Monthly Archives: July 2010

Quote of the Day – Matthew Ratcliffe

Whenever we experience an itch, a mild pain or a tightening of the chest, we already have a background sense of being in a world, regardless of whether the foreground feelings are perceptions of the body or of something else. This background also consists of feeling. The body, in so far as it sets up the world in which we find ourselves, is neither a medium or perception within an experienced world nor an object of perception within that world. It constitutes an aspect of experience that is presupposed by both.
The world-constituting role of the body is recognized by Merleau-Ponty, who contrasts the lived body with the body as an object of experience and thought. The lived body is what I have referred to as the “feeling body”. It is never experienced in its entirety as an object of experience, even though it can undergo differing degrees and kinds of objectification. This is because it is the possibility of experiencing anything at all and therefore something that always remains, at least in part, in the background:

In so far as it sees or touches the world, my body can […] be neither seen nor touched. What prevents its ever being an object, ever being ‘completely constituted’ is that it is that by which there are objects. It is neither tangible nor visible in so far as it is that which sees and touches. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 92)

For Merleau-Ponty, the lived body is not only directed towards things in the world. It also opens up the world as a space of purposive, practical possibilities, and thus shapes all our experiences, activities and thoughts. Hence an aspect of bodily experience and a sense of belonging to the world are one and the same.

~Matthew Ratcliffe, feelings of being: phenomenology, psychiatry, and the sense of reality p. 107

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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”).


Filed under Consciousness, Heidegger, Phenomenology

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.


Filed under Consciousness, Heidegger, Philosophy, Psychology

The God That Is Our Brain: Bicameralism and Theology

One of the great unanswered questions of science is why belief in gods is so ubiquitous in human societies past and present. Why is our species naturally inclined towards believing in the reality of the spiritworld? And the experience of this spiritworld is not just an abstract theoretical “belief” based on some “intentional stance”, but rather, an essential component of many peoples’ fundamental reality-map i.e. how the cosmos is meaningfully parsed. Where do spirits and gods come from? What is the neurological substrate for these experiential realities? Many theorists would like to answer these questions without invoking any notion of altered states of consciousness.  But as archeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce rightly point out in their book Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods, “Complex human consciousness is not an ‘optional’ extra that archeologists can ignore. The assumption that all human behavior can be accounted for on rational, ecological or adaptive grounds is unwarranted: extracting the means of daily material life from the environment is not always an entirely ‘rational’ matter’.”

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am a big fan of Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, especially when it comes to explaining religious phenomena. Accordingly, I was shocked to find that Lewis-Williams and Pearce failed to cite Jaynes despite their book being focused on how hallucinatory and altered states of consciousness played a large role in spurning the development of complex Neolithic civilization. This is, of course, a Jaynesian thesis. But I take this in stride. The fact that the impeccable research of  Lewis-Williams and Pearce independently comes to strikingly similar conclusions as Jaynes is strong evidence that bicameralism is more or less true, or at least highly corroborated.

For those who don’t know, bicameralism says that before the development of modern consciousness there was a preconscious mentality wherein voluntary will was underwritten by a totally different neural control mechanism. Instead of going “offline” and narratizing alternatives to behavior through conscious, articulate reasoning, the bicameral mind was unconsciously controlled by internal voices. As Jaynes puts it, “volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey.” We see evidence of this ancient control structure in modern schizophrenic command hallucinations wherein the person is assaulted by admonitory voices who issue condemnatory judgments and behavioral commands. The difference between an ancient voice-hearer and a modern one is that the modern person has developed a voluntary consciousness which can resist the hallucinated instructions and think more or less independently (until the power of the voices becomes overwhelming and they finally give in and obey). In ancient man, there was no option of disobedience. Our original relationship of gods was that of unremitting obedience. It wasn’t until we ate from the Tree of Knowledge that our original union with the gods was split.

Why were these gods so powerful? Why did they appear to humans as all-knowing and all-wise? Because the gods were housed in the vast network that constitutes the unconscious mind. The cognitive unconscious was completely in charge. Until recently, modern humans were under the delusion that consciousness constitutes the entire mental economy. Now we know however that consciousness is but the tip of the iceberg. Compared to the virtual serial machine that is our consciousness, the cognitive unconscious is automatic, fast, and emotional. It can synthetically process huge amounts of context-sensitive information without breaking a sweat. Accordingly, the gods were experienced as all-powerful precisely because in comparison with the pitiful resources available to the “human” complex, the god-complex was infinitely more wise. The gods within us were able to look at the totality of the situation and process action-oriented meaning in relation to a larger context. This generates the experiential component of omniscience when “experiencing God”.

Moreover, bicameral theory is poised to naturalize the mystical experience of  God and the feeling of oneness, unity, and the breakdown of subject/object thinking. In the metastable flux that is mystical union, the autobiographical self – our narrative mind – drops out and we are thrown into the other-referential networks of allocentric processing which more or less resonate to the “whatness” of reality. In neurological terms, we can speculate that the dorsal-parietal self-referential networks of body ownership phase out and the ventral-temporal networks of whatness amplify. This ventral stream is associated with other-referential processing and object-recognition. Moreover, the temporal lobe system is capable of parsing context out of messy variables, synthesizing oodles of information into a unified whole which can be then transferred to other areas of the brain in terms of action-commands.

What’s interesting about the temporal lobes is that the left temporal lobe is the seat of language whereas the corresponding areas in the right temporal lobe don’t seem to be as highly specialized.But Jaynes thought that the corresponding right temporal areas did have an important function, otherwise it would be devoted to making the critical skill of language bilaterally redundant (as with all other important brain functions). What then is the function of the right temporal cortex? Jaynes hypothesized that “The language of men was involved with only one hemisphere in order to leave the other free for the language of gods”. Indeed, this god-language is the source of the auditory hallucinations which once guided our ancestors in times of stress and crutch decision making and still guide/judge/order people today who suffer from florid schizophrenic symptoms.

It was these gods that commanded the kings and god-stewards to build great monuments. And the kings became gods themselves after death, with their subjects hallucinating their voices in terms of commands e.g. the command to build a magnificent burial tomb, to mummify, bathe, feed, and give gifts for sustenance in the after-life. Indeed, in the following relief we can see the god Shirruma guiding King Tudhaliya’s hand:

Bicameralism understands this relief to depict a story of hallucinatory self-regulation. And look at this scene:


The Egyptian god Khnum is forming the future king with his right hand along with his spirit-twin, the Ka, with his left hand. The Ka was a spiritual double that was born with every man and survived his death. For Jaynes, the Ka is representative of the bicameral, linguistically grounded god-function. The verbal function of the Ka is suggested by how it is pointing to its mouth in the above picture. The Ka essentially functioned as an ancient form of conscience. It guided the man through commands and suggestions experienced as auditory verbal hallucinations. Vestigial evidence of this function can be seen in the ubiquity of imaginary companions in children today and the surprisingly high prevalence of auditory verbal hallucination in both psychotics and nonpsychotics.

Moreover, when the neural power of the bicameral voices began to fade as bureaucracy and written language took over as the dominant method of social-control (e.g. Hammurabi’s code), the gods were no longer able to provide immediate guidance. New means of contacting the subliminal gods was needed. The flight of the gods necessitated the development of prayer, shamanic trance rituals, idol worship, divination, sortilege (casting lots), oracles, and the list goes on. Almost all modern religious phenomena can be explained within the context of bicameral theory. I am aware of no other theory can provides a comprehensive explanatory framework for understanding both the origin and development of religion and the vestigial traits of our theocratic ancestry in the form of schizophrenic verbal hallucinations and modern religious phenomena.


Filed under Psychology

Heidegger and the Phenomenon of Truth – A Preliminary Interpretation

It is well known that Heidegger’s concept of truth differs radically from the traditional correspondence theory. Some people take this to mean that Heidegger was in some way undercutting the possibility of propositional or predicative truth wherein our assertions are lined up and compared with reality as it exists in itself. Accordingly, this radical notion of truth is usually understood in terms of some kind of idealism or subjectivism. This line of interpretation is driven by passages where Heidegger says that “Being (not entities) is something which “there is” only in so far as truth is. And truth is only in so far and as long as Dasein is” (SZ 230).

However, I want to decisively argue against an idealist or subjectivist interpretation of Heidegger’s notion of truth. On my reading (which I am still developing), Heidegger’s notion of truth is entirely compatible with there being a mind-independent world that we more or less have direct access to by means of encountering it. This requires that we read Heidegger’s notion of truth in phenomenological terms. What needs explaining is how “the proposition that ‘Dasein is in the truth’ states equiprimordially that ‘Dasein is in untruth'” (SZ 222). What does this mean? How can we live in both truth and untruth?

The answer to this question lies in the notion of structural coupling. Structural coupling occurs whenever there is a history of recurrent interaction between two systems. More specifically, in virtue of its autopoietic (i.e. self-organizing) unity, an organism is structurally coupled with the environment insofar as it maintains its unity it respect to the environment. Accordingly, cognition can be defined as “A history of structural coupling that brings forth a world.” This definition of cognition is in stark contrast to the traditional conception of cognition as the manipulation of explicit symbol tokens by a central processing unit.

What does this have to do with Heidegger’s notion of truth? I propose that for Heidegger, Dasein is “in the truth” insofar as it is structurally coupled to a real environment. Dasein isn’t coupled to itself, nor its ideas, representations, or thoughts; it is coupled to the Umwelt, which is composed of real entities that have a structural determination independent of whether we are there to disclose it. Indeed, look at this passage:

Because the kind of being that is essential to truth is of the character of Dasein, all truth is relative to Dasein’s being. Does this relatively signify that all truth is ‘subjective’? If one interprets ‘subjective’ as ‘left to the subject’s discretion’, then it certainly does not. For uncovering, in the sense which is most its own, takes asserting out of the province of the ‘subjective discretion, and brings the uncovering Dasein face to face with the entities themselves. (SZ 227)

I have elaborated on this notion of encountering before (more recently here). Basically, the idea is that our cognition is directed towards the things themselves rather than any putative re-presentation of the things inside a mental theater. As I put it earlier,

perception is a matter of encountering or attending to what is already presenting itself to us. As long as we are alive, we have no choice but to encounter the Earth. Understood this way, sensations are irrelevant for the achievement of perception. All that matters for the act of perception is the performance of the act. And it is only dogmatism which supposes that the act of perception involves re-presenting the phenomena in terms of sense-data. For this, there is no need. We only need to respond or react to that which is there in such a way as to maintain the unity of our bodily singularity.

This direct response to what is “really there” in the environment grounds Heidegger’s notion of truth. This notion is taken from his definition of phenomena as that the totality of what shows itself. I contend that this notion of showing and encountering can be explained in terms of J.J. Gibson’s theory of direct realism. I don’t know of any other Heideggerian theorist who has proposed a concrete theory of how phenomena can show themselves and how we are receptive to this showing. I propose that the notion of structural coupling in addition to Gibson’s notion of affordance perception provides the necessary theoretical background for making sense of how Dasein can encounter the phenomenon as it shows itself from itself.

So now we have explained what Heidegger means when he says that Dasein lives in the truth. But as we saw above, Dasein also lives in the untruth. What does this mean? It means that our encounter with the environment is always an interpretive encounter. But this doesn’t mean that Dasien is synthesizing brute intuitions through a transcendental manifold, nor is Dasein generating internal “percepts” through sense-data. Heidegger’s notion of thrown projection is postKantian in the sense that for Heidegger, nothing is added to the phenomenon. In the act of perception, we simply perform the act. Accordingly, the significance of the world is generated by means of structural coupling rather than any putative “subjective coloring” of a static reality. As Varella and Maturana put it,

Inasmuch as the changes of state of an organism (with or without a nervous system) depend on its history of structural coupling [with the environment], changes of state of the organism in its environment will necessarily be suitable and familiar to it, independently of the behavior or environment we are describing.

In other words, the significance of entities (their meaning in relation to Dasein) is dependent on both the context of the situation and the internal historicity of the perceiver, but not on the generation of subjective percepts. In this way, Dasein is always attending to a partial selection of reality and never the entire Earth at once. Indeed, to say that Dasein is in the truth “does not purport to say that ontically Dasein is introduced ‘to all the truth’ either always or just in every case, but rather, the disclosedness of its ownmost being belongs to its existential consitution” (SZ 220). Encounter is always interpretive and thus disclosure is always partial and selective.

[In disclosure] entities have not been completely hidden; they are precisely the sort of thing that has been uncovered, but at the same time they have been disguised. They show themselves, but in the mode of semblance. Likewise what has formerly been uncovered sinks back again, hidden and disguised. Because Dasein is essentially falling, its state of being is such that it is in ‘untruth’. (SZ 222)

Now we can see that Heidegger’s notion of truth is phenomenological insofar as it describes the history of structural coupling of Dasein with the environment. As we have seen, claiming that truth is dependent on Dasein does not mean that propositional truth somehow is no longer valid or that Heidegger ascribed to some kind of subjectivist relativism. Instead, we can understand the claim that Dasein is both in the truth and the untruth to mean that Dasein is always operating within a real environment by means of structural coupling but at the same time, we only attend to that level of reality which is salient in respect to our interests and internal history. Indeed,

The existential-ontological condition for the fact that being-in-the-world is characterized by ‘truth’ and ‘untruth’, lies in the state of Dasein’s being which we have designated as thrown projection. This is something that is constitutive for the structure of care. (SZ 223)

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A Dialogue on Knowledge Between Two Philosophers

Martin: I ask you this then, what is knowledge?

John: Knowledge is justified true belief. For example, I know that I am seeing that tree over there. By all means, it is true that there is a tree over there. Accordingly, I have a belief that there is a tree over there. This belief is justified. Therefore, I know the tree.

M: You use the term “I” as if this term is not ambiguous. When you say “I know”, what is the nature of this “I”?

J: When I use the term “I”, I am referring to my self. This simply serves as an indexical reference. It points something out in the world, namely, myself.

M: Now you have connected the self to your answer of what knowledge is. Tell me, what is the nature of this self?

J: Simple. The self is an agent. An agent is one who acts under his own power and is the subject of experience.

M: Now you use the equally ambiguous concepts of agency, subjectivity, and experience. Tell me, what do you make of the cognitive unconscious?

J: Please, define how you are using that term. I am unfamiliar with the latest developments in the psychological sciences.

M: Of course. The cognitive unconscious is vast and intricately structured. It is emotional and speedy. It is the foundation of our perceptual systems. We are not metacognitively aware of how this network operates, but we are occasionally conscious of its results. We simply give this system instructions and the system executes them smoothly. For example, we are not conscious of how we move our mouth and lips when speaking. We simply get lost in the conversation, in the meaning, not the syntax.

J: I see where you are going with this. You want to know if I consider the unconscious mind as part of the agent. Yes and no. We can say that the unconscious mind is much like the external environment. It simply acts as an input into the self-conscious system. We could say that it “preprocesses” the input but then “presents” or “re-presents” the input to the conscious mind so that we can experience it consciously. This is the mechanism through which I gain knowledge about the tree. If the workings of the cognitive unconscious never reached into my conscious mind, I would never believe that its contents were true, and thus, according to my definition, I would never have knowledge. Consciousness is thus necessary for knowledge because consciousness is essential for believing.

M: Let me see if I understand what you are saying. There is a stimulus first and foremost which is strictly independent of our mind.  We can characterize this stimulus in terms of “primary” qualities such as length, extension, motion, etc. This stimulus impinges upon the receptors in our nervous system and becomes raw “sense-data”. The sense-data is then processed by the unconscious system in order to be presented to the conscious mind. Accordingly, the conscious mind does not experience the stimulus directly, but rather, it only experiences the re-presentation of the stimulus after it has been processed by the unconscious mind. We can say then that the unconscious system generates “conscious percepts” from raw sense-data and that these percepts are characterized in terms of “secondary” qualities, or “qualia”. Is this right?

J: Yes, that sounds more or less right. Knowledge is thus representational. When I see the tree, my belief that the tree is over there and has such-and-such properties is dependent on my having a belief about the tree. The mental content is thus intentional because it is about things “out there” in the world. I know that my belief is true because the properties are more-or-less preserved in the representation. We say then that the representation corresponds to the stimulus and that knowledge is justified true belief. The belief is true because it corresponds to the stimulus and it is justified because evolution usually produces systems which are more-or-less good at getting representational systems to properly correspond to the environment so as to successfully control behavior.

M: Tell me,  what is the nature of this presentation to the conscious mind? To what is the presentation presented to?

J: It is presented to me, the subject.

M: This term is as ambiguous as the “I”. What is the subject?

J: It is the self, the mind, the agent, the “I”. The agent is someone who has beliefs about the world, that is to say, who has knowledge and a subjective mental life. We call this “consciousness”.

M: You defined the self in terms of knowledge, and you defined knowledge in representations, and you defined representations in terms of a self! It feels like we are going in circles.

J: It does seem peculiar. But that’s why consciousness is so mysterious. We don’t quite know how to define it yet nor how it works. But once we get a better grasp on what consciousness is, we should have a better understanding of how re-presentation works and thus, a better understanding of knowledge. But we need to first update our metaphors. I agree with you that the term presentation is vague and illdefined. Traditionally, it was understood in terms of a homunculus or rational Ego. Theater metaphors are prone to this homuncularity. This is why I like Thomas Metzinger’s notion of a self-viewing theater. The problem with the theater metaphor is that it presupposes an audience, and we then run into a problem of regress when trying to understand the homunculus. But if we say  that the theater views itself, then we don’t actually need a conscious self for knowledge to occur. This is why Metzinger says that his theory of mind is selfless.

M: But the mystery of consciousness which generates these problems of selfhood is entirely of your own making! Because your definition of knowledge is circular when you don’t specify the ontological structure of the “I”, there seems to be this fundamental mystery in coming to terms with knowledge and what the mind is. But why should we define knowledge in terms of beliefs and representations? This is only dogma. You of all people should realize that Descartes himself simply assumed that the mind is set off against the environment in a distinct ontological sphere. You took this insight but naturalized it by assuming that the mind is a process not a distinct ontological substance. But because you assumed that the self is isolated from the world in the first place, you explained intentionality, the aboutness of knowledge, our contact with reality, in representational terms. This is because there has to be some mediation between the senseless primary properties and the sensible secondary qualities. But why should we assume that the primary qualities are meaningless?

J: What do you mean? The stimulus is just a big jumble!

M: On the contrary. Take the example of the ground. Is the ground a jumble? If we consider the objects which rest upon it, yes, the ground is (sometimes) a jumble. But take a flat grassy plain. Surely, if we consider the plain as a whole to be a stimulus, we can say that the stimulus is orderly and structured. Moreover, this plain as it exists in itself is not meaningless for an embodied creature. For one, the whole of it anchors us to it by means of gravity. Our entire bodily sense of reality is permeated by an unconscious knowledge that the ground swells beneath our feet and that it affords stability and locomotion. Even with my eyes closed, the ground primordially means something-to-stand-upon. This meaning is codetermined by the intrinsic rigidity of my own body and the rigidity of the ground itself. My ability to pick up and grasp this meaning is intrinsic to my being, spontaneous, and prereflective. And with my eyes open, I am able to receive stimulus information about the nature of the ground as a surface. Indeed, look out before you:


M:The field as a whole is reflecting ambient light towards us. The farther away the ground, the more compressed the light reflecting off it. There is thus a texture gradient in the field-as-a-stimulus. This gradient is determined by more or less objective, albeit receiver-relative, laws. I suppose that this stimulus is ordered and meaningful. It affords opportunities for behavior if we are running through it, or it simply stands before us as three-dimensional if we stare at it (a rare activity in the animal kingdom). Now, consider the question of intentionality and the structure of our knowledge of affordances. Surely, we do not need consciousness in order to gain knowledge of affordances. After all, affordances are simply classes of behaviorally similar things. The perceptual development of an organism can be more or less described in terms of learning what the environment affords. We learn that the ground is supportive, that mothers afford comfort and food, that chairs are for sitting, food is for eating, doors are for going-through, etc.

In such cases, the skill to be learned is that of discrimination, not inference. We do not need to infer secondary qualities from meaningless primary qualities. If visual perception was actually achieved by means of inferring depth and motion from single-points of light intensity, vision would surely be miraculous. Instead, we need only suppose that the organism’s knowledge of the world is achieved by means of enaction. Enaction is the history of structural coupling with the environment. Our structural coupling with the environment is codetermined by the structure of the organism and the environment. This is intentionality. Our experience with the world is simultaneously about me and about the world. As I move through the environment, my vision gives me information both about the layout of the world and my own position in respect to that layout. This is why affordance perception cuts across the subject-object divide. Perceptions are both subjective and objective. We must reject a strict dualism between subject and object.

We do not need to add anything to the stimulus. We do not need to preprocess it for consciousness, for our minds. This is unnecessary. Our history of structural coupling guarantees that the environment is directly meaningful in terms of affording opportunities for behavior. Behavior is simply a way of being-in-the-world. It is a way to maintain the unity and structural organization of our bodies so as to maintain our continual rigidity in respect to the environment. Behavior is living.

Knowledge therefore cannot be described in representational terms without falling prey to ambiguity or vicious circularity. While there might be representations in the perceptual system, they are action-oriented, not symbolic. We are thus in the world directly. Our primary mode of access to the world is in behavioral terms. We can call this mode of coping circumspective concern. This view of knowledge indicates a fundamental shift in metaphysics, for metaphysics must include the whole of nature, and we are a part of this whole.

J: Yes, but what of consciousness?

M: That, my friend, is a conversation for another day!

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Reading Meillassoux's After Finitude: Initial Thoughts

I finally picked up a copy of what everyone seems to be talking about these days: After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. I’ve read the first chapter and I am itching to get some initial thoughts out there.

First, I think Meillassoux frames the realism/anti-realism controversy very nicely. Part of the reason I am so fired up about this post is because Meillassoux’s work seems get to the root of many contemporary issues and thus works nicely as a springboard for the philosophical dialectic. I like his term “correlationism”. It does seem to capture a distinct flavor of philosophy, one that I often run into in continental circles. Many phenomenologists seem to accept the correlationist strategy of putting the reciprocal co-relation of human and Earth first, understanding the phenomena as that which appears within consciousness. And of course, Heidegger’s critics have pejoratively put this label of “relationist” or “correlationist” on him in order to raise problems for his system. But I don’t really think correlationism, as described by Meillassoux, captures Heidegger. Here’s why:

Meillassoux’s understanding of correlationism is derived from an analysis of primary and secondary qualities. He says

Whether it be affective or perceptual, the sensible only exists as a relation: a relation between the world and the living creature I am. (2)

He uses the Berkeleyan examples of pain not being in the fire itself or color not being in the painting itself. This is supposed to illustrate an important fact about human existence: perceptual experience is the experience of sensible qualities, which exist only as a relation between perceiver and perceived. Accordingly, Meillassoux sets up the problem of correlationism in terms of whether you are willing to say that relational qualities are all we can possibly have access to. In other words, Meillassoux’s problem with correlationism is not the subjectivist understanding of perception in terms of sensible qualities, but rather, the limiting of human access strictly to the co-relation with the Earth  rather than the Earth as it exists apart from the sensible relation (which for Meillassoux, we can access through mathematics).

My difficulty with Meillassoux is that he never even stops to consider if there are alternative ways to conceive of the organism-Earth perceptual relationship. He would be wise to read some of J.J. Gibson’s work on ecological optics. Indeed, for Gibson (and for Heidegger), sensations have nothing to do with perception. Accordingly, relation is simply the wrong term to describe the intentional perceptual experience. For Heidegger and for Gibson, perceptual experience is not a matter of generating sensations or “having” sensations. If we examine his language, we can see that Meillassoux buys into the very object-metaphor that Heidegger critiques so vehemently in describing the sensuous process. Meillassoux always talks about “the” sensible, “the” perception, or “the” sensation, as if these things actually were things. But the sensible is precisely not something which comes into existence or is generated when a subject is alongside the Earth. To think this is to misunderstand the intentionality of perception.

Strictly speaking, the most primordial perceptual experience of an organism perceiving the Earth is not characterized by the “having” of things called “sensations”. To believe so is to fall prey to the object metaphors that Modern philosophy has corrupted the philosophy of perception with. As Heidegger says, perception is not about returning one’s “booty” of sensation back to the “cabinet” of consciousness. Instead, perception is a matter of encountering the phenomenon. And crucially, the genuine phenomenon for Heidegger is not the appearance within a consciousness, but rather, that which is known in perception, namely, the things themselves. “Phenomena are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to the light”. What lies in the light of the day? The Earth! Indeed, it is the planet Earth upon which the sun shines.

Accordingly, perception is a matter of encountering or attending to what is already presenting itself to us. As long as we are alive, we have no choice but to encounter the Earth. Understood this way, sensations are irrelevant for the achievement of perception. All that matters for the act of perception is the performance of the act. And it is only dogmatism which supposes that the act of perception involves re-presenting the phenomena in terms of sense-data. For this, there is no need. We only need to respond or react to that which is there in such a way as to maintain the unity of our bodily singularity. And of course, our entire history of responding to the Earth, from conception until death, is determinate for how we react to the phenomena. This is where circumspective interpretation and “temporalization” comes in. Every encounter with the Earth is an interpretation or “projection” based on what we bring to the phenomenon in accordance with the fundamental historicity of our factical life experience.

It is curious then that Meillassoux says that “it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant of correlationism” (5). On my reading then, Heidegger escapes correlationism because he was a naive realist (Graham Harman might be interested in this claim)! But naive isn’t the right word. “Direct realism” or “ecological realism” is better. Basically, direct realism is the thesis that perception is a comportment towards the things themselves, but that how we take those things depends on the perceiver. Moreover, with visual perception, we are not directed towards the actual object, but rather, the ambient light which nomothetically reflects off the actual objects. We sense light and in so doing we attend to the objects themselves. It has been experimentally demonstrated that receptivity towards textures of light upon the retina which result from movement through the ambient light specifies enough information about the environment so as to intelligibly navigate through it.

This is why Meillassoux is mistaken when he assumes that perception of color necessarily involves a sensation or percept of color. In virtue of well-known physical laws, ambient light reflectance is determined by the chemical nature of the perceived object. Different chemical compositions on the surface of the object reflect light differently and can thus be specified by information contained within the ambient light. To perceive color then, we need only discriminate ordered  patterns of stimulus, not “generate a percept”. I thus agree wholeheartedly with Nigel Thomas when he says that:

colors (and all other experienced qualities) really exist out there in the world, just as do shape, size, and motion (or whatever properties are sanctioned by the latest physical theories). Furthermore, rather than merely mentally representing these qualities (or information about them), we are able to know or be in touch with them, as they exist outside of us, in a quite concrete sense. Qualitative experience, I am suggesting, may consist in being in contact with qualities rather than in the ‘having’ of qualia.

Accordingly, direct realism avoids the problem of correlationism because it never holds to the Kantian thesis that perception necessarily adds something to the phenomena. For direct realism, nothing is added to the phenomenon, we simply perform the act of encountering it. In this way, “Dasein remains outside” with the things themselves. This is why Heidegger is always saying things like:

To say that I am in the first place oriented towards sensations is all just pure theory. In conformity with its sense of direction, perception is directed toward a being that is extant. It intends this precisely as extant and knows nothing at all about sensations that it is apprehending.

in opposition to the subjectivist misinterpretations that perception is directed in the first instance only to something subjective, that is, to sensations, it was necessary to show that perception is directed toward the extant itself.

Nevertheless, the walls [in a lecture hall] are already present even before we think them as objects. Much else also gives itself to us before any determining of it by thought. Much else – but how? Not as a jumbled heap of things but as an environs, a surroundings, which contains within itself a closed, intelligible contexture

intraworldliness does not belong to the being of the extant, or in particular to that of nature, but only devolves upon it. Nature can also be without there being a world, without a Dasein existing…The being of beings which are not a Dasein has a richer and more complex structure and therefore goes beyond the usual characterization of that extant as a contexture of things


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