Saturday, December 29, 2018

in 'defense' of IIT / resolution for 2019

i have to admit, in terms of blogging, 2018 has been an unfashionably slack year. instead of blaming it on laziness, let me confess: the real reason is i feel i have to remove myself from the situation for a bit.

this blog started as a collection of random musings as i'm (figuring out how to start) writing my book. but so far the one post that has attracted the most attention is probably my critique on the state of play regarding a theory of consciousness, IIT, based on a debate i had in Japan.

reading that post again, it should be clear that my complaints aren't mostly about theory per se, but rather about how the theory is promoted and claimed to be tested.

all the same, over this year in particular, i have sort of gotten a reputation for being a fierce critic of the theory. some of this characterization may well be all strategical play: if there's an impression that i have "an axe to grind" (to borrow a phrase from a reviewer) against the theory, perhaps my criticisms are just that.

but it is in recent conversation with people close to me that i realize i really have to clarify (thanks V~). it's not good to be completely misunderstood.

what i'm against is not so much the idea of IIT itself.  to my mind, IIT clearly doesn't have the same status as major theories like Baar's/Dehaene's global workspace theory, or Lamme/Block's local recurrency / first-order view. these views are rigorously tested, honestly debated in depth, with meaningful arguments back-and-forth. if you disagree with that you just don't know what you're talking about.

but in a sense, IIT is also no worse than most theories of consciousness, as they are usually speculative, based mostly on subjective intuitions rather than empirical evidence. as a speculative idea, one can say that it is almost kind of cute.

what i am against are things like:
- trying to falsely promote an idea as "dominant", "leading", majorly influential, when actually peers in the field are generally not much impressed by it, to the point that they mock it openly at professional meetings as well as in print
- pretending that the empirical evidence supports a theory when the theory isn't even really testable
- saying things that are just clearly false by textbook standard (one can do so but one would at least have to say why and how such standard knowledge is challenged)
- when evidence is against oneself, trying to write off an entire discipline such as psychophysics, or common understanding in neuropsychology, as irrelevant
- when criticized, instead of replying to try to win over the critics, just 'shout louder' to drown out their voices (figuratively speaking).
- trying to 'win' personally via behind-the-door politics and populous methods, neglecting what really matters for the field in the long run (openness and truth)

in other words, i'm against doing things in an anti-science fashion. one would have thought one can agree on such simple matters. but really, i'm not so sure anymore. increasingly it becomes clear that i have to clarify, and perhaps even argue for these basic principles.

in this sense, i'm not against all proponents / versions of IIT. for example in this video i had a nice exchange with Masafumi Oizumi, the first-author of IIT 3.0. while i disagree with him about the physics-centric approach (and several other things), i don't think he's entirely unreasonable. i myself learned much from the exchange.

so it is important to clarify what i'm really against, who are the targets and who aren't.

but the reason i have hesitated to say more until now is that.... frankly, i have gotten rather upset. i believe in the principle that when one is upset, one shouldn't engage in an argument. academic arguments should be done calmly.

but i confess i've failed. consciousness is something i've been thinking about through my entire adulthood. philosophers and scientists based in Europe sometimes don't get this: for US-based scientists the choice of topic itself is a career liability. we do it because we really, really care.

and yet i can't help but feel that the field is on the verge of going to the dogs, if we are not careful about how we are behaving as a scientific discipline. how do i not get upset by the current sorry state of affairs?

so in the past few months i've clammed up a little. it probably hasn't helped because the negative emotions do seep through now and then, mostly in personal correspondence, chats at bars. and these may get misinterpreted, overblown etc.

but months have passed. i can say, i can look at this calmly again now. through this 'silent' period, reading up on history has helped a lot, in putting things in perspective. i also am grateful for advice from senior colleagues. some told me to 'go for it', some told me it is better to focus on my own work than to attack others; i've taken it all into considerations. a crazy, out there, blockchain-related project probably also helped a bit as a distraction. :-)

now i can say it's all good. people disagree on what's best. they may not look at it the same way i do. anybody can be blindsided by things now and then, myself included. but i think i can point out what i see as fundamentally wrong, after some serious reflection, without taking things personally. i think i can do it now, and i should. these things need to be said.

so, i guess i'll blog again about all these in 2019.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Tucson article / Bourdain / Weiskrantz memorial

it's been a rather emotional couple of days. it was Larry Weiskrantz's memorial. and then my favorite living author Anthony Bourdain died. strangely these have been helpful in putting things into perspective, for something i've struggled with for a while.

people often think of Bourdain as a TV celebrity. i enjoyed watching those shows too. but Kitchen Confidential was something else. in a better world that would have been how i like my book on consciousness to read like. but too bad i'm not as good a writer, nor do i think the world is quite ready to accept a scientist to write in that kind of tone exactly.

but i have to say that sense of mourning paled in comparison when i watched Larry's memorial online ( unlike my relationship with Bourdain, i knew Larry in person. in the last post i also hinted at some interesting kind of academic lineage. but above all, Larry's work defined my adult life. one could sum up all my work on consciousness to date as nothing more than some footnotes to help people understand what blindsight really means. i only got to have work to do at all thanks to people who continue to miss the point entirely (e.g. this; search for the word "judiciously").

it is in this sentimental context that i respond to this piece on the Tucson conference, which just came out. on a different day maybe i would have been more bothered by how lunatic some of my soundbites appeared, when they are somewhat taken out of context. but i guess these are just the nature of soundbites.

i did write to Dave Chalmers to clarify and had a nice exchange of a few emails. thanks Dave for ever having a heart so big to not take offense.

i may write more to clarify later. but for now... whatever is really all i can come up with. i'm sorry. just as Bourdain was important but not nearly as important as Weiskrantz, whatever happens to the Tucson conference is just not that important to me anymore. if you are bothered or intrigued by the article and wanted to talk more, i can only recommend two things.

first is to go to the other conference which is actually run by a professional society. without doing that one really should not be judging the field, making funding decisions for or about it etc.

second is to watch the stream from Larry's memorial (, and ponder in that context what they mean when people say the modern study of consciousness was revived / reorganized in the 1990s.

to those who know the history - as a field we have made a Faustian pact of sort, and borrowed something we don't deserve via sheer black magic. we should be aware that we will probably have to repay that debt one day. sometimes debts are better settled sooner rather than later, for the interests may well rake up.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

i remember Larry Weiskrantz

it's been a long time since i last posted. it's been some funny few months, more than just busy. i'll explain in another post.

today i have to finish a piece that is almost overdue.


when i tell people i went to Oxford for graduate school, and i study consciousness, people often ask if i have worked with Larry Weiskrantz. short answer is: no, not really. he only taught me how to tickle myself.

there is a longer version of the story, but i'm sorry that it is no less corny.

when i was a graduate student in Dick Passingham's lab, it was clear from the beginning that i had no idea what i was doing. with inexplicable kindness, Dick trained me from scratch; i literally didn't even know where the central sulcus was.

my general scientific ignorance, together with being a foreign student, mean that often i found it easier to sit by my office and read, rather than to socialize at work. Larry would call in now and then, check on how i was doing. in the beginning he would just crack some random jokes, perhaps to cheer me up as i probably looked miserable and overworked. i wasn't expecting the retired former head of department to be quite so friendly. at one point he realized my real interest was to study consciousness, he seemed ever the more amused. consciousness? with Dick? and a philosophical bent! really!?! oh how wonderful!

we would bump into each other in the corridor, at talks, at conferences, but most often he would call in - sometimes looking for another colleague who worked in the same office - and casually take a peek at what i've been reading. from there we would often talk a little, especially if i were (caught) reading something 'conceptual'. sometimes these 'tutorials' were short, in the form of a pun  - sometimes at the expense of the relevant author - followed by a jolly smile. but sometimes they could be more elaborate, with interesting historical references too.

once i was reading a paper by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Daniel Wolpert, and Chris Frith, an fMRI study on why we can't tickle ourselves. with some pride Larry told me he had done a similar behavioral study decades earlier, and one of the authors was my advisor Dick's wife, Claire! what a small world!

i told him i'd read the paper and come back to chat with him more about it. but he said unfortunately he had to have back surgery and may not see me for a while. before goodbye, he said: maybe next time i see you i can tickle myself~

i did see Larry in a few weeks, and the surgery went ok. i was glad to be able to hear more stories.

but he never told me that in this small world, Dick was also once a postdoc in his lab. had he done so, maybe i would not have been so completely puzzled when Dick told me i could study whatever topic i wanted, when i stayed on to do a postdoc with him after my PhD. i asked Dick: really? i can study visual awareness in your lab even though you told me many times you have little interest in perception? but why?

i have never gotten an answer to that, just as Larry never told me why he had a young postdoc working on action and the prefrontal cortex in his lab, funded by a grant on visual awareness.

they say there are two kinds of scientists: the creative and the careful. Larry was certainly well known for being enormously imaginative, but i think it would be wrong to think he didn't value careful experimentation just as much. you can tell by how he chose his colleagues and collaborators. just as he was quick to crack irreverent jokes, i vividly remembered how stern he looked, with disapproval, when i once described someone else's decade-old study with the details mixed up. from Larry, i've learned that you can be funny and serious at the same time. to do good science, you have to be.

another time we were discussing with another professor how long it may take for one to read a doctoral thesis, and Larry said he would spend at least one day just to check all the references. i don't think that was a joke.

the power of puns and jokes is, they can stay on even if people don't fully get what they mean. i think Larry understood that. what does blindsight really mean? everyone says they know what is it, but do they truly get how deep the implications are? i guess it is our jobs to see to it they do. Larry had done enough for us.

every now and then, as i read papers i thought of how serious Larry was about getting things exactly right, especially regarding knowing the literature. i would recall his stern look of disapproval and feel we all still have a lot of shaping up to do. but as though he would also remind us: don't forget to tickle yourself now and then to see what happens too!

thank you Larry, those puns meant a lot to an awkward graduate student, once trying too hard to impress