How to Build a First Person (Using only Natural Materials)

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Birth is the only surrender to fate possible.


In film you have the famous ‘establishing shot,’ a brief visual survey, usually a long or medium shot, of the space the ensuing sequence will analyze along more intimate angles. Space, you could say, is the conclusion that comes first, the register that always precedes its analysis. Some directors play with this, continually force their audience into the analysis absent any spatial analysand. The viewer is thrown, disoriented as a result. Sometimes directors build outward, using the lure of established space as a kind of narrative instrument. Sometimes they shackle the eye to detail, mechanically denying events their place, and so inciting claustrophobia in the airy void of the theatre. They use the space represented to wage war against the space of representing.

If the same has happened here, it’s been entirely inadvertent. I’m not sure how I’ll look back at this year–this attempt to sketch out ‘post-intentional philosophy.’ It’s been a tremendously creative time, to be sure. A hundred thousand words for the beast that is The Unholy Consult, and easily as much written here. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed such a period of intense creativity. These posts have simply been dropping in my head, one after another, some as long as journal articles, most all of them bristling with detail, jargon, and counterintuitive complexities. When I think about it, I’m blown away that Three Pound Brain has grown the way it has, half-again over last year…

For I wanketh.


Now I want to think the explanation is simple, that against all reason, I’ve managed to climb into a new space, an undiscovered country. But all I know for sure is that I’m arguing something genuinely new–something genuinely radical. So folly or not, I pursue, run down what seem to be the never-ending permutations of this murderous take on the human soul. We have yet to see what science will make of us. And we have very little reason to believe our hearts won’t be broken the way human hearts are almost always broken when they pitch traditional hope against scientific indifference. Who knows? Three Pound Brain could be the place, the cradle where our most epic delusion dies.

Either way, the time has come to pan back, crank up the depth of field, and finally provide some kind of establishing shot. This ain’t going to be easy–for me or you. At a certain level the formulations are almost preposterously simplistic (a ‘machinology’ as noir-realism, I think, termed it). I’m talking about the brain in exceedingly general terms, after all. I could delve into the (of course stochastic) mechanics in more detail, I suppose, go ‘neuroanatomical’ in an effort to add more empirical plumage. I still intend to write about the elegant way the Blind Brain Theory falls out of Bayesian predictive-coding models of the brain.

But for the nonce, I don’t need to. The apparently insuperable conundrums of the first person, the consciousness we think we have, can be explained using some quite granular structural and developmental assumptions. We just need to turn our normal way of looking at things upside down–to stop viewing our metacognitive image of meaning and agency as some kind of stupendous achievement. Why? Because doing so takes theoretical metacognition at its word, something that cognitive science has shown–quite decisively–to be the province of fools. If anything, the ‘stupendous achievement’ is the one possessing far and away the greatest evolutionary pedigree and utilizing the most neural resources: environmental cognition. Taking this as our baseline, we can begin diagnosing the ancient perplexities of the metacognitive image as the result of informatic occlusion and cognitive overreach.

We could be a kind of dream, you and I, one that isn’t even useful in any recognizable manner. This is where the difficulty lies: the way BBT requires we contravene our most fundamental intuitions.

It’s all about the worst case scenario. Philosophy, to paraphrase Brassier, is no sop to desire. If science stands poised to break us, then thought must submit to this breaking in advance. The world never wants for apologists: there will always be an army of Rosenthals and Badious. Someone needs to think these things, no matter how dehumanizing or alienating they seem to be.  Besides, only those who dare thinking the post-intentional need fear ‘losing’ anything. If meaning and morality are the genuine emergent realities that the vast bulk of thinkers, analytic or continental, assume them to be, they should be able to withstand any sustained attempt to explain them away.

And if not? Well then, welcome to the future.


So, how do you build a first person?

Imagine the sum of information, understood in the deliberately vague sense of systematic differences making systematic differences, comprising you and your immediate environment. The holy grail of consciousness research is simply understanding how what you are experiencing this very moment fits into this ‘natural informatic field.’ The brass ring, in other words, is one of understanding how you qua person resides in you qua organism–or in other words, explaining how mechanism generates consciousness and intentionality.

Now until recently, science could only track natural processes up to your porch. You qua organism are a mansion of astronomical complexities, and even as modern medicine overran your outer defences, your brain remained an unconquerable citadel, the one place in nature where the old, prescientific games of giving-and-asking-for-reasons could flourish. This is why I continually talk about the ‘bonfire of the humanities,’ the impending collapse of the traditional discourses of the soul. This is why I continually speak of BBT in eschatological terms, pose it as a precursor of the posthuman: if scientifically confirmed, it means that Man-the-meaning-maker is of a piece with Man-the-image-of-God and Man-the-centre-of-the-universe, that noocentrism will join biocentrism and geocentrism in the reliquary of human intellectual conceit and folly. And this is why I mourn ‘Akratic Culture,’ society fissured by the scission of knowledge and experience, with managerial powers exploiting the mechanistic efficiencies of the former, and the client masses fleeing into the intentional opacities of the latter, seeking refuge in vacant affirmation and subreptive autonomy.

So how does the soul fit into the natural informatic field? BBT argues that the best way to conceive the difference between the first and third person is in terms of informatic neglect. Since the structure and function of the brain is dedicated to reliably modelling the structure and function of its environment, the brain remains that part of the environment that it cannot reliably model. BBT terms the modelling structure and function ‘medial’ and the modelled structure and function ‘lateral.’ The brain’s inability to model its modelling, it terms medial neglect. Medial neglect simply means the brain cannot cognize itself as a brain, and so must cognize itself otherwise. This ‘otherwise’ is what we call the soul, mind, consciousness, the first-person, being-in-the-world, etc.

So consider a perspective on a brain:

Diagram brain

Note that the target here is your perspective on the diagrammed brain, not the brain itself. Since the structure and function of your brain are dedicated to modelling the structure and function of your environment, the modelling nowhere appears within the modelled as anything resembling the modelled, even though we know the brain modelling is as much a brain as the brain modelled. The former, rather, provides the ‘occluded frame’ of the latter. At any given moment your perspective ‘hangs,’ as it were, outside of everything. You can pause and reflect on your perspective, of course, model your modelling, as say, something like this:

Diagram brain perspective 1

but only from the standpoint of another ‘occluded frame,’ the oblivion of medial neglect. This second diagram, in other words, can only model the medial, neurofunctional information neglected in the first by once again neglecting that information. No matter how many times we stack these diagrams, how far we press the Rylean regress, we will still be stranded with medial neglect, the ‘unframed frame’ of the first person. The reason for this, it is important to note, is purely mechanical as opposed to semantic: the machinery of modelling simply cannot model itself as it models.

But even though medial neglect means thoroughgoing neurofunctional occlusion–the brains only appear within the first person–these diagrams show it is by no means complete. As mentioned above, the brain’s inability to model itself as a brain (another natural mechanism in its environment) means it must model itself as a ‘perspective,’ something at once situated within its environment, and somehow mysteriously hanging outside of it–both local and nonlocal.

Many of the apparent peculiarities belonging to consciousness and intentionality as we intuit them, on the BBT account, turn on either medial neglect directly or one of a number of other structural and developmental confounds such as brain complexity, evolutionary caprice, and access invariance. The brain, unable to model itself as a brain, is forced to rely on what little metacognitive information its structure and evolutionary development afford.

This is where informatic neglect becomes a problem more generally, which is to say, over and above the problems posed by medial neglect in particular. We now know human cognition is fractionate, a collection of situation specific problem-solving devices, and yet we have no direct awareness of relying on anything save a singular, universal capacity for problem-solving. We regularly rely on dubious information, resort to the wrong device on the wrong occasion, entirely convinced of the justness of our cause, the truth of our theory, or what have you.

Mistakes like these and others reveal the profound and peculiar structural role informatic neglect plays in conscious experience. In the absence of information pertaining to our (medial) causal relation to our environment, we experience aboutness. In the absence of discriminations (in the absence of information) we experience wholes. In the absence of information regarding the insufficiency of information, we presume sufficiency.

But the most difficult-to-grasp structural quirk of informatic neglect has to be the ‘local nonlocality’ we encountered above, what I’ve been calling asymptosis, the fact that the various limits of cognitive and perceptual modalities cannot figure within those cognitive and perceptual modalities. As mechanical, no neural subsystem can model its modelling as it models. This is why, for instance, you cannot see the limits of your visual field–or why, in other words, the boundary of your visual field is asymptotic.

So in the diagrams above, you see a brain and none of the neural machinery responsible for that seeing primarily because of informatic neglect. It is you, a whole (and autonomous) person, seeing that brain and not a fractionate conglomerate of subpersonal cognitive mechanisms because of informatic neglect. Likewise, this metacognitive appraisal that it is ‘you’ looking at a brain is self-evident because of informatic neglect: you have no information to the contrary. And lastly, the ‘frame’ (the medial neurofunctionality) of what you see constitutively outruns what you see because, once again, of informatic neglect.

This is all just to say that the intentional, holistic, sufficient, and asymptotic structure of the first person simply follows from the fact that the brain is biomechanical.

This claim may seem innocuous, but it is big, I assure you, monstrously big. Why? Because, aside from at long last providing a parsimonious theoretical means of naturalizing consciousness and intentionality, it also argues that they (as intuitively conceived) are largely cognitive illusions, kinds of ‘natural anosognosias’ that we cannot but suffer given the constraints and confounds facing neural metacognition. It means that the very form of ‘subjectivity’ (and not merely the ‘self’) actually is a kind of dream.

Make no mistake, if the Blind Brain Theory (or something like it) turns out to be correct, it will be the last theory in the history of philosophy as traditionally conceived. Why? Because BBT is as much a translation manual as a theory, a potential way to transform the great intentional problems of philosophy into the mechanical subject matter of cognitive neuroscience.

Trust me, I know how out-and-out preposterous this sounds… But as I said above, the gates of the soul have been battered down.

Since the devil is in the details, it might pay to finesse this sketch with more information. So to return to what I termed the natural informatic field above, the sum of all the static and dynamic systematic differences that constitute you qua organism. How specifically does informatic neglect allow us to plug the phenomenal/intentional into the physical/mechanical?

From a life sciences perspective, the natural informatic field consists of externally-related structures and irreflexive processes. Our brain is that portion of the Field biologically adapted to model and interact with the rest of the Field (the environment) via information collected from the Field. The conscious subsystem of the brain is that portion of the Field biologically adapted to model and interact with the rest of the Field via information collected from the brain. All we need ask is what information is available to what cognitive resources as the conscious subsystem generates its model. In a sense, all we need do is subtract varieties and densities of information from the pot of overall information. I know the conceptual jargon makes this all seem dreadfully complicated, but it really is this simple.

So, what information can the conscious subsystem of the brain provide what cognitive resources in the course of generating its model? No causal information regarding its own neurofunctionality, as we have seen. The model, therefore, will have to be medially acausal. No temporal information regarding its own neurofunctionality either. The model, therefore, will have to be medially atemporal. Minimal information regarding its own structural complexity, given the constraints and confounds mentioned above. The model, therefore, will be structurally undifferentiated relative to environmental models. Minimal information regarding its own informatic and cognitive limitations, once again, given the aforementioned constraints and confounds. The model, therefore, will be both canonical (because of sufficiency) and intractable (because incompatible with existing, environmentally-oriented cognitive resources).

Now the key principle that seems to make this work is the way neglect leverages varieties of identity. BBT, in effect, interprets the appearance of consciousness as a kind of ‘flicker fusion writ large.’ In the absence of distinctions, the brain (for reasons that will fall out of any successful scientific theory of consciousness proper) conjures experiential continuities. Occlusion equals identity, according to BBT.

What makes the first person as it appears so peculiar from the standpoint of environmental cognition has to do with ‘informatic captivity’ or access invariance, our brain’s inability to vary its informatic relationship to itself the way it can its environments. So, on the BBT account, the ‘unity of consciousness’ that so impressed Descartes is simply of a piece with the way, in the absence of information, we confuse aggregates for individuals more generally, as when we confuse ants on the sidewalk with spilled paint, for instance. But where cognition can vary its access and so accumulate the information required to revise ‘spilled paint’ into ‘swarming ants’ in our environment, metacognition is trapped with the spilled paint of the ‘soul.’ The first person appears to be an internally-related ‘whole,’ in other words, simply because we lack the information to cognize it otherwise. The holistic consciousness we think we enjoy, in other words, is a kind of cartoon.

(This underscores the way the external-relationality characteristic of our environment is an informatic and cognitive achievement, something the human brain has evolved to model and exploit. On the BBT account, internal-relationality is generally a symptom of missing information, a structurally and developmentally imposed loss of dimensionality.)

But what makes the first person so intractable, a hitherto inexhaustible source of perplexity, only becomes apparent when we consider the diachronic dimension of this ‘fusion in occlusion,’ the way neglect winnows the implacable irreflexivity of the natural into the labile reflexivity of the mental. The conscious system’s inability to model its modelling as it models applies to temporal modelling as well. The temporal system can no more ‘time its timing’ than the visual system can ‘see its seeing.’ This means that metacognition has no way to intuit the ‘time of timing,’ leading, once again, to default identity and all the paradoxes belonging to the ‘now.’ The temporal field is ‘locally nonlocal’ or asymptotic, muddy and fleeting yet apparently monolithic and self-identical.

So, in a manner similar to the way information privation collapses external-relationality into apparent internal-relationality, it also collapses irreflexivity into apparent reflexivity. Conscious cognition can track environmental irreflexivity readily enough, but it cannot track this tracking and so intuits otherwise. The first person cartoon suffers the diachronic hallucination of fundamental continuity in time. Once again metacognition mistakes oblivion (or less dramatically, incapacity) for identity.

To get a sense of how radical this is one need only consider the very paradigm of atemporal reflexivity in philosophy, the a priori. On the BBT account, what we call the a priori is what algorithmic nature looks like from the inside. No matter how much content you hollow out of your formalisms, you are still talking about something magical, still begging what Eugene Wigner famously called ‘the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,’ the question of why an externally-related, irreflexive nature should prove so amenable to an internally-related, reflexive mathematics. BBT answers: because mathematics is itself natural, it’s most systematically ‘viral’ expression. It collapses the disjunct, asserts continuity where the tradition perceives the inexplicable. Mathematics only seems ‘supra-natural’ because until recently it could only be explored performatively in the ‘laboratory’ of our own brains, and because of the way metacognition shears away its informatic dimensions. Given the illusion of sufficiency, the a priori cartoon strucks us as the efficacious source of a special, transcendental form of cognition. Only now, as computational complexities force mathematicians and physicists to rely more and more on machines, mechanical implementations that (by some cosmic coincidence) are entirely capable of performing ‘semantic’ operations without the least whiff of ‘understanding,’ are we in a position to entertain the possibility that ‘formal semantics’ are simply another ghost in the human machine.

And the list of radical reinterpretations goes on–after a year of manic exploration and elaboration I feel like I’ve scarcely scratched the surface. I could use some help, if anyone is so inclined!

So with that in ‘mind,’ I leave you with the following establishing shot: Consciousness as you conceive/perceive it this very moment now is the tissue of neglect, painted on the same informatic canvas with the same cognitive brushes as our environment, only blinkered and impressionistic in the extreme. Reflexivity, internal-relationality, sufficiency, and intentionality, can all be seen as hallucinatory artifacts of informatic closure and scarcity, the result of a brain forced to make the most with the least using only the resources it has at hand. This is a picture of the first person as an informatically intergrated series of scraps of access, forced by structural bottlenecks to profoundly misrecognize itself as something somehow hooked upon the transcendental, self-sufficient and whole….

To see you.