Three Pound Brain

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Tag: Free Will

Eliminativist Interventions: Gallagher on Neglect and Free Will

by rsbakker

Enactivist Interventions

In the previous post I tried to show how the shape of the free will debate can be explained in terms of the differences and incompatibilities between source-sensitive (causal) and source-insensitive (intentional) cognition. Rather than employ the overdetermined term, ‘free will,’ I considered the problem in terms of ‘choice-talk,’ the cognitive systems and language we typically employ when reporting behaviour. I then try to show how this simple step sideways allows us to see the free will debate as a paradigmatic, intellectual ‘crash space,’ a point where the combination of heuristic neglect and intellectual innovation generates systematic cognitive illusions.

As it happened, I read Shaun Gallagher’s excellent Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind while picking at this piece, and lo, discovered that he too tackles the problem of free will. I wrote what follows as an inescapable consequence.

Gallagher’s approach to the question of free will is diagnostic, much like my own. First, he wants to characterize how the problem is canonically posed, the ‘common understanding of the question,’ then he wants to show how this characterization gets the problem wrong. Discussing Libet’s now infamous ‘free won’t’ experiment, he points out that “In the experimental situation we are asked to pay attention to all of the processes that we normally do not attend to, and to move our body in a way that we do not usually move it…” which is to say, precisely those processes choice-talk systematically neglects. As he writes:

“These experiments, however, and more generally the broader discussions of motor control, have nothing to tell us about free will per se. If they contribute to a justification of perceptual or epiphenomenal theories of how we control our movement, these are not theories that address the question of free will. The question of free will is a different question.”

But why is the free will question a different question? Gallagher offers two different reasons why the question of free will simply has no place in the neurophysiology of decision-making:

“The attempt to frame the question of free will in terms of these subpersonal processes—either to dismiss it or to save it—is misguided for at least two reasons. First, free will cannot be squeezed into the elementary timescale of 150–350 milliseconds; free will is a longer-term phenomenon and, I will argue, it involves consciousness. Second, the notion of free will does not apply primarily to abstract motor processes or even to bodily movements that make up intentional actions—rather it applies to intentional actions themselves, described at the most appropriate pragmatic level of description.”

Essentially, Gallagher’s offering his own level-of-description argument. The first reason choice-talk has no place in neurophysiological considerations is that it only applies to the time-scale of personal action, and not to the time-scale of neurophysiological processes. This seems a safe enough assumption, given the affinity of choice-talk with personal action more generally. The problem is that we already know that free will has no application in neurophysiology—that it is expunged. The question, rather, is whether source-talk applies to personal time-scales. And the problem, as we saw above, is that it most certainly does. We can scale up the consequences of Libet’s experiment, talk of the brain deciding before conscious awareness of our decisions. In fact, we do this whenever we use biomedical facts to assess responsibility. Certainly, we don’t want to go back to the days of condemning the character of kids suffering ADHD and the like.

Gallagher’s second reason is that choice-talk only applies to the domain of intentional actions. He introduces the activity of lizard hunting to give an example of the applicability and inapplicability of choice-talk (and hence, free will). What’s so interesting here, from a heuristic neglect standpoint, is the way his thinking continually skirts around the issue of source-insensitivity.

“I am not at all thinking about how to move my body—I’m thinking about catching the lizard. My decision to catch the lizard is the result of a consciousness that is embedded or situated in the particular context defined by the present circumstance of encountering the lizard, and the fact that I have a lizard collection. This is an embedded or situated reflection, neither introspective nor focused on my body. It is ‘a first-person reflective consciousness that is embedded in a pragmatically or socially contextualized situation.”

Gallagher’s entirely right that we systematically neglect our physiology in the course of hunting lizards. Choice-talk belongs to a source-insensitive regime of problem solving—Gallagher himself recognizes as much. We neglect the proximal sources of behaviour and experience, focusing rather on the targets of those sources. Because this regime exhibits source-insensitivity, it relies on select correlations, cues, to the systems requiring solution. A face, for instance, is a kind of cuing organ, allowing others to draw dramatic conclusions of the basis of the most skeletal information (think happy faces, or any ‘emoticon’). The physiology of the expression-animating brain completely eludes us, and yet we can make striking predictions regarding what it will do next given things like ancestral biological integrity and similar training. A happy face on a robot, on the other hand, could mean anything. This ecological dependence is precisely why source-insensitive cognitive tools are so situational, requiring the right cues in the right circumstances to reliably solve select sets of problems—or problem ecologies.

So, Gallagher is right to insist that choice-talk, which is adapted to solve in source-insensitive or ‘shallow’ cognitive ecologies, has no application in source-sensitive or ‘deep’ cognitive ecologies. After all, we evolved these source-insensitive modes because, ancestrally speaking, biological complexity made source-sensitive cognition of living systems impossible. This is why our prescientific ancestors could go lizard hunting too.

Gallagher is also largely right to say that sourcing lizard-hunting a la neuroscience has nothing to do with our experience of hunting lizards—so long as everything functions as it should. Sun-stroke is but one of countless, potential ‘choice-talk’ breakers here.

But, once again, the question is whether source-talk applies to the nature of lizard hunting—which it certainly does. How could it not? Lizard hunting is something humans do—which is to say, biological through and through. Biology causes us to see lizards. Biology also causes us (in astronomically complicated, stochastic ways) to hunt them.

Gallagher’s whole argument hinges on an apple and orange strategy, the insistence that placing neurophysiological apples in the same bushel as voluntary oranges fundamentally mistakes the segregate nature of oranges. On my account both choice-talk and source-talk possess their respective problem-ecologies while belonging to the same high-dimensional nature. Choice-talk belongs to a system adapted to source-insensitive solutions, and as such, possesses a narrow scope of application. Source-talk, on the other hand, possesses a far, far broader scope of application, so much so that it allows us to report the nature of choice-talk. This is what Libet is doing. His findings crash choice-talk because choice-talk actually requires source-neglect to function happily.

On Gallagher’s account, free will and neurophysiology occupy distinct ‘levels of description,’ the one belonging to ‘intentional action,’ and the other to ‘natural science.’ As with the problem ecology of choice-talk, the former level is characterized by systematic source-neglect. But where this systematic neglect simply demarcates the problem-ecology of choice-talk from that of source-talk in my account, in Gallagher it demarcates an ontologically exceptional, low-dimensional ecology, that of ‘first-person reflective consciousness… embedded in a pragmatically or socially contextualized situation.’

This where post-cognitivists, having embraced high-dimensional ecology, toss us back into the intractable lap of philosophy. Gallagher, of course, thinks that some exceptional twist of nature forces this upon cognitive science, one that the systematic neglect of sources in things like lizard hunting evidences. But once you acknowledge neglect, the way Gallagher does, you have no choice but to consider the consequences of neglect. Magicians, for instance, are masters at manipulating our intuitions via neglect. Suppress the right kind of information, and humans intuit exceptional entities and events. Is it simply a coincidence that we both suffer source-neglect and we intuit exceptional entities and events when reflecting on our behaviour?

How, for instance, could reflection hope to distinguish the inability to source from the absence of sources? Gallagher agrees that metacognition is ecological—that there is no such thing as the ‘disembodied intellect.’ “Even in cases where we are able to step back,” Gallagher writes, “to detach ourselves from the demands of the immediate environment, and to engage in a second-order, conceptual deliberation, this stepping back does not make thinking any less of an embodied/ intersubjective skill.” Stepping back does not mean stepping out, despite seeming that way. Human metacognition is radically heuristic, source-insensitive through and through. Deliberative reflection on the nature of experience cannot but systematically neglect sources. This is why we hallucinate ‘disembodied intellects’ in the first place! We simply cannot, given our radically blinkered metacognitive vantage, distinguish confounds pertaining to neglect from properties belonging to experience. (The intuition, in fact, cuts the other way, which is why the ball of discursive yarn needs to be unraveled in the first place, why post-cognitivism is post.)

Even though Gallagher relies on neglect to relativize choice-talk to a particular problem-solving domain (his ‘level of description’), he fails to consider the systematic role played by source-insensitivity in our attempts to cognize cognition. He fails, in other words, to consider his own theoretical practice in exhaustively ecological terms. He acknowledges that it has to be ecological, but fails to consider what this means. As a result, he trips into phenomenological and pragmatic versions of the same confounds he critiques in cognitivism. Disembodied intellects become disembodied embodied intellects.

To be embodied is to be high-dimensional, to possess nearly inexhaustible amounts natural information. To be embodied, in other words, is to be susceptible to source-sensitive cognition. Except, Gallagher would have you believe, when its not, when the embodiment involves intentionality, in which case, we are told, source-talk no longer applies, stranding us with the low-dimensional resources of source-insensitive cognition (which is to say, perpetual disputation). ‘Disembodied intellects’ (one per theorist) are traded for irreducible phenomenologies (one per theorist) and/or autonomous normativities (one per theorist), a whole new set of explananda possessing natures that, we are assured, only intentional cognition can hope to solve.

Gallagher insists that intentional phenomena are embodied, ‘implicit,’ as he likes to say, in this or that high-dimensional ecological feature, only at a ‘level of description’ that only intentional cognition can solve. The obvious problem, of course, is that the descriptive pairing of low-dimensional intentional phenomena like ‘free will’ with high-dimensional ecologies amounts to no more than a rhetorical device short some high-dimensional account of intentionality. Terms such as ‘implicit,’ like ‘emergent’ or ‘autopoietic,’ raise far more questions than they answer. How is intentionality ‘implicit’ in x? How does intentionality ’emerge’ from x? Short some genuine naturalization of intentionality, very little evidences the difference between Gallagher’s ‘embodiment’ and haunting—‘daimonic possession.’

The discursively fatal problem, however, is that intentional cognition, as source-insensitive, relies on strategic correlations to those natures—and thus has no application to the question of natures. These are ‘quick and dirty’ systems adapted to the economical solution of practical problems on the fly. Only neglect makes it seem otherwise. This is why post-cognitivism, like cognitivism more generally, cannot so much as formulate, let alone explain, its explananda in any consensus-commanding way. On Gallagher’s account, institutional philosophy remains firmly in charge of cognitive scientific theorization, and will continue to do so in perpetuity as a ‘philosophy of nature’ (and in this respect, he’s more forthright than Hutto and Myin, who rhetorically dress their post-cognitive turn as an ‘escape’ from philosophy).

Ecological eliminativism suffers neither of these problems. Choice-talk has its problem-ecology. Source-talk has its problem-ecology. The two evolved on separate tracks, but now, thanks to radical changes in human cognitive ecology, they find themselves cheek and jowl, causing the former to crash with greater and greater frequency. This crash occurs, not because people are confusing ‘ontologically distinct levels of description,’ one exceptional, the other mundane, but because the kind of source-neglect required by the former does not obtain the way it did ancestrally. We should expect, moreover, the frequency of these crashes to radically increase as cognitive science and its technologies continue to mature. Continued insistence on ontologically and/or functionally exceptional ‘levels of description’ all but blinds us to this looming crisis.

Having acknowledged the fractionate and heuristic nature of deliberative metacognition, having acknowledged source-neglect, Gallagher now needs to explain what makes his exceptionalism exceptional, why the intentional events and entities he describes cannot be explained away as artifacts of inevitable heuristic misapplication. He finds neglect useful, but only because he neglects to provide a fulsome account of its metacognitive consequences. It possesses a second, far sharper edge.

 

 

If Free-Will were a Heuristic…

by rsbakker

Ecological eliminativism provides, I think, an elegant way to understand the free-will debate as a socio-cognitive ‘crash space,’ a circumstance where ecological variance causes the systematic breakdown of some heuristic cognitive system. What follows is a diagnostic account, and as such will seem to beg the question to pretty much everyone it diagnoses. The challenge it sets, however, is abductive. In matters this abstruse, it will be the power to explain and synthesize that will carry the theoretical morning if not the empirical day.

As hairy as it is, the free-will debate, at least in its academic incarnation, has a trinary structure: you have libertarians arguing the reality of how decision feels, you have compatibilists arguing endless ways of resolving otherwise manifest conceptual and intuitive incompatibilities, and you have determinists arguing the illusory nature of how decision feels.

All three legs of this triumvirate can be explained, I think, given an understanding of heuristics and the kinds of neglect that fall out of them. Why does the feeling of free will feel so convincing? Why are the conceptualities of causality and choice incompatible? Why do our attempts to overcome this incompatibility devolve into endless disputation?

In other words, why is there a free-will debate at all? As of 10:33 AM December 17th, 2019, Googling “free will debate” returned 575,000,000 hits. Looking at the landscape of human cognition, the problem of free will looms large, a place where our intuitions, despite functioning so well in countless other contexts, systematically frustrate any chance of consensus.

This is itself scientifically significant. So far as pathology is the royal road to function, we should expect that spectacular breakdowns such as these will hold deep lessons regarding the nature of human cognition.

As indeed they do.

So, let’s begin with a simple question: If free-will were a heuristic, a tool humans used to solve otherwise intractable problems, what would it’s breakdown look like?

But let’s take a step back for a second, and bite a very important, naturalistic bullet. Rather than consider ‘free-will’ as a heuristic, let’s consider something less overdetermined: ‘choice-talk.’ Choice-talk constitutes one of at least two ways for us humans to report selections between behaviours. The second, ‘source-talk,’ we generally use to report the cognition of high-dimensional (natural) precursors, whereas we generally use choice-talk to report cognition absent high-dimensional precursors.

As a cognitive mechanism, choice-talk is heuristic insofar as it turns a liability into an asset, allowing us to solve social problems low-dimensionally—which is to say, on the cheap. That liability is source insensitivity, our congenital neglect of our biological/ecological precursors. Human cognition is fundamentally structured by what might be called the ‘biocomplexity barrier,’ the brute fact that biology is too complicated to cognize itself high-dimensionally. The choice-talk toolset manages astronomically complicated biological systems—ourselves and other people—via an interactional system reliably correlated to the high-dimensional fact of those systems given certain socio-cognitive contexts. Choice-talk works given the cognitive ecological conditions required to maintain the felicitous correlation between the cues consumed and the systems linked to them. Undo that correlation and choice-talk, like any other heuristic mechanism, begins to break down.

Ancestrally, we had no means of discriminating our own cognitive constitution. The division of cognitive labour between source-sensitive and source-insensitive cognition is one that humans constitutively neglect: we have to be trained to discriminate it. Absent such discrimination, the efficacy of our applications turn on the continuity of our cognitive ecologies. Given biocomplexity, the application of source-sensitive cognition to intractable systems—and biological systems in particular—is not something evolution could have foreseen. Why should we possess the capacity to intuitively reconcile the joint application of two cognitive systems that, as far as evolution was concerned, would never meet?

As a source-insensitivity workaround, a way to cognize behaviour absent the ability to source that behaviour, we should expect choice-talk cognition to misfire when applied to behaviour that can be sourced. We should expect that discovering the natural causes of decisions will scuttle the intuition that those decisions were freely chosen. The manifest incompatibility between high-dimensional source-talk and low-dimensional choice-talk arises because the latter has been biologically filtered to function in contexts precluding the former. Intrusions of source-talk applicability, when someone suffers a head injury, say, could usefully trump choice-talk applicability.

Choice-talk, in fact, possesses numerous useful limits, circumstances where we suspend its application to better solve social problems via other tools. As radically heuristic, choice-talk requires a vast amount of environmental stage-setting in order to function felicitously, an ecological ‘sweet spot’ that’s bound to be interrupted by any number of environmental contingencies. Some capacity to suspend its application was required. Intuitively, then, source-talk trumps choice-talk when applied to the same behaviour. Since the biocomplexity barrier assured that each mode would be cued the way it had always been cued since time immemorial, we could, ancestrally speaking, ignore our ignorance and generally trust our intuitions.

The problem is that source-talk is omni-applicable. With the rise of science, we realized that everything biological can be high-dimensionally sourced. We discovered that the once-useful incompatibility between source-talk and choice-talk can be scotched with a single question: If everything can be sourced, and if sources negate choices, then how could we be free? Incompatibility that was once-useful now powerfully suggests choice-talk has no genuinely cognitive applicability anywhere. If choice-talk were heuristic, in other words, you might expect the argument that ‘choices’ are illusions.

The dialectical problem, however, is that human deliberative metacognition, reflection, also suffers source-insensitivity and so also consists of low-dimensional heuristics. Deliberative metacognition, the same as choice-talk, systematically neglects the machinery of decision making: reflection consistently reports choices absent sources as a result. Lacking sensitivity to the fact of insensitivity, reflection also reports the sufficiency of this reporting. No machinery is required. The absence of proximal, high-dimensional sources is taken for something real, ontologized, becoming a property belonging to choices. Given metacognitive neglect, in other words, reflection reports choice-talk as expressing some kind of separate, low dimensional ontological order.

Given this blinkered report, everything depends on how one interprets that ontology and its relation to the high-dimensional order. Creativity is required to somehow rationalize these confounds, which, qua confounds, offer nothing decisive to adjudicate between rationalizations. If choice-talk were a heuristic, one could see individuals arguing, not simply that choices are ‘real,’ but the kind of reality they possess. Some would argue that choice possesses a reality distinct from biological reality, that choices are somehow made outside causal closure. Others would argue that choices belong to biological reality, but in a special way that explains their peculiarity.

If choice-talk were heuristic, in other words, you would expect that it would crash given the application of source-cognition to behaviours it attempts to explain. You would expect this crash to generate the intuition that choice-talk is an illusion (determinism). You would expect attempts to rescue choice would either take the form of insisting on its independent reality (libertarianism), or its secondary reality (compatibilism).

Two heuristic confounds are at work, the first a product of the naïve application of source-talk to human decision-making, cuing us to report the inapplicability of choice-talk tout court, the second the product of the naïve application of deliberative metacognition to human decision-making, cuing us to report the substantive and/or functional reality of ‘choice.’

If choice-talk were heuristic, in other words, you would expect something that closely resembles the contemporary free-will debate. You could even imagine philosophers cooking up cases to test, even spoof, the ways in which choice-talk and source-talk are cued. Since choices involve options, for instance, what happens when we apply source-talk to only one option, leaving the others to neglect?

If choice-talk were heuristic, in other words, you could imagine philosophers coming up things like ‘Frankfurt-style counterexamples.’ Say I want to buy a pet, but I can’t make up my mind whether to buy a cat or a dog. So, I decide to decide when I go the pet store on Friday. My wife is a neuroscientist who hates cats almost as much as she hates healthy communication. While I’m sleeping, she inserts a device at a strategic point in my brain that prevents me from choosing a cat and nothing else. None the wiser, I go to the pet store on Friday and decide to get a dog, but entirely of my own accord.

Did I choose freely?

These examples evidence the mischief falling out of heuristic neglect in a stark way. My wife’s device only interferes with decision-making processes to prevent one undesirable output. If the output is desirable, it plays no role, suggesting that the hacked subject chose that output ‘freely,’ despite the inability to do otherwise. On the one hand, surgical intervention prevents the application of choice-talk to cat buying. Source-talk, after all, trumps choice-talk. But since surgical intervention only pertains to cat buying, dog buying seems, to some at least, to remain a valid subject of choice-talk. Source neglect remains unproblematic. The machinery of decision-making, in other words, can be ignored the way it’s always ignored in decision-making contexts. It remains irrelevant. Choice-talk machinery seems to remain applicable to this one fork, despite crashing when both forks are taken together.

For some philosophers, this suggests that choice isn’t a matter of being able to do otherwise, but of arising out of the proper process—a question of appropriate ‘sourcing.’ They presume that choice-talk and the corresponding intuitions still apply. If the capacity to do otherwise isn’t definitive of choice, then provenance must be: choice is entirely compatible with precursors, they argue, so long as those precursors are the proper ones. Crash. Down another interpretative rabbit-hole they go. Short any inkling of the limits imposed by the heuristic tools at their disposal—blind to their own cognitive capacities—all they can do is pursue the intuitions falling out of the misapplications of those tools. They remain trapped, in effect, downstream the heuristic confounds described above.

Here we can see the way philosophical parsing lets us map the boundaries of reliable choice-talk application. Frankfurt-style counterexamples, on this account, are best seen as cognitive versions of visual illusions, instances where we trip over the ecological limits of our cognitive capacities.

As with visual illusions, they reveal the fractionate, heuristic nature of the capacities employed. Unlike visual illusions, however, they are too low-dimensional to be readily identified as such. To make matters worse, the breakdown is socio-cognitive: perpetual disputation between individuals is the breakdown. This means that its status as a crash space is only visible by taking an ecological perspective. For interpretative partisans, however, the breakdown always belongs to the ‘other guy.’ Understanding the ecology of the breakdown becomes impossible.

The stark lesson here is that ‘free-will’ is a deliberative confound, what you get when you ponder the nature of choice-talk without accounting for heuristic neglect. Choice-talk itself is very real. With the interactional system it belongs to—intentional cognition more generally—it facilitates cooperative miracles on the communicative back of less than fifteen bit-per-second. Impressive. Gobsmacking, actually. We would be fools not to trust our socio-cognitive reflexes where they are applicable, which is to say, where neglecting sources solves more problems than it causes.

So, yah, sure, we make choices all the bloody time. At the same time, though, ‘What is the nature of choice?’ is a question that can only be answered ecologically, which is to say, via source-sensitive cognition. The nature of choice involves the systematic neglect of systems that must be manipulated nevertheless. Cues and correlations are compulsory. The nature of choice, in other words, obliterates our intellectual and phenomenological intuitions regarding choice. There’s just no such thing.

And this, I think it’s fair to say, is as disastrous as a natural fact can be. But should we be surprised? The thing to appreciate, I think, is the degree to which we should expect to find ourselves in precisely such a dilemma. The hard fact is that biocomplexity forced us to evolve source-insensitive ways to troubleshoot all organisms, ourselves included. The progressive nature of science, however, insures that biocomplexity will eventually succumb to source-sensitive cognition. So, what are the chances that two drastically different, evolutionarily segregated cognitive modes would be easily harmonized?

Perhaps this is a growing pain every intelligent, interstellar species suffers, the point where their ancestral socio-cognitive toolset begins to fail them. Maybe science strips exceptionalism from every advanced civilization in roughly the same way: first our exceptional position, then our exceptional origin, and lastly, our exceptional being.

Perhaps choice dies with the same inevitability as suns, choking on knowledge instead of iron.

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

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Introduction

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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…