Towards dissolving the mystery of consciousness

by GeometryOfTheShadows1 min read6th Jul 20187 comments

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Consciousness
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Let us consider a world where it is well known that light is a wave, characterized by wavelength. The white color is known to be a mix of many different waves as shown by a prism separating sunlight into a rainbow. Physicists measure and catalog the wavelengths of different colors such as red [620–750 nm], green [495–570 nm] and yellow [570–590 nm].

Across the street from the physicists is a painters' guild. They also deal a lot in colors and know well that mixing red and green yields yellow. They even demonstrated it to physicists, with a system of two prisms, baffles and mirrors. And yet the theory explaining how mixing two pure waves, one of 700nm and one of 500nm, results in a wave of 580nm remains elusive. Many different non-linear effects were hypothesized, but none was confirmed.

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To us, this mystery is of course completely transparent. We now know well that a sensation of color is determined not by the frequency, but by a ratio of activation of 3 different types of photoreceptor cone cells in the eye retina [0]. Each of those cell types is sensitive to large overlapping swaths of frequencies. So a pure yellow and combination of pure red and green just happen to produce identical activation patterns.

To reach this understanding we had to look away from light itself and into the mechanism, we used to observe the light - our eyes and brains.

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It seems to me that something similar happens with attempting to explain consciousness. We have some strong intuitions about what is and what isn't conscious and there are attempts to model those intuitions [1] [2]. I feel that there can't be a theory of consciousness without a good look at the mechanism that generates those intuitions - our brain.

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Humans evolved as a social organism and the ability to function in a group was critical for survival. An "agent detector" that can distinguish a fellow human from inanimate objects and animals can be an extremely usable adaptation. (This detector can further usefully distinguish friend from foe, aka ingroup/outgroup, but this is beyond the scope of current text). And the intuition that someone or something is conscious is merely this object detector being activated in our brain. And the study of consciousness (like the study of color) should mostly produce answers about our detectors than about the conscious object themselves.

In a world with a wide variety of agents, calling someone "conscious", just like calling someone/something "attractive" or "tasty", reveals as much about yourself as about what you describe.

References

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cone_cell

[1] https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/wqDRRx9RqwKLzWt7R/nonperson-predicates

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated\_information\_theory

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