Solos and choruses, swordfights and death scenes

In a recent series of articles, I’ve tried with limited success to explain the conception of consciousness that seems to me to be the most reasonable. Some common metaphors come easily to mind, but they’re not really satisfactory.

The brain may be a processor, but mere processing is not consciousness, or this netbook would be asking for a coffee break about now. And a flowing stream is more unidirectional than it should be.

So I’ve been looking for a different conceptualization. While I was listening to music the other day, a very different metaphor came to mind, one that comes much closer to what all the research suggests is going on. I’m not claiming that it’s a point for point analogy, but even that could maybe be accomplished, with a little fudging and a lot of indulgence.

I suggest that it could be useful to think of consciousness not as a computer or as a stream but as a concert hall. This may not be a common conceptualization, but I think that it’s a pretty good fit.

Consciousness can be thought of as a dynamic interplay of physical structures in the brain and the body on one hand, and the physical and social environment on the other. The contents of consciousness are constantly changing, as the elements of the processes of which it is constituted change. This is not a one-way process, a mere processing, as it were. It is better understood as a complex back-and-forth, in which the brain structures provided by biochemistry constantly join and regroup in response to signals from the body and experiences with the external world. The brain is a given in some senses, but in others it is shaped and its functions are redefined by the events that it perceives and to which it responds.

How might the image of a concert hall during a performance make all this vital and complicated interaction make more sense?

The concert hall has a physical framework. It is a building that follows the rules of sound construction (pun intended). This building has entry points, a lobby or two, an auditorium with rows of seats, perhaps some boxes with special sight lines, dressing rooms, utility closets, bathrooms, a snack bar, an orchestra pit, and a stage. These facilities are joined by corridors and passages, and they all share an environment managed by the control systems of electricity, heat, air conditioning, and lighting. The places and spaces of the hall are themselves occupied, utilized, and, within the limits of the design, managed by a staff of support workers like ushers and custodians, lighting technicians and wardrobe assistants.

People from outside the building interact with it in many ways. Some are patrons of the arts who have a close and ongoing relationship with the hall and the activities within it. Some are performers, both permanent occupants like the members of the house orchestra and the one-and-done headliners who come and go with a changing programme. The music that’s performed also originates not in the building but in the world outside, and the pieces that are chosen for performance influence the size and composition of the orchestra; the kinds of headliners invited; the physical characteristics of props, costumes, sets, and the rest; and not least, the size and composition of the audience that attends a particular performance.

On stage, at the centre of attention, is the performance. For the audience, all attention is directed here. At the same time, for the curtain puller and the sound engineer and the concession vendor and the usher, while they are essential to the performance, their duties draw their attention elsewhere. Without them, the concert would not succeed. The performers must command attention. Yet for the offstage workers, commanding attention would only distract from, or even ruin, the performance.

From the outside, passing pedestrians see the marquee signs advertising tonight’s show. They see the lights and the lineup of buses and taxis that await the audience at the end of the show. They may be able to look into the lobby and catch a glimpse of some of the activity within. But they remain apart, able only to relate what appears to be happening to their own experiences of similar events in the past, or to the depictions of concerts in print or other media. They aren’t participants, but they have a pretty good idea what’s happening in there.

I won’t belabour the comparison any further by detailing which parts my description represent which parts of consciousness (“The building is the brain,” and such like). But I really do think that this is a pretty accurate representation of the processes we call cognition.

If the comparison works, you’ve already done these extensions yourself. And if it doesn’t, you lost interest and went away some time ago.

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4 thoughts on “Solos and choruses, swordfights and death scenes

  1. I like it. This metaphor works infinitely better than the overly simplistic computational metaphors being used in contemporary mind-brain talk. I can picture the links that you are making and it seems to work for me – to a degree. I have to preclude what I am about to say by mentioning that I am currently reading Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind. I know you are not a huge fan, but he makes some interesting arguments that have me questioning even my own assumptions, which I thought were already quite ‘left’ of the ‘mind-is-brain’ debate. Actually, reading his book is making me feel naive, stupid, and confused – and I thought I had a pretty good handle on some of this. It is going to take me some time to get through it – and probably more to digest it in full (at least the neuro-philosophical parts).

    For starters, and maybe I am missing something, but he has me seriously questioning all these metaphors that we continue to use. We either talk or make assumptions, for example, about ’emergent’ properties or a consciousness that somehow ‘arises’ from these various working parts… but Tallis points out how in many of these examples, we unknowingly end up ‘smuggling consciousness into our arguments’ – we end up ‘cheating’ to make the argument work. Take your excellent metaphor of of a concert hall – in order for it to work… for us to see the emergent ‘music’ from the chaos of moving parts, we need a conscious observer – a perceiver of the music.

    In other words, we set out to say that some assembly of moving materialistic parts are ‘the same as’ the subjective states of the mind, or that from them ’emerges’ the subjective states of the mind… in order for them to be viewed as ‘the same’ or as ’emergent’, we need a conscious observer – a perceiver that will integrate it all and make the metaphor stick. This is often taken for granted. We think we have explained consciousness through objective metaphor, describing it from some kind of ‘view from nowhere’ – but we really only smuggle the ‘subjective’ (and consciousness) in through the back door – using our own minds to integrate what cannot be integrated objectively.

    In your argument, the audience is needed to perceive the music, or else we readers are needed to view them as the same or as emergent. But neuron’s are not conscious – and we cannot borrow our own to make it all come together. How then does it emerge? How can it work?

    Maybe I am missing something important, but I think Tallis’ point is worth considering. How will we describe consciousness without invoking it? Without cheating? I am not sure if I am making any sense – again, I think I need more time to critically digest everything that I have been reading. That said, I think we’d be in a much better place with the neuroscience if we used metaphors like what you produced here, versus the extremely simplistic computational models.

    • I agree that there are always problems with metaphors, but we have few alternatives. There may be a future in quantum descriptions, something Terence Deacon addresses in Incomplete Nature.

      Are you setting so high a standard — to describe consciousness without invoking it — that the task becomes impossible? Maybe it is impossible, but that’s far from certain at this point.

      And while the audience in my fabrication is the observer, there are two points to consider: (1) There is considerable activity even when there’s no audience. In fact, what the audience perceives is directly a product of processes it neither observes nor controls. This is meant to represent that most of our mental processes are unconscious, and most of the rest are automatic, as Damasio suggests. (2) Put another way, the performance is directed to the audience, not created by it. In my construct, this was intended to accommodate a “narratives” explanation of self, like the one Dennett proposed.

      • If we are trying to explain consciousness, I think the burden of proof is on us to demonstrate how it can work – so far, I feel like we are coming up short. I would prefer to take the ‘impossible unless proven otherwise’ approach versus the ‘it’s good enough for me’ approach. We have been taking that second approach and it has led to us treating mental disorders as diseases of the brain, denying free-will, and other such nonsense that will have huge implications for society as a whole – the risk is too high to just run with ‘it’s good enough’ kind of arguments. This does not mean that we should not try.

        Here are my two counterpoints to yours:
        1) Yes, there is considerable activity, but it says nothing about how it ‘is the same as’ or ‘gives rise to’ consciousness. My point is that nothing is perceived without a conscious audience to pull it all together. Regardless of what other mechanisms are at work, you still require a conscious observer, whether in the audience to perceive ‘music’, or else the reader to ‘perceive’ the metaphorical links and to make those links. Nothing is ‘implicit’ about how consciousness arises out of these mechanisms.
        2) You make my point again when you say that the performance is directed TO the [conscious-observing] audience.

        Kenan Malik severely criticizes Dennett (as does Tallis). Dennett has a funny definition of consciousness. As with many ‘objectively scientific’ theorists, he is only able to provide a definition (from some [imaginary] ‘third person view’) by denying the subjectivity of consciousness. He instead talks about an internal ‘press-secretary’ that can track the ‘narrative’ of our ‘dispositions’ or ‘intentions’ toward certain things in the world. In short, he fails to account for the quality of subjective experience. Everything else is judged by him to be illusion. In Dennett’s world, there is no such thing as subjective states – to him, the experience of a bellyache is little more than a series of dispositions – to go to the doctor, to drink pepto-bismol, to lie down, and so on. The press-secretary or internal narrative are only tracking and noting these dispositions. But we do have subjective states – they are not just illusions. We also have thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that do not involve behavioral dispositions – what can it mean, for example, to have a disposition ‘toward’ or ‘about’ something that we will never encounter, or about a behavior that we will never act out? There is no room for subjective perception, thought, feeling, or experience in Dennett’s world and I think he can be accused of confusing mechanism (objective) with meaning (subjective + objective). Consciousness, in the way I define and experience it, is to a large degree subjective. Dennet will have nothing of that, because he wants an objective scientific account of it. The only way of doing that is to deny the subjectivity of consciousness.

        On a related note, I found a really good quote by Kenan Malik:

        “Those who continue to insist that we must understand mental states with the tools of natural science because these tools are the best at dismantling the secrets of nature are a bit like the drunk who loses his keys in the gutter, but searches for them under the lamp-post fifty yards up the road because ‘that’s where the light is.’ (pg. 339; Man, Beast, & Zombie)”

      • Nice line by Malik, but we aren’t going to find anything in the dark, so if that’s where it is, we’ll never know. (We could, of course, stumble across the answer while doing something else, like falling down drunk and landing on our keys, but that kind of serendipity can’t be planned for or counted on.) It’s sort of like string theory — you can’t test it, so you can’t “prove” it (apologies to Popper), but nothing else makes the math work.

        As for Dennett, I agree that his position is stringently mechanistic, but even he admits that the mind is a fluid, changeable creation of not only brain-initiated processes, but also constant interaction with the world outside. For example, in Consciousness Explained he argues that there is no whole identity, no central observer, that weaves our multiple drafts into a single, coherent story. And, in the same book, he argues that this set of processes is not “hard-wired.” Rather, it is an adaptation of mental processes which began with other functions:

        They were not developed to perform peculiarly human actions, such as reading and writing, but ducking, predator-avoiding, face recognizing, grasping, throwing, berry-picking, and other essential tasks. They are often opportunistically enlisted in new roles, for which their native talents more or less suit them.

        So he’s a “hard materialist,” but there seems to be more to his position than just a clock mechanism.

        In the end, however, I have to agree with you that the subjective experiences that constitute much of the “I” of consciousness are at present completely beyond our explanation. I made something like this point in the recent posting, “There’s a gap between what is and what it feels like.”

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