Category Archives: Phenomenology

Quote for the Day – What It’s Like to Be a Lion

If we were to interpret the lives of animals with a human eye, we would conclude that they are in flow most of the time because their perception of what has to be done generally coincides with that they are prepared to do. When a lion feels hungry, it will start grumbling and looking for prey until its hunger is satisfied; afterward it lies down to bask in the sun, dreaming the dreams lions dream. There is no reason to believe that it suffers from unfulfilled ambition, or that it is over-whelmed by pressing responsibilities. Animals’ skills are always matched to concrete demands because their minds, such as they are, only contain information about what is actually present in the environment in relation to their bodily states, as determined by instinct. So a hungry lion only perceives what will help it to find a gazelle, while a sated lion concentrates fully on the warmth of the sun. Its mind does not weigh possibilities unavailable at the moment; it neither imagines pleasant alternatives, nor is it disturbed by fears of failure.

~ Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow (1991), p. 227-228

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Quote of the Day – The Geometry of Vision

There is an increasing feeling among neuroscientists that self-organizing activity in vast populations of visual neurons is a prerequisite of visual perception – that this is how seeing begins. Spontaneous self-organization is not restricted to living systems; one may see it in the formation of snow crystals, in the roilings and eddies of turbulent water, in certain oscillating chemical reactions. Here, too, self-organization can produce geometries and patterns in space and time very similar to what one may see in a migraine aura. In this sense, the geometrical hallucinations of migraine allow us to experience in ourselves not only a universal of neural functioning but a universal of nature itself.

~Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations, p. 132

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Steven Crowell defending phenomenology from the critique of Speculative Realism

From figure/ground interview

Let’s get technical. In one of his books, Guerrilla Metaphysics, Graham Harman, one of the co-founders of the philosophical movement known as Speculative Realism, makes a powerful critique of phenomenology. First, he identifies some inherent contradictions: “The cumulative lesson of this book so far is that phenomenology is caught at the midpoint of two intersections: (1) On the one hand, we deal only with objects, since sheer formless sense data are never encountered; on the other hand, an “objects-only” world could not be tangible or experienceable in any way, since objects always elude us. (2) On the one hand, phenomena are united with our consciousness in a single intentional act, while on the other hand they are clearly separate, since they fascinate us as end points of awareness rather then melting indistinguishably into us.” Second, he accuses phenomenology of remaining a “philosophy of access” and neglecting to recognize what his colleague Levi R. Bryant has called a “Democracy of Objects.” Harman writes: “Of any philosophy we encounter, it can be asked whether it has anything at all to tell us about the impact of inanimate objects upon one another, apart from any human awareness of this fact. If the answer is “yes,” then we have a philosophy of objects. This does not require a model of solid cinder blocks existing in a vacuum without context, but only a standpoint equally capable of treating human and inhuman entities on an equal footing. If the answer is “no,” then we have the philosophy of access, which for all practical purposes is idealism, even if no explicit denial is made of a world outside of human cognition.” What do you make of Harman’s critique of phenomenology and his new brand of realism?

Having not read this book (though a very good grad student in the English department who was taking my phenomenology seminar introduced me to some of its ideas), I don’t think I can comment responsibly on it, but the characterization of phenomenology seems insensitive to the crucial distinction between transcendental-phenomenological idealism and metaphysical or subjective idealism. In simplest terms: I reject the idea that phenomenology does not give us the world as it is. It is indeed a “philosophy of access,” but it is access to the world as it is. And I would also argue that it is a standpoint “equally capable of treating human and inhuman entities on an equal footing,” if by “equal footing” one means: attending to the things themselves, not setting up one entity as the measure of all the others, but letting entities show themselves as they are. However, I find the idea that one could do this without any concern for “access,” in a broad sense, very naive. For instance, it seems plausible to say that physics tells us about “the impact of inanimate objects upon one another, apart from any human awareness of this fact,” but presumably this is not what the author means. There are the standard examples from quantum mechanics about the influence of the observer, and the like. But beyond that, there is the fact that physics is a theory and a set of practices which provide normative conditions that allow for distinctions to be made between genuine interactions and mere “artefacts” of one’s standpoint, etc. Do these theories and practices count as a mode of “awareness”? If so, then physics must still be too idealistic. But I doubt that any scientific or philosophical position is conceivable that does not involve theories and practices that establish such normative conditions, and if that is so, then Speculative Realism will also involve some reference to conditions of our “awareness” of the objects it references. Transcendental phenomenology strives to do justice to this fact, and if that is a kind of “idealism,” it is one I can live with. As Husserl pointed out, the “transcendental subject” is not the “human being” as this is envisioned in the question, and I would argue that the same holds for Heidegger’s position. I am not impressed by positions that try to circumvent this point by appeal to primordial “events” or to a kind of post-humanism that most often merely borrows – very selectively – from biology and the like to answer philosophical questions. One does not need to make a fetish out of method to believe that certain questions need to be approached differently than others; in particular, philosophical questions have a reference to access built into them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As for a “democracy of objects,” where does the “subject” fit in? If it is just another object, then we have lost our grip on the distinction.

I think Crowell presents a very nice reply to the critique Speculative realists usually bring to “philosophies of access”. Do yourself a favor and read the full interview (although I disagree with his critique of information processing, and some of the things he says about naturalism are a little disappointing).

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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

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.


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Heidegger's Insight Into the Dynamics of Consciousness

Heidegger is usually seen as arguing against all forms of “psychical” theorizing and introspectionist psychology, denying that the human mind is fundamentally a matter of self-consciousness, of peering inwards on its own mental states. For centuries, self-consciousness was said to be the foundation upon which we build our mental world. Heidegger clearly had problems with the introspectionist psychologies of his time, most of which were Cartesian in nature. Instead of grounding our mental states in self-consciousness, Heidegger grounded them in moods.

Heidegger calls mood-mentality “Befindlichkeit”, literally translated as “the state in which one may be found”. Macquarrie and Robinson translate Befindlichkeit as “state-of-mind”. For many Heideggerian scholars, this translation leaves a sour taste in their mouths for its “cognitivist” flavor. I’m going to explain later why I think it is a good translation. But first, what does it mean to be in the “state in which one may be found”?  Right away Heidegger is insistent that this “finding of oneself” is not self-reflexive in nature. Rather, “In a state-of-mind Dasein is always brought before itself, and has always found itself, not in the sense of coming across itself by perceiving itself, but in the sense of finding itself in the mood that it has” (SZ 135).

Many scholars take passages like these as definitive evidence that Heidegger was an anti-cognitivist thinker. Hubert Dreyfus is famous for claiming that Heidegger wanted to kill the “myth of the mental”. Dreyfus’s Heidegger downplayed all forms of mentalistic theorizing, including talk about beliefs and desires, rationality, intellectual judgments, etc. For Dreyfus, what does most of the work is “mindless absorbed coping”. Sure, Dreyfus admits that we can “step back” and rationally deliberate once in awhile, but expert behavior is always a matter of “mindlessness”.

However, this “mindless” reading of Heidegger doesn’t make sense of passages like this one:

Factically, Dasein can, should, and must, through knowledge and will, become master of its moods; in certain possible ways of existing, this may signify a priority of volition and cognition. Only we must not be mislead into denying that ontologically mood is a primordial kind of being of Dasein, in which Dasein is disclosed to itself prior to all cognition and volition, and beyond their range of disclosure. (SZ 136)

This is a really interesting passage (in a really interesting section: 29). It isn’t often you hear Heidegger talk about “mastering” yourself through knowledge and will. Heideggerian scholars would normally say the most important thing in this passage is how moods are prior to cognition. They emphasize the part of the section which says “a state-of-mind is very remote from anything like coming across a psychical condition by the kind of apprehending which first turns round and then back” (SZ 136).

But this denial of primordiality is not to negate the higher-order reflective capacities of knowledge and will, volition and cognition. Let us call these capacities for higher-order reflection consciousness.  To say that moods are prior to consciousness is not to negate that consciousness occurs. It is only a matter of getting the phenomenology straight. For the most part, our decisions are not a matter of consciousness, but rather, of being swept up in the attractive-repulsive forces in the world. Moods are what make possible being directed towards something e.g., a goal, a person, an object, an event. Being directed towards the world is a matter of vital significance, of things mattering to us. “Existentially, a state-of-mind implies a disclosive submission to the world, out of which we can encounter something that matters to us” (SZ 137). Recognizing the phenomenological priority of moods, however, does not require the denial that we are conscious creatures capable of stepping back, reflecting, and rationally deliberating about our moods and experiences so as to arrive at a better decision or clearer understanding of the world. Personally, I think Heidegger’s discussion of “mastery” is almost certainly tied up with his conception of “authenticity”, but that is another post.

I’d like to come back to the concept of “encountering something that matters”. They actually have psychological models of decision-making that are based on the concept of “mattering”, although few of them would recognize their Heideggerian roots. A popular model of drug addiction is called the “incentive salience” model. Robinson and Berridge say, for example, that

(1) Potentially addictive drugs share the ability to produce long-lasting changes in brain organization.
(2) The brain systems that are changed include those normally involved in the process of incentive motivation and reward.
(3) The critical neuroadaptations for addiction render these brain reward systems hypersensitive (“sensitized”) to drugs and drug-associated stimuli.
(4) The brain systems that are sensitized do not mediate the pleasurable or euphoric effects of drugs (drug “liking”), but instead they mediate a subcomponent of reward we have termed incentive salience or “wanting”. We posit the psychological process of incentive salience to be specically responsible for instrumental drug-seeking and drug-taking behavior (drug “wanting”).

In other words, the drug addicts “world” is valenced in such a way that drug-related stimuli trigger “wanting” such that the addict engages in the various automatic subroutines of drug-usage. The addict is not wanting to shoot up at one minute, but then he walks into the room and sees a needle on the table. Because he is “hyper sensitized” to drug-stimuli, the sight of the needle easily triggers a neural wave to cross over the threshold which is inhibiting the drug-using behavior. Once the threshold is reached, the inhibition fails and the task of getting high is automatically carried out. “States-of-mind are so far from being reflected upon, that precisely what they do is to assail Dasein in its unreflecting devotion to the ‘world’ with which it is concerned and on which it expends itself” (SZ 136).

So I actually think “state-of-mind” is a good translation of Befindlichkeit. It captures the sense in which a drug-addict is in a “junkie” state-of-mind. His junkie-moods valence the whole world such that everything pushes or pulls him towards the task of getting high. He discloses the world in accordance with his state-of-mind, which isn’t static, but rather, constantly changing and modifying itself. These mood-mentalities are primordial insofar as they are the motivating force behind all most basic kinds of decision-making. Mood-based decision making isn’t a matter of intellectual deliberation. Rather, as John Protevi says,  “Decisions are precisely the brain’s falling into one pattern or another, a falling that is modeling as the settling into a basin of attraction that will constrain neural firing in a pattern.” Indeed, “Dasein has, in the first instance, fallen away from itself as an authentic being its Self, and has fallen into the ‘world’ (SZ 175).


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Preview of Master's Thesis: A Defense of Heidegger's Internal Consistency

I thought people might be interested in where my Master’s Thesis is going. It’s a defense of Heidegger’s metaphysical consistency (against the claims that he was incoherently anthropomorphic or subjectivist). But as far as I am aware, my interpretation is unique in the literature. I have seen nothing like it, although Dreyfus,  Carman, Sheehan, and Wheeler all anticipate me on several points. But I aim to offer something new to the Heidegger community. As I put it in the introduction, “While Carman, Dreyfus, and others implicitly develop the metaphysical resources for establishing an ecological realism within Heidegger’s thought, all commentators on his phenomenological-ontology (to my knowledge) ultimately fail to adequately address the theoretical plausibility of how exactly a phenomenon “shows-itself” in the first place, thus making Heidegger’s account of encountering entities philosophically intelligible as an answer to the classic questions of realism and idealism.”

This excerpt comes from the end of chapter 2, “Being as meaning”.


With being understood as meaning and ontic being distinguished from ontological being, we can now defend Heidegger’s internal consistency. In order to do so, we must reconcile entity realism with being idealism. Entity realism (what Taylor Carman calls “ontic realism”) is simply the common sense notion that the Earth exists regardless of whether agents are around to perceive it. As it were, the Earth does not disappear when we turn our back on it. On the other hand, being idealism is the notion that, in some sense, the being of entities is dependent on or “relative to” perceivers. In order to reconcile these two theses, we must come to terms with the puzzle passages highlighted in chapter one.

Heidegger’s entity realism is evident when he says that “Entities are independently of the experience, cognition, and comprehension through which they are disclosed, discovered, and determined” (SZ 183). In contrast, his being idealism is evident when he says that “only as long as Dasein is (that is, as long as there is the ontic possibility of an understanding of being), ‘is there’ being” (SZ 212). While some scholars have attempted to reconcile these two passages in terms of a sophisticated distinction between different levels of analysis, my approach is much simpler. I contend that the most parsimonious way to reconcile the passages is to realize that for Heidegger, the ontological “being” of entities is synonymous with their meaning in relation to teleological interests. We can thus propose that there are two different senses of being in Heidegger’s ontology, the ontic and the ontological. Ontological being is synonymous with perceiver-dependence whereas ontic being is synonymous with perceiver-independence. This is nothing less than the famous “ontological difference” between being and beings. Accordingly, we can then read the puzzle passages as follows:

Only as long as Dasein is…‘is there’ meaning.

Meaning is that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood.

“There is” meaning – not entities – only insofar as truth is. And truth is only because and as long as Dasein is.

It is my contention that this interpretation of being as meaning absolves the contradiction between entity realism and being idealism. Under this framework, we can say that entities exist independently of us but their being (i.e. their meaning or significance) is dependent on how we take them to be. As Sheehan puts it, “Whereas entities may exist apart from whether or not human beings exist, being as the meaningful givenness of entities never “is” apart from human experience” (Sheehan, philosophy of mind, p. 289).

Take, for example, Mount Rushmore. Clearly, there is a sense in which the cliff face is constituted by perceiver-independence insofar as the material rock from which it is carved existed before perceivers came about and would continue to exist if all life vanished. It is in this sense that we can say Mount Rushmore is ontically real or actual. However, there is sense in which Mount Rushmore exists only insofar as there are humans around to encounter it as a monument. The mountain thus lives a double life when perceivers are around. On the one hand, its reality as a contingent entity is determined by material forces which operate independently of perceivers. On the other hand, its reality as a monument is dependent on those entities who disclose Mount Rushmore as Mount Rushmore. A bird living on the cliff face, for example, will not take the mountain as a monument, but rather, as a place of shelter or sustenance. It is only in this sense that we can say the mountain’s being is relative to the teleological interests of cognitive agents.

Accordingly, the meaning of the puzzle passages is now clear. Entities are independently of disclosure insofar as they exist as natural entities but their being “is” only insofar as there is an understanding of being, that is, only insofar as entities are taken to be meaningful in relation to prior teleological interests. The ontology of being, of meaning, is thus equivalent to the affordance ontology of ecological psychology. The ground will afford support whether any animal is around to walk on it, but the perception of the affordance is relative to the perceiver. In this way, we can say that the perception of affordances (the disclosure of meaning, of being) is both subjective and objective, but neither taken in isolation. Objective, because what the environment affords is related to what it actually is. Subjective, because an organisms history of structural coupling determines the perception of what the environment affords. Accordingly,

The meaning or value of a thing consists of what it affords. Note the implications of this proposed definition. What a thing affords to a particular observer (or species of observer) points to the organism, the subject. The shape and size and composition and rigidity of a thing, however, point to its physical existence, the object. But these determine what it affords the observer. The affordance points both ways. 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. (Gibson, notes on affordances, 407-408)

Moreover, it is important to note that this circumspective or hermeneutic understanding of being is operational prior to any explicit linguistic cognition. In other words, the primordial meaning or significance of entities is determined not by our language or theoretical concepts, but rather, in their immediate intelligibility relative to the teleology of circumspective concern. This point is eloquently expressed in ¶32 of Being and Time:

Any mere prepredicative seeing of the ready-to-hand is, in itself, something which already understands and interprets…that which is understood gets articulated when the entity to be understood is brought close interpretatively by taking as our clue the ‘something as something’; and this articulation lies before our making any thematic assertion about it. (SZ 149, emphasis added)

This point is important. If we do not understand the prelinguistic intelligibility of entities relative to the care-structure of affectivity (Befindlichkeit), we will not understand how linguistic cognition takes up and modulates this more primordial, prereflective understanding of being through the power of labeling and pointing (chapter 4). Heidegger’s point is simply that insofar as we are embodied individuals, our primordial relationship to the natural Earth is always already shaped by our history of structural coupling. It is this ontogenetic history which co-constitutes my encounter with Earthly entities.

For example, every time I enter my room and encounter a chair, I immediately understand that the chair affords the possibility of sitting. This is in fact my immediate and prereflective understanding of the chair. In Heidegger’s terms, my history of using chairs as something to sit on has now created a foreconception that shapes my everyday experience such that my encounter with chairs is proximally grounded by the affordance of sitting. This foreconception or “foresight” is generated by learning the affordances of the environment, an act of perceptual learning. It requires an act of theoretical cognition to “deworld” or “defamiliarize” the chair such that I see it as something besides a tool for use. Indeed, Heidegger says that “In every case interpretation is grounded in something we see in advance – in a foresight” (SZ 150). This foresight is what ecological psychologists have called “prospectivity” (Gibson & Pick, 2000, p. 164). If we carefully reflect upon our everyday experience, we can see the influence of historicity (our “having been”) and foresight upon our immediate encounter with entities. As we go about our business, the world is made significant in relation to our prior interests, expectations, and beliefs. And moreover, what we are interested in is always shaped by our internal structural history and what is currently ready-to-hand in the Umwelt. For this reason, Heidegger is right to emphasize that perception is better understood in terms of a meaningful encounter with the Earth that brings forth an ecological world rather than in terms of constructing representational models of the Earth which are then analyzed according to truth conditions. Accordingly, we can say that, strictly speaking, “the perceiver does not contribute anything to the act of perception, he simply performs the act” (Gibson, reasons for realism, p. 89).

According to my reading then, Heidegger’s ontology is internally coherent insofar as it combines entity realism and being idealism without collapsing into Cartesian subjectivism. Because we can account for how the being (i.e. meaning) of entities is relative to organisms without supposing that the perceiver synthetically contributes anything to what is perceived, I contend that Heideggerian ontology avoids the charge of strong correlationism.


Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

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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Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

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

'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