Mark Solms headshot

“Ought flows from sentience” – neuropsychologist & “Hidden Spring” author Mark Solms – Sentientism Episode:112

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Mark is a psychoanalyst & neuropsychologist, best known for his discovery of the brain mechanisms of dreaming & his use of psychoanalytic methods in contemporary neuroscience. He holds the Chair of Neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital and is the President of the South African Psychoanalytical Association. He has published more than 250 articles and book chapters, and 6 books. His latest book, on the hard problem of consciousness, is The Hidden Spring.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here everywhere else.

We discuss:
00:00 Welcome

01:29 Mark’s Intro

  • The brain as the organ of the mind
  • Breaking from behaviourism
  • Studying psychoanalysis (first person) alongside neuroscience (studying from the outside)
  • The value of interdisciplinary studies of consciousness
  • Artificial intelligence perspectives

06:08 What’s Real?

  • Sunday school, Christian mother
  • At 5-6 yrs old, father said “Your mum believes in all that stuff, I don’t.”
  • Brother’s horrific accident & brain damage: “He came back from the hospital… a changed person.” “Who is this guy and where is Lee?”
  • “I was forced at an early age to confront this question of the relationship mind & body… the person & the organism”
  • “My sentient being must somehow be bound up with the functions of this bodily organ”
  • “I think we underestimate little kids… they really do think about these things”
  • “Clearly he is his brain”
  • Finding it terrifying… intimations of our own mortality
  • Lying in bed in panic: “I am going to cease to exist”
  • Depression: “what’s the point?”
  • Becoming atheist, now agnostic. Appreciating the limits of human comprehension (through working with patients)
  • “We’re only able to comprehend as much as the instrument we use… is capable of… it’s not a perfect instrument”
  • Taking a comfort in ignorance & the limits of our capability
  • “Do the best we can to understand” but “science has limits”
  • Un-testable/falsifiable beliefs. Delusions as a response to frightening uncertainties

26:50 What Matters?

  • Starting out with cultural defaults, but “that’s not what drives me now”
  • “The fundamental basis of my ethical & moral compass now… is derived neither from religion or philosophy, but rather from neuroscience”
  • Discovering the brain mechanisms of dreaming in the brain-stem
  • Jaak Panksepp: “Deep, evolutionarily ancient (200m yrs) circuits sourced in the brain stem which give rise to our (all mammals & some with all invertebrates) basic emotions”
  • “This must surely be the foundation of all of our values” “They pre-date by a very long shot any philosophy, any religion… it’s nothing to do with culture and education”
  • “Pain is bad – everyone knows that just because it is”
  • Basic circuits of fear, disgust, pain, rage, lust, separation distress “it’s bad to separate a baby from its caregiver”
  • Nurturing & compassion instincts
  • Dealing with conflicting values. “That’s where learning & education & enculturation kick in”
  • We evolved to live in very different environments, so now we need laws, governance etc.
  • “The idea that if you don’t hold to a religious worldview then you have no basis for being ethical… that’s nonsense”
  • The innate need to play… negotiation, social navigation, reciprocity
  • Emotion, affects, experiences, sentience, consciousness “deeply confluent terms”
  • “The reticular activated system is where the light switch is”
  • Damaging 2 cubic mm of the Parabrachial Complex will cause a coma: “the most concentrated consciousness generating tissue that we know”
  • “In its most elementary form, consciousness is valence… the whole point of consciousness is for the creature to know how it’s doing… I feel this is going well/badly so I can make voluntary choices (vs. reflexive).”
  • “The term consciousness is synonymous with feeling”, representation is then secondary
  • “It was a big mistake… to focus on the uniquely human forms of consciousness as our model”
  • Sentience as the morallly salient aspect of consciousness & also it’s foundation
  • Without the feeling, the rest collapses
  • “I still have many an argument with highly respected animal neuroscientists (e.g. Joseph LeDoux) who have great difficulty in accepting [animal sentience]”
  • Supernatural & naturalistic anthropocentrism
  • Zoomorphising humans
  • The problem of other minds & solipsism
  • The absurdity of relying on reportability
  • “At the very least… we have to assume that sentience… exists in all vertebrates… therefore is about 600m years old”
  • Cephalopods (e.g. octopuses)
  • Sentience “enables you to deal with unpredictable situations”
  • To make choices, above the level of reflex, “is a massive adaptive advantage”
  • “It would be wonderful if panpsychism was an accurate description of the place of consciousness in the universe” because “on your death, all your little particles are still going to be conscious in some form”
  • Could other parts of our brain/body be conscious without “us” being aware?
  • Homeostasis, nervous systems, brain systems that underpin our sentience and seem to underpin the sentience of others
  • “I have difficulty believing that any other system that doesn’t have this basic mechanism [homeostatic] – what evidential basis is there for thinking that it too is conscious?”
  • “There’s absolutely no scientific reason to believe” that “because this is conscious everything else might be too”
  • “Bacteria – I don’t believe they’re conscious because they don’t behave in any way that suggests they’re conscious… Their behaviour is 1000% predictable… they always do exactly the same thing in the same circumstances… and those are alive… you then go to rocks!”
  • Grey areas re: sentience
  • “It should be possible to artificially engineer such a thing [sentience]”
  • David Chalmers’ paper on the Hard Problem: If our brain’s information processing is conscious, maybe all information processing is a little bit conscious
  • Claude Shannon’s Information Theory: “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. Information requires a sender and a receiver. Probability, uncertainty as central concepts in information “The more unpredictable the thing is, the more information you need to describe it”
  • “Information isn’t something that just exists in itself – it intrinsically has to do with what you want to know about”
  • “Where do question askers come from?” which brings us back to homeostasis, of a system which has some goal
  • Daniel Dennett “The computer has to give a damn”
  • Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT) focuses only on the degree of integration of the information. “One bit of information carries no jot of consciousness – nor does lots and lots of information just by itself”
  • “It’s a matter of the configuration of the system that is asking the questions – that’s where sentience comes from – the giving a damn”
  • [Panpsychism] “Is very much like the idea of god” “In the beginning there was…” billions of years before even life emerged
  • Does panpsychism come from anthropocentric arrogance (our consciousness must be fundamental) or humility (we’re not special because everything is conscious)?

1:16:18 Who Matters?

  • Sentiocentric moral consideration & veganism
  • Hume’s is-ought: “I think you can derive an ought from an is” “Once you know what is in terms of these basic affective values… there’s an ought that flows from that”
  • “It’s bad to cause needless suffering in others”
  • “What do you mean by bad… if you don’t mean it causes suffering? It’s all got to do with feelings”
  • “Who we have to have compassion for… is anything that can suffer”
  • “Surely the basic value must be we must minimise needless suffering”
  • “I have no compunction whatsoever about including all vertebrates in that net… my own opinion is that insects do feel… and that cephalopods do feel… bacteria don’t… I also don’t believe that plants do”
  • “Why would you want to make a sentient robot – is that not a new form of slavery?”

1:21:28 How Can We Make a Better World?

  • In Sunday School: “Love thy neighbour as thyself”
  • “If you recognise that there are other sentient beings… you know what your feelings mean to you… you have to recognise that they have the same self-interest you do”…“It’s sort of like Kant’s categorical imperative”
  • Leaving apartheid South Africa and returning after the dawn of democracy to take over the family farm, established in 1619 at the beginning of the colonialisation of SA
  • “Ethically the only right thing to do if you inherit stolen goods is to give them back” but “it wasn’t me who took the land”… mortgaging the land to buy a farm next door so the farm workers could own land and form a partnership
  • “There are limits to our goodness – there’s a great deal of self-interest built into these phenotypic endowments”
  • “We have built into us some pretty nasty predilections too”
  • “There are lots of shits in the world”
  • Our multiplicity of values
  • “Love thy neighbour as thyself”… “but don’t idealise who yourself is”
  • Going to the same school as Elon Musk

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at Sentientism.info.

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Thanks Graham for the post-production.

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