After pre publishing the Evolutionary Theory of Consciousness (ETC) paper, it’s time to provide a little context, along with a tl;dr version (below). The full paper is long and dense, and may be a tad obscure if one isn’t familiar with both the neuroscience and philosophical sides of Consciousness studies. In this post I’ll report how the fundamental ideas appeared on my mind, how I’ve tried to develop them and what the core argument is.
The seed was planted during my undergrad studies, more or less when Crick and Koch where picking up the subject, making consciousness finally acceptable as a subject of neuroscientific enquiry. Once the seed was planted, it kept simmering in my mind in slow-burning mode. One day I was reading the replies to Edge’s annual question “What *should* we be worried about?” and happened to read the answers from Robert Sapolsky and Timo Hannay one after the other. Sapolsky worried about the fact that, despite his best efforts, he keeps feeling as if he has (libertarian) free will. Hannay provides a good summary (please read it, and then continue to this excellent article by Oliver Burkeman to get the full picture) of why consciousness is so hard to tackle, both philosophically and scientifically: the worry being that we have no idea of what is conscious and what isn’t. My brain produced a link between the two worries: Sapolsky can’t truly convince himself that there is no free will because his brain makes him experience it (as a specific feeling you get when you actively take a decision), and this happens because it is useful to remember when and how a decision was reached (more in the “how” section below).
Thus, the seed started germinating, and I soon realised how important understanding consciousness was for my own long-term plans:
- A lot of nonsense can grow on fertile grounds because we “officially” have no idea of what consciousness is, thus you get:
- Religious people who claim that science is irrelevant because it can’t explain what really counts. Hence, God must exist (to give us the unexplainable consciousness) and of course God is exactly how described in the sacred text of choice. I don’t need to explain why this annoys me, right?
- All sorts of villains are able to spout pseudo-scientific nonsense to boost their own revenues. The godfather of them all is of course Deepak Chopra, but there is no shortage. This annoys me also because it puts science in a bad light: since such claims are self-declared as ‘scientific’ they may drag the perception of science down along with them.
- Considering 1.2. it doesn’t help that our ignorance allows some nonsense to also get the official badge of scientific approval, see this paper for an example. When what I perceive as pure nonsense appears in peer-reviewed publications, my blood starts boiling.
- In the big picture, I can see a pattern emerging by the action of natural selection: information (as structures that make a difference) keeps accumulating. It does so by aggregating in clusters of ever-growing superstructures: bacteria -> eukaryotes -> colonies -> multicellular organisms -> collaborating families -> collaborating groups -> villages -> cities -> societies -> nations -> multinational companies, etcetera. In the latter superstructures, humans are mere expendable cogs (think of armies), and I really don’t like it. In this context, it is possible that consciousness, and thus the ability of making deliberate decisions on the basis of vast and complex conceptual understandings, might (just might) introduce an anomaly. If it does, it could be very important (especially considering the existential risk that this pattern is generating in terms of ecological deterioration and excessive consumption), but we can’t hope to reach useful conclusions without understanding consciousness first.
- Stupidity: why do conscious creatures so frequently and deliberately pick the choice that brings them harm? You can see that this question can become: why does consciousness seem to be dysfunctional with alarming regularity? Again, if we don’t understand what consciousness does, we can’t even approach this question.
Thus, for me, the question of consciousness became pretty central.
Knowing that so many other failed, one secondary question became crucial:
How to approach the study of Consciousness?
In my case, I had a basic intuition, one that looked promising, so my very first step was to develop it autonomously, and see where it led. Given my background, it should not be a surprise that the whole approach revolved around evolutionary questions: what useful trait requires consciousness? How could such a trait plausibly evolve from other abilities? The answers I’ve found can be summarised in simple terms: you need experience to learn from experience, duh. At this stage, in order to solidify the idea I wrote things down, followed some threads, and then turned to study.
Updating myself on the advances of neuroscientific knowledge about consciousness was a grim affair. The more I read, the more depressing it got. We have a massive amount of data, and precious little to explain it. We have tiny proto-theories that try to explain small details, and a few macro-theories that claim to explain the whole, but look irredeemably simplistic to my eyes (will tackle this another day). By contrast, the philosophical side of the argument looked pugnacious and manifestly confused. Whatever position you can think of, there’s a philosopher that violently insists it must be the right one, and unfortunately this applies also to hypotheses that you might intend as jokes. Not nice. Furthermore, it soon became clear that there was a turf war going on: short-sighted scientists on one side and wishy-washy philosophers on the other, flinging mud in all directions, with little respect for rigour and dialogue. Numerous exceptions do apply, on both fields, and it soon became clear that it was worth paying attention to what people like David Chalmers, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Ned Block, David Rosenthal, Thomas Metzinger, Antti Revonsuo, V.S. Ramachandran, Stanislas Dehaene, Giulio Tononi and Andy Clark have to say (and others, apologies for all the omissions!). They all disagree with one another, but that’s not the point: each one of them has valuable insights to offer, and their disagreements are excellent tools to highlight the central issues that need to be solved.
This work eventually shaped ETC very deeply: the way ETC is formulated directly reflects my efforts of pinning down the questions that underlie the major disagreements.
What does ETC say?
Let’s recall the basic intuition: it’s hard to definitely eliminate the idea of having free-will because there is something it is like making a decision, and people can reflect on this something afterwards. Thus, the questions are: why? How and when is this ability adaptive?
From there, the derived intuition is that in order to selectively learn what is useful to us, we need to:
- Evaluate what our senses are telling us, so to retain the information that we (heuristically) classify as relevant to us. Because we are limited in our overall abilities, we can’t simply record all our sensory input and then use all this data to inform all our behaviour. This is physically and computationally impossible so shortcuts have to be taken.
- We also need to check the validity of such heuristic guesses, both in hindsight and right away. This is useful because what happens in 1. is by necessity heuristic, and thus it is immediately useful to double-check and eventually refine the process.
Thus, in light of (1.), ETC proposes that our brain contains a computational subsystem, which has one single function: to guess what sensory input might be important, and decide (at least) whether it should be attended immediately, flagged as worth remembering, or ignored right away. I call this the Evaluation Module (EM): it’s the system that answers the “Am I bothered?” question.
You may be guessing that “attending immediately” might, depending on the stimulus itself, require to recollect something you already know, and/or give another look. In turn, this kind of second-order activity is immediately useful to produce a better answer to the original question: should I (still) care about this particular stimulus, or is it OK to just ignore it? Thus, we get my point (2.) above: for such a system to work, it is useful to allow the results of the first evaluation to be enriched with information collected subsequently, and then re-ask the same question: should I bother about this thing? The results of the first evaluation can sometimes be evaluated again.
Furthermore, looking at these mechanisms from the evolutionary point of view, and assuming that what happens inside our brains can be described in algorithmic/computational terms, it turned out that proposing a hypothetical evolutionary history is genuinely straightforward. This side of ETC is quite abstract, though, so I will not cover it here.
Cross referencing these ideas with scientific and philosophical theories then became truly exciting. In particular, it seems to me that they allow to surpass a (suspiciously large) amount of disputes, and at the same time explain why promising scientific approaches seem deadlocked and unable to produce the much awaited-for breakthroughs (as well as why proper general Artificial Intelligence is nowhere to be found). The EM generates what is usually called phenomenal experience, because it enriches sensory information with what counts [Note: I provide some justification of this claim in the comments] to the experiencing subjects and makes the result available to introspection (re-evaluation). In sketchy terms, EM provides the first spark of subjectivity. Furthermore, the recursion proposed by (2.) allows this first spark of subjectivity to become self-aware: as many scientist and philosophers have pointed out, we only become aware of the “something it is like” when we actually ask ourselves “how does it feel?” or “what was that?”. ETC also explains why the Hard Problem of consciousness exists, but falls short when it comes to solving it.
As this is supposed to be a tl;dr version, I will stop here, but I do wish to point out that the above is brutally sketchy. At best, it may whet your appetite and give you some reason to read the full paper (a tall order, I know). I always welcome criticism, but if you are to dismiss ETC, please make sure you’ll refer to the full paper, not the short excerpt above.
For me, it’s time to confront the hard reality. My main hope was to give a little help to my first scientific love: neuroscience. As I hint above, I think the field is plagued by a chronic deficiency of solid theories. Fortunately, I am not the only one that sees it in this way, for example Gary Marcus has been banging on this point for many years now. There are exceptions, of course, some very interesting theories do exist: for example, to remain close to home, the Bayesian Brain hypothesis, and when it comes to Consciousness, Tononi’s Information Integration Theory (IIT) stands out as a very promising and exquisitely theoretical approach.
However, my direct experience is not encouraging: very few journals that cover neuroscience subjects are open to purely theoretical efforts, and word-limits inevitably limit the scope of such efforts. Furthermore, there are good reasons to give more credit to theories that are built on mathematical grounds, while ETC is entirely speculative.
Thus, I’ll proceed as follows: my plan is to write a series of “ETC and …” posts, where I’ll take a closer look at various theories, discuss ETC in their light and vice-versa. I’ll do this because I need to: my head is to full of ideas that won’t leave me alone until I express them. The subjects I plan to cover are: IIT, the Bayesian Brain and Predictive Coding, but also the ones I’ve deliberately ignored in the paper, for example the explicitly non-representational theories that cluster around the embodied cognition approach (ETC seems completely incompatible with this approach. Therefore exploring the disagreements is particularly interesting). I also hope to find the time and clarity to address some philosophical conundrums, starting from Scott Bakker’s ideas on the Blind Brain Theory (which looks 100% compatible with ETC to me, although Scott does think otherwise), and hopefully many others.
A personal note: I can recognise in myself a pattern that is very visible in others. One approaches a subject with (what feels like) a brilliant new idea, and in time stubbornly refuses to see why his idea isn’t that new, it doesn’t convince anyone, and even when it does, it leaves many questions unanswered while opening up new ones. That’s the harsh reality: the study of consciousness is so complicated that it’s almost impossible to be sure that your point is coming across, and/or that you are understanding the points made by others. In the end, no one, including and starting with myself, should hold the presumption of being right. I hope it’s still OK to nurture the ambition of adding something useful: it would be gratifying enough.
The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.
To conclude, a reminder: if you’ll ever happen to read the ETC paper, please do fill in the short survey. I still need to understand if ETC has some value in the real world (as opposed to “just in my head”).