Ned Block on phenomenal consciousness, part II

RobertFuddBewusstsein17Jhby Dan Tippens

Our Assistant Editor, Daniel Tippens, asks Professor Ned Block, of New York University, about his work on the relationship between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. This is part II of that interview, you can find Part I here.

SciSal: Something I remember I was thinking about a lot is some of the methodological concerns with the phenomenal overflow debate. Something you mention in one of your papers is the methodological puzzle of consciousness. You already mentioned it briefly, but could you please tell us a little more about what this methodological puzzle is?

Block: It’s that our only data — or not our only data, but our basic data — is what people say, if people say, I saw it, or they give you a numerical ranking [on a scale of 1-10 how certain are you that you saw it?] But then we somehow have to leverage this data and go beyond what they say they saw to try to figure out whether there are things that they saw — consciously saw — that don’t get into their cognition. So we have to use cognition to somehow go beyond cognition. And that’s what’s so tricky and difficult. [4]

SciSal: Yeah. And could you tell us a little bit more about your general methodological strategy for overcoming this? Obviously you’ve mentioned already some of the experiments that you used. But you have kind of a specific methodological picture of how to integrate evidence to come up with a theory of consciousness despite the methodological puzzle.

Block: Well, it turns out the way that it’s been most fruitful is to be clever about what you ask people, or to not ask them until after the experiment. So one of the really quite cool forms of evidence is evidence from a number of papers by a guy at Reed College named Michael Pitts. His technique is actually very simple: he looks at brain imaging data for when people are seeing things. But he doesn’t ask them the crucial questions until the experiment is over. He has these experiments, they’re called dual task in the sense that there are two different things that the subject is doing. So of course in many of the cases, they don’t know they are doing two different things.

One of his experiments involved a ring with some dots on it. And the official task was to say when one dot got a little bit bigger. And it would be a very difficult task. People were really working hard at that. And then in the background there are some lines that might make a figure or might not. So he put people in a brain scanner, and then after the end — after 240 trials — he gave them a big questionnaire about what they saw in the background.

Some people were aware of, say, a square in the background, and other people weren’t. And what he found is that awareness of the square correlated with activity in the back of the head. So one of the crucial issues here is whether visual consciousness is found in the visual areas in the back of the head or whether it involves a global neuronal workspace I mentioned in the front of the head. Previous work had suggested it involved the global neuronal workspace. But it turns out, the real reason for that is that the people were reporting consciousness.

So the global neuronal workspace activation came from the reporting of consciousness rather than from consciousness itself. Using his technique, he was able to show that the actual consciousness came before the global workspace activation. The kind of imaging involved is one that’s very temporally fine-grained. 300 milliseconds after the stimulus, there is this activation in the visual areas. And that’s what correlates with the later conscious reports, not the global neuronal workspace activations. That only happens later, between 300 and 500 milliseconds. So you have to avoid reports, because once you have reports, you contaminate the question.

SciSal: Right, interesting. So there is this other philosophically interesting methodological issue, and the claim here is that the burden of proof lies on the rich view of consciousness. [5]

Block: Yeah.

SciSal: I took it that there is some kind of appeal to simplicity to motivate their argument, right? Why should we say that there’s more to consciousness than simply what’s in working memory, what we have access to, unless we have evidence to show for it?

Block: Yeah.

SciSal: I’m just curious, I don’t think that you would agree that the burden of proof…

Block: No, no, I don’t think there is any burden of proof. I think what you need to do is to look at the data and try to figure out whether consciousness does or does not overflow cognition. So I don’t think anybody has the preference, I don’t think either view is simpler. So maybe consciousness does overflow cognition; maybe it doesn’t. They are equally simple.

SciSal: Let’s just try and find out, right?

Block: Let’s just try and find out, yeah.

SciSal:  Another question that comes to mind has to do with the self-consciousness part. If you’re right that you can be phenomenally conscious of more than you have access to, it seems to give us kind of a different picture of phenomenal consciousness than we previously thought. I can be phenomenally conscious of something without, in any kind of robust sense, being aware of it, i.e having access to it.

Block: Yeah.

SciSal: And so in some sense it seems like it’s not really my experience anymore, right? After all, I don’t have access to it any more than someone else does. But most people tend to have the intuition that if you are phenomenally conscious of it, one defining feature of phenomenal consciousness is that it’s yours and that you are aware of it in some way that others aren’t.

Block: Yeah.

SciSal: Now, there are different accounts of how to kind of satisfy our intuitions on this. And I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about your solution to this.

Block: So first of all, I don’t think it’s counterintuitive or unintuitive that your awareness of yourself can be suppressed in very engrossing conscious experience. One experience that many people have is often called flow. When you’re really very much engrossed in an experiential task you know people report that they flow into it. There’s a kind of flow of experience, and they lose conscious awareness of their selves while still having conscious awareness of what’s going on. People sometimes report this in sports or listening to music. So I think that’s a very intuitive thing.

And there’s evidence of this. It’s collected by neuroscientist Rafi Malach. What he did was he gave people a very demanding but routine sensorimotor task, where they had to classify pictures. And he found that there was suppression of the frontal cortex during that. A similar suppression of the frontal cortex happens in dreams, where people lose a certain amount of awareness of themselves in a sense. It’s still experiences that are yours, but the monitoring isn’t there.

SciSal: I see. That’s an interesting point, that in our ordinary daily experiences we seem to lose awareness of phenomenally conscious states in demanding tasks. So essentially we shouldn’t feel strange about having phenomenal consciousness of something we don’t have access to.

Block: Yeah.

SciSal: Moving on to the next topic, some people think that attention might be necessary for binding features together. So to make it clear, when I’m looking at you, you have a bunch of features that are bound together — you know, your hair to your face, color to your face, nose to your face etcetera. And attention is the thing that binds these together to give a whole form object. Without attention, there’s kind of just a jumbled assortment of features that don’t really have a form, right? In other words, you can’t have the feature-bound face of Ned Block without attention.

Block: Yeah.

SciSal: So just to be clear, would you think that the phenomenal experiences we have outside of accessibility would be more like jumbled features as opposed to whole-form experiences of like Ned Block’s face out there?

Block: Well, it’s an interesting question. The theory that attention is required for binding is usually attributed to the psychologist Anne Treisman. But if you look at her work carefully, you’ ll see that she never says attention is necessary for binding. Even her original paper on this mentions another kind of binding, what she calls top-down binding, where cognition does the work.

It is an interesting question as to whether people really ever have unbound experiences. There is a kind of brain damage which has been suggested as a situation in which people have them, and it’s called Balint’s syndrome. The reason people suggest that is those people often do a lot of mis-binding. You can give them a, you know, a green circle and a red square. And they’ll often say it’s the square that’s green and the circle is red. So they mis-bind a lot. But what nobody really knows is whether they have some kind of unbound experience. It’s never been something that anybody has ever verified, although people do talk about it. It’ll be an interesting fact if there aren’t unbound experiences because that suggests that binding is part of what it takes to have a conscious experience, if there aren’t any. And that’s something that people have suggested as well.

SciSal: So I’m just personally curious, do you have an intuition one way or the other on this question?

Block: I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that binding is actually crucial to having the experience at all and that we don’t have experiences without binding to at least the place and the time.

SciSal: For visual experiences in particular?

Block: For visual experiences, yeah. For smell experiences, you don’t have that same kind of spatial orientation. So it may not be a general feature of experience.

SciSal: Right, I recall you also mentioned emotions in one of your papers.

Block: Yeah, conscious emotions. They don’t have a location either.

SciSal: Well okay, I think those are all the questions that I had for you today.

Block: Oh, well thank you very much.

SciSal: No, thank you. I appreciate it. And hopefully we can do this again sometime in the future.

Block: Sure, that’d be fun, yeah.


Dan Tippens is Assistant Editor at Scientia Salon. He received his Bachelors of Arts in Philosophy at New York University. He is now a research technician at New York University School of Medicine in the S. Arthur Localio Laboratory.

Ned Block is Silver Professor of Philosophy, Psychology and Neural Science at New York University, where he arrived in 1996 from MIT. He works in philosophy of mind and foundations of neuroscience and cognitive science and is currently writing a book on attention. He is a past president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, a past Chair of the MIT Press Cognitive Science Board, and past President of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. The Philosophers’ Annual selected his papers as one of the “ten best” in 1983, 1990, 1995, 2002 and 2010.

[4] Consciousness, accessibility, and the mesh between psychology and neuroscience, by N. Block, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2007.

[5] The Overflow Cup Runneth Over, by R. Brown, 16 February 2012.

72 thoughts on “Ned Block on phenomenal consciousness, part II

  1. Hi Philip Thrift, you said in response to Robin

    I’ll just be scratching my head trying to figure out what materials/chemicals Robin’s conscious aliens are made of that do not feel pain.

    Why not ordinary chemicals and cells in neural networks? Animals feel pain through a specific set of cells, networks, and chemicals. None of these things are obligatory for a living or conscious being.

    Interestingly the human spine has a separate “track” for nociception which means selective damage to the spinal column can leave one without feeling pain in a region but normal sensations remain.

    Still more intriguing, and relevant to your quandary, humans can be born without the ability to feel pain yet no loss in normal touch sensations ( Given that nociception is how humans have evolved to register important tissue damage, this condition can lead to serious problems without careful inspection of one’s body to check (via other means) that you are not injured (perhaps severely). But one can live with it.

    And there is no question that aliens with different evolutionary paths and regenerative strategies might have no need for such systems. In fact, if human regenerative capacity (or med technology for surveillance/repair) becomes sufficient, nociception might become redundant and even counterproductive for humans.

    It could be that our own distant descendants look back at our writing and wonder what this “pain” business is all about? Is it something as mythical/delusional as unicorns, spirits, and astral projection?

    Hi Daniel Casali, I don’t know about Massimo but I am a neuroscientist (with an undergrad in philosophy) and agree with Aravis that from a neuroscientific perspective behavior is limited to investigations of “motor patterns” (if broadly construed to mean chemical/physical activity). I might differ with him in that I think we can make relevant and useful connections with higher order aspects of behavior (once labelled “aggressive” we can connect that with certain brain activity), but as Aravis rightly suggests that will not be useful for assessing what aggressive “is” in the first place (how we can/should label behaviors). Of course whether other sciences can then be used is another debate.


  2. (Note to editor: if you can please use this reply instead of my last one to Coel, I accidentally left out something important)

    Hi Coel, I agree that neuroscience is not the limit of scientific method for evaluating animal/human behavior, and higher order phenomena can be examined directly (ethology, sociology, etc). And so Aravis seems to be making a more restrictive claim than I would completely agree with. And yet you managed to avoid his obviously correct claim that there are certain aspects that will still fall beyond scientific methods.

    Let’s start with something easy: crime. What is it? Or rather what should count as criminal behavior? Using any scientific field, explain how we would best label behavior one way or the other. And don’t mistake criminology, which studies how classifications have/can be made to draw a very generic definition, as delivering the discussion/conclusion of what we should label as criminal in our communities, or how it should be dealt with.

    As a Humean you should know better that there are aspects of humanity that defy mere empirical investigation. Some things have to be hashed out using logic and its interaction with emotion, intention, and personal interpretations.

    I have to say I am now confused (given that you allow us to include discussions of higher order phenomena at that level) if by scientific reductionism you mean all things can be reduced to scientific investigation of some kind (which I would call scientism), or that higher order phenomena can be accurately reduced/understood by lower order activity (which I would call reductionism).

    And, Folks, whatever you think of my attitudes, the scientific attitudes that I adopt have led to science being easily the most successful intellectual enterprise ever.

    Yeah, but unfortunately that kind of attitude has also led to some people believing that science can tell us everything, dismissive of other voices. An unquestioning nature toward scientific claims/conclusions (or should I say claims made by scientists). And that really helped drive things like the eugenics movements and impersonal workplace “efficiency” experts.

    That we can for instance wipe out a certain genetic disease by preventing people with such genes from reproducing, does not tell us if that is what we should do. If it is the best course of action. Such considerations lay outside purely empirical (scientific) methods.

    This is my 5th so no more replies possible. Just to let you know I am still interested in your last reply to me in the previous thread (on whether Siri can understand or mean anything). I’m going to publish a post at my site in the near future on that. If interested, I’ll let you know when ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Coel,
    “It seems to me that those who reject scientism usually have a very impoverised[sic] idea of what science actually is.”

    A broad and strong claim, please motivate with hard evidence. You weaken your case when you overstate it.

    “but that’s not the same as any supposed divide between “science” and “humanities”, along with the claim that “humanities” is a “way of knowing” something that “science” cannot.”

    Back to basics! Let’s start with the obvious.
    The universe and all in it, developed from the Big Bang onwards in strict accordance with the Laws of Nature. Therefore, everything in the world about us is the result of, and can be described/explained by the Laws of Nature. No exceptions allowed.

    I think we all agree on this point. But that is not the same thing as saying that all about us can be described by science. If all Laws of Nature were accessible to discovery by human science then everything could be described by science and scientismists would be right.

    This is where scientismists and sceptics part company. We sceptics agree with you that everything is described/explained by the Laws of Nature. But we disagree(or doubt) that all Laws of Nature can be uncovered by science.

    Note that I differentiate between the Laws of Nature and the laws of science. The Laws of Nature are the ultimate truth about everything. The laws of science are our limited, fallible attempts to describe the Laws of Nature.

    Scientismists have made this enormous leap of faith that science can uncover all Laws of Nature(within our domain). But is this true? Is it justified? What limits our attempts to uncover all Laws of Nature? These are the questions that we sceptics ask. It is a display of epistemic humility as contrasted with the dogmatism of scientism.

    What, essentially, is necessary for science to work?
    1. The subjects must be observable and accessible to the tools that science uses.
    2. The tools must have sufficient power to fully investigate the subject.
    3. We must possess sufficient cognitive powers.

    Scientism has several varieties:
    1. Weak scientism
    This is the belief that ultimately all three points will be true for all subjects and therefore that all will be accessible to science, if not now, at least in the future, however distant. It is an implicit belief that underlies the work of science.

    2. Strong or dogmatic scientism
    This is the confident, overt assertion that 1) all aspects of life are open to understanding/explanation by science and 2) that science is the best form of knowing.

    3. Ideological scientism.
    This is dogmatic scientism that, consequentially, believes science should be used to regulate the conduct of life.

    Scientism has two essential beliefs:
    1. Science can bridge the fact/value divide.
    2. Science can bridge the syntax/semantics divide.

    In the same way, epistemic scepticism has its varieties.
    This, my introductory comment, is an attempt to frame the debate so it can be usefully discussed.

    More to come from your friendly sceptic!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear SG – “at the level of particular individuals’ interest, it will be basic psychology, combined with personal life history. For different groups’ interest, it will be sociology, perhaps with a touch of economics…”
    So beauty is a completely socially determined concept? Where does basic psychology come from? And art that stands the test of time does so purely due to extrinsic factors? You don’t feel the power of art objects from other cultures, say Australian indigenous art, where you have no idea of the underlying cultural associations? Your first query to Dan is I think answered by the fact that the act of reporting generates additional brain activity over that just associated with perceiving and cogitating about X. Re “flow”, I think suppression refers again to activity in a particular region (the effects on consciousness may be positive).
    Dear ejwinner – my point about the beauty of Abstract Expressionism was that it runs contrary to embedded cultural expectations precisely because there is no obvious meaning, but some people saw something in it (and curators paid money for it that the ordinary voter thought was ridiculous). Either it is purely cultural (a rather crude sociology of taste, status signalling etc), or there is something that different observers that share a basic neurological organisation agree on as pleasing to the eye, which is why it has been designated as a store of value different from the work of “lesser” artists. Anyway, this drifts a bit from the target article – I’ll stop here.


  5. Hi Coel,

    And, Folks, whatever you think of my attitudes, the scientific attitudes that I adopt have led to science being easily the most successful intellectual enterprise ever.

    If you are going to claim that the success of science is due to the narrow set of scientific attitudes that you adopt then you need to have some evidence.

    I think that you might have an uphill battle. For a start you might have to explain how Niels Bohr and Erwin Schroedinger achieved their modest successes with scientific attitudes which are the antithesis of the program you push here.

    Sir Isaac Newton was, I understand, not entirely unsuccessful in the scientific field. In fact things like ‘scientism’ and ‘Supervenience Physicalism’, are fairly recent fashions in the history of science.

    The evidence is rather in favour of the thesis that the success of science is due to it’s being a lean and elegant epistemology which requires a very minimal set of assumptions and that loading it up with clunky metaphysical baggage only hampers it.

    By saying that the alien will not find “the experience of that taste” in an analysis of the neural network, you are essentially saying that an alien with no sense of pain or taste will not experience our pain or tastes.

    Um no, I am obviously not saying that, ‘essentially’ or otherwise. I am explicitly saying that the meaning of ‘pain’ or ‘how a peach tastes’ is not in the neural architecture,

    You very confidently claimed earlier that the meaning of the word “Duck!” was in the neural architecture but in this instance you have found it necessary to change what I said and avoid reference to “meaning” at all and so your answer has no direct relevance to what I said, however you appear to have inadvertantly supported what I said.
    Hi ejwinner,

    Just an acknowledgement of your good answer to davidlduffy before, I pretty much agree. I have liked a lot of what you have said here, but have not left myself any room to discuss it.

    What science can tell us about aesthetics and the questions that are explored in the humanities are different areas even though they might overlap at places. Each is interesting and useful in different ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi everyone. Last post here and for a while. S.S. seems to be turning into the Coel Hellier show again, and I need a lengthy vacation.

    1. It is no great surprise to discover that Coel thinks that science is the “most successful intellectual enterprise ever.” Of course, this depends on how one defines ‘success.’ If I was a “greatest, bestest ever!” type, I’d probably assign such superlatives to fine arts and letters, not science, but such contests ceased to hold my attention since my baseball card trading days. (When Tom Seaver was the bestest, awesomest pitcher.)

    2. There are some who want to re-litigate the question of reductionism yet again. I refuse. Fortunately, it’s been discussed here at Scientia about 237 times, not to mention in a substantial dialogue that I did with Massimo for BHTV, so for those who can’t get enough reductionism, I recommend checking out the syndicated reruns.

    3. Davidlduffy: As I already explained, aesthetics is not primarily concerned with why people like things. To the extent that aesthetics is interested in value judgments about artworks, it is from a justificatory perspective.

    4. AsherKay: No, I don’t think it is possible to give a “theory of behavior,” if what you mean is one theory for one thing. Behavior is a multi-faceted thing and different types of theories can shed light on different dimensions of it. This is why the animal studies are of limited utility.

    Finally: I will likely return to commenting sometime in the Fall. I am finishing up my first novel and need to give it my full attention, as I rapidly approach the agent/publisher stage of the process. I also need to devote more of my energies to my own blog, which has suffered of late for all my other activities, and whose eclecticism is more rewarding to me than the sort of single-minded conversations I find myself in, in most of the other venues I inhabit.

    I will not deny, however, that in part, my time-out is due to exhaustion with Coel – reading him; arguing with him; worrying about others being misled by him, etc. I cannot – nor do I want to – compete with a person who can ignore or misrepresent everything that is said to him, put his head down, and simply repeat over and over and over again what he has said before, relying for victory on the lesser stamina of his opponents, and unconcerned with whether a conversation is advanced or undermined. It is an effective tactic for promulgating one’s views, albeit neither a civil nor productive one. Regardless, I am tired of it and need a break. Have a wonderful summer, everyone!

    p.s. One exception — if Massimo posts another of our dialogues — we just did one on Moral Realism — between now and the Fall, I will, of course, respond to questions.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Just a thought, intersecting with some of what Block has to say, esp. in the second part. One thing that bothered me here was Block’s valorization of visual perception and response. “For smell experiences, you don’t have that same kind of spatial orientation.” Well, maybe that’s not quite right.

    At the age of 19 months, Helen Keller went blind and deaf. In order for her to learn language at 7 years, she had by then to have several conscious abilities already available to her: first, the ability to distinguish a from the in the sensorum. Then the ability to distinguish – through her remaining senses (touch, taste, smell) – objects and qualities in space and time; to recognize and remember these distinguished objects and qualities as independent from one another, so she could identify them distinctly. Obviously she would need to pay attention and to relate various sense stimuli to each other. And she would have to have some sense, in her interactions with her family, of what it could be, to communicate with others. There may be some other minimal necessities to get to language – the employment of a system of artificial signs for the sake of increasingly abstract communication – but these will do for now. The point is that any strong theory of consciousness will have to account for such developments.

    In the literature on consciousness, I see discussion of people suffering various disabilities in terms of what they lack. I suggest this is upside down. In such cases, we should first begin by considering what they don’t lack, since whatever they have, the non-disabled must have as well.


    Strange; a quick web search reveals hundreds of essays and books discussing the meaning of Pollack’s paintings. It’s a shame all these art critics and historians don’t have the scientific savvy to recognize how mistaken they are.

    You end your remark with an irrelevantly false choice – aesthetic understanding reduces to “crude sociology” or neuroscience? Really?

    We cannot *understand* the “power” of Australian indigenous art a) without first having some sense of what art is and how it means to us within a culture, and b) without knowing something of the culture in which it is produced.

    It’s interesting that the example you use and your word choice are clearly derived from some article or book you read, written by someone with some education in the arts. What is this “power” of which you speak? What culture generates such terminology in reference to artifacts? Again, this remark demonstrates that you have not critically reflected on the your own cultural presumptions, so I see no ground to your claims.

    Finally, the suggestion that neural reaction to visual stimuli will somehow decide the value in art is amusingly facile. “There is something that different observers that share a basic neurological organisation agree on as pleasing to the eye” – if you really knew the different arts of different cultures, you couldn’t make such a hollow claim.

    Robin Herbert,



  8. DavidDuffy, I never said beauty was “a completely socially determined concept.”

    From the start of my previous comment:

    (A)t the level of particular individuals’ interest, it will be basic psychology, combined with personal life history.

    So, individualistic psychology, plus social psychology.

    As for aesthetics being “adaptive”? Other than in some basic sense like peacock feathers, or a human equivalent, tosh. Everything else I said about Randy Thornhill making this a new area for Pop Ev Psych pseudoscience, I stand by.

    Beyond that, as even Wiki will show, and SEP in yet more detail, “aesthetics” within philosophy is much broader than you’re making it out to be. Various schools of aesthetics are associated with various schools of philosophy, for example. As Aravis knows well, this includes Wittgenstein.

    And, hat tip to Phillip Thrift, there are even computational-based schools of aesthetics thought. I disagree with them, and mathematical aesthetics, such as through overapplication of the Golden Mean, about as much as I disagree with the likes of Thornhill, but they do exist.

    Thomas I didn’t have room to give a “props” on Eliot on my previous comments My mind has changed about him a fair amount over the decades. I used to like Eliot a lot more, decades ago. I wrote a long World Lit paper in college about him. Then, as I matured, and mature away from my upbringing, I realized just how anti-Semitic he was. And, this ain’t Hume, let alone Aristotle, so no “presentism” excuses; Eliot was a man of fully modern times and deserves the opprobrium, IMO.

    And, with that, that shows Duffy et al exactly how psychology and related social sciences influence aesthetics.

    Coel I don’t think you misinterpreted Shakespeare nearly as much as others think, if much at all. That said, the fact that others are that willing to think that? You can ask yourself why, or you can not ask yourself why. Your choice.

    Back to Block. On the last part of his essay, I think that attention is important in many cases for binding phenomenal experiences together. But, again, is that attention necessarily at a level of full consciousness?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What if we were to look at consciousness as an elemental dynamic and thought as the form it expresses?

    Such that the relationship can take on a significant number of features. For instance, obsessive compulsive behavior being the consciousness overly focused on a particular form and ignoring or avoiding anything which would distract from that. The result being a very deep, but very narrow focus. While the opposite, a lack of attentiveness, ADD, etc, would be a very shallow, but broad attention.

    So while these two directions can be ascribed to different people, who are both presumably conscious, they also describe the two features of the individual consciousness, access and phenomenal, being mentioned by Block. That of simply being aware and that of this awareness concentrating on a particular frame.

    Then trying to fit an idea like art, or aesthetics into this relationship and what does it help explain?

    Whether Pollack or Shakespeare, there is an effort to give form to some dynamic, but what is it?
    Presumably a concentration or focusing of the collective attention, the audience. Yet methods are quite broad. Whether it is Shakespeare deeply probing the human condition and vividly showing us both the good and bad, playing off one another, or Pollack grabbing the attention of a collective moment and leaving everyone scratching their heads. With Shakespeare, it is clearly access consciousness, yet broadly and vividly describing the phenomenal world in which it exists. While Pollard is evidently phenomenal, leaving the access mystified.

    So it would seem these two sides play off and balance one another, as moments of clarity in the fog of reality.

    Hope this is clear enough to pass judgement.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Yesterday I mentioned that I was going to introduce a consciousness model of my own, and unlike Block’s, this one identifies primal conscious motivation. In the diagram below I’d have you consider the non-conscious mind as a vast supercomputer which facilitates a small but special kind of computer — its product is something that we know as “consciousness.”

    “Sensations,” such as pain, hope, frustration, fun, itchiness and so on, represent punishment/reward for a given conscious entity. Thus each unit of positive sensation is then good for it at that moment, while each unit of negative sensation is bad for it.

    As for “senses,” this represents the standard five plus some others. Note that while we might naturally want to place “smell” somewhat under “sensations,” here I’m exclusively referring to the non punishment/reward element of this sense. Given olfactory analysis of the air, this is simply environmental information to potentially use.

    I find it most effective to classify “memory” as a recording of past consciousness for later use. This can of course be very useful information, which I suspect is why Block seems to have mistook it for something like “processor” rather than “input to processor.”

    I identify the conscious processor, or “thought,” in two seperate forms. First there is “the interpretation of inputs,” and this is somewhat like Block’s phenomenal consciousness. Here is where pain is experienced, a face may be recognized, memories are accessed, and so on — and it all transpires non-consciously for the conscious mind to interpret. Next there is “the construction of scenarios,” which is somewhat like Block’s access consciousness. Here we run through various ideas to see if they make sense, and do so in order to consciously figure out how to promote our happiness. (The scenario mode of thought can also be broken into language and non language varieties, since a conscious cat should be able to figure things out in this same manner, but without our languages to use.)

    You may notice “The Learned Line” in the diagram. As certain tasks become more familiar, apparently they can be passed over for the abundant non-conscious processor to deal with. Because driving a car becomes second nature to us, this is seen as the non-conscious processor taking over some of these duties.

    I know of only one pure output of the conscious processor, and this is “muscle operation.” Can you think of any others that I should add?

    I do leave standard notions of subconsciousness alone, where the conscious mind doesn’t adequately process something, though the non-conscious mind perhaps does. Furthermore I also add a “sub-consciousness” term (spoken with a slight hyphen pause) to represent degraded conscious states, such as sleep, hypnosis, drug effects, and so on. Thus when we sleep, our dreams may simply be considered degraded thought.

    Don’t be shy — questions and comments will be appreciated both now, as well as in the future through the site under my name!


  11. Hi Dan,

    I did have some trouble following what you wrote but I think part of what I was saying had to do more with the assumptions I felt Block must be making rather than what you had said, and of course my comment wasn’t very clear in the first place.

    I’m still not happy with my understanding of Blocks thinking, but I did take a fast look at some of his papers, especially :

    Click to access Block_Overflow.pdf

    I learnt a lot but I still find there were many categorical distinctions or assumptions about data that were unjustified. Unjustified assumptions about various states of consciousness. And too much inconsistency of term usage (including qualifiers especially). At least in my opinion. And I agree with most of what others here have objected to like the out of place or unjustified use of words like ‘report’ and ‘think’.

    I have the impression Overflow advocates are seeing a lot of the holes in the Non-overflow advocates view but few of the holes in their own position, and vice versa.

    I can see that a lot of my objections could be dealt with if I was versed in the field, but my experience makes me think more basic objections would still hold. I’d still go with co-evolution and more embodiment.

    But I’m just rehashing a lot of what I said in my previous comment, and of course the level of sloppiness in my terminology is not a good example to follow either.

    “That thing Hume said about something like the more loose the terminology the more you can narrate yourself into supporting pretty much anything”

    Hi Coel,

    “no actual good reason why science cannot address any and all aspects of human behaviour”

    “Neuoscience is just one small part of science, and it’s obvious that a broad range of science is needed to address anything to do with complex ensembles such as chimps or human”

    I wonder what do you mean by a ‘broad range of science’ ? How much do you think you would have to cover to address any, and all aspects of, human behavior ?

    Liked by 3 people

  12. After reading these two posts I can’t help but feel that definitions are being used a bit differently than I would have expected. I would have thought that consciousness is by definition only what we are aware of; this means that a sentence like “we are conscious of more than we pay attention to” is by definition gibberish and not a new empirical insight.

    In other words, if I were to redefine ‘the oceans’ to ‘all the surface of the world’, then I could also give this amazing interview where I discuss all the new oceans that have just been discovered, like North America and Australia. Not sure that would be such a great new insight though. Similarly, I find it hard to consider it a great insight that we are ‘conscious’ of things that we didn’t think we were conscious of just because somebody juggles around definitions of the term conscious that virtually nobody would come up with you asked them before they had read this interview. Because that I am not conscious of everything my eyes see isn’t news at all.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Alex,

    Aren’t you confusing consciousness with memory? Given that eventually all that we are conscious of, gets erased, ultimately by death, it seems an extremely constrained definition of consciousness as what is most effectively “attended to,” ie. remembered. So there does seem to be a fuzzy line, between unremembered, but conscious perceptions and all that which affects us, but is not actively perceived.
    Draw the line too conservatively and it could be argued that none of us is conscious and the term has no meaning, just as drawing the line too broadly and arguing that everything is conscious, because it exists and the term becomes equally meaningless.
    So it does seem there is a central area worthy of discussion.
    The phenomena of consciousness is a worthy subject of analysis, by the function of consciousness.


  14. Aravis,
    Last post here and for a while. S.S. seems to be turning into the Coel Hellier show again, and I need a lengthy vacation

    I am most sad to read this. While I understand, agree and fully sympathise with your position, there can be no doubt that we will be much poorer with your going. Yours has been the pre-eminent voice of reason on this forum. I always looked forward to your comments because I know that they would guide me to the heart of the matter. Your insights, knowledge and wisdom will be sorely missed. Your students were fortunate to find such a superb teacher. How sad it is that we are losing those skills. I look forward to reading your novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Brodix I think “the penny finally dropped” for me regarding Alex SL’s comment above, when I read yours. Let’s get rid of any memory input worries by just considering the present. Consciousness should most effectively be defined as things that do indeed involve awareness — otherwise they’d be non-conscious. I do find his perspective useful.


  16. Hi dbholmes,

    Or rather what should count as criminal behavior? Using any scientific field, explain how we would best label behavior one way or the other.

    You are right that science cannot answer such “should” questions as stated, but that’s because they are ill-posed. You’re driving along and come to a T-junction, should you turn left or right? The questions is non-sensical; all “shoulds” are instrumental and such questions require the aim to be stated in order to be proper posed. If you state your aim, then science likely can tell you what you “should” do to attain it.

    That we can for instance wipe out a certain genetic disease by preventing people with such genes from reproducing, does not tell us if that is what we should do.


    I’m going to publish a post at my site in the near future on that. If interested, I’ll let you know when.

    Yes please!

    I am now confused (given that you allow us to include discussions of higher order phenomena at that level) if by scientific reductionism you mean …

    Short answer: Scientific reductionism is a matter of tying the high-level and low-level descriptions together. It is just as much about the high-level as the low-level, and both are equally important. I’m not aware of anywhere where reductionism doesn’t hold (where a high-level description is independent of the low-level description).

    Hi labnut

    Scientism has two essential beliefs: 1. Science can bridge the fact/value divide.

    Or, rather, scientism denies that there are objective values (no moral realism, no non-instrumental “shoulds”), and thus science need only describe values (which it can do). Science cannot prescribe values because that whole notion is non-sensical.

    … that science is the best form of knowing.

    Indeed, the only way of knowing! Or, rather, that knowlege is a seamless whole, and that all ways of knowing form a seamless whole called “science” or “scientia” — but the label doesn’t matter, the seamlessness claim about epistemology is what matters.

    Hi ejwinner,

    But we should demand more of science – precise objects of inquiry. What is the definition of such terms as ‘art’ and ‘poetry’ …

    It’s not the case that science always needs precise definitions. Science reflects the real world, and often the real world is messy and fuzzy, and when that is so science’s definitions should also be fuzzy. For example, the concept “species” is necessarily fuzzy edged (a species couldn’t evolve into another one if it wasn’t fuzzy). Another fuzzy-edged concept is that of a “planet”. I (for one) would not expect there to be a precise definition of the concepts “art” and “poetry”.

    Hi marclevesque,

    I wonder what do you mean by a ‘broad range of science’ ? How much do you think you would have to cover to address any, and all aspects of, human behavior ?

    Err, well, all of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology, archeology, history, everything really, as well as all the related disciplines applying to other animals!

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Brodix,

    No, I just think that “consciousness” or “to be conscious of” is the same as “to be aware of” or “to pay attention to”, because that is how those terms appear to be defined and commonly used. And that has nothing to do with memory, it is all in the present and about what is happening in the present (although of course one could also consciously access memories).


  18. I can’t resist one last response on the aesthetics discussion. I certainly don’t dispute the cultural aspects of art, and I use terms like “power” because that is what I experience looking at or listening to various cultural artifacts. And I am perfectly aware of and am fond of the insights of mathematical theories of aesthetics. I’ll just echo Robin and Coel in saying I think useful contributions are possible at low and high levels. Coming back to the OP via consciousness and aesthetics, which is kind of what started me on this sidetrack

    Click to access McDermott_2011_Auditory_Preference_chapter.pdf

    Although they often occur at moments where something unpredictable happens, the incidence of chills increases with exposure to a piece of music, at least for moderate amounts of exposure, as though learning the musical structure helps the listener recognize the critical chill-evoking deviations. These findings underscore the importance and paradoxical nature of expectation in our experience of music. Our aesthetic response seems to hinge on violations of the expectations induced by our knowledge of musical rules, yet repeated exposure enhances the response. It is as though the aesthetic response is driven by something that lacks direct access to our explicit memory (because the response to the expectation violation is enhanced even though consciously we know in advance what will happen), but that benefits from the enhanced structural representations attained from repeated exposure.


  19. Coel,

    While it isn’t directly contradictory, isn’t there a conflict between knowledge being reductionistic and knowledge being seamlessly whole, in that while we can always connect two states, levels, etc, we can’t do it as a whole. There is always that subjective framing we filter the observations and connections through.

    For instance, religion is also reductionistic and trying to connect various frames in a larger whole. It simply has a goal other than the ideal of objective knowledge, that to provide a broad and stable social frame, which becomes the lens through which all information has to be processed.

    If we go back to the dawn of civilization, when astronomy and astrology were the same practice, that of describing and explaining cosmic order, the roots of science and religion were the same. It is just that while science was willing to discard old explanations as new information and insights came along, religion went the other direction and filtered information through the original descriptions, changing them only very slowly and grudgingly.

    So the result is exactly what they seek; Now religion is viewed as having very deep sociological roots, while science is viewed as a modern and more shallow endeavor. One that goes whichever direction the wind blows.

    So the point should be how careful one treats the models. For instance, some see current cosmology as more interested in patching the model, than objectively considering whether the need for the various patches, such as inflation and dark energy, isn’t a filtering bias of a flawed model, which the sociology of the discipline is loath to examine critically.


    My point is that, as Coel used in a different context, fuzzy area. It might be quite minute, but those transition states are informative.

    Can we be sure those subconscious states are not simply distinct frames of consciousness, much as two people are distinct conscious frames? As I argued earlier, it goes to the nature of knowledge; that it is inherently subjective, focused and filtered, otherwise it’s more noise than signal. There is no objective perspective.

    Our visual process is constructed like a movie camera. That of a sequence of static perceptions, streaming to create the effect of action. Similarly to have separate conscious frames within the same mind would be a similar process of breaking information and perception into clear units, then process it back together. We don’t really have a complete understanding of awareness and it does seem to go fairly far down the biological ladder, so why couldn’t it manifest as sub-units within the same organism? Such that schizophrenia would be a situation where those other states are not sufficiently dampened down.

    The point being that it is a worth while area to consider and to dismiss it because it doesn’t fit our current preconceptions, or definitions, seems narrow minded.


  20. Coel,

    >In the same way there are fundamental limits on what a human can know or experience, but that’s not the same as any supposed divide between “science” and “humanities”, along with the claim that “humanities” is a “way of knowing” something that “science” cannot.<

    I would say the scope of science is limited by its concern with what is natural (non-cultural) and/or empirically generalizable. This might be elaborated upon by thinking of knowledge as having four quadrants:

    [1] The natural and empirically generalizable: e.g. physics, chemistry

    [2] The non-natural (cultural) but empirically generalizable: e.g. the social sciences

    [3] The natural but non-empirically generalizable: e.g. cosmology, anthropology, archeology

    [4] The non-natural and non-empirically generalizable: e.g. philosophy, history, artistic pursuits, spiritual pursuits

    The fourth quadrant above indicates the domain of knowledge in which science is not competent. Why isn't it competent in this domain? I would say both relevant limits arise from the observational nature of the method of science. Science is at home as long as observations can be made, whether generalizable or not, but in domains of knowledge that are not based on observation, it is lost.

    What is the nature of this non-observational domain of knowledge? In my view, this domain of knowledge is not a matter of recording or drawing generalizations from observations but, to put it crudely, of processing cultural content, i.e. of absorbing cultural content and making something new from it. Philosophers and artists, for instance, do not developed hypotheses based on observations but perform operations on absorbed culture.

    How are such operations performed on absorbed culture knowledge? Well, if knowledge is roughly just justified true belief, then beliefs with these properties formed within the realm of cultural content is knowledge. Such beliefs, to illustrate, might concern the nature of morality, the merits of a literary work, and the (intentional) causes of an historical event.

    To think science can lay claim to all worthwhile knowledge is not optimism about science but a misunderstanding of it. One cannot understand science without understanding its limits.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Too late (as usual) to engage — Coel has posted his quota of comments on this thread, I think — but I might as well post this anyway.

    And I see now that Paul Paolini has put something up on the topic I wanted to address. He goes further than I would want to, however, in critiquing Coel’s claims about science. The categories of his knowledge quadrant seem arbitrary to me. (I’m generally wary of this kind of prescriptive (Procrustean?) conceptualizing.)

    Coel rightly said that some concepts (species, planet, art, etc.) are necessarily fuzzy.

    What about knowing and knowledge? As a matter of fact (rather than ‘necessarily’) these words are used in different ways to mean very different things; specifically, they encompass not just discursive knowledge but also practical knowledge and the idea of ‘being acquainted with’. One doesn’t have to rely on archaic phrases like ‘carnal knowledge’ to make this point; or religious ideas for that matter. (Interestingly, common usage seems on the whole to be quite compatible with what we have learned about unconscious processing, etc..)

    So, simply in the light of how ‘know’ and its cognates are used, Coel’s claims about science being the only way of knowing need to be qualified or at least more carefully expressed.


  22. Ayup, and my point is that North America might just be a distinct frame of ocean. Something worth to consider, even if it doesn’t fit our current preconceptions? No, ‘dry land’ is just not how oceans are defined. If we want language to be useful, definitions have to count for something.


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