Archive for June, 2003

030615 – (Heterophenomnological) Consciousness

Sunday, June 15th, 2003

030615 – (Heterophenomenological) Consciousness

It’s dreary and raining and that may make people a bit depressed.  That, in turn, may make it harder for people to find a satisfactory solution to their problems.   Realizing that, I feel a bit better.  It is sometimes useful to bring something into consciousness so one can look at it.

Although we may not have access to the underlying stimulus events (constellations) that directly determine our feelings, we can learn about ourselves just as we learn about other things and other people.  We can then shine the spotlight of consciousness on our inner state and try to glean what clues we can by carefully attention.

When I say we can learn about ourselves, that is to say that we can create an internal model of ourselves and use the predictions of that model to feed back into our decision-making process.  Such feedback has the result of modifying our behavior (as a feedback system does).

The interesting thing about the internal model is that it not only models external behavior, but also models internal state.

Interesting aside: consciousness can be switched on and off.  We can be awake or asleep.  We can be “unconscious”.

What are the design criteria for human beings such that consciousness is an appropriate engineering solution?


  • Exist in world.
  • Basic provisioning.  Homeostasis. Obtain fuel.
  • Reproduction.  Mate.  Ensure survival of offspring.

Capabilities Required to Attain Goals:

  • Locomotion.
  • Navigation.
  • Manipulation.

Functions Required to Implement Required Capabilities

  • Identification of things relevant to implementation of goals.
  • Acquisition of skills relevant to implementation of goals (note that skills may be physical or cognitive).

Capabilities Required to Support Required Functions

  • Observation.  Primary exterosensors.
  • Memory.
  • Ability to manipulate things mentally (saves energy).  This includes the ability to manipulate the self mentally.
  • Ability to reduce power consumption during times when it is diseconomic to be active (e.g., sleep at night).

Damasio (1999, p.260) says:

“Homeostatic regulation, which includes emotion, requires periods of wakefulness (for energy gathering); periods of sleep (presumably for restoration of depleted chemicals necessary for neuronal activity); attention (for proper interaction with the environment); and consciousness (so that a high level of planning or responses concerned with the individual organism can eventually take place). The body-relatedness of all these functions and the anatomical intimacy of the nuclei subserving them are quite apparent.”

Well, I have an alternative theory of the utility of sleep, but Damasio’s is certainly plausible and has been around for a while in the form of the “cleanup” hypothesis: that there is something that is generated or exhausted over a period of wakefulness that needs to be cleaned up or replenished and sleep is when that gets done.  It raises the question of whether sleep is an essential part of consciousness and self-awareness or is it a consequence of the physical characteristics of the equipment in which consciousness and self-awareness are implemented.

One talks to oneself by inhibiting (or is it failing to activate) the effectors that would turn ready-to-speak utterances into actual utterances.  In talking to oneself, ready-to-speak utterances are fed back into the speech understanding system.  This is only a slight variation of the process of careful (e.g., public speaking) speech or the process used in writing.  In writing, the speech utterance effectors are not activated and the ready-to-speak stuff is fed into the writing system.

But does it always pass through the speech understanding system?  IOW is it possible to speak without knowing what you are going to say?  Possibly.  Specific evidence: on occasion one thinks one has said one thing and has in fact said something else.  Sometimes one catches it oneself.  Sometimes somebody says you said X, don’t you mean Y and you say oh, did I say X, I meant Y.

Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s necessary to talk to oneself to be conscious.  There are times when the internal voice is silent.  OTOH language is the primary i/o system for humans.  One might argue that language enhances consciousness.  As an aside, people who are deaf probably have an internal “voice” that “talks” to them.  Does talking to yourself help you to work things out?  Does the “voice” “speak” in unexpressed signs?  When a deaf person does something dumb, does he/she sign “dumb” to him/herself?

Is there something in the way pattern matching takes place that is critical to the emergence of consciousness?  The more I think about consciousness, the less certain I am that I know what I am talking about.  I don’t think that is bad.  It means that I am recognizing facets of the concept that I had not recognized before.  That seems to be what happened to Dennett and to Damasio.  They each had to invent terminology to express differences they had discovered.

Ultimately, we need an operational definition of whatever it is that I’m talking about here.  That is the case because at the level I am trying to construct a theory, there is no such thing as consciousness.  If there were, we’d just be back in the Cartesian theatre.  Is the question: How does it happen that human beings behave as if they have a sense of self?  I’m arriving at Dennett’s heterophenomenology.  (1991, p.96) “You are not authoritative about what is happening in you, but only about what seems to be happening in you….”

To approach the question of how heterophenomenological consciousness emerges, it is essential to think “massively parallel”.  What is the calculus of the brain.  A + B = ?  A & B ?  A | B ?  A followed by B?  Thinking massive parallelism, the answer could be: All of the above.  It must be the case that serial inputs are cumulatively deserialized.  There’s an ongoing accumulation of history at successively higher levels of abstraction (well, that’s one story, or one way of putting it).  Understanding language seems to work by a process of successive refinement.  Instinctively it’s like A & B in a Venn diagram, but that feels too sharp.

The system doesn’t take “red cow” to mean the intersection of red things with cow things.  The modifier adds specificity to an otherwise unspecified (default) attribute.  So the combination of activation of “red” and the activation of “cow” in “red cow”  leads to a new constellation of activation which is itself available for further modification (generalization or restriction or whatever).  This probably goes on all the time in non-linguistic processing as well.  A pattern that is activated at one point gets modified (refined) as additional information becomes available.  Sounds like a description of the process of perception.

Massively parallel, always evolving.  It doesn’t help to start an analysis when the organism wakes up, because the wake-up state is derived from (is an evolution of) the organism’s previous life.  Learning seems to be closely tied to consciousness.  Is it the case that the “degree” of consciousness of an organism is a function of the “amount of learning” previously accumulated by the organism?

We know how to design an entity that responds to its environment.  An example is called a PC (Personal Computer).

There’s learning (accumulation of information) and there’s self-programming (modification of processing algorithms).  Are these distinguishable in “higher” biological entities?  Does learning in say mammals, necessarily involve self-programming?  Is a distinction between learning and self-programming just a conceptual convenience for dealing with Von Neuman computers?

There’s “association” and “analysis”

There is learning and there’s self programming.  Lots of things happen automatically.  Association and analysis.  Segmentation is important: chunking is a common mechanism.  Chunking is a way of parallelizing the processing of serial inputs.  Outputs of parallel processors may move along as chunks.  Given that there’s no Cartesian observer, every input is being processed for its output consequences.  And every input is being shadow processed to model its consequences and the model consequences are fed back or fed along.  Associations are also fed back or fed along.  In effect there is an ongoing assessment of what Don Norman called “affordances”, e.g., what can be done in the current context?  The model projects alternate futures.  The alternate futures coexist with the current inputs.  The alternate futures are tagged with valences.  Are these Dennett’s “multiple drafts”?  I still don’t like his terminology.  Are the alternate futures available to consciousness?  Clearly sometimes.  What does that mean?  It is certainly possible for a system to do load balancing and prioritization.  If there is additional processing power available or if processing power can be reassigned to a particular problem.  Somehow, I don’t think it works that way.  Maybe some analyses are dropped or, more likely, details are dropped as a large freight train comes roaring through.  Tracking details isn’t much of a problem because of the constant stream of new inputs coming in.  Lost details are indeed lost, but most of the time, so what?

Language output requires serialization as do certain motor skills.  The trick is to string together a series of sayings that are themselves composed of ordered (or at least coordinated) series of sayings.  Coordination is a generalization of serialization because it entails multiple parallel processors.  Certainly, serial behavior is a challenge for a parallel organism, but so are all types of coordinated behavior.  Actions can be overlaid (to a certain extent, for example: walk and chew gum; ride a horse and shoot; drive and talk; etc.) Week can program computers in a way that evolution cannot hardwire organisms.  On the other hand, evolution has made the human organism programmable (and even self programmable).  Not only that, we are programmable in languages that we learn and we are programmable in perceptual motor skills that we practice and learn.  Is there some (any) reason to think that language is not a perceptual motor skill (possibly writ large)?

Suppose we believe that learning involves modifications of synaptic behavior.  What do we make of the dozen or so neurotransmitters?  Is there a hormonal biasing system that influences which transmitters are most active?  Is that what changes mode beyond just neural activity in homeostatic systems?  Otherwise, does the nature of neuronal responses change depending on the transmitter mix, and can information about that mix be communicated across the synaptic gap?  These are really not questions that need to be answered in order to create a model of consciousness (even though they are interesting questions) but they do serve as a reminder that the system on which consciousness is based is only weakly understood and probably much more complicated even than we think (and we think it’s pretty complicated).

I seem to have an image — well, a paradigm– in mind involving constraints and feature slots, but I don’t quite see how to describe it as an algorithm.  This is a pipelined architecture, but with literally millions of pipelines that interact locally and globally.  The answer to “what’s there?” or “what’s happening?” is not a list, but a coruscating array of facets.  It is not necessary to extract “the meaning” or even “a meaning” to appreciate what is going on.  A lot of the time, nothing is “going on”; things are what they are and are not changing rapidly.

Awareness and attention seem to be part of consciousness.  One can be aware of something and not pay attention to it.  Attention seems central — the ability to select or emphasize certain input (and/or output) streams.  What is “now”?  It seems possible to recirculate the current state of things.  Or just let them pass by.  Problem: possible how?  What “lets” things pass by?  The Cartesian observer is so seductive.  We think we exist and watch our own private movie, but it cannot happen that way.  What is it that creates the impression of “me”?  Yes, it’s all stimulus-response, and but the hyphen is where all the state information is stored.  What might give the impression of “me”?  I keep thinking it has something to do with the Watslawyck et al. [(1969(?) The Pragmatics of Human Communication] idea of multiple models.  This is the way I see you. This is the way I see you seeing me.  This is the way I see you seeing me seeing you.  And then nothing.  Embedding works easily once: “The girl the squirrel bit cried.”  But “The girl the squirrel the boy saw bit cried” is pathological.

As a practical matter, if we want to create an artificial mind, we probably want to have some sort of analog to the homunculus map in order to avoid the problem of having to infer absolutely everything from experience.  That is, being able to refer stimuli to an organism centric and gravity aware coordinate system, goes a long way towards establishing a lot of basic concepts: up-down, above-below, top-bottom, towards-away, left-right, front-back.  Add an organism/world boundary and you get inside-outside.  I see that towards-away actually cheats in that it implies motion.  Not a problem because motion is change of position over time and with multiple temporal snapshots (naturally produced as responses to stimuli propagate through neural fields), motion can be pretty easily identified.  So that gets things like fast-slow, into-out of, before-after.  We can even get to “around” once the organism has a finite extent to get around.

What would we expect of an artificial mind?  We would like its heterophenomenology to be recognizably human.  What does that mean?  Consider the Turing test.  Much is made of the fact that certain programs have fooled human examiners over some period of time.  Is it then the case that the Turing test is somehow inadequate in principle?  Probably not.  At least I’m not convinced yet that it’s not adequate.  I think the problem may be that we are in the process of learning what aspects of human behavior can be (relatively) easily simulated.  People have believed that it is easy to detect machines by attempting to engage them in conversation about abstract things.  But it seems that things like learning and visualization are essential to the human mind.  Has anyone tried things like: imagine a capital a.  Now in your imagination remove the horizontal stroke and turn the resulting shape upside down.  What letter does it look like?

Learning still remains intransigent problem.  We don’t know how it takes place.  Recall is equally dicey.  We really don’t seem to know any more about learning skills that we do about learning information.  We’re not even very clear about memorizing nonsense syllables for all the thousands of psychological experiments involving them.  Is learning essential to mind?  Well, maybe not.  Henry can’t learn any conscious facts, and he clearly has a mind (no one I know of has suggested otherwise).  Okay, so there could be a steady state of learning.  The ability to learn facts of the kind Henry Molaison couldn’t learn isn’t necessary for a mind to exist.  We don’t know whether the capacity for perceptual motor learning is necessary for a mind to exist.  Does a baby have a mind?  Is this a sensical question?  If not, when does it get one?  If so when did it develop?  How?

It begins to feel like the problem it is to figure out what the question should be.  “Consciousness” seems not to be enough.  “Mind” seems ill-defined.  “Self awareness” has some appeal, though I struggle to pin down what it denotes: clearly “awareness” of one’s “self” but then what’s a “self” and what does “awareness” mean?  Surely self-awareness means 1)  there is something that is “aware” (whatever “aware” means”), 2) that thing has a “self” (whatever “self” means), and that thing can be and is “aware” of its “self”.  A person could go crazy.

Is this a linguistic question — or rather a meta linguistic question: what does “I” mean?  What is “me”?  In languages that distinguish a “first person” it would appear that these questions can be asked.  And by the way, what difference does it make if the language doesn’t have appropriate pronouns and resorts to things like “this miserable wretch begs forgiveness”?  Who’s doing the begging?  No.  That’s not the question.  What’s doing the begging. heterophenomenologically, it doesn’t matter if I say it referring to myself or referring to another person.  Except that it has for me a special meaning when it refers to “my self” and that special meeting is appreciated, that is, understood, by others hearing “me” say it.

I don’t know anything about children learning what “I” and “me” refer to.  I remember reading something about an (autistic I think) child who referred to himself in the third person, for example: “he’s thirsty”

Consciousness seems to require inputs.  That is, one cannot just “be conscious” rather one must “be conscious of” things.  That sounds a bit forced, but not if it is precisely the inputs that give rise to consciousness.  No inputs, no consciousness.  Something in the processing of inputs gives rise to the heterophenomenological feeling of being conscious.

Does self-awareness have to do with internal models?  Does the organism have an internal model of the universe in which exists?  Does that model include among the entities modeled, the organism itself?  And is it necessary that the model of the organism include a model of the internal model of the universe and its component model of the organism?  It may not be an infinite series.  In fact it can’t be.  The brain (or any physical computer) has finite capacity.

But doesn’t a model imply someone or something that makes use of the model?  We keep coming back to metaphors that encourage the Cartesian fallacy.

Let’s think computer systems design.  Hell, let’s go all the way, let’s think robot design.  The robot exists in a universe.  The robot’s program receives inputs from its exteroceptors about the state of the universe and its inputs, suitably processed, are abstracted into a set of signals representing the inputs — in fact representing the inputs over a period of time.  The same thing is happening with samples representing the interoceptors monitoring the robot’s internal mechanical state: position of limbs, orientation, inertial state (falling, turning, whatever), battery/power level, structural integrity.

On the goals side, based on the internal state, the robot has certain not action triggers, but propensity triggers.  For example: When the internal power level or the internal power reserves fall below a particular threshold, the goal of increasing power reserves is given increased priority.  But we do not assume that the robot has a program that specifies exactly what to do in this state.  The state should trigger increased salience (whatever that means) and attention to things in the current environment that are (or have been in the learned past) associated with successful replenishing of power reserves.

At all times, the important question is: “what do I do now?”  The answer to this question helps determine what needs “attention” and what doesn’t need “attention”.  As a first approximation, things not “associated” with current priority goals are not attended to.  Well, it’s not quite a simple as that.  Things that don’t need attention, even though associated with an ongoing task (like walking or driving) don’t get attention processing.  Attention is the assignment of additional processing power to something.  Additional processing power can boost the signal level to above the consciousness threshold and can reduce the decay rate of attended signals.

No one has succeeded in explaining why heterophenomenological evidence indicates that people feel “conscious” sometimes and when they don’t feel “conscious” they don’t “feel” anything and they shift back and forth.  It’s a processing thing.  If I close my eyes and lie quietly, I’m not asleep.  I still hear things.  I can still think about things.  So consciousness can be turned on and off in the normal organism.  What’s going on here?  Understanding the neural connections won’t do it.  We would need to know what the connections “do”; how they “work”.

Sleep.  In effect, the organism can “power down” into a standby state (for whatever evolutionary reason).  If the threshold for external events is set high, most of them won’t make an impact (have an effect).  It’s like a stabilized image on the retina.  It disappears — well, it fades.  No change equals no signal.  If there’s nothing to react to, the organism, well, doesn’t react.

If outside inputs are suppressed, where do daydream inputs come from?  Not a critical question, but an interesting one.  Somebody pointed out that so-called “dream paralysis” is a good thing in that it keeps us from harming ourselves or others in reaction to dream threats or situations.

030604 – Wants (more)

Wednesday, June 4th, 2003

030604 – Wants (more)

Could it be that the fundamental nature of wanting is IRMs (innate releasing mechanisms) and FAPs (fixed action patterns)?  Certainly IRMs and FAPs have a long and honorable evolutionary history.  There is certainly reason to say that lower animals are a soup of IRMs and FAPs.  Why not higher animals, too?  If I don’t know what I want until I see what I do, is that just a way of saying that I don’t have direct access to my IRMs?  Or is that just silly?

And what does it make sense for evolution to select as generic wants to be activated when there’s nothing pressing?  How about something like

–    Learn something new
–    Acquire a new skill (What’s a skill?  A complex perceptual motor pattern?)
–    Practice an acquired skill
–    Think about something interesting (What’s interesting?)
–    Stimulate yourself
–    Play with the external world (What’s play?)

You can’t have a theory of consciousness without including:

–    Wanting (approach)
–    Absence of wanting / indifference
–    Negatively directed wanting / wanting not (avoidance)
–    Learning
–    Skill acquisition (Perceptual / Motor Learning)
–    Imitation (human see, human do)
–    Pleasure / Satisfaction
–    Pain / Frustration
–    Salience / Interest
–    Metaphor

[Is this my own rediscovery of what Jerry Fodor (and presumably many others) call propositional attitudes?  Some of the items are, but others are not.]

If you stick out your tongue at a baby, from a very early age, the baby will imitate the action.  But the baby can’t see its tongue, so how does it know what to do.  It’s a visual stimulus, but the mirroring is not visual.  Now, it’s possible that a baby can see its tongue, if it sticks it out far enough, but unless the baby has spent time in front of a mirror, there’s no reason to believe the baby has ever seen its own face head-on (as it were).

Children want to do what they see their older siblings doing.  It seems to be innate.  It would seem to be rather peculiar to argue that children learn to want to imitate.  But how does a child (or anybody, for that matter) decide what it wants to imitate now?  There’s “What do I do now?”  “Imitate.” and “what do I want to imitate?”

A “high performance skill” (Schneider 1985): more than 100 hours of specialist training required; substantial numbers of trainees fail to acquire proficiency; performance of adepts is qualitatively different (whatever that means) from that of non-adepts.  There are lots of examples of high performance skills.  People spend lots of time practicing sports, learning to work machinery, etc.  Why?  Improving a skill (developing a skill and further developing it) is satisfying.  Does general knowledge count as a skill?  Can we lump book learning with horsemanship?

What about Henry Molaison, whose perceptual motor skills improved but he did not consciously recognize the testing apparatus?  Not really a problem.  There’s a sense in which the development of perceptual motor skills is precisely intended to create motor programs that don’t require problem solving on-the-fly.  Ha!  We can create our own FAPs!  [This is like blindsight.  Things that do not present themselves to the conscious-reporting system (e.g., Oh, yeah, I know how to do this pursuit rotor thing.) are available to be triggered as a consequence of consciously reportable intentions and states of mind (e.g., I’m doing this pursuit rotor thing.).  So part of what we learn to do consciously is learned and stored in non-reportable form (cf. Larry Squire’s papers on the topic).  But in the case of blindsight, some trace of detectablility is present.]

But if we can create our own FAPs, we must also create our own IRMs.  That means we have to create structures (patterns) that stretch from perceptions to behaviors.  Presumably, they are all specializations.  We create shortcuts.  If shortcuts are faster (literally) then they will happen first.  In other words, the better you get at dealing with a particular pattern, the more likely that pattern will be able to get to the effectors (or to the next stage of processing) first.   Is that what lateral inhibition does?  It gives the shortcut enough precedence to keep interference from messing things up.  In other words, lateral inhibition helps resolve race conditions.  [“Race conditions” reminds me that synchronous firing in the nervous system proceeds faster than anything else.]

Consciousness (whatever that means, still) is a tool for learning or for dealing with competing IRM/FAPs.  What do I mean “dealing with”?  Selecting among them, strengthening them or weakening them, refining them.  (There.  I got revising which was close, but not quite correct.  I typed it and then I got refining which was le mot juste (and it varies only in two consonants /f/ for /v/ which is only unvoiced for voiced and /s/ for /n/ which have no connection as far as I can tell).  [Find research on tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomena.]

TOT: “partial activation” model v. “interference” model.  It seems to me that these are the same thing in my model of shortcuts and races.

The problem of observational learning: assuming that human infants are primed to learn from observation (or is it that they are primed to imitate actions they perceive, particularly humanish actions?).  Suppose moreover that humans have a way of segmenting perceptions and associating the segments.  Be real careful here: Marr suggests that visual inputs get taken apart and pieces processed hither, thither, and yon.  They never need to get put together because there’s no Cartesian observer.  So associations between percepts and imitative action patterns are spread out (multi-dimensional, if you will) without the need to segment the patterns any more than they are naturally.

As Oliphant (1998? submitted to Cognitive Behavior, p.15) says, “Perhaps it is an inability to constrain the possible space of meanings that prevents animals from using learned systems of communication, even systems that are no more complicated than existing innate signaling systems.”

Oliphant also says (1998? submitted to Cognitive Behavior, p.15), “When children learn words, they seem to simplify the task of deciding what a word denotes through knowledge of the existence of taxonomic categories (Markman, 1989), awareness of pragmatic context (Tomasello, 1995), and reading the intent of the speaker (Bloom, 1997).”  [Are some or all of these consequences of the development of attractor basins?  Is part of the developmental / maturational process the refinement of the boundaries of attractor basins?  Surely.]

It begins to feel as if imitation is key.  Is the IRM human-see and the FAP human-do?  Refinement is also the name of the game: patterns (input and output) can be refined with shortcuts.  There are innate groundings.  The innate groundings are most likely body-centric, but then again, imitation has an external stimulus: the behavior to imitate.

I’ve been finding lots of AI articles about cognitive models that use neural networks.  Granting that they are by nature schematic oversimplifications, there is one thing that seems to characterize all of them, and it’s something that has bothered me about neural networks all along: they assume grandmother-detectors.  That is, they have a set of input nodes that fire if and only if a particular stimulus occurs.  The outputs are similarly specific: each output node fires to signal a specific response.  Of course, this is pretty much a description of the IRM / FAP paradigm and, following Oliphant (1998?), the interesting problems seem to be happening in the system before and after this kind of model.

There are two easy ways of initializing a neural network simulation: set all weights to zero or set the weights to random values.  But assuming that what goes on in the brain bears at least some resemblance to what goes on in a neural network simulation, it seems clear that evolution guarantees that neither of these initialization strategies is used ontogenetically.  Setting all connection strengths to zero gives you a vegetable, and setting connection strengths randomly gives you a mess.  Surely evolution has found a better starting point.  [Cf. research on ontogenetic self-organization.]

One researcher’s baby is another researcher’s bathwater.  Hmmm.  Ain’t thinking grand?

Given that there aren’t grandmother detectors [although there are some experiments that claim Raquel Welch detectors, I think] and that there are not similarly specific effectors, we are back to Lashley’s problem of serial behavior.  What keeps the pandemonium from just thrashing?  I keep coming back to a substrate of plastic (i.e., tunable, mutable, modifiable, subsettable, short-cuttable) IRMs and FAPs.  Babies don’t get “doggie” all at once.  There seems to be a sort of bootstrap process involved.  Babies have to have enough built in to get the process started.  From that point on, it’s successive refinement.

I wrote “invisible figre” then stopped.  My intention had been to write “invisible fingers”.  I had been reading French.   I don’t know for [shure] sure how the ‘n’ got lost, but the “gre” would have been a Frenchified spelling and “figre” would not have had the nasalized consonant that would have (if pronounced in French) produced “fingres”.

All these little sensory and motor homuncuili in the cortex—maybe what they are telling us is pretty much what Lakoff was saying, namely that our conception of the universe is body-centric.  Makes good sense.  That’s where the external universe impinges upon us and that’s where we impinge on the external universe.  I couldn’t think of a better reference system.

Chalmers (The Conscious Mind, 1996) believes that zombies are logically possible because he can imagine them.  He believes that a reductionist explanation of consciousness is impossible.  It is certainly true that it is a long jump from the physics of the atom to the dynamics of Earth’s atmosphere that give rise to meteorological phenomena, but we don’t for that reason argue that a reductionist explanation is impossible.  Yes, it’s a hard problem, but it requires poking one hell of a big hole in our understanding of physics to believe that a scientific explanation is impossible and therefore consciousness must be supernatural.  I don’t think I want to read his book now.  I feel it will be like reading a religious tract arguing that evolution is impossible.  my Spanish Literature Professor Juan Marichal once observed, a propos a book written by a Mexican author who had conceived a virulent hatred for Cortez (from a vantage point 400 years after the conquest of Mexico) that it is possible to learn something even from works written by people who have peculiar axes to grind.  So maybe sometime I’ll revisit Chalmers, but not now.

Antonio Damasio (1999, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.) The trouble with neural nets is often that they have no memory other than the connection weights acquired during training.  A new set of data erases or modifies the existing weights rather than taking into account what had been learned thus far.  Learning from experience means that there is some record of past experience to learn from.  Of course, that may just be the answer: memory systems server to counterbalance the tendency to oscillate or to go with the latest fad.  If a new pattern has some association with what has gone before, then what has gone before will shape the way in which the new pattern is incorporated.  If there is a long-term record of an old pattern, it will still be available at some processing stage even if the new pattern becomes dominant at some other processing stage.  So, it may not be necessary to solve in a single stage of processing the problem of new data causing forgetfulness.

Learning has to be going on at multiple levels simultaneously.  Alternatively, there are nested (layered? as in cortical layers) structures that feed information forward, so some structures learn from direct inputs and subsequent structures learn from the outputs of the structures that get direct inputs and so on.

Antonio Damasio (1999) has given me the idea that will, I think, account for wanting.  Homeostasis.  The argument goes like this.  In unicellular organisms, homeostasis doesn’t have a lot of ways to operate.  When an organism becomes mobile, homeostatic processes can trigger behaviors that with better than chance probability (from an evolutionary standpoint) result in internal state changes that serve to maintain homeostasis.  In effect, evolution favors behaviors that can be triggered to achieve homeostatic goals.

In complex organisms, there are homeostatic mechanisms that work on the internal environment directly, but there are some internal environment changes for which it is not possible to compensate adequately by modifying the internal environment directly.  Thence, hunger.  Hunger is how we experience the process that is initiated when homeostatic mechanisms detect an insufficiency of fuel.  (Actually, it’s probably more sophisticated than that—more like detection of a condition in which the reserve of fuel drops below a particular threshold—and maybe there are multiple thresholds, but the broad outline is clear.)

All organisms have phylogenetically established (built-in) boot processes for incorporating food.  In mammals, there is a rooting reflex and a suckle reflex.  Chewing (which starts out as gumming, but who’s worrying?) and swallowing are built-ins as well.  But those only help when food is presented.  Problem: how to get food to be presented?  Well, if food is presented before hunger sets in, it’s not a homeostatic problem.  If not, homeostatic mechanisms switch the organism into “need-fuel mode”.  In “need-fuel” mode, organisms do things that tend to increase the likelihood that fuel will become available.  Babies fuss, and even cry, sometimes lots and loudly.

Pain is another place where internal homeostatic processes intersect with the external universe.  Pain is how we experience the process that is initiated when homeostatic sensors detect deviations from damage to internal stability that arise from a physical process (heat, cold, puncture, etc.).  Again, evolution has sophisticated the process somewhat.  The pain process arises when a threshold condition is passed.  Pain does not wait for serious damage to take place, pain is triggered when it’s time to take action to prevent serious damage.

Pain actually has to be a bit subtle, too.  Some pain may and should be ignored.  If fight is an alternative to flight, then fight arguably ups the threshold for debilitating pain.

There are other obvious situations in which homeostatic considerations require some action with respect to the outside world.  Urination and defecation are two.  Similarly, vomiting (with its warning homeostatic signal, nausea).

Our wanting, then, has its origin as the experience of a process that responds to some (serious or prospectively serious) homeostatic imbalance.

As an aside, I want to propose that one of the characteristics that distinguishes reptiles from mammals is that when a reptile is in reasonable homeostatic equilibrium, it does nothing.  When a mammal is in the same state, it does something—explores its environment, plays, writes poetry, etc.  In the most general terms, it sets out to learn something.  This characteristic arguably confers at least a marginal advantage to animals that possess it, viz. it is possible that something learned in the absence (at the time) of any pressing need will turn out to be valuable in dealing with future situations in which there will be no opportunity to learn it.  So, the concept of homeostasis has to be broadly construed.

My central point, however, is that ultimately our wants, wishes, desires, dislikes, disgusts, and delights all refer to internal homeostatic processes.  The fact that there are so many distinguishable variants of wanting suggests to me that the many shades of our experience reflect the many kinds of homeostatic processes that have been phylogenetically established in our brains and bodies, each presumably for the most part having proved advantageous over evolutionary time.