The Elephant in Our Skull

I am not a ‘Metzingerian.’ Like him, I think we are what we are in such a way that we cannot intuit what we are, but I came to this inkling by a far different route (Continental Philosophy). I’m not a representationalist, for one. I don’t think the brain has a Phenomenal Self Model, and I think that the sense that we do is largely a cultural artifact. What we have are a collection of kluges, a chaotic intentional palette that socialization then shapes into something that seems more definite and utile–like the mighty ‘Individual’ in our society

In the old proverb of the three blind Indian gurus and the elephant, one grabs the tail and says the elephant is a rope, the other grabs a leg and says the elephant is a tree, while the third grabs the trunk and says the elephant is a snake. In each case, the gurus mistake the part for a whole. This is the Blind Brain Thesis (which I simultaneously can’t stop arguing and can’t bring myself to believe): the thalamocortical system is the guru and the greater brain is the elephant. Intentional concepts such as belief, desire, good, perception, volition, action–all the furniture of conscious life–are simply ropes and trees and snakes. Misapprehensions. According to BBT, there are literally no such things.

The reason they function is simply that they are systematically related to the elephant, who does the brunt of the work. They have to count as ‘insight’ or ‘understanding’ simply because they are literally the only game in town.

This makes me an ‘eliminativist.’ Now some eliminativists, like Dan Dennett, want to argue that the problem doesn’t lie with the concepts so much as with the definitions (with the notable exception of ‘qualia’). It’s not that we don’t have beliefs, desires, volitions, and so on, it’s that we require a more mature neuroscience to understand what they really were all along. But note how the guru analogy makes hash of this approach: Dennett wants to say we still have our rope and tree and snake, but now we know that a rope is really a tail, a tree is really a leg, and a snake is really a trunk. Semantics rushes to the rescue.

Enter what I call Encapsulation, the strange mereological inflation that characterizes consciousness. Mistaking parts for wholes, I want to argue, is constitutive of experience. Dennett wants to say we are actually experiencing the elephant. But as a matter of empirical fact, the thalamocortical system only has access to a fraction of the information processed by the brain, a fraction it cannot but mistake for wholes. We are experiencing elephant parts as opposed to the elephant, and we’re experiencing them as wholes, something they are not.

The virtue of Encapsulation is that it allows us to explain why intentional concepts seem to have such an antipathy to causal explanation: intentional concepts are like magic tricks insofar as they depend on the absence of information to work. Their phenomenal character is the product of a lack, and like magic, that character evaporates once the information is provided. The salient difference between intentionality and magic, however, is that we are wired to the magician in the former case, and so are a prisoner of his tricks. Where magic is the exception, intentionality is the invariant frame of any experience whatsoever. Small wonder we conceived the world in our own image for the whole of prescientific history. Only as science scrubbed intentionality from the natural world, only as human consciousness came to seem more and more exceptional, could we countenance the possibility that we were magic–which is to say, something not real.

Magic tricks are special kinds of mistakes, what happens when certain information is withheld. Dennett thinks we can have it both ways: the explanation and the magic. It’s this, I think, that makes him so unconvincing to so many people, despite his obvious eloquence and brilliance: his stubborn gaming of conceptual ambiguities against the experiential grain. He literally seems to think that once the mistake has been empirically identified, it can be argued away.

Consciousness is structured by what might be called Informatic Deprivation and Informatic Asymmetry. At every turn the supercomplexity of the brain is either concealed from consciousness or sopped away. (There’s a number of structural and developmental explanations for why this might or must be). But how could this be constitutive of experience? I’m not sure, though I do think it has to be. Just think of the margin of your visual field: experience simply has to peter out where information peters out (though just how it ‘peters’ can be expressed in multiple ways).

This is where the BBT shows what I think is almost breathtaking potential. Consider the Now, which has perplexed philosophers through the ages by somehow remaining the same despite being different. According to the BBT, the Now is simply the margin of our temporal field, an experiential artifact of the way our temporal awareness peters out. We are always ‘here and now,’ according to the BBT, for the same reason the camera never appears in any of the images it captures. There’s the fact that the camera (like homo sapiens) is primarily designed to process distal as opposed to proximate environmental information. Immediate environmental information, which to say, information about the information processing (image formation) itself, simply cannot enter the image without generating interference. I call this Process Asymmetry.

In my novels you’ll find references here and there to how spirals become circles if you look at them from along their axis of elevation. This is the human soul: a spiral that cannot but see itself as a circle. Process Asymmetry means there must always be an interval, variable or absolute, between process information and information processing. A given processor cannot process second-order information pertaining to its own processing simultaneous to that processing. A secondary processor is required. Second-order ‘blindness’ necessarily characterizes all information processors. The camera always vanishes into the frame.

Our temporal field hangs outside time: thus it is always ‘now.’ Our spatial field hangs nowhere: thus it is always ‘here.’ In both cases, related systems provide supplementary second-order information, plugging us into narrative time and local space, so that we have the strangely paradoxical sense of always being ‘here and now’ and being at different times and places.

And this leverages the greatest magic trick of all, what I call Default Identity. What we call ‘identity,’ I’m suggesting, is simply the absence of second-order self-differentiation. So much has been made of reflexivity and recursion and its possible relationship to consciousness. I personally think that linguistic evolution is the primary (but by no means sole) catalyst of human consciousness, the brain rendering more and more information available for potential translation into auditory code. Guili Tononi* has shown that you can predict which regions of the brain are accessible to consciousness and which are not by analysing the information integration value of various circuits. I have this image of the brain wiring itself to itself in novel and unexpected ways, making more and more of its information available for communication to other brains.

But the question is one of how this ‘information integration’ maps onto experience. The BBT suggests that it is the inability of the thalamocortical system to globally autodiscriminate that generates the illusion of global autoreflexivity. It is Process Asymmetry, the impossibility of informatic reflexivity, in other words, that foists the illusion of personal identity–perfect reflexivity–upon consciousness. (Could this have anything to do with the curious inversion you find between etiology (causation) and teleology? Why does consciousness seem to flip so much of the natural on its head? Is there some kind of ‘camera obscura effect’ snoozing around here?) Our basic sense of self-identity is not a ‘representation,’ a product of NCC’s as Metzinger and so many others would have it. It’s simply another margin, the way the information horizons of the thalamocortical system are expressed in experience.

As magicians well know, the brain makes default identity mistakes all the time: In “The Mark of Gideon,” Captain Kirk unknowingly beams into a perfect replica of the Enterprise, and so assumes that the transporter has malfunctioned and that his entire crew has been abducted. His inability to discriminate between the real Enterprise and the replica leads to their thoughtless conflation. The BBT suggests that experience seems to unfold across a substrate of self-identity simply because its margins, those points where the absence of information are expressed, must always remain the same.

By marking the limit of differentiation they endow us with the illusion of a soul.

This is what I mean when I say that consciousness is flat: the thalamocortical system’s inability to track the causal histories of its own processes simply means that those histories do not exist for it whatsoever. Encapsulation means those absences are utterly elided: various agnosiac ‘scotomata’ permeate consciousness at every level and every turn. So where the evolutionarily ancient and powerful perceptual processors discriminate externally-related, high-resolution processes in our environment, the evolutionarily young and crude intuitive processors have to make due with much less information, thus ‘flattening’ the field of awareness for the lack of discriminations. External relations, which require more information to discriminate, feel like internal relations. Sharp boundaries become fuzzy and inchoate. 

Consciousness becomes a South Park episode.

We are the elephant in such a way that we are a rope, tree, and snake. Anything but an elephant.

[Postscript disclosure: After writing this, I feel like a tremendous idiot for not pursuing publication in some journal. The problem is 1) this is just a hobby for me, so I’m nowhere near well read enough; 2) everybody but everybody seems to have some crackpot theory of consciousness, and I know from past experience that my lack of credentials will consign me to the crackpot pile (where I could very well belong!) even if there is something important here; and 3) I can’t bring myself to believe  in the damn thing! And yet I can’t help but wonder at the interpretative doors the BBT opens, ways to naturalistically reinterpret various past philosophical giants, and most importantly, ways to move forward, to forge radically different conceptions of lord knows how many contemporary debates and conceptual staples. For over ten years now this thought has been stuck in my craw…]