Monthly Archives: January 2011

Some thoughts on pain, animals, and consciousness

I just started reading Euan Macphail’s book The Evolution of Consciousness and the first chapter raises an interesting question: do animals have consciousness?

First, we need to define consciousness in order to determine whether or not animals besides humans possess it. We could roughly distinguish between two types: feeling-consciousness and metaconsciousness. Metaconsciousness is often referred to as self-consciousness and seems to depend on there being a self-concept in place that allows for such metacognitive functions as knowing that you know, thinking that you think, desiring about your desires, etc. Metaconsciousness seems to be a very rare cognitive skill and could plausibly be restricted to humans only since it seems unlikely that a mouse knows that he knows something, or is aware of his own awareness. Moreover, we must be clear to distinguish metaconsciousness from prereflective bodily self-consciousness, which is the self-consciousness that arises from simply having an embodied perspective on the world and not necessarily from having an explicit self-concept structured by linguistic categories such as self, person, soul, mind, consciousness, etc. Although all animals could be said to have bodily self-consciousness, it is unlikely that nonhuman animals have a self-consciousness of this bodily self-consciousness.

In contrast to metaconsciousness, we can talk about what Macphail calls feeling-consciousness. Obvious examples of feeling-consciousness include the experience of pleasure, suffering, love, motivation, etc. Moreover, feeling-consciousness includes sensory feels such as my the feeling that I am currently looking at my laptop screen, or the feeling of my clothes on my body and the keyboard against my fingertips.

While many people would agree that nonhuman animals do not have metaconsciousness, it seems plainly wrong to deny animals feeling-consciousness. After all, isn’t it quite clear that an animal experiences pain in the same way humans do? This argument is often made through analogous comparisons of behavior. We assume that if a person pricks a human with a needle, and the human rapidly withdraws his hand, he does this because the needle hurts. And since we can prick the paw of an animal and the animal exhibits the same rapid withdraw, then we would be perfectly right in concluding that the animal also withdraws because it feels pain. The same goes with vocalization. If you prick a human with the needle, he might yelp or cry out in pain. And if we prick an animal, it will also make a vocalization in response. We can also measure involuntary responses like heart rate. When a human experiences pain, these involuntary processes occur. And when we prick an animal, we see the same involuntary responses. The obvious conclusion then is that animals feel pain just the same as humans.

But are these behavioral criteria necessary for feeling pain? We wouldn’t, for example, think that vocalization is necessary for the experience of pain, since a human born without vocal cords would surely experience pain just the same. Same goes for the withdrawal response. If you sever the spinal cord of a dog from its brain, the dog will still exhibit a withdrawal response. Same with humans. Humans with a severed spinal cord still exhibit withdrawal reflexes despite not feeling anything so the mere behavior of withdrawing a limb should not necessarily indicate the existence of feeling. After all, if we programmed a robot to rapidly withdraw its arm when exposed to a sharp force, we wouldn’t conclude that it feels anything simply because it shows the appropriate behavioral response. As Macphail puts it, “An actor could reproduce all these symptoms without feeling any pain at all, and that, in essence, is why none of these criteria is entirely convincing.”

Moreover, we could go beyond analogy and argue that of course animals feel pain since pain is highly advantageous from an evolutionary perspective. If an animal didnt have the appropriate mechanisms for feeling pain, then it would have not been nearly as successful as the creature who did experience pain. From this perspective, the function of pain is quite clear: to motivate us to avoid dangerous things.

But Macphail asks us to consider an armchair scenario about the evolution of pain. It is widely supposed that life began from the self-assembly of chemical building  blocks enclosed within a semipermeable membrane. These first organisms were basically complex chemical machines, and most people would agree that we can account for everything in terms of biochemical mechanisms. To explain the behavior of the organisms, we wouldn’t suppose that they have feeling-consciousness since, presumably, such chemical machines wouldn’t feel anything. Now, suppose that as multicellular organisms evolved there arose a cellular specialization wherein cells became nerve cells, sensory cells, and motor cells. The sensory cells function to detect information in the environment, which then act to encourage nerve cells to activate, which then encourage motor cells to activate.

The coordination of these different cells gives rise to to ability to react to dangerous stimuli. If the chemical machine wanders into a toxic area of the ocean, then the sensory cells can detect the significance of this stimuli and relay the information to the nerve cells, which then activate the motor cells which allows for the organism to escape from the dangerous stimulus. As Macphail says, “The point is, that it is easy to envisage the rapid early evolution of links between sensory systems and motor systems that would result in withdrawal from disadvantageous areas and of similar systems for approach to advantageous areas. It is equally easy to see that this scenario has proceeded without any appeal to notions of pain or pleasure.”

The question then is this: where does feeling-consciousness fit into this story? What is the function of feeling pain/pleasure that could not be accounted for in terms of the biochemical mechanisms and their increasing complexity? Why would an early organism need to feel pain when the mechanisms for avoiding dangerous stimuli and approaching advantageous stimuli are sufficient for the task of survival? Feelings don’t seem necessary for the adaptive success of an organism, a point which raises some very interesting philosophical questions.

With all that said, I need to make some qualifications. Although the above considerations lead us to believe that feeling-consciousness is not necessary for the adaptive success of animals, there is another sense of consciousness used by philosophers that does seem applicable to these lower organisms: phenomenal consciousness. Phenomenal consciousness is usually defined in terms of the “what-it-is-like” to exist. Presumably there is “something-it-is-like” to be a bat. This something-it-is-like is often talked about in terms of raw feels, such as the raw feeling that there is something-it-is-like to taste an apple or enjoy the blue sky. On my view, there is also something-it-is-like to be a bacterium, although it is very dull in comparison to the what-it-is-like of more complex organisms. However, I also want to claim that the raw feels which constitute the what-it-is-like of an organsim are not the same as the feeling-consciousness discussed above. Although many philosophers would disagree with me about this, I think that it is precisely the ubiquity of feeling-consciousness in humans that makes us think that the same feelings must be present in other animals. When humans gaze up at the blue sky and enjoy the feeling of pure sensory quality, I want to claim that this experience is unique to humans, for although a nonhuman animal is capable of perceiving or detecting the blue sky, it is probably not capable of feeling that it is perceiving, or feeling that it is detecting. To consciously feel sensory experiences requires that one “feel” how one perceives the world, as opposed to just perceiving the world. I claim that the perception of the world and the feeling that one is perceiving the world are two radically different phenomena, with the latter perhaps depending on the linguistic, self-reflexive cognition of human minds. Philosophers rarely recognize the significance of this distinction, and their philosophy of mind suffers accordingly.

Lastly, I want to briefly discuss the ethical implications of the seemingly radical position that animals don’t have feelings. Some people would think that even if this idea is true, it leads to such horrible ethical consequences that we should never even entertain it as a hypothesis. But I disagree. I think the idea that animals don’t consciously feel anything and the idea of animal rights are not mutually exclusive. One can hold the position that animals don’t feel pain, while still believing that we should be humane in our treatment of animals and that we shouldn’t cause animals any unnecessary discomfort. One could believe that animals don’t feel pain but merely detect dangerous stimuli while still believing that we should work to decrease the amount of dangerous stimuli detected by animals. In this way the idea of an animal ethics is perfectly compatible with the views I am entertaining here.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

The Myth of Double Transduction and some thoughts on Dennett

[The idea of information processing] sometimes leads to serious confusions. The most seductive confusion could be called the Myth of Double Transduction: first, the nervous system transduces light, sound, temperature, and so forth into neural signals (trains of impulses in nerve fibers) and second, in some special central place, it transduces these trains of impulses into some other medium, the medium of consciousness! That’s what Descartes thought, and he suggested that the pineal gland, right in the center of the brain, was the place where this second transduction took place–into the mysterious, nonphysical medium of the mind. Today almost no one working on the mind thinks there is any such nonphysical medium. Strangely enough,  though, the idea of a second transduction into some special physical or material medium, in some yet-to-be-identified place in the brain, continues to beguile unwary theorists. It is as if they saw — or thought they saw — that since peripheral activity in the nervous system was mere sensitivity, there had to be some more central place where the sentience was created. After all, a live eyeball, disconnected from the rest of the brain, cannot see, had no conscious visual experience, so that must happen later, when the mysterious x is added to mere sensitivity to yield sentience.

~Daniel Dennett, Kinds of Minds, p. 72

Dennett’s Kinds of Minds has been on my to-read list for quite some time and I am glad that I am finally getting around to reading it. Although I am still on the fence about the philosophical utility of the so-called “Intentional stance” and the metaphysical agnosticism it seems to lead to, I am very much sympathetic to Dennett’s ideas on minds, especially his view of the difference between animal minds and human minds and his emphasis on the importance of language for transforming sensitive-reactive systems into minds proper. Dennett also seems to perfectly understand the looming threat of Cartesian dualism behind even the most hard-nosed scientific reductionisms. Understanding the Myth of Double Transduction is crucial for understanding why the Neural Correlates of Consciousness is a bankrupt research program that starts from the illicit assumption that phenomenal experience is somehow “produced” or “generated” in the brain like a special material substance.

Coming back to metaphysical agnosticism though, I am troubled by Dennett’s willingness to call anything an intentional system so long as we can appropriately treat it as if it were an intentional system. This “stance view” seems to waver on the real metaphysical question of demarcating “true minds” from pseudominds. Presumably, Dennett holds onto the stance view because he thinks that robots, could, in principle have genuine minds, and anything except a stance-oriented, functionalist position would amount to some kind of biological chauvinism. However, I’m not sure that functionalism necessarily implies a stance-oriented view. It seems to me that we could use a kind of microfunctionalism to make a strong demarcation between real minds and pseudominds (like thermometers), while still preserving a sense of mind that an advanced robot could theoretically possess in the future. Dennett thinks this press for realism and philosophical clarity leads to all kinds of chauvinisms, but I don’t think such a chauvinism is at odds with functionalism provided we are clear about the kinds of functions unique to biological systems, or at least very difficult to achieve artificially (autonomy, self-maintenance, homeostatic regulation, etc.) Instead of saying that an intentional system is merely whatever can be appropriately labeled as if it were a mind (while remaining agnostic about what they really are), we could instead offer a genuine demarcation for a mind, and say that robots or thermometers can either fail or succeed in meeting this pattern and their metaphysical status can be secured (I think thermometers fail to qualify as minds, and at best are pseudocognitive systems). However, we could still account for our propensity to overestimate the extent to which inanimate objects have minds, as well as account for the explanatory utility of taking the “intentional stance” as a late-blooming evolutionary adaptation (or, most likely, an exaptation). In my opinion, Dennett buys too much of Jamesian pragmatism, which seems to waver on metaphysical issues for the sake of achieving a philosophical productivity (“The intentional stance is such a useful way of talking!”). I want to know what minds really are, independently of any stance we might take towards them. But such a realism about minds certainly doesn’t necessitate a dualism, nor does it necessitate an essentialism about minds, biological chauvinism, or abandonment of the functional position.

Just my thoughts.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

Some thoughts on Graham Harman, "Lavalampy materialism", and Deleuzian "undermining"

Recently, Graham Harman and friends have been unfairly criticizing Deleuze for holding positions that he never held. In his recent article in The Speculative Turn, Harman cites Deleuze is as the arch-example of an “underminer” i.e. someone who eradicates or “undermines” objects in favor of some kind of primordial process or undifferentiated goo. The metaphor Harman is working with is that Deleuze goes “underneath” objects and says that they are “nothing more than the derivative actualization of a deeper reality—one that is more diverse than a lump, but also more continuous than specific horses, rocks, armies, and trees.” Accordingly, Harman says that

Undermining occurs if we say that ‘at bottom, all is one’ and that individual objects are derivative of this deeper primal whole. It happens if we say that the process of individuation matters more than the autonomy of fully formed individuals. It also happens when we say that the nature of reality is ‘becoming’ rather than being, with individuals just a transient consolidation of wilder energies that have already moved elsewhere as soon as we focus on specific entities. There is undermining if we appeal to a pre-objective topology deeper than actuality, or if we insist that the object is reducible to a long history that must be reconstructed from masses of archival documents.

This whole idea of undermining is thus leveled at Deleuze with the intention of making fun of his metaphysics of objects, of pointing out his apparently childish emphasis on flows and processes at the expense of stability. Harman and friends seem gratuitously adept at constructing strawmen of their philosophical opponents. Having just taken a grad seminar with John Protevi on A Thousand Plateaus, I can say confidently that Harman and friends are painting a ludicrously simplistic picture of an incredibly nuanced and sophisticated metaphysical position. To completely dismiss Deleuze for being “lavalampy materialism” is completely childish. Lavalamps? Seriously? That’s a pathetically immature way of characterizing a serious philosophical giant such as Deleuze. Harman and friends want you to think that Deleuze is all about flow flow flow. But If there is one thing I took away from Protevi’s class, it’s that this is  a completely wrong reading of Deleuze. Deleuze never reduced all of reality to pure process or flow. Not at all. His ontology is one of flows and breaks.

To think that for Deleuze an object is somehow “unreal” or “derivative” is to completely misunderstand his concept of stratification and destratification. As Deleuze says in “The Geology of Morals”, “Strata are Layers, Belts. They consist of giving form to matters, of imprisoning intensities or locking singularities into systems of resonance and redundancy, or producing upon the body of the earth molecules large and small and organizing them into molar aggregates” (40). And being a concrete thinker, Deleuze immediately gives an empirical example of stratification:

In a geological stratum, for example, the first articulation is the process of “sedimentation,” which deposits units of cyclic sediment according to a statistical order: flysch, with its succession of sandstone and schist. The second articulation is the “folding” that sets up a stable functional structure and effects the passage from sediment to sedimentary rock. (41)

Does that sound like lavalamps and wishy-washy goo? No! While, yes, Deleuze did emphasize flows and intensive processes, he never did this at the expense of stable resonances, stratifications, and actual organizations. Protevi emphasized over and over again that many Continental thinkers make the mistake of thinking Deleuze was all about flow flow flow. This is a shallow and quick reading. Deleuze always emphasized both flows and breaks, never one at the expense of the other. And it would also be a mistake to read Deleuze as saying that stratifications are somehow less real than the underlying intensive processes. Strata are fully real insofar as they have affects on other bodies. And strata have all the autonomy as Harman’s withdrawn objects. And, yes, in some sense Deleuze saw fully autonomous objects as being limit cases rather than full fledged realities. But this is obviously true and not at all incompatible with Harman’s position since even Harman agrees that objects aren’t eternal: they are routinely destroyed and come into and out of being, only being semiautonomous from the rest of reality. A rock, e.g., while seemingly stable to us humans, would look like a fluid flow to the eyes of a creature with a metabolism on the geological timescale.

But, in my opinion, Deleuzian metaphysics is superior to OOO in that it has more explanatory power. What does OOO explain? What phenomena does it make more clear? What data does it synthesize? What predictions does it make? What errors does it correct in previous systems? What grounds does it give for explaining the reality around us? In my opinion, the rich structure of Deleuzian metaphysics has far more explanatory power than OOO.

Take the example of crystallization. First, you have a supersaturated solution. Then you have the process of nucleation and the subsequent crystal growth which actualizes out of the potentiality of the supersaturated solution. We can explain this in terms of Deleuze’s metaphysics.* The supersaturated solution is undifferentiated yet its Virtual field contains the possibility of crystal actualization. When a singularity crosses a threshold, the Virtual possibility of crystallization actualizes and a process of stratification/actualization occurs wherein a line of flight is selected out of the virtual phasespace and novel strata/organizations are formed through immanent processes of organization.

This is a clearcut example of Deleuzian metaphyiscs at work. How would OOO make sense of the process of cystallization? Well, as I see it, it would be forced to say that, on some level, the supersaturated solution is itself a withdrawn object, or composed of withdrawn objects. And somehow the process of nucleation is a matter of a withdrawn solution-object transforming into the withdrawn object that is the newly formed crystal. Do you see the problem here? Because OOO is forced to say that “it is objects all the way down”, it is unable to account for the undifferentiated solution qua undifferentiated solution. This is why you need a process philosophy that includes the ontological register of intensive flow. The most parsimonious and scientifically respectable explanation of the process of crystallization must include the intensive level in addition to the Virtual realm, which accounts for the ready-possibility of the supersaturated field to nucleate. I am unclear on how OOO would explain this example. Saying it’s “objects all the way down” seems decidedly unexplanatory, especially in the context of “things” like solutions.

Harman and friends will likely respond by saying that the supersaturated solution is itself composed on many tiny withdrawn objects, since they put forward an infinite regress. But at some point, you lose the explanatory power of the term object when you apply it to everything. This is why OOO is only partially complete as an ontology. I agree that on some level objects must be considered stable and semiautonomous. But this stability needs to be understood at the proper scale, spatially and temporally. Which is why process philosophies are so helpful, since they can capture both change and stability, flows and breaks, intensive processes and stable object-resonances.

I hope this post has cleared up some misconceptions about Deleuzian metaphysics. Harman and friends would be well-off if they stopped their ridiculous discussion of lavalumps and wishy-washy goo. A careful reading of Deleuze obviates any such misguided reading of flow at the expense of stability. As Deleuze says, “Saying stratified is not the worst that can happen.”

*EDIT: when I say that Deleuzian metaphysics can explain phenomena like crystallization, I do not mean “scientific explanation”. What I mean is that Deleuzian metaphysics can give an account of the conditions for the possibility of the phenomena, which is a metaphysical explanation rather than a scientific explanation. My answer to Morton’s question of “…what does the Deleuzian description add that I can’t simply see with my own eyes, aided by a decent chemistry textbook?…” is as follows: The Deleuzian account is not meant to supercede or replace scientific explanation. It is meant to give science an underlying metaphysics to account for the conditions of possibility for the phenomena it studies that does not invoke higher beings or transcendental forms. It does this not in terms of a Hylomorphic or Spiritualistic metaphysics, but rather, a metaphysics of immanence compatible with naturalistic monism (the idea that there are no supernatural events or processes). Metaphysics, as I understand it then, it meant to give ontological flesh to the scientific models such as dynamic systems models that actually do talk about phasespaces and singularities. What is the ontological register of the phasespace? Does it “really” exist? Deleuze can help answer these questions.


Filed under Philosophy

Some thoughts on the coupling-constitution fallacy and the mark of the cognitive

In Adams & Aizawa’s (A&A) recent paper in Menary’s anthology The Extended Mind (2010), they put put forward a relatively straightforward (and by now, well-rehearsed) objection to the extended mind argument:

[The coupling-constitution fallacy] is the most common mistake that extended mind theorists make. The fallacious pattern is to draw attention to cases, real or imagined, in which some object or process is coupled in some fashion to some cognitive agent. From this, one slides to the conclusion that the object or process constitutes part of the agent’s cognitive apparatus or cognitive processing. If you are coupled to your pocket notebook in the sense of always having it readily available, use it a lot, trust it implicitly, and so forth, then Clark infers that the pocket notebook constitutes a part of your memory store. If you are coupled to a rock in the sense of always having it readily available, use it a lot, trust it implicitly, and so forth, Clark infers that the rock constitutes a part of your memory store. Yet coupling relations are distinct from constitutive relations, and the fact that object or process X is coupled to object or process Y does not entail that X is part of Y . The neurons leading into a neuromuscular junction are coupled to the muscles they innervate, but the neurons are not a part of the muscles they innervate. The release of neurotransmitters at the neuromuscular junction is coupled to the process of muscular contraction, but the process of releasing neurotransmitters at the neuromuscular junction is not part of the process of muscular contraction…

So, if the fact that an object or process X is coupled to a cognitive agent does not entail that X is a part of the cognitive agent’s cognitive apparatus, what does? The nature of X , of course. One needs a theory of what makes a process a cognitive process rather than a noncognitive process. One needs a theory of the “mark of the cognitive.” It won’t do simply to say that a cognitive process is one that is coupled to a cognitive agent, since this only pushes back the question. One still needs a theory of what makes something a cognitive agent. This is another weakness of extended mind theories. Yet, in all fairness to Clark and other extended mind theorists, it must be admitted that one of the shortcomings of contemporary cognitive psychology is that there is no well-established theory of just exactly what constitutes the cognitive.

A&A’s objection is clear enough, but does this spell disaster for Clark and friends? I don’t think so.

First, I think that the recent Extended Mind literature has, for some reason, forgotten about the debates about anti-representationalism in the 90s that focused, I think, on the “mark of the cognitive” in terms of Heideggerian Cognition (embodied doing) versus Classic Cognition (explicit symbol manipulation). In light of these debates, I think Clark has already given a modest sketch of the mark of the cognitive. However, it seems like Clark does not like to self-consciously engage in this particular exercise of concept construction since in most of his responses to A&A he seems skeptical of the very idea of coming up with a “mark of the cognitive”. This puzzles me, because I am of the opinion that Clark has ample philosophical resources at his disposal for coming up with a mark of the cognitive that would adequately deter A&A from making their above objections. I am thinking of one paper in particular: Clark and Toribio’s “Doing without representing?” Here is a nice passage that, I think, can be construed as laying out a sketch of the mark of the cognitive:

On our account, the notion of Representation is thus re-constructed not as a dichotomy but as a continuum. At the non-representational end of that continuum we find cases in which the required responses can be powered by a direct coupling of the system to some straightforwardly physically specifiable parameters available by sampling the ambient environment in some computationally inexpensive way (eg. a toy car with a ‘bump’ sensor). Moving along the continuum we start to find cases in which the system is forced to dilate and compress the input space : to treat as similar cases which (qua bare input patterns) are quite unalike and to treat as different cases which (qua bare input patterns) are pretty similar. At this point, the systems are trafficking in ‘modest representations’. In addition, where such dilation and compression is achieved by the creation of a systematically related body of intermediate representations (as in the connectionist learning of such representations at the hidden unit level (see eg., P.M.Churchland, 1989) we begin to witness the emergence of full-blooded representational ‘systems’, albeit ones which remain quite unlike the classical vision of such systems as loci of moveable symbols capable of literal combination into complex wholes. (It is this classical vision of moveable symbols prone to engage in text-like recombinative antics which corresponds most closely to the vision of explicit representation which is, we claim, the proper target of many of the ‘antirepresentationalist’ arguments). And at the far end of the continuum we find cases in which the system is able to invoke various kinds of intermediate representations even in the absence of ambient environmental stimuli (ie as a result of ‘top-down’ influences.). At this point, we find systems capable of reasoning about the spatiotemporally remote etc.

Here, Clark and Toribio are giving a layercake mental taxonomy that starts with simple sensorimotor cognition, ramps up with moderate representational cognition, and achieves maturity with full-fledged representations that allow for “mental time timetravel”. I am particularly interested in the first layer: the powering of responses. This seems to me compatible with my earlier thoughts about the mark of the cognitive, where I said “I think it is reasonable to first define cognition as a regulatory or coordinating process that serves to select effective neural pathways out of internal variability.”

What do “effective neural pathways” do? First and foremost, they subserve the control of motor responses. Why should we accept this as true? Michael Wheeler asks us to consider “a compelling evolutionarily inspired thought: biological brains are, first and foremost, systems that have been designed for controlling action” (2005, p. 12). A fine example of this principle is the life cycle of the famous sea squirt. During the larval stage of its development, the sea squirt’s cerebral ganglion (the equivalent of its brain) is used to coordinate motor control for the task of finding a suitable resting place on a rock. Once attached to the rock, the sea squirt does not need its brain for controlling action and promptly digests it for sustenance and crucial energy savings. We thus have an answer to the question, “If brains are so costly to develop and maintain, what is their evolutionary usefulness?” The answer is that brains allow for a higher degree of what Wheeler calls online intelligence. “A creature displays online intelligence just when it produces a suite of fluid and flexible real-time adaptive responses to incoming sensory stimuli” (ibid.).

Accordingly, we can interpret the first layer of “powering responses” in terms of online intelligence. I believe this represents an adequate sketch of the mark of the cognitive. Coming back to A&A’s objection to the Extended Mind thesis then, I think we can plausibly argue that some of the typical case examples in the Extended Mind literature can be seen as helping regulate the production of fluid and flexible real-time adaptive responses to sensory stimuli. Otto’s notebook, for example, helps regulate his behavioral responses in a fluid and flexible way. Pen and paper helps the mathematician regulate and control his production of mathematical work. My laptop helps me regulate and control my adaptive behaviors (as a student, I must do research and write papers in order to be adaptive).

A&A’s response to these examples is that they are mere crutches, but do not constitute the cognitive process. But this objection only works if our proposed mark of the cognitive excludes the cases. I am of the opinion that these cases of extended cognition are compatible with our fundamental mark of the cognitive: the powering of responses in a functionally adaptive manner. If anything helps regulate and control the powering of behavioral responses in a reliable and automatic way, then it should be considered part of the cognitive system. The “control” criterion excludes “mere causal couplings” such as our reliance on oxygen in the air around us, since this does not control the cognitive system, but rather, causally supports its existence. I believe this criterion adequately stops worries about “cognitive bloat”. This neobehaviorist-functionalist definition of cognition is compatible with the Heideggerian paradigm of cognition. However, given the 2nd and 3rd layers of the cake that invoke representational prowess, any mature science of mind must also talk about how representations qua representations also help to regulate and control the powering of responses. In modest cases, this might involve topographic representations modulating and regulating sensorimotor connections in semisophisticated perceptual cognition. In more extreme and human-specific cases, this would involve the integration of linguistic-cultural representations into the cognitive system to help modulate and control sociocognitive behaviors. This would be a case of narratological cognition (See Dan Hutto’s Narrative Practice Hypothesis).

It seems to me then that 4EA theorists shouldn’t shy away from trying to define the mark of the cognitive. I think there are significant philosophical resources at hand sufficient for such a conceptual enterprise. My recent paper in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences defending Julian Jaynes could be seen as an attempt to lay out a mark of the cognitive, starting with what I call “the reactive mind” and ending with what I call “Jaynesian consciousness”, which Jaynes defines as ““[T]he development on the basis of linguistic metaphors of an operation of space in which an ‘I’ could narratize out alternative actions to their consequences”.

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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

Started reading Deleuze's Difference and Repetition

After taking a graduate seminar on Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus with John Protevi, I decided I wanted to delve deeper into Deleuzian literature, so I picked up his epic masterpiece Difference and Repetition. The power of thinking displayed in A Thousand Plateaus really blew me away, so I was eager to get into his more classically philosophical works. I’m not sure what I will get out of Difference and Repetition just yet, but I plan on devoting a lot of blog space to thinking through this book. I like Deleuze because of his background in complex systems theory as well as modern mathematics and contemporary scientific theory.  Although he is well-known as a “philosopher’s philosopher”, and is often discussed as being a “continental philosopher”, I think he goes above and beyond the typical work being done under the label continental philosophy. For me, Deleuzian thought is fully compatible with science and should be understood in terms of it. Indeed, Deleuze says in the introduction that “Philosophy cannot be undertaken independently of science or art.”

This resonates with something I heard Pat Churchland say about the role of philosophy in  the modern scientific era. Churchland said that philosophy’s role to science is analogous to theoretical physics role to experimental physics. Theoretical physics “jumps ahead” of the known data and essentially participates in a kind of concept creation for the sake of synthetic understanding. Of course, the best theory takes into account all the data collected from the past, but it not simply an analysis of existing data sets, but rather, an attempt to synthesize previous knowledge while at the same time forging new concepts to make new predictions and correct theoretical deficiencies of the old theory. Philosophy should operate in more or less the same way. Philosophy is not restricted to using the vocabulary of established thought, but is charged with the task of creating new vocabularies to make sense of the world in light of previous knowledge, while not restricting itself to the vocabulary of previous knowledge. But the essence of philosophy is the construction of new concepts. I take this to be compatible with Deleuze’s statement that “philosophy creates and expounds its own concepts only in relation to what it can grasp of scientific functions and artistic constructions.”

As you can see, I am tremendously excited to dive into Difference and Repetition. It should offer me a new set of concepts to understand and explain natural phenomena. I even think it will be useful for my own research in the philosophy of mind. I wrote my research paper for Protevi’s seminar on Deleuzian neurophilosophy and I will probably upload it soon, as I think it was a pretty good explication of Deleuze’s relevance to cognitive science. Protevi has already done an invaluable service to the cog sci community by writing his paper “Adding Deleuze to the mix“, which I highly recommend. I hope to someday also contribute to Deleuzian scholarship, and Protevi even expressed interested in coauthoring a paper someday!


Filed under Philosophy

On the relevance of phenomenology to cognitive science

I just started reading Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi’s textbook The Phenomenological Mind and I thought this was a particularly clear paragraph on the relevance on phenomenology to cognitive science.

Compare two situations. In the first situation we, as scientists who are interested in explaining perception, have no phenomenological description of perceptual experience. How would we begin to develop our explanation? We would have to start somewhere. Perhaps we would startwith a pre-established theory of perception, and begin by testing the various predictions this theory makes. Quite frequently this is the way that science is done. We may ask where this pre-established theory comes from, and find that in part it may be based on certain observations or assumptions about perception. We may question these observations or assumptions, and based on how we think perception actually works, formulate counter-arguments or alternative hypotheses to be tested out. This seems somewhat hit or miss, although science often makesprogress in this way. In the second situation, we have a well-developed phenomenological description of perceptual experience as intentional, spatial, temporal, and phenomenal. We suggest that starting with this description, we already have a good idea of what we need to explain. If we know that perception is always perspectivally incomplete, and yet that we perceive objects as if they have volume, and other sides that we cannot see in the perceptual moment,then we know what we have to explain, and we may have good clues about how to design experiments to get to just this feature of perception. If the phenomenological description is systematic and detailed, then to start with this rich description seems a lot less hit or miss. So phenomenology and science may be aiming for different kinds of accounts, but it seems clear that phenomenology can be relevant and useful for scientific work.

~The Phenomenological Mind, Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi, p. 9-10

This general idea is echoed in Julian Jaynes’ quip that the attempt to find consciousness in the brain will inevitably fail unless you know what you are looking for in the first place.


Filed under Phenomenology, Psychology

Losing interest in Heidegger

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy