January 17, 2022
What do ant colonies teach us about human consciousness?  - 12/01/2022 - Enrique Gomez

What do ant colonies teach us about human consciousness? – 12/01/2022 – Enrique Gomez

employment last columndiscussed the bookBeing You: A New Science of Consciousness(Penguin, 2021, still untitled in Brazil), by British neuroscientist Anil Seth. In the book, Seth assembles a popular argument from modern neuroscience: that we are partially “hallucinating reality.”

That is, due to the brain’s limited computing resources and limited access to reality there, it cannot model the world in complete detail.

Missing details or “hallucinations” are dropped by the brain, which makes predictions about what it will be and includes those predictions in the model of the world that presents itself in our consciousness. In short: we “assume” much more than we see.

Another topic that Seth encountered is consciousness itself. The argument above explores the objective aspects of consciousness. It is an explanation of the model of the world that we carry in our heads all the time.

This explanation, or any similar explanation, applies to many other systems – even unconscious systems – that need to form a simplified model of their environments. For example, a Automatic Vacuum Cleaner A generation models its environment in a similar way in kind.

But our human experience also has an indescribably personal character, which a vacuum cleaner certainly does not have. Many philosophers argue that this character is an important part of reality, a part that cannot be explained by physical concepts, which, being inexplicable, is a major failure of the materialistic view of the universe.

According to Seth (and other famous philosophers, such as the American Daniel Dennett), this conclusion is premature.

It is premature because scientific materialism has at its disposal several languages ​​or levels that can be used to describe the world. Physicalism is not bound by explanations that operate only at the deepest level of physics – the level of physics grains subatomic, for example. Explanations that do not adhere to this level may be understandable and compatible with scientific materialism.

Let’s take an example that perfectly fits the physical model: temperature is a property that does not apply to a single particle, it is a quantity that appears When we have a large number of particles (and can be identified by the average kinetic energy of this aggregate).

There are two levels of interpretation here: the particle level and the aggregate level. The kinetic energy of particles is best suited for microscopic analysis, and temperature is best suited for macroscopic analysis.

There are also good examples of levels of interpretation in biology. Despite the presence of millions of individuals in a nest, an ant colony can easily coordinate nest maintenance, relocation and nest feeding without any central planning. The colony has complex characteristics that appear From the interaction of thousands of ants, whose individual behavior is very simple.

The organization of insect communities is a striking example of a complex decentralized system that emerges from the interactions of many individuals.

how I wrote in another column (Dealing with the issue of free will): “The description of phenomena on one level by concepts at another tends to be very vague. The best explanation of a phenomenon does not always come from the deepest theoretical layer. Nature is grounded in the Other – each elevation brings with it inference and its laws Own. Ignoring a certain degree of independence between the different layers of interpretation of reality limits our ability to make sense of the world. This is a state of cognitive myopia, in which we see only the smallest possible details, not all patterns.”

Seth suggests that the first-person experience, its subjective character, is one of those characteristics that emerge from a more basic level, where ownership cannot be found.

From the interaction of billions of simple neurons, a complex property emerges, the subjective personality. This property is real: it belongs to a level of nature and is completely explanatory. But trying to break down the subjective in terms of the most basic level – eg, nervous cells– Doomed to fail.

Here it may seem like this is an easy fix that doesn’t deal with the specifics of an emergency. But Seth goes further (as do many other philosophers) by assuming a criterion: Because of the complex level B, based on the basic level A, a property of B is said to be “emergent” when B’s emerging laws provide us with more accurate predictions of B’s ​​future behavior than From just knowing the basic laws of A-level.

For example, knowing the laws of chemistry gives us more possibility to predict the temporal evolution of chemical processes than simply knowing the laws of particle physics.

Or even: understanding specific behaviors of ant colonies allows us to understand their dynamics better than understanding the individual biology of each ant. In the language of Dennett, These characteristics are “true patterns”: they not only appear in our best interpretations, but have an existential character similar to more obvious things like chairs and planes.

Whether consciousness actually appears in this way remains, in my opinion, an open question that must be studied in detail. However, just the possibility is enough to keep scientific materialism alive and well, thank you very much.

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