Sharing a blog post on consciousness

August 29, 2018

Michele Farisco at CRB has written an interesting post for the BMC blog on medicine. He says that “whereas ethical analyses of disorders of consciousness traditionally focus on residual awareness, there may be a case to be made for the ethical relevance of the retained unawareness.”

Interested to read more? Here is a link to the post: On consciousness and the unconscious.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


Read this interview with Kathinka Evers!

April 26, 2018

Through philosophical analysis and development of concepts, Uppsala University contributes significantly to the European Flagship, the Human Brain Project. New ways of thinking about the brain and about consciousness are suggested, which take us beyond oppositions between consciousness and unconsciousness, and between consciousness and matter.

Do you want to know more? Read the fascinating interview with Kathinka Evers: A continuum of consciousness: The Intrinsic Consciousness Theory

Kathinka Evers at CRB in Uppsala leads the work on neuroethics and neurophilosophy in the Human Brain Project.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


Prepare for robot nonsense

February 26, 2018

Pär SegerdahlAs computers and robots take over tasks that so far only humans could carry out, such as driving a car, we are likely to experience increasingly insidious uses of language by the technology’s intellectual clergy.

The idea of ​​intelligent computers and conscious robots is for some reason terribly fascinating. We see ourselves as intelligent and conscious beings. Imagine if also robots could be intelligent and aware! In fact, we have already seen them (almost): on the movie screen. Soon we may see them in reality too!

Imagine that artifacts that we always considered dead and mechanical one day acquired the enigmatic character of life! Imagine that we created intelligent life! Do we have enough exclamation marks for such a miracle?

The idea of ​​intelligent life in supercomputers often comes with the idea of a test that can determine if a supercomputer is intelligent. It is as if I wanted to make the idea of ​​perpetual motion machines credible by talking about a perpetuum mobile test, invented by a super-smart mathematician in the 17th century. The question if something is a perpetuum mobile is determinable and therefore worth considering! Soon they may function as engines in our intelligent, robot-driven cars!

There is a famous idea of ​​an intelligence test for computers, invented by the British mathematician, Alan Turing. The test allegedly can determine whether a machine “has what we have”: intelligence. How does the test work? Roughly, it is about whether you can distinguish a computer from a human – or cannot do it.

But distinguishing a computer from a human being surely is no great matter! Oh, I forgot to mention that there is a smoke screen in the test. You neither see, hear, feel, taste nor smell anything! In principle, you send written questions into the thick smoke. Out of the smoke comes written responses. But who wrote/generated the answers? Human or computer? If you cannot distinguish the computer-generated answers from human answers – well, then you had better take protection, because an intelligent supercomputer hides behind the smoke screen!

The test is thus adapted to the computer, which cannot have intelligent facial expressions or look perplexed, and cannot groan, “Oh no, what a stupid question!” The test is adapted to an engineer’s concept of intelligent handling of written symbol sequences. The fact that the test subject is a poor human being who cannot always say who/what “generated” the written answers hides this conceptual fact.

These insidious linguistic shifts are unusually obvious in an article I encountered through a rather smart search engine. The article asks if machines can be aware. And it responds: Yes, and a new Turing test can prove it.

The article begins with celebrating our amazing consciousness as “the ineffable and enigmatic inner life of the mind.” Consciousness is then exemplified by the whirl of thought and sensation that blossoms within us when we finally meet a loved one again, hear an exquisite violin solo, or relish an incredible meal.

After this ecstatic celebration of consciousness, the concept begins to be adapted to computer engineering so that finally it is merely a concept of information processing. The authors “show” that consciousness does not require interaction with the environment. Neither does it require memories. Consciousness does not require any emotions like anger, fear or joy. It does not require attention, self-reflection, language or ability to act in the world.

What then remains of consciousness, which the authors initially made it seem so amazing to possess? The answer in the article is that consciousness has to do with “the amount of integrated information that an organism, or a machine, can generate.”

The concept of consciousness is gradually adapted to what was to be proven. Finally, it becomes a feature that unsurprisingly can characterize a computer. After we swallowed the adaptation, the idea is that we, at the Grand Finale of the article, should once again marvel, and be amazed that a machine can have this “mysterious inner life” that we have, consciousness: “Oh, what an exquisite violin solo, not to mention the snails, how lovely to meet again like this!”

The new Turing test that the authors imagine is, as far as I understand, a kind of picture recognition test: Can a computer identify the content of a picture as “a robbery”? A conscious computer should be able to identify pictorial content as well as a human being can do it. I guess the idea is that the task requires very, very much integrated information. No simple rule of thumb, man + gun + building + terrified customer = robbery, will do the trick. It has to be such an enormous amount of integrated information that the computer simply “gets it” and understands that it is a robbery (and not a five-year-old who plays with a toy gun).

Believing in the test thus assumes that we swallowed the adapted concept of consciousness and are ecstatically amazed by super-large amounts of integrated information as: “the ineffable and enigmatic inner life of the mind.”

These kinds of insidious linguistic shifts will attract us even more deeply as robotics develop. Imagine an android with facial expression and voice that can express intelligence or groan at stupid questions. Then surely, we are dealing an intelligent and conscious machine!

Or just another deceitful smoke screen; a walking, interactive movie screen?

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

The temptation of rhetoric - the ethics blog


New concept of consciousness challenges language

January 31, 2018

Pär SegerdahlA few weeks ago, I recommended an exciting article by Michele Farisco. Now I wish to recommend another article, where Farisco (together with Steven Laureys and Kathinka Evers) argues even more thoroughly for a new concept of consciousness.

The article in Mind & Matter is complex and I doubt that I can do it justice. I have to start out from my own experience. For when Farisco challenges the opposition between consciousness and the unconscious, it resembles something I have written about: the opposition between human and animal.

Oppositions that work perfectly in everyday language often become inapplicable for scientific purposes. In everyday life, the opposition between human and animal is unproblematic. If a child tells us that it saw an animal, we know it was not a human the child saw. For the biologist, however, the idea of ​​the human as non-animal would be absurd. Although it is perfectly in order in everyday language, biology must reject the opposition between human and animal. It hides continuities between us and the other animals.

Farisco says (if I understand him) something similar about neuroscience. Although the opposition between consciousness and the unconscious works in everyday language, it becomes problematic in neuroscience. It hides continuities in the brain’s way of functioning. Neuroscience should therefore view consciousness and the unconscious as continuous forms of the same basic phenomenon in living brains.

If biology talks about the human as one of the animal species, how does Farisco suggest that neuroscience should talk about consciousness? Here we face greater linguistic challenges than when biology considers humans to be animals.

Farico’s proposal is to widen the notion of consciousness to include also what we usually call the unconscious (much like the biologist widens the concept of animals). Farisco thus suggests, roughly, that the brain is conscious as long as it is alive, even in deep sleep or in coma. Note, however, that he uses the word in a new meaning! He does not claim what he appears to be claiming!

The brain works continually, whether we are conscious or not (in the ordinary sense). Most neural processes are unconscious and a prerequisite for consciousness (in the ordinary sense). Farisco suggests that we use the word consciousness for all these processes in living brains. The two states we usually oppose – consciousness and the unconscious – are thus forms of the same basic phenomenon, namely, consciousness in Farisco’s widened sense.

Farisco supports the widened concept of consciousness by citing neuroscientific evidence that I have to leave aside in this post. All I wish to do here is to point out that Farico’s concept of consciousness probably is as logical in neuroscience as the concept of the human as animal is in biology.

Do not let the linguistic challenges prevent you from seeing the logic of Farisco’s proposal!

Pär Segerdahl

Farisco, M., Laureys, S. and Evers, K. 2017. The intrinsic activity of the brain and its relation to levels and disorders of consciousness. Mind and Matter 15: 197-219

This post in Swedish

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The unconscious deserves moral attention

January 10, 2018

Pär SegerdahlLast autumn, Michele Farisco wrote one of the most read posts on The Ethics Blog. The post was later republished by BioEdge.

Today, I want to recommend a recent article where Farisco develops his thinking – read it in the journal, Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine.

The article will certainly receive at least as much attention as the blog post did. Together with Kathinka Evers, Farisco develops a way of thinking about the unconscious that at first seems controversial, but which after careful consideration becomes increasingly credible. That combination is hard to beat.

What is it about? It is about patients with serious brain injuries, perhaps after a traffic accident. Ethical discussions about these patients usually focus on residual consciousness. We think that there is an absolute difference between consciousness and unconsciousness. Only a conscious person can experience well-being. Only a conscious person can have interests. Therefore, a patient with residual consciousness deserves a completely different care than an unconscious patient. A different attention to pain relief, peace and quiet, and stimulation. – Why create a warm and stimulating environment if the patient is completely unaware of it?

In the article, Farisco challenges the absolute difference between consciousness and unconsciousness. He describes neuroscientific evidence that indicates two often-overlooked connections between conscious and unconscious brain processes. The first is that the unconscious (at least partly) has the abilities that are considered ethically relevant when residual consciousness is discussed. The other connection is that conscious and unconscious brain processes are mutually dependent. They shape each other. Even unconsciously, the brain reacts uniquely to the voices of family members.

Farisco does not mean that this proves that we have an obligation to treat unconscious patients as conscious. However, the unconscious deserves moral attention. Perhaps we should strive to assess also retained unconscious abilities. In some cases, we should perhaps play the music the patient loved before the accident.

Pär Segerdahl

Farisco, M. and Evers, K. The ethical relevance of the unconscious. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine (2017) DOI 10.1186/s13010-017-0053-9

This post in Swedish

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Beyond awareness: the need for a more comprehensive ethics of disorders of consciousness

October 23, 2017

Michele FariscoDisorders of consciousness like coma, unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, and what is known as minimally conscious state, are among the most challenging issues in current ethical debates. Ethical analyses of these states usually focus on the ‘residual’ awareness that these patients might still have. Such awareness is taken to have bearing on other factors that are usually considered ethically central, like the patients’ well-being.

Yet, when we take a look at recent scientific investigations of mental activity it appears that things are much more complicated than usually thought. Cognitive science provides empirical evidence that the unconscious brain is able to perform almost all the activities that we (wrongly) think are exclusive of consciousness, including enjoying positive emotions and disregarding negative ones. To illustrate, people that are subliminally exposed to drawings of happy or sad faces are emotionally conditioned in their evaluation of unknown objects, like Chinese characters for people who don’t know Chinese. If preceded by subliminal happy faces, these characters are more likely to elicit positive feelings when consciously perceived. This means that unconscious emotions exist, and these emotions are (plausibly) positive or negative. This in turn suggests that consciousness is not required to have emotions.

Accordingly, people with disorders of consciousness could also have unconscious emotions. Even though they are not capable of external behavior from which we could infer the presence of positive or negative emotional life, we cannot rule out the possibility that these patients’ residual brain activity is related to a residual unaware emotional life, which can be either positive or negative.

We should try to avoid becoming biased by the sort of “consciousness-centrism” that impedes us from seeing the total landscape: there is a lot going on behind (and beyond) the eyes of our awareness.

What does this imply for the ethics of caring for and interacting with people affected by severe disorders of consciousness? Well, as previously said, the ethical discourse surrounding the care for and the relationship with these people has usually focused on their residual awareness, scrutinizing whether and to what extent these people could consciously experience good and bad feelings. Yet if it is possible to have these experiences at the unaware level, shouldn’t this be a relevant consideration when engaging in an ethical analysis of patients with disorders of consciousness? In other words, shouldn’t we take care of their residual unconsciousness in addition to their residual consciousness?

I believe we need to enlarge the scope of our ethical analyses of patients with disorders of consciousness, or at least acknowledge that focusing on residual consciousness is not all we should do, even if it is all we presently can do.

Michele Farisco

Winkielman P., Berridge K.C. Unconscious emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2004;13(3):120-3

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


The New Yorker features resignation syndrome

March 29, 2017

Pär SegerdahlLast year I wrote a post about resignation syndrome in children in families who are denied asylum in Sweden. I described a hypothesis about the syndrome suggested by Karl Sallin, PhD student at CRB in the field of neuroethics and neurophilosophy.

An intuitive explanation is that the syndrome is a reaction to prolonged stress and depression. A reaction that is triggered when the family is denied asylum. However, if the explanation is correct, the syndrome should exist on a similar scale also in other countries that receive refugee families. It seems it does not.

To understand what happens to these children, we should, Karl Sallin suggested, see it as a psychological reaction that occurs in the meeting between certain cultures and Swedish cultural conditions. For another peculiarity is the fact that the syndrome occurs mainly in families from certain parts of the world. We are dealing with a culture bound psychopathology, Sallin proposed in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The New Yorker recently wrote about this “Swedish” syndrome, in a long article in which Karl Sallin interviewed.

The article contains a touching description of how one of these children falls ill when the family is denied asylum. For several months, he is confined to bed, not contactable, and he must be tube fed. When the family gets permanent residence, they try to convey this to the boy. After two weeks, he begins to open his eyes. After a further seven weeks, the nasal tube taped to his cheek falls out. Finally, he can return to school and begin to talk about the disease.

The article in The New Yorker emphasizes that the syndrome is a culture-bound psychopathology. However, the tendency seems to be to point out Sweden’s crumbling self-image as the relevant cultural context for the disease. We see “apathetic refugee children” as symbols of our own moral failure to treat them and their families humanely. Therefore, we tube feed them without further treatment, while waiting for the family to hopefully get their residence permit. This creates a culture where children become sick when their families are denied asylum.

This can hardly be the whole explanation, since it then becomes difficult to understand why mainly children from certain parts of the world are afflicted. Moreover, mainly children who come together with their families, rather than unaccompanied refugee children. The cultural dynamics seems to be more complex than the desire to find scapegoats for the syndrome can handle.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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