Article on Qualia

 

Cognitivism’s Clay Feet, 

Plus a Vision of ‘Energetic Learning Theory’

 

by Steve Minett, PhD

 

This paper seeks to establish the following propositions;

 

  1. The ‘Cognitive/Computational’ theory of mind and consciousness is inadequate because it limits its explanations to algorithmic information processing, within a representational, cognitive framework.
  2. What’s missing from the ‘Cognitive/Computational’ approach is any recognition that analogue, energetic processes (ultimately based on quantum phenomena) might play a significant role in generating mind and consciousness.
  3. This paper further contends that; a) qualia and the emotions are based on just such energetic processes (qualia and the emotions are therefore intimately related to each other), and that b) qualia and the emotions are more important than algorithmic information processing for learning, and hence for flexible behaviour, in humans and (to a lesser extent) other mammals.
  4. The paper attempts to sketch an alternative to cognitivism’s account of flexible behaviour, which I’m calling ‘Energetic Learning Theory’

 

My strategy in this paper is twofold; firstly, to question the plausibility of a number of examples presented by Dennett and Pinker to promote their ‘information-only’ position. Secondly, to present an alternative model in which energetic processes, in the form of qualia and the emotions, play a more significant role in human learning than does information processing. As regards a theory of emotion, I shall rely on the work of Jaak Panksepp and to provide an account as to how quantum theory can explain the physical reality and causal efficacy of qualia, I’ll be using Jeffrey Gray’s interpretation of the Penrose-Hammerhoff theory.

 

Questioning Cognitivism & Computationalism

Dennett and Pinker are leading spokespeople for what can be categorised as the ‘Cognitive/Computational’ theory of mind and consciousness. In this view, information  processing not energy is considered to be the ‘life blood of the mind’ (as Pinker puts it).

Any idea of energetic processes playing a role in mind and consciousness is dismissed as a primitive, ‘folk psychological’ position. I want to argue, in this paper, the opposite case, i.e. that the Achilles’ heel of ‘Cognitive/Computational’ theory is its insistent denial of a role for energetic processes (which, I believe, will ultimately be found to be based on quantum processes). This denial (despite its ‘mainstream’ respectability within the contemporary scientific and philosophical  communities) impoverishes our conceptions of mind and consciousness and contributes hugely to the enormous disparity between ‘ordinary’ human experience and ‘Cognitive/Computational’ theory.

Let’s first take a quick look at the ‘Cognitive/Computational’, ‘information-only’ position, which Dennett and Pinker are defending: Cognitivism is a theoretical framework for understanding the mind that gained credence in the 1950s. It was a response to behaviourism, which cognitivists said neglected to explain cognition, defined as how people perceive, think, remember, learn, solve problems, and direct their attention to one stimulus rather than another. Behaviourists acknowledged the existence of thinking, but identified it as a behaviour. Cognitivists argued that the way people think impacts their behaviour and therefore cannot be a behaviour in and of itself. Cognitivism has two major components, one methodological, the other theoretical. Methodologically, cognitivism adopts a positivist approach, claiming that psychology can (in principle) be fully explained by the use of experiment, measurement and the scientific method. Cognitivism is also largely reductionist, believing that individual components of mental function (the ‘cognitive architecture’) can be identified and meaningfully understood. The theoretical component claims that cognition consists of discrete, internal mental states (representations or symbols) whose manipulation can be described in terms of rules or algorithms.

Cognitivism is not a wholesale refutation of behaviourism, but rather an expansion that accepts that mental states exist. This was due to the increasing criticism, towards the end of the 1950s, of behaviourism’s simplistic learning models. One of the most notable criticisms was Chomsky’s argument that language could not be acquired purely through conditioning, but must be, at least partly, explained by the existence of internal mental states.

Cognitivists typically presuppose a specific form of mental activity, of the kind advanced by computationalism. In this theory the human mind or the human brain (or both) is conceived of as an information processing system and thinking is regarded as a form of computing. The theory was proposed, in its modern form, by Hilary Putnam in 1961, and developed by the MIT philosopher and cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor (who was Putnam’s PhD student) in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The computational theory of mind holds that the mind is a computation that arises from the brain acting as a computing machine. The brain is a computer and the mind is the result of the program that the brain runs. A program is the finite description of an algorithm or effective procedure. The program prescribes a sequence of discrete actions. The outputs produced by the program are based only on inputs and the internal states (memory) of the computing machine. For any admissible input, algorithms terminate in a finite number of steps. So the computational theory of mind is the claim that the mind is a computation of a machine (the brain) that derives output representations of the world from input representations and internal memory in a way that is consistent with the theory of computation.

 

Dennett’s Unconvincing Examples

My first example of an argument in favour of the ‘Cognitive/Computational’ theory is Dennett’s response to Frank Jackson’s very famous,1982, thought experiment addressing the problem of colour qualia. This thought experiment runs as follows: Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of colour vision and acquires (for the purposes of the experiment) all the physical information that can possibly obtained about what goes on when we see colours. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’, via the central nervous system, the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs. What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything new or not?

Dennett comments quite extensively on this thought experiment and he believes that the answer to the question at the end is; no, she won’t learn anything new. Dennett starts his argument by insisting that the crucial premise in this thought experiment is the phrase; ‘She has all the physical information.’ This, he says, is not readily imaginable, so people tend to imagine either that she knows lots and lots or that she knows everything that modern science knows today about the neurophysiology of colour vision. But, as Dennett points out, what we know today is almost nothing, so if this were all she knew, it wouldn’t be surprising that Mary should learn something new when she first saw colour.

Dennett imagines that Mary would have written down, ‘in exquisite detail’, exactly what physical impression a yellow object or a blue object, or a green object, etc., would make on her nervous system before she is shown any coloured object. Then he imagines that they show her a blue banana. According to Dennett, Mary tells the experimenters:

 

‘I already knew exactly what thoughts I would have (because, after all, the ‘mere disposition’ to think about this or that is not one of your famous qualia, is it?). I was not in the slightest surprised by my experience of blue (what surprised me was that you would try such a second-rate trick on me). I realise it is hard for you to imagine that I could know so much about my reactive dispositions that the way blue affected me came as no surprise. Of course it’s hard for you to imagine. It’s hard for anyone to imagine the consequences of someone knowing absolutely everything physical about anything!’

 

Dennett concedes that his way of telling the story doesn’t prove that Mary learns nothing new, but, then, he claims, neither does the usual version prove that she does! Rather the usual version is what he calls ‘an intuition pump’ that works by making you think that it, ‘just seems obvious’ that she does. The story as an intuition pumps achieves this by lulling you into imagining something other than what the premises require: Dennett says;

 

‘It is of course true that in any realistic, readily imaginable version of the story, Mary would come to learn something, but in any realistic, readily imaginable version she might know a lot, but she would not know everything physical. Simply imagining that Mary knows a lot, and leaving it at that, is not a good way to figure out the implications of her having ‘all the physical information’ – any more than imagining she is filthy rich would be a good way to figure out the implications of the hypothesis that she owned everything. It may help us imagine the extent of the powers her knowledge gives her if we begin by enumerating a few of the things she obviously knows in advance.’

 

Dennett elaborates on the consequences of Mary knowing everything there is to know about colour:

 

‘…. she knows precisely which effects – described in neurophysiological terms – each particular colour will have on her nervous system. So the only task that remains is for her to figure out a way of identifying those neurophysiological effects “from the inside”. You may find you can readily imagine her making a little progress on this – for instance, figuring out tricky ways in which she would be able to tell that some colour, whatever it is, is not yellow, or not red. How? By noting some salient and specific reaction that her brain would have only to yellow or only for red. But if you allow her even a little entry into her colour space in this way, you should conclude that she can leverage her way to complete advanced knowledge, because she doesn’t just know the salient reactions, she knows them all.’

 

And consequently, when she finally does get to experience colour, she learns nothing new about it because she already knows everything there is to know about colour!

Dennett attacks this spurious sense of ‘obviousness’ as a great obstacle to progress in understanding consciousness. He says it’s, ‘the most natural thing in the world to think of consciousness as occurring in some sort of Cartesian Theatre, and to suppose that there is nothing really wrong with thinking this way.’ But, he claims, this obviousness disappears if you look carefully and in detail at the brain’s actual activities, and try to imagine an alternative to this simplistic model of consciousness. Dennett compares this with learning how a stage magician performs a conjuring trick, he says:

 

‘Once we take a serious look backstage, we discover that we didn’t actually see what we thought we saw onstage. The huge gap between phenomenology and physiology shrinks a bit; we see that some of the ‘obvious’ features of phenomenology are not real at all: There is no filling in with figment; there are no intrinsic qualia; there is no central fount of meaning and action; there is no magic place where the understanding happens. In fact, there is no Cartesian Theatre; …We still have plenty of amazing phenomena to explain, but a few of the most mind-boggling special effects just don’t exist at all, and hence require no explanation.’

 

It seems to me (and I suspect most other people, including the philosopher, David Hume) that Dennett is making (perhaps wilfully) a fundamental mistake about certain ‘obvious facts’ about human experience; namely, the difference between knowing something intellectually and having an immediate, personal experience of it. I feel that Dennett is ‘getting away with a lot’ in his analysis of this story precisely because our knowledge of colour and our qualic experience of colour are hard to disentangle, and so are easily confused. But what if we choose to reconsider this thought experiment having substituted the experience of extreme pain instead of the experience of seeing colours?

 

Severe Pain Instead of Colour

So, let’s rewrite the ‘Mary’ thought experiment though this time substituting for the calm, neutral experience of seeing colour, the extreme experience of receiving a severe electric shock. We could imagine a medical student researching every aspect of this event from a neurophysiological point of view. He or she might finally understand, in exquisite detail, all of the neural processes which a normal human being would experience during this event. But would this knowledge enable the student to feel the same pain as the person who is actually in the process of receiving a severe electric shock? Dennett might object that we don’t as yet have anywhere near a complete knowledge of the neurological processes involved, but let’s make this a thought experiment and imagine that at some point in the distant future we do acquire a complete knowledge of this. My point is as follows: would any amount of intellectual knowledge of these processes make the student howl in pain?

 

Dennett’s championing of Mary’s knowledge is, of course, part of his philosophical denial of the reality of qualia. He’s arguing here from a ‘cognitivist’ point of view. So what can we learn about cognitivism from Dennett’s response to this thought experiment? The principal lesson is, I think, that, as above, Dennett does not make a distinction between knowledge (or information) and experience (or feeling): all operations in the brain and all products of those operations, are conducted in, or take the form of, information processing. In cognitivism, the term ‘information processing’ means the manipulation of physical symbols in the brain, by means of algorithmic rules and resulting in the deduction of logical inferences. That’s why, according to cognitivism, Mary learns nothing new about colour – she’s already processed all the information and made all the right inferences. This cognitivist way of seeing brain function is closely linked to the idea that the brain is very similar to, and amounts to nothing more than, a digital computer.

We can now revisit my version of the ‘Mary’ thought experiment, though this time, in my ‘pain’ version: the ‘pre-experience’ Mary would have all the digital, propositional information that there is about how a serve electric shock affects the human nervous system. But, until she is wired up and the power is turned on, she wouldn’t have had the experience of what such a shock feels like in analogue, energetic terms. Consequently, she would learn something new from actually experiencing the shock. But, Dennett has actually  denied the reality of pain:

 

‘If you can make yourself study your pains (even quite intense pains) you will find, as it were, no room left to mind them: (they stop hurting). However, studying a pain (e.g., a headache) gets boring pretty fast, and as soon as you stop studying them, they come back and hurt, which, oddly enough, is sometimes less boring than being bored by them and so, to some degree, preferable.’

 

Some might argue that rejecting the idea that, in addition to information processing, we also have analogue, emotional-engertic experiences, might simply reduce us to the status of zombies. But, it appears that Dennett would not have a problem with this outcome: he says regarding the possibility of the existence of philosophical zombies that; ‘They’re not just possible, they’re actual. We’re all zombies. Nobody is conscious …I can’t prove that no such sort of consciousness exists. I also cannot prove that gremlins don’t exist. The best I can do is show that there is no respectable motivation for believing in it.’

 

snake-aversion

In another part of his campaign to discredit qualia as independent phenomena, Dennett suggests two different explanations for the uneasiness most of us feel when we see a snake: firstly, ‘Snakes evoke in us a particular intrinsic snake-yuckiness quale when we look at them, and our uneasiness is a reaction to that quale.’ This is his ‘qualia explanation’; in other words, the qualia that the presence of snakes provoke in us cause us to recoil from them.  Dennett’s second, functional, explanation runs as follows; ‘We find ourselves less than eager to see snakes because of innate biases built into our nervous systems. These favour the release of adrenaline, bring fight-or-flight routines on line, …’ In other words, what causes our aversion to snakes is the evolutionary process that built this reaction into our nervous systems. The qualia we experience when this aversion reaction is triggered are mere byproducts, or epiphenomena.

Dennett’s point with these two alternative explanations is that the first, ‘qualic’ explanation is really no explanation at all: he argues against the idea that an ‘intrinsic’ property, such as snake-yuckiness, pain or the aroma of coffee, can explain a subject’s reactions and dismisses the notion as ‘hopeless’. Such explanations are, Dennett implies, tautologies and he compares them with conception and pregnancy:

 

‘Conception is, by definition we might say, the cause of pregnancy. If we had no other way of identifying conception, telling someone she got pregnant because she conceived would be an empty gesture, not an explanation. But once we’ve figured out the requisite mechanical theory of conception, we can see how conception is the cause of pregnancy, and informativeness is restored. In the same spirit, we might identify qualia, by definition, as the proximal causes of our enjoyment and suffering (roughly put), and then proceed to discharge our obligations to inform by pursuing the second style of explanation. … But curiously enough, qualophiles (as I call those who still believe in qualia) will have none of it; they insist … that qualia ‘reduced’ to mere complexes of mechanically accomplished dispositions to react are not the qualia they are talking about. Their qualia are something different.’

 

Dennett uses a comparison of conception and pregnancy to illustrate that referring to a quale as an explanation for a subject’s reaction is empty and meaningless, like telling a woman that she’s pregnant because she’s conceived without further explanation. It’s ironic that Dennett’s recommendation for escaping this tautological emptiness is to figured out the requisite mechanical theory of conception. This would then make conception an effective explanation of pregnancy. But why doesn’t Dennett apply this procedure to the quale-reaction relation? The probable answer is that Dennett is already convinced that qualia are dualistic illusions and thus cannot form part of an effective ‘mechanical’, or even biological, theory to explain a behavioural reaction. Other researchers, however, are not burdened by such preconceptions: Jaak Panksepp, for example, believes that qualia can be seen as the ‘missing link’ between the classic behaviourist phenomena of stimulus and response. Rather than the causality moving directly from stimulus to response, Panksepp believes that ‘affect’ (subjective feeling) provides the rewards and punishments necessary to reinforce behavioural patterns.

 

Qualia Part of the Mechanism!

If we return to Dennett’s snake-aversion example, Panksepp’s account would work as follows: rather than being irrelevant epiphemonena, the qualia of fear and disgust provoked by the sight of the snake, would be part of the mechanism via which the primate organism mobilises an appropriate aversive response. In other words, these unpleasant qualic feelings would stimulate the primate to flee, or otherwise, avoid the snake. Thus, for our protection against snakes, evolution has hard wired a connection between perception of snakes and the negative qualic experiences of fear and disgust. Note that this explanation gives the subjective qualities of qualia a bigger causal role than Dennett’s dismissal of them as simply a short-hand for ‘complex dispositions to behave’: what we feel subjectively actually has effects on how we behave!

 

Pinker’s Critique of Energetic Processes

Pinker provides a more comprehensive explanatory framework into which Dennett’s ‘anti-energetic’ arguments above can be neatly fitted: he says;

 

‘… [T]he computational theory of mind is a radical challenge to our everyday way of thinking about the mind, because the theory says that the life-blood of thought is information. That goes against our folk notion that the lifeblood of thought is energy or pressure. Why did the disgruntled postal worker shoot up the post office? Well, for many years, we say, pressure had been building up until he finally burst; … The metaphor is that thought and emotion are animated by some superheated fluid or gas under pressure. Now, there is no doubt that this hydraulic metaphor captures something about our experience. But we know that it is not literally how the brain works: there is no container full of fluid and channels through which the fluid flows. And that raises an important scientific question: Why is the brain going to so much trouble to simulate energy and pressure, given that it doesn’t literally work that way?’

 

Let’s note a couple of features of Pinker’s comments above: Pinker’s version of energetic processes takes a curiously Nineteenth Century form; ‘ … thought and emotion are animated by some superheated fluid or gas under pressure.’ One is guided immediately to the steam engine as a model for the mind, or (more generously) to Freud’s gather crude, (and un-self-published) hydraulic theories. But, Pinker assures us, ‘we know that it is not literally how the brain works: there is no container full of fluid and channels through which the fluid flows.’ I think we all know that there isn’t some version of a steam engine in the brain. (This strikes me as a strange example of Dennett’s ally Pinker making use of Dennett’s despised ‘intuition pump’.) We should perhaps recall that for the last century we have been living in the quantum world, where ‘energetic processes’ are no longer confined to superheated fluids or gases under pressure (see below).

Pinker’s second comment worthy of note is; ‘ … there is no doubt that this hydraulic metaphor captures something about our experience.’ He clearly concedes that this is how emotion feels to us, in our ‘folk wisdom’. But he, just as clearly, ‘knows’ that we are wrong about this. His position on this is an example of the ‘ultra-realism’ of cognitivist theory, which Henry Stapp and many other quantum physicists would dismiss as utterly without foundation in modern science.

 

The Inelegant Explanations of Cognitivism

Pinker uses the irrationality and involuntariness of romantic love to illustrate the difference between the way emotions feel to us and the ‘reality’ of the logic and functionality, which actually explains what emotions are ‘really’ about: even potential mates who appear to be the perfect match on paper, he says, turn out to be unexciting when met in person. And, visa versa, some one can fall deeply in love with a person who, on rational grounds, seems completely in appropriate. Why should this be the case? Pinker explains;

 

‘Entering a partnership through totally ‘rational’ shopping poses a problem. If you have set up house with the best person you have found up to a certain point, then by the law of averages, sooner or later someone even better will come along. At that point a rational agent would be tempted to drop a wife or husband like a hot potato. But … a partnership requires sacrifices – forgone opportunities with other potential partners and the time and energy put into child-rearing, among many other things. Rational spouses could anticipate that their partner would drop them when someone better came along, and they would be foolish to enter the relationship in the first place. Thus we would have the paradoxical situation in which what is in the interest of both parties – that they stick with each other – cannot be effected because neither one can trust the other if the other is acting as a rational, smart shopper.’

 

Pinker suggests that evolution has solved this problem by ensuring that we’re hard-wired not to fall in love for rational reasons. Consequently, we’re less likely to fall out of love for rational reasons. A mutual feeling of helplessness makes the exchange of promises between a love-struck couple mutually believable, despite the fact that they both know that it may be rational to break that promise in the future. In other words, Pinker is arguing that our brains make elaborate calculations in order to select the best available mating partner, but this rational process is hidden from us by an overwhelming, and ‘irrational’, feeling of falling in love with the ultimately selected partner. This ‘illusory’ feeling protects the family unit by blocking the brain from using similar rational calculations to abandon the originally chosen partner when a more attractive one becomes available: a very cumbersome way of of denying the reality and causal effects of the emotions involved in falling in love.

 

Acquired Tastes

Dennett engages in a similar struggle in order to explain acquired tastes. As we saw above, in his example of snake-aversion, Dennett dismisses qualia as basic, hard-wired alarms and attractions. This position, however, makes it difficult to explain how what was first found aversive later becomes attractive. Here is Dennett’s explanation as to why this happens;

 

‘ … [T]hese native alarmists have subsequently been co-opted in a host of more complicated organisations, built from millions of associations, and shaped, in the human case, by thousands of memes. In this way the brute come-and-get-it appeal of sex and food, and the brute run-for-your-life aversion of pain and fear get stirred together in all sorts of piquant combinations. When an organism discovers that it pays to attend to some feature of the world in spite of its built-in aversion to doing that, it must construct some countervailing coalition to keep aversion from winning. The resulting semi-stable tension can then itself become an acquired taste, to be sought out under certain conditions.’

 

Again, let me suggest that this is an extremely cumbersome explanation. But is there a simpler and more elegant one?

 

The Two Components of Qualia

I believe there is. It consists of accepting the physical reality and causal efficacy of qualia and the emotions, conceived of as quantum energetic phenomena. I shall first turn to a version of Antonio Damasio’s explanation of qualia, and then, as promised, provide my more elegant theory of acquired tastes. Damasio begins by identifying what he calls ‘Qualia 1’ and ‘Qualia 2’. The first, in my interpretation, refers back to the classical concept of qualia: a ‘raw’, direct sensory feel in one of the sense modalities. As to ‘Qualia 2’, Damasio says the following: ‘if subjective experiences are accompanied by feelings, how are feeling states engendered in me in the first place?’  Damasio is far from clear, but this, I believe, could be interpreted as the emotional response to a simple basic quale. (Jaak Panksepp’s remark, that; ‘…when you first saw the colour red, you rapidly came to know all that you would ever know directly about this colour, ..’ would seem to support this.)

The two components together, ‘Qualia 1’ and ‘Qualia 2’ produce what Damasio would call a feeling. The picture of qualic experience which emerges could be described as follows: qualic ‘feelings’ consist of two components; first a simple, immediate quale, such as seeing red. Second, an emotional evaluation of this quale. Damasio implies that the first, initial quale is closer to basic neurophysiological processes, not necessarily conscious and therefore ‘easier’ to explain.

Damasio asks why these physical, neuro-chemical events should feel like something? The answer, as I interpret Damasio, is that qualia are always accompanied by emotions and feelings. He says;

 

‘No set of conscious images of any kind and on any topic ever fails to be accompanied by an obedient choir of emotions and consequent feelings.’ He uses the example of watching dawn over the Pacific Ocean. He says that, ‘I am not just seeing, I am also emoting to this majestic beauty … This is happening through no deliberation of mine, and I have no power to prevent the feelings, any more than I had any power to initiate them.’

 

As a confirmation of this ‘always-togetherness’ of qualia and emotion, Damasio identifies a small range of real-life situations, where the expectable emotional response to qualia may be reduced or even fail to materialise:

 

‘The most benign would come from the effect of any drug capable of shutting down emotional responsivity — think of a tranquilliser like Valium, an antidepressant like Prozac, or even a B blocker such as propranolol, all of which, given enough dosage, dampen one’s ability to respond emotionally and consequently to experience emotional feelings. Emotional feelings also fail to materialise in a common pathological situation, depression, in which aspects of positive feeling are notoriously absent and in which even negative feelings such as sadness may be dampened so severely that the result is an affectively blunted state.’

 

So the conclusion is; if you suppress or eliminate emotional responsiveness, you inevitably also suppress or eliminate qualia, thus giving the formula; ‘Sensation + Emotion = Quale’ Damasio produces another illustration of the ‘always-togetherness’ of qualia and emotion; listening to music. He says;’ … there are two musical tracks going in my mind, one with the Bach piece that is playing right now and another with the music-Iike track with which I react to the actual music in the language of emotion and feeling.’ In other words, Damasio is saying that as the auditory qualia of the actual music progresses in the brain, it is immediately accompanied by an emotional response, perhaps to each note or phase or pause.

 

An Elegant Explanation of Acquired Tastes

This two-component conception of qualia now permits me to provide, as promised, my more elegant explanation of changing tastes and acquired tastes: the basic qualia, for example, our immediate experience of the bitter taste of an olive, the discordant sound of of a musical phrase, or the aggressive shapes and colours of an abstract painting, would remain the same (presumably determined by our neurophysiology), but our emotional response to them can change, or be ‘educated’ over time. So, what was once aversive or repellent, can become pleasurable or intriguing, although the basic experience itself has not changed! This seems to me a much more flexible and realistic account of acquired tastes that Dennett’s cumbersome one, which (let’s remind ourselves) argued that, via culture, inbuilt alarms and attractions can become combined and blended into more sophisticated tastes and aversions: they get, ‘ …co-opted in a host of more complicated organisations, built from millions of associations, and shaped, in the human case, by thousands of memes.’ But these changes require the construction of some ‘countervailing coalition’ to keep, for example, aversion from winning. ‘The resulting semi-stable tension can then itself become an acquired taste, to be sought out under certain conditions.’  Not a very parsimonious explanation!

 

The ‘Energetic Theory of Learning’

Having seriously questioned the viability of cognitivism, via the examples above, we can now move on to present a positive vision as to how learning and flexible behaviour can be based on non-cognitive, quantum-energetic phenomena. As per the introduction, I’m going to contend that; a) qualia and the emotions are based on just such energetic processes (qualia and the emotions are therefore intimately related to each other), and that b) qualia and the emotions are more important than algorithmic information processing for learning, and hence flexible behaviour, in humans and (to a lesser extent) other mammals. As above, I’ll be using the formula; ‘Sensation + Emotion = Quale’, derived from Damasio’s work, and arguing that qualia have a causal effect in learning (also as above). As regards a theory of emotion, I shall rely on the work of Jaak Panksepp. While identifying a genetically fixed range of emotions and emphasising the direct and immediate force of emotion, Panksepp doesn’t say much about what the energetic force of emotion is based on. To provide an account as to how quantum theory can explain the physical reality and causal efficacy of qualia and emotion, I’ll be using Jeffrey Gray’s interpretation of the Penrose-Hammerhoff theory.

As a neuroscientist, Panksepp holds two extremely unorthodox positions; firstly, he believes that all mammals (& possibly other species) experience conscious, subjective emotions (‘affect’), just as we do. Secondly, he believes that our subjective experience of emotion is directly generated by the evolutionarily primitive, deep structures in the brain (sometimes called the limbic system), which we share with other mammals. Why does he believes these things?

Panksepp claims to have discovered seven basic emotional systems in the mammalian brain: these are; SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC & PLAY. The human neocortex, with all its cognitive complexity, processes these primary affects into more elaborate emotions, such as love, shame and empathy. Panksepp’s basic evidence for these core emotional systems is as follows: 1) Opiates, & other drugs of abuse, are also attractive to other mammals. 2) Brain scanning shows remarkable similarities in the areas which ‘light-up’ when emotions are expressed in both humans & other mammals. 3) The anatomy and neurochemistry of these subcortical areas is remarkably similar in all mammals & is clearly evolutionarily homologous. 4) The areas of the brain that evoke consistent behavioural indicators of positive & negative affective states in humans & mammals are remarkably similar & when electrically stimulated produce the most powerful ‘feelings’ in deep, subcortical areas.

According to Panksepp, evolutionary common sense suggests that emotion is an evolutionary extension of homeostasis, & that cognition is an extension of emotion. The mammalian brain has evolved to seamlessly integrate these three levels. The homeostatic mechanisms are largely unconscious, but the two others evolved into conscious, emotional feedback systems to let the animal know how things are going (well, or badly). It is likely that affects, or feelings are the only true reinforcers, a view which contradicts the behaviouristic assertion that outside events can reinforce behaviour with no associated feelings. Panksepp believes that the affective, evolutionary ‘tools for living’ are quite similar in all mammals. We (& possibly other mammals) use an embodied ‘core SELF’ to engender organismic coherence. He also suggests that an understanding of this ‘embodied self’, grounded in the body and its neural representations, may provide an understanding as to how experience first emerged in MindBrain evolution.

Neuroscientists now imagine that early in brain evolution, a primordial, neural map of the body emerged in order to facilitate the overall coherence of many different functions, from action tendencies to the autonomic changes that accompany actions. Panksepp, along with Antonio Damasio, calls this body map a primitive ‘proto-self’. According to Panksepp, this evolved, with the emergence of primary-process emotional and motivational systems, into a more complex organ of mind, the ‘core SELF’, which integrates primal experiences such as raw sensory, homeostatic, and emotional affects.

‘The coherence of the core SELF may allow people and animals to have a fundamental sense of owning their affective experiences: The affects are an integral part of who they are, psychologically. /From a historical perspective, it is important to note that these are the BrainMind substrates that the behaviourists, through their doctrinaire avoidance of the psychological dimensions of brain activities, decided to call the ‘rewards’ and ‘punishments’ that ‘reinforced’ behavioural change.’

Panksepp’s suggests that, with a bit of poetic license, the core-SELF might even be referred to as our animal ‘soul’. He also describes the core-SEF as a primary process of the mind: a coherent centre of gravity for internal, organismic visceral-affective and external sensory-motor representations. Panksepp is insistent that, in evolutionary terms, the emotional self, based on body maps linked to the seven basic emotional systems, came first – before the ‘cognitive self’, which could deal with the distance perceptions of hearing and seeing. In addition to coming first, the emotional self is the basis for a spontaneously active and emotionally responsive organism.

Panksepp explicitly rejects mainstream emotion theories, which claim that raw, basic emotions, in order to be experienced, need to be ‘read out’ by higher MindBrain mechanisms. In other words, our experience of emotions happens, immediately and directly in the deep brain: it doesn’t need to be ‘moved’ up to the higher brain for processing and analysis before it can enter our consciousness. Panksepp says;

‘Of course, higher cortical functions may add other types of feeling, especially by allowing raw feelings to penetrate and intermingle with cognitions – higher brain functions may ‘listen’ to the lower ones and add additional cognition-parsed affective colouring to experience. In this way, a variety of more subtle, higher-order feelings may be created by secondary and tertiary psycho-affective processes – such as courage, envy, guilt, jealousy, pride, shame, and social disgust/disdain, to name just a few …’

Panksepp proposes that the various primary-process emotional systems are, in fact, evolutionary ‘tools for living’, which we all inherit and which help us to deal with the basic challenges of life. Together with the core SELF, they provide the necessary ingredients for both organismic emotional-behavioural coherence as well as the associated affective states. He’s also proposing that;

‘the core SELF and the seven emotional systems interacting with higher brain functions, such as working memory, permit the emergence of higher levels of reflective “knowing” (noetic consciousness) as well as a multilayered existential self-awareness, which is a developmental, perhaps unique, quality of the human mind. The ineffable feeling of experiencing oneself as a specific and individual active agent amid the perceived events of the world surely reflects a recently emergent ability of the MindBrain, constituting a cognitive, even rational, form of consciousness.’

In other words, Panksepp’s claim is that the core SELF, which is dominated by emotions, is the foundation for our higher forms of self-consciousness: these are generated by an intermingling of these primary affective capacities with secondary/tertiary mental abilities which emerge from an animal’s interactions with its ecological, social, and cultural environments. Emotions, therefore, are the guides through the ‘energy field’ of experience.  It is this ‘energetic economy’ of consciousness which is the basis of learning in mammalian organisms.

A Quantum Theory of Qualia

Towards the end of his book on consciousness, Jeffrey Gray arrives at the conclusion that quantum physics is the only probable domain left in which we might be able to find an explanation as to how qualia originate in the brain. He then turns to the most developed theory of this type, that of  Roger Penrose and Stuart Hammerhoff (Gray and others have taken to referring to their theory as ‘PenHoff’): their basic thesis is that consciousness arises from the orchestrated objective reduction of quantum super-positions. (The word ‘orchestration’ in this phrase refers to a process through which, according to PenHoff, connective proteins, associated with microtubules, influence or orchestrate the quantum state reduction. This speculative idea is based on Penrose’s particular interpretation quantum mechanics.) They posit that these reduction occur within the microtubules of neurones. Microtubules are part of the structure of all cells, but according to PenHoff, in neurones, their tiny inner spaces provide the shelter, from high temperature and other disturbances, necessary for quantum coherence to take place. As Gray puts it, PenHoff claims that; ‘ … the system of microtubules in neurones is the only one in the natural world likely to provide conditions for objective reduction … of quantum super-positions. In this way, the theory manages neatly to find proto-consciousness in the very fabric of space/time, while yet limiting full-blown qualia to just those systems – brains – where we know them to be housed.’

In other words, PenHoff claims that ‘proto-conscious’ qualia are embedded as quantum super-positions in the fundamental geometry of space/time at the Planck scale: when a superposition of quantum states self-collapses (i.e. objectively collapses) into just one of many possible states, that particular state becomes fully conscious. The other states (into which the quantum function did not collapse) had the capacity to become conscious, but they did not; they were ‘proto-conscious’. Gray comments that consequently;

 

‘ … [W]e should find proto-conscious qualia wherever there are quantum super-positions. It turns out, however, that this prospect is a lot less pan-psychic than it seems. Proto-consciousness may be everywhere you look, but not consciousness itself. PenHoff stipulates that … only quantum super-positions which remain isolated long enough to reach threshold for objective reduction are conscious. This is a fairly stringent requirement, met only in the brain and perhaps nowhere else.’

 

And why should this be the case? ‘Because you need a superposition large enough to reach threshold in a reasonably short time (to avoid de-coherence). An isolated electron in superposition wouldn’t reach threshold for l0 million years.’ But, as Gray points out, a large superposition is difficult to isolate. Providing a solution to this difficulty is the ingenious part of the PenHoff theory: it postulates that large superpositions are protected inside the protein structures of microtubules such that they reach the threshold of collapse in a time short enough to preserve quantum coherence. As Gray explains;

 

‘Proteins are fairly large mass-wise (compared to electrons) and have the unique property of having their mechanical conformational state sensitive to quantum level events like location of electrons, so they are the “levers”, or amplifiers. They are large enough to exert action in our macroscopic physical world, but small enough to be in superposition and sensitive to quantum level events.’

 

In other words, the protein in microtubules acts as a ‘converter’ – turning quantum states, which ‘contain’ proto-qualia, into truly conscious qualia which can be experienced at the macro-level.

Gray produces an extended, practical illustration in an attempt to describe exactly how the PenHoff theory explains qualia via quantum mechanics. He imagines that he and another person are looking at a red kite flying in a blue sky:

 

‘Let’s also assume that our brains are constructed in a sufficiently similar manner (due to evolution) that we experience the red flying kite in much the same way; that is, we experience the same qualia’. The PenHoff theory explains this congruence of perception as follows: In my brain, a set of quantum superpositions have self-collapsed inside a set of microtubules, which are, in turn, inside a set of neurones in the visual system in my brain. These quantum collapses have accessed a ‘chosen’ state in fundamental space/time. If we both have the same qualia, then these same processes must also have happened in your brain: since the theory states that qualia are embedded in space/time then, if you and I experience the same qualia, our brains must have both accessed the same state in fundamental space/time.’

 

Gray explains that all the relevant quantum-qualic events are taking place in two separate brains, yours and mine. Within each brain the only way to access fundamental space/time is via that particular brain. Gray then revisits Penrose’s initial description of the nature of super-positioned quantum states:  ‘ … [T]hey are multiple curvatures in space/time which exist until self-collapse, whereupon space/time takes up one final state of curvature’. So, Gray then continues; ‘ … when you experience a red flying kite, somehow space/time in your brain adopts a state of curvature that it didn’t have before.’  And, he insists, if both people are experiencing the same qualia, the the microtubules in the appropriate areas of each brain must be accessing the same final state of space/time curvature, in order to produce the same qualia in two different individuals.

Gray explains how PenHoff’s linkage between qualia and curvatures in space/time can provide solutions for some of the traditional problems associated with the concept of qualia: firstly, the difficulty of the vastness of qualic experience – how can this be encompass within the physical universe? Gray starts by pointing out that there are roughly 10107 planck volumes in a human brain and that each of them can; ‘ … [T]heoretically, be in one of a very large number of states, depending upon such factors as the edge length and the “spins” of the edges.’ If then, according to PenHoff, one quale might be one pattern and another quale, a different such pattern, then, in principle, the theory allows for the physical production and storage of an infinite number of quale. Gray next looks at the traditional problem of whether qualia should be conceived of only as single, isolated sensory ‘atoms’ or whether, for example, very complex multi-modal scenes can also be accepted as qualic experiences: Gray says that, according to PenHoff; ‘ … when self-collapse occurs, only one pattern is chosen, but that pattern is a very complex entity. In this way, the theory attempts to provide a physical basis for both the simplicity of relatively isolated qualia (the sound of a high C played on a flute) and the complexity of a total conscious multi-modal ‘scene.’

Gray points out that in contrast to functional and neurophysiological theories of qualia, quantum-mechanical theories lag far behind in terms of empirical research. He says; ‘No-one has yet even measured any quantum-mechanical process in a manner that would allow it to be correlated with sensation.’  He concludes that: ‘Despite its magisterial complexity, then, we see that, in the end, the Hammeroff-Penrose theory of how different quantum super-positions in microtubules in different brain areas give rise to different qualia must rely for the origin of these differences on arguments taken from neuroanatomy and neurophysiology.’ But Gray does add some redeeming comments in PenHoff’s favour:

 

‘Nonetheless, the theory does offer an account in principle of the origin of differences in qualia. Whether even this is testable in practice is another matter. But quantum mechanics has a habit of taking the absurd, putting it into a laboratory experiment and showing the absurd to be reality. So we should not write the Penrose-Hammeroff position off too lightly. And even an account in principle of how qualia might arise is better than no account at all.’

 

I find the PenHoff theory attractive because it fits very well with the overall learning/flexible behaviour theory of qualia, which I find the most convincing comprehensive approach to the problem of qualia. To summarise my ‘energetic’ theory once again, it claims that; information alone is not enough to account for the learning that leads to flexible behaviour: there must also be some energetic-analogue phenomenon, in addition to information, which guides animal learning. Qualia, according to this theory, are just this phenomenon. The energetic-analogue nature of qualia can be accounted for by their accessing quantum phenomena, such as the curvature of space/time. These quantum phenomena can have a direct and immediate effect on the brain far more efficaciously than that of digital information alone. The genetically fixed range of mammalian emotions produce affects of this energetic-analogue nature in all mammals, and possibly other species.

 

The ‘Good Beard’ & the ‘Bad Beard’

We can conclude with a final thought experiment, this time of my own devising: imagine two female toddlers, three to five years old. Both their fathers have a beard. One father is an exemplary parent; kind, patient, attentive and supportive of his daughter. The other father sexually abuses his daughter. Now imagine those same two girls as young women, engaged in the process of searching for sexual partners. They are at a party when a mutual friend introduces them to an eligible young man, who just happens to have a beard. The first young woman reacts with immediate attraction and interest. She engages the young man in lively conversation and may eventually enter into a relationship with him. The second young woman, faced with the same young man, flinches on seeing his face, makes an excuse and leaves the party without speaking to the bearded young man.

This may strike you as a simple ‘folk tale’, and indeed it is. But, let’s now look at it from the perspective of the ‘energetic’ theory of learning, as outlined above. The immediate, and contrasting reactions of the two young women can be seen as the result of early learning: for the first, encountering ‘beard qualia’ triggered happy memories of a very positive childhood relationship with her father. Whereas for the other, ‘beard qualia’ provoked traumatic memories of fear and pain. And, the crucial point here is that energetic learning theory asserts that it is the energetic emotional responses (based on previous emotional life history) to the energetically experienced beard qualia which caused this difference in behaviour.

This is, of course, to claim far more than the primitive behaviouristic position that these are merely differing ‘conditioned’ responses, arising solely from differing ‘early environments’. What’s being asserted here is that the energetic emotional response to the energetically experienced qualia is what causes the flexibility in the behaviour. The emotions and the qualia involved are not epiphenomena: they are the principle biological mechanisms which can explain the differing behaviour. I also believe that (taking a ‘Pankseppian’ view of this situation) the rewarding, respective punishing experiences, to which these two girls were exposed in early life, were felt consciously and subjectively by them. These positive versus negative conscious experiences provide the causality behind their future behavioural choices.

A final observation can be made here: energetic learning theory could provide a neurophysiological basis for much of the the theory characteristic of psycho-dynamic psychotherapy. For example, that very negative conscious experiences from early childhood can be ‘repressed’ (i.e. avoided in adult conscious life) but, nevertheless, exercise a causal effect on adult behaviour. Also, that encouraging an adult to stop avoiding these negative memories can lead them to an ‘emotional’ awareness of the connection with their behaviour, which may lead them to overcome self-defeating and irrational patterns of behaviour.

 

 

References:

 

Damasio, A. (2010) Self Comes to Mind, London: William Heinemann

Dennett, D. (1991) Consciousness Explained, Boston, MA: Little, Brown

Gray, J. (2004) Consciousness: Creeping up on the Hard Problem, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Jackson, F. (1982) ’Epiphenomenal Qualia’, The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 127. (Apr., 1982), pp. 127-136.

Minsky, M. (2006), The Emotion Machine, New York: Simon & Schuster

Panksepp, J. (2012) The Archaeology of the Mind, New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Pinker, S. (1999) How The Mind Works (address to the American Psychological Association, August 1999) [online] http://www.kurzweilai.net/how-the-mind-works [5 February 2016]

Stapp, H. (2007) Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer, New York: Springer