I have read two essays in the past month on the brain and consciousness and I think both point to examples of why consciousness per se and the “problem of consciousness” are both so confusing and hard to understand. The first article is by philosopher Galen Strawson in The Stone series of the New York Times. Strawson takes issue with the supposed conventional wisdom that consciousness is extremely mysterious and cannot be easily reconciled with materialism. He argues that the problem isn’t about consciousness, which is certainly real, but rather matter, for which we have no “true” understanding. We know what consciousness is since that is all we experience but physics can only explain how matter behaves. We have no grasp whatsoever of the essence of matter. Hence, it is not clear that consciousness is at odds with matter since we don’t understand matter.
I think Strawson’s argument is mostly sound but he misses on the crucial open question of consciousness. It is true that we don’t have an understanding of the true essence of matter and we probably never will but that is not why consciousness is mysterious. The problem is that we do now know whether the rules that govern matter, be they classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, or general relativity, could give rise to a subjective conscious experience. Our understanding of the world is good enough for us to build bridges, cars, computers and launch a spacecraft 4 billion kilometers to Pluto, take photos, and send them back. We can predict the weather with great accuracy for up to a week. We can treat infectious diseases and repair the heart. We can breed super chickens and grow copious amounts of corn. However, we have no idea how these rules can explain consciousness and more importantly we do not know whether these rules are sufficient to understand consciousness or whether we need a different set of rules or reality or whatever. One of the biggest lessons of the twentieth century is that knowing the rules does not mean you can predict the outcome of the rules. Not even taking into the computability and decidability results of Turing and Gödel, it is still not clear how to go from the microscopic dynamics of molecules to the Navier-Stokes equation for macroscopic fluid flow and how to get from Navier-Stokes to the turbulent flow of a river. Likewise, it is hard to understand how the liver works, much less the brain, starting from molecules or even cells. Thus, it is possible that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the rules that we already know, like wetness or a hurricane. We simply do not know and are not even close to knowing. This is the hard problem of consciousness.
The second article is by psychologist Robert Epstein in the online magazine Aeon. In this article, Epstein rails against the use of computers and information processing as a metaphor for how the brain works. He argues that this type of restricted thinking is why we can’t seem to make any progress understanding the brain or consciousness. Unfortunately, Epstein seems to completely misunderstand what computers are and what information processing means.
Firstly, a computation does not necessarily imply a symbolic processing machine like a von Neumann computer with a central processor, memory, inputs and outputs. A computation in the Turing sense is simply about finding or constructing a desired function from one countable set to another. Now, the brain certainly performs computations; any time we identify an object in an image or have a conversation, the brain is performing a computation. You can couch it in whatever language you like but it is a computation. Additionally, the whole point of a universal computer is that it can perform any computation. Computations are not tied to implementations. I can always simulate whatever (computable) system you want on a computer. Neural networks and deep learning are not symbolic computations per se but they can be implemented on a von Neumann computer. We may not know what the brain is doing but it certainly involves computation of some sort. Any thing that can sense the environment and react is making a computation. Bacteria can compute. Molecules compute. However, that is not to say that everything a brain does can be encapsulated by Turing universal computation. For example, Penrose believes that the brain is not computable although as I argued in a previous post, his argument is not very convincing. It is possible that consciousness is beyond the realm of computation and thus would entail very different physics. However, we have yet to find an example of a real physical phenomenon that is not computable.
Secondly, the brain processes information by definition. Information in both the Shannon and Fisher senses is a measure of uncertainty reduction. For example, in order to meet someone for coffee you need at least two pieces of information, where and when. Before you received that information your uncertainty was huge since there were so many possible places and times the meeting could take place. After receiving the information your uncertainty was eliminated. Just knowing it will be on Thursday is already a big decrease in uncertainty and an increase in information. Much of the brain’s job at least for cognition is about uncertainly reduction. When you are searching for your friend in the crowded cafe, you are eliminating possibilities and reducing uncertainty. The big mistake that Epstein makes is conflating an example with the phenomenon. Your brain does not need to function like your smartphone to perform computations or information processing. Computation and information theory are two of the most important mathematical tools we have for analyzing cognition.