by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Beware those who prize absurdity over drama: they are the enlightened dead.

The Enlightened Dead, just so you know, is the title of the next Disciple novel.

I like to thank those who chimed in with their support, though I can’t help but feel you are the vocal exception to the silent rule. As it stands, I’ve come to realize these uber-philosophical posts will be buried in due course anyway as the blog continues to grow. It’s the balance that’s important, I think. With this in mind, allow me one final elaboration of the previous entries. 

So when we normally think about time we tend to think in terms like this:

t1 > t2 > t3 > t4 >t5

which is to say, in terms of a linear succession of times. This happens, then that and that and that and so on. What we tend to forget is the moment that frames this succession in simultaneity – the Now, which might be depicted as:

T0 (t1 > t2 > t3 > t4 >t5)

I call this an instant of declusion, where you make the implicit perspectival frame of one moment explicit within the implicit perspectival frame of another, subsequent moment. (Linguistically, the work of declusion is performed by propositional attitudes, which suggest that it plays an important role in truth – but more on this below).

Given that the Now characterizes the structure of lived time, we can say (with Heidegger) that our first notation, as unassuming as it seems, does real representational violence to the passage of time as we actually experience it. (This is a nifty way of conceptualizing the metaphysics of presence, for you philosophy wonks out there.)

The lived structure of time, I would hazard, looks something more like this:

T0 (t5 (t4 (t3 (t2(t1)))))

where the stacking of parentheses represents the movement of declusion. In this notation, the latest moment, t5, decludes t4, which decludes t3, which decludes t2, which decludes t1. Looked at this way, lived time becomes a kind of meta-inclusionary tunnel, with each successive frame figured within the frame following. (Of course, the ‘laws of temporal perspective’ are far muddier than this analogy suggests: a kind of myopic tunnel would be better, where previous moments blur into mnemonic mush rather than receding in an ordered fashion toward any temporal vanishing point).

T0, of course, is ‘superindexical,’ a reference to this very moment now, to the frameless frame that you somehow are. It’s a kind of ‘token declusion,’ a reference to the frame of referring – or what I sometimes call the ‘occluded frame.’ I would argue that you actually find versions of this structure throughout philosophy, only conceptualized in drastically different ways. You can use it as a conceptual heuristic to understand things as apparently disparate as Derrida’s differance, Nietzsche’s Will to Power, Heidegger’s Being, and Kant’s transcendence. Finding an ‘adequate’ conceptualization (rationally regimented declusion) of the occluded frame is the philosophical holy grail, at least in the continental tradition.

Just for example: if you emphasize the moment to moment nonidentity of the occluded frame, the fact that T0 is in fact t5, then declusion becomes exclusion, and every act of framing becomes an exercise in violence. No matter how hard we try to draw the world within our frame, we find ourselves deflected, deferred. Deconstruction is one of the implicatures that arise here.

If, however, you emphasize the identity of the occluded frame, the fact that T0 is the very condition of t5, declusion becomes inclusion, and we seem to become ‘transparent,’ a window onto the world as it appears, the very ‘clearing of Being’ as that fat old Nazi, Heidegger might say.

It would help, I think, to unpack the above notation a little.

T0 (t1)

T0 (t2(t1))

T0 (t3 (t2(t1)))

T0 (t4 (t3 (t2(t1))))

T0 (t5 (t4 (t3 (t2(t1)))))

This, I think, nicely represents the paradox of the Now, the way it frames difference in identity, an identity founded upon absence. (Consider Aristotle:”it is not easy to see whether the moment which appears to divide the past and the future always remains one and the same or is always distinct”) If we had perfect recall, this is the way our lives would unfold, each moment engulfing the moment previous without loss. But we don’t, so the orderly linear bracketing of moment within moment dissolves into soup.

(This also shows the difficulties time poses for language, which bundles things into discrete little packages. Thus the linguistic gymnastics you find in a thinker like Heidegger. This is why I think you need narrative to press home the stakes of this account – which is one of the reasons why I wrote Light, Time, and Gravity.)

So what could explain this structure? Is it the result of devoted T0 circuits within the brain? Temporal identity circuits?

Or is it, like the occluded boundary of our visual field, a positive structural feature arising from a brute neurophysiological incapacity?

T0, I’m suggesting, is a necessary result of the thalamocortical system’s temporal information horizon, an artifact of the structural and developmental limits placed on the brain’s ability to track itself. Since the frame of our temporal field cannot be immediately incorporated within our temporal field, we hang ‘motionless.’ Our brain is the occluded frame. The same way it has difficulty situating itself as itself in its environment (for the structural and developmental reasons I enumerated previously), it has difficulty tracking the time of its temporal tracking. In other words, reflexivity is the problem.

The severe constraints placed on neurophysiological reflexivity (or ‘information integration,’ as Tononi calls it) are the very things that leverage the illusion of reflexivity that is the foundation of lived experience. And this illusion, in turn, leverages so very much, a cornucopia of semantic phenomena, turning dedicated neural circuits that interact with their variable environments in reliable ways into ethereal, abiding things like concepts, numbers, generalizations, axioms, and so on. Since the brain lacks the resources to track its neural circuitry as neural circuitry it tracks them in different, cartoonish guises, ones shorn of history and happenstance. Encapsulation ensures that we confuse our two-dimensional kluges with all there is. So, for instance, our skin-deep experience of the connectionist morass of our brain’s mathematical processing becomes the sum of mathematics, an apparently timeless realm of apparently internal relations, the basis of who knows how many Platonic pipedreams.

We are the two-dimensional ghost of the three-dimensional engine that is our brain. A hopelessly distorted cross-section.

Of course none of this addresses the Hard Problem, the question of why the brain should give rise to consciousness at all, but it does suggest novel ways of tackling that problem. What we want from a potential explanation of consciousness is a way to integrate it into our understanding of other natural phenomena. But like my daughter and her car seat, it simply refuses to be buckled in.

Part of the Hard Problem, I’m suggesting, turns on our illusory self-identity, the way the thalamocortical system’s various information horizons continually ‘throw’ or ‘strand’ it beyond the circuit of what it can process. We continually find ourselves at the beginning of our lives for the same reason we think ‘we’ continually ‘author’ ourselves: because the neurophysiological antecedents of the thalamocortical system do not exist for it. Because it is an ‘encapsulated’ information economy, and so must scavenge pseudo-antecedents from within (so that thought seems to arise from thought, and so on).

We are our brains in such a way that we cannot recognize ourselves as our brains. Rather than a product of recursive information processing, perhaps consciousness simply is that processing, and only seems otherwise because of the way the limits of recursive processing baffle the systems involved.

In other words (and I would ask all the Buddhists out there to keep a wary eye on their confirmation bias here), there is no such thing as consciousness. The Hard Problem is not the problem of explaining how brains generate consciousness, but the dilemma of a brain wired to itself in thoroughly deceptive ways. We cannot explain what we are because we literally are not what we ‘are.’

As bizarre as this all sounds, it’s not only empirically possible, but (given that neural reflexivity is the basis of consciousness) it’s empirically probable. The extraordinary, even preposterous, assumption, it seems to me, would be that our brains would evolve anything more than an environmentally and reproductively ‘actionable’ self-understanding.

I get this tingling feeling sometimes when I ponder this, a sense of contorted comprehension reaching out and out… I have this sense of falling flush with the cosmos, a kind of filamentary affirmation. And at the same time I see myself as an illusion, a multiplicity pinched into unitary selfhood by inability and absence. A small, silvery bubble–a pocket of breathlessness–rising through an incomprehensible deep.

Like I say, I think there is an eerie elegance and parsimony to this account, one with far-reaching interpretative possibilities. Not only do I think it provides a way to tether traditional continental philosophical concerns to contemporary cognitive neuroscience, I think it provides an entirely novel conceptual frame of reference for, well… pretty much everything.

For example: Why do propositional attitudes wreck compositionality? Because language evolved around the fact of our thalamocortical systems and their information horizons. Think of the ‘view from nowhere’: Is it a coincidence that truth is implicated in time and space? Is it a coincidence that the more we situate a claim within a ‘context,’ the more contingent that claim’s truth-value intuitively seems? Could it be that language, in the course of its evolution, simply commandeered the illusion of consciousness as timeless and placeless to accommodate truth-value? This would explain why its ‘truth function’ breaks down whenever language ‘frames frames,’ which is to say, makes claims regarding the intentional states of others. Since your ‘linguistic truth system’ turns on the occlusion of your frame, linguistically embedding the frame of another would have the apparent result of cutting the truth-function of language in two, something that seems difficult to comprehend, given that truth is grounded in nowhere… How could there be two nowheres?

Another example: Why do paradoxes escape logical resolution? All paradoxes seem to involve mathematical or linguistic self-reference in some form. Could these breakdowns occur because there is no such thing as self-reference at the neural level, only the illusion that arises as a structural consequence of our blinkered brains? So what we might have are two cognitive systems–one largely unconscious, the other largely conscious–coming to loggerheads over the latter’s inability to relinquish what the former simply cannot compute.

And the list goes on.

T-Zero… and counting.