Three Pound Brain

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Tag: Consciousness

Framing “On Alien Philosophy”…

by rsbakker


Peter Hankins of Conscious Entities fame has a piece considering “On Alien Philosophy.” The debate is just getting started, but I thought it worthwhile explaining why I think this particular paper of mine amounts to more than yet just another interpretation to heap onto the intractable problem of ourselves.

Consider the four following claims:

1) We have biologically constrained (in terms of information access and processing resources) metacognitive capacities ancestrally tuned to the solution of various practical problem ecologies, and capable of exaptation to various other problems.

2) ‘Philosophical reflection’ constitutes such an exaptation.

3) All heuristic exaptations inherit, to some extent, the problem-solving limitations of the heuristic exapted.

4) ‘Philosophical reflection’ inherits the problem-solving limitations of deliberative metacognition.

Now I don’t think there’s much anything controversial about any of these claims (though, to be certain, there’s a great many devils lurking in the details adduced). So note what happens when we add the following:

5) We should expect human philosophical practice will express, in a variety of ways, the problem-solving limitations of deliberative metacognition.

Which seems equally safe. But note how the terrain of the philosophical debate regarding the nature of the soul has changed. Any claim purporting the exceptional nature of this or that intentional phenomena now needs to run the gauntlet of (5). Why assume we cognize something ontologically exceptional when we know we are bound to be duped somehow? All things being equal, mediocre explanations will always trump exceptional ones, after all.

The challenge of (5) has been around for quite some time, but if you read (precritical) eliminativists like Churchland, Stich, or Rosenberg, this is where the battle grinds to a standstill. Why? Because they have no general account of how the inevitable problem-solving limitations of deliberative metacognition would be expressed in human philosophical practice, let alone how they would generate the appearance of intentional phenomena. Since all they have are promissory notes and suggestive gestures, ontologically exceptional accounts remain the only game in town. So, despite the power of (5), the only way to speak of intentional phenomena remains the traditional, philosophical one. Science is blind without theory, so absent any eliminativist account of intentional phenomena, it has no clear way to proceed with their investigation. So it hews to exceptional posits, trusting in their local efficacy, and assuming they will be demystified by discoveries to come.

Thus the challenge posed by Alien Philosophy. By giving real, abductive teeth to (5), my account overturns the argumentative terrain between eliminativism and intentionalism by transforming the explanatory stakes. It shows us how stupidity, understood ecologically, provides everything we need to understand our otherwise baffling intuitions regarding intentional phenomena. “On Alien Philosophy” challenges the Intentionalist to explain more with less (the very thing, of course, he or she cannot do).

Now I think I’ve solved the problem, that I have a way to genuinely naturalize meaning and cognition. The science will sort my pretensions in due course, but in the meantime, the heuristic neglect account of intentionality, given its combination of mediocrity and explanatory power, has to be regarded as a serious contender.

It Is What It Is (Until Notified Otherwise)

by rsbakker



The thing to always remember when one finds oneself in the middle of some historically intractable philosophical debate is that path-dependency is somehow to blame. This is simply to say that the problem is historical in that squabbles regarding theoretical natures always arises from some background of relatively problem-free practical application. At some point, some turn is taken and things that seem trivially obvious suddenly seem stupendously mysterious. St. Augustine, in addition to giving us one of the most famous quotes in philosophy, gives us a wonderful example of this in The Confessions when he writes:

“What, then, is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” XI, XIV, 17

But the rather sobering fact is that this is the case with a great number of the second order questions we can pose. What is mathematics? What’s a rule? What’s meaning? What’s cause? And of course, what is phenomenal consciousness?

So what is it with second order interrogations? Why is ‘time talk’ so easy and effortlessly used even though we find ourselves gobsmacked each and every time someone asks what time qua time is? It seems pretty clear that either we lack the information required or the capacity required or some nefarious combination of both. If framing the problem like this sounds like a no-brainer, that’s because it is a no-brainer. The remarkable thing lies in the way it recasts the issue at stake, because as it turns out, the question of the information and capacity we have available is a biological one, and this provides a cognitive ecological means of tackling the problem. Since practical solving for time (‘timing’) is obviously central to survival, it makes sense that we would possess the information access and cognitive capacity required to solve a wide variety of timing issues. Given that theoretical solving for time (qua-time) isn’t central to survival (no species does it and only our species attempts it), it makes sense that we wouldn’t possess the information access and cognitive capacity required, that we would suffer time-qua-time blindness.

From a cognitive ecological perspective, in other words, St. Augustine’s perplexity should come as no surprise at all. Of course solving time-qua-time is mystifying: we evolved the access and capacity required for solving the practical problems of timing, and not the theoretical problem of time. Now I admit if the cognitive ecological approach ground to a halt here it wouldn’t be terribly illuminating, but there’s quite a bit more to be said: it turns out cognitive ecology is highly suggestive of the different ways we might expect our attempts to solve things like time-qua-time to break down.

What would it be like to reach the problem-solving limits of some practically oriented problem-solving mode? Well, we should expect our assumptions/intuitions to stop delivering answers. My daughter is presently going through a ‘cootie-catcher’ phase and is continually instructing me to ask questions, then upbraiding me when my queries don’t fit the matrix of possible ‘answers’ provided by the cootie-catcher (yes, no, and versions of maybe). Sometimes she catches these ill-posed questions immediately, and sometimes she doesn’t catch them until the cootie-catcher generates a nonsensical response.


Now imagine your child never revealed their cootie-catcher to you: you asked questions, then picked colours or numbers or animals, and it turned out some were intelligibly answered, and some were not. Very quickly you would suss out the kinds of questions that could be asked, and the kinds that could not. Now imagine unbeknownst to you that your child replaced their cootie-catcher with a computer running two separately tasked, distributed AlphaGo type programs, the first trained to provide well-formed (if not necessarily true) answers to basic questions regarding causality and nothing else, the second trained to provide well-formed (if not necessarily true) answers to basic questions regarding goals and intent. What kind of conclusions would you draw, or more importantly, assume? Over time you would come to suss out the questions generating ill-formed answers versus questions generating well-formed ones. But you would have no way of knowing that two functionally distinct systems were responsible for the well-formed answers: causal and purposive modes would seem the product of one cognitive system. In the absence of distinctions you would presume unity.

Think of the difference between Plato likening memory to an aviary in the Theaetetus and the fractionate, generative memory we now know to be the case. The fact that Plato assumed as much, unity and retrieval, shouts something incredibly important once placed in a cognitive ecological context. What it suggests is that purely deliberative attempts to solve second-order problems, to ask questions like what is memory-qua-memory, will almost certainly run afoul the problem of default identity, the identification that comes about for the want of distinctions. To return to our cootie-catcher example, it’s not simply that we would report unity regarding our child’s two AlphaGo type programs the way Plato did with memory, it’s that information involving its dual structure would play no role in our cognitive economy whatsoever. Unity, you could say, is the assumption built into the system. (And this applies as much to AI as it does to human beings. The first ‘driverless fatality’ died because his Tesla Model S failed to distinguish a truck trailer from the sky.)

Default identity, I think, can play havoc with even the most careful philosophical interrogations—such as the one Eric Schwitzgebel gives in the course of rebutting Keith Frankish, both on his blog and in his response in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, “Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage.”

According to Eric, “Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness” presents the phenomenal realist with a dilemma: either they commit to puzzling ontological features such as simple, ineffable, intrinsic, or so on, or they commit to explaining those features away, which is to say, some variety of Illusionism. Since Eric both believes that phenomenal consciousness is real, and that the extraordinary properties attributed to it are likely not real, he proposes a third way, a formulation of phenomenal experience that neither inflates it into something untenable, nor deflates into something that is plainly not phenomenal experience. “The best way to meet Frankish’s challenge,” he writes, “is to provide something that the field of consciousness studies in any case needs: a clear definition of phenomenal consciousness, a definition that targets a phenomenon that is both substantively interesting in the way that phenomenal consciousness is widely thought to be interesting but also innocent of problematic metaphysical and epistemological assumptions” (2).

It’s worth noting the upshot of what Eric is saying here: the scientific study of phenomenal consciousness cannot, as yet, even formulate their primary explanandum. The trick, as he sees it, is to find some conceptual way to avoid the baggage, while holding onto some semblance of a wardrobe. And his solution, you might say, is to wear as many outfits as he possibly can. He proposes that definition by example is uniquely suited to anchor an ontologically and epistemologically innocent concept of phenomenal consciousness.

He has but one caveat: any adequate formulation of phenomenal consciousness has to account or allow for what Eric terms its ‘wonderfulness’:

If the reduction of phenomenal consciousness to something physical or functional or “easy” is possible, it should take some work. It should not be obviously so, just on the surface of the definition. We should be able to wonder how consciousness could possibly arise from functional mechanisms and matter in motion. Call this the wonderfulness condition. 3

He concedes the traditional properties ascribed to phenomenal experience outrun naturalistic credulity, but the feature of begging belief remains to be explained. This is the part of Eric’s position to keep an eye on because it means his key defense against eliminativism is abductive. Whatever phenomenal consciousness is, it seems safe to say it is not something easily solved. Any account purporting to solve phenomenal consciousness that leaves the wonderfulness condition unsatisfied is likely missing phenomenal consciousness altogether.

And so Eric provides a list of positive examples including sensory and somatic experiences, conscious imagery, emotional experience, thinking and desiring, dreams, and even other people, insofar as we continually attribute these very same kinds of experiences to them. By way of negative examples, he mentions a variety of intimate, yet obviously not phenomenally conscious processes, such as fingernail growth, intestinal lipid absorption, and so on.

He writes:

Phenomenal consciousness is the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature that the positive examples possess and that the negative examples lack. I do think that there is one very obvious feature that ties together sensory experiences, imagery experiences, emotional experiences, dream experiences, and conscious thoughts and desires. They’re all conscious experiences. None of the other stuff is experienced (lipid absorption, the tactile smoothness of your desk, etc.). I hope it feels to you like I have belabored an obvious point. Indeed, my argumentative strategy relies upon this obviousness. 8

Intuition, the apparent obviousness of his examples, is what he stresses here. The beauty of definition by example is that offering instances of the phenomenon at issue allows you to remain agnostic regarding the properties possessed by that phenomenon. It actually seems to deliver the very metaphysical and epistemological innocence Eric needs to stave off the charge of inflation. It really does allow him to ditch the baggage and travel wearing all his clothes, or so it seems.

Meanwhile the wonderfulness condition, though determining the phenomenon, does so indirectly, via the obvious impact it has on human attempts to cognize experience-qua-experience. Whatever phenomenal consciousness is, contemplating it provokes wonder.

And so the argument is laid out, as spare and elegant as all of Eric’s arguments. It’s pretty clear these are examples of whatever it is we call phenomenal consciousness. Of course, there’s something about them that we find downright stupefying. Surely, he asks, we can be phenomenal realists in this austere respect?

For all its intuitive appeal, the problem with this approach is that it almost certainly presumes a simplicity that human cognition does not possess. Conceptually, we can bring this out with a single question: Is phenomenal consciousness the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature the examples share, or is it obvious in some other respect? Eric’s claim amounts to saying the recognition of phenomenal consciousness as such belongs to everyday cognition. But is this the case? Typically, recognition of experience-qua-experience is thought to be an intellectual achievement of some kind, a first step toward the ‘philosophical’ or ‘reflective’ or ‘contemplative’ attitude. Shouldn’t we say, rather, that phenomenal consciousness is the most obvious thing or feature these examples share upon reflection, which is to say, philosophically?

This alternative need only be raised to drag Eric’s formulation back into the mire of conceptual definition, I think. But on a cognitive ecological picture, we can actually reframe this conceptual problematization in path-dependent terms, and so more forcefully insist on a distinction of modes and therefore a distinction in problem-solving ecologies. Recall Augustine, how we understand time without difficulty until we ask the question of time qua time. Our cognitive systems have no serious difficulty with timing, but then abruptly break down when we ask the question of time as such. Even though we had the information and capacity required to solve any number of practical issues involving time, as soon as we pose the question of time-qua-time that fluency evaporates and we find ourselves out-and-out mystified.

Eric’s definition by example, as an explicitly conceptual exercise, clearly involves something more than everyday applications of experience talk. The answer intuitively feels as natural as can be—there must be some property X these instances share or exclude, certainly!—but the question strikes most everyone as exceptional, at least until they grow accustomed to it. Raising the question, as Augustine shows us, is precisely where the problem begins, and as my daughter would be quick to remind Eric, cootie-catchers only work if we ask the right question. Human cognition is fractionate and heuristic, after all.


All organisms are immersed in potential information, difference making differences that could spell the difference between life and death. Given the difficulties involved in the isolation of causes, they often settle for correlations, cues reliably linked to the systems requiring solution. In fact, correlations are the only source of information organisms have, evolved and learned sensitivities to effects systematically correlated to those environmental systems relevant to reproduction. Human beings, like all other living organisms, are shallow information consumers adapted to deep information environments, sensory cherry pickers, bent on deriving as much behaviour from as little information as possible.

We only have access to so much, and we only have so much capacity to derive behaviour from that access (behaviour which in turn leverages capacity). Since the kinds of problems we face outrun access, and since those problems and the resources required to solve them are wildly disparate, not all access is equal.

Information access, I think, divides cognition into two distinct forms, two different families of ‘AlphaGo type’ programs. On the one hand we have what might be called source sensitive cognition, where physical (high-dimensional) constraints can be identified, and on the other we have source insensitive cognition, where they cannot.

Since every cause is an effect, and every effect is a cause, explaining natural phenomena as effects always raises the question of further causes. Source sensitive cognition turns on access to the causal world, and to this extent, remains perpetually open to that world, and thus, to the prospect of more information. This is why it possesses such wide environmental applicability: there are always more sources to be investigated. These may not be immediately obvious to us—think of visible versus invisible light—but they exist nonetheless, which is why once the application of source sensitivity became scientifically institutionalized, hunting sources became a matter of overcoming our ancestral sensory bottlenecks.

Since every natural phenomena has natural constraints, explaining natural phenomena in terms of something other than natural constraints entails neglect of natural constraints. Source insensitive cognition is always a form of heuristic cognition, a system adapted to the solution of systems absent access to what actually makes them tick. Source insensitive cognition exploits cues, accessible information invisibly yet sufficiently correlated to the systems requiring solution to reliably solve those systems. As the distillation of specific, high-impact ancestral problems, source insensitive cognition is domain-specific, a way to cope with systems that cannot be effectively cognized any other way.

(AI approaches turning on recurrent neural networks provide an excellent ex situ example of the necessity, the efficacy, and the limitations of source insensitive (cue correlative) cognition. Andrei Cimpian’s lab and the work of Klaus Fiedler (as well as that of the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Group more generally) are providing, I think, an evolving empirical picture of source insensitive cognition in humans, albeit, absent the global theoretical framework provided here.)

So what are we to make of Eric’s attempt to innocently (folk psychologically) pose the question of experience-qua-experience in light of this rudimentary distinction?

If one takes the brain’s ability to cognize its own cognitive functions as a condition of ‘experience talk,’ it becomes very clear very quickly that experience talk belongs to a source insensitive cognitive regime, a system adapted to exploit correlations between the information consumed (cues) and the vastly complicated systems (oneself and others) requiring solution. This suggests that Eric’s definition by example is anything but theoretically innocent, assuming, as it does, that our source insensitive, experience-talk systems pick out something in the domain of source sensitive cognition… something ‘real.’ Defining by example cues our experience-talk system, which produces indubitable instances of recognition. Phenomenal consciousness becomes, apparently, an indubitable something. Given our inability to distinguish between our own cognitive systems (given ‘cognition-qua-cognition blindness’), default identity prevails; suddenly it seems obvious that phenomenal experience somehow, minimally, belongs to the order of the real. And once again, we find ourselves attempting to square ‘posits’ belonging to sourceless modes of cognition with a world where everything has a source.

We can now see how the wonderfulness condition, which Eric sees working in concert with his definition by example, actually cuts against it. Experience-qua-experience provokes wonder precisely because it delivers us to crash space, the point where heuristic misapplication leads our intuitions astray. Simply by asking this question, we have taken a component from a source insensitive cognitive system relying (qua heuristic) on strategic correlations to the systems requiring solution to solve, and asked a completely different, source sensitive system to make sense of it. Philosophical reflection is a ‘cultural achievement’ precisely because it involves using our brains in new ways, applying ancient tools to novel questions. Doing so, however, inevitably leaves us stumbling around in a darkness we cannot see, running afoul confounds we have no way of intuiting, simply because they impacted our ancestors not at all. Small wonder ‘phenomenal consciousness’ provokes wonder. How could the most obvious thing possess so few degrees of cognitive freedom? How could light itself deliver us to darkness?

I appreciate the counterintuitive nature of the view I’m presenting here, the way it requires seeing conceptual moves in terms of physical path-dependencies, as belonging to a heuristic gearbox where our numbness to the grinding perpetually convinces us that this time, at long last, we have slipped from neutral into drive. But recall the case of memory, the way blindness to its neurocognitive intricacies led Plato to assume it simple. Only now can we run our (exceedingly dim) metacognitive impressions of memory through the gamut of what we know, see it as a garden of forking paths. The suggestion here is that posing the question of experience-qua-experience poses a crucial fork in the consciousness studies road, the point where a component of source-insensitive cognition, ‘experience,’ finds itself dragged into the court of source sensitivity, and productive inquiry grinds to a general halt.

When I employ experience talk in a practical, first-order way, I have a great deal of confidence in that talk. But when I employ experience talk in a theoretical, second-order way, I have next to no confidence in that talk. Why would I? Why would anyone, given the near-certainty of chronic underdetermination? Even more, I can see of no way (short magic) for our brain to have anything other than radically opportunistic and heuristic contact with its own functions. Either specialized, simple heuristics comprise deliberative metacognition or deliberative metacognition does not exist. In other words, I see no way of avoiding experience-qua-experience blindness.

This flat out means that on a high dimensional view (one open to as much relevant physical information as possible), there is just no such thing as ‘phenomenal consciousness.’ I am forced to rely on experience related talk in theoretical contexts all the time, as do scientists in countless lines of research. There is no doubt whatsoever that experience-talk draws water from far more than just ‘folk psychological’ wells. But this just means that various forms of heuristic cognition can be adapted to various experimentally regimented cognitive ecologies—experience-talk can be operationalized. It would be strange if this weren’t the case, and it does nothing to alleviate the fact that solving for experience-qua-experience delivers us, time and again, to crash space.

One does not have to believe in the reality of phenomenal consciousness to believe in the reality of the systems employing experience-talk. As we are beginning to discover, the puzzle has never been one of figuring out what phenomenal experiences could possibly be, but rather figuring out the biological systems that employ them. The greater our understanding of this, the greater our understanding of the confounds characterizing that perennial crash space we call philosophy.

Graziano, the Attention Schema Theory, and the Neuroscientific Explananda Problem

by rsbakker

Along with Taylor Webb, Michael Graziano has published an updated version of what used to be his Attention Schema Theory of Consciousness, but is now called the Attention Schema Theory of Subjective Awareness. For me, it epitomizes the kinds of theoretical difficulties neuroscientists face in their attempts to define their explananda, why, as Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman note in their Preface to The Future of the Brain, “[a]t present, neuroscience is a collection of facts, still awaiting an overarching theory” (xi).

On Blind Brain Theory, the ‘neuroscientific explananda problem’ is at least twofold. For one, the behavioural nature of cognitive functions raises a panoply of interpretative issues. Ask any sociologist: finding consensus commanding descriptions of human behaviour is far more difficult than finding consensus commanding descriptions of, say, organ behaviour. For another, the low-dimensional nature of  conscious experience raises a myriad of interpretative conundrums in addition to the problems of interpretative underdetermination facing behaviour.  Ask any psychologist: finding consensus commanding descriptions of conscious phenomena has hitherto proven impossible. As William Uttal notes in The New Phrenology: “There is probably nothing that divides psychologists of all stripes, more than the inadequacies and ambiguities of our efforts to define mind, consciousness, and the enormous variety of mental events and phenomena” (90). At least with behaviour, publicity allows us to anchor our theoretical interpretations in revisable data; experience, however, famously affords us no such luxury. So where the problem of behavioural underdetermination seems potentially soluble given enough elbow grease (one can imagine continued research honing canonical categorizations of behavioural functions as more and more information is accumulated), the problem of experiential underdetermination out and out baffles. We scarce know where to begin. Some see conscious experience as a natural phenomena possessing properties that do not square with our present scientific understanding of nature. Others, like myself, see conscious experience as a natural phenomena that only seems to possess properties that do not square with our nature. Michael Graziano belongs to this camp also. The great virtue of belonging to this deflationary pole of the experiential explananda debate is that it spares you the task of explaining inexplicable entities, or the indignity of finding rhetorical ways to transform manifest theoretical vices (like analytic opacity) into virtues (like ‘irreducibility’). In other words, it lets you drastically simplify the explanatory landscape. Despite this, Graziano’s latest presentation of his theory of consciousness (coauthored with Taylor Webb), “The attention schema theory: a mechanistic account of subjective awareness,” seems to be deeply–perhaps even fatally–mired in the neuroscientific explananda problem.

Very little in Webb and Graziano’s introduction to AST indicates the degree to which the theory has changed since the 2013 publication of Consciousness and The Social Brain. The core insight of Attention Schema Theory is presented in the same terms, the notion that subjective awareness, far from being a property perceived, is actually a neural construct, a tool the human brain uses to understand and manipulate both other brains and itself.  They write:

This view that the problem of subjective experience consists only in explaining why and how the brain concludes that it contains an apparently non-physical property, has been proposed before (Dennett, 1991). The attention schema theory goes beyond this idea in providing a specific functional use for the brain to compute that type of information. The heart of the attention schema theory is that there is an adaptive value for a brain to build the construct of awareness: it serves as a model of attention. 2

They provide the example of visual attention upon an apple, how the brain requires, as a means to conclude it was ‘subjectively aware’ of the apple, information regarding itself and its means of relating to the apple. This ‘means of relating’ happens to be the machinery of attention, resulting in the attention schema, a low-dimensional representation of the high-dimensional complexities comprising things like visual attention upon an apple. And this, Graziano maintains, is what ‘subjective awareness’ ultimately amounts to: “the brain’s internal model of the process of attention” (1).

And this is where the confusion begins, as much for Webb and Graziano as for myself. For one, ‘consciousness’ has vanished from the title of the theory, replaced by the equally overdetermined ‘subjective awareness.’ For another, the bald claims that consciousness is simply a delusion have all but vanished. As recently as last year, Graziano wrote:

How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t. The brain has arrived at a conclusion that is not correct. When we introspect and seem to find that ghostly thing — awareness, consciousness, the way green looks or pain feels — our cognitive machinery is accessing internal models and those models are providing information that is wrong. The machinery is computing an elaborate story about a magical-seeming property. And there is no way for the brain to determine through introspection that the story is wrong, because introspection always accesses the same incorrect information. “Are We Really Conscious,” The New York Times Sunday Review.

Here there simply is no such thing as subjective awareness: it’s a kind of cognitive illusion foisted on the brain by the low-dimensionality of the attention schema. Now, however, the status of subjective awareness is far less clear. Webb and Graziano provide the same blind brain explanation (down to the metaphors, no less) for the peculiar properties apparently characterizing subjective awareness: since the brain has no use for high-dimensional information, the “model would be more like a cartoon sketch that depicts the most important, and useful aspects of attention, without representing any of the mechanistic details that make attention actually happen” (2). As a result of this opportunistic simplification, it makes sense that a brain:

“would conclude that it possesses a phenomenon with all of the most salient aspects of attention – the ability to take mental possession of an object, focus one’s resources on it, and, ultimately, act on it – but without any of the mechanisms that make this process physically possible. It would conclude that it possesses a magical, non-physical essence, but one which can nevertheless act and exert causal control over behavior, a mysterious conclusion indeed.” 2

This is a passage that would strike any long time followers of TPB as a canonical expression of Blind Brain Theory, but there are some key distinctions dividing the two pictures, which I’ll turn to in a moment. For the nonce, it’s worth noting that it’s not so much subjective awareness (consciousness) that now stands charged with deception, as the kinds of impossible properties that attributed to it. Given that subjective awareness is the explicit explanandum, there’s a pretty important ambiguity here between subjective awareness as attention schema and subjective awareness as impossible construct. Even though the latter is clearly a cognitive illusion, the former is real insofar as the attention schema is real.

For its part, Blind Brain Theory is a theory, not of consciousness, but of the appearance of consciousness. It provides a principled way to detect, diagnose and even circumvent the kinds of cognitive illusions the limits of deliberative metacognition inflict upon reflection. It only explains why, given the kind of metacognitive resources our brains actually possess, the problem of consciousness constitutes a ‘crash space,’ a domain where we continually run afoul the heuristic limitations of our tools. So when I reflect upon my sensorium, for instance, even though I am unencumbered by supernatural characterizations of phenomenology—subjective awareness—something very mysterious remains to be explained, it’s just nowhere near so mysterious as someone like, Chalmers, for instance, is inclined to think.

Graziano, on the other hand, thinks he possesses a bona fide theory of consciousness. The attention schema, on his account, is awareness. So when he reflects upon his sensorium, he’s convinced he’s reflecting upon his ‘attention schema,’ that this is the root of what consciousness consists in—somehow.

I say ‘somehow,’ because in no way is it clear why the attention schema, out of all the innumerable schematisms the brain uses to overcome the ‘curse of dimensionality,’ should be the one possessing (the propensity to be duped by?) subjective awareness. In other words, AST basically suffers the same problem all neural identity theories suffer: explaining what makes one set of neural mechanisms ‘aware’ while others remain ‘dark.’ Our brains run afoul their cognitive limitations all the time, turn on countless heuristic schema: why is the attention schema prone to elicit sensoriums and the like?

Note that he has no way of answering, ‘Because that’s how attention is modelled,’ without begging the question. We want to know what makes modelling attention so special as to result in what, mistaken or not, we seem to be enjoying this very moment now. Even though he bills Attention Schema Theory as a ‘mechanistic account of subjective awareness,’ there’s a real sense in which consciousness, or ‘subjective awareness,’ is left entirely unexplained. Why should a neurobiologically instantiated schema of the mechanisms of attention result in this mad hall of mirrors we are sharing (or not) this very moment?

Graziano and Webb have no more clue than anyone. AST provides a limited way to understand the peculiarities of experience, but it really has no way whatsoever of explaining the fact of experience.

He had no such problem with the earlier versions of AST simply because he could write off consciousness as an illusion entirely, as a ‘squirrel in the head.’ Once he had dispatched with the peculiarities of experience, he could slap his pants and go home. But of course, this stranded him with the absurd position of denying the existence of conscious experience altogether.

Now he acknowledges that consciousness exists, going so far as to suggest that AST is consistent with and extends beyond global workspace and information integration accounts.

“The attention schema theory is consistent with these previous proposals, but also goes beyond them. In the attention schema theory, awareness does not arise just because the brain integrates information or settles into a network state, anymore than the perceptual model of color arises just because information in the visual system becomes integrated or settles into a state. Specific information about color must be constructed by the visual system and integrated with other visual information. Just so, in the case of awareness, the construct of awareness must be computed. Then it can be integrated with other information. Then the brain has sufficient information to conclude and report not only, “thing X is red,” or, “thing X is round,” but also, “I am aware of thing X.” 3

If this is the case, then subjective awareness has to be far more than the mere product of neural fiat, a verbal reporting system uttering the terms, “I am aware of X.” And it also has to be far more than simply paying attention to the model of attention. If AST extends beyond global workspace and information integration accounts, then the phenomenon of consciousness exceeds the explanatory scope of AST. Before subjective awareness was a metacognitive figment, the judgment, “I am aware of thing X” exhausted the phenomenology of experiencing X. Now subjective awareness is a matter of integrating the ‘construct of awareness’ (the attention schema) with ‘other information’ to produce the brain’s conclusion of phenomenology.

At the very least, the explanatory target of AST needs to be clarified. Just what is the explanandum of the Attention Schema Theory? And more importantly, how does the account amount to anything more than certain correlations between a vague model and the vague phenomena(lity) it purports to explain?

I actually think it’s quite clear that Graziano has conflated what are ultimately two incompatible insights into the nature of consciousness. The one is simply that consciousness and attention are intimately linked, and the other is that metacognition is necessarily heuristic. Given this conflation, he has confused the explanatory power of the latter as warrant for reducing subjective awareness to the attention schema. The explanatory power of the latter, of course, is simply the explanatory power of Blind Brain Theory, the way heuristic neglect allows us to understand a wide number of impossible properties typically attributed to intentional phenomena. Unlike the original formulation of AST, Blind Brain Theory has always been consilient with global workspace and information integration accounts simply because heuristic neglect says nothing about what consciousness consists in, only the kinds of straits the limits of the human brain impose upon the human brain’s capacity to cognize its own functions. It says a great deal about why we find ourselves still, after thousands of years of reflection and debate, completely stumped by our own nature. It depends on the integrative function of consciousness to be able to explain the kinds of ‘identity effects’ it uses to diagnose various metacognitive illusions, but beyond this, BBT remains agnostic on the nature of consciousness (even as it makes hash of the consciousness we like to think we have).

But even though BBT is consilient with global workspace and information integration accounts the same as AST, it is not consilient with AST. Unpacking the reasons for this incompatibility makes the nature of the conflation underwriting AST quite clear.

Graziano takes a great number of things for granted in his account, not the least of which is metacognition. Theory is all about taking things for granted, of course, but only the right things. AST, as it turns out, is not only a theory of subjective awareness, it’s also a theory of metacognition. Subjective awareness, on Graziano’s account, is a metacognitive tool. The primary function of the attention schema is to enable executive control of attentional mechanisms. As they write, “[i]n this perspective, awareness is an internal model of attention useful for the control of attention” (5). Consciousness is a metacognitive device, a heuristic the brain uses to direct and allocate attentional (cognitive) resources.

We know that it’s heuristic because, even though Webb and Graziano nowhere reference the research of fast and frugal heuristics, they cover the characteristics essential to them. The attention schema, we are told, provides only the information the brain requires to manage attention and nothing more. In other words, the attention schema possesses what Gerd Gigerenzer and his fellow researchers at the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Institute call a particular ‘problem ecology,’ one that determines what information gets neglected and what information gets used (see, Ecological Rationality). This heuristic neglect in turn explains why, on Webb and Graziano’s account, subjective awareness seems to possess the peculiar properties it does. When we attend to our attention, the neglect of natural (neurobiological) information cues the intuition that something not natural is going on. Heuristic misapplications, as Wimsatt has long argued, lead to systematic errors.

But of course the feasibility of solving any problem turns on the combination of the information available and the cognitive capacity possessed. Social cognition, for instance, allows us to predict, explain, and manipulate our fellows on the basis of so little information that ‘computational intractibility’ remains a cornerstone of mindreading debates.  In other words, the absence of neurobiological information in the attention schema only explains the apparently supernatural status of subjective awareness given certain metacognitive capacities. Graziano’s attention schema may be a metacognitive tool, a way to manage cognitive resources, but it is the ‘object’ of metacognition as well.

For me, this is where the whole theory simply falls apart—and obviously so. The problem is that the more cognitive neuroscience learns about metacognition, the more fractionate and specialized it appears to be. Each of these ‘kluges’ represents adaptations to certain high impact, environmental problems. The information subjective awareness provides leverages many different solutions to many different kinds of dilemmas, allowing us to bite our tongues at Thanksgiving dinner, ponder our feelings toward so-and-so, recognize our mistakes, compulsively ruminate upon relationships, and so on, while at the same time systematically confounding our attempts to deduce the nature of our souls. The fact is, the information selected, stabilized, and broadcast via consciousness, enables far, far more than simply the ability to manage attention.

But if subjective awareness provides solutions to a myriad of problems given the haphazard collection of metacognitive capacities we possess, then in what sense does it count as a ‘representation of’ the brain’s attentional processes? Is it the case that a heuristic (evolutionarily opportunistic) model of that machinery holds the solution to all problems? Prima facie, at least, the prospects of such a hypothesis seem dim. When trying to gauge our feelings about a romantic partner, is it a ‘representation’ of our brain’s attentional processes that we need, or is it metacognitive access to our affects?

Perhaps sensing this easy exit, Webb and Graziano raise some hasty barricades:

“According to the attention schema theory, the brain constructs a simplified model of the complex process of attention. If the theory is correct, then the attention schema, the construct of awareness, is relevant to any type of information to which the brain can pay attention. The relevant domain covers all vision, audition, touch, indeed any sense, as well as internal thoughts, emotions, and ideas. The brain can allocate attention to all of these types of information. Therefore awareness, the internal representation of attention, should apply to the same range of information.” 9

So even though a representation of the brain’s attentional resources is not what we need when we inspect our feelings regarding another, it remains ‘applicable’ to such an inspection. If we accept that awareness of our feelings is required to inspect our feelings, does this mean that awareness somehow arises on the basis of the ‘applicability’ of the attention schema, or does it mean that the attention schema somehow mediates all such metacognitive activities?

Awareness of our feelings is required to inspect our feelings. This means the attention schema underwrites our ability to inspect our feelings, as should come as no surprise, given that the attention schema underwrites all conscious metacognition. But if the attention schema underwrites all conscious metacognition, it also underwrites all conscious metacognitive functions. And if the attention schema underwrites all conscious metacognitive functions, then, certainly, it models far, far more than mere attention.

The dissociation between subjective awareness and the attention schema seems pretty clear. Consciousness is bigger than attention, and heuristic neglect applies to far more than our attempts to understand the ‘attention schema’—granted there is such a thing.

But what about the post facto ‘predictions’ that Webb and Graziano present as evidence for AST?

Given that consciousness is the attention schema and the primary function of the attention schema is the control of attention, we should expect divergences between attention and awareness, and we should expect convergences between awareness and attentional control. Webb and Graziano adduce experimental evidence of both, subsequently arguing that AST is the best explanation, even though the sheer generality of the theory makes it hard to see the explanatory gain. As it turns out, awareness correlates with attentional control because awareness is an attentional control mechanism, and awareness uncouples with attention because awareness, as a representation of attention, is something different than attention. If you ask me, this kind of ’empirical evidence’ only serves to underscore the problems with the account more generally.

Ultimately, I just really don’t see how AST amounts to a workable theory of consciousness. It could be applied, perhaps, as a workable theory for the appearance of consciousness, but then only as a local application of the far more comprehensive picture of heuristic neglect Blind Brain Theory provides. These limits become especially clear when one considers the social dimensions of AST, where Graziano sees it discharging some of the functions Dennett attributes to the ‘intentional stance.’ But since AST possesses no account of intentionality whatsoever (indeed, Graziano doesn’t seem to be aware of the problems posed by aboutness or content), it completely neglects the intentional dimensions of social cognition. Since social cognition is intentional cognition, it’s hard to understand how AST does much more than substitute a conceptually naïve notion of ‘attention’ for intentionality more broadly construed.

Post-Intentionality Redux

by rsbakker

Hello I am Intentional


Peter Hankins of Conscious Entities fame has posted his thoughts on my Scientia Salon piece here. As always, I think Conscious Entities is the best site on the web for those seeking clear and impartial op-editorial updates on the world of cognitive science and consciousness research–far more so than Three Pound Brain! Which is okay. Here, the idea is to push a certain boundary, whereas there, the idea is to assess many of the different boundaries being pushed.


The Blind Mechanic

by rsbakker

Thus far, the assumptive reality of intentional phenomena has provided the primary abductive warrant for normative metaphysics. The Eliminativist could do little more than argue the illusory nature of intentional phenomena on the basis of their incompatibility with the higher-dimensional view of  science. Since science was itself so obviously a family of normative practices, and since numerous intentional concepts had been scientifically operationalized, the Eliminativist was easily characterized as an extremist, a skeptic who simply doubted too much to be cogent. And yet, the steady complication of our understanding of consciousness and cognition has consistently served to demonstrate the radically blinkered nature of metacognition. As the work of Stanislaus Dehaene and others is making clear, consciousness is a functional crossroads, a serial signal delivered from astronomical neural complexities for broadcast to astronomical neural complexities. Conscious metacognition is not only blind to the actual structure of experience and cognition, it is blind to this blindness. We now possess solid, scientific reasons to doubt the assumptive reality that underwrites the Intentionalist’s position.

The picture of consciousness that researchers around the world are piecing together is the picture predicted by Blind Brain Theory.  It argues that the entities and relations posited by Intentional philosophy are the result of neglect, the fact that philosophical reflection is blind to its inability to see. Intentional heuristics are adapted to first-order social problem-solving, and are generally maladaptive in second-order theoretical contexts. But since we lack the metacognitive werewithal to even intuit the distinction between any specialized cognitive device, we assume applicability where their is none, and so continually blunder at the problem, again and again. The long and the short of it is that the Intentionalist needs some empirically plausible account of metacognition to remain tenable, some account of how they know the things they claim to know. This was always the case, of course, but with BBT the cover provided by the inscrutability of intentionality disappears. Simply put, the Intentionalist can no longer tie their belt to the post of ineliminability.

Science is the only reliable provender of theoretical cognition we have, and to the extent that intentionality frustrates science, it frustrates theoretical cognition. BBT allays that frustration. BBT allows us to recast what seem to be irreducible intentional problematics in terms entirely compatible with the natural scientific paradigm. It lets us stick with the high-dimensional, information-rich view. In what follows I hope to show how doing so, even at an altitude, handily dissolves a number of intentional snarls.

In Davidson’s Fork, I offered an eliminativist radicalization of Radical Interpretation, one that characterized the scene of interpreting another speaker from scratch in mechanical terms. What follows is preliminary in every sense, a way to suss out the mechanical relations pertinent to reason and interpretation. Even still, I think the resulting picture is robust enough to make hash of Reza Negarestani’s Intentionalist attempt to distill the future of the human in “The Labor of the Inhuman” (part I can be found here, and part II, here). The idea is to rough out the picture in this post, then chart its critical repercussions against the Brandomian picture so ingeniously extended by Negarestani. As a first pass, I fear my draft will be nowhere near so elegant as Negarestani’s, but as I hope to show, it is revealing in the extreme, a sketch of the ‘nihilistic desert’ that philosophers have been too busy trying to avoid to ever really sit down and think through.

A kind of postintentional nude.

As we saw two posts back, if you look at interpretation in terms of two stochastic machines attempting to find some mutual, causally systematic accord between the causally systematic accords each maintains with their environment, the notion of Charity, or the attribution of rationality, as some kind of indispensible condition of interpretation falls by the wayside, replaced by a kind of ‘communicative pre-established harmony’—or ‘Harmony,’ as I’ll refer to it here. There is no ‘assumption of rationality,’ no taking of ‘intentional stances,’ because these ‘attitudes’ are not only not required, they express nothing more than a radically blinkered metacognitive gloss on what is actually going on.

Harmony, then, is the sum of evolutionary stage-setting required for linguistic coupling. It refers to the way we have evolved to be linguistically attuned to our respective environmental attunements, enabling the formation of superordinate systems possessing greater capacities. The problem of interpretation is the problem of Disharmony, the kinds of ‘slippages’ in systematicity that impair or, as in the case of Radical Interpretation, prevent the complex coordination of behaviours. Getting our interpretations right, in other words, can be seen as a form of noise reduction. And since the traditional approach concentrates on the role rationality plays in getting our interpretations right, this raises the prospect that what we call reason can be seen as a kind of noise reduction mechanism, a mechanism for managing the systematicity—or ‘tuning’ as I’ll call it here—between disparate interpreters and the world.

On this account, these very words constitute an exercise in tuning, an attempt to tweak your covariational regime in a manner that reduces slippages between you and your (social and natural) world. If language is the causal thread we use to achieve intersystematic relations with our natural and social environments, then ‘reason’ is simply one way we husband the efficacy of that causal thread.

So let’s start from scratch, scratch. What do evolved, biomechanical systems such as humans need to coordinate astronomically complex covariational regimes with little more than sound? For one, they need ways to trigger selective activations of the other’s regime for effective behavioural uptake. Triggering requires some kind of dedicated cognitive sensitivity to certain kinds of sounds—those produced by complex vocalizations, in our case. As with any environmental sensitivity, iteration is the cornerstone, here. The complexity of the coordination possible will of course depend on the complexity of the activations triggered. To the extent that evolution rewards complex behavioural coordination, we can expect evolution to reward the communicative capacity to trigger complex activations. This is where the bottleneck posed by the linearity of auditory triggers becomes all important: the adumbration of iterations is pretty much all we have, trigger-wise. Complex activation famously requires some kind of molecular cognitive sensitivity to vocalizations, the capacity to construct novel, covariational complexities on the slim basis of adumbrated iterations. Linguistic cognition, in other words, needs to be a ‘combinatorial mechanism,’ a device (or series of devices) able to derive complex activations given only a succession of iterations.

These combinatorial devices correspond to what we presently understand, in disembodied/supernatural form, as grammar, logic, reason, and narrative. They are neuromechanical processes—the long history of aphasiology assures us of this much. On BBT, their apparent ‘formal nature’ simply indicates that they are medial, belonging to enabling processes outside the purview of metacognition. This is why they had to be discovered, why our efficacious ‘knowledge’ of them remains ‘implicit’ or invisible/inaccessible. This is also what accounts for their apparent ‘transcendent’ or ‘a priori’ nature, the spooky metacognitive sense of ‘absent necessity’—as constitutive of linguistic comprehension, they are, not surprisingly, indispensible to it. Located beyond the metacognitive pale, however, their activities are ripe for post hoc theoretical mischaracterization.

Say someone asks you to explain modus ponens, ‘Why ‘If p, then q’?’ Medial neglect means that the information available for verbal report when we answer has nothing to do with the actual processes involved in, ‘If p, then q,’ so you say something like, ‘It’s a rule of inference that conserves truth.’ Because language needs something to hang onto, and because we have no metacognitive inkling of just how dismal our inklings are, we begin confabulating realms, some ontologically thick and ‘transcendental,’ others razor thin and ‘virtual,’ but both possessing the same extraordinary properties otherwise. Because metacognition has no access to the actual causal functions responsible, once the systematicities are finally isolated in instances of conscious deliberation, those systematicities are reported in a noncausal idiom. The realms become ‘intentional,’ or ‘normative.’ Dimensionally truncated descriptions of what modus ponens does (‘conserves truth’) become the basis of claims regarding what it is. Because the actual functions responsible belong to the enabling neural architecture they possess an empirical necessity that can only seem absolute or unconditional to metacognition—as should come as no surprise, given that a perspective ‘from the inside on the inside,’ as it were, has no hope of cognizing the inside the way the brain cognizes its outside more generally, or naturally.

I’m just riffing here, but it’s worth getting a sense of just how far this implicature can reach.

Consider Carroll’s “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.” The reason Achilles can never logically compel the Tortoise with the statement of another rule is that each rule cited becomes something requiring justification. The reason we think we need things like ‘axioms’ or ‘communal norms’ is that the metacognitive capacity to signal for additional ‘tuning’ can be applied at any communicative juncture. This is the Tortoise’s tactic, his way of showing how ‘logical necessity’ is actually contingent. Metacognitive blindness means that citing another rule is all that can be done, a tweak that can be queried once again in turn. Carroll’s puzzle is a puzzle, not because it reveals that the source of ‘normative force’ lies in some ‘implicit other’ (the community, typically), but because of the way it forces metacognition to confront its limits—because it shows us to be utterly ignorant of knowing, how it functions, let alone what it consists in. In linguistic tuning, some thread always remains unstitched, the ‘foundation’ is always left hanging simply because the adumbration of iterations is always linear and open ended.

The reason why ‘axioms’ need to be stipulated or why ‘first principles’ always run afoul the problem of the criterion is simply that they are low-dimensional glosses on high-dimensional (‘embodied’) processes that are causal. Rational ‘noise reduction’ is a never ending job; it has to be such, insofar as noise remains an ineliminable by-product of human communicative coordination. From a pitiless, naturalistic standpoint, knowledge consists of breathtakingly intricate, but nonetheless empirical (high-dimensional, embodied), ways to environmentally covary—and nothing more. There is no ‘one perfect covariational regime,’ just degrees of downstream behavioural efficacy. Likewise, there is no ‘perfect reason,’ no linguistic mechanism capable of eradicating all noise.

What we have here is an image of reason and knowledge as ‘rattling machinery,’ which is to say, as actual and embodied. On this account, reason enables various mechanical efficiencies; it allows groups of humans to secure more efficacious coordination for collective behaviour. It provides a way of policing the inevitable slippages between covariant regimes. ‘Truth,’ on this account, simply refers to the sufficiency of our covariant regimes for behaviour, the fact that they do enable efficacious environmental interventions. The degree to which reason allows us to converge on some ‘truth’ is simply the degree to which it enables mechanical relationships, actual embodied encounters with our natural and social environments. Given Harmony—the sum of evolutionary stage-setting required—it allows collectives to maximize the efficiencies of coordinated activity by minimizing the interpretative noise that hobbles all collective endeavours.

Language, then, allows humans to form superordinate mechanisms consisting of ‘airy parts,’ to become components of ‘superorganisms,’ whose evolved sensitivities allow mere sounds to tweak and direct, to generate behaviour enabling intersystematicities. ‘Reason,’ more specifically, allows for the policing and refining of these intersystematicities. We are all ‘semantic mechanics’ with reference to one another, continually tinkering and being tinkered with, calibrating and being calibrated, generally using efficacious behaviour, the ability to manipulate social and natural environments, to arbitrate the sufficiency of our ‘fixes.’ And all of this plays out in the natural arena established by evolved Harmony.

Now this ‘rattling machinery’ image of reason and knowledge is obviously true in some respect: We are embodied, after-all, causally embroiled in our causal environments. Language is an evolutionary product, as is reason. Misfires are legion, as we might expect. The only real question is whether this rattling machinery can tell the whole story. The Intentionalist, of course, says no. They claim that the intentional enjoys some kind of special functional existence over and above this rattling machinery, that it constitutes a regime of efficacy somehow grasped via the systematic interrogation of our intentional intuitions.

The stakes are straightforward. Either what we call intentional solutions are actually mechanical solutions that we cannot intuit as mechanical solutions, or what we call intentional solutions are actually intentional solutions that we can intuit as intentional solutions. What renders this first possibility problematic is radical skepticism. Since we intuit intentional solutions as intentional, it suggests that our intuitions are deceptive in the extreme. Because our civilization has trusted these intuitions since the birth of philosophy, they have come to inform a vast portion of our traditional understanding. What renders this second possibility problematic is, first and foremost, supernaturalism. Since the intentional is incompatible with the natural, the intentional must consist either in something not natural, or in something that forces us to completely revise our understanding of the natural. And even if such a feat could be accomplished, the corresponding claim that it could be intuited as such remains problematic.

Blind Brain Theory provides a way of seeing Intentionalism as a paradigmatic example of ‘noocentrism,’ as the product of a number of metacognitive illusions analogous to the cognitive illusion underwriting the assumption of geocentrism, centuries before. It is important to understand that there is no reason why our normative problem-solving should appear as it is to metacognition—least of all, the successes of those problem-solving regimes we call intentional. The successes of mathematics stand in astonishing contrast to the failure to understand just what mathematics is. The same could be said of any formalism that possesses practical application. It even applies to our everyday use of intentional terms. In each case, our first-order assurance utterly evaporates once we raise theoretically substantive, second-order questions—exactly as BBT predicts. This contrast of breathtaking first-order problem solving power and second-order ineptitude is precisely what one might expect if the information accessible to metacognition was geared to domain specific problem-solving. Add anosognosia to the mix, the inability to metcognize our metacognitive incapacity, and one has a wickedly parsimonious explanation for the scholastic mountains of inert speculation we call philosophy.

(But then, in retrospect, this was how it had to be, didn’t it? How it had to end? With almost everyone horrifically wrong. A whole civilization locked in some kind of dream. Should anyone really be surprised?)

Short of some unconvincing demand that our theoretical account appease a handful of perennially baffling metacognitive intuitions regarding ourselves, it’s hard to see why anyone should entertain the claim that reason requires some ‘special X’ over and above our neurophysiology (and prostheses). Whatever conscious cognition is, it clearly involves the broadcasting/integration of information arising from unknown sources for unknown consumers. It simply follows that conscious metacognition has no access whatsoever to the various functions actually discharged by conscious cognition. The fact that we have no intuitive awareness of the panoply of mechanisms cognitive science has isolated demonstrates that we are prone to at least one profound metacognitive illusion—namely ‘self-transparency.’ The ‘feeling of willing’ is generally acknowledged as another such illusion, as is homuncularism or the ‘Cartesian Theatre.’ How much does it take before we acknowledge the systematic unreliability of our metacognitive intuitions more generally? Is it really just a coincidence, the ghostly nature of norms and the ghostly nature of perhaps the most notorious metacognitive illusion of all, souls? Is it mere happenstance, the apparent acausal autonomy of normativity and our matter of fact inability to source information consciously broadcast? Is it really the case that all these phenomena, these cause-incompatible intentional things, are ‘otherworldly’ for entirely different reasons? At some point it has to begin to seem all too convenient.

Make no mistake, the Rattling Machinery image is a humbling one. Reason, the great, glittering sword of the philosopher, becomes something very local, very specific, the meaty product of one species at one juncture in their evolutionary development.

On this account, ‘reason’ is a making-machinic machine, a ‘devicing device’—the ‘blind mechanic’ of human communication. Argumentation facilitates the efficacy of behavioural coordination, drastically so, in many instances. So even though this view relegates reason to one adaptation among others, it still concedes tremendous significance to its consequences, especially when viewed in the context of other specialized cognitive capacities. The ability to recall and communicate former facilitations, for instance, enables cognitive ‘ratcheting,’ the stacking of facilitations upon facilitations, and the gradual refinement, over time, of the covariant regimes underwriting behaviour—the ‘knapping’ of knowledge (and therefore behaviour), you might say, into something ever more streamlined, ever more effective.

The thinker, on this account, is a tinker. As I write this, myriad parallel processors are generating a plethora of nonconscious possibilities that conscious cognition serially samples and broadcasts to myriad other nonconscious processors, generating more possibilities for serial sampling and broadcasting. The ‘picture of reason’ I’m attempting to communicate becomes more refined, more systematically interrelated (for better or worse) to my larger covariant regime, more prone to tweak others, to rewrite their systematic relationship to their environments, and therefore their behaviour. And as they ponder, so they tinker, and the process continues, either to peter out in behavioural futility, or to find real environmental traction (the way I ‘tink’ it will (!)) in a variety of behavioural contexts.

Ratcheting means that the blind mechanic, for all its misfires, all its heuristic misapplications, is always working on the basis of past successes. Ratcheting, in other words, assures the inevitability of technical ‘progress,’ the gradual development of ever more effective behaviours, the capacity to componentialize our environments (and each other) in more and more ways—to the point where we stand now, the point where intersystematic intricacy enables behaviours that allow us to forego the ‘airy parts’ altogether. To the point where the behaviour enabled by cognitive structure can now begin directly knapping that structure, regardless of the narrow tweaking channels, sensitivities, provided by evolution.

The point of the Singularity.

For some time now I’ve been arguing that the implications of the Singularity already embroil us—that the Singularity can be seen, in fact, as the material apotheosis of the Semantic Apocalypse, insofar as it is the point where the Scientific Image of the human at last forecloses on the Manifest Image.

This brings me to Reza Negarestani’s, “The Labor of the Inhuman,” his two-part meditation on the role we should expect—even demand—reason to play in the Posthuman. He adopts Brandom’s claim that sapience, the capacity to play the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ distinguishes humans as human. He then goes on to argue that this allows us, and ultimately commits us, to seeing the human as a kind of temporally extended process of rational revision, one that ultimately results in the erasure of the human—or the ‘inhuman.’ Ultimately, what it means to be human is to be embroiled in a process of becoming inhuman. He states his argument thus:

The contention of this essay is that universality and collectivism cannot be thought, let alone attained, through consensus or dissensus between cultural tropes, but only by intercepting and rooting out what gives rise to the economy of false choices and by activating and fully elaborating what real human significance consists of. For it is, as will be argued, the truth of human significance—not in the sense of an original meaning or a birthright, but in the sense of a labor that consists of the extended elaboration of what it means to be human through a series of upgradable special performances—that is rigorously inhuman.

In other words, so long as we fail to comprehend the inhumanity of the human, this rational-revisionary process, we fail to understand the human, and so have little hope of solving problems pertaining to the human. Understanding the ‘truth of human significance,’ therefore requires understanding what the future will make of the human. This requires that Negarestani prognosticate, that he pick out the specific set of possibilities constituting the inhuman. The only principled way to do that is to comprehend some set of systematic constraints operative in the present. But his credo, unlike that of the ‘Hard SF’ writer, is to ignore the actual technics of the natural, and to focus on the speculative technics of the normative. His strategy, in other words, is to predict the future of the human using only human resources—to see the fate of the human, the ‘inhuman,’ as something internal to the intentionality of the human. And this, as I hope to show in the following installment, is simply not plausible.

The Ontology of Ghosts

by rsbakker

In the courtyard a shadowy giant elm

Spreads ancient boughs, her ancient arms where dreams,

False dreams, the old tale goes, beneath each leaf

Cling and are numberless.

–Virgil, The Aenied, Book VI


I’m always amazed, looking back, at how fucking clear things had seemed at this or that juncture of my philosophical life—how lucid. The two early conversions, stumbling into nihilism as a teenager, then climbing into Heidegger in my early twenties, seem the most ‘religious’ in retrospect. I think this is why I never failed to piss people off even back then. You have this self-promoting skin you wear when you communicate, this tactical gloss that compels you to impress. This is what non-intellectuals hear when you speak, tactics and self-promotion. This is why it’s so easy to tar intellectualism in the communal eye: insecurity and insincerity are of its essence. All value judgements are transitive in human psychology: Laugh up your sleeve at what I say, and you are laughing at me. I was an insecure, hypercritical, know-it-all. You add the interpersonal trespasses of religion—intolerance, intensity, and aggressiveness—and I think it’s safe to assume I came across as an obnoxious prick.

But if I was evangelical, it was that I could feel those transformations. Each position possessed its own, distinct metacognitive attitude toward experience, a form of that I attributed to this, whatever it might be. With my adolescent nihilism, I remember obsessively pondering the way my thoughts bubbled up out of oblivion—and being stupefied. I was some kind of inexplicable kink in the real. I was so convinced I was an illusion that I would ache for being alone, grip furniture for fear of flying.

But with Heidegger, it was like stepping into a more resonant clime, into a world rebarred with meaning, with projects and cares and rules and hopes. A world of towardness, where what you are now is a manifold of happenings, a gazing into an illuminated screen, a sitting in a world bound to you via your projects, a grasping of these very words. The intentional things, the phenomena of lived life, these were the foundation, I believed, the sine qua non of empirical inquiry. Before we can ask the question of freedom and meaning we need to ask the question of what comes first.

What could be more real than lived life?

It took a long time for me to realize just how esoteric, just how parochial, my definition of ‘lived life’ was. No matter how high you scratch your charcoal cloud, the cave wall always has the final say. It’s the doctors that keep you alive; philosophers just help you fall to sleep. Everywhere I looked across Continental philosophy, I saw all these crazy-ass interpretations, variants spanning variants, revivals and exhaustions, all trying to get the handle on the intentional ontology of a ‘lived life’ that took years of specialized training to appreciate. This is how I began asking the question of the cognitive difference. And this is how I found myself back at the beginning, my inaugural, adolescent departure from the naive.

The difference being, I am no longer stupefied.

I have a new religion, one that straightens out all the kinks, and so dispels rather than saves the soul. I am no exception. I have been chosen by nobody for nothing. I am continuous with the x-dimensional totality that we call nature—continuous in every respect. I watch images from Hubble, the most distant galactic swirls, and I tell myself, I am this, and I feel grand and empty. I am the environment that chokes, the climate that reels. I am the body that the doctor attends…

And you are too.

Thus the most trivial prophecy, the prediction that you will waver, crumble, that the florescent light will wobble to the sound of loved ones weeping… breathing. That someone, maybe, will clutch your hand.

Such hubris, when you think about it, to assume that lived life lay at your intellectual fingertips—the thing most easily grasped! For someone who has spent their life reading philosophy this stands tall among the greater insults: the knowledge that we have been duped all along, that all those profundities, that resonant world I found such joy and rancour pondering, were little more than the artifact of machines taking their shadows for reflections, the cave wall for a looking glass.

I am the residue of survival—living life. I am an astronomically complicated system, a multifarious component of superordinate systems that cannot cognize itself as such for being such. I am a serial gloss, a transmission from nowhere into nowhere, a pattern plucked from subpersonal pandemonium and broadcast to the neural horde. I am a message that I cannot conceive. As. Are. You.

I can show you pictures of dead people to prove it. Lives lived out.

The first-person is a selective precis of this totality, one that poses as the totality. And this is the trick, the way to unravel the kink and see how it is that Heidegger could confuse his semantic vision with seeing. The oblivion behind my thoughts is the oblivion of neglect. Because oblivion has no time, I have no time, and so watch amazed as my shining hands turn to leather. I breathe deep and think, Now. Because oblivion constrains nothing, I follow rules of my own will, pursue goals of my own desire. I stretch forth my hand and remake what lies before me. Because oblivion distinguishes nothing, I am one. I raise my voice and declare, Me. Because oblivion reveals nothing, I stand opposite the world, always only aimed, never connected. I squint and I squint and I ask, How do I know?

I am bottomless because my foundation was never mine to see. I am a perspective, an agent, a person, just another dude-with-a-bad-attitude—I am all these things because of the way I am not any of these things. I am not what I am because of what I am—again, the same as you.

Ghosts can be defined as a fragment cognized as a whole. In some cultures ghosts have no backs, no faces, no feet. In most all cultures they have no substance, no consistency, temporal or otherwise. The dimensions of lived life have been stripped from them; they are shades, animate shadows. As Virgil says of Aeneas attempting to embrace his father, Anchises, in the Underworld:

 Then thrice around his neck his arms he threw;

And thrice the flitting shadow slipp’d away,

Like winds, or empty dreams that fly the day.

Ghosts are the incorporeal remainder, the something shorn of substance and consistency. This is the lived life of Heidegger, an empty dream that flew the day. Insofar as Dasein lacks meat, Dasein dwells with the dead, another shade in the underworld, another passing fancy. We are not ghosts. If lived life lies in the meat, then the truth of lived life lies in the meat. The truth of what we are runs orthogonal to the being that we all swear that we must be. Consciousness is an anosognosiac broker, and we are the serial sum of deals struck between parties utterly unknown. Who are the orthogonal parties? What are the deals? These are the questions that aim us at our most essential selves, at what we are in fact. These are the answers being pursued by industry.

And yet we insist on the reality of ghosts, so profound is the glamour spun by neglect. There are no orthogonal parties, we cry, and therefore no orthogonal deals. There is no orthogonal regime. Oblivion hides only oblivion. What bubbles up from oblivion, begins with me and ends with me. Thus the enduring attempt to make sense of things sideways, to rummage through the ruin of heaven and erect parallel regimes, ones too impersonal to reek of superstition. We use ghosts of reference to bind our inklings to the world, ghosts of inference to bind our inklings to one another, ghosts of quality to give ethereal substance to experience. Ghosts and more ghosts, all to save the mad, inescapable intuition that our intuitions must be real somehow. We raise them as architecture, and demur whenever anyone poses the mundane question of building material.

‘Thought’… No word short of ‘God’ has shut down more thinking.

Content is a wraith. Freedom is a vapour. Experience is a dream. The analogy is no coincidence.

The ontology of meaning is the ontology of ghosts.




Incomplete Cognition: An Eliminativist Reading of Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature

by rsbakker

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter

Goal seeking, willing, rule-following, knowing, desiring—these are just some of the things we do that we cannot make sense of in causal terms. We cite intentional phenomena all the time, attributing them the kind of causal efficacy we attribute to the more mundane elements of nature. The problem, as Terrence Deacon frames it, is that whenever we attempt to explain these explainers, we find nothing, only absence and perplexity.

“The inability to integrate these many species of absence-based causality into our scientific methodologies has not just seriously handicapped us, it has effectively left a vast fraction of the world orphaned from theories that are presumed to apply to everything. The very care that has been necessary to systematically exclude these sorts of explanations from undermining our causal analyses of physical, chemical, and biological phenomena has also stymied our efforts to penetrate beyond the descriptive surface of the phenomena of life and mind. Indeed, what might be described as the two most challenging scientific mysteries of the age—both are held hostage by this presumed incompatibility.” Incomplete Nature,12

The question, of course, is whether this incompatibility is the product of our cognitive constitution or the product of some as yet undiscovered twist in nature. Deacon argues the latter. Incomplete Nature is a magisterial attempt to complete nature, to literally rewrite physics in a way that seems to make room for goal seeking, willing, rule-following, knowing, desiring, and so on—in other words, to provide a naturalistic way to make sense of absences that cause. He wants to show how all these things are real.

My own project argues the former, that the notion of ‘absences that cause’ is actually an artifact of neglect. ‘We’ are an astronomically complicated subsystem embedded in the astronomically complicated supersystem that we call ‘nature,’ in such a way that we cannot intuitively cognize ourselves as natural.

The Blind Brain Theory claims to provide the world’s first genuine naturalization of intentionality—a parsimonious, comprehensive way to explain centuries of confusion away. What Intentionalists like Deacon think they are describing are actually twists on a family of metacognitive illusions. Crudely put, since no cognitive capacity could pluck ‘accuracy’ of any kind from the supercomplicated muck of the brain, our metacognitive system confabulates. It’s not that some (yet to be empirically determined) systematicity isn’t there: it’s that the functions discharged via our conscious access to that systematicity are compressed, formatted, and truncated. Metacognition neglects these confounds, and we begin making theoretical inferences assuming the sufficiency of compressed, formatted, and truncated information. Among many things, BBT actually predicts a discursive field clustered about families of metacognitive intuitions, but otherwise chronically incapable of resolving among their claims. When an Intentionalist gives you an account of the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ say, you need only ask them why anyone should subscribe to an ontologization (whether virtual, quasi-transcendental, transcendental, or otherwise) on the basis of almost certainly unreliable metacognitive hunches.

The key conceptual distinction in BBT is that between what I’ve been calling ‘lateral sensitivity’ and ‘medial neglect.’ Lateral sensitivity refers to the brain’s capacity to be ‘imprinted’ by other systems, to be ‘pushed’ in ways that allow it to push back. Since behavioural interventions, or ‘pushing-back,’ requires some kind of systematic relation to the system or systems to be pushed, lateral sensitivity requires being pushed by the right things in the right way. Thus the Inverse Problem and the Bayesian nature of the human brain. The Inverse Problem pertains to the difficulty of inferring the structure/dynamics of some distal system (an avalanche or a wolf, say) via the structure/dynamics of some proximal system (ambient sound or light, say) that reliably co-varies with that distal system. The difficulty is typically described in terms of ambiguity: since any number of distal systems could cause the structure/dynamics of the proximal system, the brain needs some way of allowing the actual distal system to push through the proximal system, if it is to have any hope of pushing back. Unless it becomes a reliable component of its environment, it cannot reliably make components of its environments. This is an important image to keep in mind: that of the larger brainenvironment system, the way the brain is adapted to be pushed, or transformed into a component of larger environmental mechanisms, so as to push back, to ‘componentialize’ environmental mechanisms. Quite simply, we have evolved to be tyrannized by our environment in a manner that enables us to tyrannize our environment.

Lateral sensitivity refers to this ‘tyranny enabling tyranny,’ the brain’s ability to systematically covary with its environment in behaviourally advantageous ways. A system that solves via the Inverse Problem possesses a high degree of reliable covariational complexity. As it turns out, the mechanical complexity required to do this is nothing short of mind-boggling. And as we shall see, this fact possesses some rather enormous consequences. Up to this point, I’ve really only provided an alternate description of the sensorimotor loop; the theoretical dividends begin piling up once we consider lateral sensitivity in concert with medial neglect.

The machinery of lateral sensitivity is so complicated that it handily transcends its own ‘sensitivity threshold.’ This means the brain possesses a profound insensitivity to itself. This might sound daffy, given that the brain simply is a supercomplicated network of mutual sensitivities, but this is actually where the nub of cognition as a distinct biological process is laid bare. Unlike the dedicated sensitivity that underwrites mechanism generally, the sensitivity at issue here involves what might be called the systematic covariation for behaviour. Any process that systematically covaries for behaviour is a properly cognitive process. So the above could be amended to, ‘the brain possesses a profound cognitive insensitivity to itself.’ Medial neglect is this profound cognitive insensitivity.

The advantage of cognition is behaviour, the push-back. The efficacy of this behavioural push-back depends on the sensory push, which is to say, lateral sensitivity. Innumerable behavioural problems, it turns out, require that we be pushed by our pushing back: that our future behaviour (push-back) be informed (pushed) by our ongoing behaviour (pushing-back). Behavioural efficacy is a function of behavioural versatility is a function of lateral sensitivity, which is to say, the capacity to systematically covary with the environment. Medial neglect, therefore, constitutes a critical limit on behavioural efficacy: those ‘problem ecologies’ requiring sensitivity to the neurobiological apparatus of cognition to be solved effectively lay outside the capacity of the system to tackle. We are, quite literally, the ‘elephant in the room,’ a supercomplicated mechanism sensitive to most everything relevant to problem-solving in its environment except itself.

Mechanical allo-sensitivity entails mechanical auto-insensitivity, or auto-neglect. A crucial consequence of this is that efficacious systematic covariation requires unidirectional interaction, or that sensing be ‘passive.’ The degree to which the mechanical activity of tracking actually impacts the system to be tracked is the degree to which that system cannot be reliably tracked. Anticipation via systematic covariation is impossible if the mechanics of the anticipatory system impinge on the mechanics of the system to be anticipated. The insensitivity of the anticipatory system to its own activity, or medial neglect, perforce means insensitivity to systems directly mechanically entangled in that activity. Only ‘passive entanglement’ will do. This explains why so-called ‘observer effects’ confound our ability to predict the behaviour of other systems.

So the stage is set. The brain quite simply cannot cognize itself (or other brains) in the same high-dimensional way it cognizes its environments. (It would be hard to imagine any evolved metacognitive capacity that could achieve such a thing, in fact). It is simply too complex and too entangled. As a result, low-dimensional, special purpose heuristics—fast and frugal kluges—are its only recourse.

The big question I keep asking is, How could it be any other way? Given the problems of complexity and complicity, given the radical nature of the cognitive bottleneck—just how little information is available for conscious, serial processing—how could any evolved metacognitive capacity whatsoever come close to apprehending the functional truth of anything inner’? If you are an Intentionalist, say, you need to explain how the phenomena you’re convinced you intuit are free of perspectival illusions, or conversely, how your metacognitive faculties have overcome the problems posed by complexity and complicity.

On BBT, the brain possesses at least two profoundly different covariational regimes, one integrated, problem-general, and high-dimensional, mediating our engagement in the natural world, the other fractious, problem-specific and low-dimensional, mediating our engagements with ourselves and others (who are also complex and complicit), and thereby our engagement in the natural world. The twist lies in medial neglect, the fact that the latter fractious, problem-specific, and low-dimensional covariational regime is utterly insensitive to its fractious, problem-specific, and low-dimensional nature. Human metacognition is almost entirely blind to the structure of human cognition. This is why we require cognitive science: reflection on our cognitive capacities tells us little or nothing about those capacities, reflection included. Since we have no way of intuiting the insufficiency of these intuitions, we assume they’re sufficient.

We are now in a position to clearly delineate Deacon’s ‘fraction,’ what makes it vast, and why it has been perennially orphaned. Historically, natural science has been concerned with the ‘lateral problem-ecologies,’ with explicating the structure and dynamics of relatively simple systems possessing functional independence. Any problem ecology requiring the mechanistic solution of brains lay outside its purview. Only recently has it developed the capacity to tackle ‘medial problem-ecologies,’ the structure and dynamics of astronomically complex systems possessing no real functional independence. For the first time humanity finds itself confronted with integrated, high-dimensional explications of what it is. The ruckus, of course, is all about how to square these explications with our medial traditions and intuitions. All the so-called ‘hard problems’ turn on our apparent inability to naturalistically find, let alone explain, the phenomena corresponding to our intuitive, metacognitive understanding of the medial.

Why do our integrated, high-dimensional, explications of the medial congenitally ‘leave out’ the phenomena belonging to the medial-as-metacognized? Because metacognitive phenomena like goal seeking, willing, rule-following, knowing, desiring only ‘exist,’ insofar as they exist at all, in specialized problem-solving contexts. ‘Goal seeking’ is something we all do all the time. A friend has an untoward reaction to a comment of ours, so we ask ourselves, in good conscience, ‘What was I after?’ and the process of trying to determine our goal given whatever information we happen to have begins. Despite complexity and complicity, this problem is entirely soluble because we have evolved the heuristic machinery required: we can come to realize that our overture was actually meant to belittle. Likewise, the philosopher asks, ‘What is goal-seeking?’ and the process of trying to determine the nature of goal-seeking given whatever information he happens to have begins. But the problem proves insoluble, not surprisingly, given that the philosopher almost certainly lacks the requisite heuristic machinery. The capacity to solve for goal-seeking qua goal-seeking is just not something our ancestors evolved.

Deacon’s entire problematic turns on the equivocation of the first-order and second-order uses of intentional terms, on the presumption that the ‘goal-seeking’ we metacognize simply has to be the ‘goal-seeking’ referenced in first-order contexts—on the presumption, in other words, of metacognitive adequacy, which is to say something we now know to be false as a matter of empirical fact. For all its grand sweep, for all its lucid recapitulation and provocative conjecture, Incomplete Nature is itself shockingly incomplete. Nowhere does he consider the possibility that the only ‘goal-seeking phenomenon’ missing, the only absence to be explained, is this latter, philosophical goal-seeking.

At no point in the work does he reference, let alone account for, the role metacognition or introspection plays in our attempt to grapple with the incompatibility of natural and intentional phenomena. He simply declares “the obvious inversion of causal logic that distinguishes them” (139), without genuinely considering where that ‘inversion’ occurs. Because this just is the nub of the issue between the emergentist and the eliminativist: whether his ‘obvious inversion’ belongs to the systems observed or to the systems observing. As Deacon writes:

“There is no use denying there is a fundamental causal difference between these domains that must be bridged in any comprehensive theory of causality. The challenge of explaining why such a seeming reversal takes place, and exactly how it does so, must ultimately be faced. At some point in this hierarchy, the causal dynamics of teleological processes do indeed emerge from simpler blind mechanistic dynamics, but we are merely restating this bald fact unless we can identify exactly how this causal about-face is accomplished. We need to stop trying to eliminate homunculi, and to face up to the challenge of constructing teleological properties—information, function, aboutness, end-directedness, self, even conscious experience—from unambiguously non-teleological starting points.” 140

But why do we need to stop ‘trying to eliminate’ homunculi? We know that philosophical reflection on the nature of cognition is woefully unreliable. We know that intentional concepts and phenomena are the stock and trade of philosophical reflection. We know that scientific inquiry generally delegitimizes our prescientific discourses. So why shouldn’t we assume that the matter of intentionality amounts to more of the same?

Deacon never says. He acknowledges “there cannot be a literal ends-causing-the-means process involved” (109) when it comes to intentional phenomena. As he writes:

“Of course, time is neither stopped nor running backwards in any of these processes. Thermodynamic processes are proceeding uninterrupted. Future possible states are not directly causing present events to occur.” 109-110

He acknowledges, in other words, that this ‘inversion of causality’ is apparent only. He acknowledges, in other words, that metacognition is getting things wrong, just not entirely. So what recommends his project of ontologically meeting this appearance halfway over the project of doing away with it altogether? The project of rewriting nature, after all, is far more extravagant than the project of theorizing metacognitive shortcomings.

Deacon’s failure to account for observation-dependent interpretations of intentionality is more than suspiciously convenient, it actually renders the whole of Incomplete Nature an exercise in begging the question. He spends a tremendous amount of time and no little ingenuity in describing the way ‘teleodynamic systems,’ as the result of increasingly recursive complexity, emerge from ‘morphodynamic systems’ which in turn emerge from standard thermodynamic systems. Where thermodynamic systems exhibit straightforward entropy, morphodynamic systems, such as crystal formation, exhibit the tendency to become more ordered. Building on morphodynamics, teleodynamic systems then exhibit the kinds of properties we take to be intentional. A point of pride for Deacon is the way his elaborations turn, as he mentions in the extended passage quoted above, on ‘unambiguously non-teleological starting points.’

He sums this patient process of layering causal complexities in the postulation of what he calls an autogen, “a form of self-generating, self-repairing, self-replicating system that is constituted by reciprocal morphodynamic processes” (547-8), and arguably his most ingenious innovation. He then moves to conclude:

“So even these simple molecular systems have crossed a threshold in which we can say that a very basic form of value has emerged, because we can describe each of the component autogenic processes as there for the sake of autogen integrity, or for the maintenance if that particular form of autogenicity. Likewise, we can describe different features of the surrounding molecular environment as ‘beneficial’ or ‘harmful’ in the same sense that we would apply these assessments to microorganisms. More important, these are not merely glosses provided by a human observer, but intrinsic and functionally relevant features of the consequence-organized nature of the autogen itself.” 322

And the reader is once again left with the question of why. We know that the brain possesses suites of heuristic problem solvers geared to economize by exploiting various features of the environment. The obvious question becomes: How is it that any of the processes he describes do anything more than schematize the kinds of features that trigger the brain to swap out its causal cognitive systems for its intentional cognitive systems?

Time and again, one finds Deacon explicitly acknowledging the importance of the observer, and time and again one finds him dismissing that importance without a lick of argumentation—the argumentation his entire account hangs on. One can even grant him his morphodynamic and teleodynamic ‘phase transitions’ and still plausibly insist that all he’s managed to provide is a detailed description of the kinds of complex mechanical processes prone to trigger our intentional heuristics. After all, if it is the case that the future does not cause the past, then ‘end directedness,’ the ‘obvious inversion of causality,’ actually isn’t an inversion at all. The fact is Deacon’s own account of constraints and the role they play in morphodynamics and teleodynamics is entirely amenable to mechanical understanding. He continually relies on disposition talk. Even his metaphors, like the ‘negentropic ratchet’ (317), tend to be mechanical. The autogen is quite clearly a machine, one that automatically expresses the constraints that make it possible. The fact that these component constraints result in a system that behaves in ways far different than mundane thermodynamic systems speaks to nothing more extraordinary than mechanical emergence, the fact that whole mechanisms do things that their components could not (See Craver, 2007, pp. 211-17 for a consideration of the distinction between mechanical and spooky emergence). Likewise, for all the ink he spills regarding the holistic nature of teleodynamic systems, he does an excellent job explaining them in terms of their contributing components!

In the end, all Deacon really has is an analogy between the ‘intentional absence,’ our empirical inability to find intentional phenomena, and the kind of absence he attributes to constraints. Since systematicity of any kind requires constraints, defining constraints, as Deacon does, in terms of what cannot happen—in terms of what is absent—provides him the rhetorical license he needs to speak of ‘absential causes’ at pretty much any juncture. Since he has already defined intentional phenomena as ‘absential causes’ it becomes very easy thing indeed to lead the reader over the ‘epistemic cut’ and claim that he has discovered the basis of the intentional as it exists in nature, as opposed to an interpretation of those systems inclined to trigger intentional cognition in the human brain. Constraints can be understood in absential terms. Intentional phenomena can only be understood in absential terms. Since the reader, thanks to medial neglect, has no inkling whatsoever of the fractionate and specialized nature of intentional cognition, all Deacon needs to do is comb their existing intuitions in his direction. Constraints are objective, therefore intentionality is objective.

Not surprisingly, Deacon falls far short of ‘naturalizing intentionality.’ Ultimately, he provides something very similar to what Evan Thompson delivers in his equally impressive (and unconvincing) Mind in Life: a more complicated, attenuated picture of nature that seems marginally less antithetical to intentionality. Where Thompson’s “aim is not to close the explanatory gap in a reductive sense, but rather to enlarge and enrich the philosophical and scientific resources we have for addressing the gap (x), Deacon’s is to “demonstrate how a form of causality dependent on specifically absent features and unrealized potentials can be compatible with our best science” (16), the idea being that such an absential understanding will pave the way for some kind of thoroughgoing naturalization of intentionality—as metacognized—in the future.

But such a naturalization can only happen if our theoretical metacognitive intuitions regarding intentionality get intentionality right in general, as opposed to right enough for this or that. And our metacognitive intuitions regarding intentionality can only get intentionality right in general if our brain has somehow evolved the capacity to overcome medial neglect. And the possibility of this, given the problems of complexity and complicity, seems very hard to fathom.

The fact is BBT provides a very plausible and parsimonious observer dependent explanation for why metacognition attributes so many peculiar properties the medial processes. The human brain, as the frame of cognition, simply cannot cognize itself the way it does other systems. It is, as a matter of empirical necessity, not simply blind to its own mechanics, but blind to this blindness. It suffers medial neglect. Unable to access and cognize its origins, and unable to cognize this inability, it assumes that it accesses all there is to access—it confuses itself for something bottomless, an impossible exception to physics.

So when Deacon writes:

“These phenomena not only appear to arise without antecedents, they appear to be defined with respect to something nonexistent. It seems that we must explain the uncaused appearance of phenomena whose causal powers derive from something nonexistent! It should be no surprise that this most familiar and commonplace feature of our existence poses a conundrum for science.” 39

we need to take the truly holistic view that Deacon himself consistently fails to take. We need to see this very real problem in terms of one set of natural systems—namely, us—engaging the set of all natural systems, as a kind of linkage between being pushed and pushing back.

On BBT, Deacon’s ‘obvious inversion of causality’ is merely an illusory artifact of constraints pertaining to the human brain’s ability to cognize itself the way it cognizes its environments. They appear causally inverted simply because no information pertaining to their causal provenance is available to deliberative metacognition. Rules constrain us in some mysterious, orthogonal way. Goals somehow constrain us from the future. Will somehow constrains itself! Desires, like knowledge, are somehow constrained by their objects, even when they are nowhere to be seen. These apparently causally inverted phenomena vanish whenever we search for their origins because they quite simply do not exist in the high-dimensional way things in our environments exist. They baffle scientific reason because the actual neuromechanical heuristics employed are adapted to solve problems in the absence of detailed causal information, and because conscious metacognition, blind to the rank insufficiency of the information available for deliberative problem-solving, assumes that it possesses all the information it needs. Philosophical reflection is a cultural achievement, after all, an exaption of existing, more specialized cognitive resources; it seems quite implausible to assume the brain would possess the capacity to vet the relative sufficiency of information utilized in ways possessing no evolutionary provenance.

We are causally embedded in our environments in such a way that we cannot intuit ourselves as so embedded, and so intuit ourselves otherwise, as goal seeking, willing, rule-following, knowing, desiring, and so on—in ways that systematically neglect the actual, causal relations involved. Is it really just a coincidence that all these phenomena just happen to belong to the ‘medial,’ which is to say, the machinery responsible for cognition? Is it really just a coincidence that all these phenomena exhibit a profound incompatibility with causal explanation? Is it really just a coincidence that all our second-order interpretations of these terms are chronically underdetermined (a common indicator of insufficient information), even though they function quite well when used in everyday, first-order, interpersonal contexts?

Not at all. As I’ve attempted to show in a variety of ways the past couple years a great number of traditional conundrums can be resolved via BBT. All the old problems fall away once we realize that the medial—or ‘first person’—is simply what the third person looks like absent the capacity to laterally solve the third person. The time has come to leave them behind and begin the hard work of discovering what new conundrums await.

Interstellar Dualists and X-phi Alien Superfreaks

by rsbakker

I came up with this little alien thought experiment to illustrate a cornerstone of the Blind Brain Theory: the way systems can mistake information deficits for positive ontological properties, using a species I call the Walleyes (pronounced ‘Wally’s’):

Walleyes possess two very different visual systems, the one high dimensional, adapted to tracking motion and resolving innumerable details, the other myopic in the extreme, adapted to resolving blurry gestalts at best, blobs of shape and colour. Both are exquisitely adapted to solve their respective problem-ecologies, however; those ecologies just happen to be radically divergent. The Walleyes, it turns out, inhabit the twilight line of a world that forever keeps one face turned to its sun. They grow in a linear row that tracks the same longitude around the entire planet, at least wherever there’s land. The high capacity eye is the eye possessing dayvision, adapted to take down mobile predators using poisonous darts. The low capacity eye is the eye possessing nightvision, adapted to send tendrils out to feed on organic debris. The Walleyes, in fact, have nearly a 360 degree view of their environment: only the margin of each defeats them.

The problem, however, is that Walleyes, like anenomes, are a kind of animal that is rooted in place. Save for the odd storm, which blows the ‘head’ about from time to time, there is very little overlap in their respective visual fields, even though each engages (two very different halves of) the same environment. What’s more, the nightvision eye, despite its manifest myopia, continually signals that it possesses a greater degree of fidelity than the first.

Now imagine an advanced alien species introduces a virus that rewires Walleyes for discursive, conscious experience. Since their low-dimensional nightvision system insists (by default) that it sees everything there is to be seen, and its high-dimensional system, always suspicious of camoflaged predators, regularly signals estimates of reliability, the Walleyes have no reason to think heuristic neglect is a problem. Nothing signals the possibility that the problem might be perspectival (related to issues of information access and problem solving capacity), so the metacognitive default of the Walleyes is to construe themselves as special beings that dwell on the interstice of two very different worlds. They become natural dualists…

The same way we seem to be.

Perhaps some X-phi super-aliens are snickering as they read this!

The Missing Half of the Global Neuronal Workspace: A Commentary on Stanislaus Dehaene’s Consciousness and the Brain

by rsbakker

Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts



Stanislaus Dehaene, to my mind at least, is the premier consciousness researcher on the planet, one of those rare scientists who seems equally at home in the theoretical aether (like we are here) and in the laboratory (where he is there). His latest book, Consciousness and the Brain provides an excellent, and at times brilliant, overview of the state of contemporary consciousness research. Consciousness has come a long way in the past two decades, and Dehaene deserves credit for much of the yardage gained.

I’ve been anticipating Consciousness and the Brain for quite some time, especially since I bumped across “The Eternal Silence of the Neuronal Spaces,” Dehaene’s review of Cristopher Koch’s Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, where he concludes with a confession of his own: “Can neuroscience be reconciled with living a happy, meaningful, moral, and yet nondelusional life? I will confess that this question also occasionally keeps me lying awake at night.” Since the implications of the neuroscientific revolution, the prospects of having a technically actionable blueprint of the human soul, often keep my mind churning into the wee hours, I was hoping that I might see a more measured, less sanguine Dehaene in this book, one less inclined to soft-sell the troubling implications of neuroscientific research.

And in that one regard, I was disappointed. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts is written for a broad audience, so in a certain sense one can understand the authorial instinct to make things easy for the reader, but rendering a subject matter more amenable to lay understanding is quite a different thing than rendering it more amenable to lay sensibilities. Dehaene, I think, caters far too much to the very preconceptions his science is in the process of dismantling. As a result, the book, for all its organizational finesse, all its elegant formulations, and economical summaries of various angles of research, finds itself haunted by a jagged shadow, the intimation that things simply are not as they seem. A contradiction—of expressive modes if not factual claims.

Perhaps the most stark example of this contradiction comes at the very conclusion of the book, where Dehaene finally turns to consider some of the philosophical problems raised by his project. Adopting a quasi-Dennettian argument (from Freedom Evolves) that the only ‘free will’ that matters is the free will we actually happen to have (namely, one compatible with physics and biology), he writes:

“Our belief in free will expresses the idea that, under the right circumstances, we have the ability to guide our decisions by our higher-level thoughts, beliefs, values, and past experiences, and to exert control over our undesired lower-level impulses. Whenever we make an autonomous decision, we exercise our free will by considering all the available options, pondering them, and choosing the one that we favor. Some degree of chance may enter in a voluntary choice, but this is not an essential feature. Most of the time our willful acts are anything but random: they consist in a careful review of our options, followed by the deliberate selection of the one we favor.” 264

And yet for his penultimate, concluding line no less, he writes, “[a]s you close this book to ponder your own existence, ignited assemblies of neurons literally make up your mind” (266). At this point, the perceptive reader might be forgiven for asking, ‘What happened to me pondering, me choosing the interpretation I favour, me making up my mind?’ The easy answer, of course, is that ‘ignited assemblies of neurons’ are the reader, such that whatever they ‘make,’ the reader ‘makes’ as well. The problem, however, is that the reader has just spent hours reading hundreds of pages detailing all the ways neurons act entirely outside his knowledge. If ignited assemblies of neurons are somehow what he is, then he has no inkling what he is—or what it is he is supposedly doing.

As we shall see, this pattern of alternating expressive modes, swapping between the personal and the impersonal registers to describe various brain activities, occurs throughout Consciousness and the Brain. As I mentioned above, I’m sure this has much to do with Dehaene’s resolution to write a reader friendly book, and so to market the Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWT) to the broader public. I’ve read enough of Dehaene’s articles to recognize the nondescript, clinical tone that animates the impersonally expressed passages, and so to see those passages expressed in more personal idioms as self-conscious attempts on his part to make the material more accessible. But as the free will quote above makes plain, there’s a sense in which Dehaene, despite his odd sleepless night, remains committed to the fundamental compatibility of the personal and the impersonal idioms. He thinks neuroscience can be reconciled with a meaningful and nondelusional life. In what follows I intend to show why, on the basis of his own theory, he’s mistaken. He’s mistaken because, when all is said and done, Dehaene possesses only half of what could count as a complete theory of consciousness—the most important half to be sure, but half all the same. Despite all the detailed explanations of consciousness he gives in the book, he actually has no account whatsoever of what we seem to take consciousness to be–namely, ourselves.

For that account, Stanislaus Dehaene needs to look closely at the implicature of his Global Neuronal Workspace Theory—it’s long theoretical shadow, if you will—because there, I think, he will find my own Blind Brain Theory (BBT), and with it the theoretical resources to show how the consciousness revealed in his laboratory can be reconciled with the consciousness revealed in us. This, then, will be my primary contention: that Dehaene’s Global Neuronal Workspace Theory directly implies the Blind Brain Theory, and that the two theories, taken together, offer a truly comprehensive account of consciousness…

The one that keeps me lying awake at night.


Function Dysfunction

Let’s look at a second example. After drawing up an inventory of varous, often intuition-defying, unconscious feats, Dehaene cautions the reader against drawing too pessimistic a conclusion regarding consciousness—what he calls the ‘zombie theory’ of consciousness. If unconscious processes, he asks, can plan, attend, sum, mean, read, recognize, value and so on, just what is consciousness good for? The threat of these findings, as he sees it, is that they seem to suggest that consciousness is merely epiphenomenal, a kind of kaliedoscopic side-effect to the more important, unconscious business of calculating brute possibilities. As he writes:

“The popular Danish science writer Tor Norretranders coined the term ‘user illusion’ to refer to our feeling of being in control, which may well be fallacious; every one of our decisions, he believes, stems from unconscious sources. Many other psychologists agree: consciousness is the proverbial backseat driver, a useless observer of actions that lie forever beyond its control.” 91

Dehaene disagrees, claiming that his account belongs to “what philosophers call the ‘functionalist’ view of consciousness” (91). He uses this passing criticism as a segue for his subsequent, fascinating account of the numerous functions discharged by consciousness—what makes consciousness a key evolutionary adaptation. The problem with this criticism is that it simply does not apply. Norretranders, for instance, nowhere espouses epiphenomenalism—at least not in The User Illusion. The same might be said of Daniel Wegner, one the ‘many psychologists,’ Dehaene references in the accompanying footnote. Far from epiphenomenalism, the argument that consciousness has no function whatsoever (as, say, Susan Pockett (2004) has argued), both of these authors contend that it’s ‘our feeling of being in control’ that is illusory. So in The Illusion of Conscious Will, for instance, Wegner proposes that the feeling of willing allows us to socially own our actions. For him, our consciousness of ‘control’ has a very determinate function, just one that contradicts our metacognitive intuition of that functionality.

Dehaene is simply in error here. He is confusing the denial of intuitions of conscious efficacy with a denial of conscious efficacy. He has simply run afoul the distinction between consciousness as it is and consciousness as appears to us—the distinction between consciousness as impersonally and personally construed. Note the way he actually slips between idioms in the passage quoted above, at first referencing ‘our feeling of being in control’ and then referencing ‘its control.’ Now one might think this distinction between these two very different perspectives on consciousness would be easy to police, but such is not the case (See Bennett and Hacker, 2003). Unfortunately, Dehaene is far from alone when it comes to running afoul this dichotomy.

For some time now, I’ve been arguing for what I’ve been calling a Dual Theory approach to the problem of consciousness. On the one hand, we need a theoretical apparatus that will allow us to discover what consciousness is as another natural phenomenon in the natural world. On the other hand, we need a theoretical apparatus that will allow us to explain (in a manner that makes empirically testable predictions) why consciousness appears the way that it does, namely, as something that simply cannot be another natural phenomenon in the natural world. Dehaene is in the business of providing the first kind of theory: a theory of what consciousness actually is. I’ve made a hobby of providing the second kind of theory: a theory of why consciousness appears to possess the baffling form that it does.

Few terms in the conceptual lexicon are quite so overdetermined as ‘consciousness.’ This is precisely what makes Dehaene’s operationalization of ‘conscious access’ invaluable. But salient among those traditional overdeterminations is the peculiarly tenacious assumption that consciousness ‘just is’ what it appears to be. Since what it appears to be is drastically at odds with anything else in the natural world, this assumption sets the explanatory bar rather high indeed. You could say consciousness needs a Dual Theory approach for the same reason that Dualism constitutes an intuitive default (Emmons 2014). Our dualistic intuitions arguably determine the structure of the entire debate. Either consciousness really is some wild, metaphysical exception to the natural order, or consciousness represents some novel, emergent twist that has hitherto eluded science, or something about our metacognitive access to consciousness simply makes it seem that way. Since the first leg of this trilemma belongs to theology, all the interesting action has fallen into orbit around the latter two options. The reason we need an ‘Appearance Theory’ when it comes to consciousness as opposed to other natural phenomena, has to do with our inability to pin down the explananda of consciousness, an inability that almost certainly turns on the idiosyncrasy of our access to the phenomena of consciousness compared to the phenomena of the natural world more generally. This, for instance, is the moral of Michael Graziano’s (otherwise flawed) Consciousness and the Social Brain: that the primary job of the neuroscientist is to explain consciousness, not our metacognitive perspective on consciousness.

The Blind Brain Theory is just such an Appearance Theory: it provides a systematic explanation of the kinds of cognitive confounds and access bottlenecks that make consciousness appear to be ‘supra-natural.’ It holds, with Dehaene, that consciousness is functional through and through, just not in any way we can readily intuit outside empirical work like Dehaene’s. As such, it takes findings such as Wegner’s, where the function we presume on the basis of intuition (free willing) is belied by some counter-to-intuition function (behaviour ownership), as paradigmatic. Far from epiphenomenalism, BBT constitutes a kind of ‘ulterior functionalism’: it acknowledges that consciousness discharges a myriad of functions, but it denies that metacognition is any position to cognize those functions (see “THE Something about Mary“) short of sustained empirical investigation.

Dehaene is certainly sensitive to the general outline of this problem: he devotes an entire chapter (“Consciousness Enters the Lab”) to discussing the ways he and others have overcome the notorious difficulties involved in experimentally ‘pinning consciousness down.’ And the masking and attention paradigms he has helped develop have done much to transform consciousness research into a legitimate field of scientific research. He even provides a splendid account of just how deep unconscious processing reaches into what we intuitively assume are wholly conscious exercises—an account that thoroughly identifies him as a fellow ulterior functionalist. He actually agrees with me and Norretranders and Wegner—he just doesn’t realize it quite yet.


The Global Neuronal Workspace

As I said, Dehaene is primarily interested in theorizing consciousness apart from how it appears. In order to show how the Blind Brain Theory actually follows from his findings, we need to consider both these findings and the theoretical apparatus that Dehaene and his colleagues use to make sense of them. We need to consider his Global Neuronal Workspace Theory of consciousness.

According to GNWT, the primary function of consciousness is to select, stabilize, solve, and broadcast information throughout the brain. As Dehaene writes:

“According to this theory, consciousness is just brain-wide information sharing. Whatever we become conscious of, we can hold it in our mind long after the corresponding stimulation has disappeared from the outside world. That’s because the brain has brought it into the workspace, which maintains it independently of the time and place at which we first perceived it. As a result, we may use it in whatever way we please. In particular, we can dispatch it to our language processors and name it; this is why the capacity to report is a key feature of a conscious state. But we can also store it in long-term memory or use it for our future plans, whatever they are. The flexible dissemination of information, I argue, is a characteristic property of a conscious state.” 165

A signature virtue of Consciousness and the Brain lays in Dehaene’s ability to blend complexity and nuance with expressive economy. But again one needs to be wary of his tendency to resort to the personal idiom, as he does in this passage, where the functional versatility provided by consciousness is explicitly conflated with agency, the freedom to dispose of information ‘in whatever way we please.’ Elsewhere he writes:

“The brain must contain a ‘router’ that allows it to flexibly broadcast information to and from its internal routines. This seems to be a major function of consciousness: to collect the information from various processors, synthesize it, and then broadcast the result–a conscious symbol–to other, arbitrarily selected processors. These processors, in turn, apply their unconscious skills to this symbol, and the entire process may repeat a number of times. The outcome is a hybrid serial-parallel machine, in which stages of massively parallel computation are interleaved with a serial stage of conscious decision making and information routing.” 105

Here we find him making essentially the same claims in less anthropomorphic or ‘reader-friendly’ terms. Despite the folksy allure of the ‘workspace’ metaphor, this image of the brain as a ‘hybrid serial-parallel machine’ is what lies at the root of GNWT. For years now, Dehaene and others have been using masking and attention experiments in concert with fMRI, EEG, and MEG to track the comparative neural history of conscious and unconscious stimuli through the brain. This has allowed them to isolate what Dehaene calls the ‘signatures of consciousness,’ the events that distinguish percepts that cross the conscious threshold from percepts that do not. A theme that Dehaene repeatedly evokes is the information asymmetric nature of conscious versus unconscious processing. Since conscious access is the only access we possess to our brain’s operations, we tend to run afoul a version of what Daniel Kahneman (2012) calls WYSIATI, or the ‘what-you-see-is-all-there-is’ effect. Dehaene even goes so far as to state this peculiar tendency as a law: “We constantly overestimate our awareness—even when we are aware of glaring gaps in our awareness” (79). The fact is the nonconscious brain performs the vast, vast majority of the brain’s calculations.

The reason for this has to do with the Inverse Problem, the challenge of inferring the mechanics of some distal system, a predator or a flood, say, from the mechanics of some proximal system such as ambient light or sound. The crux of the problem lies in the ambiguity inherent to the proximal mechanism: a wild variety of distal events could explain any given retinal stimulus, for instance, and yet somehow we reliably perceive predators or floods or what have you. Dehaene writes:

“We never see the world as our retina sees it. In fact, it would be a pretty horrible sight: a highly distorted set of light and dark pixels, blown up toward the center of the retina, masked by blood vessels, with a massive hole at the location of the ‘blind spot’ where cables leave for the brain; the image would constantly blur and change as our gaze moved around. What we see, instead, is a three-dimensional scene, corrected for retinal defects, mended at the blind spot, and massive reinterpreted based on our previous experience of similar visual scenes.” 60

The brain can do this because it acts as a massively parallel Bayesian inference engine, analytically breaking down various elements of our retinal images, feeding them to specialized heuristic circuits, and cobbling together hypothesis after hypothesis.

“Below the conscious stage, myriad unconscious processors, operating in parallel, constantly strive to extract the most detailed and complete interpretation of our environment. They operate as nearly optimal statisticians who exploit the slightest perceptual hint—a faint movement, a shadow, a splotch of light—to calculate the probability that a given property holds true in the outside world.” 92

But hypotheses are not enough. All this machinery belongs to what is called the ‘sensorimotor loop.’ The whole evolutionary point of all this processing is to produce ‘actionable intelligence,’ which is to say, to help generate and drive effective behaviour. In many cases, when the bottom-up interpretations match the top-down expectations and behaviour is routine, say, such selection need not result in consciousness of the stimuli at issue. In other cases, however, the interpretations are relayed to the nonconscious attentional systems of the brain where they are ranked according to their relevance to ongoing behaviour and selected accordingly for conscious processing. Dehaene summarizes what happens next:

“Conscious perception results from a wave of neuronal activity that tips the cortex over its ignition threshold. A conscious stimulus triggers a self-amplifying avalanche of neural activity that ultimately ignites many regions into a tangled state. During that conscious state, which starts approximately 300 milliseconds after stimulus onset, the frontal regions of the brain are being informed of sensory inputs in a bottom-up manner, but these regions also send massive projections in the converse direction, top-down, and to many distributed areas. The end result is a brain web of synchronized areas whose various facets provide us with many signatures of consciousness: distributed activation, particularly in the frontal and parietal lobes, a P3 wave, gamma-band amplification, and massive long-distance synchrony.” 140

As Dehaene is at pains to point out, the machinery of consciousness is simply too extensive to not be functional somehow. The neurophysiological differences observed between the multiple interpretations that hover in nonconscious attention, and the interpretation that tips the ‘ignition threshold’ of consciousness is nothing if not dramatic. Information that was localized suddenly becomes globally accessible. Information that was transitory suddenly becomes stable. Information that was hypothetical suddenly becomes canonical. Information that was dedicated suddenly becomes fungible. Consciousness makes information spatially, temporally, and structurally available. And this, as Dehaene rightly argues, makes all the difference in the world, including the fact that “[t]he global availability of information is precisely what we subjectively experience as a conscious state” (168).


A Mile Wide and an Inch Thin

Consciousness is the Medieval Latin of neural processing. It makes information structurally available, both across time and across the brain. As Dehaene writes, “The capacity to synthesize information over time, space, and modalities of knowledge, and to rethink it at any time in the future, is a fundamental component of the conscious mind, one that seems likely to have been positively selected for during evolution” (101). But this evolutionary advantage comes with a number of crucial caveats, qualifications that, as we shall see, make some kind of Dual Theory approach unavoidable.

Once an interpretation commands the global workspace, it becomes available for processing via the nonconscious input of a number of different processors. Thus the metaphor of the workspace. The information can be ‘worked over,’ mined for novel opportunities, refined into something more useful, but only, as Dehaene points out numerous times, synoptically and sequentially.

Consciousness is synoptic insofar as it samples mere fractions of the information available: “An unconscious army of neurons evaluates all the possibilities,” Dehaene writes, “but consciousness receives only a stripped down report” (96). By selecting, in other words, the workspace is at once neglecting, not only all the alternate interpretations, but all the neural machinations responsible: “Paradoxically, the sampling that goes on in our conscious vision makes us forever blind to its inner complexity” (98).

And consciousness is sequential in that it can only sample one fraction at a time: “our conscious brain cannot experience two ignitions at once and lets us perceive only a single conscious ‘chunk’ at a given time,” he explains. “Whenever the prefrontal and parietal lobes are jointly engaged in processing a first stimulus, they cannot simultaneously reengage toward a second one” (125).

All this is to say that consciousness pertains to the serial portion of the ‘hybrid serial-parallel machine’ that is the human brain. Dehaene even goes so far as to analogize consciousness to a “biological Turing machine” (106), a kind of production system possessing the “capacity to implement any effective procedure” (105). He writes:

“A production system comprises a database, also called ‘working memory,’ and a vast array of if-then production rules… At each step, the system examines whether a rule matches the current state of its working memory. If multiple rules match, then they compete under the aegis of a stochastic prioritizing system. Finally, the winning rule ‘ignites’ and is allowed to change the contents of working memory before the entire process resumes. Thus this sequence of steps amounts to serial cycles of unconscious competition, conscious ignition, and broadcasting.” 105

The point of this analogy, Dehaene is quick to point out, isn’t to “revive the cliché of the brain as a classical computer” (106) so much as it is to understand the relationship between the conscious and nonconscious brain. Indeed, in subsequent experiments, Dehaene and his colleagues discovered that the nonconscious, for all its computational power, is generally incapable of making sequential inferences: “The mighty unconscious generates sophisticated hunches, but only a conscious mind can follow a rational strategy, step after step” (109). It seems something of a platitude to claim that rational deliberation requires consciousness, but to be able to provide an experimentally tested neurobiological account of why this is so is nothing short of astounding. Make no mistake: these are the kind of answers philosophy, rooting through the mire of intuition, has sought for millennia.

Dehaene, as I mentioned, is primarily interested in providing a positive account of what consciousness is apart from what we take it to be. “Putting together all the evidence inescapably leads us to a reductionist conclusion,” Dehaene writes. “All our conscious experiences, from the sound of an orchestra to the smell of burnt toast, result from a similar source: the activity of massive cerebral circuits that have reproducible neuronal signatures” (158). Though he does consider several philosophical implications of his ‘reductionist conclusions,’ he does so only in passing. He by no means dwells on them.

Given that consciousness research is a science attempting to bootstrap its way out of the miasma of philosophical speculation regarding the human soul, this reluctance is quite understandable—perhaps even laudable. The problem, however, is that philosophy and science both traffic in theory, general claims about basic things. As a result, the boundaries are constitutively muddled, typically to the detriment of the science, but sometimes to its advantage. A reluctance to speculate may keep the scientist safe, but to the extent that ‘data without theory is blind,’ it may also mean missed opportunities.

So consider Dehaene’s misplaced charge of epiphenomenalism, the way he seemed to be confusing the denial of our intuitions of conscious efficacy with the denial of conscious efficacy. The former, which I called ‘ulterior functionalism,’ entirely agrees that consciousness possesses functions; it denies only that we have reliable metacognitive access to those functions. Our only recourse, the ulterior functionalist holds, is to engage in empirical investigation. And this, I suggested, is clearly Dehaene’s own position. Consider:

“The discovery that a word or a digit can travel throughout the brain, bias our decisions, and affect our language networks, all the while remaining unseen, was an eye-opener for many cognitive scientists. We had underestimated the power of the unconscious. Our intuitions, it turned out, could not be trusted: we had no way of knowing what cognitive processes could or could not proceed without awareness. The matter was entirely empirical. We had to submit, one by one, each mental faculty to a thorough inspection of its component processes, and decide which of those faculties did or did not appeal to the conscious mind. Only careful experimentation could decide the matter…” 74

This could serve as a mission statement for ulterior functionalism. We cannot, as a matter of fact, trust any of our prescientific intuitions regarding what we are, no more than we could trust our prescientific intuitions regarding the natural world. This much seems conclusive. Then why does Dehaene find the kinds of claims advanced by Norretranders and Wegner problematic? What I want to say is that Dehaene, despite the occasional sleepless night, still believes that the account of consciousness as it is will somehow redeem the most essential aspects of consciousness as it appears, that something like a program of ‘Dennettian redefinition’ will be enough. Thus the attitude he takes toward free will. But then I encounter passages like this:

“Yet we never truly know ourselves. We remain largely ignorant of the actual unconscious determinants of our behaviour, and therefore cannot accurately predict what our behaviour will be in circumstances beyond the safety zone of our past experiences. The Greek motto ‘Know thyself,’ when applied to the minute details of our behaviour, remains an inaccessible ideal. Our ‘self’ is just a database that gets filled in through our social experiences, in the same format with which we attempt to understand other minds, and therefore it is just as likely to include glaring gaps, misunderstandings, and delusions.” 113

Claims like this, which radically contravene our intuitive, prescientific understanding of self, suggest that Dehaene simply does not know where he stands, that he alternately believes and does not believe that his work can be reconciled with our traditional understand of ‘meaningful life.’ Perhaps this explains the pendulum swing between the personal and the impersonal idiom that characterizes this book—down to the final line, no less!

Even though this is an eminently honest frame of mind to take to this subject matter, I personally think his research cuts against even this conflicted optimism. Not surprisingly, the Global Neuronal Workspace Theory of Consciousness casts an almost preposterously long theoretical shadow; it possesses an implicature that reaches to the furthest corners of the great human endeavour to understand itself. As I hope to show, the Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness provides a parsimonious and powerful way to make this downstream implicature explicit.


From Geocentrism to ‘Noocentrism’

“Most mental operations,” Dehaene writes, “are opaque to the mind’s eye; we have no insight into the operations that allow us to recognize a face, plan a step, add two digits, or name a word” (104-5). If one pauses to consider the hundreds of experiments that he directly references, not to mention the thousands of others that indirectly inform his work, this goes without saying. We require a science of consciousness simply because we have no other way of knowing what consciousness is. The science of consciousness is literally predicated on the fact of our metacognitive incapacity (See “The Introspective Peepshow“).

Demanding that science provide a positive explanation of consciousness as we intuit it is no different than demanding that science provide a positive explanation of geocentrism—which is to say, the celestial mechanics of the earth as we once intuited it. Any fool knows that the ground does not move. If anything, the fixity of the ground is what allows us to judge movement. Certainly the possibility that the earth moved was an ancient posit, but lacking evidence to the contrary, it could be little more than philosophical fancy. Only the slow accumulation of information allowed us to reconceive the ‘motionless earth’ as an artifact of ignorance, as something that only the absence of information could render obvious. Geocentrism is the product of a perspectival illusion, plain and simple, the fact that we literally stood too close to the earth to comprehend what the earth in fact was.

We stand even closer to consciousness—so close as to be coextensive! Nonetheless, a good number of very intelligent people insist on taking (some version of) consciousness as we intuit it to be the primary explanandum of consciousness research. Given his ‘law’ (We constantly overestimate our awareness—even when we are aware of glaring gaps in our awareness” (79)), Dehaene is duly skeptical. He is a scientific reductionist, after all. So with reference to David Chalmers’ ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, we find him writing:

“My opinion is that Chalmers swapped the labels: it is the ‘easy’ problem that is hard, while the hard problem just seems hard because it engages ill-defined intuitions. Once our intuition is educated by cognitive neuroscience and computer simulations, Chalmer’s hard problem will evaporate.” 262

Referencing the way modern molecular biology has overthrown vitalism, he continues:

“Likewise, the science of consciousness will keep eating away at the hard problem until it vanishes. For instance, current models of visual perception already explain not only why the human brain suffers from a variety of visual illusions but also why such illusions would appear in any rational machine confronted with the same computational problem. The science of consciousness already explains significant chunks of our subjective experience, and I see no obvious limits to this approach.” 262

I agree entirely. The intuitions underwriting the so-called ‘hard problem’ are perspectival artifacts. As in the case of geocentrism, our cognitive systems stand entirely too close to consciousness to not run afoul a number of profound illusions. And I think Dehaene, not unlike Galileo, is using the ‘Dutch Spyglass’ afforded by masking and attention paradigms to accumulate the information required to overcome those illusions. I just think he remains, despite his intellectual scruples, a residual hostage of the selfsame intuitions he is bent on helping us overcome.

Dehaene only needs to think through the consequences of GNWT as it stands. So when he continues to discuss other ‘hail Mary’ attempts (those of Eccles and Penrose) to find some positive account of consciousness as it appears, writing that “the intuition that our mind chooses its actions ‘at will’ begs for an explanation” (263), I’m inclined to think he already possesses the resources to advance such an explanation. He just needs to look at his own findings in a different way.

Consider the synoptic and sequential nature of what Dehaene calls ‘ignition,’ the becoming conscious of some nonconscious interpretation. The synoptic nature of ignition, the fact that consciousness merely samples interpretations, means that consciousness is radically privative, that every instance of selection involves massive neglect. The sequential nature of ignition, on the other hand, the fact that the becoming conscious of any interpretation precludes the becoming conscious of another interpretation, means that each moment of consciousness is an all or nothing affair. As I hope to show, these two characteristics possess profound implications when applied to the question of human metacognitive capacity—which is to say, our capacity to intuit our own makeup.

Dehaene actually has very little to say regarding self-consciousness and metacognition in Consciousness and the Brain, aside from speculating on the enabling role played by language. Where other mammalian species clearly seem to possess metacognitive capacity, it seems restricted to the second-order estimation of the reliability of their first-order estimations. They lack “the potential infinity of concepts that a recursive language affords” (252). He provides an inventory of the anatomical differences between primates and other mammals, such as specialized ‘broadcast neurons,’ and between humans and their closest primate kin, such as the size of the dendritic trees possessed by human prefrontal neurons. As he writes:

“All these adaptations point to the same evolutionary trend. During hominization, the networks of our prefrontal cortex grew denser and denser, to a larger extent than would be predicted by brain size alone. Our workspace circuits expanded way beyond proportion, but this increase is probably just the tip of the iceberg. We are more than just primates with larger brains. I would not be surprised if, in the coming years, cognitive neuroscientists find that the human brain possesses unique microcircuits that give it access to a new level of recursive, language-like operations.” 253

Presuming the remainder of the ‘iceberg’ does not overthrow Dehaene’s workspace paradigm, however, it seems safe to assume that our metacognitive machinery feeds from the same informational trough, that it is simply one among the many consumers of the information broadcast in conscious ignition. The ‘information horizon’ of the Workspace, in other words, is the information horizon of conscious metacognition. This would be why our capacity to report seems to be coextensive with our capacity to consciously metacognize: the information we can report constitutes the sum of information available for reflective problem-solving.

So consider the problem of a human brain attempting to consciously cognize the origins of its own activity—for the purposes of reporting to other brains, say. The first thing to note is that the actual, neurobiological origins of that activity are entirely unavailable. Since only information that ignites is broadcast, only information that ignites is available. The synoptic nature of the information ignited renders the astronomical complexities of ignition inaccessible to conscious access. Even more profoundly, the serial nature of ignition suggests that consciousness, in a strange sense, is always too late. Information pertaining to ignition can never be processed for ignition. This is why so much careful experimentation is required, why our intuitions are ‘ill-defined,’ why ‘most mental operations are opaque.’ The neurofunctional context of the workspace is something that lies outside the capacity of the workspace to access.

This explains the out-and-out inevitability of what I called ‘ulterior functionalism’ above: the information ignited constitutes the sum of the information available for conscious metacognition. Whenever we interrogate the origins or our conscious episodes, reflection only has our working memory of prior conscious episodes to go on. This suggests something as obvious as it is counterintuitive: that conscious metacognition should suffer a profound form of source blindness. Whenever conscious metacognition searches for the origins of its own activity, it finds only itself.

Free will, in other words, is a metacognitive illusion arising out of the structure of the global neuronal workspace, one that, while perhaps not appearing “in any rational machine confronted with the same computational problem” (262), would appear in any conscious system possessing the same structural features as the global neuronal workspace. The situation is almost directly analogous to the situation faced by our ancestors before Galileo. Absent any information regarding the actual celestial mechanics of the earth, the default assumption is that the earth has no such mechanics. Likewise, absent any information regarding the actual neural mechanics of consciousness, the default assumption is that consciousness also has no such mechanics.

But free will is simply one of many problems pertaining to our metacognitive intuitions. According to the Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness, a great number of the ancient and modern perplexities can be likewise explained in terms of metacognitive neglect, attributed to the fact that the structure and dynamics of the workspace render the workspace effectively blind to its own structure and dynamics. Taking Dehaene’s Global Neuronal Workspace Theory of Consciousness, it can explain away the ‘ill-defined intuitions’ that underwrite attributions of some extraordinary irreducibility to conscious phenomena.

On BBT, the myriad structural peculiarities that theologians and philosophers have historically attributed to the first person are perspectival illusions, artifacts of neglect—things that seem obvious only so long as we remain ignorant of the actual mechanics involved (See, “Cognition Obscura“). Our prescientific conception of ourselves is radically delusional, and the kind of counterintuitive findings Dehaene uses to patiently develop and explain GNWT are simply what we should expect. Noocentrism is as doomed as was geocentrism. Our prescientific image of ourselves is as blinkered as our prescientific image of the world, a possibility which should, perhaps, come as no surprise. We are simply another pocket of the natural world, after all.

But the overthrow of noocentrism is bound to generate even more controversy than the overthrow of geocentrism or biocentrism, given that so much of our self and social understanding relies upon this prescientific image. Perhaps we should all lay awake at night, pondering our pondering…

Cognition Obscura (Reprise)

by rsbakker

(Originally posted September 24, 2013… Wishing everyone a thoughtful holiday!)

The Amazing Complicating Grain

On July 4th, 1054, Chinese astronomers noticed the appearance of a ‘guest star’ in the proximity of Zeta Tauri lasting for nearly two years before becoming too faint to be detected by the naked eye. The Chaco Canyon Anasazi also witnessed the event, leaving behind this famous petroglyph:


Centuries would pass before John Bevis would rediscover it in 1731, as would Charles Messier in 1758, who initially confused it with Halley’s Comet, and decided to begin cataloguing ‘cloudy’ celestial objects–or ‘nebulae’–to help astronomers avoid his mistake. In 1844, William Parsons, the Earl of Rosse, made the following drawing of the guest star become comet become cloudy celestial object:


It was on the basis of this diagram that he gave what has since become the most studied extra-solar object in astronomical history its contemporary name: the ‘Crab Nebula.’ When he revisited the object with his 72-inch reflector telescope in 1848, however, he saw something quite different:

william-parsons-crab-nebula-2 In 1921, John Charles Duncan was able to discern the expansion of the Crab Nebula using the revolutionary capacity of the Mount Wilson Observatory to produce images like this:


And nowadays, of course, we are regularly dazzled not only by photographs like this:


produced by Hubble, but those produced by a gallery of other observational platforms as well:

600px-800crabThe tremendous amount of information produced has provided astronomers with an incredibly detailed understanding of supernovae and nebula formation.

What I find so interesting about this progression lies in what might be called the ‘amazing complicating grain.’ What do I mean by this? Well, there’s the myriad ways the accumulation of data feeds theory formation, of course, how scientific models tend to become progressively more accurate as the kinds and quantities of information accessed increases. But what I’m primarily interested in is what happens when you turn this structure upside down, when you look at the Chinese ‘guest star’ or Anasazi petroglyph against the baseline of what we presently know. What assumptions were made and why? How were those assumptions overthrown? Why were those assumptions almost certain to be wrong?

Why, for instance, did the Chinese assume that SN1054 was simply another star, notable only for its ‘guest-like’ transience? I’m sure a good number of people might think this is a genuinely stupid question: the imperialistic nature of our preconceptions seems to go without saying. The medieval Chinese thought SN1054 was another star rather than a supernova simply because points of light in the sky, stars, were pretty much all they knew. The old provides our only means of understanding the new. This is arguably why Messier first assumed the Crab Nebula was another comet in 1758: it was only when he obtained information distinguishing it (the lack of visible motion) from comets that he realized he was looking at something else, a cloudy celestial object.

But if you think about it, these ‘identification effects’–the ways the absence of systematic differences making systematic differences (or information) underwrite assumptions of ‘default identity’–are profoundly mysterious. Our cosmological understanding has been nothing if not a process of continual systematic differentiation or ever increasing resolution in the polydimensional sense of the natural. In a peculiar sense, our ignorance is our fundamental medium, the ‘stuff’ from which the distinctions pertaining to actual cognition are hewn.


The Superunknown

Another way to look at this transformation of detail and understanding is in terms of ‘unknown unknowns,’ or as I’ll refer to it here, the ‘superunknown’ (cue crashing guitars). The Hubble image and the Anasazi petroglyph not only provide drastically different quantities of information organized in drastically different ways, they anchor what might be called drastically different information ecologies. One might say that they are cognitive ‘tools,’ meaningful to the extent they organize interests and practices, which is to say, possess normative consequences. Or one might say they are ‘representations,’ meaningful insofar as they ‘correspond’ to what is the case. The perspective I want to take here, however, is natural, that of physical systems interacting with physical systems. On this perspective, information our brain cannot access makes no difference to cognition. All the information we presently possess regarding supernova and nebula formulation simply was not accessible to the ancient Anasazi or Chinese. As a result, it simply could not impact their attempts to cognize SN-1054. More importantly, not only did they lack access to this information, they also lacked access to any information regarding this lack of information. Their understanding was their only understanding, hedged with portent and mystery, certainly, but sufficient for their practices nonetheless.

The bulk of SN-1054 as we know it, in other words, was superunknown to our ancestors. And, the same as the spark-plugs in your garage make no difference to the operation of your car, that information made no cognizable difference to the way they cognized the skies. The petroglyph understanding of the Anasazi, though doubtless hedged with mystery and curiosity, was for them the entirety of their understanding. It was, in a word, sufficient. Here we see the power–if it can be called such–exercised by the invisibility of ignorance. Who hasn’t read ancient myths or even contemporary religious claims and wondered how anyone could have possibly believed such ‘nonsense’? But the answer is quite simple: those lacking the information and/or capacity required to cognize that nonsense as nonsense! They left the spark-plugs in the garage.

Thus the explanatory ubiquity of ‘They didn’t know any better.’ We seem to implicitly understand, if not the tropistic or mechanistic nature of cognition, then at least the ironclad correlation between information availability and cognition. This is one of the cornerstones of what is called ‘mindreading,’ our ability to predict, explain, and manipulate our fellows. And this is how the superunknown, information that makes no cognizable difference, can be said to ‘make a difference’ after all–and a profound one at that. The car won’t run, we say, because the spark-plugs are in the garage. Likewise, medieval Chinese astronomers, we assume, believed SN-1054 was a novel star because telescopes, among other things, were in the future. In other words, making no difference makes a difference to the functioning of complex systems attuned to those differences.

This is the implicit foundational moral of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: How can shadows come to seem real? Well, simply occlude any information telling you otherwise. Next to nothing, in other words, can strike us as everything there is, short of access to anything more–such as information pertaining to the possibility that there is something more. And this, I’m arguing, is the best way of looking at human metacognition at any given point in time, as a collection of prisoners chained inside the cave of our skull assuming they see everything there is to see for the simple want of information–that the answer lies in here somehow! On the one hand we have the question of just what neural processing gets ‘lit up’  in conscious experience (say, via information integration or EMF effects) given that an astronomical proportion of it remains ‘dark.’ What are the contingencies underwriting what accesses what for what function? How heuristically constrained are those processes? On the other hand we have the problem of metacognition, the question of the information and cognitive resources available for theoretical reflection on the so-called ‘first-person.’ And, once again, what are the contingencies underwriting what accesses what for what function? How heuristically constrained are those processes?

The longer one mulls these questions, the more the concepts of traditional philosophy of mind come to resemble Anasazi petroglyphs–which is to say, an enterprise requiring the superunknown. Placed on this continuum of availabilty, the assumption that introspection, despite all the constraints it faces, gets enough of the information it needs to at least roughly cognize mind and consciousness as they are becomes at best, a claim crying out for justification, and at worst, wildly implausible. To say philosophy lacks the information and/or cognitive resources it requires to resolve its debates is a platitude, one so worn as not chafe any contemplative skin whatsoever. No enemy is safer or more convenient as an old enemy, and skepticism is as ancient as philosophy itself. But to say that science is showing that metacognition lacks the information and/or cognitive resources philosophy requires to resolve its debates is to say something quite a bit more prickly.

Cognitive science is revealing the superunknown of the soul as surely as astronomy and physics are revealing the superunknown of the sky. Whether we move inward or outward the process is pretty much the same, as we should suspect, given that the soul is simply more nature. The tie-dye knot of conscious experience has been drawn from the pot and is slowly being unravelled, and we’re only now discovering the fragmentary, arbitrary, even ornamental nature of what we once counted as our most powerful and obvious ‘intuitions.’

This is how the Blind Brain Theory treats the puzzles of the first-person: as artifacts of illusion and neglect. The informatic and heuristic resources available for cognition at any given moment constrains what can be cognized. 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.  Just as the medieval Chinese and Anasazi were prisoners of their technical limitations, you and I are captives of our metacognitive neural limitations.

As straightforward as this might sound, however, it turns out to be far more difficult to conceptualize in the first-person than in astronomy. Where the incorporation of the astronomical superunknown into our understanding of SN-1054 seems relatively intuitive, the incorporation of the neural superunknown into our understanding of ourselves threatens to confound intelligibility altogether. So why the difference?

The answer lies in the relation between the information and the cognitive resources we have available. In the case of SN-1054, the information provided happens to be the very information that our cognitive systems have evolved to decipher, namely, environmental information. The information provided by Hubble, for instance, is continuous with the information our brain generally uses to mechanically navigate and exploit our environments—more of the same. In the case of the first-person, however, the information accessed in metacognition falls drastically short what our cognitive systems require to conceive us in an environmentally continuous manner. And indeed, given the constraints pertaining to metacognition, the inefficiencies pertaining to evolutionary youth, the sheer complexity of its object, not to mention its structural complicity with its object, this is precisely what we should expect: selective blindness to whole dimensions of information.

So one might visualize the difference between the Anasazi and our contemporary astronomical understanding of SN-1054 as progressive turns of a screw:

Partial and Full Spiral (1)

where the contemporary understanding can be seen as adding more and more information, ‘twists,’ to the same set of dimensions. The difference between our intuitive and our contemporary neuroscientific understanding of ourselves, on the other hand, is more like:

Circle and Spiral

where our screw is viewed on end instead of from the side, occluding the dimensions constitutive of the screw. The ‘O’ is actually a screw, obviously so, but for the simple want of information appears to be something radically different, something self-continuous and curiously flat, completely lacking empirical depth. Since these dimensions remain superunknown, they quite simply make no metacognitive difference. In the same way additional environmental information generally always complicates prior experiential and cognitive unities, the absence of information can be seen as simplifying experiential unities. Paint can become swarming ants, and swarming ants can look like paint. The primary difference with the first-person, once again, is that the experiential simplification you experience, say, watching a movie scene fade to white is ‘bent’ across entire dimensions of missing information—as is the case with our ‘O’ and our screw. The empirical depth of the latter is folded into the flat continuity of the former. On this line of interpretation, the first-person is best understood as a metacognitive version of the ‘flicker fusion’ effect in psycho-physics, or the way sleep can consign an entire plane flight to oblivion. You might say that neglect is the sleep of identity.

As the only game in information town, the ‘O’ intuitively strikes us as essentially what we are, rather than a perspectival artifact of information scarcity and heuristic inapplicability. And since this ‘O’ seems to frame the possibility of the screw, things are apt to become more confusing still, with proponents of ‘O’-ism claiming the ontological priority of  an impoverished cognitive perspective over ‘screwism’ and its embarrassment of informatic riches, and with proponents of screwism claiming the reverse, but lacking any means to forcefully extend and demonstrate their counterintuitive positions.

One can analogically visualize this competition of framing intuitions as the difference between,

Spiral in Circlewhere the natural screw takes the ‘O’ as its condition, and,

Circle in Spiralwhere the ‘O’ takes the natural screw as its condition, with the caveat that one understands the margins of the ‘O’ asymptotically, which is to say, as superunknown. A better visualize analogy lies in the margins of your present visual field, which is somehow bounded without possessing any visible boundary. Since the limits of conscious cognition always outrun the possibility of conscious cognition, conscious cognition, or ‘thought,’ seems to hang ‘nowhere,’ or at the very least ‘beyond’ the empirical, rendering the notion of ‘transcendental constraint’ an easy-to-intuit metacognitive move.

In this way, one might diagnose the constitutive transcendental as a metacognitive artifact of neglect. A symptom of brain blindness.

This is essentially the ambit of the Blind Brain Theory: to explain the incompatibility of the intentional with the natural in terms of what information we should expect to be available to metacognition. Insofar as the whole of traditional philosophy turns on ‘reflection,’ BBT amounts to a wholesale reconceptualization of the philosophical tradition as well. It is, without any doubt, the most radical parade of possibilities to ever trammel my imagination—a truly post-intentional philosophy—and I feel as though I have just begun to chart the troubling extent of its implicature. The motive of this piece is to simply convey the gestalt of this undiscovered country with enough sideways clarity to convince a few daring souls to drag out their theoretical canoes.

To summarize then: Taking the mechanistic paradigm of the life sciences as our baseline for ontological accuracy (and what else would we take?), the mental can be reinterpreted in terms of various kinds of dimensional loss. What follows is a list of some of these peculiarities and a provisional sketch of their corresponding ‘blind brain’ explanation. I view each of these theoretical vignettes as nothing more than an inaugural attempt, pixillated petroglyphs that are bound to be complicated and refined should the above hunches find empirical confirmation. If you find yourself reading with a squint, I ask only that you ponder the extraordinary fact that all these puzzling phenomena are characterized by missing information. Given the relation between information availability and cognitive reliability, is it simply a coincidence that we find them so difficult to understand? I’ll attempt to provide ways to visualize these sketches to facilitate understanding where I can, keeping in mind the way diagrams both elide and add dimensions.


Concept/Intuition                                                               Kind of Informatic Loss/Incapacity

Nowness – Insufficient temporal information regarding the time of information processing is integrated into conscious awareness. Metacognition, therefore, cannot make second-order before-and-after distinctions (or, put differently, is ‘laterally insensitive’ to the ‘time of timing’), leading to the faulty assumption of second-order temporal identity, and hence the ‘paradox of the now’ so famously described by Aristotle and Augustine.

Circle and Spiral - Now and Environmental TimeSo again, metacognitive neglect means our brains simply cannot track the time of their own operations the way it can track the time of the environment that systematically engages it. Since the absence of information is the absence of distinctions, our experience of time as metacognized ‘fuses’ into the paradoxical temporal identity in difference we term the now.

Reflexivity – Insufficient temporal information regarding the time of information processing is integrated into conscious awareness. Metacognition, therefore, can only make granular second-order sequential distinctions, leading to the faulty metacognitive assumption of mental reflexivity, or contemporaneous self-relatedness (either intentional as in the analytic tradition, or nonintentional as well, as posited in the continental tradition), the sense that cognition can be cognized as it cognizes, rather than always only post facto. Thus, once again, the mysterious (even miraculous) appearance of the mental, since mechanically, all the processes involved in the generation of consciousness are irreflexive. Resources engaged in tracking cannot themselves be tracked. In nature the loop can be tightened, but never cinched the way it appears to be in experience.

Circle and Spiral - UntitledOnce again, experience as metacognized fuses, consigning vast amounts of information to the superunknown, in this case, the dimension of irreflexivity. The mental is not only flattened into a mere informatic shadow, it becomes bizarrely self-continuous as well.

Personal Identity – Insufficient information regarding the sequential or irreflexive processing of information integrated into conscious awareness, as per above. Metacognition attributes psychological continuity, even ontological simplicity, to ‘us’ simply because it neglects the information required to cognize myriad, and many cases profound, discontinuities. The same way sleep elides travel, making it seem like you simply ‘awaken someplace else,’ so too does metacognitive neglect occlude any possible consciousness of moment to moment discontinuity.

Conscious Unity – Insufficient information regarding the disparate neural complexities responsible for consciousness. Metacognition, therefore, cannot make the relevant distinctions, and so assumes unity. Once again, the mundane assertion of identity in the absence of distinctions is the culprit. So the character below strikes us as continuous,


even though it is actually composite,

X pixilated

simply for want of discriminations, or additional information.

Meaning Holism – Insufficient information regarding the disparate neural complexities responsible for conscious meaning. Metacognition, therefore, cannot make the high-dimensional distinctions required to track external relations, and so mistakes the mechanical systematicity of the pertinent neural structures and functions (such as the neural interconnectivity requisite for ‘winner take all’ systems) for a lower dimensional ‘internal relationality.’ ‘Meaning,’ therefore, appears to be differential in some elusive formal, as opposed to merely mechanical, sense.

Volition – Insufficient information regarding neural/environmental production and attenuation of behaviour integrated into conscious awareness. Unable to track the neurofunctional provenance of behaviour, metacognition posits ‘choice,’ the determination of behaviour ex-nihilo.

Circle and Spiral - VolitionOnce again, the lack of access to a given dimension of information forces metacognition to rely on an ad hoc heuristic, ‘choice,’ which only becomes a problem when theoretical metacognition, blind to its heuristic occlusion of dimensionality, feeds it to cognitive systems primarily adapted to high-dimensional environmental information.

Purposiveness – Insufficient information regarding neural/environmental production and attenuation of behaviour integrated into conscious awareness. Cognition thus resorts to noncausal heuristics keyed to solving behaviours rather than those keyed to solving environmental regularities—or ‘mindreading.’ Blind to the heuristic nature of these systems, theoretical metacognition attributes efficacy to predicted outcomes. Constraint is intuited in terms of the predicted effect of a given behaviour as opposed to its causal matrix. What comes after appears to determine what comes before, or ‘cranes,’ to borrow Dennett’s metaphor, become ‘skyhooks.’ Situationally adapted behaviours become ‘goal-directed actions.’

Value – Insufficient information regarding neural/environmental production and attenuation of behaviour integrated into conscious awareness. Blind to the behavioural feedback dynamics that effect avoidance or engagement, metacognition resorts to heuristic attributions of ‘value’ to effect further avoidance or engagement (either socially or individually). Blind to the radically heuristic nature of these attributions, theoretical metacognition attributes environmental reality to these attributions.

Normativity – Insufficient information regarding neural/environmental production and attenuation of behaviour integrated into conscious awareness. Cognition thus resorts to noncausal heuristics geared to solving behaviours rather than those geared to solving environmental regularities. Blind to these heuristic systems, deliberative metacognition attributes efficacy or constraint to predicted outcomes. Constraint is intuited in terms of the predicted effect of a given behaviour as opposed to its causal matrix. What comes after appears to determine what comes before. Situationally adapted behaviours become ‘goal-directed actions.’ Blind to the dynamics of those behavioural patterns producing environmental effects that effect their extinction or reproduction (that generate attractors), metacognition resorts to drastically heuristic attributions of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness,’ further effecting the extinction or reproduction of behavioural patterns (either socially or individually). Blind to the heuristic nature of these attributions, theoretical metacognition attributes environmental reality to them. Behavioural patterns become ‘rules,’ apparent noncausal constraints.

Aboutness (or Intentionality Proper) – Insufficient information regarding processing of environmental information integrated into conscious awareness. Even though we are mechanically embedded as a component of our environments, outside of certain brute interactions, information regarding this systematic causal interrelation is unavailable for cognition. Forced to cognize/communicate this relation absent this causal information, metacognition resorts to ‘aboutness’. Blind to the radically heuristic nature of aboutness, theoretical metacognition attributes environmental reality to the relation, even though it obviously neglects the convoluted circuit of causal feedback that actually characterizes the neural-environmental relation.

The easiest way to visualize this dynamic is to evince it as,

Spiral - Untitledwhere the screw diagrams the dimensional complexity of the natural within an apparent frame that collapses many of those dimensions—your present ‘first person’ experience of seeing the figure above. This allows us to complicate the diagram thus,

Spiral in Circlebearing in mind that the explicit limit of the ‘O’ diagramming your first-person experiential frame is actually implicit or asymptotic, which is to say, occluded from conscious experience as it was in the initial diagram. Since the actual relation between ‘you’ (or your ‘thought,’ or your ‘utterance,’ or your ‘belief,’ and ‘etc.’) and what is cognized/perceived—experienced—outruns experience, you find yourself stranded with the bald fact of a relation, an ineluctable coincidence of you and your object, or ‘aboutness,’

Spiral as intentional objectwhere ‘you’ simply are related to an independent object world. The collapse of the causal dimension of your environmental relatedness into the superunknown requires a variety of ‘heuristic fixes’ to adequately metacognize. This then provides the basis for the typically mysterious metacognitive intuitions that inform intentional concepts such as representation, reference, content, truth, and the like.

Representation – Insufficient information regarding processing of environmental information integrated into conscious awareness. Even though we are mechanically embedded as a component of our environments, outside of certain brute interactions, information regarding this systematic causal interrelation is unavailable for cognition. Forced to cognize/communicate this relation absent this causal information, metacognition resorts to ‘aboutness’. Blind to the radically heuristic nature of aboutness, theoretical metacognition attributes environmental reality to the relation, even though it obviously neglects the convoluted circuit of causal feedback that actually characterizes the neural-environmental relation. Subsequent theoretical analysis of cognition, therefore, attributes aboutness to the various components apparently identified, producing the metacognitive illusion of representation.

Our implicit conscious experience of some natural phenomenon,

Spiral - Untitledbecomes explicit,

Spiral - Representationreplacing the simple unmediated (or ‘transparent’) intentionality intuited in the former with a more complex mediated intentionality that is more easily shoehorned into our natural understanding of cognition, given that the latter deals in complex mechanistic mediations of information.

Truth – Insufficient information regarding processing of environmental information integrated into conscious awareness. Even though we are mechanically embedded as a component of our environments, outside of certain brute interactions, information regarding this systematic causal interrelation is unavailable for cognition. Forced to cognize/communicate this relation absent this causal information, metacognition resorts to ‘aboutness’. Since the mechanical effectiveness of any specific conscious experience is a product of the very system occluded from metacognition, it is intuited as given in the absence of exceptions—which is to say, as ‘true.’ Truth is the radically heuristic way the brain metacognizes the effectiveness of its cognitive functions. Insofar as possible exceptions remain superunknown, the effectiveness of any relation metacognized as ‘true’ will remain apparently exceptionless, what obtains no matter how we find ourselves environmentally embedded—as a ‘view from nowhere.’ Thus your ongoing first-person experience of,

Spiral - Untitledwill be implicitly assumed true period, or exceptionless, (sufficient for effective problem solving in all ecologies), barring any quirk of information availability (‘perspective’) that flags potential problem solving limitations, such as a diagnosis of psychosis, awakening from a nap, the use of a microscope, etc. This allows us to conceive the natural basis for the antithesis between truth and context: as a heuristic artifact of neglect, truth literally requires the occlusion of information pertaining to cognitive function to be metacognitively intuited.

So in terms of our visual analogy, truth can be seen as the cognitive aspect of ‘O,’ how the screw of nature appears with most of its dimensions collapsed, as apparently ‘timeless and immutable,’

Circlefor simple want of information pertaining to its concrete contingencies. As more and more of the screw’s dimensions are revealed, however, the more temporal and mutable—contingent—it becomes. Truth evaporates… or so we intuit.


Lacuna Obligata

Given the facility with which Blind Brain Theory allows these concepts to be naturally reconceptualised, my hunch is that many others may be likewise demystified. Aprioricity, for instance, clearly turns on some kind of metacognitive ‘priority neglect,’ whereas abstraction clearly involves some kind of ‘grain neglect.’ It’s important to note that these diagnoses do not impeach the implicit effectiveness of many of these concepts so much as what theoretical metacognition, or ‘philosophical reflection,’ has generally made of them. It is precisely the neglect of information that allows our naive employment of these heuristics to be effective within the limited sphere of those problem ecologies they are adapted to solve. This is actually what I think the later Wittgenstein was after in his attempts to argue the matching of conceptual grammars with language-games: he simply lacked the conceptual resources to see that normativity and aboutness were of a piece. It is only when philosophers, as reliant upon deliberative theoretical metacognition as they are, misconstrue what are parochial problem solvers for more universal ones, that we find ourselves in the intractable morass that is traditional philosophy.

To understand the difference between the natural and the first-person we need a positive way to characterize that difference. We have to find a way to let that difference make a difference. Neglect is that way. The trick lies in conceiving the way the neglect of various dimensions of information dupes theoretical metacognition into intuiting the various structural peculiarities traditionally ascribed to the first-person. So once again, where running the clock of astronomical discovery backward merely subtracts information from a fixed dimensional frame,

Photo to petroglyphexplaining the first-person requires the subtraction of dimensions as well,

origami turtlethat we engage in a kind of ‘conceptual origami,’ conceive the first-person, in spite of its intuitive immediacy, as what the brain looks like when whole dimensions of information are folded away.

And this, I realize, is not easy. Nevertheless, tracking environments requires resources which themselves cannot be tracked, thus occluding cognitive neurofunctionality from cognition—imposing ‘medial neglect.’ The brain thus becomes superunknown relative to itself. Its own astronomical complexity is the barricade that strands metacognitive intuitions with intentionality as traditionally conceived. Anyone disagreeing with this needs to explain how it is human metacognition overcomes this boggling complexity. Otherwise, all the provocative questions raised here remain: Is it simply a coincidence that intentional concepts exhibit such similar patterns of information privation? For instance, is it a coincidence that the curious causal bottomlessness that haunts normativity—the notion of ‘rules’ and ‘ends’ somehow ‘constraining’ via some kind of obscure relation to causal mechanism—also haunts the ‘aiming’ that informs conceptions of representation? Or volition? Or truth?

The Blind Brain theory says, Nope. If the lack of information, the ‘superunknown,’ is what limits our ability to cognize nature, then it makes sense to assume that it also limits our ability to cognize ourselves. If the lack of information is what prevents us from seeing our way past traditional conceits regarding the world, it makes sense to think it also prevents us from seeing our way past cherished traditional conceits regarding ourselves. If information privation plays any role in ignorance or misconception at all, we should assume that the grandiose edifice of traditional human self-understanding is about to founder in the ongoing informatic Flood…

That what we have hitherto called ‘human’ has been raised upon shades of cognition obscura.