The ‘Person Fallacy’

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Am I a man pinned for display, dreaming I am a butterfly pinned for display, or am I a butterfly pinned for display, dreaming that I am a man pinned for display? Am I the dream, the display… the pins?


Things have been getting pretty wank around here lately, for which I apologize. If the market is about people ‘voting with their feet,’ then nothing demonstrates the way meaning in contemporary society has become another commodity quite so dramatically as the internet. Wank goes up. Traffic goes down. It really is that simple.

Why do people, in general, hate wank? It makes no sense to them. We have a hardwired allergy to ‘opaque’ communicative contexts. I crinkle my nose like anyone else when I encounter material that mystifies me. I assume that something must be wrong with it instead of with my knowledge-base or meagre powers of comprehension. And go figure. I’m as much my own yardstick for what makes sense as you are of yours.

This is why there is a continual, and quite commercial, pressure to be ‘wank free,’ to make things as easy as possible for as many people as possible. Though I think this can be problematic in a number of ways, I actually think reaching people, particularly those who don’t share your views, is absolutely crucial. I think ‘lowest common denominator’ criticisms of accessibility have far more to do with cultivating the ingroup prestige of wankers than anything. Culture is in the process of fracturing along entirely different lines of self-identification, thanks to the information revolution. And this simply ups the social ante of reaching across those lines.

But, as I keep insisting, there is a new kind of wank in town, one symptomatic of what I call the Semantic Apocalypse, which is to say, the utter divorce of experience, the ‘meaning world’ of cares and projects that characterizes your life, from knowledge, the ‘world world’ as revealed by science. This new wank, I believe anyways, is in the process of scientific legitimation. It is, in other words, slowly being knitted into fact with the accumulation of more scientific information. It is, in short, our future–or something like it.

So I thought it would be worthwhile to give you all an example, with translation, from what is one of the world’s premier journals, Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The following is taken from a response to Peter Carruther’s “How we know our own minds,” published in 2009. Carruther’s argument, in a nutshell, is similar to one I’ve made here several times in several ways: that we understand ourselves, by and large, the same way we understand others: by interpreting behaviour. In other words, even though you assume you have direct, introspective access to your beliefs and motives, in point of fact, you are almost as much ‘locked out’ of your own brain as you are the brains of others. As a growing body of experimental and neuropathological evidence seems to suggest, you simply hypothesize what your ‘gut brain’ is doing, rather than accessing information from the source.

What follows is Bryce Huebner and Dan Dennett’s response to Carruther’s account, interpolated with explanations of my own–as well as a little commentary. I offer it as an example of where our knowledge of the ‘human’ is headed. As I mention in CAUSA SUIcide, we are entering the ‘age of the subhuman,’ the decomposition of the soul into its component parts. I take what follows as clear evidence of this.

Human beings habitually, effortlessly, and for the most part unconsciously represent one another as persons. Adopting this personal stance facilitates representing others as unified entities with (relatively) stable psychological dispositions and (relatively) coherent strategies for practical deliberation. While the personal stance is not necessary for every social interaction, it plays an important role in intuitive judgments about which entities count as objects of moral concern (Dennett 1978, Robbins & Jack 2006); indeed, recent data suggest that when psychological unity and practical coherence are called into question, this often leads to the removal of an entity from our moral community (Bloom2005, Haslam2006).

This basically restates Dennett’s long time ‘solution’ to the problems that ‘meaning talk’ poses for science. What he’s saying here, quite literally, is that ‘person’ is simply a convenient way for our brains to make sense of one another, one that is hardwired in. A kind of useful fiction.

Human beings also reflexively represent themselves as persons through a process of self-narration operating over System 1 processes. However, in this context the personal stance has deleterious consequences for the scientific study of the mind. Specifically, the personal stance invites the assumption that every (properly functioning) human being is a person who has access to her own mental states. Admirably, Carruthers goes further than many philosophers in recognizing that the mind is a distributed computational structure; however, things become murky when he turns to the sort of access that we find in the case of metacognition.

‘System 1’ here refers to something called ‘dual process cognition,’ the focus of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, a book which I’ve mentioned several times here at TPB. System 1 refers to automatic cognition, the kinds of problem-solving your brain does without effort or awareness, and System 2 refers to deliberative cognition, the kinds of effort-requiring problem-solving you do. What they are saying is that the ‘personal stance,’ thinking of ourselves and others as persons, obscures investigation into what is really going on. Why? Because it underwrites the assumption that we are unified and that we have direct access to our ‘mental states.’ They applaud Carruthers for seeing past the first illusion, but question whether he runs afoul the ‘person fallacy’ in his consideration ‘metacognition,’ our ability to know our knowing, desiring, and deciding.

At points, Carruthers notes that the “mindreading system has access to perceptual states” (sect. 2, para. 6), and with this in mind he claims that in “virtue of receiving globally broadcast perceptual states as input, the mindreading system should be capable of self-attributing those percepts in an ‘encapsulated’ way, without requiring any other input” (sect. 2, para. 4). Here, Carruthers offers a model of metacognition that relies exclusively on computations carried out by subpersonal mechanisms. However, Carruthers makes it equally clear that “I never have the sort of direct access that my mindreading system has to my own visual images and bodily feelings” (sect. 2, para. 8; emphasis added). Moreover, although “we do have introspective access to some forms of thinking . . . we don’t have such access to any propositional attitudes” (sect. 7, para. 11; emphasis over “we” added). Finally, his discussion of split-brain patients makes it clear that Carruthers thinks that these data “force us to recognize that sometimes people’s access to their own judgments and intentions can be interpretative” (sect. 3.1, para. 3, emphasis in original).

This passage isn’t quite so complicated as it might seem. They are basically juxtaposing Carruther’s ‘person free’ mapping of information access, which system receives information from which system, with his ‘person-centric’ mapping of information access betrayed by his use of first-person pronouns. The former doesn’t take any account of whether you are conscious of what’s going on or not. The latter does.

Carruthers, thus, relies on two conceptually distinct accounts of cognitive access to metarepresentations. First, he relies on an account of subpersonal access, according to which metacognitive representations are accessed by systems dedicated to belief fixation. Beliefs, in turn, are accessed by systems dedicated to the production of linguistic representations; which are accessed by systems dedicated to syntax, vocalization, sub-vocalization, and so on. Second, he relies on an account of personal access, according to which I have access to the metacognitive representations that allow me to interpret myself and form person-level beliefs about my own mental states.

This passage simply recapitulates and clarifies the former. Carruthers is mixing up his maps, swapping between maps where information is traded between independent city-states, and maps where information is traded between independent city-states and the Empire of the person.

The former view that treats the mind as a distributed computational system with no central controller seems to be integral to Carruthers’ (2009) current thinking about cognitive architecture. However, this insight seems not to have permeated Carruthers’ thinking about metacognition. Unless the “I” can be laundered from this otherwise promising account of “self-knowledge,” the assumption of personal access threatens to require an irreducible Cartesian res cogitans with access to computations carried out at the subpersonal level. With these considerations in mind, we offer what we see as a friendly suggestion: translate all the talk of personal access into subpersonal terms.

Carruthers recognizes that the person is a fiction, something that our brains project onto one another, but because he lapses into the person stance in his consideration of how the brain knows itself directly (metacognition ), his account risks assuming the reality of the person, a ‘Cartesian res cogitans,’ or ‘thinking substance.’ To avoid this, they recommend he clean up his theory and get rid of the person altogether.

Of course, the failure to translate personal access into the idiom of subpersonal computations may be the result of the relatively rough sketch of the subpersonal mechanisms that are responsible for metarepresentation. No doubt, a complete account of metarepresentation would require an appeal to amore intricate set of mechanisms to explain how subpersonal mechanisms can construct “the self” that is represented by the personal stance (Metzinger 2004). As Carruthers notes, the mindreading system must contain a model of what minds are and of “the access that agents have to their own mental states” (sect. 3.2, para. 2). He also notes that the mindreading system is likely to treat minds as having direct introspective access to themselves, despite the fact that the mode of access is inherently interpretative (sect. 3.2). However, merely adding these details to the model is insufficient for avoiding the presumption that there must (“also”) be first-person access to the outputs of metacognition. After all, even with a complete account of the subpersonal systems responsible for the production and comprehension of linguistic utterances, the fixation and updating of beliefs, and the construction and consumption of metarepresentations, it may still seem perfectly natural to ask, “But how do I know my own mental states?”

They suspect that Carruthers lapses into the person fallacy because he lacks an account of the subpersonal mechanisms that generate ‘metarepresentations’–representations of the brain’s representations and representational capacities–which in turn require an account of the subpersonal mechanisms that generate the self, such as those postulated by Thomas Metzinger in Being No-one. Short of this more thorough (and entirely subpersonal) account, the question of the Empire (person) and what crosses its borders becomes very difficult to avoid. Again, it’s important to remember that the ‘person’ is an attribution, not a thing, not even an illusory thing. There just is no Empire according to Huebner and Dennett, so including imperial border talk in any scientific account of cognition is simply going to generate confusion.

The banality that I have access to my own thoughts is a consequence of adopting the personal stance. However, at the subpersonal level it is possible to explain how various subsystems access representations without requiring an appeal to a centralized res cogitans. The key insight is that a module “dumbly, obsessively converts thoughts into linguistic form and vice versa” (Jackendoff 1996). Schematically, a conceptualized thought triggers the production of a linguistic representation that approximates the content of that thought, yielding a reflexive blurt. Such linguistic blurts are protospeech acts, issuing subpersonally, not yet from or by the person, and they are either sent to exogenous broadcast systems (where they become the raw material for personal speech acts), or are endogenously broadcast to language comprehension systems which feed directly to the mindreading system. Here, blurts are tested to see whether they should be uttered overtly, as the mindreading system accesses the content of the blurt and reflexively generates a belief that approximates the content of that blurt. Systems dedicated to belief fixation are then recruited, beliefs are updated, the blurt is accepted or rejected, and the process repeats. Proto-linguistic blurts, thus, dress System 1 outputs in mentalistic clothes, facilitating system-level metacognition.

I absolutely love this first line, if only because of the ease with which it breezes past the radical counterintuitivity of what is being discussed. The theoretical utility of the ‘personal stance’ is that it allows them to embrace the sum of our intuitive discourse regarding persons by simply appending the operator: ‘from the person stance.’ The same way any fortune-cookie fortune can be turned into a joke by adding ‘in bed’ to the end, any ‘everyday’ claim can be ‘affirmed’ using the person stance. “Yes-yes, of course you have access to your own thoughts… that is, when considered from the personal stance.”

The jargon laden account that follows simply outlines a mechanistic model of what a subpersonal account of the brain knowing itself might look like, one involving the shuttling of information to and fro between various hypothesized devices performing various hypothesized functions that culminate in what is called metacognition, without any need of any preexisting ‘inner inspector’–or notion of ‘introspection.’

Carruthers (2009) acknowledges that System 2 thinking is realized in the cyclical activity of reflexive System 1 subroutines. This allows for a model of metacognition that makes no appeal to a pre-existing I, a far more plausible account of self-knowledge in the absence of a res cogitans.

The point, ultimately, is that the inner inspector is as much a product as what it supposedly inspects. There is no imperial consumer, no person. This requires seeing that System 2 thinking, or deliberative cognition, is itself a recursive wrinkle in the way automatic System 1 functions are executed, a series of outputs that ‘you,’ thanks to certain, dedicated System 1 mechanisms, compulsively mistake for you.

Dizzy yet?

I’m sure that even my explication proved hopelessly inaccessible to some of you, and for that, I apologize. At the very least I hope that the gist got through: for a great deal of cognitive scientific research, you, the dude eating Fritos in front of the monitor, are a kind of mirage that must be seen through if science is to uncover the facts of what you really are. I imagine more than a few feel a sneer crawling across their face, thinking this is a perfect example of wank at its worst: a bunch of pompous nonsense leading a bunch of pompous eggheads down yet another pompous blind alley. But I assure you this is not the case. One of the things that amazes me surfing the web in pursuit of these issues is the degree to which it is being embraced by business. There’s neuromarketing, which takes all this information as actionable, but there’s economics as well. These guys are reverse-engineering the consumer, not to mention the voter.

And knowledge, as ever, is power, whether it flies in the face of experience or not.

Welcome to the Semantic Apocalypse.