On the ontological development of consciousness

by jessicata 4 min read25th Jan 20205 comments

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This post is about what consciousness is, ontologically, and how ontologies that include consciousness develop.

The topic of consciousness is quite popular, and confusing, in philosophy. While I do not seek to fully resolve the philosophy of consciousness, I hope to offer an angle on the question I have not seen before. This angle is that of developmental ontology: how are "later" ontologies developed from "earlier" ontologies? I wrote on developmental ontology in a previous post, and this post can be thought of as an elaboration, which can be read on its own, and specifically tackles the problem of consciousness.

Much of the discussion of stabilization is heavily inspired by On the Origin of Objects, an excellent book on reference and ontology, to which I owe much of my ontological development. To the extent that I have made any philosophical innovation, it is in combining this book's concepts with the minimum-description-length principle, and analytic philosophy of mind.

World-perception ontology

I'm going to write a sequence of statements, which each make sense in terms of an intuitive world-perception ontology.

  • There's a real world outside of my head.
  • I exist and am intimately connected with, if not identical with, some body in this world.
  • I only see some of the world. What I can see is like what a camera placed at the point my eyes are can see.
  • The world contains objects. These objects have properties like shape, color, etc.
  • When I walk, it is me who moves, not everything around me. Most objects are not moving most of the time, even if they look like they're moving in my visual field.
  • Objects, including my body, change and develop over time. Changes proceed, for the most part, in a continuous way, so e.g. object shapes and sizes rarely change, and teleportation doesn't happen.

These all seem common-sensical; it would be strange to doubt them. However, achieving the ontology by which such statements are common-sensical is nontrivial. There are many moving parts here, which must be working in their places before the world seems as sensible as it is.

Let's look at the "it is me who moves, not everything around me" point, because it's critical. If you try shaking your head right now, you will notice that your visual field changes rapidly. An object (such as a computer screen) in your vision is going to move side-to-side (or top-to-bottom), from one side of your visual field to another.

However, despite this, there is an intuitive sense of the object not moving. So, there is a stabilization process involved. Image stabilization (example here) is an excellent analogy for this process (indeed, the brain could be said to engage in image stabilization in a literal sense).

The world-perception ontology is, much of the time, geocentric, rather than egocentric or heliocentric. If you walk, it usually seems like the ground is still and you are moving, rather than the ground moving while you're still (egocentrism), or both you and the ground moving very quickly (heliocentrism). There are other cases such as vehicle interiors where what is stabilized is not the Earth, but the vehicle itself; and, "tearing" between this reference frame and the geocentric reference frame can cause motion sickness.

Notably, world-perception ontology must contain both (a) a material world and (b) "my perceptions of it". Hence, the intuitive ontological split between material and consciousness. To take such a split to be metaphysically basic is to be a Descartes-like dualist. And the split is ontologically compelling enough that such a metaphysics can be tempting.

Pattern-only ontology

William James famously described the baby's sense of the world as a "blooming, buzzing confusion". The image presented is one of dynamism and instability, very different from world-perception ontology.

The baby's ontology is closer to raw percepts than an adult's is; it's less developed, fewer things are stabilized, and so on. Babies generally haven't learned object permanence; this is a stabilization that is only developed later.

The most basic ontology consists of raw percepts (which cannot even be considered "percepts" from within this ontology), not even including shapes; these percepts may be analogous to pixel-maps in the case of vision, or spectrograms in the case of hearing, but I am unsure of these low-level details, and the rest of this post would still apply if the basic percepts were e.g. lines in vision. Shapes (which are higher-level percepts) must be recognized in the sea of percepts, in a kind of unsupervised learning.

The process of stabilization is intimately related to a process of pattern-detection. If you can detect patterns of shapes across time, you may reify such patterns as an object. (For example, a blue circle that is present in the visual field, and retains the same shape even as it moves around the field, or exits and re-enters, may be reified as a circular object). Such pattern-reification is analogous to folding a symmetric image in half: it allows the full image to be described using less information than was contained in the original image.

In general, the minimum description length principle says it is epistemically correct to posit fewer objects to explain many. And, positing a small number of shapes to explain many basic percepts, or a small number of objects to explain a large number of shapes, are examples of this.

From having read some texts on meditation (especially Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha), and having meditated myself, I believe that meditation can result in getting more in-touch with pattern-only ontology, and that this is an intended result, as the pattern-only ontology necessarily contains two of the three characteristics (specifically, impermanence and no-self).

To summarize: babies start from a confusing point, where there are low-level percepts, and patterns progressively recognized in them, which develops ontology including shapes and objects.

World-perception ontology results from stabilization

The thesis of this post may now be stated: world-perception ontology results from stabilizing a previous ontology that is itself closer to pattern-only ontology.

One of the most famous examples of stabilization in science is the movement from geocentrism to heliocentrism. Such stabilization explains many epicycles in terms of few cycles, by changing where the center is.

The move from egocentrism to geocentrism is quite analogous. An egocentric reference frame will contain many "epicycles", which can be explained using fewer "cycles" in geocentrism.

These cycles are literal in the case of a person spinning around in a circle. In a pattern-only ontology (which is, necessarily, egocentric, for the same reason it doesn't have a concept of self), that person will see around them shapes moving rapidly in the same direction. There are many motions to explain here. In a world-percept ontology, most objects around are not moving rapidly; rather, it is believed that the self is spinning.

So, the egocentric-to-geocentric shift is compelling for the same reason the geocentric-to-heliocentric shift is. It allows one to posit that there are few motions, instead of many motions. This makes percepts easier to explain.

Consciousness in world-perception ontology

The upshot of what has been said so far is: the world-perception ontology results from Occamian symmetry-detection and stabilization starting from a pattern-only ontology (or, some intermediate ontology).

And, the world-perception ontology has conscious experience as a component. For, how else can what were originally perceptual patterns be explained, except by positing that there is a camera-like entity in the world (attached to some physical body) that generates such percepts?

The idea that consciousness doesn't exist (which is asserted by some forms of eliminative materialism) doesn't sit well with this picture. The ontological development that produced the idea of the material world, also produced the idea of consciousness, as a dual. And both parts are necessary to make sense of percepts. So, consciousness-eliminativism will continue to be unintuitive (and for good epistemic reasons!) until it can replace world-perception ontology with one that achieves percept-explanation that is at least as effective. And that looks to be difficult or impossible.

To conclude: the ontology that allows one to conceptualize the material world as existing and not shifting constantly, includes as part of it conscious perception, and could not function without including it. Without such a component, there would be no way to refactor rapidly shifting perceptual patterns into a stable outer world and a moving point-of-view contained in it.

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