Tag Archives: cognition

Quote for the Day – The Overwhelming Automaticity of Being

“Habit is thus a second nature, or rather, as the Duke of Wellington said, it is ‘ten times nature,’–at any rate as regards its importance in adult life; for the acquired habits of our training have by that time inhibited or strangled most of the natural impulsive tendencies which were originally there. Ninety-nine hundredths or, possibly, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night. Our dressing and undressing, our eating and drinking, our greetings and partings, our hat-raisings and giving way for ladies to precede, nay, even most of the forms of our common speech, are things of a type so fixed by repetition as almost to be classed as reflex actions. To each sort of impression we have an automatic, ready-made response. My very words to you now are an example of what I mean; for having already lectured upon habit and printed a chapter about it in a book, and read the latter when in print, I find my tongue inevitably falling into its old phrases and repeating almost literally what I said before.”

~William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals


Filed under Books, Philosophy, Psychology

Are Bacteria Capable of Caring?

At a conference on consciousness I went to recently, I suggested that bacteria are capable of care, but that rocks aren’t. Several people disagreed with me vehemently on this point. They said that it’s an obvious anthropomorphization to say that bacteria care. Their argument was that bacteria are just fully mechanical biochemical systems. To say a bacteria is capable of care is to speak metaphorically or something, but it can’t be literally true.

I don’t know about this. It seems to me true that bacteria are capable of caring but rocks aren’t. And you can’t just say bacteria are biochemical machines, because under the right description, so are humans. And moreover, seen through the lens of physics, humans are really no different from any other physical system, including rocks and bacteria. It’s all just fermions and bosons at the bottom anyway. So the argument that bacteria can’t care because they are mechanical or fully physical doesn’t work because under the right description humans look the same as bacteria and we all agree it’s appropriate to say humans care.

So the difference between the bacteria and the rock is not going to be a matter of being a physical system obeying physical law. Where I think the difference lies is in the way in which the bacteria’s physical matter is organized. It is at the level of organization that we see differences between rocks and bacteria. Bacteria, like all lifeforms, are balanced at the edge of thermodynamic disequilibrium. They are unstable in their organization, always ready to break down, but somehow they keep going (until death at least). Their unstability is characteristically stable, like a whirlpool in a river.

Moreover, there is something unique about the activities of the bacteria compared to other mechanical systems. The activities of the bacteria are continuously involved in producing the physical structures that constitute the bacteria. When the bacteria digests nutrients, it takes that matter and processes it in order to rebuild the membrane which distinguishes it from the environment. So the bacteria is continuously self-producing itself by always taking in nutrients to maintain the construction of the membrane which defines it against the environment. Theorists have called this kind of dynamic organization autopoietic. Whether or not autopoiesis alone is sufficient to define life against nonlife (some think you will need to also add notions of adaptivity), it is uncontroversial that organic lifeforms have a unique kind of organizational structure in virtue of something like autopoiesis.

But why should we think such an organizational structure warrants the claim that bacteria care about things? Well, I admit that such a gloss is taking advantage of metaphors to some extent, and all metaphors are in some sense literally false. But I still think it’s true to say bacteria care about things but rocks and other inorganic entities don’t. Imagine that you take some sugar and you place it in front of a rolling boulder or a moving bacteria. On one level of description, we could talk about the rock encountering the sugar in its pathway in input/output computational terms. The lump of sugar is an input into the system, the rock “computes” its response, and then generates an output, which is a slightly different change in behavior.

Similarly, we could use the same input/output description to talk about the bacteria encountering the lump. The sugar is an input into the system, the bacteria “computes” its response, and the output is a new set of behaviors. But just because we can apply this abstract characterization to both systems, that doesn’t mean that the rock and the bacteria are doing the same thing when they encounter the sugar. The difference, I think, is in the way the two entities “experience” the sugar. I don’t think the rock is really quite experiencing the sugar in the same way because I think the bacteria is on the look out for sugar. It is attuned for sugar, as opposed to other nutrients. It desires sugar. It seeks out sugar. It’s perception is valenced. It lives in a small lifeworld where all that matters is finding nutrients. None of this is true of the rock.  If the rock sees the world through a valence at all, it valences everything equally. It has no preferences. No affectivity. As Heidegger said,

A stone never finds itself but is simply present-at-hand. A very primitive unicellular form of life, on the contrary, will already find itself, where this affectivity can be the greatest and darkest dullness, but for all that it is in its structure of being essentially distinct from merely being present-at-hand like a thing. (History of the Concept of Time, p. 255)

I think this is a very insightful remark from Heidegger. He recognizes that there is something unique about the organizational structure of a bacteria when compared to a rock. When I say a rock “cares” about the world, I am really referencing Heidegger’s technical notion of “affectivity”. I talked about this a lot in my Master’s Thesis. The key idea is about the bacteria “finding itself”. This kind of self-reflexive organizational structure is I think a nontechnical precursor to the concept of autopoiesis. Pretty speculative, but bear with me. The idea is that rocks and stones don’t see the world as ready-to-hand. That is, they don’t see the world in terms of what it affords the possibility of doing. In other words, it is appropriate to think of bacteria as organized with respect to the future. This is a potentially mystifying claim, but it’s not that complex. From the perspective of physics, it’s still all just fermions and bosons obeying the laws of physics. But when dealing with lifeforms, the concept of valence is necessarily tied into the concept of a creature lacking something. The bacteria lacks the nutrients necessary to construct its membrane, so it seeks it out. Lack in organisms is always defined with respect to the future, what some ecological psychogists have called prospectivity. This type of absential, future-oriented organization is what Terrence Deacon has called ententional phenomena in his new book Incomplete Nature. I haven’t finished the book yet, but what I have read so far is quite brilliant.


Filed under Consciousness, Heidegger, Philosophy

Gilbert Ryle and the Proper Referents of Psychological Vocabulary

When we say “Bob sees a cat” or “I see a cat”, what does the term “see” refer to? If you are of a scientific bent, then you might say that verbs like “see” refer to internal physiological events such as patterns of brain activity. Alternatively, if you are of a psychologistic bent, you might think that the term “see” refers to internal mental events of some kind. Gilbert Ryle thinks both of these positions are mistaken.

Ryle uses the example of winning a race to illustrate his point. Imagine a hard-nosed materialistic scientist who was conducting a study of the physiological processes and cognitive functions intrinsic to a runner’s natural makeup. He studies the runner’s muscle tissues, brain fibers, sweat glands, heart function, etc. in painstaking detail. But now he begins to investigate whether or not that runner has won a race. He puts tissues under the microscope and inspects the entirety of the runner’s intrinsic physiological and psychological makeup but he just cannot find out whether or not the runner has won a race or not.

Ryle thinks that the scientist fails in his investigation of whether the runner has won a race because he is looking in the wrong place and the wrong way. The proper thing to do to tell if the runner has won a race is to investigate into whether the runner recently competed against rivals, did not cheat, and crossed a socially-recognized finish line. Likewise, Ryle thinks that, in determining whether or not Bob has seen the cat, one does not need to open up Bob’s body and brain to discover whether or not seeing has occurred. For Ryle, to look for “seeing” as if it were an internal physiological event or process would be like looking for “winning” by opening up the body and brain of a runner. A big motivation for Ryle’s view is the fact that a person ignorant of the physical details of his or her own brain can clearly still determine whether he or she is successfully seeing a cat. So, Ryle thinks, the verb “see” does not refer to inner physiological processes. Thus, Ryle thinks that seeing is not a process at all, but something else.

Ryle contends that because facts about psychological verbs like “see” are not discovered in the same way as facts are about physiological processes, it is a “mistaken assumption that perceiving is a bodily process” (109). There are at least two ways to read this claim: strong and weak. The strong version is that Ryle is making a bold metaphysical claim about how critters actually perceive the world. On this strong reading, internal bodily processes are just not involved in perceiving at all. This reading is untenable because Ryle probably did not mean to overturn any neurophysiological facts of perception. The weak reading is more plausible. It says that Ryle thought that psychological discourse is of an entirely different sort than physiological discourse. On the weak reading, when Ryle says “Perceiving is not a bodily process”, he means to say that talk about perception is not on par with talk about bodily processes.

In my opinion, the philosophical force of the weaker claim is reduced given the fact that psychological discourse is not fixed or stable or even universal. Given the almost certain possibility that human languages will continue to evolve, what is the philosophical significance of saying that right now the folk psychology of English speakers is different from our scientific psychology? Is this a necessary truth or a contingent historical fact? Following a Sellarsian line, if we could coherently imagine a society of techno-elites growing up with portable brain scanners permanently attached to their skulls and the schooling necessary to effortlessly interpret the scanning analyses displayed on their wrist-computers, then we could imagine a society where the way facts are discovered about the psychological world would essentially be no different from the way facts are discovered in the physical world.

Replicating such technology in the here and now isn’t completely fantastical either; it would only be a matter of sophisticated biofeedback making information available in a format accessible by our brains. However, if you were inclined to accept a higher-order theory of consciousness, then in a way we already have biofeedback of our brains insofar as what makes higher-order thought special is our brain’s way of reacting to itself, of perceiving its own perceptions. There is an analogous point to be made about thinking itself insofar as in some scientific circles it is fashionable to talk about conscious thought as overt speech that has been sufficiently internalized.

It seems then that Ryle’s contention that perceptual verbs do not refer to internal physiological processes and cognitive functions could turn out to be both metaphysically and grammatically incorrect given we specify the relative technological sophistication of the society in question. If we lived in a more scientifically literate society, we could easily imagine (à la Richard Rorty’s Myth of the Antipodeans) psychological verbs referring to internal physiological processes (available to view through portable brain scanners). And if this is true, the philosophical force of Ryle’s argument is diminished, for what else is Ryle doing except pointing out the merely sociological fact that right now our language games about psychology are dissimilar from our language games about physiology? If this is only a contingent fact of history, I take it that, following Sellars, the interesting philosophical point is not that we have such language games, but that the language games are not fixed, and in fact indicate an evolutionary trajectory. Just as a child eventually internalizes overt speech into conscious thought, a scientifically literate society could internalize computer generated analyses of brain scanning data.

It would only be a matter of adjusting to new methods of information extraction. If Ryle only wants to point out a sociological fact about current linguistic practice, then that is fine, and might still be philosophically illuminating in some respect. But such sociological commentary does nothing to diminish the metaphysical force of the physiologists who insists that perception is nothing but a bodily process in reaction to internal and external perturbations. And since we could imagine such bold metaphysical claims about perception catching fire and eventually establishing itself throughout the world’s language games, the facts Ryle discovers about psychological discourse are not necessary, but contingent.

In a way then, I have not shown that Ryle is wrong in his analysis of ordinary English use of verbs like “seeing”. Obviously Ryle is right that a peasant farmer is not referring to his or her inner brain states when proclaiming “I see the cows in the field”. But this is a contingent fact of history. If the farmer had been born in a different technological society, it is plausible that the facts might be different. Ryle’s point is that the current criteria for successful perception do not depend on any knowledge of physiology; we can know we or others have seen something without knowing anything about brain states. Acknowledging this, my point is that despite this current fact of how we understand the concept “seeing”, it does nothing to diminish the philosophical force of the materialist who insists that perceiving really is just an internal bodily process. The thing standing in the way of the materialist changing our language games then is not metaphysical truth, but only convention and inconvenience.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

A crude theory of perception: thoughts on affordances, information, and the explanatory role of representations

Perception is the reaction to meaningful information, inside or outside the body. The most basic information is information specific to affordances. An affordance is a part of reality which, in virtue of its objective structure, offers itself as affording the possibility of some reaction (usually fitness-enhancing, but not necessarily so). A reaction can be understood at multiple levels of complexity and mechanism. Sucrose, in virtue of its objective structure, affords the possibility of maintaining metabolic equilibrium to a bacteria cell. Water, in virtue of its objective structure, affords the possibility of stable ground for the water strider. Water, in virtue of its objective structure, does not afford the possibility of a stable ground for a human being unless it is frozen. An affordance then is, as J.J. Gibson said, both subjective and objective at the same time. Objective, because what something affords is directly related to its objective structure; subjective, because what something affords depends on how the organism reacts to it (e.g. human vs. water strider)

The objective structure of a proximal stimulus can only be considered informationally meaningful if that stimulus is structured so as to be specific to an affordance property. If a human is walking on the beach towards the ocean, the ocean will have the affordance property it has regardless of whether the human is there to perceive information specific to it. The “success” or meaningfulness of the human’s perception of the ocean is determined by whether the proximal stimulus contains information specific to that affordance property. A possible affordance property might be “getting you wet”, which is usually not useful, but can be extremely useful if you are suddenly caught on fire. Under normal viewing conditions, the objective structure of the ambient array of light in front of the human contains information specific to the ocean’s affordance properties in virtue of its reflective spectra off the water and through the airspace. But if the beach was shrouded in a very thick fog, the ambient optic array would stimulate the human’s senses, but the stimulus wouldn’t be meaningful because it only conveys useless information about the ocean, even though that information is potentially there for the taking if the fog was cleared. An extreme version of “meaningless stimulus without perception” is the Ganzfeld effect. On these grounds, we can recreate, without appealing to any kind of representational theory, the famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities i.e. the distinction between mere sensory transduction of meaningless stimuli and meaningful perception.

Note too how perception is most basically “looking ahead” to the future since the affordance property specifies the possibility of a future reaction. This can be seen in how higher animals can “scan” the environment for information specific to affordances, but restrain themselves from acting on that information until the moment is right. This requires inhibition of basic action schemas either learned or hardwired genetically as instinctual. In humans, the “range” of futural cognition is uniquely enhanced by our technology of symbols and linguistic metaphor. For instance, a human can look at a flat sheet of colored paper stuck to a refrigerator and meaningfully think about a wedding to attend one year in the future. A scientist can start a project and think about consequences ten years down the road. Humans can use metaphors like “down the road” because we have advanced spatial analogs which allow us to consciously link disparate bits of neural information specific to sensorimotor pathways into a more cohesive, narratological whole so as to assert “top-down” control by a globally distributed executive function sensitive to social-cultural information.

This is the function which enables humans to effortlessly “time travel” by inserting distant events into the present thought stream or simulating future scenarios through conscious imagination. We can study the book in our heads of what we have done and what we will do, rehearse speech acts for a future occasion, think in our heads what we should have said to that one person, and use external symbolic graphs to radically extend our cognitive powers. Reading and writing, for example, has utterly changed the cognitive powers of humans. Math, scientific methodology, and computer theory have also catapulted humans into the next level of technological sophistication. In the last few decades, we have seen how the rise of the personal computer, internet, and cellphone has radically changed how humans cope in this world. We are as Andy Clark said, natural born cyborgs. Born into a social-linguistic milieu rich in tradition and preinstalled with wonderful learning mechanisms that soak up useful information like sponges, newborn humans effortlessly adapt to the affordances of the most simple environmental elements (like the ground) to the most advanced (the affordance of a book, or a website).

So although representations are not necessary at the basic level of behavioral reaction shared by the unicellulars (bacteria reacting to sucrose by devouring it and using it metabolically), the addition of the central nervous system allows for the storage of affordance information into representational maps. A representational map is a distributed pattern of brain activity which allows for the storage of informational patterns which can be utilized independently of the stimulus event which first brought you into contact with that information. For example, when a bird is looking right at a food cache, it does not need its representational memory to be able to get at the food; it simply looks at the cache and then reacts by means of a motor program for getting at the food sparked by a recognition sequence. However, when the cache is not in sight and the bird is hungry, how does the bird get itself to the location of the cache? By means of a re-presentation of the cache’s spatial location which was originally stored in the brain’s memory upon first caching the food. By accessing stored memory-based information about a place even when not actually at that place, the bird is utilizing representations to boost the cognitive prowess of its nonrepresentational affordance-reaction programs. Representations are thus a form of brain-based cognitive enhancement which allow for the reaction to information which is stored within the brain itself, rather than just contained in the external proximal stimulus data. By developing the capacity to react to information stored within itself, the brain gains the capacity to organize reactions into more complicated sequence of steps, delaying and modifying reactions and allowing for the storage of information for later retrieval and the capacity to better predict events farther into the future (like the bird predicting food will be at its cache even though it is miles away).


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

Some thoughts on logic, explanation, and the philosophy of mind.

Since I am starting a PhD program in philosophy at Wash U, I will be required to fulfill some logic requirements over the next few years. I have never taken any course on formal logic, except for a class on critical thinking during my undergrad, but I don’t think that actually counts. Although I am starting to get more interested in pure logic for logic’s sake, I have always been skeptical of the direct relevance of formal logic to my research. My primary research interest is to understand the mind. Some logicians might say that insofar as logic is the study of reasoning, and reasoning is a product of the mind, the study of logic will allow one to better understand the mind. But I’m not so sure about how far this takes us. Logic is the study of reasoning at the most general level. When you study pure logic, you are not actually trying to produce a true idea about the world that might turn out to be wrong. In logic, the goal is not to make a substantive claim about reality, except insofar as logic itself as part of reality. Instead, you are trying to study the form of what a true argument looks like. Frankly, this just doesn’t interest me. I am interested in producing true theories about how the mind actually works which involve making substantive claims that might actually turn out to be wrong. The study of logic doesn’t produce true theories about the mind because that just isn’t what logic does. Does this mean that I am uninterested in using logic to produce truth? Hardly. Just like the jazz musician doesn’t need to know about the physics of acoustics in order to play good music, a philosopher doesn’t need to know formal logic in order to produce logical arguments that lead to truth.

When I say I am interested in producing truth about the mind, what does this mean? What does an “explanation” of the mind look like? For some orthodox philosophers, an “explanation” or “account” of the mind might look like this: every mental state supervenes on the physical world; mental states cannot change unless there is a corresponding change in the physical world. For these orthodox philosophers, this is where their job of explaining the mind ends. This type of explanation is supposed to be an argument for a “materialistic theory” of mind. Of course, these philosophers produce crafty arguments in order to reach the conclusion that the mental supervenes on the physical. And these philosophers are probably also involved in the defense of their thesis statement against various counter-examples and thought experiments such as Mary the color-blind neuroscientist, zombies, etc, In order to defend their “materialistic theory” of the mind, these philosophers would spend a significant amount time defending the supervenience theory against these thought experiments. To successfully respond to the “zombie argument” against materialism would count as “progress” in the expansion of the materialistic theory of mind. Likewise, many orthodox philosophers of mind think they are making progress in the field by coming up with counter-examples and purported knockdown arguments against other philosophical “explanations” of the mind, without ever making a substantive claim about the world that may in fact turn out to be wrong.

But honestly, I am not very impressed by such “materialistic theories”. I even think it might be problematic to call such ideas “theories of mind”. So what does a real materialistic explanation of the mind look like? For one, it’s going to be incredibly complicated and not easily compressed into a neat claim like “the mind supervenes on the physical” given that the brain, the seat of the mind, is the most complicated three pounds of matter in the known universe. To be sure, the mind sciences are in their infancy. This is why I have a love/hate relationship with philosophers. An orthodox philosopher might be content with “explaining” the mind without once referencing the brain. To me this is totally unacceptable. An explanation of the human mind MUST involve some reference to the science of mind, not just the philosophy. Thus, I think philosophy of mind is simply the theoretical branch of psychology, much like theoretical physics and its relationship to experimental physics. Philosophy jumps ahead of the data and produces theories that unify data into a more explanatory framework, which leads to better experimentation, which leads to better theory, and so on.

Now, the orthodox philosophers will probably respond by saying that such a brain-based explanation of the mind is surely limited to the local domain of earth-bound creatures, but that’s not what they are interested in. Surely, they will say, if we met an alien entity who appeared to be intelligent but did not have a brain like ours, we would not say that it lacked a mind. Hence, these orthodox philosophers claim to be interested in explaining the mind at such a level of generality that it applies to ALL minds, including exotic aliens with strange nervous systems. So any explanation of the mind that references the human brain must not be a real explanation of the mind, because it cannot handle different kinds of exotic minds. So when philosophers come up with “theories” of mind like “everything mental supervenes on the physical”, this explanation is supposed to apply to all minds in the universe, and not just humans. Thus, these philosophers think that they have some deeper insight into the mind because their account is so general.

But I think this generality and lack of concreteness is precisely the weakness of such theories. Let’s grant that an alien species would have a radically different way of thinking. Now, if we wanted to theoretically study an alien mind, would what be the best way to do so? By coming up with a priori necessary truths like supervenience? Hardly. I think the best way to learn about possible alien minds would be to study something like xenobiology. Evolutionary theory would still apply to the aliens. So would other scientific theories. I thus think that the best way to learn about “minds in general” is to study science, not a priori philosophizing. If you understand a great deal about how biological organisms evolved on this planet, I think you would have a better chance of understanding what an alien mind might be like than if you were to simply sit in your armchair and try to come up with a priori necessary truths such as “the mental supervenes on the physical”. Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually do think that the mental supervenes on the physical. How could I not being the materialist that I am? It’s just that I don’t think philosophy of mind should stop there and consider its job of explanation finished. And no, responding to endless counter-examples is not “progress”. Progress involves better understanding the biology and social conditioning of the mind, in all its glorious complexity. It involves at least making specific hypotheses locating mental functions to anatomy, and looking closely at the effects of development and the social milieu on mental function .

But isn’t this just going back to phrenology? I don’t think so. Phrenology was an unprincipled investigation into the location of brain function. It is based on a false belief, namely, that brain function can be understood by looking at bumps on the head. But “locating” mental processes to specific neural circuits (or distributions of circuitry, as is more likely) is vastly superior as an explanation of the mind than any kind of orthodox philosophical explanation. For example, my colleague Micah Allen and I have made concrete hypotheses about the default mode network’s involvement in reflective consciousness, and proposed a provisional model of how the DMN interacts with lower processes in the course of everyday human cognition. Our model is based on both phenomenological principles (i.e. that humans have both a prereflective and reflective consciousness) and neurofunctional principles based on recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience. Is our model the end of the story? No. The explanation of the mind is just getting started. The proper way to progress from here would be to continue the interdisciplinary style of explanation wherein philosophy and science work in harmony to produce true statements about the mind that may or may not turn out to be false.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

Speculations on the Neurocomputational Foundations of Consciousness

Take a typical example of conscious thought: imagining a Christmas tree planted on the moon. Take 5 seconds and do it now: imagine in your mind a tree on the moon. This is something you have never experienced, yet it is easy imaginable by your consciousness. What kinds of operations are involved in this conscious thought? Although it sounds strange at first, Julian Jaynes argued that the cognitive basis for this kind of thinking (as well as all the other instantiations of consciousness) is grounded in metaphor and metaphorical processes. Despite the common assumption that metaphor is limited to mere linguistic frills, like icing on the cognitive cake, metaphor is actually a deep principle of human cognition. It governs not just how we speak and write, but how we think and comprehend reality in a very primordial way. As James Geary puts it in his new book I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World,

We think metaphorically. Metaphorical thinking is the way we make sense of the world, and every individual metaphor is a specific instance of this imaginative process at work. Metaphors are therefore not confined to spoken or written language.

This is an essentially Jaynesian thesis. Jaynes thought that “[Consciousness] operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog “I” that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it”. Let’s go back to our example of imagining a Christmas tree planted on the moon. When we execute this conscious operation, it involves several things of importance. First, there is the spatialization of the objects in the scene insofar as the tree is spatially separated from the moon ground, and the individual ornaments are spatially separated from each other, and so on. Moreover, the very fact that you are imagining a spatial arrangement indicates the importance of spatialization for consciousness. The space in our minds (what Jaynes called our “mind-space”) is not as detailed as the space we can perceive by opening our eyes. The conscious space-worlds are mere excerptions, as Jaynes called them. The visual details of the conscious excerption of our inner mind-space pales in comparison to looking at a real Christmas tree . Yet the conscious mind world is there in our minds, with some detail, some specificity. For Jaynes, the real behavioral world of perception and action is a model or source for the construction of conscious imagery and thought. In a sense then, Jaynes thought that all conscious operations are a form of modeling, or analogizing. We take something we know very well (the physical spatial environment) and based on our knowledge of this world, the mind constructs an analogous space which is useful for higher-order cognitive operations such as the famous mental rotation task.

Another component of the conscious operation of imagination is the fact that you are imagining the Christmas tree from a particular perspective. This is the perspective of the “mind’s eye”, what Jaynes called the “Analog ‘I'”. When we imagine anything in our conscious mind-space, it is always done from the perspective of an “I” which is doing the imagining from a particular mental perspective. The “model” or “source” for this analog I is of course our own bodies and the experience of our bodies interacting in a physical environment, which we are familiar with having a certain limited perspective on a space before us.

To explain the mechanisms of consciousness then, we have to develop a theory of how analog spaces are constructed in the brain along with analog bodies to perceive these analog spaces. We would also have to develop a theory of how these analogical processes generate phenomenal associations which Jaynes called “paraphrands”, and which we know of as “conscious feelings”. The mind-space world of the moon and Christmas tree is a paraphrand of the analogical construction of mind-space and the analog I. Explaining consciousness in this way would seem to involve a theory of how the brain uses metaphor at the neurocomputational level. Since metaphor is based on the recycling of basic perceptuo-motor schemas of familiar stimuli burnt into the neural circuitry for the purpose of comprehending unfamiliar stimuli to generate adaptive behavior, it seems like we could use the neuronal cycling hypothesis of Stanislas Dehaene to explain how metaphor works, and thus, how consciousness constructs “analogs” of everything it has experienced. This might be related to the fundamentally “echo-y” or “loopy” nature of cognition that Hofstadter has emphasized (and it is telling that Hofstadter himself has claimed that analogy is the “core” of cognition). This would point to the “networkological” or “intrinsic” nature of brain activity, which only gets modified by exposure to the world rather than completely specified by it. The neurocomputational explanation of consciousness would then look like a neurocomputational explanation of how analogical thinking in the brain works, particularly the analogizing of things/events spatially, especially our experience of time and of our own autobiographical self. Part and parcel of this analogizing cognition is based on linguistic skills, but the underlying cognitive cross-modal mapping is probably prelinguistic in nature. By spatializing time, we can develop a narratively grounded,  “story like” understanding of the world which allows us to consciously assign causes and reasons to things, leading to theory of mind and the development of propositional attitudinal thinking (ascribing beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. to either yourself, others, or inanimate objects). This ability is of course dependent on the linguistic-analogical capacities of human articulatory cognition. The functions of consciousness to explain are excerption, narratization, spatialization, and conciliation (which is the putting of things into unified object in your conscious mind space, such as the unified mental image of a Christmas tree planted on the moon).

Jaynes says consciousness is a “metaphor-generated model”. In order to learn more about consciousness then, I need to learn more about metaphor, and how metaphor works neurocomputationally. It seems like the “mapping” of metaphor, of abstract (unknown) onto concrete (known), is the core process which allows for the “constructing” capacity of modern conscious thought (the ability to effectively close your eyes and consciously construct whole mental vistas). Could Andy Clark’s “epistemic actions” = Jaynes’ “metaphored actions”?

To speculate on the neurocomputational origins of analogical thinking, could there be a link between “convergence” or “association” areas in higher-cortical processing and the computational processing of metaphorical comprehension, which is essentially saying “X = Y”? This “crosstalk” of domain specific modalities is crucial to the complex intelligence of human typical cognition, and now we might see a way to link such informational convergence to the very process of consciousness itself.  This would fit with the original meaning of metaphor as “to carry across”. Metaphorical thinking “carries across” the domain specific schemas and integrates or “associates” (conciliates?) that information into another domain, allowing for novel comprehension of novel stimuli, which would have adaptive success and provide a scaffolding for the evolution of conscious operations in a unconscious world.

My thoughts on this subject are kind of scattered. I am unsure of where metaphor as cross-computational convergence and metaphor as linguistic mapping come apart. Perhaps the nonlinguistic “core analogy” processing was the neural scaffold for verbal analogy to take hold and become useful. The brain was already making cross-modal convergence in a limited sense. Maybe language hijacked these processes and “recycled” the crossing-circuits for a new purpose: linguistic mapping and associating based on communal norms of symbolic information exchange.

p.s. An interesting game is to try and find all the metaphors I naturally used in this post (e.g. thoughts = scattered objects).


Filed under Consciousness, Psychology

Heidegger on the Essence of Humanity

In his essay  “The Way to Language” (Basic Writings 2008), Heidegger opens by saying,

Man would not be man if it were denied him to speak — ceaselessly, ubiquitously, with respect to all things, in manifold variations, yet for the most part tacitly — by way of an “It is.” Inasmuch as language grants this very thing, the essence of man consists in language. (397-8)

There is a lot to unpack in these two sentences. One could make the claim that his entire philosophical system is here condensed into a magnificently concise formula.

To begin, let us dig out the concept of an understanding of being, that is, an understanding and use of  “It is” grammar. That is a scarf. You are beautiful. I am self-conscious. Through linguistic scaffolding we tacitly understand what it means for an object to be, and moreover, we tacitly understand what it means to interpret the world in terms of entities, things, objects, etc. Furthermore, as Heidegger points out, metaphors and figurative thought structure or “carve up” the experienceable world in terms of such entities, things, objects, etc. We reify object-hood into almost everything. Time is spatialized, seen and understood in terms of geometry and motion; “Time flies“, “Time is crawling to a halt” (Here we might see, following Heidegger who was following Husserl, where Derrida gets his conception of “spacing” and “becoming-space” of time and the “become-time” of space. Bergson made the same basic point about time as well, but in a more eloquent fashion).

Moreover, abstract ideas and psychological states are understood in terms of object metaphors and everyday embodied coping, with Love being a Journey, Time being Money, Knowing being Seeing (“I see what you mean”), etc. For a more extensive and thoroughly researched expose of such embodied metaphors, see the great work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, from whom I typically borrow superb linguistic examples.

The point being (no pun intended) is that our understanding of being — our interpretation of things and objects as things and objects, our explicit, linguistically structured object recognition, our use and understanding of “Is” grammar, our ability to point out objects and abstract mental states to other persons through language and symbolism — constitutes the phenomenological particularity of human existence. This cognitive trick seems to be uniquely human in its “ceaseless ubiquity”.Heidegger thus calls the essence of human language use and understanding its “rift-design”, with rift meaning “to notch” or “to carve”. The familiar expression is that language allows us to carve nature at its joints, to, in a sense, turn Nature’s squiggles into well-ordered Cartesian geometry. And as Heidegger says, “The rift-design is the totality of traits in the kind of drawing that permeates what is opened up and set free in language” (408).

We now have a concept of our understanding of being, of the “open freedom” of linguistic cognition, and accordingly, we can see that “In manifold ways, by unveiling or veiling, showing brings something to appear, lets what appear be apprehended, and enables what is apprehended to be thoroughly discussed (so that we can act on it)” (401).

Thus, we have our conception of Dasein, the linguistic animal, for whom “Language is the house of Being because, as the saying, it is priopriation’s mode”. Here, we have what is perhaps the best clue for understanding Ereignis and its relation to Being and Time‘s more simple vocabulary of “being” and “the understanding of being”, which rendered our experience of the world explicit, as opposed to the tacit or “absorbed” coping of typical mammalian behavior. Dasein’s full existential structure is constituted by the “as-structure” or “well-joined structure” of the rift-design i.e. the linguistic “carving” of the experienceable world in terms of complex webs of background knowledge concerning objects, ideas, people, events, etc. and how they interrelate.

As a side note, it is this feature of Heideggerian thought which led me to become dissatisfied with Hubert Dreyfus’ insistence that Dasein’s nonrepresentational and “non-mental” absorbed coping is the total story insofar as Dasein is average. On the contrary, as the rift-structure indicates, and as John McDowell attempts to demonstrate in Mind and World and in his recent exchange with Dreyfus in Inquiry, human experience is thoroughly “conceptualized” in terms of linguistic “object carving”. This is the nature of propriation, of letting things be shown as things, of opening up a space of linguistic freedom wherein interpretational perception “lets beings be seen (as beings)”. The close etymological relationship of Ereignis — propriation — to “owning” can thus be made sense of in terms of the reifiction of objecthood, of unity and “well-joined structure”, onto the world, thus allowing the world to self-subsist in terms of “objectivity”. Thus, Heidegger says that

If by “law” we mean the gathering of what lets everything come to presence on its own and cohere with all that belongs to it, the propriation is the most candid and most gentle of laws…[and moreover] Propriation is the law, inasmuch as it gathers mortals in such a way that they own up to their own essence. (416).

In moving from the early Being and Time notion of “understanding of being”, later Heidegger, borrowing from Hölderlin, was simply trying to be more poetic when he shifted vocabulary from his earlier “paths”. But the basic structure of Dasein’s intentional uncovering of objecthood, its being-directed-towards worlds of referential significance, its direct behavioral resonance to the external environmental niches, both constructed and natural, remains the same throughout Heidegger’s career. Thus, “Inasmuch as language grants this very thing, the essence of man consists in language.”

And, finally, as Alan Watts so nicely puts it, “There is too little recognition of the vast difference between the world as described and the world as sensed, too little recognition that what we describe in the physical universe as separate things are of the same order as areas, views, aspects, selections, and features — not data but capta, grasped rather than given.”


Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy, Psychology