Tag Archives: Heidegger

Are Bacteria Capable of Caring?

At a conference on consciousness I went to recently, I suggested that bacteria are capable of care, but that rocks aren’t. Several people disagreed with me vehemently on this point. They said that it’s an obvious anthropomorphization to say that bacteria care. Their argument was that bacteria are just fully mechanical biochemical systems. To say a bacteria is capable of care is to speak metaphorically or something, but it can’t be literally true.

I don’t know about this. It seems to me true that bacteria are capable of caring but rocks aren’t. And you can’t just say bacteria are biochemical machines, because under the right description, so are humans. And moreover, seen through the lens of physics, humans are really no different from any other physical system, including rocks and bacteria. It’s all just fermions and bosons at the bottom anyway. So the argument that bacteria can’t care because they are mechanical or fully physical doesn’t work because under the right description humans look the same as bacteria and we all agree it’s appropriate to say humans care.

So the difference between the bacteria and the rock is not going to be a matter of being a physical system obeying physical law. Where I think the difference lies is in the way in which the bacteria’s physical matter is organized. It is at the level of organization that we see differences between rocks and bacteria. Bacteria, like all lifeforms, are balanced at the edge of thermodynamic disequilibrium. They are unstable in their organization, always ready to break down, but somehow they keep going (until death at least). Their unstability is characteristically stable, like a whirlpool in a river.

Moreover, there is something unique about the activities of the bacteria compared to other mechanical systems. The activities of the bacteria are continuously involved in producing the physical structures that constitute the bacteria. When the bacteria digests nutrients, it takes that matter and processes it in order to rebuild the membrane which distinguishes it from the environment. So the bacteria is continuously self-producing itself by always taking in nutrients to maintain the construction of the membrane which defines it against the environment. Theorists have called this kind of dynamic organization autopoietic. Whether or not autopoiesis alone is sufficient to define life against nonlife (some think you will need to also add notions of adaptivity), it is uncontroversial that organic lifeforms have a unique kind of organizational structure in virtue of something like autopoiesis.

But why should we think such an organizational structure warrants the claim that bacteria care about things? Well, I admit that such a gloss is taking advantage of metaphors to some extent, and all metaphors are in some sense literally false. But I still think it’s true to say bacteria care about things but rocks and other inorganic entities don’t. Imagine that you take some sugar and you place it in front of a rolling boulder or a moving bacteria. On one level of description, we could talk about the rock encountering the sugar in its pathway in input/output computational terms. The lump of sugar is an input into the system, the rock “computes” its response, and then generates an output, which is a slightly different change in behavior.

Similarly, we could use the same input/output description to talk about the bacteria encountering the lump. The sugar is an input into the system, the bacteria “computes” its response, and the output is a new set of behaviors. But just because we can apply this abstract characterization to both systems, that doesn’t mean that the rock and the bacteria are doing the same thing when they encounter the sugar. The difference, I think, is in the way the two entities “experience” the sugar. I don’t think the rock is really quite experiencing the sugar in the same way because I think the bacteria is on the look out for sugar. It is attuned for sugar, as opposed to other nutrients. It desires sugar. It seeks out sugar. It’s perception is valenced. It lives in a small lifeworld where all that matters is finding nutrients. None of this is true of the rock.  If the rock sees the world through a valence at all, it valences everything equally. It has no preferences. No affectivity. As Heidegger said,

A stone never finds itself but is simply present-at-hand. A very primitive unicellular form of life, on the contrary, will already find itself, where this affectivity can be the greatest and darkest dullness, but for all that it is in its structure of being essentially distinct from merely being present-at-hand like a thing. (History of the Concept of Time, p. 255)

I think this is a very insightful remark from Heidegger. He recognizes that there is something unique about the organizational structure of a bacteria when compared to a rock. When I say a rock “cares” about the world, I am really referencing Heidegger’s technical notion of “affectivity”. I talked about this a lot in my Master’s Thesis. The key idea is about the bacteria “finding itself”. This kind of self-reflexive organizational structure is I think a nontechnical precursor to the concept of autopoiesis. Pretty speculative, but bear with me. The idea is that rocks and stones don’t see the world as ready-to-hand. That is, they don’t see the world in terms of what it affords the possibility of doing. In other words, it is appropriate to think of bacteria as organized with respect to the future. This is a potentially mystifying claim, but it’s not that complex. From the perspective of physics, it’s still all just fermions and bosons obeying the laws of physics. But when dealing with lifeforms, the concept of valence is necessarily tied into the concept of a creature lacking something. The bacteria lacks the nutrients necessary to construct its membrane, so it seeks it out. Lack in organisms is always defined with respect to the future, what some ecological psychogists have called prospectivity. This type of absential, future-oriented organization is what Terrence Deacon has called ententional phenomena in his new book Incomplete Nature. I haven’t finished the book yet, but what I have read so far is quite brilliant.

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The Meaning of Meaning

What is meaning? This simple question is at the heart of philosophy of mind. Mentality and meaning have always gone hand in hand, and philosophers have tried to give an account of meaning for thousands of years.  Despite the many spirited attempts, a concrete understanding of meaning has been elusive in philosophy, and a broad consensus is no where to be seen. It’s a devishly complicated question to ask what the meaning of meaning is; it boggles the mind as to how to even go about answering the question. Although it is difficult to give a straight-forward definition of meaning, I do believe, contra Socrates, that giving examples is helpful in the art of producing a rigorous definition for a concept.

Philosophers have often focused on meaning at the linguistic level, wondering how the phrase “the cat is on the mat” means that the cat is actually on the mat. Moreover, what is the practical import of the statement? What does it mean to tell someone the cat is on the mat? If the cat belongs to no one, the import is probably zilch. But if the owner of the cat has been looking for it for days, then the import of stating where the cat is is likely to be highly meaningful. From an evolutionary perspective, it seems like the practical import of a linguistic statement is more developmentally basic, in both a phylo and ontogenetic sense. In other words, meaning comes first, then language. But this pushes back the question, what is nonlinguistic meaning?

The question of nonlinguistic meaning is tied into the question of nonverbal mental content. Linguistic meaning is usually talked about in terms of propositional content e.g. the content of the statement “the cat is on the mat” is the state of affairs of a cat being on a mat. So verbal content is relatively easy to make sense out of, because we can understand the conceptual content in terms of the implied propositional content, which can be spelled out in terms of beliefs and desires. If I don’t know where the cat is and I am looking for the cat, then someone telling me that the cat is on the mat will update my belief system such that I will, ceteris paribus, be motivated to go look on the mat, and will actually look. This is a fairly orthodox way of accounting for linguistic content. But what about nonverbal mental content? How can we make sense of that?

The question is philosophically vexing in that it’s difficult to use language (the medium of philosophy) to talk about mental content that exists independently of language. One way to get a better sense of nonverbal mental content, and thus nonverbal meaning, is to ask which creatures “have” nonverbal mental content. Let’s start with unicellulars like bacteria. Does a bacterium have a “mental life”? Not in the traditional sense of the term, since it seems strained to say that a bacterium believes anything, and having beliefs has long been a traditional criteria in distinguishing creatures with mentality from those without. Whereas we could, if we wanted to, adopt an intentional stance and say that when the bacterium senses a sucrose gradient a belief is formed by the bacterium that this is indeed sucrose it is encountering. But we know deep down that the “sensing” of the sucrose is entirely constituted by the physical-chemical nature of the bacterium. The sensing and digestion of the sucrose is entirely reactive and mechanistic. The bacterium’s “decision” to devour the sucrose based on its “belief” is entirely mechanical. The belief-forming talk is just that, talk. We do not really think that the intracellular machinery’s job is to form beliefs; its job is to perform biochemical functions that aid in the continuation of the bacterium’s metabolic existence.

But although the bacterium does not have beliefs, and thus does not “have” propositional attitudes except those we ascribe to it, it still makes sense to say that bacterium has a mental life, however dim compared to more complex creatures. For what is mental life? I claim a creature has a mental life just insofar as there is something it is like to be that creature. And, following Heidegger, I claim there is something it is like to be a creature just insofar as that creature “lives in” a phenomenal world. “Living in” in a phenomenal world is not like a spatial sense of “in” as in the case of the pencil being “in” the box. Living “in” a phenomenal world is more like being-in-the-world where being-in-the-world is a matter of (1) having concerns and (2) living in an environmental niche. A bacterium has concerns insofar as it is “concerned” about its own survival. Its whole existence is constituted by a desire to stay alive, to maintain its autonomous living. It “does” this in virtue of its complete biochemical nature. But its biochemical nature is organized in such a way as to constitute a machine which has a homeostatic equilibrium and the means by which to maintain that equilibrium despite perturbations from a changing environment and breakdowns in the stability of the internal mechanisms. So because the bacterium is “concerned” about itself in virtue of having its physical structure, the bacterium therefore lives in a phenomenal world insofar as it lives in an environment. The bacterium’s world is such that what is meaningful to the bacterium is that which enables it to keep on living. Thus, sucrose is meaningful to the bacterium because it affords the possibility of digesting it for maintenance of its homeostatic equilibrium.

We have then a foundation of meaning upon which to build more complex types of meaning. Basic nonverbal mental content, and thus basic nonverbal meaning, is based around autonomy. The bacterium is an autonomous machine because it gives itself its own principles for behavior based on its nature. These principles are properties of its organization as a physical object. One of the principles is concern oriented insofar as the maintenance of a dynamic nonlinear homeostatic equilibrium is the fundamental concern. And as we said, if you are concerned about something, then you live in a phenomenal world. If you live in a phenomenal world, you “have” phenomenal experience (where having is understand to be a metaphor, and not a literal “having” of an object like having a hammer in your hand). And if you have phenomenal experience, there is something it is like to be you. Thus, there is something it is like to be a bacterium.

But notice how the bacterium has no nervous system. If my argument goes through, then we can conclude that looking for the neural correlates of phenomenal experience is a completely misguided enterprise that is bound to fail. However, since I have been trying to argue that phenomenal experience and consciousness do not overlap, this means that we can still coherently look for the neural correlates of consciousness. But the NC of phenomenal experience is completely misguided, because, as I have tried to establish, there is something it is like to be a bacterium, and bacteria do not have nervous systems. If I am right, then neurophilosophers trying to pinpoint the NCs of phenomenal experience have been barking up the wrong tree. For the fundamental principle of mental life is not consciousness but living in a phenomenal world i.e. a world of real value and meaning, where entities are encountered as significant. Rocks do not live in a phenomenal world. There is nothing a rock is concerned about. It does not care if you break it in two. There is nothing it is like to be a rock. A rock has no mental life. But what a world of difference in the bacterium! The bacterium is alive. It has concerns. It lives in an ecological (i.e. phenomenal) niche. Whereas the rock does not strive to stay together in a particular organizational pattern, the bacterium does. Sucrose means nothing to a rock, for nothing means anything to a rock, but things matter to bacteria. Sucrose is meaningful to bacteria.

And that is the meaning of meaning in its most basic form. Of course, I am glossing on the complexity of both primordial meaning and linguistic meaning. Linguistic meaning, though grounded by primordial meaning, takes on a life of its own once established in a population. This is why Heidegger made pains to distinguish between being-in-the-environment and being-in-a-linguistic-world, with the latter reserved for those humans who have learned a language and grown up in a social-linguistic community.

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Losing interest in Heidegger

To be honest, I am losing interest in Heidegger. Although I am writing my Master’s thesis on Heidegger and the problem of realism, I am more interested in coming up with a good philosophical response to the question of realism than I am in defending a particular realist interpretation of Heidegger. I no longer have any interest in buying more Heidegger texts or reading secondary literature on Heidegger. Frankly, I feel like I have nothing else to learn from studying Heidegger closely. Now, this isn’t to say that I never learned anything from Heidegger. I did. I learned a lot. My encounter with Heidegger radically changed my philosophical perspective. But now I don’t see Heidegger as being the be-all-end-all of philosophy. I think J.J. Gibson was a better phenomenologist than Heidegger. I think ecological psychology can give as a better insight into Dasein and worldhood than transcendental methods. I think Julian Jaynes and modern consciousness studies research can offer a better insight into authentic existence than the study of the classic phenomenological tradition. I think modern neuroscience gives us a better understanding of how moods work than pure phenomenological reduction.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still consider myself a “Heideggerian”. But I also consider myself a Jaynesian, a Gibsonian, a Jamesian, a Clarksian, a Deleuzian, amongst other titles. Although I don’t think any of my current philosophical positions are at odds with Heidegger, my ideas, theories, and research interests have gone beyond Heidegger in many ways. Although I am still greatly influenced by Heidegger, I think there is just so much good philosophy and science that has been published since Heidegger’s time. To restrict myself to only studying Heidegger when there are amazing books being published every year really just strikes me as backwards and intellectually restrictive.

I had always approached Heidegger with the purpose of learning something new about how the mind works. But given my interest in the philosophy of mind, to limit my research to Heidegger would not ultimately be beneficial to my career. Although I think the best cognitive science could be considered “Heideggerian”, I think it is necessary to pursue interdisciplinary research and actually read what cognitive scientists have to say. And I don’t think you can understand the mind and human experience without reading about evolution, biology, and developmental psychology. Accordingly, my loss of interest in Heidegger is not really an abandonment of the Heideggerian position, but rather, the inevitable result of trying to corroborate Heidegger’s view in light of modern scholarship.

Hence, I will not be changing the subtitle of this blog. I still write and think from a Heideggerian position. But I am not the kind of scholar to restrict myself to one thinker obsessively. My interests are extremely varied and are always expanding as I encounter new thinkers. Neuroscience, cog sci, psychology, evolution, biology, philosophy of mind, the history of philosophy, consciousness studies, linguistics, artificial intelligence, vision research, emotion research, anthropology, archeology; I’m interested in it all! I love the idea of being “well read”. Overspecialization  at the expense of interdisciplinary synthesis is a death sentence. This is why I have always been drawn to the philosophy of mind and particularly consciousness studies. These fields have always been more interdisciplinary than other fields in philosophy.

The idea of reading pure philosophy for the rest of my life sickens me. I feel like my varied interests, far from making me a shallow and spread out philosopher, have actually made me a deeper philosophical thinker. Being able to connect pure philosophical questions to what’s going on in other academic fields allows me to approach philosophy from multiple angles, leading to creative solutions to classic questions and new insights to thorny problems. This is why my Master’s thesis on Heidegger and the problem of realism deals a lot with J.J. Gibson, affordance theory, cognitive anthropology, and modern research on how language influences thought. My background in these areas allows me to tackle the problem of realism in terms of a new philosophical vocabulary that Heidegger could have never envisioned. If I restricted myself purely to an interpretation of Heidegger, I think my proposed solution to the problem of realism would be considerably weaker. By making philosophical “allies” with a diverse set of thinkers, I think I can gather a cumulative case for my ideas. By building a cumulative case for realism, I hope to weave a historical narrative through the history of ideas that traverses a vast range of academic scholarship. This, I hope, will add great strength to my research and compel others to go beyond the limited confines of their specialization, be that either philosophy or science.

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Heidegger's Insight Into the Dynamics of Consciousness

Heidegger is usually seen as arguing against all forms of “psychical” theorizing and introspectionist psychology, denying that the human mind is fundamentally a matter of self-consciousness, of peering inwards on its own mental states. For centuries, self-consciousness was said to be the foundation upon which we build our mental world. Heidegger clearly had problems with the introspectionist psychologies of his time, most of which were Cartesian in nature. Instead of grounding our mental states in self-consciousness, Heidegger grounded them in moods.

Heidegger calls mood-mentality “Befindlichkeit”, literally translated as “the state in which one may be found”. Macquarrie and Robinson translate Befindlichkeit as “state-of-mind”. For many Heideggerian scholars, this translation leaves a sour taste in their mouths for its “cognitivist” flavor. I’m going to explain later why I think it is a good translation. But first, what does it mean to be in the “state in which one may be found”?  Right away Heidegger is insistent that this “finding of oneself” is not self-reflexive in nature. Rather, “In a state-of-mind Dasein is always brought before itself, and has always found itself, not in the sense of coming across itself by perceiving itself, but in the sense of finding itself in the mood that it has” (SZ 135).

Many scholars take passages like these as definitive evidence that Heidegger was an anti-cognitivist thinker. Hubert Dreyfus is famous for claiming that Heidegger wanted to kill the “myth of the mental”. Dreyfus’s Heidegger downplayed all forms of mentalistic theorizing, including talk about beliefs and desires, rationality, intellectual judgments, etc. For Dreyfus, what does most of the work is “mindless absorbed coping”. Sure, Dreyfus admits that we can “step back” and rationally deliberate once in awhile, but expert behavior is always a matter of “mindlessness”.

However, this “mindless” reading of Heidegger doesn’t make sense of passages like this one:

Factically, Dasein can, should, and must, through knowledge and will, become master of its moods; in certain possible ways of existing, this may signify a priority of volition and cognition. Only we must not be mislead into denying that ontologically mood is a primordial kind of being of Dasein, in which Dasein is disclosed to itself prior to all cognition and volition, and beyond their range of disclosure. (SZ 136)

This is a really interesting passage (in a really interesting section: 29). It isn’t often you hear Heidegger talk about “mastering” yourself through knowledge and will. Heideggerian scholars would normally say the most important thing in this passage is how moods are prior to cognition. They emphasize the part of the section which says “a state-of-mind is very remote from anything like coming across a psychical condition by the kind of apprehending which first turns round and then back” (SZ 136).

But this denial of primordiality is not to negate the higher-order reflective capacities of knowledge and will, volition and cognition. Let us call these capacities for higher-order reflection consciousness.  To say that moods are prior to consciousness is not to negate that consciousness occurs. It is only a matter of getting the phenomenology straight. For the most part, our decisions are not a matter of consciousness, but rather, of being swept up in the attractive-repulsive forces in the world. Moods are what make possible being directed towards something e.g., a goal, a person, an object, an event. Being directed towards the world is a matter of vital significance, of things mattering to us. “Existentially, a state-of-mind implies a disclosive submission to the world, out of which we can encounter something that matters to us” (SZ 137). Recognizing the phenomenological priority of moods, however, does not require the denial that we are conscious creatures capable of stepping back, reflecting, and rationally deliberating about our moods and experiences so as to arrive at a better decision or clearer understanding of the world. Personally, I think Heidegger’s discussion of “mastery” is almost certainly tied up with his conception of “authenticity”, but that is another post.

I’d like to come back to the concept of “encountering something that matters”. They actually have psychological models of decision-making that are based on the concept of “mattering”, although few of them would recognize their Heideggerian roots. A popular model of drug addiction is called the “incentive salience” model. Robinson and Berridge say, for example, that

(1) Potentially addictive drugs share the ability to produce long-lasting changes in brain organization.
(2) The brain systems that are changed include those normally involved in the process of incentive motivation and reward.
(3) The critical neuroadaptations for addiction render these brain reward systems hypersensitive (“sensitized”) to drugs and drug-associated stimuli.
(4) The brain systems that are sensitized do not mediate the pleasurable or euphoric effects of drugs (drug “liking”), but instead they mediate a subcomponent of reward we have termed incentive salience or “wanting”. We posit the psychological process of incentive salience to be specically responsible for instrumental drug-seeking and drug-taking behavior (drug “wanting”).

In other words, the drug addicts “world” is valenced in such a way that drug-related stimuli trigger “wanting” such that the addict engages in the various automatic subroutines of drug-usage. The addict is not wanting to shoot up at one minute, but then he walks into the room and sees a needle on the table. Because he is “hyper sensitized” to drug-stimuli, the sight of the needle easily triggers a neural wave to cross over the threshold which is inhibiting the drug-using behavior. Once the threshold is reached, the inhibition fails and the task of getting high is automatically carried out. “States-of-mind are so far from being reflected upon, that precisely what they do is to assail Dasein in its unreflecting devotion to the ‘world’ with which it is concerned and on which it expends itself” (SZ 136).

So I actually think “state-of-mind” is a good translation of Befindlichkeit. It captures the sense in which a drug-addict is in a “junkie” state-of-mind. His junkie-moods valence the whole world such that everything pushes or pulls him towards the task of getting high. He discloses the world in accordance with his state-of-mind, which isn’t static, but rather, constantly changing and modifying itself. These mood-mentalities are primordial insofar as they are the motivating force behind all most basic kinds of decision-making. Mood-based decision making isn’t a matter of intellectual deliberation. Rather, as John Protevi says,  “Decisions are precisely the brain’s falling into one pattern or another, a falling that is modeling as the settling into a basin of attraction that will constrain neural firing in a pattern.” Indeed, “Dasein has, in the first instance, fallen away from itself as an authentic being its Self, and has fallen into the ‘world’ (SZ 175).

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Preview of Master's Thesis: A Defense of Heidegger's Internal Consistency

I thought people might be interested in where my Master’s Thesis is going. It’s a defense of Heidegger’s metaphysical consistency (against the claims that he was incoherently anthropomorphic or subjectivist). But as far as I am aware, my interpretation is unique in the literature. I have seen nothing like it, although Dreyfus,  Carman, Sheehan, and Wheeler all anticipate me on several points. But I aim to offer something new to the Heidegger community. As I put it in the introduction, “While Carman, Dreyfus, and others implicitly develop the metaphysical resources for establishing an ecological realism within Heidegger’s thought, all commentators on his phenomenological-ontology (to my knowledge) ultimately fail to adequately address the theoretical plausibility of how exactly a phenomenon “shows-itself” in the first place, thus making Heidegger’s account of encountering entities philosophically intelligible as an answer to the classic questions of realism and idealism.”

This excerpt comes from the end of chapter 2, “Being as meaning”.

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With being understood as meaning and ontic being distinguished from ontological being, we can now defend Heidegger’s internal consistency. In order to do so, we must reconcile entity realism with being idealism. Entity realism (what Taylor Carman calls “ontic realism”) is simply the common sense notion that the Earth exists regardless of whether agents are around to perceive it. As it were, the Earth does not disappear when we turn our back on it. On the other hand, being idealism is the notion that, in some sense, the being of entities is dependent on or “relative to” perceivers. In order to reconcile these two theses, we must come to terms with the puzzle passages highlighted in chapter one.

Heidegger’s entity realism is evident when he says that “Entities are independently of the experience, cognition, and comprehension through which they are disclosed, discovered, and determined” (SZ 183). In contrast, his being idealism is evident when he says that “only as long as Dasein is (that is, as long as there is the ontic possibility of an understanding of being), ‘is there’ being” (SZ 212). While some scholars have attempted to reconcile these two passages in terms of a sophisticated distinction between different levels of analysis, my approach is much simpler. I contend that the most parsimonious way to reconcile the passages is to realize that for Heidegger, the ontological “being” of entities is synonymous with their meaning in relation to teleological interests. We can thus propose that there are two different senses of being in Heidegger’s ontology, the ontic and the ontological. Ontological being is synonymous with perceiver-dependence whereas ontic being is synonymous with perceiver-independence. This is nothing less than the famous “ontological difference” between being and beings. Accordingly, we can then read the puzzle passages as follows:

Only as long as Dasein is…‘is there’ meaning.

Meaning is that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood.

“There is” meaning – not entities – only insofar as truth is. And truth is only because and as long as Dasein is.

It is my contention that this interpretation of being as meaning absolves the contradiction between entity realism and being idealism. Under this framework, we can say that entities exist independently of us but their being (i.e. their meaning or significance) is dependent on how we take them to be. As Sheehan puts it, “Whereas entities may exist apart from whether or not human beings exist, being as the meaningful givenness of entities never “is” apart from human experience” (Sheehan, philosophy of mind, p. 289).

Take, for example, Mount Rushmore. Clearly, there is a sense in which the cliff face is constituted by perceiver-independence insofar as the material rock from which it is carved existed before perceivers came about and would continue to exist if all life vanished. It is in this sense that we can say Mount Rushmore is ontically real or actual. However, there is sense in which Mount Rushmore exists only insofar as there are humans around to encounter it as a monument. The mountain thus lives a double life when perceivers are around. On the one hand, its reality as a contingent entity is determined by material forces which operate independently of perceivers. On the other hand, its reality as a monument is dependent on those entities who disclose Mount Rushmore as Mount Rushmore. A bird living on the cliff face, for example, will not take the mountain as a monument, but rather, as a place of shelter or sustenance. It is only in this sense that we can say the mountain’s being is relative to the teleological interests of cognitive agents.

Accordingly, the meaning of the puzzle passages is now clear. Entities are independently of disclosure insofar as they exist as natural entities but their being “is” only insofar as there is an understanding of being, that is, only insofar as entities are taken to be meaningful in relation to prior teleological interests. The ontology of being, of meaning, is thus equivalent to the affordance ontology of ecological psychology. The ground will afford support whether any animal is around to walk on it, but the perception of the affordance is relative to the perceiver. In this way, we can say that the perception of affordances (the disclosure of meaning, of being) is both subjective and objective, but neither taken in isolation. Objective, because what the environment affords is related to what it actually is. Subjective, because an organisms history of structural coupling determines the perception of what the environment affords. Accordingly,

The meaning or value of a thing consists of what it affords. Note the implications of this proposed definition. What a thing affords to a particular observer (or species of observer) points to the organism, the subject. The shape and size and composition and rigidity of a thing, however, point to its physical existence, the object. But these determine what it affords the observer. The affordance points both ways. What a thing is and what it means are not separate, the former being physical and the latter mental, as we are accustomed to believe. (Gibson, notes on affordances, 407-408)

Moreover, it is important to note that this circumspective or hermeneutic understanding of being is operational prior to any explicit linguistic cognition. In other words, the primordial meaning or significance of entities is determined not by our language or theoretical concepts, but rather, in their immediate intelligibility relative to the teleology of circumspective concern. This point is eloquently expressed in ¶32 of Being and Time:

Any mere prepredicative seeing of the ready-to-hand is, in itself, something which already understands and interprets…that which is understood gets articulated when the entity to be understood is brought close interpretatively by taking as our clue the ‘something as something’; and this articulation lies before our making any thematic assertion about it. (SZ 149, emphasis added)

This point is important. If we do not understand the prelinguistic intelligibility of entities relative to the care-structure of affectivity (Befindlichkeit), we will not understand how linguistic cognition takes up and modulates this more primordial, prereflective understanding of being through the power of labeling and pointing (chapter 4). Heidegger’s point is simply that insofar as we are embodied individuals, our primordial relationship to the natural Earth is always already shaped by our history of structural coupling. It is this ontogenetic history which co-constitutes my encounter with Earthly entities.

For example, every time I enter my room and encounter a chair, I immediately understand that the chair affords the possibility of sitting. This is in fact my immediate and prereflective understanding of the chair. In Heidegger’s terms, my history of using chairs as something to sit on has now created a foreconception that shapes my everyday experience such that my encounter with chairs is proximally grounded by the affordance of sitting. This foreconception or “foresight” is generated by learning the affordances of the environment, an act of perceptual learning. It requires an act of theoretical cognition to “deworld” or “defamiliarize” the chair such that I see it as something besides a tool for use. Indeed, Heidegger says that “In every case interpretation is grounded in something we see in advance – in a foresight” (SZ 150). This foresight is what ecological psychologists have called “prospectivity” (Gibson & Pick, 2000, p. 164). If we carefully reflect upon our everyday experience, we can see the influence of historicity (our “having been”) and foresight upon our immediate encounter with entities. As we go about our business, the world is made significant in relation to our prior interests, expectations, and beliefs. And moreover, what we are interested in is always shaped by our internal structural history and what is currently ready-to-hand in the Umwelt. For this reason, Heidegger is right to emphasize that perception is better understood in terms of a meaningful encounter with the Earth that brings forth an ecological world rather than in terms of constructing representational models of the Earth which are then analyzed according to truth conditions. Accordingly, we can say that, strictly speaking, “the perceiver does not contribute anything to the act of perception, he simply performs the act” (Gibson, reasons for realism, p. 89).

According to my reading then, Heidegger’s ontology is internally coherent insofar as it combines entity realism and being idealism without collapsing into Cartesian subjectivism. Because we can account for how the being (i.e. meaning) of entities is relative to organisms without supposing that the perceiver synthetically contributes anything to what is perceived, I contend that Heideggerian ontology avoids the charge of strong correlationism.

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Ecological Realism and Affordance Ontology

Being and Time era Heidegger is often accused of holding to some kind of subjectivism because of his “being idealism” wherein the being of entities is interdependent with the event of perceptual disclosure. But since early Heidegger also clearly states in several places that entities are not dependent on Dasein for their material existence, we are left with a contradiction between being idealism and entity realism. Now, there are many ways to try and get out of this contradiction. People like William Blattner differentiate between an empirical and a transcendental level of analysis where on the empirical level it makes sense to talk about independent entities but it does not make sense to do so on the transcendental level. Others like Dreyfus and Carman take a different route and simply define being idealism in such a way as to be compatible with entity realism. This is the route I take.

The best way to make entity realism consistent with being idealism is through what I call “ecological realism”. This version of realism must be decisively distinguished from classic or “philosophical realism”. Understanding the difference between these two styles of realism will help bolster my case that Heidegger understood himself to be a realist but denied the validity of “classical” realism. The key difference between ecological and classical realism is that whereas both believe that the Earth exists independently of the mind, ecological realism takes this as the starting point and philosophical realism takes it as something to be proved.

Along with Dasein as being-in-the-world, entities within-the-world have in each case already been disclosed. This existential-ontological assertion seems to accord with the thesis of realism that the external world is really present-at-hand. In so far as this existential assertion does not deny that entities within-the-world are present-at-hand, it agrees – doxographically, as it were – with the thesis of realism in its result. But it differs in principle from every kind of realism; for realism holds that the Reality of the ‘world’ not only needs to be proved but also is capable of proof. (BT 251)

Philosophical realism starts with the assumption of a consciousness or subjectivity isolated from the external world by means of an internal subjective sphere. The question is then “How does the inside of the sphere correspond to the outside?” Here we can see how classic realism runs dangerously close to being a form of idealism because it seems possible that our subjective experience could be totally different from the actual physical world. Indeed, it seems impossible to put the subjective and subjective worlds back together once cleaved. This is nothing other than the classic subject-object model that has caused so many problems in philosophy. Heidegger rejects this position not because he disagrees that the Earth exists independently of us, but rather, because he rejects the starting point of a consciousness isolated from it.

Instead, it is assumed that the mind relates to reality by means of already “dwelling outside”. For Heidegger, there is never a problem of how the inside corresponds to the outside because the mind is always already “outside”. But this doesn’t mean that the mind is somehow floating outside the skull. It simply means that insofar as the mind is characterized by intentionality (directedness towards), the mind is always already directed towards the outside world. Accordingly, subjectivity is understood in terms of being a process of encountering or attending to what’s already there before you: the environment. Perception then becomes a matter of regulating our reaction to the environment rather than constructing a model of the environment. We move from models of representation as mirroring to models of representation as control. The mind becomes a way of regulating our internal behaviors and homeostasis. This regulation forms a “background” upon which higher-order thoughts and theoretical reflections can occur. And built into this background is a feeling of existential being-in-the-world. This is because we spend our whole lives inhabiting the environment. To start from the presupposition that our primordial consciousness is separated from the environment is merely Cartesian dogma. Our primary consciousness is always already “outside” of our heads, in-the-world. This primary consciousness is better seen as a kind of low-level perceptual reactivity than any kind of theoretical cognition operating on the basis of symbolization.

The statement that the comportments of the Dasein are intentional means that the mode of being of our own self, the Dasein, is essentially such that this being, so far as it is, is always already dwelling with the extant. The idea of a subject which has intentional experiences merely inside its own sphere and is not yet outside it but encapsulated within itself is an absurdity which misconstrues the basic ontological structure of the being that we ourselves are. (BP 64).

So that’s more or less entity realism in a nutshell. What about being idealism? We have already set out a realist ontology based on the assumption of a direct realist account of intentionality. But we must infuse ecological realism with an “affordance ontology” in order to avoid a naive realism. It would be naive to suppose that animals directly attend to reality itself as understood by the physical sciences. But any direct realism worth its salt will never claim that animals directly perceive the actual structure of reality. This would be putting the cart before the horse. Instead, direct realism claims that animals do not first learn to perceive the present-at-hand structure of the Earth, but rather, they learn to perceive affordances. Affordances are objective properties of the given environment that are related to what an animal can do (with passive observation being a derivative kind of activity). For example, a chair affords the possibility of sitting for those with the appropriate bodies and capacities. But the affordance property of the chair is completely objective and independent of the perceiver. Whether the chair is capable of supporting someone is based on the material dynamics of the chair itself independent of my mind. As Gibson says, “The affordance points both ways [subjective and objective]. What a thing is and what it means are not separate, the former being physical and the latter mental, as we are accustomed to believe”.

It is here we can develop an account of being idealism that does not contradict entity realism. Take the chair again. The chair as it materially exists is independent of my perception of it. But my perception of the chair as as something-for-sitting is dependent on me the subject. So we can say that whereas the chair independently exists on the ontic level, its ontological being is dependent on how I take it to be. And since I can take the chair in many different ways depending on the context of my interaction, its ontological mode of being is essentially “free” or “open” to an infinite number of involvements (chair can be used as a stool or as kindling, etc.). Accordingly, Big B Being becomes defined as the meaning or significance of entities in relation to prior interests. We can therefore have an idealism of meaning (being) without collapsing into a subjectivism because the affordance property of the entity is not something subjectively determined. The chair will support me whether or not I am around to actually sit on it.  In order to perceive the chair as a chair then, I need not construct a mental representation or subjectively “put a value” on a meaningless input. Rather, I need only to differentiate the affordance property from the given stimulus. In other words, I need only respond to the meaning of the stimulus, not its physical profile (wavelengths, etc.). Learning this capacity involves learning how to attend to the ecological level of reality, the level of the Umwelt.

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Does Understanding Need Language?

Jon Cogburn is a great professor because he always inspires me to work on really cool problems. Yesterday was the first day of his graduate seminar on animal cognition and he already suggested an awesome topic for my term paper: Does Heidegger’s account of understanding require language? Since we are reading Brandom, and Brandom uses a similar contrastive approach whereby humans are understood as being discontinuous from animal minds in virtue of linguistic-inferential doings, I will defend Brandom by defending Heidegger’s argument (which Brandom himself is heavily indebted too). I think I am also going to use Charles Taylor’s account of constitutive self-interpretation and Tomasello and Clark’s account of linguistic constructionism to demonstrate the way in which language modifies understanding so as to create world-richness. And this account will be structured by a holistic, usage-based (rather than formal) model of language acquisition wherein the syntactical abilities of young children are primarily item-specific with only little ability for systematicity.  Here is an abstract I whipped up last night:

Heidegger appears to contradict evolutionary science when he claims that whereas humans are “rich” in world, nonhuman animals are “poor”. Calling him a “linguistic chauvinist”, scholars often commit Heidegger to a view of understanding that is “equiprimordially” grounded in linguistic practice or “cultural discourse” (construed broadly). In this paper, I will argue that this interpretation is mistaken because it overlooks the prepredicative or prethematic level of understanding common to all organisms, what Heidegger calls the hermeneutic as-structure, in distinction to the apophantic or assertorial as-structure. Moreover, scholars often commit Robert Brandom to a similar “linguistic chauvinism” beset with the same problems associated with Heidegger’s views on animals. In this paper, I will show (1) how understanding does not require language and (2) how language significantly modifies understanding so as to “enrich” the world. Doing so will relieve the pressure on both Heidegger and Brandom’s theory of mind and language.

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Great line by Heidegger (also a note on pragmatism)

In contrast to [the] historical path toward an understanding of the concept of world, I attempted in Being and Time to provide a preliminary characterization of the phenomenon of world by interpreting the way in which we at first and for the most part move about in our everyday world. There I took my departure from what lies to hand in the everyday realm, from those things that we use and pursue, indeed in such a way that we do not really know of the peculiar character proper to such activity at all, and when we do try to describe it we immediately misinterpret it by applying concepts and questions that have their source elsewhere. That which is so close and intelligible to us in our everyday dealings is actually and fundamentally remote and unintelligible to us. In and through this initial characterization of the phenomenon of world the task is to press on and point out the phenomenon of world as a problem. It never occurred to me, however, to try and claim or prove with this interpretation that the essence of man consists in the fact that he knows how to handle knives and forks or use the tram. (Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, p. 177)

Some would say that this line is definitive textual evidence against a pragmatist reading of Heidegger. However, this would be a mistake insofar as pragmatism is also not committed to claiming that the essence of man consists in the usage of knives and forks. If anything, pragmatism has perhaps the best explanatory gloss on both pedestrian equipment use and the so-called “higher” faculties afforded by language and culture.

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Heidegger and Consciousness – A Preliminary Interpretation

When people mention Heidegger’s name, the last thing on their mind is that he ever had anything to say about consciousness. Albeit controversial, I want to claim that Heidegger does try to describe the operation of consciousness through the method of formal indication. What term points to or indicates consciousness? Authentic resoluteness. I’ve had this thought for a long time now, but this is the first time I have tried to put it into words. I know it is an interpretive stretch, but bear with me as I work through this reading.

In order to see that an authentic moment of vision is synonymous with a moment of consciousness, we must first understand that I am using the term consciousness in a nontraditional fashion. Following Julian Jaynes, I reserve the term consciousness to exclusively refer to the operation of introspection wherein meanings and thoughts are manipulated in an temporarily constructed and easily dissoluble “mind-space” or “workspace”. I am not suggesting that we revert to Cartesian theater models of the mind, but rather, I am suggesting that the Cartesian theater which introspects is itself an analogical model virtually constructed on-the-fly which exists only in the functional sense. What is it that does the introspection? Julian Jaynes calls it the “analog I”. Heidegger calls it the authentic Self. Cognitive scientists have called it the “narrative Self” or “interpretive Self”.  These concepts are a counterpart to what can be called the “minimal Self”, “they-self”, or “cognitive unconscious” i.e. that Self which is always operative at the subpersonal level and which grounds higher-order cognitive states.

Moreover, this conception of consciousness differs from the tradition insofar as the analog I or authentic Self is a modification of the more primordial they-self. Instead of being constantly present-at-hand in experience so as to ground and constitute it in its subjectivity, the analog I is but a temporary construction which comes into being and than fades away as we are reabsorbed into the familiarity of the world. Indeed, “Authentic being-one’s-Self takes the definite form of an existentiell modification of the ‘they'” (SZ 267). When Heidegger uses the term “existentiell” he is referring to ontic properties. This is a formal indication for material processes e.g. bodily/neural systems in operation.

Furthermore, consciousness is not just some free-floating spectator, but serves a purpose insofar as it is an operation rather than a thing or passive repository. What is the function? A shortcut to behavior through resolute decision making experienced in terms of a “moment of vision”. Normally, our choices are not really choices, but rather, can be likened to a rock rolling down a hill. We simply get carried away by the environment insofar as we are “fallen”. Indeed,

The “they” has always kept Daein from taking hold of these possibilities of being. They “they” even hides the manner in which it has tacitly relieved Dasein of the burden of explicitly choosing these possibilities. It remains indefinite who has “really” done the choosing. So Dasein makes no choices, gets carried along by the nobody, and thus ensares itself in inauthenticity. This process can be reversed only if Dasein specifically brings itself back to itself from its lostness in the “they”….When Dasein thus brings itself back from the “they”, the they-self is modified in an existentiell manner so that it becomes authentic Being-one’s-Self. (SZ 268)

It is important to note however that falling, thrownness, and lostness must not be interpreted pejoratively.

We would…misunderstand the ontologico-existential structure of falling if we were to ascribe to it the sense of a bad and deplorable ontical property of which, perhaps, more advanced stages of human culture might be able to rid themselves. (SZ 176)

But because Dasein is lost in the they, it must find itself explicitly in order to be authentic. This finding oneself explicitly is the process of authentic resoluteness. It provides the opportunity for synthesizing factical experience into meaningful whole so as to provide a shortcut to behavior. For Heidegger, this takes the form of what he calls a “resolution”. It is actualized in terms of a “moment of vision” or “clarion call”. Indeed,

When resolute, Dasein has brought itself back from falling, and has done so precisely in order to be more authentically ‘there’ in the ‘moment of vision’ as regards the situation which has been disclosed. (SZ 328)

I read this action of authentic resolution structured in terms of a moment of vision as an essentially metacognitive act i.e. an act of the self which takes the self and its experiences as the object of attention. But this is no mere proprioception or internal self-perception, but rather, an act of introspection which grabs hold of the self from a particular perspective mediated by linguistic-cultural projections.

This distinctive and authentic disclosedness, which is attested in Dasein itself by its conscience – this reticent self-projection upon one’s ownmost being-guilty, in which one is ready for anxiety – we call “resoluteness“. (SZ 296)

Dasein’s being-guilty is a formal indication for how Dasein is for-the-most part thrown into the facticity of the they-self and the self-other interpretations of public everydayness. That we have no choice but to be fallen indicates that there is a “guilt” to which we are thrown into, a guilt which is amoral. When our consciousness is operative, a self-projection works so as to bring factical possibilities of behavior to our attention, the most extreme being our own death. Indeed, “The resolution is precisely the disclosive projection and determination of what is factically possible at the time” (SZ 298). Moreover, this resoluteness “does not detach Dasein from its world, nor does it isolate it so that it becomes a free-floating ‘I'” (SZ 298). The authentic Self or analog I is not free-floating precisely because the object of the analog is the real, factical self which has been thrown in a history of structural coupling with the real entities of the Earth. This is the ontically near “mineness” which provides the experiential landscape through which the analog I can construct a temporary introspective landscape wherein our whole being-in-the-world becomes an object of attention. And insofar as the facticity of Dasein becomes an object of attention, new possibilities of behavior are afforded which would not be available if we could not authentically introspect upon factical possibilities. Moreover, it is important to note that this level of analysis is purely formal. In reality, the forms of self-disclosure and self-projection change radically over time and space in accordance with cultural evolution. How you see and introspect upon yourself will depend on the particular structure of your culture and historicity.

Now, I freely admit that this whole story I have been telling is quite precarious on the interpretive level. There is no Rosetta Stone for translating descriptions of authentic resoluteness into descriptions of consciousness. But nevertheless I think I am on to something. For both Heidegger and Jaynes, authenticity/consciousness is something which is temporary and derivative. It is something which is a modification of subpersonal “thrownness” (which Jaynes’ called behavioral reactivity). It is essentially a form of self-disclosure or self-interpretation. It brings forth factical possibilities and acts as a shortcut for behavior. It operates by “temporalizing” or “spatializing” experienced time through a spatial metaphor (past-present-future i.e. autobiographical or “episodic” time). It is flexible and dependent on culture and language. It is an operation rather than a thing or repository. It helps constitutes who we are as a species and separates us from our animal cousins. It individualizes us as separate from everyone else in the unfolding of its operation. It operationalizes when our familiarity and habit-structures breakdown in the face of uncanniness. It can be described in terms of visual metaphors (“moment of vision”, “the mind’s eye”).

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A Heideggerian Response to David Chalmers

In this post, I want to expose the object-metaphors of analytic philosophy of mind. In this video interview of Chalmers, we can see that for him, consciousness is understood as if it were an entity. He says that “consciousness is a thing” (which we know), as if consciousness is an entity with properties in the way a door is an object with properties which we can come to know. He says that consciousness is “presented” to him, as if consciousness were an object in the visual field which we can come into contact with and manipulate. He says that consciousness “exists”, as if consciousness exists just like a rock exists. He “experiences it” as if consciousness were something we experience in everyday life, such as a couch. He says that physical behavior is always “accompanied” by consciousness, as if consciousness were some extant object which can either accompany us or not.

Moreover, for Chalmers, Zombies “lack” consciousness, as if consciousness were a thing, which we can either possess or not possess. In the same way, God could have created a pure physical universe which “lacks” consciousness. Consciousness is then understood as a thing which exists and has certain properties such as ineffability, privacy, phenomenal feel, etc. The world “contains” consciousness, as if consciousness were an object which can be placed inside of things (such as brains). He says that “there is more to consciousness than physical matter in the brain”. He says that consciousness is an “inner movie”, as if consciousness were analogous to a mind viewing the projections upon a theater. This is an object-metaphor on steroids. It is based on a fundamental spatial analogy which blends a conduit metaphor with a container metaphor. The conduit is the neural sensory system, across which raw sense-data is transferred. The conduit leads into a container (or theater). The dumping of sense-data into the container constitutes the possession of conscious experiences.

If this sounds Cartesian, it’s because it is. Chalmers says that there are basically two types of things: matter and consciousness. This is nothing other than substance dualism wrapped up in the guise of a “respectable” property dualism but I think Chalmers buys into the Cartesian strategy more than he lets on. This is evidenced when he retains the same set of assumptions which lead to Descartes’ strategy of methodical doubt. Like Husserl, I would imagine that Chalmers thinks a universe that only houses a disembodied consciousness is conceptually coherent.

I could multiple Heidegger quotes indefinitely in order to show how he critiqued the presuppositions of analytic philosophy of mind, but I assume readers of Heidegger are familiar with such literature. Needless to say, Heidegger realized that everyday metaphors for consciousness are steeped in the object-discourse we inherit from everyday experience. Analytic philosophers have long treated consciousness as if it were a present-at-hand entity. I hope my analysis of Chalmer’s language has demonstrated that this type of discourse is thoroughly cemented in mainstream analytic philosophy of mind. Very few people have taken seriously the implications of George Lakoff and Mark Johnsons magnum opus Philosophy in the Flesh. This book, more than any other (besides Being and Time), opened my mind to how philosophy always goes astray when it fails to consider the metaphorical nature of philosophical discourse. Chalmers is able to conceive of consciousness as this disembodied inner movie only because he uncritically uses object-metaphors and treats consciousness as a nonphysical thing modeled on our everyday interaction with physical things.

In my opinion, William James was making the same basic point in his famous article “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?“. James’ point was not that thoughts and introspections don’t exist, but rather, that consciousness does not exist in the same way a rock exists, hence, consciousness “does not exist” (as an entity). But thoughts and introspections certainly do. As James says,

To deny plumply that ‘consciousness’ exists seems so absurd on the face of it — for undeniably ‘thoughts’ do exist — that I fear some readers will follow me no farther. Let me then immediately explain that I mean only to deny that the word stands for an entity, but to insist most emphatically that it does stand for a function.

While this might sound absurd to traditional Heideggerian scholars, I contend that Heidegger would emphatically agree with James on this point. Consciousness is not a present-at-hand thing. But it still exists. How? As an operation. As something we do. This is Alva Noë’s basic point as well, although it always gets misinterpreted as some kind of radical claim. This enactive approach to consciousness does suffer from a flaw however: whereas it critiques the inner theater model for perceptual consciousness, it needlessly abandons it for understanding introspective consciousness, which is a whole other breed of experience. This is another classic mistake of analytic philosophy of mind. By failing to distinguish the consciousness of brute cognition and the consciousness of introspection, many philosophers fail to realize that introspective consciousness is a different explanandum than cognition, which philosophers often call “phenomenal consciousness”. Accordingly, there is a distinction to be made between consciousness proper (self-reflexive introspection structured in term of self-metaphors such as the “I”) and cognition proper (real-time “on-the-fly” sensorimotor reaction).

Chalmers doesn’t make this distinction because for him, animals without introspection still qualify as fully conscious. This is because Chalmers buys into the theater metaphor for perceptual cognition. My beef is not with theater metaphors, but only with their application to low-level perceptual cognition. Theater metaphors are only applicable when we literally analogize a situation in terms of narratively-driven introspection. When we stop to think, we introspect upon a space which is an analog of our understanding of physical space. Philosophers like Chalmers take the spatialization of introspection to suggest that all experience is spatialized by this inner/outer distinction but he unwittingly extends the metaphor too far when he applies it to low-level cognition. This leads to all sorts of strange implications such as Zombies. But if we follow James and Heidegger in denying that consciousness is an entity, we can come to better understand our experience without eliminating or reducing the concept of consciousness.

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