Consciousness at Scholarpedia, and a Dialogue on HOT Theories

This is a bit of a rant, in the tradition of the angry bloggers of yore….

Consciousness at Scholarpedia
Scholarpedia, which for neuroscience topics is generally excellent, has an entire section of entries on consciousness (indexed here).

It is an interesting mix of entries. Many are superlative. For instance, the entries on blindsight and binocular rivalry are excellent, both written by top experts in the field. A great resource for the curious grad student.

Then there are topics that belong there, but should be relegated to a subsection of a more inclusive document. For instance, one article describes technical details about a particular methodology in psychophysics (post-decision wagering). Admittedly interesting for those doing experiments on consciousness, but quite narrow in scope. It would fit more appropriately in a more general article on psychophysical methods in the study of consciousness.

There are some topics that are of questionable general interest. For instance,the entry on ‘contextual emergence’ describes a little-known idiosyncratic framework for describing how different levels of organization relate to one another. Why is it in there?

Finally,there is all too much philosophy in the group. There are articles on the Chinese Room, Hard Problem, the Symbol Grounding problem. Also included is a strange didactic dangler, an article by physicist John Taylor on ‘new approaches in the mind-body problem’ which is really just a review of old approaches from philosophers (such as dualism).This could at least have been written by a philosopher (if such an entry is necessary at all).

All of the philosophy could be taken care of in one or (at most) two entries. Consciousness is a science problem now, no need to give so much attention to the perambulations of the armchair pilots.

One thing I’m surprised by is that there is no article on quantum approaches to consciousness: it seems it would fit in fine in this idiosyncratic cornucopia of entries. It is at least as well-known to most people as ‘contextual emergence,’ and more relevant than the Chinese Room . If the reason is that the editor doesn’t think the quantum approaches are credible (I would agree),that’s fine: have Koch and Tegmark team up to write it! [edit: or better yet, John Taylor and Tegmark.]

Overall,consciousness at Scholarpedia is a strange island. While there are many excellent entries written by gurus in their specialties, there are a good number that are too narrow, idiosyncratic, or 1990s philosophy with at best a tangential relation to the problem of consciousness.

A lost dialogue on HOT theories of consciousness
Finally, I have to comment on the article on ‘higher order’ theories of consciousness by Rosenthal. It has always bugged me the way he introduces the transitivity principle as a “common sense” or intuitive characterization of consciousness. Just to remind you of this principle:

Higher-order theories all embrace the idea that a mental state is conscious when the subject is appropriately conscious of that state.

That quote reminds me of a dialogue I recently overheard between a disciple of Rosenthal and an normal average guy on the street….

Q: I am quite puzzled by what it means to be conscious of a sunset.

A: Let me explain. To be conscious of a sunset, that just means that you are conscious of the sunset.

Q: Right. And what does that mean, to be conscious of a sunset?

A: Obviously you have a representation of a sunset in your brain. To be conscious of a sunset is to be conscious of that representation of the sunset.

Q: Are you seriously telling me that you think you have given a good analysis of ‘conscious of a sunset’ when you replace it with ‘conscious of a representation of a sunset’?

A: Yes, of course. It’s just the good-old fashioned transitivity principle embraced by Fodor’s grandma and anyone else that isn’t a moron.

Q: It seems you have simply imported the word ‘conscious’ into the brain and have replaced my question about being conscious of a sunset with a new question, just as puzzling, about being conscious of a representation of a sunset. I am now more confused than when I began!

A: You are stubborn, that’s for sure. I appreciate it. It is a great benefit for me to express things to the layperson who does not understand these everyday folk truths of consciousness.

Let me explain it so your insectile brain can understand: if you are conscious of a representation of a sunset, that’s what it is to be conscious of the sunset. That’s all there is to it!

Q: Your patience is much appreciated. Could you please spell out what does it mean exactly to be conscious of a representation of X?

Aren’t you precious with all your questions?

As I said, to be conscious of X is to be conscious of a representation of X. Therefore, if X=’a representation of X’ ,  we plug in that value of X, we see that to be conscious of a representation of X is merely to be conscious of a representation of a representation of X.

You see, my simple salt-of-the-earth friend, by applying such folk-theoretic recursive cycles to representations (recalling this is merely the intuitive and obvious transitivity principle after all), you get your hoped-for folksy characterization of consciousness.

Q: OK, so you are claiming that when I say I am conscious of a sunset, that is really to say that I am conscious of a representation of a representation of (and so on) a representation of a sunset.

A: Exactly! Now you get it! You now understand what it means to be conscious of something.

Q: Bloody wanker.

End of dialogue.


  1. gualtiero


    Your dialogue is hilarious! Especially for someone like me who shares your take on higher order theoriese of consciouness.

    As to your misgivings about Scholarpedia’s articles on consciousness, I sympathize. The good thing about collective enterprises like Scholarpedia is that you are invited to help and make it better. A good place to start is this:
    Of course the contributions you propose may or may not be approved by the powers that be, but if you make a persuasive case, I would expect them to listen to you.

  2. Eric Thomson

    Gualtiero: I’m glad you like the dialogue. It was fun to write.

    If it were merely Wikipedia, I’d feel like I had more to contribute. The way Scholarpedia is organized, it’s pretty much gone down one route in its developmental canal and there would have to be a major disruptive developmental event for it to change what it has stabilized.

    On the other hand, I think they haven’t excluded anything of major importance. At a site like that, it is might be better to err on the side of inclusion. While I complained that there should have been more
    selectivity in the number and type of topics (especially philosophy), the articles that do belong there are very well-done.

    Even the articles that I don’t think belong there, they’ve done a great job (notwithstanding John Taylor’s article on ‘new approaches’ to the philosophy of mind, for which I can’t figure out the rationale). For instance, who better for the Chinese Room than Searle? Who better for the symbol grounding problem than Harnad?

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