Monthly Archives: August 2010

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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Bicameralism and Auditory Verbal Hallucinations

People often think Jaynes’ bicameral control hypothesis is imaginative yet implausible as an actual mechanism of cognitive control. Well, if you look at the research on schizophrenic voice hearing, it becomes quite clear that bicameral control is a reality for a small percentage of the population.

Fowler et al have noted that, in those who have experienced trauma, auditory verbal haclluinations (AVHs) typically involve critical comments or comments about the person’s day-to-day experiences. This observation is consistent with the conclusion of a study of AVH phenomenology in patients with schizophrenia and in those without any psychiatric diagnoses, by Leudar et al.This study concluded that AVHs are “focused on the regulation of everyday activities” (p. 896). Similarly, Nayani and David note that 46% of their sample of patients with schizophrenia said their AVHs had come to replace their “voice of conscience” (p. 185) and that a proportion relied on their AVH for making decisions. (link)

Here we have a perfectly clear clinical example of bicameral control. Such patients have subconsciously authorized the auditory verbal hallucinations (AVH) to control their behavior in times of decision making. The same process of authorization is also evident in hypnosis. The hypnotized person will authorize the hypnotist to automatically control their behavior with verbal commands. With hypnosis, the voice is everything; it is the direct link to the behavior of hypnotized person. AVHs are simply this process but internalized by means of stored admonitory wisdom. In times of decision making or stress, the stored admonitory wisdom is triggered and experienced as an AVH. The internal commands and judgements serve to control behavior by means of linguistic self-regulation. This is something normal people can do through conscious inner speech mechanisms. The neural code of language is capable of representing patterns of action that can control behavior when neurally active. These would be stored in terms of what cognitive scientists called “action-oriented representations”. We can quite literally “tell ourselves what to do”. It is the same with AVH except that instead of conscious inner speech we have subconscious admonitory wisdom stored in terms of a personality (usually a social authority) that is capable of commanding, judging, critiquing, guiding, cursing, etc. So, far from being simply an imaginative hypothesis based on speculation, the bicameral control hypothesis is actually grounded on sound neuropsychological observation and self-reports.

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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.


Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy

Deeds Without Doers

There is a concept in phenomenology that is critical for understanding the nature of animal minds: prereflective experience. This level of experience is synonymous with automaticity, subpersonal cognition, behavioral reactivity, effortless action, mindless flow, selfless absorption, subliminal perception, depersonalization, being-in-the-moment, wu wei, natural action, etc. In a word, animal minds are characterized by “action without action”, that is, deeds without doers. Heidegger called prereflective experience the realm of the they-self, fallenness, thrownness, lostness. And given the brute processing power of automatic neural reactivity, it would be a mistake to consider a completely prereflective creature “unintelligent”. As anyone who has ever woken up with a brand new perspective on a difficult problem can attest, the subconscious mind is capable of great powers of synthetic decision making. Bad phenomenology drives us to overlook the reality of prereflective experience. This is why it requires a keen phenomenological sense to develop an awareness of how limited our reflective consciousness is in comparison with the vast cognitive unconscious. In this post, I want to create a list of concrete examples of “action without action”. This will necessarily be an incomplete list, but I hope it demonstrates the phenomenological point many people are unwilling to accept: we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of, and hence are deluded about the extensiveness of consciousness in our overall mental economy.

It is also very important to note that just because most of the following activities are usually prereflective does not mean that they cannot also be done in a conscious, reflective manner. This is the essence of mindfulness training: turning preflective habits into deliberate intentional actions. It is also important to note that just because the execution of these habits is subconscious, that does not mean a conscious thought or intention did not set off the action. We are not complete zombies. In fact, we are able to send conscious “instructions” or “structions” (as Jaynes called them) to the subconscious for automatic execution such as when we send a struction to “open our hand” despite not knowing exactly how this is performed.

Deeds Without Doers

  1. Precisely shaping your grip when reaching out to pick up a coffee mug
  2. Controlling each individual finger muscle when typing quickly or playing the piano
  3. Buttoning a shirt
  4. Getting dressed
  5. Brushing your teeth
  6. Coordinating your leg and  foot muscles when walking or running
  7. Breathing (this action is easily controlled consciously though)
  8. Moving your lips and tongue when talking and speaking in general
  9. Genuine laughter
  10. Maintaining posture, muscle tone, and balance
  11. Saccadic eye motion
  12. Focusing our eyes on an object
  13. Dodging a thrown object
  14. Reading text
  15. Expert automobile driving
  16. Coordinating your muscles to throw a ball
  17. Locating a sound
  18. Judging a distance
  19. Flash of insight
  20. Fidgeting
  21. Nail biting
  22. Riding a bicycle after automatization
  23. Working on an assembly line after many hours of practice
  24. Hypnosis
  25. Speaking in tongues
  26. Opening the door-handle to your bedroom
  27. Controlling your legs to run up or down stairs
  28. Mastery of a difficult videogame control schema/ expert videogame performance
  29. Visual illusions
  30. Sleepwalking
  31. Getting scared when you see a shadow move in a dark alley at night in a bad neighborhood
  32. Feeling intense emotions when something bad happens to your children or loved ones
  33. Gripping your hand to catch a frisbee
  34. Tapping your feet to music
  35. Using a hammer
  36. Hitting a tennis ball
  37. Zen archery
  38. Chewing/swallowing food
  39. Beating your heart
  40. Washing your body/hair
  41. Putting on shoes
  42. Lighting a cigarette
  43. Using a food utensil
  44. Hitting a baseball
  45. Walking around the house when talking on the phone
  46. Walking into the kitchen if you are hungry
  47. Holding a pen


Filed under Phenomenology

In Defense of Atheism and Against Agnosticism: A Response to Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting recently posted an article to the NY Times philosophy column “The Stone” in which he had this to say:

Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?

He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.

But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.

The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism.

I’m quite familiar with these “agnosticism is more rational than atheism” arguments. I usually find the proponents of these arguments to be insufferable in their quest to prove agnosticism a superior philosophy to that of atheism, a more “juvenile” or “arrogant” position put forward only by the philosophically naive (Dawkins, etc).

Gutting seems to suggest that because sensible people report some kind of direct awareness of a divine being and because theologians have found ways of rationalizing these experiences, this lends credence to the supposition that agnosticism is the preferable stance insofar as we can’t “reject the [supernatural] hypothesis out of hand”. But this begs the question against the possibility of giving an overwhelming empirical explanation of exactly why and how religious hallucinations are possible.

Let’s say we have two competing explanations of the religious experience of “direct awareness of a divine being”. The first explanation is based on a naturalistic metaphysics. It starts from the expansion of the universe, the formation of stars, galaxies, planets, organisms, mammals, apes, and humans, etc. It tells this story in exquisite detail, with all the gory details filled in how the brain evolved over time. At some point in history, a side effect of human brain evolution was the advent of auditory hallucination wherein we experienced our dead ancestors, friends, deities, and demons talking to us. The naturalistic explanation thus explains the origin of “divine awareness” in terms of how the hallucination of divine authorities projected from the subconscious mind had some kind of adaptive power. Scientists are now able to experimentally induce the experience of a “divine being” by magnetically stimulating certain parts of the temporal cortex with a so-called “God Helmet“.

The second explanation is the supernatural explanation, which suggests that the best explanation of why we seem to experience immaterial realities and impossible experiences of divine beings is that there actually are divine beings and immaterial realities. Think about the logic of this for a second. This would be like saying the best explanation of why dreams are magical is that dreams actually are magical, as opposed to simply being the result of the brain being in an altered state of consciousness. It substitutes complete explanatory power for zero explanatory power. We can induce subjective experience of supernatural entities with magnetic stimulation, but the best explanation of what actually causes the experiences is that there actually are supernatural entities? Unless someone can put forward a non question-begging argument as to why induced experiences are different than “real” divine experiences, the supernaturalistic explanation seems to simply fly in the face of the well established  rationality of scientific metaphysics.

Philosophers seem to think that religious experiences are based on logical speculations about necessary beings. On the contrary, the first gods were crude auditory hallucinations. Look at the book of Amos. God is experienced as a thunderous booming voice:

“The LORD roars from Zion

and thunders from Jerusalem;

the pastures of the shepherds dry up,

and the top of Carmel withers.”

If you look at the subjective reports of these “direct experiences of divinity” and compare them with the reports of schizophrenic auditory verbal hallucination, the similarities are striking. For example, 20 year old schizophrenic Tobas reports:

I felt the Lord in me. This is when the voices began. At first they were only whispers, but then louder, but still soft. It was Jesus speaking to me. He would tell me what to do and ask me questions. Jesus would speak to me alone and no one else. Then I became a backslider. The Devil started talking to me. (He was unable to imitate the voice of the Devil) The devil told me bad things. He told me to kill myself. The Devil just wouldn’t leave me alone because I was a backslider.

These are the experiential grounds for Gutting’s “preference” for agnosticism. What are we supposed to make of the prevalence of auditory hallucinations in nonpsychotics, of the prevalence of hallucinated playmates in childhood, of the prevalence of voice hearing in the homeless and even in nonverbals? Naturalistic metaphysics theoretically has an explanation for all of this. Supernatural explanations of such phenomena barely make sense and certainly aren’t capable of producing theories such that prediction and control of the phenomena become possible (as with naturalistic metaphysics).

I have one last point. Gutting says:

It follows that [atheists] have no good basis for treating the existence of God as so improbable that it should be denied unless there is decisive proof for it. This in turn shows that atheists are at best entitled to be agnostics, seriously doubting but not denying the existence of God.

Gutting makes a familiar move here against the atheist. He makes it such that the atheist is said to “deny” the existence of God, that is, to say “there is no God and I am 100%” positive of this because of such and such arguments”. This is not my understanding of atheism. I am, strictly speaking, an agnostic atheist. That is, someone who lacks a belief in god (a-theist) but does not claim “there is no God and I am sure of it”. For all I know, Deism is an open possibility. But I can’t think of a good reason why the pathetic scribblings of human theologians and metaphysicians would accurately represent anything about this supposed Deist-God that exists “outside” the natural universe. In this respect, we can say that agnostic atheism is the “preferred” stance for all possible gods, but given the naturalistic explanation of human religious experience, atheism is preferable in respect to particular deities hallucinated by the faithful. And moreover, since agnostic atheism is itself a properly respectable a-theism (lacking all positive endorsement of the claim “supernatural deities exist”), we can say that atheism in general is preferable over agnosticism.


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'What Is It Like to Be Nonconscious?' – Accepted for publication!

I am very happy to announce that my paper ‘What Is It Like to Be Nonconscious? A Defense of Julian Jaynes‘ was accepted for publication (upon the condition of minor revision) by one of my favorite journals: Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. I will finally be able to put something in the publication section for my CV! This has been a long time coming, and it’s not from lack of trying. Since starting my philosophical studies at UCF in 2006, I have submitted three different manuscripts to three different journals. All of them were rejected, with only the last one receiving serious comments from reviewers. But in all honesty, I am glad none of those papers were accepted. They were immature and lacking rigor and originality. But I learned a lot about what it takes to be published in a professional academic journal. As one reviewer said, I needed to learn how to “present  a much clearer and more compelling case for what it is that you are offering that is both useful and novel.” Well, with this current paper, I am hoping to have done exactly that. Here’s the abstract:

I respond to Ned Block’s claim that it is “ridiculous” to suppose that consciousness is a cultural construction based on language, and learnt in childhood. Block is wrong to dismiss social constructivist theories of consciousness on account of it being “ludicrous” that conscious experience is anything but a biological feature of our animal heritage, characterized by sensory experience, evolved over millions of years. By defending social constructivism in terms of both Julian Jaynes’ behaviorism and J.J. Gibson’s ecological psychology, I draw a distinction between the experience or “what-it-is-like” of nonhuman animals engaging with the environment and the “secret theater of speechless monologue” that is familiar to a linguistically competent human adult. This distinction grounds the argument that consciousness proper should be seen as learned rather than innate and shared with nonhuman animals. Upon establishing this claim, I defend the Jaynesian definition of consciousness as a social-linguistic construct learnt in childhood, structured in terms of lexical metaphors and narrative practice. Finally, I employ the Jaynesian distinction between cognition and consciousness to bridge the explanatory gap and deflate the supposed “Hard” problem of consciousness.

My two anonymous reviewers thought that I succeeded in showing Block’s rejection of social constructivism is too rash. I take this to be a novel step forward in defense of Dennett-style social-constructivism, which has been hit hard by critics. My aim was to show that Julian Jaynes was largely written off by academics with vested interests in their own terminology and assumptions about the nature of mind and consciousness. Moreover, I was really ambitious with this paper. I wanted to reset the terms of debate in philosophy of mind circles.

On my view, we have been so caught up with talking about the conceptual possibility of zombies, we never even stopped to consider the extent to which humans and other animals actually are zombies. But cognitive science is all about zombie perception, they just don’t know it. I tried to show that it is only dogma to suppose that there is nothing it is like to be a zombie (i.e. nonconscious). Hence the question: What is it like to be nonconscious? I argued that there is indeed something-it-is-like to be nonconscious: organic behavioral reactivity, flow, automaticity, habit, etc. As Jaynes says,

Consciousnes is a much smaller part of out mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of…It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around to something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.

By closely examining the assumptions of Block, I try to reframe the consciousness debate in terms of its opposite: the subconscious. Contrastive phenomenology indicates a deep difference between prereflective cognition and reflective consciousness. By distinguishing these two different levels of phenomenology, I attempt to deflate both the explanatory gap (why experience goes with behavior)  and the Hard problem (is there a function of consciousness?).

Check it out!

I should add, one of the reasons why I am excited about this publication is that now I can use a published paper as my writing sample for when I apply to PhD programs this Dec/Jan. A Master’s thesis under my belt, 4.0 gpa, good GRE, published writing sample, good letters, and good fit all give me confidence about my chances this season. My last time applying to PhD programs was disastrous because (1) my writing sample and SOP were immature (2) I only applied to three (top) schools which I didn’t really fit in at (3) I was naive about the level of competition for top philosophy programs. This time around, I have a much better idea of where I want to study, what I want to do, a much more  research oriented statement of purpose, deeper background knowledge, and stronger writing. Feeling good!


Filed under Phenomenology, Philosophy

Musings on Mary

Frank Jackson is famous for the following argument:

Mary the color scientist knows all the physical facts about color, including every physical fact about the experience of color in other people, from the behavior a particular color is likely to elicit to the specific sequence of neurological firings that register that a color has been seen. However, she has been confined from birth to a room that is black and white, and is only allowed to observe the outside world through a black and white monitor. When she is allowed to leave the room, it must be admitted that she learns something about the color red the first time she sees it — specifically, she learns what it is like to see that color.

Pretty simple, right? The argument is usually put like this:

  1. Before exiting the room, Mary knew everything physical about the phenomenon of seeing the color red.
  2. After leaving the room, Mary gains new information about seeing the color red, namely, the information concerning what it is like to see that color.
  3. Accordingly, there are some truths about seeing color that are not physical.
  4. Therefore, physicalism as a theory of phenomenal properties is false.

This argument is sometimes said to be a definitive proof for the existence of things called “qualia”. And because the thought experiment shows that qualia are not physical things, physicalism is false because it claims that what we call mental things are really just physical things. Right? Well, not really. The only thing this argument knocks down is a giant strawman of physicalism. Here are my thoughts:

  • On first blush, the whole thing is dreadfully implausible. Accordingly, it becomes difficult to extrapolate from science fiction to what’s actually going on in someone’s mind when they perceive a red object. Physicalism’s explanation of seeing the color red should be based on studying normal people looking at red objects under normal lighting conditions (similar to the lighting conditions and medium composition in which we evolved for millions of years: day and night). If Mary had been confined to a black and white room for the entirety of her life, her visual cortex would be wired (“fire together, wire together”) completely differently than a normal person, and may not even be capable of discriminating colored objects. Moreover, anyone who spends their entire life in a single room is going to have some serious neural abnormalities compared to the average human adult. If Mary stepped outside of her room into the real world, I’m not sure she would learn anything about colored objects since her brain had never been exposed to the light reflecting off colored objects, and accordingly would have not been properly configured for discriminating colored objects in the way a normal human adult does.
  • Jackson’s physicalism is a strawman because he is assuming that physicalists are internalists just like him. He says that a physical story about seeing color would talk about the “neurological firings that register that a color has been seen”. Notice that word “register”. It sounds so innocuous, doesn’t it? This way of talking is actually an inheritance from John Locke’s empiricism. Locke thought that the purpose of consciousness was to copy experience onto the “white paper” of the mind, which was devoid of ideas at birth. To register something is to record it somewhere. To record is to copy. When Jackson talks about the brain “registering” the color, he really means copying the properties onto a recording format, which is then read off or “interpreted” by the Inference-machine.
  • In other words, Jackson’s strawman of a physicalist story is the famous “Glassy essence” or “Mirror of nature” theory that Richard Rorty always talked about. It can also be called the Myth of the Given because it is implicitly assumed that the perceptual stimulus for animal perception is an objective (i.e. valueless) world which is given as such to the organism. In a way, this is trivially true. Of course an objective world is given to organisms. But the objective world is not stimulating. In other words, animal brains did not evolve to be responsive to the properties theorized in physical science such as wavelengths or protons. They evolved so as to be responsive to the ecological level of reality. In Gibsonian terms, we can say that animals evolved in a niche such that the information for the specification of affordances (values) is invariant over retinal transformation. Therefore,  the stimulus information discriminated by animals is immediately meaningful for the animal insofar how it perturbs the system is familiar to its nervous system in virtue of the history of interaction with these very values. Affordances are really just possibilities. We perceive the world in terms of the different possibilities afforded by the environment. And as Matthew Ratcliffe has pointed out, these possibilities should not just be seen in terms of bodily possibilities, but also event possibilities e.g. seeing manifold possibilities for social interaction, for how objects might behave in the world, etc.
  • Therefore, we must reconceptualize what it means for Mary to “gain new information” when she steps into the colored world. First and foremost, she would gain possibilities for discrimination, not registration. It wouldn’t be that there was now a new “quale” or phenomenal object floating around inside a conscious space, being associated with other quales. This is ridiculous. When the brain perceives a red firetruck, it doesn’t just “copy” or “register” the objective physical properties onto an internal film for later recovery. Upon seeing a red firetruck coming right at you, the very elementary subcomponents of the stimulus are valenced in terms of “Oh shit, get out of the way!”. It is patently ridiculous that an organism would have evolved a object-registering capacity before a threat-discrimination capacity. This fact explodes the Myth of the Given because it turns out that what stimulates animals are meanings, which is to say possibilities.
  • So, now we can see a tacit premise in Jackson’s argument: (4a) Physicalism is committed to the Myth of the Given. However, since physicalism is not necessarily committed to the Mirror-hypothesis, Jackson’s argument only defeats a weak strawman of physicalist explanations of color perception. Because ecological theory holds that “information for perception” is relative to the individual possibility space of the perceptual agent, Mary could definitely not have learned about “all there is to know” about perception while trapped inside a black and white room, since she had never explored her own possibilities for discrimination in the real world. But why this should “prove” physicalism to be false is beyond me. Of course Mary is learning “something”. But we should not take this too literally, for possibility-spaces, valences, and meanings are not “things” in the way a stump of wood is a thing. It is a thing only when speaking metaphorically. The Myth of the Given, where given ideas are  “quales” manipulated in cognitive space by the brain, is itself a metaphor for understanding perception,structured by our everyday experiences with individuated (possibly withdrawn?) objects that can be manipulated in physical space, just like ideas.

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Quote of the Day ~ Santiago Ramon y Cajal

Those writing on logical methods impress me in the same way as would a speaker attempting to improve his eloquence by learning about brain speech centers, about voice mechanics, and about the distribution of nerves to the larynx – as if knowing these anatomical and physiological details would create organization where none exists, or refine what we already have.

~Santiago Ramon y Cajal, Advice for a Young Investigator

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A Response to Ken Aizawa: An Explanation of Extended Cognition

In his reply to Justin Fisher’s critical review of Ken Aizawa and Fred Adams’ book The Bounds of Cognition, Aizawa has this to say:

A familiar claim in the extended cognition literature is that much of the history of psychology has been marked by prejudice.  This is the prejudice—a remnant of Descartes’ enduring legacy—that cognitive processes occur only in the brain.  Cognitive psychologists simply assume that the mind is realized by the brain.  We find one or another version of this charge in Clark and  Chalmers (1998), Haugeland (1998), Rowlands (1999, 2003), and elsewhere.  Rather than supposing that cognitive processes occur only within the brain, the advocates of extended cognition propose that there are good grounds for thinking that cognitive processes span the brain, body, and environment.  The extended cognition movement should, therefore, be seen as a liberating revolution.

In this post, I want to clear up some misconceptions about what is being claimed by extended cognition (EC) theorists. Ultimately, I can only speak for myself but I want to offer my own explanation of EC’s internal theoretical commitments. Aizawa seems to imply that by denying “the mind is realized by the brain”, EC theorists are committed to the claim that cognitive processes literally occur somewhere else than in the brain. Thus, when EC theorists claim that cognitive processes “span the brain, body, and environment”, Aizawa takes this to mean that EC theorists are literally saying that there are cognitive processes going on over here (in the brain) and also over there (in the world), and not just in the brain.

Frankly, I think that there has been a great confusion on what exactly 4EA ontology is committed to in regards to the “location” of cognition, largely due to the EC theorists not making their underlying ontology and epistemological assumptions fully explicit. What has been missing in these discussions of the mind “spanning” or “extending into” the environment is the epistemological theory of direct realism. Direct realism is a counter-theory to the Cartesian idea that the primordial mind is ontological split from the objective world by means of a subject-object model, the Lockean idea that primordial cognition is the manipulation of mental Ideas which re-present sense-data to a spectorial consciousness, and the Kantian idea that the mind is always directed to “mere phenomenal appearances” rather than the objective in-itself.

Descartes simply assumed that the primordial mind is ontological separate from the objective world. Locke took up this assumption and “naturalized it” by turning the Mind Substance into the Mind Process (operating over re-presentations). Berkeley simply assumed that the stimulus available for perception was poor and inadequate for specifying the world. Kant borrowed from all these assumptions and supposed that consciousness was never directed to the in-self, but rather, to the mere phenomenal appearances or representations of the world. Gibson undercuts all these assumptions with one fell swoop by redefining the nature of perception. Indeed, he says:

Perceiving is an achievement of the individual, not an appearance in the theater of his consciousness. It is a keeping-in-touch with the world, an experiencing of things rather than having of experiences. It involves awareness-of instead of just awareness. It may be awareness of something in the environment or something in the observer or both at once, but there is no content of awareness independent of that of which one is aware.

It is in this paragraph that we can find the meaning of the EC thesis that cognition “aint just about the brain (alone)”. On my reading, EC theory isn’t committed to the claim that brain cognition literally leaks into the world. Leaking, spanning, extending, spreading, etc. are all just metaphors for the thesis of Gibsonian direct realism, which is a general theory of intentionality, that is, a theory about how the mind relates to reality. So when Alva Noe claims that “Consciousness is not something that happens inside us…it is something we achieve”, we should understand this exactly in terms of Gibson’s claim that “perception is an achievement of the individual, not an appearance in the theater of his consciousness.” This is no radical claim. What is radical is to continue buying into the same worn-out assumptions of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Kant! As Noe says,

Human experience is a dance that unfolds in the world and with others. You are not your brain. We are not locked up in a prison of our own ideas and sensations. The phenomenon of consciousness, like that of life itself, is a world-involving dynamic process. We are already at home in the environment. We are out of our heads.


Filed under Phenomenology, Philosophy

Peter Hankins Is Skeptical of Alva Noë (plus my response)

Peter Hankins from the wonderful site Conscious Entities just posted a short review of Alva Noë’s latest book, Out of Our Heads. Peter is skeptical of Noë’s claim that we are not just our brains. My response is in the comments, which I reproduce here:

As someone very sympathetic to Noe, let me attempt a defense of his claim that the mind is “out of the head” and that it is not just the brain which is important to consciousness, but rather, the joint brain-Earth interaction.

First, in regards to agency, Noe takes his cue from Varela and Maturana’s theory of autopoietic systems. Autopoietic theory says that the unicellular organism is the root of all mind because (1) we evolved from unicellular organisms and (2) our ontogenetic history starts as a unicellular organism. Accordingly, Noe defines agency in terms of the self-regulating, goal-directed autonomy demonstrated by these autopoietic systems. Organisms are said to be “structurally coupled” with the environment. While sure, this might not be agency *qua* agency insofar as it is not metacognitive, there are reasonable grounds to suppose that autonomous goal-directed behavior can support a “minimal” sense of agency. Accordingly, when Noe claims that bacteria are conscious, one must keep in mind a distinction (which he, unfortunately, does not draw) between primary consciousness and secondary consciousness (metacognition, introspection, etc). Noe’s claims become a lot less radical when you realize his theory of “enaction” is only really applicable as an explanation of primary consciousness, not secondary consciousness.

Second, in regards his claim about the brain not being sufficient for consciousness, let me explain. If we accept the basic teleological nature of organsisms, then we can say that brains evolved to react to entities in the real world (in accordance with their internal needs/interests). We can say that brains are intentionally directed towards the real world insofar as information necessary for surviving is to be found “out there”, in the world. So primary consciousness is directed at the world because this is how survival works: we seek stimulus-information for the control and guidance of behavior. This grounds Noe’s claim about the brain being necessary but not sufficient for mind in at least two ways. First, we could not imagine an organism without an environment. Organisms, by definition, evolve in environments. And whereas the environment does not need the organism to exist, the organism needs the environment to exist. Second, the brain is not sufficient for consciousness because he defines the brain’s teleological “purpose” as attending towards information in the environment. This is where Noe takes his cue from J.J. Gibson’s theory of ecological optics.

This is also the crucial point of the Ferret experiments. The experiments don’t show that the brain is not important for consciousness. What they show is that the brain evolved so as to be directed at stable environmental invariants (which lead to invariant patterns of stimulus). This is the essence of the ecological thesis that Noe defends. Take away the world, and the brain has nothing to “resonate” to, in Gibson’s terms. For this reason, the brain is not sufficient for primary consciousness. Accepting this thesis doesn’t imply that the brain is unimportant to consciousness. On the contrary, it merely seeks to demonstrate the essential purpose of the brain: to be directed towards the world, not create an inner 3D model of it. Here, Noe borrows from Rodney Brooks is accepting that “the world is its own best model.”

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Filed under Philosophy