Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Tag: noocentrism

Life as Singularity

by rsbakker

I’ve had a couple of quite different quotes rattling about in my bean of late, the first hailing from about 150 years ago:

“I do not hesitate to maintain, that what we are conscious of is constructed out of what we are not conscious of–that our whole knowledge, in fact, is made up of the unknown and incognisable.” Sir William Hamilton, Lectures on Metaphysics, p. 348, 1865

And a second from 1999:

“Human consciousness appears to be an emergent brain function that permits an individual to experience a subjective sense of reality. By its nature, consciousness conveys a sense of what is real now as well as what was real in the past. It provides a sense of contiguity for the self and thereby mediates how individuals perceive and deal with the external world.” George P. Prigatano, “Disorders of Behavior and Self-awareness.”

I often marvel thinking about the first simply because of the degree to which subsequent social and cognitive psychological research has borne out what must have seemed a mad claim in the 19th century. The second struck me both because of its pragmatic nature–to discuss problems of awareness you need to at least provisionally define what awareness means–and because of the way it makes no damned sense whatsoever, even though it makes all the sense in the world.

Since “experience a subjective sense of reality” means to be conscious of the world, we can rewrite it as:

“Human consciousness appears to be an emergent brain function that permits an individual to [be conscious of the world]. By its nature, consciousness conveys a sense of what is real now as well as what was real in the past. It provides a sense of contiguity for the self and thereby mediates how individuals perceive and deal with the external world.”

Since the ‘real’ refers to what lies beyond consciousness, and since ‘sense’ means to be conscious of, “consciousness conveys a sense of what is real” can be rephrased as “consciousness conveys a consciousness of what exceeds consciousness,” allowing us to rewrite the passage as:

“Human consciousness appears to be an emergent brain function that permits an individual to [be conscious of the world]. By its nature, [consciousness conveys a consciousness of what exceeds consciousness] now as well as what [exceeds consciousness] in the past. It provides a sense of contiguity for the self and thereby mediates how individuals perceive and deal with the external world.”

Extending this logic of substitution to the last sentence yields:

“Human consciousness appears to be an emergent brain function that permits an individual to [be conscious of the world]. By its nature, [consciousness conveys a consciousness of what exceeds consciousness] now as well as what [exceeded consciousness] in the past. It provides a [consciousness] of contiguity [of consciousness] and thereby mediates how individuals [are conscious of] and deal with [what exceeds consciousness].”

Which is to say, a definition that really doesn’t define that much at all. In fact, it brings to mind another old favourite quote of mine regarding the ‘one-dimensionality of experience,’ how “experience is experience, only experience, and nothing but experience” (Floridi, The Philosophy of Information, 296, 2011). It demonstrates, in other words, the way consciousness seems to only have consciousness to go on. In a sense, this is ‘what is it likeness’ in a nutshell, the apparent inability to explicate the experience of experience short of referencing more experience. It’s important to understand how profound a limitation this is, and how it almost certainly generates profound distortions and illusions as a result.

A good part of BBT can be read as an attempt to naturalistically explain this bewildering characteristic of conscious experience, the fact that it possesses the strange Klein bottle structure that it does. What Hamilton is referring to is consciousness as component, the consciousness that you actually have, where each moment of consciousness possesses vectors of functionality completely orthogonal to what you can become ‘conscious of.’ What Prigatano is referring to is consciousness as metacognized, what consciousness becomes when understood through the lens of itself–the only lens that it has. Information that doesn’t make it to consciousness does not exist for consciousness, which has the effect of rendering consciousness everything that there is, both inside and outside. So what Hamilton is referring to is the outside that lies outside the inside/outside dichotomy. And what Prigatano is referring to is simply everything, as far as consciousness is concerned.

Thus the powerful and pervasive cognitive illusion that I’ve been calling ‘noocentrism.’ Noocentrism can be seen as an inevitable consequence of this latter consciousness, the one everyone thinks needs to be explained even though it doesn’t exist. Consciousness only has itself to credit when attempting to access the origins of whatever flits through its lens. Even though they do all the lifting, Hamilton’s orthogonal vectors of functionality simply do not exist. So consciousness credits itself, makes itself central to its own happening. And herein lies the dilemma for the human species: we’ve raised our entire self-understanding, all that is supposed ‘human,’ upon what is almost certainly a metacognitive illusion.

What does it mean to be something ‘unthinkable’?

The Myth of the Nonexistent Variable

by rsbakker

Noocentrism is the intuitive presumption of ‘hanging efficacy,’ the kind of acausal constraint metacognition attributes to aboutness or willing or rule-following or purposiveness.

Metacognitive neglect means that we ‘float’ through our environments blind to the causal systems that actually constrain us and–crucially–blind to this blindness as well. We are thus forced to rely on the various heuristic systems we’ve evolved to manage our environments absent this information, systems that metacognition, in its present acculturated form, tracks as aboutness, willing, rule-following, and purposiveness. Since metacognition cannot track these heuristic systems for the specialized ecomechanisms they in fact are,  it assumes a singular cognitive and metacognitive capacity possessing universal scope. Thus the dogmatists and the early modern faith in the adequacy of metacognition. The history of philosophy is the history of throwing ourselves into the metacognitive breach time and again, groping our way forward primarily by our failure to agree. In the Western philosophical tradition, Hume was the first to definitively isolate the constructed nature of experience, and thus the first to make explicit the implicit performative dimension of the first-person. Kant was the first to raise a whole Weltanschaung about it, and an extravagant one at that. Because this is so obviously ‘the way it is’ in philosophy, the tendency is to be blind to what is a truly extraordinary fact: that untutored metacognition is blind to the implicit performative dimension of all thought and experience. What was an inert blank found itself populated by performative blurs. And now, thanks to the sciences of the brain, those blurs are coming into sharper and sharper focus at last.

The third variable problem is the problem of hidden mechanisms. Given the systematicy of our environments, correlations abound. Given the complexity or our environments, the chances of mistaking correlation for causation are high. You fuel gauge indicates empty and your car coughs to a stop and so you assume you’ve run out of gas not knowing that your fuel pump has died. Researchers note a correlation between violent behaviour in youth and broken homes and so assume broken homes primarily cause violent behaviour, not knowing that association with other violent youth is the primary cause. The crazy thing to note here is how the problem of metacognitive neglect is also a problem of hidden mechanisms. In a very real sense, what is presently coming into focus are all the third variables of experience, all the mechanisms actually constraining our thought and behaviour.

In this sense, noocentrism is the myth of the nonexistent variable. The innumerable third variable processes that traverse the whole of conscious experience simply do not exist for conscious experience. Since metacognition is blind to these mechanisms, it can only posit constraints orthogonal to this activity, those belonging, as we saw above, to aboutness, willing, rule-following, and purposiveness. Since metacognition is blind to this orthogonality, the fact that it is positing constraints in the absence of any information regarding what is actually constraining thought and behaviour, the constraints posited suffer a profound version of the Only-game-in-town Effect. Given the mechanical systematicity of the brain, correlations abound in thought and behaviour: conscious experience appears to possess its own orthogonal, noocentric systematicity. Given neglect of the brain’s mechanical systematicity, those correlations appear to be the only game in town, to at once ‘autonomous,’ and the only way the systematicity of thought and behaviour can possibly be cognized. Historically, the bulk of philosophy has been given over to the task of properly describing that orthogonal noocentric systematicity using only the dregs of metacognitive intuition–or ‘reflection.’

Only now, thanks to the fount of information provided by the cognitive sciences, can we see the hopelessness of such a project. Decisions can be tracked prior to a subject’s ability to report them. The feeling of willing can be readily duped and is therefore interpretative. Memory turns out to be fractionate and nonveridical. Moral argumentation is self-promotional rather than truth-seeking. Attitudes appear to be introspectively inaccessible. The feeling of certainty has a dubious connection to rational warrant. The more we learn, the more faulty our traditional intuitions become. It’s as if our metacognitive portrait had been painted across a canvas concealing myriad, intricate folds, and whose kinks and dimensions can only now be teased into visibility. Only now are we discovering just how many of our traditional verities turn on ignorance. The myth of the nonexistent variable can no longer be sustained.

We must learn to intellectually condition our metacognitive sense of ourselves, to dim the bright intuitions of sufficiency and efficacy, and to think thought for what it is, a low-dimensional inkling bound to the back of far more high-dimensional processes. We must appreciate how all thought and behaviour is shot through with hidden variables, how this very exercise pitches within some tidal unknown. And we must see noocentrism as the latest of the great illusions to be overturned by the scientific discovery of the unseen machinery of things.