Heavy Petting

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: A pet theory is a lot like a pet cat, except that it never dies, always purrs, and craps all over your imagination instead of in the conceptual litter box.

The whole Dennett thing has me back in a philosophical frame of mind. For those of you interested only in my narrative (as opposed to my theoretical) fictions, I’m afraid this might be another eye-crosser.

I’ve been thinking how I never asked Dennett the question I wanted to ask him. Instead, I asked about the rise of ‘neuromarketing’ and how the problem of ‘creeping manipulation’ might compare to the problem of ‘creeping exculpation’ (where lawyers, educators, and the like use neuroscience to make ‘diminished capacity’ arguments to deflect responsibility) he talked about in his presentation. His answer, which was simply a kind of caveat emptor, was so bad that it spawned a couple of other questions far more critical and biting than my own.

What I wanted to ask him about was how he could say we simply ‘are’ our brains when we experience only a fraction of them. The follow up question I wanted to ask was how he thought this ‘fractional identity’ conditions conscious experience. This all ties into a pet theory of mine: that the apparent structure of conscious experience is more a product of what the brain lacks than what it possesses. That much of what we experience, in other words, possesses no NCC’s, neural correlates of consciousness.

The example I always come back to is the way the visual field is both finite and unbounded. The way sight simply trails away into a kind of absolute absence. This, I think, is an obvious structural feature of visual awareness that obviously possesses no NCC’s, no neural circuits that generate the experience of ‘trailing into absence.’ It simply comes with the structural territory. Those little swatches of brain tissue called retinas simply feed forward what they can: the absence of any further information is experientially expressed, in visual awareness, as the absent oblivion that rings our periphery.

Now what I think, vainglorious fool that I am, is that most of the more perplexing features of conscious experience can be ‘explained’ – or at least understood – via this analogy, in the way the various ‘information horizons’ of the various neural systems behind consciousness ‘encapsulate’ and so profoundly structure various experiences. Transparency, for instance, the way we see through our experience, so that we see trees and cars and so on rather than seeing trees and cars and so on causing us to see trees and cars, is an easy one. The information horizons of those regions responsible for conscious experience do not encompass anything more than the ‘products’ of perceptual processing – so the world comes to us as ‘given,’ rather than as a neural construct.

But it also offers possible ‘explanations’ of more difficult things, such as self-identity and the now. It’s always ‘now,’ no matter how much time passes, because our temporal awareness is encapsulated much the same way our visual awareness is. While our brains have no difficulty discriminating times within our ‘temporal field,’ the time of the field itself cannot be discriminated, and so seems to hang in timelessness. The neural circuits responsible for temporal discrimination fall outside of temporal discrimination. Sure, we have a variety of subsystems (such as those involved in memory and narrative) that allow us to stitch our momentary ‘specious presents’ into a greater timeframe, personal histories and whatnot, the same way we have a variety of subsystems that allow us to cobble our momentary visual fields into visual world. But the primary experience of timelessness, the abiding identity of the now, always characterizes the experience in the first instance. The same way we can’t see ‘seeing,’ we literally can’t time ‘timing,’ and so find ourselves hanging in a kind of timeless oblivion while the world rushes about us (within us). The present is literally an artifact of an inability, one grounded in structural and evolutionary constraints placed on our brain.

So many explanatory possibilities fall out of this ‘Encapsulation Theory’ that I don’t know where to begin. For instance, I think it actually offers an explanation of perspective: what it is, why we have it, as well as why things become so bewildering as soon as it attempts to ‘gain perspective’ on itself. Believe it or not, I actually think I’ve stumbled across a possible, quasi-naturalistic explanation of paradox.

The primary problem with this pet theory of mine, however, is simply that so many other amateurs have pet theories of their own, it’s pretty much impossible to get any experts (who all happen to be pursuing their pet theories) to relinquish the time and effort required to grasp its Gestalt, the global sense-making that makes it so compelling to me.

That said, as much as I think it satisfies the theoretical virtues of simplicity, fecundity, and explanatory scope, I still refuse to believe the thing. It’s consequences are nothing short of catastrophic. It really does render us nothing more than absurd fictions.