterwards. It is in this second part, freed from the lab pressures, that I started understanding what didn’t quite convince me on how neuroscience research was being done. I suppose ETC is my attempt to produce something positive out of all the frustration I’ve accumulated in that part of my life. Things simmer and then pop out from unexpected directions, at least that’s what happens to me.

    Two or three rejections is not very much, IMHO. It is probably a “standard” in the scientific circles.

    That’s agreed. There are a few “buts” however.
    (1) I can’t reconcile myself with the second rejection. If I’m to accept it, I should just shut up and play guitar instead. It’s hard to find the right balance between using criticism in a positive way and being destroyed by it.
    (2) The third rejection from the editor comes with the take home message: “there IS no place for this sort of thing in real science journals”. Aggravating the previous point, and highlighting the problem of how narrow my window of opportunity is. If I keep my aim, and try to get published on a journal that is at least friendly towards Cognitive Neuroscience, I need to find one that is also accepting purely theoretical/hypothetical efforts and accepts long papers (12K at the very least, excluding bibliography), thus there aren’t that many options. I would also like to publish in open access, and possibly avoid the most unethical publishers, restricting the window even more!

    This is why we’re here now – I’ve decided to follow the current route, so that I may:
    (a) get decent, non-partisan suggestions on how to improve the paper (thanks!)
    (b) get some input on whether ETC can indeed be useful for basic neuroscience. If it can’t, I could expand my options by looking at more philosophical journals.
    (c) naturally, get feedback on whether the whole idea is worth pursuing in whichever way.

    Since I have no acquired position to protect, I’ve also decided to try doing it in the most open and transparent way. It’s all there for everybody to see, including the fact that my little survey will probably fail miserably. If you are going to risk it, risk it Big, that’s my stance.

    Did you try asking the elders about publishing opportunities (Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers)?

    A few years back I have exchanged a few emails with Chalmers (the visible outcomes are here and here), in my experience, he is as lovely and reachable as his reputation suggests. I haven’t tried approaching Dennett, but I’d love to. Currently, I am considering the idea of contacting Chalmers again, but boy it’s difficult to convince myself that I have the right to ask for his help, time and attention. If you have an opinion, please do share it!

    How about making it a book? Peter Hankins from Conscious Entities did a great job that way.

    This is the one suggestion I did get from an “elder”, to use your wording. I initially discounted it on the following grounds:
    1. I am nobody. It’s easy to predict that I’ll find it very hard to find a publisher, without having any publication to show as a testament that I’m not plucking preposterous ideas out of thin air (to be fair: I myself have no way of excluding this hypothesis without collecting feedback!). Thus, I thought: try getting something published via peer review, and then think about a book again.
    2. Being nobody, even if a book gets published (a big if), no-one in the field would have good reasons to read it. Considering how much new material gets published all the time, people have to use heuristic filters, and I can’t blame them for using reputation as the first one.

    Peter isn’t nobody, he already has a readership, that’s a big difference. The fact that he is so freaking generous (of course he doesn’t buy ETC) allowed me to exploit his standing and move up from being a complete zero, reaching maybe 0.01 (in a scale that goes from 0 to 100), but I’m not convinced this would be enough to overcome 1. and 2. However, I am asking people to suggests the way forward, so please do let me know your thoughts.
    (Many thanks again!)

    • ihtio says:

      Damn! Trying to publish is hard indeed…

      Writing to Chalmers [about the paper] seems like a decent idea. Of course we can’t know if he will like it, but he will certainly have fun interacting with someone new, with fresh ideas.
      Personally I think Dennett would do much to incinerate your ideas as they are very contra to what he believes :). And he is a demon when he wants to be.

      OK, general “feels” about the paper, assorted:
      – sometimes I thought I was reading a blog post: there were many informal addons that you often come across on a blog or in a longer book,
      – there are many references to “I” (the writer) and his intentions, which may not be necessary,
      – the comparisons with other theories (GW, DC) just use up space at this stage,
      – there is too much introductory or “easy” material, that is the paper contains very verbose expositions of concepts and ideas that anybody even remotely interested in reading the paper already knows. Such longer explanations are of course perfectly OK for a book, where there is much space,
      – the distinction between “attention” and “consciousness” isn’t that clear in the paper, sometimes the reader (in this case: me) has a feeling that the theory is a theory about attention, memory and learning, and consciousness is an unnecessary addition,
      – it would be great if the filter, EM and the generation of phenomenal experience were described in greater detail (instead of writing about other things),
      – it isn’t that clear why we need the “evolution part”. The paper scares about Conscious Killing Machines that could be built using the ideas from ETC, so clearly evolution is not a necessary component. The role of evolution is very unclear. We all know that conscious organisms evolved and that powerful brains are advantageous [usually], so the ETC should provide something more,
      – the morals and the scares about SkyNet at the end could easily be deleted,
      – the interaction between a Tuging-like computer and phenomenal experiences / qualia is very unclear. We don’t know [from the paper] how does the brain-computer operate / process qualia (and I’m not talking about – usual and very often not available to consciousness – neural representations of things in the brain),
      – the theory looks like it is consistent with every other theory mentioned in the paper (The Computational Theory of Mind, Global Workspace, Dynamic Core, Predictive Coding, Bayesian Brain, …), but is it not consistent with some other theory? Is it the case that should ETC be said to be correct some other theory will have to be abandoned?
      – ETC predicts that: “conscious organisms learn from conscious experiences”, so basically it makes an untestable prediction, because the theory doesn’t say what organism is conscious and what is not. If we are studying a beetle, how it learns, we ask ourselves “is it conscious or not?” ETC doesn’t say a word about it. We would have to look into the beetle’s brain to look for an EM that we don’t know how it looks,
      – the paper speaks very highly of itself and of the theory, in spite of the fact that it has not been put to any test. We often read that ETC is “the only theory that (…)” or that ETC “extends GW making it [ETC] more powerful”, etc. I think that the paper could be a little more humble.

  7. gvdr says:

    Reading the paper and following the debate.

  8. gvdr says:

    P.S. Have you tried to look into some online only, open access, peer reviewed journal such as PeerJ, Ergo (http://www.ergophiljournal.org/), Plos? They may be more open to long (even really long) articles (as they don’t have to print it), and their quality is becoming sound. Alas!, the publication fee is not always reasonable.

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