Tag Archives: hallucinations

Is Visual Perception Really a Nonstop Hallucination? A Plea for Conceptual Revision

Anyone who has taken Philosophy of Mind 101 will be familiar with the following claim: “We’re hallucinating reality all the time”. In this post, I will critically examine whether this statement should be taken as literally true. My intuition is that such claims are over-extended metaphors, and the true nature of visual perception is more complicated.

The popularity of the Matrix has provided a common conceptual framework to make sense of what philosophers and vision scientists have been claiming for many years e.g. Helmholtz’s claim that perception is a “unconscious inference”. The original philosophical motivation can be traced to Descartes’ musings about whether we could ever distinguish reality from a dream. Nowadays, vision scientists frame these ideas in terms of vision being “representational”.

But is it true? The argument is prima facie convincing. Start with the phenomenon of visual illusions or visual hallucinations. For example, in Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS) people have “complex” visual hallucinations wherein people and objects are hallucinated wholesale in dazzling detail. These fascinating cases clearly  demonstrate the brain is able to “represent” or “generate” non-existent objects in full phenomenological detail. But here’s the crucial move: if the brain can generate complex visual hallucinations, is it possible that ALL perception is a complex visual hallucination?

But as with all questions of possibility, we should be skeptical of any argument that jumps from possibility to actuality. Sure, it seems possible that ALL perception is a hallucination, but are we forced to make this conclusion on the basis of knowing that complex visual hallucinations are possible? Not at all!

I’d like to suggest a different metaphor for understanding the relation between hallucinations and normal perception that preserves their essential difference rather than collapsing them into a single, continuous category. Instead of thinking the existence of hallucinations forces us to think we are in the Matrix, I think it’s more useful to think of hallucinations as akin to augmented reality.


The idea is fairly straightforward: hallucinations such as CBS are analogous to the augmented “over-lay” in the above picture. The basic idea is that there is a more-or-less continuous stream of “veridical” perception underlying our basic animal perception and that complex hallucinations such as CBS are “projected upon” that stream just as an augmented reality HUB projects upon normal perception.

I think the AR metaphor for perception is more plausible than the wholesale Matrix hypothesis. My reasoning is grounded by an evolutionary thought experiment. Suppose for the sake of argument that the Matrix metaphor is correct and that ALL perception is a hallucination. Presumably, the brain is responsible for generating these representations. A further assumption is that more-or-less all mammalian brains have a similar hallucination generation capacity. But how did such a capacity evolve over time? Take the earliest mammalian ancestor who lived “fully” in the Matrix of their brain. How did their parent’s brain work? Was their perception only 99% a hallucination? And their ancestors’ perception 98% hallucinatory? And so on.

As we imagine the slow evolution of Matrix-style perception, we are faced with a Sorites paradox of sorts. As nervous systems get simpler and simpler it becomes implausible that nervous systems composed of only several hundred neurons are generating a completely hallucinatory inner-model. The neurons are more likely acting as a kind of complex “mediation” between stimulus and response rather than a representational medium.

But if we start going forward in evolutionary time and nervous systems get more and more complicated, it seems wrong to me to think that the brain ever “gets rid of” that underlying non-representational form of perception. Rather, the brain “adds” onto that basic veridical perception. But at no point will the nervous system switch from 50/50 veridical-hallucinatory to 100% hallucinatory such that we become fully immersed in the Matrix. Like augmented reality, the most evolutionary recent brain developments like the neocortex “overlay” more basic forms of perception.We might think of hallucinations like CBS as neocortical memory-patterns that are projected upon the real-time dynamic stream of veridical perception.

Obviously this post represents a very rough-and-ready formulation of an alternative to the standard Matrix metaphor and will need much further development. But on the other hand, I am skeptical that the Matrix metaphor has ever been rigorously developed past the level of intuitive metaphor. It’s even possible that we can never move beyond metaphor in dealing with the most unknown and esoteric psychological phenomena. And if this is the case, we have a real imperative to reexamine popular metaphors such as the Matrix and replace them with new ones.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

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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The Myth of the Jaynesians

The Jaynesians are a mythical race of human like creatures who lack all capacity for reflection. Never has a Jaynesian stopped to reflect on his or her experience. But they are definitely smart. Their adaptive unconscious makes all the important decisions for them: when to get up, when and what to eat, how to work, whom to sleep with, who to fight, who to fear, and so on. The Jaynesians are verbal, but their talk does not have mental concepts like “mind”, “reflection”, “consciousness”, or “self-knowledge”. They simply exchange information through speaking, but do so with vocalizations that are abstracted from their original sensory presentation. A farmer who needs a new hammer made by the blacksmith emits a series of vocalizations upon seeing the blacksmith and coming within hearing range, and the blacksmith responds to this vocalization with his own vocalization, until both are pleased. Each vocalization allows for the exchange of meaningful information. But when the farmer asked for a hammer, he did not say “I need a hammer for my project”. Instead it was more like “yo! give hammer receive food” or “receive food give hammer” or simply “hammer (points to shop then to himself)…food (points to food, then to the blacksmith)”. All communication was done without mentalistic metaphors. There is no concept for “mind” or “inner consciousness”, no distinction between things “inside” or “outside” the mind. The Jaynesians mainly ordered each other around based on social rankings but also exchanged info about the weather, about food, about sex, about social events, about the gods, about harvest, about life lessons. These exchanges are products of the adaptive unconscious. There is no conscious intent in their speakings, no mental deliberation and rehearsal of what to say, no contemplation on past conversations. The utterances and head nodding involved in day-to-day small talk better illustrates the kind of communication done with the Jaynesians than the type of nervous over-thinking of a typical first-date. It is reactive, not deliberate. The “islands” of speech stand in for different things, but are stored in the unconscious recesses of the mind and strung together into vocalizations without reflective oversight.

If you doubt the plausibility of symbolic communication without reflective oversight, consider the 19th century cases of automatic writing studied by people like William James and various psychical societies. In automatic writing, very intelligent and meaningful writing is produced entirely by the adaptive unconscious, with the conscious self having no clue what their hand is about to write. They have no reflective access to the decision making of the writing; it simply spills out of their hand fluidly, but demonstrates powerful cognitive skills, often of a creative and poetic nature. Many a poet has utilized this unconscious well as their Muse. Words come into their minds and they simply write them down. To imagine the Jaynesian race is to imagine a society of creatures who are always using the unconscious to speak, without any reflective oversight. The words simply come out in appropriate situations, guided by all the knowledge they have gained since birth about when it is appropriate to use what vocalizations.

Without any capacity for reflection, the mental lives of the Jaynesians are best described as “externally oriented” rather than “internally contemplative”. They are doers. Persons of action. Their adaptive unconscious guides them with great care, making decisions for them in such a way as to facilitate the development of civilization. They worship gods and their worship takes the form of ritual, trance states, and hallucination. In the same way that the unconscious brought speech to their mouths, it brings speech to their ears, automatically generating hallucinations of ancestors, gods, demons, and angels talking to them. This is another way for the adaptive unconscious to exercise control over the individual Jaynesians. A voice that is experienced as your dead father is very effective at getting you to do something, especially if you don’t have to ability to rationally reflect and realize that you are hearing a hallucination. You simply hear the voice and believe it is as real as the ground you are standing on. After all, because the voice is a product of the unconscious mind, it demonstrates great wisdom and knowledge, impressing the Jaynesians with its near omniscience, convincing them these gods they hear talking to them are in fact what they say they are: the all powerful rulers of the cosmos who must be obeyed at all costs or ELSE. This is kind of like Achilles obeying Athena:

He was mulling it over, inching the great sword
From its sheath, when out of the blue
Athena came, sent by the white-armed Goddess
Hera, who loved and watched over both men.
She stood behind Achilles and grabbed his sandy hair,
Visible only to him: not another soul saw her.
Awestruck, Achilles turned around, recognizing
Pallas Athena at once – it was her eyes-…
[Athena gives her command]
…Achilles, the great runner, responded:
When you two speak, Goddess, a man has to listen
No matter how angry. It’s better that way.
Obey the gods and they hear you when you pray.”

Achilles represents a more advanced state of consciousness than even the Jaynesians, for the Jaynesians would have never been able to respond to the hallucinations with a dialogue. They would have simply obeyed immediately without hesitation. This was for the best, as strict obedience to the imagined gods held the society together. It was the temples that held the great icons of the gods which were the most powerful inducers of hallucinated command, with the Jaynesian’s own brain tricking them into obeying it by projecting voices into the statues of the gods. We can infer the ancient hallucinatory function of idols from the statues of the god Abu at Tell Asmar:


Notice the size of the eyes. For many mammals, the “eye staredown” is a way to assert dominance. Whoever lowers their eyes first submits to the mammal with the more powerful stare. Staring is thus is a signal for dominance and control, a signal to obey. Now imagine a Jaynesian as fasting for a week to prepare for the religious spiritual quest he is about to embark on. As he ingests a powerful substance he walks into the temple chamber and falls under the glance of the imposing statue of the god. He looks into the statue’s eyes and a hallucination is easily induced since the ritualistic preparation greatly lowered the threshold for the induction of hallucinations. The Jaynesian experiences the god as literally talking to him, giving him orders and commands. Some of the most common commands were probably orders to bring burial goods. As the wikipedia article on ancient Egyptian burial customs says “From the earliest periods of Egyptian history, all Egyptians were buried with at least some burial goods that they thought were necessary after death. At a minimum, these usually consisted of everyday objects such as bowls, combs, and other trinkets, along with food.” Why was this? I think it was because the god’s orders took the neural form of a human projection experienced as a hallucination, which is unconsciously understood to need food and drink and other goods. This makes sense because the first gods were just powerful dead ancestors, eventually ending up with human god-Kings. When the god-King died, the hallucinations were “copies” in the brain of the personality matrix of the King. As a mortal, the King needed food and drink and pleasures, so it is no surprise that the hallucinated form of the King after his death commanded his followers to bring him food and drink and other daily goods, and these were brought in great loads, introducing the concept of the alter and sacrifice to our ancient ancestors.

One of the more curious features of the Jaynesians’ experience is their visual experience. Without the capacity for reflection, the Jaynesians are unable to step back and ask themselves what they just saw, or what they are currently seeing. This experience is almost impossible to imagine for modern conscious humans. It is hard to reflectively imagine what it is like to not be able to ask yourself what you are currently seeing, because right now as you are reading this your brain is asking itself what it is seeing. This reflection of the brain onto its own incoming visual data stream is what generates “sensations”, which are feelings of seeing. Most animals do not need to feel what they see as this is extraneous information, and unnecessary for the adaptive unconscious to make motor decisions. However, conscious humans do ask ourselves what we see. Our brain is constantly doing this. Modern human adult brains perceive their own perception, and are also capable of perceiving their perception of their perception, or possibly perceiving the perception of perceiving their perception. This ability to mentally travel around your own head, consciously perceiving old memories, current data, or future simulations, is essential to the mental toolkit of the modern conscious human. In his recent book The Recursive Mind, Michael Corballis argues that it is the ability of deeply recursive thought and mental time travel that separates humans from nonhuman animals. He argues that the gestural grammars of referring to noncurrent times and places necessitated the development of recursive thinking, and this in turn allowed for the development of mental time travel (inserting past or future experience into present experience, or injecting near-present experience into present experience, generating feelings of sensation). I think Corballis makes a compelling case.

So the Jayensians are a race of creatures without such recursive embedding of perceptions into perceptions. Their visual consciousness is radically difficult from ours, and is almost impossible to imagine. I think this inability to consciously imagine what it’s like to not be able to have such recursive qualia is what leads many philosophers of mind astray. They experience their own experience and think that the qualia associated with experiencing experience are essential to all experiences, when really it is of course essential only to the experience of experience, and not just experience itself. Because they are unfamiliar with the unique phenomenological characteristics of experiencing experience, many philosophers are left to wonder about how “special”, “ineffable”, or “immaterial” their experiences are. They delight at the pure perception of a red patch, or of the juice of a strawberry, or the painfulness of pain. They mistakenly think that painfulness of pain is intrinsic to all pain experiences when in fact it is intrinsic only to experiences of pain, which is higher-order.

There are a lot of important philosophical lessons that can be had from contemplating the possibility of the Jaynesian race. I have self-consciously styled this post after the thought experiment of Wilfred Sellars about the mythical race of the Ryleans. I think the two cases are similar, but mine is actually historically plausible and fits in with what we know of ancient neolithic experience (c.f. Inside the Neolithic Mind ). The case of the Jaynesians also illustrates the differences between myself and higher-order theorists like David Rosenthal. Rosenthal, from what I understand, wants to deny that it is reflection which generates the specialness of qualia. He claims it is a higher-order thought, which can be prereflective. So Rosenthal thinks we don’t need to be deliberately introspecting to have conscious qualia. Whereas I agree that we don’t need to deliberate in order to have visual qualia based on experience of experience (i.e. higher-order thought), I do think that, evolutionarily speaking, it is the development for the capacity of reflection that eventually leads to the automatic and prereflective higher-order thoughts which generate conscious “what it is like ness”. So we agree that you don’t need to reflectively deliberate to presently have conscious qualia, but we disagree because I think it is the phylogenetic and ontogenetic development of reflection which enables the prereflective higher-order thoughts to get started in the first place. I’m still not sure how major of a disagreement this actually is between us. I think we could actually be quite theoretically close, but only differ in terms of evolutionary implementation details.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

Authority as decision-making and control

You are a social animal and you find some food as you are foraging. As you are about to put the well-deserved food in your mouth, a powerful conspecific comes up to you and lets it be known that the food you found is actually HIS food, not yours, and if you don’t hand it over, then you are in for a pummeling. What do you do? This situation can be called a critical junction for your brain’s decision making. Do you face the bully or submit? Your brain is now in the process of making an important decision. How can we understand in the abstract how your brain comes to its decision? I propose that we can understand the concept of clutch decision making in terms of authority. In the case of the bully, a decision must be authorized by the brain on what to do. Suppose that the conspecific is of a much higher social rank. It is likely that the lower animal’s brain will authorize the decision to submit. On what information is your brain making this authorization? On the information streaming from both current perception of size and power and past memory that this conspecific is powerful and that you are unable to physically best him based on previous experience. The best decision to make is to submit and hand over the food. The decision is authorized on the basis of survival instincts, but the essential information that regulated the authorization comes from the social environment, namely, the presence of the conspecific in your sensory field.

I propose that authority in social hierarchies can be understood in terms of the authorizations for control of individual brain systems. The dominant male acted as a “control” or “regulator” for the lower animal’s behavior. If not in the dominant’s presence, eating behavior is authorized; if in the dominant’s presence, then submission behavior is authorized. Now take something a little more complex: human society. Imagine you are a early Neolithic human and you and your family have just harvested some food for the season. Now you have a decision to make about what to do with the food. How is the final decision of distribution authorized? Neolithic humans were incredibly religious. They thought it was necessary to offer some of their food to the gods in order to appease them and thank them for the bounty. On the basis of this social information, your brain authorizes a distribution of goods to the alter of the gods, despite the fact that evolutionary fitness is likely sacrificed in the wanton waste of food, goods, and even human lives in the case of human sacrifice (think Abraham and Isaac). When I said that these Neolithics “thought” that they should offer food to the gods, what form does this thinking take? Following Jaynes, I propose that the thought was not of the modern, conscious inner monologue kind that is familiar to most human adults today, but rather, took the form of bicameral control, which is a process carried out by the adaptive unconscious.

Strictly speaking, bicamerality is defined as a neural internalization of admonitory social control through a nonconscious process of auditory verbal hallucination similar to schizophrenic command hallucinations. For bicameral minds, this substitutes for conscious access, for reasoned will. Indeed, in a bicameral mentality, “… volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey ” (Jaynes 1976, p. 99). Bicameral control is a special form of brain authorization available only to the human species. It is a side-effect of our having evolved verbal language for social commanding/requesting. I suppose other vocal animals with sufficiently complicated cortical “echo chambers” could hallucinate as well, but I doubt that the hallucinations take the complex social form of gods, demons, ancestors, etc. that is prevalent in human societies. In the case of Neolithic food distribution, the “thought” to offer food to the gods took the form of a auditory hallucination of a god or ancestor’s voice commanding you to perform the sacrifice, giving you the guidance on how to perform the act, and threats and other reasons as to why you should do the act. Since the bicameral control assembly is processed by the verbally-modified adaptive unconscious housed in the frontal-temporal “association” areas, the intellectual power of a human guided by bicameral control is incredibly impressive. Ever wonder how primitive Neolithic humans were able to execute complex construction plans for building monoliths, calculate astronomical and mathematical results with extraordinary precision, etc.? I propose that it was the “god function” of the bicameral control assembly which was able to aid Neolithics in the construction of complex civilization. It is interesting to me that the savant Daniel Tammet had temporal lobe epilepsy when he was little. Could savant syndrome be tapping into vestigial bicameral functions? It is curious that some of the most common savant abilities are stuff that ancient Neolithics would have found incredibly useful such as amazing calendrical calculation (useful for guiding the planting and harvesting of crops according to accumulated social wisdom about seasons and dates).

The hallucination of gods literally created the social order which made it possible to erect huge hierarchically structured civilizations with specialized social classes like the priesthood and royalty, which acted as the “right hand” and “voice” of the gods (think of prophets and oracles). The process of hallucination authorization took the form of a hierarchical ladder, with every person hallucinating a Voice that was more powerful than them. The lower class hallucinated the voices of lesser gods and the dominant conspecifics. The kings hallucinated the Voice of the most powerful god, and acted as the direct messenger of the most powerful god, giving him incredible power in the society. Because the “content” for the hallucinations was socially shared in nature, the bicameral control assemblies in the lower classes “respected” the authority of the gods hallucinated in the higher social classes, with the King hallucinating the most powerful god. The societies which developed from polytheistic bicameral control to monotheistic control were able to create great social cohesion in their hierarchical authorization mechanisms. The social cohesion of bicameral control operating on shared social information enabled the explosion of civilization about 10-15 thousand years ago. In contrast to prevailing theories which claim that religion arose after the expansion of civilization, Jaynesian theory predicts that religion gave rise to civilization. Recent archaeological findings provide support for this theory. Describing the work of Klaus Schmidt on the major archaeological site Göbekli Tepe, a National Geographic journalist says “Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests…The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization.” This is an essentially Jaynesian hypothesis: bicamerality allowed for the rapid expansion of human society into great civilizations through the shared social authorization of behavior by hallucinated voices acting as representatives of a linguistically charged adaptive unconscious.

It was this unconscious power that allowed for the incredible intellectual feats of primitive Neolithic humans. The intellectual power also gave rise to the continuing human conviction that gods actually do exist. If your conscious self could directly tap into the computational power of the adaptive unconscious through the bicameral control interface, then you would be so overwhelmed by its intellectual superiority that you would likely immediately authorize the gods to control your behavior, believing that you are in fact receiving divine wisdom from a powerful entity. Indeed, we see the theme of emphasizing obedience in the most successful of all religions: “But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” (Jeremiah 7:23-24)…”Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him” (Deuteronomy 13:4) But while there are still vestigial remnants of bicameral authorization in today’s religions (though most people who claim to hear God speaking to them are now sent to a psychiatric doctor), today’s religion is much different. We have lost touch with bicameral control. Most Christians receive God’s guidance indirectly through prayer and scripture study, not hallucination. Although the adaptive unconscous is very much still at large, it does not interface with the conscious mind through the same mechanisms. Today, the narratological conscious self has developed a sense of autonomy from the unconscious mind. Following Iain McGilchrist in his recent book The Master and His Emissary, there is a great deal of evidence to suppose that the conscious, linguistic, propositionally rational left hemisphere has been growing increasingly isolated from the right hemisphere. The corpus callosum mainly acts as a mechanism of inhibition i.e. when a left area is active, the homologous area in the right hemisphere is inactivated and vice versa. The “team of rivals” control strategy allows for greater specialization in behavior which is typical in humans. Language itself is the classic example of lateral specialization. Although both hemisphere are “active” 24-7, the delicate balance of functional specializations plays off the inhibitions in order to give rise to complex behavior. This is especially important in the process of self-control, a critical brain skill for succeeding in the modern world. Ultimately, the left and right hemispheres aren’t “opposed” to each other, but rather, work in harmony through neural competition. This can be likened to the “society of the mind”, “multiple drafts”, and “neural darwinism”. The various modules in the brain compete in order to “authorize” certain behaviors. In the case of our original food gathering social animal, the various circuits in the brain activate in parallel upon perceiving the dominant conspecific. The “loudest” circuit gets to authorize which behavior sequence to initiate or uninhibit: submission.


Filed under Consciousness, Psychology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The LORD roars from Zion

and thunders from Jerusalem;

the pastures of the shepherds dry up,

and the top of Carmel withers.”

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

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

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

I have one last point. Gutting says:

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

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


Filed under Atheism, Philosophy

The Hypothetical Evolution of Hallucinatory Self-regulation

I just reread Julian Jaynes’ chapter on the brain in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and it’s really fascinating. He raises some incredible questions. First, he notes that almost all important brain functions are represented bilaterally in the brain. This makes evolutionary sense because functional redundancy is a survival skill in the event of injury. But curiously, language is not bilaterally represented yet it is perhaps the most important function in human existence, separating us from the animals. We would not be human without it, as feral children sadly demonstrate. Moreover, the left hemisphere is often called the “dominant” hemisphere because most people are right-handed, and thus have a left-hemisphere dominance in voluntary control (and there is even a right eye field dominance).

There must be a good reason then why something as important as language wouldnt have been bilaterally represented during evolutionary development. We know from lesion studies that if we take out the Wernicke’s area in the left hemisphere during childhood, the whole mechanism of language will transfer to the right hemisphere. So it isn’t that the right hemisphere corresponding to left language areas is incapable of bilateral language redundancy, it’s that it must subserve some other function that is even more valuable for us than language. Jaynes asks, what is this function? His answer:

The selective pressures of evolution which could have brought about so mighty a result are those of the bicameral civilizations. The language of men was involved with only one hemisphere in order to leave the other free for the language of gods. (103-104)

This is Jaynes’ hypothesis of the “bicameral mind”. The bicameral mind is based on the metaphor of a divided house, like two selves housed in one brain (similar to split-brain patients). On the right side is the god-complex, grounded in the right temporal cortex. It’s function was to solve problems by synthesizing complex information and relaying linguistically-coded behavioral instructions to the other side, the mortal-complex, grounded in the left temporal cortex. The gods obeyed and the humans heard. And to hear was to obey. This function substituted for voluntary will in our preconscious ancestors.That this might be true is evidenced by the fact that the temporal lobes have their own private communication channel: the smaller anterior commissures. Moreover, articles like these:

show that the neural substrate for schizophrenic hallucination is the the right temporal cortex, as per Jaynes’ theory.

Accordingly, we might be able to tell the following “Just So” story. First, emphasize that the first complex societies were authoritarian through and through, or at structured by a rigid social hierarchy. Moreover, we could assume that the development of narrative skills would have been to (1) allow the dominant fathers and chieftons to more easily give complex commands in terms of dense linguistic codes (2) allow people to better remember and recount what their fathers, and their father’s father, had instructed them to do in times of need. This generational chain of command was more important and sacred than anything else. The fathers and chieftons would remember the instructions of their father and chiefton on how and when to plant the crops, how to be brave and fight when the time comes, how to live in the Dorian mode and die a honorable death (so that your fame will live on), etc. At this early point in our social evolution, we can assume that language was represented bilaterally in the brain given its importance for keeping the cultural traditions alive and the social control mechanisms operating smoothly.

Granting all this, we can then hypothesize that a scaffolding effect arose as a result of the linguistic control mechanisms. The scaffold was this: everyday, day after day, our ancestors’ brains would have been directly sculpted by the following habit schema: leader commands, I obey. After so many years, this voice would have sculpted the motor pathways in the brain such that hearing it would always result in obedience, much like modern day hypnosis. Such was life; authoritative to the core. Next, we can suppose that these ingrained obedience patterns might have started “looping” in the brain, like a melody or thought that gets stuck in your head all day. As Jaynes says

Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narrative the situation and so hold his analog “I” in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was capable of, or, as seems more likely,by a repeated ‘internal’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do. (p. 134)

It was the unique behavioral opportunies of enduring-attention that provided the selection pressures for the right hemisphere language centers to be readapted for hallucinatory self-regulation. This would explain why schizophrenia has such a strong genetic component and why it remains with us today despite being so dysfunctional in a modern society (answer: because it was once kept people alive to listen to their voices). New evidence is even indicating that auditory hallucinations are more common in “normals” than previously supposed, especially in children (e.g. imaginary companions).

Now, in our imagined society, linguistically-coded verbal commands from fathers to sons dominated the social control mechanisms of behavior regulation. A son grows up everyday listening to his father command him like a puppet. The father himself grew up obeying his father, in addition to the tribal chief (and so on for centuries). The chiefton dies suddenly. We don’t have a concept of death. His body is lying there motionless but he isn’t giving orders anymore. How can we get the chiefton to command us once more? We take his body and clean it, dress it, and prop it up as if he were doing his normal day to day business. We give him food and drink and all his favorite material possessions, trying to appease his spirit so that he will command us again. Wait! A voice belows. The body speaks again! He commands once more! But now it is different. Now he is directly talking to us, more powerful and more authoritative than ever. We cannot refuse his voice; we cannot stop it from compelling us. The voice is heard even when the chieftons body is not around. We cannot close our ears to the thunderous voice. The gods and demigods are born. True ancestor worship begins. Sophisticated burial rituals to induce commands from dead bodies show up in the archeological record. Such work has routinely discovered disembodied heads and scenes of daily life in burial tombs. Why would they mess with the dead bodies of their leaders? To induce auditory hallucinations. Such began religion and the priestclass. Such began schizophrenia and the bilteralization of language on the left, body-controlling side, and the all-knowing language of the gods on the right side, stepping in to command us during times of stress and crutch decision making. The trigger for hallucination is stress but for most moderns, the threshhold is high. For some, however, it is low, far too low (hence schizophrenia).


Filed under Phenomenology, Psychology

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be a human? What is being? What is the difference between the being of humans and the being of non-humans?

These are all important and difficult to answer questions. Martin Heidegger was one philosopher who took it upon himself to attempt to answer some of these questions. His aim was to work out the general meaning of being and to do so concretely. Did he succeed? Some would say yes, others no. In this post, I’d like to sketch out a part of his answer, focusing on the the last question: the difference between the being of humans and the being of non-human animals i.e. the ontological difference.

The distinction between being and beings is there, latent in [humans] and [their] existence, even if not in explicit awareness. The distinction is there; that is to say, it has the mode of being of [humans]: it belongs to existence. Existence means, as it were, “to be in the performance of this distinction.” Only a soul that can make this distinction has the aptitude, going beyond the animal’s soul, to become the soul of a human being…we call the distinction between being and beings, when it is carried out explicitly, the ontological difference.

I’d like to concentrate on the part I made bold. This is crucial to his definition of what it means to be a human being[Dasein]. Essentially, humans comport themselves toward their own being. Another way of putting this awkward phrase is that humans take a stand on their own being. This is what “being in the performance of [the ontological difference]” means. Through the particular ways in which humans act within the world, we make this ontological difference a part of our existential mode of being. This means we always perceive/conceive and act in the world in terms of the difference between being and beings, between the the ontological being of ourselves and the entities which make up the physical world. There is something-it-is-like to be us, and that something has to do with how we already pre-ontologically make a distinction between being and beings.

Whether or not you think of all this is useless metaphysical mumbo-jumbo or an historical attempt to answer one of the most important questions in philosophy is up to you, but hopefully I made it clear that Heidegger was at least an original thinker.

edit: I have updated the original post to fix the inconsistencies pointed out by Roman.

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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology