Ptolemaic Consciousness

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Fictions. I’m fine with that. Really, our only point of difference is our estimation of the threat. Since conscious experience accesses no information about its neurofunctional role, it always seems the only game in town. Our experience of something as robust as logical reasoning could find itself anywhere in the neural digestive tract and it would still feel like the mouth, like it comes first. This could be our version of the Ptolemaic perspectival trap. Consciousness has so little access to the ways its conditioned, it has to seem like the centre of a universe. The False Unconditioned. (In reply to tickli, 2012/06/13)


The comment boards have been eerily quiet of late, but the number of views has remained consistently strong, given the absence of any real posting. I wanted to leave Light, Time, and Gravity up for a while to solicit as much feedback as I could, but so far only a few hardy souls have weighed in with their opinions. My inclination is to think this is a bad sign, that far and away most of those reading the book think it sucks. If so, sound off! Otherwise, I urge people to link the book far and wide, especially on literary forums or blogs or what have you.

I need quorums! I especially need to know what kinds of defenses target readers will be inclined to resort to. I want LTG to be thoroughly weaponized, to be labyrinthine with traps. I want this to be an example of a new kind of literature, one that is self-consciously viral, that treats itself as a machine bent on parasitically compromising other machines…

And a lot of you guys are fucking scary smart. You should be nailing my balls to the wall!

So I wanted to follow my exhortation with a question: I know that hundreds, at least, have read the draft, so why the silence? Is it merely the prospect of touching my balls?

Otherwise, I wanted to get back to business as usual on TPB: more wank and self-loathing.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the specifics of the trends I keep talking about in cognitive psychological and neuroscientific research. One of the advantages of pondering all these things as an amateur, I think, is the freedom from the various institutional demands placed on professionals it affords. I can write on and read about any damned thing I please. This means that I can maintain a certain wary distance, and so hopefully avoid the myopia that belongs to devoting oneself to knowledge of one thing down to the very bottom. The problem, of course, is that I’m bound to sound like a superficial amateur to anyone with professional expertise—as I should!

Because a superficial amateur is precisely what I am.

But, I’ve been having some success with my social and psychological guesses of late. So perhaps the time has come to hazard one more.

A while back I posted on what I thought was one of the most significant things to fall out of my peculiar take on consciousness: sufficiency. The idea is that consciousness is generally not privy to information pertaining to the limits of the information it receives, so that it almost always seems entirely ‘full’—sufficient—as a result. This is why, for example, ignorance is so crucial to certainty, and why belief-systems bent on orthodoxy and solidarity are so intent on policing that ignorance—why religions are so partial to having their own schools. The information consciousness does receive regarding these limits, I suggested, come in the form of ‘flags.’

The problem is that these flags almost never pertain to the experience itself: we rarely experience the insufficiency of experience.

The trend I want to talk about is one that I’ve yet to encounter in the literature, but which is plainly visible throughout the discussions we’ve been having here, if you know what to look for. So regarding volition or the ‘feeling of willing,’ famed psychologist Daniel Wegner claims that far from initiating action (his troubling research shows quite clearly that it’s something we attach to actions after the fact), conscious will is the somatic marker of personal authorship, an emotion that authenticates the action’s owner as the self” (The Illusion of Conscious Will, 327). Our gut brain initiates an action which our conscious brain subsequently perceives as something it authored. Since it possesses no information regarding its post hoc nature, it takes itself to be sufficient, and the action to be something it ‘authored’ beforehand, even when, as Wegner’s experiments show, it was not responsible for the action at all.

Regarding moral reasoning, we have Jonathan Haidt and his analogy of the elephant and the rider:

the rider acts as spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons for justifying whatever it is the elephant wants to do next. Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm. (The Righteous Mind, 46)

Once again we are told that something we thought sufficient and originary, our capacity for moral reason, is in fact post hoc and secondary. Our judgments come first and our rationalizations come after. This accords quite well with Dan Sperber’s Argumentative Theory of Reason, which takes the growing mountain of research regarding human ‘dysrationalia’ as evidence that human reasoning has more to do with post hoc social signalling than with anything properly epistemic. You don’t so much have reasons to believe as you have beliefs to rationalize for public consumption.

Then you have Michael Gazzaniga’s research on split-brain patients, which demonstrated the propensity of the left brain to confabulate explanatory narratives for actions engendered by the right:

Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs. In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patient’s brain, he got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.” (The Ethical Brain)

The frightening upshot of this (and other research) is that all of our behavioural justifications are (possibly) post hoc, that we merely confabulate our ‘motives’ after the fact, using the same information available to outside observers along with the (confabulated) pretence of control.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, you have a growing body of evidence that raises wholesale questions about the sufficiency of experience, at least as it appears to attentional awareness. As Eric Schwitzgebel, following a whirlwind tour of the disastrous experimental track record of subjective reports of experience, writes:

Descartes thought, or is often portrayed thinking, that we know our own experience first and most directly and then infer from it to the external world. If that is right—if our judgments about the outside world, to be trustworthy, must be grounded in sound judgments about our experiences—then our epistemic situation is dire indeed. However, I see no reason to accept any such introspective foundationalism. Indeed, I suspect that the opposite is nearer the truth: Our judgements about the world tend to drive our judgments about our experiences. Properly so, since the former are the more secure. (Perplexities of Consciousness, 137)

Again, we find the selfsame lesson: that consciousness as it appears to attentional awareness lacks anything approaching the information required to make ‘sound judgments.’ Chronic, wholesale insufficiency. In all the above examples, what makes the findings so peculiar is the discovery that the conscious brain, lacking any real access to the gut brain, looks outside to generate interpretations and justifications regarding itself. And why not, when it has spent millions of years second-guessing its fellow brains? Why not use this history of adaptation, not to mention exteroceptive sensory systems hundreds of millions of years in the making, to come to grips with itself?

Look outside. Guess what’s within. Believe with absolute certainty.

So my guess amounts to this: that consciousness is perhaps best thought of as a kind of social interface—a neural version of a Facebook page—something the brain primarily evolved in response to the ever-increasing social complication of its environment. It is a jury-rigged add-on, bent on transmitting only the information needed to successfully reproduce and raise children to reproductive age. Since all the brains in a neural collective are equally blind to themselves, none of them has any way of ‘fact-checking,’ so the social consequences of interoceptive deceptions are nil. In fact, given the astronomical complexity of the brain, accurate self-tracking would be prohibitively expensive, both metabolically and otherwise. So our brains, quite simply, began telling each other lies, linguistically hacking one another to secure what they needed, individually and collectively. The informatic and evolutionary inevitability of sufficiency did the rest, stranding us with a hallucinatory soul.

What we call experience could very well be a by-product of this game of giving and asking for lies. Human consciousness is Ptolemaic consciousness, trapped by its parochial perspective into thinking it stands at the origin of all motion, that it is the centre of the intentional universe, for the simple want of information its evolution could not afford.