Monthly Archives: April 2010

Meta-knowledge: Why Representationalism Is Unnecessary as an Explanation of Visual Consciousness

[What change blindness experiments suggest] is that the visual brain may have hit upon a very potent problem-solving strategy, one that we have already encountered in other areas of human thoughts and reason. It is the strategy of preferring meta-knowledge over baseline knowledge. Meta-knowledge is knowledge about how to acquire and exploit information, rather than basic knowledge about the world. It is not knowing so much as knowing how to find out. The distinction is real, but the effect is often identical. Having a super-rich, stable inner model of the scene could enable you to answer certain questions rapidly and fluently, but so could knowing how to rapidly retrieve the very same information as soon as the question is posed. The latter route may at times be preferable since it reduces the load on biological memory itself. Moreover, our daily talk and practice often blurs the line between the two, as when we (quite properly) expect others to know what is right in front of their eyes.

-Andy Clark, Natural-born Cyborgs

I really like this quote. I think it captures perfectly the evolutionary argument against representational internalism, which stipulates that the brain continuously generates an internal phenomenal model to compensate for imperfections in the retinal image, particularly in respect to “depth ambiguity” (since the image would be more or less 2D). That my current experiential content is the result of a compensatory brain simulation seems wildly unparsimonious. In regards to the computational problem of depth ambiguity, we can reasonably propose that ambient light in normal environments nomothetically reflects certain information concerning the surface layout. An important part of this information directly relevant to spatial perception is the texture gradient. Take this field:


The ambient light of the sun “settles” into a stable array wherein the visual angles meeting at your geometric point of view specify a “gradient” of texture density that conforms to the actual 3D layout of the environment. Because this information is reflected by the light and contained in the structure of the overlapping visual angles, we can say that information directly concerning 3D layout is “specified” by the ambient light. If we wanted to access spatial information for usage in locomotion or hunting, how do you think Mother Nature would accomplish this task? By developing a simulation system that literally constructs phenomenal visual experience from ambiguous retinal inputs through inferential reasoning? Or would evolution develop an Andy Clark-style on-the-fly access system that developed metaknowledge about how to pick up information specified in the ambient array (this is called “sampling” the optic array)?

On this “externalist” view, additional information processing to jump from 2D to 3D is unnecessary provided that the brain-body system learns how the ambient optic array changes in response to bodily locomotion. By learning the rules between how our eyes move and how the visual angles are transformed (this might be the function of microsaccades), we can pick up information in such transformation that specifies the 3D layout of the environment (thanks for texture gradients and motion parallax). Accordingly, the experiential content of visual perception does not consist in experiencing a brain simulation but rather, experiencing the brain-body system behaviorally reacting or “resonating” to the information specified in the environment relevant to our bodily concerns and projects. Such information is not just visual but tactile, gravitational, chemical, and aural. Behavioral resonance of course becomes complicated when we realize that the human environment contains information not just relevant to navigating through a 3D world, but also, information that is relevant to social concerns and our higher-order narrative consciousness.

Hopefully this brief essay has showed why representationalism is unnecessary and unparsimonious as an explanation of visual consciousness. It is also worth mentioning that this critique of internal representationalism does not rule out the usefulness of representations in theoretical explanation e.g. topographic or “isomorphic” representations in the cortex don’t suffer from the ontological problems that “indicator” representations do.

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What I am Reading

I have a horrible tendency to start reading other books when I am in the middle (or beginning) of another. And because I rarely read two book chapters in a row, I am usually reading several books on any given day. Sometimes the books don’t hang together as a interwoven whole but sometimes, to my great pleasure, the various chapters mutually support and reinforce synonymous concepts across historical time. Right now, my book set is wonderfully stimulating, so I thought I would share.

  • The Principles of Psychology (unabridged), William James
  • Essays in Radical Empiricism, William James
  • William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin, Eugene Taylor
  • Experience and Nature, John Dewey
  • The Meaning of the Body, Mark Johnson
  • Self to Self, J. David Velleman
  • Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic, John Protevi
  • Action in Perception, Alva Noë

Every book is awesome in its own way.

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Sunday Pragmatism: Dewey on Philosophy

We are here concerned with the fact that it is the intricate mixture of the stable and the precarious, the fixed and the unpredictably novel, the assured and the uncertain, in existence which sets mankind upon that love of wisdom which forms philosophy. Yet too commonly, although in a great variety of technical modes, the result of the search is converted into a metaphysics which denies or conceals from acknowledgement the very characters of existence which initiated it, and which give significance to its conclusions. The form assumed by the denial is, most frequently, that striking division into a superior true realm of being and lower illusory, insignificant or phenomenal realm which characterizes metaphysical systems as unlike as those of Plato and Democritus, St. Thomas and Spinoza, Aristotle and Kant, Descartes and Comte, Haeckel and Mrs. Eddy.

-Dewey, Experience and Nature, p. 59

If only I could write like that! Having only recently rediscovered American pragmatism, I am now stunned by its power and scope in dealing with the big questions of philosophy. I now see that the Husserl-Heidegger line of intellectual growth was in many ways indebted to the James-Dewey one, implicitly if not explicitly. We see in the passage above a key Heideggerian principle. For Dewey, as for Heidegger, it makes no sense to produce a universal metaphysics that scorns the everyday experience of humanity by turning embodied meaning into something derivative, “secondary”, “mere”, or inferior. Doing so is paradoxical precisely because as Dewey and Heidegger are apt to emphasize, metaphysical questioning is itself dependent on the “inferior” lifeworld given that the very cognitive mechanisms which enable it are finite through and through (one cannot think without your brain). The futility  of claiming the physical as inferior to or derivative of the ideal is apparent when we consider that the significance of such speculations is relevant only insofar as we are embodied creatures capable of physically reacting to the awe and magnitude of metaphysical thought. The mind thinks and the body shudders. Without this emotional valence, reflective thought would never get off the ground for it could not affect our embodiment. So while reflective thought is apt to deny the primacy of facticity, the phenomenologist understands how the results of thought matter only through their affective significance. One cannot philosophize in a vacuum. There must be a medium through which the results of thinking are made significant. This medium is the lived body. Without it, philosophical conclusions would be meaningless. Hence, any philosophical system which inverts the primacy of lived experience is left dangling in the air.


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Dewey on Naturalism

The naturalistic method, when it is consistently followed, destroys many things once cherished; but it destroys them by revealing their inconsistency with the nature of things — a flaw that always attended them and deprived them of efficacy for aught save emotional consolation. But its main purport is not destructive; empirical naturalism is rather a winnowing fan. Only chaff goes, though perhaps the chaff had once been treasured. An empirical method which remains true to nature does not “save”; it is not an insurance device nor a mechanical antiseptic. But it inspires the mind with courage and vitality to create new ideals and values in the face of the perplexities of a new world

– John Dewey, Experience and Nature

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Defending Alva Noë against Jesse Prinz

If you haven’t noticed, Alva Noë’s enactive theory of perception has been taking a beating lately. Many philosophers have pushed back against Noë’s supposed strong claims about the constitution of visual perception. For example, take the following claim of Noë:

The central claim of what I call the enactive approach is that our ability to perceive not only depends on, but is constituted by, our possession of this sort of sensorimotor knowledge.

Philosophers like Jesse Prinz read this in the strongest possible sense. Responding to Noë, Prinz says:

In vision, for example, we deploy skills of pattern recognition; we know how to discriminate colors without knowing that they are constituted by thus and such physical magnitudes; and we explore the scenes by focusing, scanning, and surveying with our senses. Moreover, no one would deny causal interactions between action and perception: shifting our eyes can change what we see, and what we see can incite us to prepare different motor responses. The thesis becomes controversial when Noë says, “to perceive you must be in possession of sensorimotor bodily skill” (p. 11). Two things stand out about such claims. First, the term “sensorimotor” makes explicit reference to output capacities, and, second, the term “must” implies that the perceiving necessarily involves such capacities. I interpret Noë to mean the following: perception cannot take place (in us? in any naturally evolved creature?) without engaging the mental processes that underwrite our capacity to move. One way to make sense of this necessity thesis is to argue that there is a constitutive relation between perception and action. On this interpretation, the mental processes that enable us to act are literally components of the mental processes that allow us to perceive. I am fairly confident that this is the view that Noë wishes to defend. He often says that, in perceiving, we must use knowledge of sensorimotor contingencies, which implies, that perceptual mechanisms work by registering how stimulation will change when motor effectors are engaged.

In order to defend Noë, I will argue that Prinz misunderstands the scope of Noë’s claim about perception “depending” on certain sensorimotor skills. Prinz takes this  claim to mean that there is no visual experience without activating the mental processes underwriting locomotion itself i.e. broad limb control. Prinz takes “sensorimotor skill” to then mean moving the body around through efferent nerves. But this obviously leads to problems when you consider how people can have visual experience without those motor programs being operative. How then to rescue the strong constitutive claims of enactive theory?

First of all, as far as I can tell, when Noë is careful, he only claims that our ability to perceive depends on certain sensorimotor skills. And as far I see it, this thesis is almost certainly true in terms of visual perception provided “sensorimotor skill” is understood within its proper scope. For example, it is almost certainly true that normal visual perception depends on saccadic motion moving the eyes 3-4 times a second. Saccadic motion depends on tacit sensorimotor skills. Therefore, vision depends on sensorimotor skills.

I don’t think Noë’s argument about dependence needs to be read any stronger than this. And if I am right, then Prinz’s entire argument against Noë is misplaced since his reading of enactive perception is too strong. This also applies to Andy Clark’s recent criticisms of Noë.



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Reading James' Principles of Psychology, vol. 1, Chap. 1 "The Scope of Psychology"

After attending the incredibly stimulating Toward a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, AZ, I have become convinced that I need to read Williams James more carefully to determine the influence he had on German phenomenology, particularly Husserl, and Heidegger from Husserl. I had originally read him before I studied phenomenology closely but now I think a fresh reading in light of my current knowledge will be useful for establishing historical precedent, considering James’ international renown during his hey-day. This is slightly ambitious, but I think it would be helpful to my research to work through The Principles of Psychology chapter by chapter and write up a corresponding blog post. Forcing myself to write a summary for each chapter and make my associations explicit will help me internalize James so that I can work him into my research vocabulary.  These summaries will not purport to capture everything James’ had to say. Instead, I want to pull out key quotations and then comment on them in relation to contemporary findings in phenomenology and cognitive science.

Chapter 1

Psychology is the Science of Mental Life, both of its phenomena and their conditions. (PP 1)

Right away we see the necessity  of phenomenology, the science of phenomena, for psychological science. James rightly understands the futility of trying to understand neural conditions without knowing what exactly is being conditioned. The explanandum must be lived experienced itself. A phenomenologically blind neuroscience is does not know what it is trying to explain. Julian Jaynes said the same thing:

Even if we had a complete wiring diagram of the nervous system, we still would not be able to answer our basic question. Though we knew the connections of every species that ever existed, together with all its neurotransmitters and how they varied in its billions of synapses of every brain that ever existed, we could never — not ever — from a knowledge of the brain alone know if that brain contained a consciousness like our own. We first have to start from the top, from some conception of what consciousness is, from what our own introspection is. We have to be sure of that, before we can enter the nervous system and talk about its neurology. (OC 18)

Next, James discusses the two most influential schools of thought on explaining psychological behavior, the Soul theory and the “associationist” theory.  I assume the Soul theory of consciousness is well-known to most of my readers, so I will not elaborate here. The associationist theory however, is worth commenting on. Such a theory is

a psychology without a soul by taking discrete ‘ideas’, fain or vivid, and showing how, by their cohesions, repulsions, and forms of succession, such things as reminiscences, perceptions, emotions, volitions, passions, theories, and all the other furnishings of an individual’s mind may be engendered. (PP 1-2)

However, James’ points out that an explanation at this level of ideality is practically useless when it comes to explaining why memory works better under particular conditions, or why the mind is irrational and prone to sloppy error.

Such peculiarities seem quite fantastic; and might, for aught we can see a priori, be the precise opposites of what they are. (PP 3)

I take this critique of “ideas” theory to be transferable to modern cognitivist theories of representations. Saying that perception is explained by something “standing for something else” in the brain does not explain much of anything until you show how that function actually works without resorting to circular arguments. If you explain the representations by their causal role in aiding functionality, then you need to show why we cannot just explain the entire system in causal terms, rather than saying one thing stands for another — a devishly vague statement. Instead of resorting to ideas,

The fact that the brain is the one immediate bodily condition of the mental operations is indeed so universally admitted nowadays  that I need spend no more time in illustrating it, but will simply postulate it and pass on. The whole remainder of the book will be more or less of a proof that the postulate was correct. (PP 4)

This sounds like a modern precursor to Merleau-Ponty, Gibson, and Varela. James’ emphasis on the embodied nature of cognition is reinforced by

the general law that no mental modification ever occurs which is not accompanied or followed by a bodily change. (PP 5)

Cognition is for changes in the body. Moreover, James’, like Jaynes, seems to establish a dual-process theory of consciousness wherein there can be intelligent nonconscious operations. Indeed,

Standing, walking, buttoning and unbotting, piano-playing, talking, even saying one’s prayers, may be done when the mind is absorbed in other things. The performances of animal instinct seem semi-automatic. (PP 5)

I take this to be a historical precedent to the Jaynesian idea that cultural zombies are possible. I have recently argued this in my latest paper, “What Is It Like To Be Nonconscious?“. I take this to mean that there are two levels of consciousness. One is intelligent and embodied, grounded in action. I call this the “Reactive mind”, following Jaynes notion of “behavioral reactivity”. The reactive mind constitutes the normal cognitive state of humans and nonhumans alike. This was the mentality that humans were in for probably 99% of their evolutionary development (until the rise of civilization). The other level of consciousness is consciousness proper, that operation wherein narratization occurs within a virtual mindspace opened up by metaphorical processes of spatialization. The question then is

Shall the study of such machine-like yet purposive acts as these be included in Psychology? (PP 6)

The answer is of course yes. A proper psychology must “[take the] mind in the midst of all its concrete relations” (PP 6). Heidegger’s hermeneutics of facticity has a similar methodological approach. For Heidegger, as for Jaynes and James, we must examine lived human experienced in terms of it concrete finitude. But phenomenology is methodologically a priori in that we must first uncover the phenomena to be studied before we objectify and neurologize.

Given there are intelligent nonconscious acts, what is their nature? James’ answer is that they are directed towards an end with varying means. He uses an example of iron filings being attracted to a magnet. A teleological (means/end) explanation (like “Iron loves magnets) is only useful as a metaphor, because if you put a card between the filings and the magnet, the filings will never move around the card in order to satisfy their desire.

Romeo and Juliet, if a wall be built between them, do not remain idiotically pressing their faces against its opposite sides like the magnet and the filings with the card. (PP 7)

This is the crucial phenomenological difference between living and nonliving things. And insofar as phenomenology is ontology (according to Heidegger), teleological behaviors marks an ontological distinction between tables and humans.

The pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment are thus the mark and criterion of the presence of mentality in a phenomenon. We all use this test to discriminate between an intelligent and a mechanical performance. We impute no mentality to sticks and stones, because they never seem to move for the sake of anything, but always when pushed, and then indifferently and with no sign of choice. So we unhesitatingly call them senseless.(PP 8 )

Anyone who is familiar with Heidegger will recognize the bold sentence as familiar.

We have interpreted worldhood as that referential totality which constitutes significance. In Being-familiar with this significance and previously understanding it, [humans let] what is ready-to-hand be encountered as discovered in its involvement. In Humanity’s Being, the context of references or assignments (of worldly things) which significance implies is tied up with human’s ownmost Being — a Being which essentially can have no involvement, but which is rather that Being for the sake of which Dasein itself is as it is…significance, as worldhood, is tied up with the existential “for-the-sake-of-which”. (SZ 123)

But how can teleological explanations by accepted in scientific discourse? James has an eloquent answer.

In the lengthy discussions which psychologists have carried on about the amount of intelligence displayed by lower mammals, or the amount of consciousness involved in the functions of the nerve-centres of reptiles, the same test has always been applied: Is the character of the actions such that we must believe them to be performed for the sake of their result? The result in question, as we shall hereafter abundantly see, is as a rule a useful one, — the animal is, on the whole, safer under the circumstances for bringing it forth. So far the action has a teleological character; but such mere outward teleology as this might still be the blind result of vis a tergo.

We thus arrive at a Jamesian  principle, echoed in Heidegger, Gibson, Jaynes, and Charles Taylor:

no actions but such as are done for an end, and show a choice of means, can be called indubitable expressions of Mind.


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Blogging hiatus and side notes on the intellectual stagnation of continental phenomenology

Since I am currently on vacation/going to conferences, I will probably not be posting much for the next week or so. On Friday, I presented a paper on Heidegger for the North Texas Philosophical Association and will be giving a poster presentation for the Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson next week. The North Texas conference was slightly disappointing in that I garnered hardly any commentary for my Heidegger paper. It was a pretty specialized topic (dealing with phenomenological-ontology as a reponse to Kantian anti-realism), but since it was a continental leaning conference I expected to have a little more open dialogue about the issue of realism and anti-realism in phenomenology. Instead, the issue of realism hardly came up, and if it did, it was immediately scoffed at.

The conference has thus only reinforced my belief that many continental philosophers, phenomenologists in particular, have handicapped their wider academic relevance by refusing to discuss the possible interaction between philosophy and science. For whatever reason, the mere idea of “naturalizing” phenomenology, or at least trying to bring phenomenology in contact with modern scientific knowledge, sends phenomenologists into a wild frenzy. Apparently, if one attempts to bring naturalistic ontology into phenomenology you have committed the grave error of “contaminating” your methodology with metaphysical presuppositions about the given phenomena. For these phenomenologists, we must be open to all possibilities  of experience. If someone is claiming to hear the voice of God, we as phenomenologists are only allowed to discuss this phenomena in terms of its “possibility” rather than admitting it is a hallucination. I happen to think that this is total bullshit. Any attempt to “purify” phenomenology by claiming we have no rational recourse to getting “outside” the pure givenness of phenomena to reality is to me a sure sign of intellectual stagnation and academic irrelevance. For this reason, I think few phenomenologists have grasped the true significance of Heidegger’s distinction between the phenomenon and the semblance. The voice of God is a semblance, not a phenomenon. If this makes me “metaphysically dogmatic”, then so be it. I would rather be a dogmatic naturalist than someone who cannot make up their mind on whether the very ground beneath them is “real” or not.


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