Consciousness As Mental, As Physical

It’s been argued that a scientist who grew up in a black and white room and never saw the color red could learn everything there is to know about the physics of light and the physiology of the human body, including what happens in the brain when someone sees red, but not know what red looks like. Presumably, a blind scientist with the same training would be in the very same position. Likewise, a deaf scientist could know everything about the physics and physiology involved in hearing a violin but not really know what a violin sounds like. This is supposed to show that there is something in the universe beyond the reach of the physical sciences: the mysterious mental phenomenon of consciousness.

“Mental” is a word I haven’t used much (or at all) in writing about consciousness, yet consciousness is clearly a mental phenomenon if anything is. But what does it mean for a phenomenon to be “mental”?

The obvious answer, although it’s not very helpful, is that “mental” means “not physical”. But what does that mean?

An exchange of letters I referred to last month between the philosopher Thomas Nagel and a professor of bioengineering, Roy Black, tries to deal with the question. Prof. Black criticizes the idea that “nonphysical factors” are involved in consciousness:

As is frequently noted, the physical basis of life itself used to be just as mysterious as consciousness, and it’s now well explained by biochemistry and molecular biology, without nonphysical factors. So although science as we know it doesn’t explain the link between neurons and consciousness, why expect the link to be “nonphysical” rather than “novel physical”? What is a nonphysical factor, anyway? If the dark energy propelling the expansion of the universe, the strong force holding atomic nuclei together, etc., etc., are physical, do we really need anything more exotic?

… Lots of things in biology—like the development of an organism from an egg—seem impossible, until we stretch our imagination to conceive of simple precursors and mechanisms that could have been worked on by natural selection over billions of years. To quote one of [the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s] nice lines, “evolution is a process that depends on amplifying things that almost never happen.” We need to determine what “thing,” what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose. What would a precursor of “feeling like” be? That’s what we need to stretch our imaginations further to figure out.

Prof. Nagel responds, but his response is based on an assumption:

The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share [how does he know this?]. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject….

I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing’, what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view [again, how does he know this?].

Nagel’s assumption is that a purely physical process cannot have a subjective character (it cannot “feel like something”). It cannot be “how things appear” from a particular point of view. But if consciousness is a physical process, it does have a subjective character. In that case, how things feel or appear are indeed physical properties of a process that occurs in space and time (it happens inside your head when you’re conscious).

Here’s my take on the mental/physical distinction. Nobody knows what the universe contains at the most fundamental level (or if there is a most fundamental level). But suppose that quantum field theory is correct and, quoting Prof. David Tong of Cambridge University (who I wrote about earlier this year):

The best theories we have tell us that the fundamental building blocks of nature are not particles but something much more nebulous and abstract. The fundamental building blocks of nature are fluid-like substances which are spread throughout the entire universe and ripple in strange and interesting ways. That’s the fundamental reality in which we live. These fluid-like substances, we have a name for, we call them “fields”.

Furthermore, when the fields ripple or are agitated in certain ways, we get sub-atomic particles. An electron, for example, is a kind of ripple in the electron field.

So when I say that consciousness is a physical process, what I’m saying is that consciousness is at bottom constructed from one or more quantum-level fields – or whatever the fundamental building blocks of the universe are – that somehow interact with the quantum-level fields – or other building blocks – from which everything else in the universe is constructed. Maybe consciousness involves a kind of fundamental field that physicists can’t measure or detect yet. Maybe it involves a new kind of interaction between fundamental fields that physicists already know about.

But consciousness seems to be part of the natural world in the same way other physical phenomena are. And because it’s part of the natural world – not a kind of free-floating spiritual or supernatural substance or phenomenon – consciousness can represent other physical events and processes outside itself. Consciousness being part of the world is why we can be consciously aware of our bodies and the world around us.

“Mental”, therefore, refers to what happens in our minds, but at bottom mental phenomena are physical phenomena. Consciousness, like gravity, digestion and baseball, is one of the things that happens in the world. In other words, the “mental” is a subset of the “physical”. Or so it seems to me.

The Way Consciousness Is

Thinking about the United States plumbing the depths of kakistocracy (rule by the worst) is all well and good, but back to consciousness.

The human brain is the most complex object anyone has ever tried to understand. It might be the most complex object in the universe. We might never understand how it works. Robert Burton, a neurologist, writes about being surprised by a patient with a paranoid fear of the FBI that was apparently caused by a mutation in his brain:

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had run headlong into the “hard problem of consciousness,” the enigma of how physical brain mechanisms create purely subjective mental states. In the subsequent 50 years, what was once fodder for neurologists’ late night speculations has mushroomed into the preeminent question in the philosophy of mind. As an intellectual challenge, there is no equal to wondering how subatomic particles, mindless cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters create the experience of red, the beauty of a sunset, the euphoria of lust, the transcendence of music, or in this case, intractable paranoia.

Neuroscientists have long known which general areas of the brain and their connections are necessary for the state of consciousness. By observing both the effects of localized and generalized brain insults such as anoxia [total lack of oxygen] and anesthesia, none of us seriously doubt that consciousness arises from discrete brain mechanisms. Because these mechanisms are consistent with general biological principles, it’s likely that, with further technical advances, we will uncover how the brain generates consciousness.

However, such knowledge doesn’t translate into an explanation for the what of consciousness—that state of awareness of one’s surroundings and self, the experience of one’s feelings and thoughts. Imagine a hypothetical where you could mix nine parts oxytocin, 17 parts serotonin, and 11 parts dopamine into a solution that would make 100 percent of people feel a sense of infatuation 100 percent of the time. Knowing the precise chemical trigger for the sensation of infatuation (the how) tells you little about the nature of the resulting feeling (the what).

But why should we expect that knowing what chemicals cause the feeling of infatuation would tell us anything about what infatuation feels like? Aren’t those two different questions?

Suppose, however, that we keep improving our techniques for studying the brain, as Burton suggests, and eventually figure out how certain kinds of brain activity become consciousness. It doesn’t seem impossible that one day (maybe 1,000 years in the future) that we will fully understand how “subatomic particles, mindless cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters” allow us to be conscious, just as well as we understand how lungs allow us to breathe (although lungs are a lot less complicated than brains). Suppose we discover how one kind of brain activity becomes a feeling of infatuation and another kind becomes a feeling of resentment. 

Burton implies that we would still be left with what he calls the “what” question, although it might be better to call it the “why” question. Why does our consciousness have the specific properties it does? Why does a note on a violin sound just the way it does? Why does red look like this and not like this or this? In the case of color, scientists might understand perfectly well the relationship between different wavelengths of light, the physiology of our eyes and nervous system, and the colors we see. They would understand that such and such conditions, structures and processes are correlated with seeing red and others are correlated with seeing blue. All of our “how does this happen?” questions would have been answered. So would it still make sense to ask why a particular kind of light looks the way it does or a particular feeling feels the way it does?

I’m not sure it would. Once we understood what leads to colors looking the way they do, or what makes feelings feel the way they do, any “why” questions might disappear. Once we understand the “how” of consciousness, maybe there won’t be anything more to figure out. If there are any neurologists or philosophers still asking “why”, the best answer will be “that’s just the way it is” or “stop asking questions and go to sleep”.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. After all, in science, we sometimes arrive at what appear to be “brute” facts. Why is the speed of light in a vacuum 186,282 miles per second instead of 186,300 miles per second? We may never know. That’s just the way the universe works. No further explanation is available. If you have a problem with our speed of light, go live in another universe. If you don’t like the particular colors you see, keep your eyes closed. Or become a cat.

Next up on this subject, assuming I stay conscious: What does it mean to say consciousness is a physical phenomenon? It’s obviously a mental phenomenon, so how can it be a physical one too?

What We Have In Mind (Consciousness Again)

Last week, I suggested that consciousness is a type of brain activity, the kind that consists in having a phenomenal field that includes sights, sounds, pains and the internal monologue depicted by authors as the “stream of consciousness”.

I also recommended that we reserve the phrase “conscious of” for the most important things we’re conscious of, things like our everyday surroundings, our feelings and our thoughts, not consciousness itself. This approach would rule out questions like “Are you conscious of consciousness?” that to me seem misguided and misleading. I don’t think we’re conscious of consciousness, but rather conscious of other things.

To say that we’re conscious “of” other things is to say that the components of consciousness represent other things. Thus, some of the brain activity that is consciousness represents things outside our bodies (e.g. trees falling in the forest). Some of it represents things inside our bodies (e.g. heartburn). And some represents things that exist neither inside nor outside our bodies: abstract things like possibilities (e.g. sanity in Washington), fictional characters (Wonder Woman) and ideas (justice or the number twelve).

From an article about dreaming, which is usually considered a kind of consciousness:

One of the main functions of our brain is to constantly create a model of the world around us, a sort of virtual reality that helps us interact with our environment.

When we’re awake, that model is heavily influenced by what we are seeing and hearing and feeling. But during sleep, when there’s not much input from our senses, the brain’s model of the world is more likely to rely on internal information, like memories or expectations.

I’d add that the model is also a model of the world within us and the abstract world of memory, intention and imagination. But thinking of the model our brains create as “a sort of virtual reality” is what I have in mind (that’s a pun). It’s the “sort” of virtual reality that isn’t virtual, however. Patterns of neural activation in the brain (what the model is made of) are quite real. And it’s a model or representation of other things that are quite real too, like falling trees and sprained ankles.

One of the things that makes our conscious model interesting is that it includes events and processes that are strictly or primarily mental, like having a premonition. I don’t know if such things are representations of unconscious mental events and processes. Maybe they aren’t representations at all; maybe they’re patterns of neural activation that don’t refer to or represent anything else. But the evidence suggests that we all have a lot of unconscious brain activity that plays a very large role in what we think and how we feel.

So it would be consistent with the view I’m trying to explain that when you have something like a premonition, what you’re conscious of is a representation of the underlying brain activity (the unconscious premonition processing), as well as any related events in your body (like chills).

To sum up, the position I’ve arrived at seems to be a strange, possibly ridiculous mixture of ideas associated with two great philosophers who are generally seen as opponents: the idealist George Berkeley and the materialist Thomas Hobbes.

Berkeley (1685-1753) argued that nothing exists independently of minds: “To be is to be perceived (or to perceive)”. A person is an immaterial mind or soul. The physical world (the Earth, for example) doesn’t exist independently of our minds. Fortunately, our individual minds are able to get along because God (a kind of super-mind) synchronizes our perceptions. He makes sure that when I perceive a red apple (in my mind), you do too.

Hobbes (1588-1679) argued that nothing exists except physical stuff. We human beings, including our minds, are material things. Even God may be a kind of material being. When I see a red apple, and you see a red apple, therefore, it’s because there’s an apple out there and it’s red. That’s the whole story. 

Where I’ve ended up is to agree with Berkeley that our consciousness has the various elements in it that he called “perceptions” and “ideas”. But I agree with Hobbes that consciousness is a physical phenomenon, a very cool physical phenomenon, but a physical one just the same. And the reason my perceptions usually line up with yours so nicely is because our perceptions represent the same physical world, albeit observed from our individual perspectives. 

Being Conscious, But Not of Consciousness

A reader (!) asks: Does [what you posted about consciousness yesterday three days ago] mean that we are only conscious of what’s going on in our brains?

That’s an excellent question. When I say that consciousness is certain kinds of brain activity or patterns of neural activation, it may sound like I’m saying that we’re only conscious of brain activity. In other words, we’re not conscious of the rest of the world or the rest of our bodies.

Given what I’m saying about consciousness, I might explain that we are “directly” conscious of our brain activity and “indirectly” conscious of the rest of the world. Or I could say that our consciousness of what’s going on in our heads is “immediate”, while our awareness of everything else is “mediated”, i.e. conveyed through intermediaries, such as the air that carries sound waves to our ears and the nerve impulses that travel from all over our body to our brain.

So when I raised this question yesterday (“Does this mean we are only conscious of what’s going on in our brains?”), I began by saying “in one sense, yes, because that’s where the physical phenomenon of consciousness takes place”. I then said, however, that in the most important sense our brain activity enables us to be aware of what’s happening outside our brains.

Actually, I recommend that we reserve phrases like “conscious of”, “aware of” or “what we experience” for the things we are ordinarily and importantly conscious of. That’s the standard way of speaking and the best way to describe what’s happening when we are conscious. For instance, when you’re awake, are you conscious of your surroundings? When you raise your arm, do you experience any discomfort? Now that you’re on Social Security, are you experiencing any memory loss?

Asking whether we are conscious of what’s going on in our brains amounts to asking whether we are conscious of our consciousness. It’s a misleading question. It’s like asking someone at the North Pole which way is north. To be conscious is to have a certain kind of brain activity. To be conscious of whatever is to be conscious of something other than your brain activity. That’s because there is no way to be conscious of your consciousness. There is no mechanism, no mental apparatus, no meta-consciousness that allows being conscious of consciousness. Consciousness just is. The world you see, that rumbling in your stomach, is what it looks like, feels like, to have the right kind of brain activity. 

You can think about being conscious. We’re doing that right now. But that’s different from being conscious of consciousness. When you think about consciousness, you’re conscious of your thoughts (about consciousness), just like you can be conscious of thoughts about other things. But consciousness itself just is (I could say it is what it is, but that would be redundant and annoying).

Could an evil demon be tricking you, like Descartes wondered? Could you be a brain in a vat, like later philosophers ask themselves? Sure, it’s possible to be seriously wrong about what you’re conscious of. Maybe what you’re conscious of isn’t ever what you think it is. I’m not worried. You shouldn’t be either. 

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Yes, it makes the air vibrate and if it creates enough vibrations and there’s anyone around who’s conscious and isn’t deaf, they’ll hear (be conscious of) the crashing sound. 

I’m not sure what I’ve been saying makes sense. I’ve thought about this topic for a long time but never expressed my thoughts this way before. Maybe what I’m saying is way off the track, but it’s all I’ve got right now. Maybe I’ll get back to it again. In the meantime, stay conscious.

In my opinion, that implies being conscious of other things, not consciousness.

What’s So Hard About Consciousness? (With More Words Than Usual)

Some philosophers call it “the hard problem”. Here’s how Norwegian philosopher Hedda Hassel Mørch describes it:

The nature of consciousness seems to be unique among scientific puzzles. Not only do neuroscientists have no fundamental explanation for how it arises from physical states of the brain, we are not even sure whether we ever will….

Our brains do not merely seem to gather and process information. They do not merely undergo biochemical processes. Rather, they create a vivid series of feelings and experiences, such as seeing red, feeling hungry, or being baffled about philosophy. There is something that it’s like to be you, and no one else can ever know that as directly as you do.

Consider the colored objects below. Scientists can describe what happens when a person sees them. They can tell you why the color of a tomato is more like the color of an orange than a lemon. They can point out that if you mix red and yellow light, you’ll get orange. They can use words and numbers to say what’s happening as light is reflected into your eyes and impulses are transmitted along your optic nerves. 

 

But scientists cannot express or capture how any of these colors look when they, or you, or I see them. Words and numbers aren’t up to the task! The best anyone can do is show you examples. See, this is red! 

Consider how the word “red” is defined in dictionaries. Merriam-Webster says “red” means “of the color red”. Not terribly helpful. Consider how Wikipedia introduces its article on “Red”:

Red is the color at the longer-wavelengths end of the spectrum of visible light next to orange, at the opposite end from violet. Red color has a predominant light wavelength of roughly 620–740 nanometers. 

That would be helpful in some circumstances, but the Wikipedia writers added color pictures of strawberries, a cardinal and the Chinese flag to make things perfectly clear. That’s because pointing out examples is the best way, in one sense the only way, to express the meaning of a word like “red”. That, by the way, is called an “ostensive” definition. When language won’t do the trick, show an example. 

The same difficulty applies to the way a violin sounds, the way roses smell and the way tickles tickle. There is something elusive about the way the world appears. There is something incommunicable about experience. Another way of saying this is that the contents of consciousness are a first-person phenomenon. Science as the formal study of the world can describe and explain what’s happening when you hear a violin from a third-person perspective, but the particular sound you hear is beyond words or numbers. There is something about being a person, what it’s like to be a person (or a bat), that has to be experienced firsthand.

Hmm.

Okay, well, that’s interesting. But I’m tempted to say: so what?

That hasn’t been the usual reaction in the history of Western philosophy. Many philosophers have drawn big conclusions from the scientific elusiveness of consciousness. Here, for instance, is Thomas Nagel writing in an exchange of letters a few months ago (he is the author of the famous philosophy paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”):

I do not deny that patterns of neural activation cause experience. What I doubt is that patterns of neural activation alone constitute or are experience—if neural activation is a purely physical process.

The mind-body problem that exercises … me is a problem about what experience is, not how it is caused. The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject…. But if subjective experience is not an illusion, the real world includes more than can be described in this way.

I agree … that “we need to determine what ‘thing,’ what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose”. But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view.

Nagel accepts that patterns of neural activation cause consciousness, but he doesn’t think they constitute consciousness. I think he has two reasons for saying this. The first is what we’ve been considering so far: consciousness has properties (“raw feels”) that cannot be captured by science. The second is that neural activation is physical – it occurs in space and time – but, according to Nagel, consciousness doesn’t.

His conclusion is that consciousness is a mental phenomenon that somehow stands apart from the rest of the universe. Our experience is supposedly a special kind of “stuff” that’s somehow separate from the physical world of quantum fields, waves and particles. (How events in space and time can make something happen that isn’t in space or time has always been a problem for positions like Nagel’s. Another philosopher, Daniel Dennett, says it would be a miracle.)

My own view is that patterns of neural activation don’t cause consciousness. Nor are they correlated with consciousness. Instead, certain patterns of neural activity are consciousness. In other words, consciousness is having certain kinds of neural activity.

If consciousness is a certain kind of activity in one’s brain, that kind of activity in one’s brain doesn’t cause consciousness. That’s because a phenomenon cannot cause itself, so saying there is a causal relationship between particular kinds of neural activation and consciousness implies that they are separate phenomena. Nor are such patterns of neural activity correlated with consciousness, because, again, saying that two series of events are correlated implies that they are separate phenomena. But having various patterns of neural activity occurring in your brain can be and is consciousness.

This isn’t to deny that there are correlations of a sort. When a scientist or technician measures or records someone’s brain activity (or even their own), they are collecting data from an outside, third-person perspective, i.e. the perspective of the equipment that does the measuring or recording. Looking at the data that’s gathered, we can say there is a correlation between the data and the subject’s consciousness.

But we shouldn’t go on to say that the patterns of neural activity detected in the brain are correlated with the subject’s conscious experience. That would imply that the neural activity stands apart from the conscious experience, when they’re really the same phenomenon talked about in two different ways or considered from two different perspectives (i.e. the third person “outside” perspective and the first-person “inside” point of view). 

This view is known as the “identity” theory. To me it seems obvious. Consciousness is brain activity. Certain brain activity is consciousness.

Not so fast, however. How can consciousness and having appropriate brain activity be the same? Don’t “they” have different properties? I don’t think so.

Until there is reason to think otherwise, consciousness should be viewed as a physical process that occurs in the brain. Since the brain is in space and time, so is consciousness. When a person is conscious, they are presented with a phenomenal field, a set of representations, including three-dimensional sights (for most of us) and corresponding sounds (for most of us) and smells, tastes and feelings, as well as thoughts (for most of us). Some of these representations have properties like being red or sweet. These properties belong to the components of the phenomenal field. Another way of saying this is that these properties belong to the experience of having certain brain activity.

Of course, if you were to somehow travel around inside a conscious person’s brain, you wouldn’t see any redness or taste any sweetness. Nor would you find any movie screens or loudspeakers. The most you’d observe would be nerve cells, electrical impulses and chemical reactions with their own distinctive properties. You certainly wouldn’t detect the person’s phenomenal field as the person experiences it.

But if enough of those nerve cells, electrical impulses and chemical reactions are functional, a phenomenal field is present. There is consciousness occurring in there with its various properties, by virtue of the fact that having certain patterns of neural activation is enough for consciousness to occur. (As far as we know, it’s also necessary for consciousness to occur.)

Does this mean that we are only conscious of what’s going on in our brains? In one sense, yes, because that’s where the physical phenomenon of consciousness takes place. In another sense, however, and the most important sense, no, not at all. It’s reasonable to believe that consciousness evolved to help us make our way in the world, partly by representing the world to us. Our conscious experience of the world is damned good, in fact phenomenally good, when you think about it.

In fact, it’s so good that we don’t ordinarily have to think about it at all. We just use it to get around, rather like we use maps, photographs, recordings and other representations. Someone shows you a picture of Miami and asks if you’ve ever been there. Do you say “Yes” or “No” or “What do you mean? Have I ever been in that photograph in your hand?” If you’re not being a smart ass, you’ll answer “Yes” or “No”, because that’s how representations work.

In similar fashion, if someone asks you if you want the banana lying on the table, do you say “Yes” or “No” or “What do you mean? Do I want the portion of my visual field that is mostly yellow with a little bit of brown and green?” Saying “Yes” or “No” is the natural way to respond. It’s true that you can’t keep your consciousness in your glove compartment or put it on Facebook. Plus, your consciousness is what makes it possible to use those other kinds of representations. Consciousness doesn’t represent the world in the same way that maps and photographs do. But in addition to helping us think about the world, remember the past and imagine the future, consciousness also helps us observe and navigate the world, like less simple representations do. 

So that’s what I think about consciousness. Understanding how or why consciousness happens in human and animal brains is a major challenge for scientists who study brains, but it isn’t “the hard problem” most philosophers make it out to be.o-142765670-facebook

The Simulation Situation

There are smart people who think we’re probably living in a simulation. They question whether we’re flesh and blood creatures inhabiting a physical universe. Instead, we’re mental constructs “living” inside an incredibly sophisticated computer program. Our reality is someone else’s virtual reality.

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker summarizes the logic:

The argument, actually debated at length at the American Museum of Natural History just last year, is that the odds are overwhelming that ours is a simulated universe. The argument is elegant. Since the advance of intelligence seems like the one constant among living things—and since living things are far likelier than not to be spread around the universe—then one of the things that smart living things will do is make simulations of other universes in which to run experiments….

Since there will be only one “real” universe, and countless simulated ones, the odds that we are living in one of the simulations instead of the one actual reality are overwhelming. If intelligent life exists, then we are surely likely to be living in one of its Matrices. As Clara Moskowitz, writing in Scientific American, no less, explains succinctly, “A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors. They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.”

Mr. Gopnik somewhat jokingly suggests that recent events, in particular, an evil buffoon becoming President, a startling turnaround in the Super Bowl, a dumb mistake at the Oscars, are evidence that someone “up there” is messing with us (“Let’s do this crazy thing and see what happens!”). 

In response, Jesse Singal of New York Magazine argues that recent events seem so bizarre because recent history has been relatively calm:

…part of what’s going on here is that over the last few decades, the world has gotten so much less weird — in mostly good ways — that it’s now easier to highlight and harp upon what are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor weirdness flare-ups….

We pay more attention to the Patriots coming back from 28–3 in an impossibly short span of time because we’re less distracted by the U.S. trying to napalm its way out of an inconceivably stupid jungle quagmire. We gawk at the Oscar craziness and dwell on it because it stands out in a saner world than many of our parents and grandparents inhabited. Hell, it’s too early to say, but in the long run, barring an unforeseen catastrophe, maybe even [Donald Drump] — God or superintelligent alien simulators willing — will end up getting a mere footnote, rather than a chapter, in the Book of Weirdness humanity continues writing every moment of every day.

I think Mr. Singal is correct, of course. As some have noted, the Oscar thing was bound to happen (it had already happened once before, in 1964 to Sammy Davis Jr.); sports teams occasionally overcome big deficits, especially when the other team helps; and the Electoral College could have done what the Founders intended and elected a normal person (although I have to admit that, as naturally-occurring events in any possible world go, Drump in the White House is hard to accept).

The idea that we are constructs in some kind of vast computer program isn’t the same as what was depicted in the Matrix movies. In the Matrix, we were good, old-fashioned human beings being manipulated into thinking we were somewhere else. In the simulation hypothesis, we’re software that thinks it’s human. But once you start to imagine possibilities like these, it’s hard to conclude we’re one vs. the other. Would it be easier to create virtual beings who think they’re organisms like us or to trick organisms like us into thinking we’re somewhere else? 

That’s one of the problems I have with the idea of the big simulation. It’s the same problem I have with the idea that our minds could be uploaded onto a computer. In theory, a program could execute the same thoughts that you or I have. For example, it could reach the same conclusions we would if presented with the same evidence. But could a program have the same feelings, the same conscious experience, we have when we touch, hear or see? Maybe so, but it’s hard for me to understand how a program could possibly do that. Would the software include components that made the software believe it was conscious when it really wasn’t? Could the evil demon have tricked Descartes into think he was conscious when he really wasn’t?

Of course, there are other problems with the simulation hypothesis besides my personal lack of imagination. Nobody knows how common life is. How often, for example, do chemical components form single-cell organisms? How often does single-cell life make the transition to multi-cellular life? Assuming complex organisms develop, how often do they form stable societies? And how much technological progress do stable societies make before they destroy themselves or hit some other bump in the cosmic road? We know there are lots of stars in the universe, and now it looks like there are lots of planets too, but beyond that it’s all speculation.

It’s also questionable whether advanced civilizations would decide to run such simulations even if they could. Why assume that beings that advanced would care about creating a world like ours? Wouldn’t they have better things to do?

More than a few philosophers and physicists think there are other universes in addition to ours, maybe even an infinite number of them. In one or more of those many universes, every possibility is real. So maybe the universe we experience is a vast simulation. On the other hand, maybe it’s a simulation being run for an audience of one. How do I know that the simulation I’m witnessing is simulating something for anyone else? It would certainly be simpler to simulate a universe for a single “person” (me) as opposed to billions of them (all of you). At any rate, I’m sure I’m here. Are you?

It

I finally got around to watching Her, also known as “that movie where the guy falls in love with his computer”.

It was like being trapped in a futuristic greeting card. Which doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. It’s an excellent movie, but not easy to watch. It’s disturbing. And also provocative.

Theodore lives in downtown Los Angeles. It’s the near future, one that is amazingly pleasant. Future L.A. is extremely clean, with lots of big, shiny buildings and terrific mass transit, but seemingly uncrowded. Theodore has a job in a beautiful office writing very personal letters for people who can’t express their feelings as well as he can.

But Theodore is lonely and depressed. He’s going through a divorce and avoiding people. One day, he hears about a new, artificially intelligent computer program, brilliantly designed to tailor itself to the customer’s needs. Theodore assigns it a female voice, after which it gives itself the name “Samantha”.

It’s easy to understand how Theodore falls in love with Samantha. It’s intuitive and funny and loving, a wonderful companion that’s constantly evolving. Besides, it does a great job handling Theodore’s email and calendar.

Complications eventually ensue, of course, but in the meantime, Theodore and Samantha get to know each other, spending lots of time expressing their deeply sensitive feelings. It’s very New Age-ish, although the two of them can’t give each other massages and can’t go beyond what amounts to really good phone sex.

Watching Her, you are immersed in a loving but cloying relationship in which one of the entities involved expresses lots of feelings but doesn’t actually have any. That’s my opinion, of course, because some people think a sufficiently complex machine with really good programming will one day become conscious and have feelings, not just express them. 

Maybe that’s true, but I still lean toward the position that in order to feel anything the way living organisms do, whether the heat of the sun or an emotion like excitement, you need to be built like a living organism. A set of programming instructions, running on a computer, even if connected to visual and auditory sensors, won’t have feelings because it can’t really feel.

Although the movie is built on the dubious premise that Samantha can always say the right thing, appropriately displaying joy, sorrow or impatience, perfectly responding to whatever Theodore says and anticipating all of his emotional needs, there is no there there. 

I don’t mean to suggest that Theodore is wrong to cherish Samantha. It’s an amazing product. But when he and it are together, he’s still alone. He’s enjoying the ultimate long distance relationship.