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.