Monthly Archives: December 2010

Winter 2010 version of The Jaynesian newsletter available

Check it out here!

There is a lot of good stuff in this issue:

  • “Consciousness and Dreams” ~ Marcel Kuijsten
  • Book review: Language Lateralization and Psychosis
  • New research article announcements (including my paper!)
  • Essay: Why Did the Unconscious Appear in History When It Did? A Jaynesian Explanation, Brian J. McVeigh
  • Essay: Voices from the Other Side: Neuroscience, Attachment Theory, and the Creative Self, Carole Brooks Platt

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Filed under Consciousness, Psychology

Tyler Burge begs the question against nonrepresentationalism

There is an interesting article by Tyler Burge in the NY Times philosophy blog called “A Real Science of Mind” that I happen to disgree with vehemently. He basically claims that representationalism is the only game in town when it comes to explaining visual perception. In fact, he doesn’t even hint at the fact that representationalism is but one theory, and one supported by philosophically ambiguous explanations of what it means to actually “represent” something. Indeed, he says:

Explanation in perceptual psychology is a sub-type of task-focused explanation.  What makes it distinctively psychological is that it uses notions like representational accuracy, a specific type of correlation…Why are explanations in terms of representational accuracy needed?  They explain perceptual constanciesVisual perception is getting the environment right — seeing it, representing it accurately…Perceptual psychology explains how perceptual states that represent environmental properties are formed.

Now, it seems to me that Burge has massively begged the question against nonrepresentational explanations of low-level visual perception.

In  making this claim, I put myself in a precarious position. One of the main points of Burge’s article is that vision science is a highly developed and “mathematically rigorous” science. Burge is insistent that vision science is on solid explanatory ground and I have no intention of challenging the mountain of empirical evidence gathered by orthodox representational visual science. No, the question is not about the facts, but rather, about the interpretation of the facts. It is my claim that representationalism is but one way of interpreting the empirical facts gathered by orthodox visual science.

My claim goes as follows: talk about the visual creature “accurately representing” the environment can be replaced, without losing any explanatory power, by talk of “discriminating information” in the environment. Some would say this is merely a matter of semantics, and in a way they would be right. But when it comes to philosophical explanations of visual perception, semantics are of the utmost importance. But why bother with this semantic triviality between “representation” and “discrimination”? Aren’t they the same thing? In a way, yes. But, as William Ramsey has argued in his important book Representation Reconsidered, this theoretical equivalency is actually the result of orthodox visual science moving away from classic forms of representationalism. For when a visual scientist claims that the organism “accurately” represents a feature of the environment in perception, all the explanatory work is being done by the neural workhorse that is the brain. And, naturally, this explanation is ultimately cashed out in physiological terms, against Burge’s claim that visual science is truly representational.

It is my contention that talk of “differentiation” or “discrimination” is just as psychological as talk of “representation”, but discrimination is more ontologically coherent. Take the example of a hungry primate perceiving a juicy red strawberry. Orthodox visual science would say that in successfully perceiving the strawberry the primate must have accurately represented the red strawberry as a red strawberry, (and not, say, as a purple poisonberry). This is the classic representationalist explanation. On my view, it would be more philosophically parsimonious to say that in successfully perceiving the strawberry, the primate discriminated the strawberry from out of the ambient array of energy surrounding the strawberry. Another way of putting it would be that in perceiving the red strawberry the primate attended to the information specific to the features of the strawberry that were relevant to its internal needs, namely, hunger.

On this account, the primate can be said to perceive the red strawberry as nutritious, not as a strawberry. Notice how this is starkly different from the representationalist interpretation. For the representationalist, the primate’s perception of the strawberry is cashed out in terms of how accurately the internal representation is in comparison to the objective features of the strawberry. If the primate represents the strawberry as being red, and the strawberry really is red, then the primate’s perception of the strawberry is said to be “accurate”, and thus successful. It is then said that the brain consults the representation when forming its intentions to act. Orthodox visual theory is thus committed to what some philosophers have called the sense-represent-planact model. The primate receives proximal sense-data, tries to form an accurate representation of distal stimulus, consults the representation to form a plan, and then executes a motor command to pluck the strawberry and bring it into its mouth.

On my interpretation, we can eliminate the “represent” and “plan” stages and replace it with a sensorimotor model. On this account, the task of the brain is to discriminate the meaningful information already in the environment by attending to it. Neurally speaking, the discrimination supervenes upon the neural patterns of activity. So how is this different from the representationalist story? Because unlike Burge, I think the behavioral nature of discriminatory perception is actually a plus, not a downside (and of course, behavioral explanations are a kind of psychological explanation unless we beg the question against behaviorism). So we shouldn’t expect visual neuroscience to engage in representational theorization when the proper explanatory level of description is behavioral, not representational. I have never seen a representational theory that avoided the homunculus problem without merely collapsing into descriptions of the behavior of  neurons.

And for good reason. Although Burge claims that representation is well understood by visual science, he is only half-right. Representation is well understood if by that we mean that we understand the neural underpinning and physiological correlations of the representation. But as William Ramsey has argued, this is precisely the point. Orthodox visual science has never actually successfully explained how a representation actually functions as a representation, as opposed to being a merely physiological mediator in a long chain of neural activity that ultimately leads to effective motor behavior.

So while Burge is perfectly right to say that “neuralbabble” is nonexplanatory on the psychological level, I believe he is mistaken when he claims that representationalism offers a philosophically rigorous interpretative framework that explains the phenomena at hand. Burge recognizes this when he talks about “generic representations” that apply so widely to any causal correlation as to no longer being explanatorily useful in cognitive science. To make representation explanatorily worthwhile, he introduces the notion of “accuracy”. But as I attempted to explain above, there is an alternative interpretation of accuracy available that focuses on the accurate perception of an affordance. But, crucially, the accurate perception of an affordance is entirely different than the accurate representation of an objective feature. This is because the affordance is more directly tied into the motivational circuits and can thus undercut the “represent” and “plan” stages of the sense-represent-plan-act model and jump right into the scientifically respectable arena of “sensation” and “action”. Hence, sensorimotor models of visual perception. The notion of accurately representing objective features of the environment is replaced by the accurate discrimination of information specific to invariant properties of objects which are themselves specific to affordances (opportunities for behavior). Perceiving the strawberry then becomes a matter of attending to those features of the strawberry which either past experience or innate knowledge has taught to be relevant to homeostatic needs.

Hence, we can account for the normative or “psychological” component of perception (its possible success or failure) in terms of how well the organism is capable of detecting information specific to properties that are themselves specific to affordances. And this offers us a path towards a “real science of mind”. Why? Because affordance perception is directly tied into those sensorimotor causal pathways that have been so successfully studied by orthodox visual science. And it does this without invoking a notion of one thing somehow “standing in for” something else.

Now, my representational critics will respond by saying that the discrimination of information specific to affordances is no more understood than is the notion of accurately representing the environment. Point well taken. But it is my contention that orthodox visual science has been talking about discrimination all along. So I really don’t see myself as being a “revolutionary”. I contend that we could go into almost every single visual science article and change “represents” with “discriminates” without losing any explanatory value. In fact, I think this semantical change would actually enhance the explanatory power of visual science precisely because “discrimination” is more ontologically tractable insofar as it doesn’t make a sharp distinction between the “merely mechanical” sensation of a bacterium and the “cognitive” perceptual capacities of “representing creatures”. One could say that my theory offers a “flat ontology” wherein all lifeforms are said to share in the capacity for discrimination of information and reactivity in direct response to that discrimination. Accordingly, my interpretation is immediately amenable with the advances being made in evolutionary biology.

Moreover, and most importantly for my purposes, the rejection of representationalism for an explanation of basic visual perception would leave room for those phenomena that truly deserve a representational explanation: human symbolic cognition. Indeed, in rejecting representationalism for the explanation of basic visual perception I do not reject all representational explanations like Anthony Chemero does. I thus think, following Clark and Toribio, that some phenomena are “representation hungry”, while others aren’t. Following Gibson, I do not think that basic visual perception as shared by most animals on this planet is representation hungry. What I do think absolutely requires a representational explanation is the symbolic and linguistic cognition of humans. For the referential system that is language absolutely requires an explanation of how one thing (a linguistic symbol) could “stand in for” something else. For example, the word “strawberry” cognitively stands in for a real strawberry. Now, I’m not claiming to have a complete theory worked out about symbolic cognition. But I think significant progress in the mind sciences would be made if we all recognized this demarcation between the nonrepresentational, sensorimotor cognition we share with nonhuman animals and the representational, symbolic cognition seemingly unique to humans.


Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

Christmas blogging hiatus

I am currently in Florida visiting my friends and family over Christmas break, so my already slow stream of posts is likely going to shrivel up entirely unless I have a moment of inspiration and the time to get away from everyone to write my thoughts down. Although I’m not reading any philosophy at the moment, I am reading a lot of fiction over the break. I just finished rereading Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune and I am now starting on Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series for the first time. Both authors are masters at the craft of galactic world building. I also picked up Neal Stephenson’s epic novel Anathem, which I am very excited about.

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Chess, Consciousness, and Computers


Philosophy has, believe it or not, dropped off my radar (for now). The school semester is over. Most of my philosophical work is done. I am no longer reading books and articles for hours a day. Why? Because I have chess on the brain! The game has somehow transformed my consciousness. I am actually getting less sleep because I go into a lighter sleep cycle in the early morning and my consciousness turns on and starts automatically thinking about chess tactics and moving pieces.

The game has absolutely intrigued me. It is a game of wit, cunning, logic, and creativity. And it is a game of real sport. There are attacks and defenses, thrusts and parries, traps and tactics, pins and skewers, bluffs and brilliance. The theoretical depth to the game is absolutely stunning. But it is balanced through this really interesting rating system, which is all about relative skill.

Let’s say I have a score of 1000. Theoretically, I should be less likely to beat a player with a score of 1500. However, if I do beat that player, then my score will rise dramatically and their score will drop accordingly. The objectivity of the rating system makes the competitive play very interesting. A grandmaster with a high score would not waste his time playing a beginner, for this would not be a challenge and his score would not go up if he won. And likewise, a beginner will probably want to play someone with a rating closer to his own. Accordingly, the better you get at chess the harder it becomes to win on a regular basis, because you start playing people with higher ratings. In this way, the competitive play in chess is balanced wonderfully so that the level of competition is usually such that you get interesting games.

And if you are a naturally competitive person like me, then the objectivity of the rating system is truly inspirational. The rating system allows for a rare quantification of intellectual skill. This quantification allows for a measure of objectivity in self-evaluation (This is especially true with the advent of computer analysis, as I explain below). As you play more players, and start beating people with higher and higher ratings, you can get an objective sense of where you stand in relation to everyone else. It seems unlikely that I will ever reach the highest levels of competitive play, but I think there is an intrinsic value to the enrichment of one’s intellectual gumption. Even if you don’t become the best in the world, the practice of chess is truly an exercise in the radical augmentation of consciousness.

Indeed, the way your average chess player operates is through sheer consciousness. They have to consciously imagine the various “If, then” conditionals then are associated with each possible move. At every step in the game, the player has to step offline, and reflect on the various possibilities. “If I do that, then they will do this. And if they do that, then I can do this or that. And if I do this, then that might happen, etc.” For causal players, you only need to think one move in advance, but the further into the future you are able to calculate, the higher your level of play and the more likely you are to develop devastating attacks on your opponent. To play chess effectively then requires a highly developed sense of conscious reflection. The ability to explicitly calculate the various futural possibilities is critical for playing chess successfully. However, since even the best players can’t look too far into the future without overloading their working memory with too much information, they must rely on intuition and creativity. The fact that you are unlikely to play the same chess game twice requires a smooth interplay between logical calculation and creative hypothesis testing.

This is especially true of blitz games were you don’t have the luxury of deeply calculating every move. Good blitz players must operate through their intuition. On this level of play, they “feel out” possibilities rather than rationally calculating every move. This fast-paced play requires that the unconscious mind be adequately trained such that slow, deliberate calculation is replaced by speedy intuition. According to Hubert Dreyfus’ model of expertise [1], there are 5 stages to directed skill acquisition:

  1. Novice.  “Most beginners are notoriously slow players, as they attempt to remember all these rules and their priorities.”
  2. Advanced beginner. “With experience, the chess beginner learns to recognize overextended positions and how to avoid them. Similarly, she begins to recognize such situational aspects of positions as a weakened king’s side or a strong pawn structure despite the lack of precise and situation-free definition. The player can then follow maxims such as: Attack a weakened king’s side.”
  3. Competence. “The class A chess player, here classed as competent, may decide after studying a position that her opponent has weakened his king’s defenses so that an  attack against the king is a viable goal. If she chooses to attack, she can ignore features involving weaknesses in her own position created by the attack as well as the loss of pieces not essential to the attack. Pieces defending the enemy king become salient. Successful plans induce euphoria, while mistakes are felt in the pit of the stomach.”
  4. Proficient. “The proficient chess player, who is classed a master, can recognize almost immediately a large repertoire of types of positions. She then deliberates to determine which move will best achieve her goal. She may, for example, know that she should attack, but she must calculate how best to do so.”
  5. Expertise. “The expert chess player, classed as an international master or grandmaster, experiences a compelling sense of the issue and the best move. Excellent chess players can play at the rate of 5 to 10 seconds a move and even faster without any serious degradation in performance. At this speed they must depend almost entirely on intuition and hardly at all on analysis and comparison of alternatives. It has been estimated that a master chess player can distinguish roughly 50,000 types of positions. For much expert performance, the number of classes of discriminable situations, built up on the basis of experience, must be comparably large.”

When Artificial Intelligence was first dreamt up, chess represented one of the highest peaks of intelligence. The mixture of creativity, strategy, boldness, wit, deviousness, and logic were enough to convince many people that if computers could ever beat a human grandmaster, then they would be, without a doubt, truly intelligent. And now we have $10 iphone apps with chess programs smart enough to beat almost any human chess player. But, obviously, iphones are not intelligent in the way a human is intelligent. So what happened? How is it that chess programs became so good without also developing intellectual skills that are domain general rather than radically domain specific? During the 1950s, it was assumed that the exponential growth of chess move possibilities would bog down any computer if it attempted to just brute force the game moves based on an algorithmic analysis of each move as if it were an isolated book program. But this is the only obvious way to program computers to play good chess. So if computers ever did beat humans, it would be pretty amazing.

But with the widespread availability of cheap computing power, we can now have grandmasters in the palm of our hands. This has radically changed the chess world. But not in the way you’d think. The game hasn’t been “solved”, unlike checkers. Thankfully, chess is too complex for computers to determine the winner after a single move. But when you can calculate 200 million possible moves a second, lack of intuition becomes no hindrance to complete domination of humans. Computers are now literal chess gods, always playing the move that has the best possible likelihood of winning.

I find this development in the chess world to be absolutely interesting. With computer analysis now available, the object of human chess skill acquisition is to play like a computer. But since the human mind will never be able to rival 200 million possible moves a second, we must consciously train our unconscious mind to play like computers. The conscious mind is the worst way to mimic computer play. Conscious access to working memory only allows a limited amount of information chunks to be simultaneously weighed. Conscious thinking is slow, linear, and clunky (although certainly capable of stunning feats of intelligence). But the unconscious mind is much faster thanks to parallel processing and a deeper cognitive reservoir with theoretically unlimited memory, which always blows my mind a little when I think about it.

In this sense, there is a little bit of truth in the classic myth that we only use 10% of our brains. There is a lot of wisdom in this statement, but you have to break it down and look past its obvious falsity. When someone says “we only use 10% of our brains”, the “we” they are referring to is the autobiographical consciousness, not the unconscious mind. What they mean to say is that our consciousness only has access to a small fraction of the total cognitive reservoir. There is a good evolutionary reason for this. Consciousness is too slow to react to a bear in the woods or a snake beneath our feet. As the famous deafferentation case of IW demonstrates, if we had to use our slow consciousness to control our bodies, the results would be less than efficient.

There are then many reasons why I have suddenly become drawn to the world of chess. The game appeals to my mind in many ways. I like the idea of reshaping my brain through practice and training. With computer training, chess players are training themselves to think like computers so when the pressure is on, they can not think like computers, and use complex situational awareness (Stages 3-5 of skill acquisition). I have been playing this iphone chess computer all the time. I train myself by trying to guess what the computer is going to do next. If I can’t understand why the computer moved where it did, I will sit there and study the situation until I can come up with a reason. This is because the best chess players don’t memorize patterns and blindly calculate. They have reasons and principles for what they do. And some real John Madden type strategy. Watching chess masters play is amazing.

Well, that’s what has been on my mind lately. I should get back to practicing chess…


[1] Dreyfus, H. L. (2002). Intelligence without representation – Merleau-Ponty’s critique of mental representation The relevance of phenomenology to scientific explanation. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1(4), 367-383.


Filed under Consciousness, Phenomenology, Psychology

Defending Damasio and Jaynes against Block and Gopnik

My readers might have noticed that Antonio Damasio’s new book Self Comes to Mind has been under attack by Ned Block at the New York Times Book Review and by Allison Gopnik over at Slate. Block and Gopnik level the exact same argument against Damasio: he has conflated the minimal self with the reflective self and mistakenly claimed that the minimal self depends on the reflective self. This much is clear when Block says

Damasio argues that a creature without sensory integration and control of thought and action would be unconscious. But even if that is true, it does not show that phenomenal consciousness requires self-awareness, reflection, wakefulness, or awareness of one’s existence or surroundings. This argument conflates the minimal self with the inflated self.

And Gopnik accuses Damasio of making the same conflation:

Damasio suggests that phenomenal awareness depends on the sense of a self. But, actually, there is evidence that the two types of consciousness may even be in tension with one another. For example, Rafael Malach and colleagues have studied what happens when people watch an absorbing Clint Eastwood movie in a brain scanner. In those circumstances, the frontal “self” network actually shuts down while the more purely visual parts of the brain are activated.

But has Damasio really made such a simplistic mistake? I think a closer reading of Self Comes to Mind reveals otherwise. The key notion in Damasio’s theory that both Block and Gopnik overlook is the proto-self and the core-self. The proto-self is Damasio’s attempt to account for phenomenal consciousness, the so-called “raw feels” that philosophers like Block so love to emphasize and accuse neuroscientists of missing. The core-self is what we could call the “habitual self”. Although Damasio isn’t always clear in this respect, when he claims that consciousness depends on a self-process there are two ways to read this. The weaker reading is that consciousness, of any kind, always depends on the presence of a proto-self process. The stronger reading is that self-reflective consciousness depends on the autobiographical, narratological self, which in turn depends on the core-self and the proto-self being intact.  But these two readings aren’t in conflict with each other so long as we recognize that, for Damasio, the “self-process” includes a continuum of both nonreflective and reflective cognition, and not just the latter as Block and Gopnik assume.  For Damasio, the proto-self process and the generation of primordial feels is shared with nonhuman animals but the autobiographical self is evolutionarily recent and restricted to humans.

So has Damasio really missed phenomenal consciousness? Not at all. Damasio’s theory of the proto-self and the more precise core-self and how their interaction generates primordial feels through neural mapping is meant to capture exactly the “what it is like to experience that Block insists Damasio has missed. So, while Gopnik is right to say that “Damasio suggests that phenomenal awareness depends on the sense of a self”, she has unfortunately missed the proto sense of the self that Damasio claims is the foundation upon which the higher forms of self-hood are constructed. As per Damasio’s own theory, it is entirely possible for there to be a proto-self and a core-self without there being an autobiographical self. Gopnik and Block’s insinuation that Damasio has unwittingly conflated minimal self-hood with reflective self-hood and claimed that the former depends on the latter is absurd. I don’t know what book they were reading, but it is obvious that both Block and Gopnik were overly quick in their reading and probably under deadline to come up with a inevitably critical review. If Block and Gopnik had slowed down and carefully digested Damasio’s theory, they wouldn’t have made the mistake of claiming Damasio conflates reflective consciousness with phenomenal consciousness, when he has done no such thing.

Block made the same quick reading of Julian Jaynes back in 1981 when he reviewed The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In my recent paper in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, I respond to Block and defend Jaynes against Block’s criticisms. Oddly enough, Block devoted a whole paragraph to reraising these criticisms of Jaynes in his recent review of Damasio (Perhaps this is because Damasio admits he is sympathetic to Jaynes’ theory of consciousness in his new book). Block pins the same conflation problem on Jaynes:

The philosopher W. V. Quine once told me that he thought Jaynes might be on to something until he asked Jaynes what it was like to perceive before consciousness was invented. According to Quine, Jaynes said it was like nothing at all — exactly what it is like to be a table or a chair. Jaynes was denying that people had experiential phenomenal consciousness based on a claim about inflated self-consciousness.

I feel like this story is highly unfair to Jaynes, who was likely not aware of developments in the philosophy of mind during the 70s, particularly Thomas Nagel’s 1974 paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” When Jaynes says that there was “nothing it is like” to be preconscious, he certainly didn’t mean to say that nonconscious animals are somehow not having subjective experience in the sense of “experiencing” or “being aware” of the world. When Jaynes said there is “nothing it is like” to be preconscious, he means that there is no sense of mental interiority and no sense of autobiographical memory. Ask yourself what it is like to be driving a car and then suddenly wake up and realize that you have been zoned out for the past minute. Was there something it is like to drive on autopilot? This depends on how we define “what it is like”. If we follow Block and standard philosophical definitions, there is a clear sense in which the zoned out driver is still phenomenally conscious yet not meta-conscious. But if we read Jaynes’ charitably, we can see that there is a sense in which there is no “autobiographical what-it-is-like” for the zoned-out driver. There is no subjectivity in the sense of meta-subjectivity, or meta-awareness. I think it is plausible to assume that meta-consciousness bestows a qualitative sense of narratively grounded, autobiographical thinking that is experienced as distinctive kind of abstract, subjective interiority (For moderns, this subjectivity is largely felt to reside behind the eyes and between the ears).  So insofar as the table and chair lack autobiographical consciousness, preconscious people are like tables and chairs. But insofar as table and chairs lack a proto-self and a core-self, as well as homeostasis and biological value, there is a distinct qualitative difference between the life of tables and preconscious animals. On any charitable reading of Jaynes, this difference is accounted for with his concept of “behavioral reactivity”, a capacity quite lacking in tables and chairs.

But Block isn’t interested in charitable readings. He foists his conceptual schema and terminology onto Jaynes and Damasio and critiques them for not making sense of his distinction between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. But if Block moved past mere terminological disputes and understood the deeper theory underlying Jaynes’ and Damasio’s account, he would see that the resources are already there to make sense of the dissociation between “phenomenal experience” and reflective self-awareness.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy