Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: August, 2012

Why Philosophy? And Why Has the Soul Become its Stronghold?

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Why me? is as honest a question as it is useless, given that no one deserves anything, least of all what they get.


It really is amazing how prone we are to overlook the obvious, especially when our knowledge of a field is genuinely deep. The question, Why philosophy? should rank with the most profound, most discussed questions within philosophy, but it isn’t. If you make a living being stymied, surely you would want to ask why you are stymied!

And yet, it’s scarcely considered, let alone mentioned. The answer, I’m sure most philosophers would tell you, is too obvious to be worth considering. Why philosophy? Because we don’t know. And since so much of philosophy is given over to the question of knowledge, they would argue that a great deal of philosophy is concerned with its own import and status. The problem is we just don’t know what the hell ‘knowing’ is.

The question, Why philosophy? in other words, follows the question, What is knowledge? Questions must be answered in the proper order to be answered at all.

Sounds sensible. But what if they got it backward? What if the question, Why philosophy? is actually prior to the question of, What is knowledge?

If you look at the history of philosophy you find a rather remarkable process of what might be called ‘reaching and yielding.’ Over the centuries, philosophy has retreated from countless of questions and problematics, namely, those incorporated within the natural sciences. Why have they retreated? Because the questions asked eventually found empirical resolution. Knowledge came to the rescue…

See? the philosopher can say. I told you so.

But what if we scaled back our answer? What if we said something more simple, but perhaps equally mysterious? What if we said the questions asked found empirical resolution because information came to the rescue? The idea here would be that philosophy is the kind of inquiry that humans turn to in impoverished informatic conditions, when they have enough information to formulate the question, but not enough to decisively arbitrate between its potential answers. This would be why philosophy is something that generally moves in advance of the sciences. When we initially encounter a problem, we necessarily have limited informatic resources to work with, and so, like children disputing shapes in clouds, have no way of distinguishing the patterns we think we see from the patterns that actually exist.

Nature, in this cartoon, is a kind of bottomless, multi-stable image. Scientific measurement and experimentation are the ways we isolate signals from the noise of immediate nature and so accumulate information. Scientific instrumentation is the way we access information from beyond the sensory horizon of immediate nature. Scientific institutional practices are the way we isolate signals from the noise generated by human cognitive shortcomings. Mathematics is the way we code and so manipulate this information. And philosophy, ideally, is the way we provide the information required to get these processes of scientific information gathering off the ground.

Questions, an old slogan of mine goes, are how we make ignorance visible. Questions, in other words, are how we make information regarding the absence of information available. Before questions, informatic sufficiency is the assumptive default: when you don’t know that you don’t know, you assume that you know all you need to know. The ancient Sumerians never worried about near earth objects or coronal mass ejections or so on for the same reason we don’t worry about any of the myriad things our descendants will fret about: they simply lacked information regarding their lack of information.

Why philosophy? Because we lack information. We are finite systems, after all, and you might expect that any intelligent alien species, as finite, would also have their own science and philosophy, their own histories of reaching and yielding. But what makes ‘information’ a better candidate for answering our marquee question than ‘knowledge’?

For one, it seems to enable a more nuanced account of the relation between philosophy and science. To ask, Why philosophy? is to also ask, Why not philosophy? which is to say, Why science and not philosophy? The account provided above, I would argue, reveals the conceptually unwieldy, cumbersome nature of ‘knowledge.’ Knowledge is an end product, the result of information gathering. As such, it’s explanatory utility is limited–extremely so. For example, you could say that philosophy is a form of human inquiry that turns on found information, what we simply have at hand when we raise a question–‘armchair information,’ you might say.

Does ‘armchair knowledge’ make any sense? Of course not. We call it ‘armchair speculation’ for a reason. Information, in other words, allows us to span the gap between mere speculation and knowledge with a term that admits comparative gradations. Answers posed in conditions of informatic insufficiency we call speculation. Answers posed in conditions of informatic sufficiency we call knowledge.

For another, information need not be semantic. Information, unlike meaning, can be quantified, and so expressed in the language of mathematics, and so amenable to empirical experimentation. We can, in other words, possess theoretical knowledge regarding information. Moreover, it reduces the risk of question-begging, given that meaning is perhaps the ‘great question’ within philosophy. If it turns out that meaning is the problem, the reason why we can only speculate–only philosophize–knowledge, then using knowledge to explain why we must resort to philosophy simply dooms us to speculation regarding speculation.

And lastly, information provides an entirely new way to characterize the history of philosophy, one that seems to shed no little light on the theoretical problems that presently bedevil a great number of philosophers. With information, we can characterize the retreat of philosophy and the advance of science in terms of complexity: the more complex the natural phenomena, the more information scientific knowledge requires. Thus, science has only now breached the outer walls of the human brain, the most complex thing we know of in the universe. Thus the preponderance of philosophy when it comes to matters of the soul.

In a certain sense, this narrative is obvious: Of course the complexity of the brain forced science to bide its time, refining and extending its repertoire of procedures and instrumentation, not to mention its knowledge base, before making serious inroads. Of course the soul became the stronghold of philosophy in the meantime, the one place it could reach and reach without worry of yielding. But what is surprising–even downright counterintuitive–about this tale is the fact that we are our brains. Of all the noise that nature has to offer, surely the signal most easily plucked, the information that hangs lowest, comes from ourselves!

And yet, arguably, nowhere are we more philosophical.

If philosophy is our response to informatic poverty, our inability to gather enough of the information required to decisively arbitrate between our claims, then philosophy itself becomes an important bearer of information. It is an informatic weather-vane. In this case, philosophy tells us that, despite all the information we think we have at our disposal via intuition or introspection, we actually represent a profound informatic blindspot.

Somehow, for some reason, the information we need to theoretically know ourselves is simply not available. Since the default assumption is that we are awash in information regarding ourselves, then something very peculiar must be going on. Essentially we find ourselves in the same straits vis a vis ourselves as our ancestors found themselves in relative to their environments prior to the institutionalization of science. We have plenty of information to theorize–and theorize we do–but not enough information, at least of the right kind, to resolve our theoretical disputes. In other words, we have only philosophy and its vexing consolations.

Thus the crucial importance of the question, Why philosophy? The fact that we endlessly philosophize intentional phenomena tells us that we quite literally lack the information required to gain theoretical knowledge of intentional or semantic phenomena. It’s important to note that we are talking about theoretical as opposed to practical knowledge here. When philosophers like Daniel Dennett, for instance, argue the predictive power and utility of intentionality, they seem to assume that intentionality as theorized possesses predictive power, when in point of fact, they are discussing predictive capacities that humans possessed long before the ancient Greeks and the birth of philosophy. The fact is, Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ is a theoretical posit, a philosophically controversial way to theorize what it is we are doing when we predict what other systems will do. The fact is, we don’t know what it is we are doing when we predict what other systems will do. We just do it.

In other words, you have to assume the truth of Dennett’s theoretical account, before you can assert the predictive power of intentionality. But, as we have seen, we obviously lack the information required to do this–even though most assume otherwise. The question, Why philosophy? reveals that the information available to intuition and introspection is far more impoverished or distorted than it appears. If it were adequate, then first-person reflection would be sufficient for a first-person science, as certain psychologists and phenomenologists thought around the turn of the 20th century.

Why philosophy? in other words, allows us to side-step the default-assumption of sufficiency that plagues us when we lack (or fail to take into account) information regarding the absence or inadequacy of information. It reminds us that we are at sea with reference to ourselves.

And most importantly, it provides us with another series of questions to ask, questions that I think have the potential to revolutionize consciousness research and the philosophy of mind. We quite obviously lack the information we need, so the question becomes, Why?

Why do intuition and introspection provide only enough information for philosophy? Is evolution a culprit, or in other words, what kind of developmental constraints might be at work? Is neural architecture a factor, which is to say, what kind of structural constraints are involved? Given what neuroscience has discovered thus far, what kind of informatic constraints should we expect to suffer? Could ‘reflection,’ the act of bringing conscious activity (phenomenal or cognitive) into attentional awareness for the purposes of conscious deliberation, constitute a kind ‘informatic bottleneck,’ one that systematically depletes and/or distorts the information apparently available? Could intentionality be chimerical, a kind of theoretical hallucination? What brain systems cognize this information? Is there a relationship between the kinds of cognitive mistakes we make in the absence of information in environmental cognition and our various claims regarding conscious experience? How might informatic shortfalls find themselves expressed in conscious experience?

This is the perspective taken and these are the questions asked by the Blind Brain Theory. If the information that neuroscience is patiently accumulating eventually bears out its claims, then the stronghold of the soul will have finally fallen, and philosophers will become one more people without a nation, exiles in their armchairs.

The One-Eyed King: Consciousness, Reification, and the Naturalization of Heidegger

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day I: Consciousness is something hooked across the top of your nose, like glasses, only as thick as the cosmos.

Aphorism of the Day II: Give me an arm long enough, and I will reach across the universe and punch myself in the back of the head. Not because I deserve it, but because I can take it.


“Can ontology be grounded ontologically,” Heidegger writes at the end of Being and Time, “or does it also need for this an ontic foundation, and which being must take over the function of this foundation?” (397) I have long ago lost faith in our ability to ontologically ground ontology. Why? Because the evidence for human Theoretical Incompetence has become nothing short of mountainous. As a result I have come to think that ‘ontology’ does require an ‘ontic foundation,’ namely, empirical knowledge of the brain.

The brain is the being that is being.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger is one of the seminal figures of early Twentieth Century philosophy. His thought, either directly or in germ, informs a great many of the problems and themes that define as much as preoccupy so-called Continental philosophy, Existentialism being perhaps the most famous among them. He remains one of the most innovative and revolutionary figures in the history of Western thought.

There’s an ancient tradition among philosophers, one as venal as it is venerable, of attributing universal discursive  significance to some specific conceptual default assumption. So in contemporary Continental philosophy, for instance, the new ‘It Concept’ is something called ‘correlation,’ the assumption that the limits posed by our particular capacities and contexts prevent knowledge of the in-itself, (or as I like to call it, spooky knowledge-at-a-distance). Waving away the skeptical challenges posed by Hume and Wittgenstein with their magic wand, they transport the reader back to the happy days when philosophers could still reason their way to ultimate reality, and call it ‘giving the object its due’–which is to say, humility.

Heidegger’s It Concept was being, existence itself. Here’s one of the passages from his magnum opus, Being and Time,that I found so powerfully persuasive in my philosophical youth:

“The question of being thus aims at an a priori condition of the possibility not only of the sciences which investigate beings of such and such a type–and are thereby already involved in an understanding of being; but it aims also at the condition of the possibility of the ontologies which precede the ontic sciences and found them. All ontology, no matter how rich and tightly knit a system of categories it has at its disposal, remains fundamentally blind and perverts its innermost intent if it has not previously clarified the meaning of being sufficiently and grasped its this clarification as its fundamental task.” (9, Stambaugh translation)

Science, like all other discourses, is fraught with numerous assumptions that drive the kinds of conclusions it provides. Explanation requires an enormous amount of implicit agreement to get off the ground, a fact that the theoretical disarray of consciousness research illustrates in lurid detail. If no one agrees on the entity to be explained, as is the case with consciousness, then all explanations of that entity will be stillborn. What Heidegger is saying here is simple: the things or entities or beings that the sciences explain all presume some prior notion of being. An object of science, after all, is quite different than an object of envy or an object of literature, even when those objects all bear the same name. Heidegger is making a kind conceptual path dependency argument here: If our implicit presumptions regarding being are fundamentally skewed, then all our subsequent thought will simply magnify those distortions. Thus the importance of his investigation into the meaning of being–his attempt at ‘clarification.’

The problem, Heidegger thought, one riddling all philosophy back to Aristotle, lay in a single fundamental equivocation: the inclination to think being in terms of beings, and the faulty application of what might be called ‘thing logic’ to things that are not things at all and so require a different logic or inferential scheme altogether. The problem, in other words, was the universal tendency to ‘level’ what he called the Ontological Difference, the crucial distinction between being proper and beings, between what was prior and ontological, and what was derivative and ontic. Any philosophy guilty of this equivocation he labelled the Metaphysics of Presence.

What I want to do is clarify his clarification with some obscurities of my own, speculative possibilities that, if borne out by cognitive neuroscience, will have the effect of naturalizing the Ontological Difference, explaining what it is that Heidegger was pursuing in, believe it or not, empirical terms. Heidegger, of course, would argue that this must be yet another example of putting the ontic cart in front of the ontological horse, but I’ve long since lost faith in the ability of rank speculation to ‘ground’ anything, let alone the sum of scientific knowledge. I would much rather risk crossing my ontological wires and use the derivative to explain the fundamental than risk crossing my epistemic wires and use the dubious to ‘ground’ the reliable.

When reading Heidegger it’s always important to keep in mind the implicit authority gradient that informs all his writing. He believes that ontic discourses, for all their power, are profoundly artificial. The objects or beings of science, he argues, are abstracted from the prior course of lived life. Science takes beings otherwise bound up in the implicit totality of life and interrogates them in isolation from their original contexts, transforms them into abstract moments of abstract mechanisms. Rainfall becomes the result of condensation and precipitation, as opposed to a child’s scrubbed little-league game or a farmer’s life-giving dispensation. Rainfall, as an object of scientific inquiry, is something present, an abstract part waiting to be plugged into an abstract machine. Rainfall, as an element of lived life, is something knitted into the holistic totality of our daily projects and concerns. For many readers of Heidegger this constitutes his signature contribution to philosophy, the way he overturns the traditional relationship between lived existence and abstract essence. For Heidegger the human condition always trumps human nature.

The problem with taking on the tradition, however, is that the traditional conceptual vocabulary is typically the only one you got, and certainly the only one you share with your interlocutors. Thus the notorious difficulty of Being and Time: given the problematic as he defined it, Heidegger thought he had no choice but to innovate an entirely new conceptuality to slip out from under the traditional philosophical thumb, one that avoids thinking being in terms belonging to beings, and so grasps the prior logic of lived life. Heidegger thought the problem was radical, that the Metaphysics of Presence was so pervasive as to be well-nigh inescapable, enough to motivate greater and greater degrees of poetic obscurity in his later work.

Why is it so hard to think being outside the rubric of beings? Arguably it’s simply a consequence of making things explicit in reflection: in our nonreflective engagement with the world, the concepts we employ and objects we interact with are all implicit, which is to say, we have little or no awareness of their possibilities apart from whatever project we happen to be engaged in. As soon as we pause and reflect on those possibilities, we take what was implicit, which is to say, what framed our engagements, and make it explicit, which is to say, something that we frame in reflective thought. The most egregious example of this, Heidegger thought, was the subject-object dichotomy. If you look at our relation to objects in the world in the third-person, then the subject-object relation becomes an external one, the relation between two things. Something like,

S – O

There’s the subject, and there’s the object, and the relation between the two is accidental to either. But if you look at our relation to objects in the world in the first-person, then the subject-object relation becomes an internal one, the relation between figure and field. Something like,

[       O       ]

where the brackets represent the perspective of the subject. In this case, even though they purport to model the same thing, the logic of these two perspectives is incredibly different, as different, you might say, as between programming a strategy game and a first-person shooter. Given this analogy you could say that Heidegger took programming philosophy’s first true first-person shooter as his positive project in Being and Time, and critiquing the history of strategy game programming as his critical project.

The problem with this second model, however, is that simply adding the brackets has the effect of transforming the subject into another being, albeit one that is internally related to the objects it encounters. So even if adopting a first-person perspective is arguably ‘better,’ you are still, in some sense, guilty of levelling the ontological difference, and so disfiguring the very thing you are trying to disclose. The best way to model the first person would be to simply exclude the brackets,


to leave the subject (in this case, you reading this-very-moment) as an ‘occluded frame.’ The problem here, aside from rendering the subject occult, is that the object remains something abstracted from the course of lived life, and so another impoverished being. As with the Spanish Inquisition, it would seem there is no escaping the Metaphysics of Presence. Philosophy makes explicit, and making explicit covers over the relationality belonging to lived life.

So in a sense, what Heidegger was trying to do was find a way of making explicit something that is no thing at all, something essentially implicit. He was literally trying to speak around language, which is presumably why the world lost him around the corner of his later career.

So what could any of this have to do with consciousness and cognitive neuroscience?

Heidegger, as it turns out, has proven to be immensely influential in consciousness studies. ‘Heideggerians’ like Hubert Dreyfus, or even ‘Heideggerish’ thinkers like Andy Clark or Alva Noe, generally argue that consciousness cannot be explained as anything ‘inner,’ as something confined to the brain, but rather must be understood (if we are to risk using the concept at all) as embodied in a world of engagements and concerns. As I alluded above, Heidegger resorts to conceptual neologisms in a bid to escape the Metaphysics of Presence. As a result, ‘consciousness’ is a term scarce mentioned in Being and Time, and only then almost exclusively to fend against the tendency to interpret Dasein using “a mode of being of beings unlike Dasein,” and so reduce it to the ontic “thingliness of consciousness” (108). The exception to this is found in the final pages of Being and Time, where Heidegger, after innumerable strident declarations, suddenly cautions against dogmatic appraisals of his preliminary interpretation of the problematic of being thus far.

“We have long known that ancient ontology deals with ‘reified concepts’ and that the danger exists of ‘reifying consciousness.’ But what does reifying mean? Where does it arise from? Why is being ‘initially’ ‘conceived’ in terms of what is objectively present, and not in terms of things at hand that do, after all, lie still nearer to us? Why does this reification come to dominate again and again? How is the being of ‘consciousness’ positively structured so that reification remains inappropriate to it? Is the ‘distinction’ between ‘consciousness’ and ‘thing’ sufficient at all for a primordial unfolding of the ontological problematic?” (397)

Despite all the disagreement, there is a broad consensus in consciousness research circles that consciousness involves the integration of information from nonconscious sources: we become ‘conscious of’ things when the requisite information becomes available for integration in the conscious subsystems of the brain. Consciousness, in other words, possesses numerous informatic thresholds pertaining to any number of neural processes.

Among other things, the Blind Brain Theory (BBT) proposes that these informatic thresholds play a decisive role in the apparent structure of consciousness experience. All you need do is attend to the limits of your visual field, to the way vision simply peters out into visual oblivion, in order to apprehend a visual expression of an information horizon. Since visual information enables sight, the limits of visual information cannot themselves be seen. The conscious cognition of the absence of information always requires more information: I call this the Principle of Informatic Adumbration (PIA), and as we shall see, it is absolutely crucial to understanding consciousness.

PIA essentially means that the conscious subsystems of the brain necessarily suffer a kind of ‘natural anosognosia.’ Anosognosia refers to neurological deficits that patient’s simply cannot recognize. With Anton-Babinksi Syndrome, for instance, patients are blind as well as blind to their blindness–they literally insist they can still see. These patients, for whatever reason, cannot access or process the information required to cognize the fact of their blindness. The anosognosias found in clinical contexts literally leap out at us because of the way they rattle our intuitive sense of our own cognitive capacities. The kinds of natural anosognosias suggested by BBT, on the other hand, are both universal and congenital. A blindness that cannot be seen is a blindness that does not exist.

To say that the conscious subsystems of the brain can only process the information available for processing seems trivial, which is probably why no one in the consciousness research community has bothered to ponder its functional consequences, or how these effects might find themselves expressed in consciousness experience, not to mention how they might impact our attempts to naturalistically understand consciousness. I’ve explored these consequences at length elsewhere. Here I will consider only those pertinent to Heidegger. My claim, which will no doubt strike many as preposterous, is that the logic that structures the early Heidegger’s distinctive phenomenology follows directly from the experiential consequences of PIA…

That his ontology actually possesses an ontic explanation.

The consequence of PIA most germane to understanding Heidegger is what might be called ‘asymptosis.’ Consider the margins of your visual attention once again, the way vision just ends. The limits of your visual field ‘transcend’ your visual field, as they must, given the unavailability of visual information. The boundaries of your visual field are asymptotic, what I have elsewhere called ‘Limits with One Side’ (LWOS). The edge of viewing cannot come into view without ceasing to be the edge.

PIA essentially means that conscious experience must be swaddled in varieties of asymptosis, horizons that we cannot perceive as horizons simply because the conscious subsystems of our brain necessarily lack any information regarding them. I say ‘necessarily’ because providing information pertaining to those horizons simply generates new, inaccessible horizons. The actual operational limits of conscious experience, in other words, cannot enter conscious experience without, 1) ceasing to be operational limits, and 2) establishing new operational limits.

In a sense, the conscious subsystems of the brain are continually ‘outrunning themselves.’ Conscious experience, as a result, is fundamentally asymptotic, which is to say, blind to its own informatic limits. We actually witnessed a phenomenal expression of this above, in our first-person consideration of the subject-object relation as,

[      O      ]

where the brackets, once again, represent the subject. Even though this formulation transforms the external relationality of thing and thing into the internal relationality of figure and field, the problem, from the Heideggerian perspective, lies in the way it still renders the subject a discrete being. This is essentially Heidegger’s critique of his equally famous mentor Edmund Husserl, who, despite adopting the figure-field relationality of the first-person perspective, confused the informatic poverty of his abstractions, the violence of bracketing or epoche, for essences. In Being and Time, anyway, Heidegger thought that answering the question of the meaning of being required the interpretation of actual, concrete, living being, not abstractions.

But again, as the final pages of Being and Time reveal, he wasn’t entirely clear why this should be. Now consider the consequence of PIA noted above: The actual operational limits of conscious experience cannot enter conscious experience without, 1) ceasing to be operational limits, and 2) establishing new operational limits. Given PIA, there’s a sense that every time we try to make conscious experience explicit conscious experience has already moved on. If the occlusion of the operational limits of conscious experience is essential to what conscious experience is, then all reflection on conscious experience involves some kind of essential loss, or ‘covering over’ as Heidegger might say.

Conscious experience is fundamentally asymptotic, finite yet queerly unbounded. Reflection on conscious experience renders it symptotic, as something bounded and informatically embedded. In fact, it has to do this. The conscious brain is not reflexive, only recursive. To cognize itself, it has to utilize the very machinery to be cognized, thus rendering itself unavailable for cognition. In a sense, all it can access are discrete snapshots, informatic residue taken up by cognitive systems primarily adapted to external natural and social environments and the beings that inhabit them.

The Blind Brain Theory actually possesses the resources to reinterpret a number of the early Heidegger’s central insights, thrownness and ecstatic temporality among them. The focus here, however, is the Ontological Difference, and the kind of hermeneutic logic Heidegger developed in an attempt to mind the distinction between being and beings, and so avoid the theoretical sin of reification.

So to return to Heidegger’s own questions:

1) What does reifying mean? Reifying refers to a kind of systematic informatic distortion engendered by reflection on conscious experience.

2) Where does it arise from? Reification is a consequence of the Principle of Informatic Adumbration, the fact that the conscious cognition of the absence of information always requires more information. Because of PIA, conscious experience is asymptotic, something not informatically embedded within conscious experience. Reflection, or the act of bringing conscious experience into attentional awareness for deliberative cognition, cannot but informatically embed, and therefore ‘reify,’ conscious experience.

3) Why is being ‘initially’ ‘conceived’ in terms of what is objectively present, and not in terms of things at hand that do, after all, lie still nearer to us? Because conceptualizing being requires reflection, and reflection necessitates symptosis.

4) Why does this reification come to dominate again and again? Because of PIA, once again. Absent any information regarding the informatic distortion pertaining to all reflection on conscious experience, symptosis must remain invisible, and that reflection must seem sufficient.

5) How is the being of ‘consciousness’ positively structured so that reification remains inappropriate to it? Short of actually empirically determining the ‘being of consciousness’–which is to say, solving the Hard Problem–this question is impossible to answer. From the standpoint of BBT, the consciousness that Heidegger refers to here, that he interprets under the rubric of Dasein, is a form of Error Consciousness, albeit one sensitive to PIA and the asymptotic structure that follows. Reification is ‘inappropriate’ the degree to which it plays into the illusion of symptotic sufficiency.

6) Is the ‘distinction’ between ‘consciousness’ and ‘thing’ sufficient at all for a primordial unfolding of the ontological problematic? Heidegger, of course, would come to believe the answer to this was no, realizing the way drawing being into attentional awareness for the purposes of deliberative cognition necessarily concealed its apparent asymptotic structure. From the standpoint of BBT, the Ontological Difference is an important clue as to the kinds of profound and systematic distortions that afflict our attempts to cognize consciousness.

Heidegger’s hope in Being and Time was that the development of  an ‘asymptotic logic’ would enable him to approach the question of the meaning of being without succumbing to the Metaphysics of Presence, the equivocation of being and beings. Throughout Being and Time you find statements of the form, ‘As x, Dasein is…’ where x is something that philosophers typically regard as either ontologically distinct (time, world) or metonymically subordinate (care, anxiety, resoluteness) to the subject as traditionally conceived. With the former categories, the norm is to see the subject as something contained within time and world. Even in traditional (as opposed to Hegelian) idealism, the transcendental subject remains symptotic, a being, albeit one that creates time and world to empirically dwell within. With the latter categories, the norm is to see the subject as the container, as something containing the capacity for care and anxiety and so on. These things are parts of the subject, and nothing more.

By embracing asymptosis, Heidegger discovered a radically new inferential schema, one that allows the subject to become those containing and contained things. Lacking boundaries, these containing and contained things could no longer contain or be contained, and the tidy hierarchies of the tradition dissolved into the existential vicissitudes of Dasein. Regarding the ‘containers,’ Heidegger performs a kind of ontological equivocation, so that Dasein, unlike the traditional subject, becomes time, becomes the world. Regarding the ‘contained,’ he performs a kind of metonymic inflation, so that Dasein, unlike the traditional subject, becomes care, becomes anxiety. You could say that ontological equivocation (As temporalization, Dasein is…) and metonymic inflation (As care, Dasein is…) are the pillars of his interpretative method, what makes his philosophical implicature so radical. In one fell swoop, it seemed, Heidegger had sidestepped centuries of philosophical dilemma. By equivocating the world and Dasein, he was able to bypass the subject-object dichotomy, and thus make the epistemological dilemma look like a quaint, historical relic. The discrete, accidental relation between discrete subjects and objects became an encompassing, constitutive relation, one that Dasein is.

The fact that so many found this defection from traditional philosophy so convincing despite its radicality reflects the simple fact that it follows from asymptosis, the way the modes of prereflective conscious experience express PIA. Consciousness, as we experience it, is asymptotic, as it has to be given the Principle of Informatic Adumbration. The fact that the conscious subsystems of the brain cannot cognize inaccessible information is trivial. The corollary of this, our corresponding inability to cognize the limits of cognition, is where the profundities begin to pile up. Heidegger had stumbled upon a very real, very powerful intuition–but from the phenomenological side of the coin. Short of some inkling of the Blind Brain Theory, he had no way of knowing that he was working through a logic that expressed what are likely very real structural facts about our neurophysiology–that, far from grounding beings in being, he was describing the phenomenological consequence of a structural feature of the brain…

The being that is being.

Beware the Neuro-Inquisition!

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Any day that references TJ Hooker is a good day.


Charlie Rose is rebroadcasting its series on contemporary neuroscience, with Eric Kandel moderating discussions with a number of luminaries from the field. WGHB ran the episode on consciousness last night, which is available on the web here for those of you who missed it. Great fun, and one of the best introductions to the field that I can imagine. Stanislaw Dehaene is the man.

One of my pet peeves with the discussion, even back when it originally aired last year, is the continual use of the ‘tip of the iceberg’ metaphor for consciousness. I’m sympathetic to the idea that consciousness only accesses a fraction of the brains overall information load, certainly, but the metaphor perpetuates what might be called the ‘Pinnacle Conceit,’ the notion that all these non-conscious processes somehow culminate in consciousness. This is the problem I have with Freud’s ‘preconscious,’ or even Dennett’s ‘fame in the brain’ metaphor, the way these characterizations lend themselves to the idea that this… what you are experiencing now, is a kind of crowning achievement, rather than a loose collection of cogs in a far, far vaster machine.

The fact is, consciousness is more like a grave than a summit, something buried in the most complicated machinery known. It evolved to service the greater organism, not vice versa. The superiority of the ‘cog in the machine’ metaphor lies in the fact that the conscious brain is neurofunctionally embedded in the gut brain, something that accesses information from nonconscious neural processors and provides information to other nonconscious neural processors. This allows us to see what I call the ‘Positioning Problem’ in “The Last Magic Show“: the way the neurofunctional context of the information that enters conscious experience in no way exists for conscious experience (not even as an absence), stranding conscious cognition with fragmentary episodes it can only confuse for the whole story–what we call ‘life.’

Imagine an ‘orthogonal’ cable TV channel, one that continually leaps from channel to channel without you knowing, so that you see a continuous show made up of episodic fragments of other shows–say, William Shatner shooting a man who becomes a woman applying lipstick just as the Death Star explodes–without having any knowledge whatsoever of TJ Hooker or Cover Girl or Star Wars. Since this is the show you have always watched, it necessarily forms the very baseline for what counts as a ‘coherent narrative’–which is to say, something meaningful. Then the neuroscientific channel surfers come along and begin talking about narratives that run at right angles to your own, narratives that are far more coherent intellectually, but make utter hash of the ‘baseline narrative’ of your orthogonal viewing.

This illustrates the Positioning Problem in a nutshell. Given that the neurofunctional context of any conscious experience is utterly occluded from conscious experience, we have no way of knowing what role that conscious experience actually plays. For all we know, the channels could be crossed, and things like the ‘feeling of willing,’ for example, may actually follow our actions rather than triggering them. For all we know, the ‘feeling of certainty’ we enjoy may have nothing to do with our reasoning whatsoever, but rather be the result of some unhappy neural birth defect. For us, Bill Shatner shooting a man seems to necessarily cue a woman applying lipstick simply because the possibility of other channels, programs running at right angles to conscious experience, does not belong to our eclectic broadcast.

This is basically what I’m driving at in my brief ‘bestiary’ of possible consciousnesses, and why I’m so pessimistic about what neuroscience will make of the human soul. We presently find ourselves on the rack of knowledge, and we have no reason to think our Inquisitors will be kind. Sure, they seem warm and friendly enough, and even telegenic, as that episode of Charlie Rose reveals. But they are pursuing questions whose answers care nothing for our joints or their range of motion. Nature is their primary authority, and no Pope could be more indifferent to our needs and concerns. This particular Church of Rome, I fear, is about to tear us apart.

Don’t Forget Your Pillow…

by rsbakker

Because Curiosity has no passenger seats. Ruby and I checked this out this morning, and on a screen that’s more than big enough to make it way cool. I couldn’t think of a better way to teach your kid about planets: bring them there.

So I watched Limitless for the second time last night and was mightily impressed by the trippy ‘frame games’ it plays. It has a number of mise en abyme effects going on, mostly decorative, but very pretty nonetheless. It struck me, yet again, the way place can be plugged into place, the way the ‘view from Mars’ can be plugged into your den or office cube or what have you. Perspective is portable, which is what makes it so powerful. And this, if you think about it, has to be its signature structural feature, the way it is, as Heidegger would say, something continually thrown, constitutively blind to its functional origins, and so as easy to toss across the room as a postcard.

Poof! You’re on Mars. You’re not, but you are. What does it matter how long the lines of communication are?

This, once again, shows just how out-and-out antithetical the first-person view is to natural explanation: the very information that is the grist of scientific understanding has to be absent as a condition of its possibility. You have to be nowhere to be anywhere, as hidden as a photographer. Like someone suffering transportational narcolepsy, we simply pop from place to place, frame to frame, the ultimate informatic end-user, thinking we see all there is to see.

Morra has nothing on Kellhus.

Error Consciousness (Part One): The Smell of Experience

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Are you giving me a ‘just so’ story here? Saying that introspection, despite all the structural and developmental constraints it faces, gets exactly the information it needs to cognize consciousness as it is? Even without the growing mountain of contrary empirical data, this strikes me as implausible. Or are you giving me a ‘just enough’ story? Saying that introspection gets enough information it needs to cognize what consciousness is more or less. I have a not enough story, and an extreme one. I think we are all but blind, that introspection is nothing but a keyhole glimpse that only seems as wide as the sky because it lacks any information regarding the lock and door. I’m saying that we attribute subjectivity to ourselves as well as to others, not because we actually have subjectivity, but because it’s the best we can manage given the fragmentary information we got.


Perplexities of Consciousness is unlike any philosophical text on consciousness you are apt to read, probably because Eric Schwitzgebel is unlike any philosopher of mind you are apt to encounter. In addition to teaching philosophy at the UC Riverside, he’s both an avid SF fan and a long-time gamer. He also runs Splintered Minds, a blog devoted to issues in consciousness studies, cognitive psychology, and experimental ethics.

Did I mention he was also a skeptic?

Perplexities of Consciousness is pretty much unique in its stubborn refusal to provide any positive account of consciousness. Schwitzgebel’s goal, rather, is to turn an entire philosophical tradition on its head: the notion that our conscious experience is the one thing we simply can’t be wrong about. He advances what might be called an Introspective Incompetence Thesis, the claim that, contrary to appearances, introspection is anything but the model of cognitive reliability it so often seems:

“Why did the scientific study of the mind begin with the study of conscious experience? And why, despite that early start, have we made so little progress? The two questions can be answered together if we are victims of an epistemic illusion–if, though the stream of experience seems readily available, though it seems like low-hanging fruit for first science, in fact we are much better equipped to learn about the outside world.” (159)

What Schwitzgebel essentially shows is that when it comes to reports of inner experience, consistent consensus is really, really hard to find. Consider the dated assumption that we dream in black and white: Schwitzgebel shows–quite convincingly, I think–that this particular conceit (once held by specialists and nonspecialists alike) lasted only as long as the cultural predominance of black and white movies. As preposterous as it sounds, there’s a good chance that questions even as rudimentary as this lie beyond our ability to decisively answer.

In lieu of reviewing Perplexities in any traditional sense, I would like to propose a positive account of Schwitzgebel’s negative thesis, an explanation of why consciousness “seems readily available,” at least in its details, even as it remains, in many ways, anything but available. Understanding this pseudo-availability provides a genuinely novel way of understanding the cognitive difficulties consciousness poses more generally. And once we have these difficulties in view, we can finally get down to the business of circumventing them. The fact is I actually think Schwitzgebel is telling a much larger story than he realizes, one that would likely strain even his estimable powers of incredulity.

Perplexities is anything but grandiose. The banality of the examples Schwitzgebel uses–whether we dream in colour, what we sense (aurally or visually) with our eyes closed, how we intuit flatness, whether we generally feel our feet in our shoes–belies, I think, the care he invested in selecting them. These are all questions that most lay readers would think easy to answer, perhaps eminently so. This presumption of ‘ready availability’ has the rhetorical effect of dramatically accentuating his conclusions. You would think we would know whether we dream in colour, immediately and effortlessly.

It turns out we only think we know.

The problem is anything but a new one. Schwitzgebel spends quite some time discussing attempts by various 19th Century introspective psychologists to train their subjects, particularly that of Edward B. Titchener, who wrote a 1600 page laboratory manual on introspective experimentation. Perhaps inner experience does require trained observers to become scientifically tractable–perhaps its truth needs a trained eye to be discerned. Or perhaps, as seems far more likely, psychologists like Titchener, faced with a fundamentally recalcitrant set of phenomena, required consistency for the sake of institutional credibility.

Coming out of the Continental philosophical tradition and its general insistence on the priority of lived experience, I quite literally saw philosophy in small in this narrative. I have suffered, or enjoyed, a number of profound conversions over the course of my philosophical life– from Dennett to Heidegger to Derrida to Wittgenstein–and in each case I have been mightily impressed by how well each of these outlooks ‘captured’ this or that manifold of experience. In fact, it was the degree to which I had identified with each of these perspectives, the fact that I could be so convinced at each and every turn, that led me to my present skeptical naturalism. In each case I was being trained, not simply to think in a certain way, but to perceive. Heidegger, in particular, revolutionized the way I ‘lived life.’ For a span of years, I was a hard-drinking, head-banging Dasein, prone to get all ontological with the ladies.

In a very real sense, Schwitzgebel’s historical account of early introspective psychology offers a kind of microcosm of philosophical speculation on the soul, mind–or whatever term we happen to find fashionable. Short of some kind of training or indoctrination, everyone seems to see something different. Our ‘observations’ are not simply ‘theory-laden,’ in many cases they seem to be out-and-out theory driven–and the question of how to sort the introspection from the conceptualization seems all but impossible to answer. I’ll return to this point later. For the moment I simply want to offer it as more evidence of the problem that Schwitzgebel notes time and again:

Problem One (P1): Conscious experience seems to display a comparatively high degree of ‘observational plasticity.’

As the question of dreaming in colour dramatically illustrates, conscious experience, in some respects at least, has a tendency to ‘meet us halfway,’ to reliably fit our idiosyncratic preconceptions. Now you might object that this is simply the cost of doing theoretical business more generally, that even in the sciences theorization involves the gaming of ambiguities this way or that. Consider cosmology. Theories are foisted on existing data, and then sorted according to their adequacy to the new data that trickles in. The problem with theories of consciousness, however, is that so little–if anything at all–ever seems to get sorted.

What distinguishes science from philosophy is the way it first isolates, then integrates the information required to winnow down the number of available theories. Like any other scientific enterprise, this is precisely what early introspective psychology attempted to do: isolate the requisite information. Titchener’s training manual, you could say, is simply an attempt to retrieve pertinent experimental information from the noise that seemed to plague his results otherwise. And yet, here we are, more than a century afterward, stymied by the very questions he and others raised so long ago. Despite its 1600 pages, his manual simply did not work.

As Kreigal notes in his review of Perplexities (linked above), it could be the case that psychology simply gave up too soon. Maybe training and patience are required. Perhaps introspection, though far more informatically impoverished than vision, is more akin to olfaction, a low resolution modality demanding much, much more time to accumulate the information needed for reliable cognition. Perhaps introspective psychology needed to keep sniffing. Either way it serves to illustrate a second problem that regularly surfaces through Perplexities:

Problem Two (P2): Conscious experience seems to exhibit a comparatively high degree of ‘informatic closure.’

Introspection, you could say, confuses what is actually an ‘inner nose’ with an ‘inner eye,’ which is to say, an impoverished sensory modality with a rich one. ‘Intro-olfaction,’ as it should be called, does access information, only in a way that requires much more training and patience to see results. So even if conscious experience isn’t informatically closed in the long term, it remains so in the short term, particularly when it comes to the information required to successfully arbitrate incompatible claims.

Given these two problems, the dilemma becomes quite clear. A high degree of observational plasticity means a large number of ‘theories,’ naive or philosophical. If you have a theory of consciousness to sell (like I do), you quickly realize that the greatest obstacle you face is the fact that everybody and her uncle also has a theory to sell. A high degree of informatic closure, on the other hand, means that the information required to decisively arbitrate between these countless theories will be hard to come by.

You could say conscious experience is a kind of perspectival trap, one where our cognitive guesses become ‘perceptual realities’ that we quite simply cannot sniff our way around. This characterization has the effect of placing a premium on any information we can get our hands on. And this is precisely what Perplexities of Consciousness does: provide the reader with new historical and empirical facts regarding conscious experience. Though he adheres to the traditional semantic register, Schwitzgebel is furnishing information regarding the availability of information to conscious cognition. In fact, he probes the question of this availability from both sides, showing us how, as in the case of ‘human echolocation,’ we seem to possess more information than we think we do, and how, as in the case of recollecting dreams, we seem to have far less.

And this is what makes the book invaluable. Something smells fishy about our theoretical approaches to consciousness, and I think the primary virtue of Perplexities is the way it points our noses in the right direction: the question of what might be called introspective anosognosia. This, certainly, has to be the cornerstone of all the perplexities that Schwitzgebel considers: not the fact that our introspective reports are so woefully unreliable, but that we so reliably think otherwise. As he writes:

“Why, then, do people tend to be so confident in their introspective judgments, especially when queried in a casual and trusting way? Here is my guess: Because no one ever scolds us for getting it wrong about our experience and we never see decisive evidence of our error, we become cavalier. This lack of corrective feedback encourages a hypertrophy of confidence.” (130)

I don’t so much disagree with this diagnosis as I think it incomplete. One might ask, for instance, why we require ‘social scolding’ to ‘see decisive evidence of our error’? Why can’t we just see it on our own? The easy answer is that, short of different perspectives, the requisite information is simply not available to us. The answer, in other words, is that we have only a single perspective on our conscious experience.

The Invisibility of Ignorance–the cognitive phenomenon Daniel Kahneman (rather cumbersomely) calls What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is, or WYSIATI–is something I’ve spilled many pixels about over many years now. The idea, quite simply, is that because you don’t know what you don’t know, you tend to think you know all that you need to know:

“An essential design feature of the associative machine is that it represents only activated ideas. Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not exist. [Our automatic cognitive system] excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have.” (Thinking Fast and Slow, 85)

As Kahneman shows, this leads to myriad errors in reasoning, including our peculiar tendency to be more certain about our interpretations the less information we have available. But where the instances of WYSIATI studied by Kahneman involve variable information deficits, environmental ignorances or mnemonic failures that we can address by simply seeking out more information (typically by exploring our environments), the information deficits pertaining to conscious experience, as we have seen, are more or less fixed.

Our unwarranted confidence in our introspective judgments, in other words, turns on P2, informatic closure. When it comes to environmental cognition, there is always ‘more than what meets the eye’–as the truism goes. Take a step sideways, consult others standing elsewhere, turn to instrumentation: we literally have countless ways of extracting more information from our natural and social environments. When it comes to introspective cognition, on the other hand, there is only what meets the eye, and precious little else.

This offers a straightforward way to theorize the apparently dismal phenomenological portrait that Schwitzgebel sketches: When it comes to introspective cognition, there is only what meets the eye, and it is insufficient for cognition. Not only do we lack the information required to cognize conscious experience, we lack the information required to cognize this lack, and so are readily fooled into thinking we have cognized conscious experience. We are the victims of a kind of natural introspective anosognosia.

This, for me, constitutes one of the more glaring oversights you find in contemporary philosophy of mind and consciousness research. Conscious experience, whatever it turns out to be, is the product of some subsystem of the greater brain. The question of introspective competence is the question of how effectively that subsystem, the ‘conscious brain,’ accesses and uses information gleaned from the greater brain. When it comes to reflection on conscious experience, what information does the brain make available for what cognitive systems?

What makes this question so important is what I consider the grand inferential upshot of the Schwitzgebel’s Introspective Incompetence argument: the jarring but almost undeniable fact that in certain profound respects we simply do not possess the consciousness we think we do. This is another consequence of observational plasticity and informatic closure. If we assume that consciousness is a natural phenomenon that does not vary between humans, then the wild variety of interpretations of conscious experience, both local and global, means that most everyone has to be wrong about consciousness–at least in some respect.

Let’s coin a category for all these incompatible variants called ‘Error Consciousness.’ Error Consciousness, as defined here, is simply the consciousness we think we have as opposed to the consciousness we do have–and everyone, I think it’s safe to say, is in the grip of some version of it. The combination of informatic closure and observational plasticity, in fact, would seem to make it all but impossible to overcome. Our introspective inability to access the information required to distinguish what we discover from what we devise means that theorists are almost certainly trying to explain a consciousness that simply does not exist. Like blind guru’s groping an elephant, we confuse the trunk for a serpent, the leg for a tree, and the tail for a foul-smelling rope. Each of us thinks their determinations are obvious, but none of us can explain them because they don’t exist.

This is just to say that Error Consciousness provides a compelling way to understand the difficulty of the so-called Hard Problem of consciousness. If we make Error Consciousness our primary explanandum, we will never find a satisfactory neuroscientific explanation, simply because there is no such thing.

And even more importantly, it allows us to ask what kinds of errors we might be prone to make.

Consider Schwitzgebel’s conclusion that “our judgments about the world tend to drive our judgments about our experience. Properly so, since the former are the more secure” (137). This certainly makes evolutionary sense. As a very recent evolutionary development, human consciousness would have inherited the brain’s existing cognitive resources, namely, its ancient and powerful environmentally oriented systems. For me, this raises a question that has the potential to transform consciousness research: What if the kinds of errors we make environmentally are, in some respects, the same errors, perceptual or cognitive, that we make introspectively?

Consider, for instance, the way we sense aggregates as individuals in the absence of information. Astronomers, for instance, once thought quasars were singular objects, rather than a developmental phase of galaxies possessing supermassive blackholes. The ‘heavens’ in general are a good example of how the accumulation of information led us to progressively differentiate the celestial sphere that Aristotle thought he observed. Short of information regarding distinct constituents, we have a pronounced tendency to perceive singular things, a fact that finds its barest psychophysical expression in the phenomena of flicker fusion. For whatever reason, the perceptual and cognitive default is to clump things together for the want of distinctions.

Could something so perplexing as the ‘unity of consciousness’ simply be an introspective version of this? Could consciousness, in other words, be something like a cartoon, a low resolution artifact of constraints on interoceptive informatic availability?

A kind of flicker fusion writ large?

If so, it foregrounds what could be a pervasive and systematic fault in ongoing attempts to puzzle through the riddles of conscious experience. The orthodox approach to the question of conscious unity asks, What could unify conscious? It conceptualizes conscious unity as a kind of accomplishment, one requiring neural devices to be explained. But if the intuition of conscious unity relies on the same cognitive systems that regularly confuse aggregates for individuals in the absence of information, and if the ‘introspective faculty’ responsible for that intuition is, as Schwitzgebel’s arguments imply, ‘low resolution,’ then why should we expect we would intuit a more differentiated consciousness, let alone one approaching the boggling complexity of the brain that makes it possible? In other words, Why not expect that we are simply getting consciousness wrong?

We seem to be using the wrong cognitive equipment after all.

Pressing Schwitzgebel’s findings in this direction, we can readily see the truly radical upshot of Perplexities of Consciousness: the way it systematically undermines the presumption that introspection is a form of ‘vision,’ and so the notion that consciousness is ‘something visible.’ The analogy Kreigal offers to smell in his review is quite instructive here. With olfaction, we are quite comfortable moving between the object of perception and the medium of perception. We smell odours as readily as odorous things. With vision, on the other hand, we typically see things, not the light they reflect. This is probably as much a function of resolution as anything: Since olfaction is so low resolution, we often find ourselves smelling just the smell. Analogizing introspection to olfaction allows us to see consciousness as a special kind of stink rather than a special kind of thing. The visual metaphor, you could say, delivers conscious experience to the ‘object machinery’ of our cognitive system, and has the consequence of rendering consciousness substantival, transforming it into something that we somehow see rather than something that we somehow are. The olfactory metaphor, on the other hand, allows us to sidestep this processing error, and to cognize conscious experience off the traditional inferential grid…

And so conceive consciousness in terms that make hay of the cardinal distinction between perception and cognition. We think the unity of consciousness is something to be explained because we think it is something that is achieved prior to our attentional awareness of it rather than a product of that attentional awareness. Perplexities shows that we have good reason to doubt this happy assumption: if introspection, like vision, simply reveals something independently existing, Schwitzgebel asks, then why the lack of consensus, the endemic confusion, the perpetual second-guessing? Reflection on consciousness is an attenuation of consciousness–as we might expect, given that it’s simply another moment within consciousness. Introspection is an informatic input, a way to deliver neural information to deliberative cognition. If that information is as skewed and as impoverished as Perplexities implies, then we should expect that our concepts will do the perceptual talking. And if our deliberative systems are primarily geared to environmental cognition, we should expect to make the same kinds of mistakes we make in the absence of environmental information.

The conscious unity we think we ‘perceive,’ on this account, is simply the way conscious experience ‘smells’ in attentional awareness. It is simply what happens when inadequate interoceptive neural information is channelled through cognitive systems adapted to managing environmental information. In a strange sense, it could be an illusion no more profound than thinking you see Mary, Mother of God, in a water stain. What makes it seem so profound is that you happen to be that water stain: its false unity becomes your fundamental unity. To make matters worse, you have no way of seeing it any other way–no way of accessing different interoceptive information–simply because you are, quite literally, hardwired to yourself.

Observational plasticity makes it as apparently real as could be. Informatic closure blocks the possibility of seeing around or seeing through the illusion. An aggregate becomes an individual, and you have no way of intuiting things otherwise. Enter the intuition of unity, a possible cornerstone of Error Consciousness.

Schwitzgebel would likely have many problems with the positive account I offer here (for a more complete, and far more baroque version, see here), if only because it changes the rules of engagement so drastically. Unlike me, Schwitzgebel is a careful thinker, which is one of the reasons I found Perplexities such an exciting read. It’s not often that one finds a book so meticulously dedicated to problematizing consciousness research supporting, at almost every point, your own theory of consciousness.

To reiterate the question: Why should interoceptive information privation not have similar cognitive consequences as environmental information privation? This question, when you ponder it, has myriad and far-reaching consequences for consciousness research–particularly in the wake of studies like Schwitzgebel’s. Why? Because once you pull the interoceptive rug out from underneath speculation on consciousness, once you understand that, as evolutionary thrift would suggest, we have no magical ‘inner faculty’ aside from our ancient environmental cognitive systems, then ‘error’ (understood in some exotic sense) has to become, to some extent at least, the very tissue of who we are.

And as bizarre as it sounds, it makes more than a little empirical sense. In natural terms, we have an information processing system–the human brain–that, after hundreds of millions of years of adapting to track the complexities of its natural and social environments, only recently began adapting to track its own complexities. Since our third-person tracking has such an enormous evolutionary pedigree, let’s take it as our cognitive baseline for what would count as ‘empirically accurate’ first-person tracking. In other words, let’s say that our first-person tracking is empirically accurate the degree to which its model is compatible with the brain revealed by third-person tracking. The whole problem, of course, is that this model seems to be thoroughly incompatible with what we know of the brain. Our first-person tracking, in other words, appears to be wildly inaccurate, at least compared to our third-person tracking.

And yet, isn’t this what we should expect? The evolutionary youth of this first-person tracking means that it will likely be an opportunistic assemblage of crude capacities–anything but refined. The sheer complexity of the brain means this first-person tracking system will be woefully overmatched, and so forced to make any number of informatic compromises. And perhaps most importantly, the identity of this first-person tracking system with the brain it tracks means it will be held captive to the information it receives, that it will, in other words, have no way of escaping the inevitable perspectival illusions it will suffer.

Given these developmental and structural constraints, the instances of Introspective Incompetence described in Perplexities are precisely the kinds of problems and peculiarities we should expect (what, in fact, I did expect before reading the book). This includes our introspective anosognosia, our tendency to think our introspective judgments are incorrigible: the insufficiency of the information tracked must itself be tracked to be addressed by our first-person tracking system. Evolution flies coach, unfortunately. Not only should we expect to suffer errors in many of our judgments regarding conscious experience, we should, I think, expect Error Consciousness, the systematic misapprehension of what we are.

Of course, one of the things that makes the notion of Error Consciousness so ‘crazy,’ as Schwitzgebel would literally call it, is the difficulty of making sense of what it means to be an illusion. But this particular berry belongs to a different goose.

Chinese Mereology

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day:  So much of the social alchemy of give and take lies in the difference between feeling what you feel and caring what you feel. Wincing and laughing is something we all too easily do.


I just signed contracts for Chinese translations of The Prince of Nothing – which is pretty exciting given the explosive growth in speculative fiction over there, as well as the prospect of potentially reaching a truly dissenting audience of readers.

I also caught a piece on the tube regarding empathy research and psychopathy, and the discovery that psychopaths do seem to have the capacity to experience empathy, they just don’t seem to care. This complicates the ‘bad guy’ picture considerably. The capacity to empathize is variable, and the capacity to care about empathizing seems to be variable as well. So you could have people who care alot about what little they feel of your pain, or care not at all even though they relive your suffering in detail.

Anyone know anything more about this? The reason I find this so interesting, aside from the obvious reasons, is that I’ve been thinking about pain asymbolia a lot lately, wondering what other kind of ‘asymbolias’ are possible. It demonstrates, quite dramatically, the composite nature of experience, and in a way that is entirely consonant with the Blind Brain Theory. I’ll be posting more on this soon.

And just an open question. As a sports fan I’ve been watching as much of the Olympics as I can, and I find myself wondering how many Olympics we have before things like post-natal gene-doping or pre-natal genetic design take it over. Is it my imagination, or is the gap between ‘developed nations’ and the rest of the world increasing?