Tag Archives: Julian Jaynes

Is Consciousness Required for Discrimination?

In their book A Universe of Consciousness, Edelman and Tononi use the example of a photodiode discriminating light to illustrate the problem of consciousness:

Consider a simple physical device, such as a photodiode, that can differentiate between light and dark and provide an audible output. Let us then consider a conscious human being performing the same task and then giving a verbal report. The problem of consciousness can now be posed in elementary terms: Why should the simple differentiation between light and dark performed by the human being be associated with and, indeed, require conscious experience, while that performed by the photodiode presumably does not? (p. 17)

Does discrimination of a stimulus from a background “require conscious experience”? I don’t see why it would. This seems like something the unconscious mind could do all on its own and indeed is doing all the time. But it comes down to how we are defining “consciousness”. If we are talking about consciousness as subjective experience, the question is: does discrimination require there be something-it-is-like for the brain to perform that discrimination? Perhaps. But I also don’t know how to answer that question empirically given the subjective nature of experience and the sheer difficulty of building an objective consciousness-meter.

On the other hand, assume by “consciousness” we mean something like System II style cognition i.e. slow, deliberate, conscious, introspective thinking. On this view of consciousness, consciousness is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cognitive processing so it would be absurd to say that the 99% unconscious mind is incapable of doing discrimination. This is the lesson of Oswald Külpe and the Würzburg school of imageless thought. They asked trained introspectors from the Wundtian tradition to make a discrimination between two weights with their hands, to see if one weight is heavier than the other. Then the subjects were asked to introspect and see if they were aware of the process of discrimination. To their surprise, there were no conscious images associated with the weight-discrimination. They simply held the weights in their hand, consciously made an intention to discriminate, the discrimination happened unconsciously, and then they were aware of the results of the unconscious judgment. Hence, Külpe and the Würzburg school discovered a whole class of “imageless thought” i.e. thought that happens beneath the level of conscious awareness.

Of course, the Würzburg school wasn’t talking about consciousness in terms of subjective qualia. They were talking about consciousness in terms of what’s introspectable. If you can’t introspect a thought process in your mind then it’s unconscious. On this view and in conjunction with evolutionary models of introspection it seems clear that a great deal of discriminations are happening beneath the surface of conscious awareness. This is how I prefer to talk about consciousness: in terms of System II-style introspection where consciousness is but the tip of a great cognitive iceberg. On Edelman and Tononi’s view, consciousness occurs anytime there is information integration. On my view information integration can occur unconsciously and indeed most if not all non-human animal life is unconscious. Human style slow deliberate introspective conscious reflection is rare in the animal kingdom even if during the normal human waking life it is constantly running, overlapping and integrating with the iceberg of unconsciousness so as to give an illusion of cognitive unity. It seems as if consciousness is everywhere all the time and that there is very little unconscious activity. But as Julian Jaynes once said, we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of, and so consciousness seems pervasive in our mental life when in fact it is not.


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More Evidence for Vestigial Bicamerality

Acclaimed cultural anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has a new paper out in the British Journal of Psychiatry: “Differences in voice-hearing experiences of people with psychosis in the USA, India and Ghana: interview-based study“.

The paper further corroborates the theoretical framework of Julian Jaynes and his idea of bicamerality. The bicameral paradigm is quintessentially a hallucinatory voice guiding or command you to do everyday tasks. Consider this summary of the interviews from patients in Chennai, India

These voices behaved as relatives do: they gave guidance, but they also scolded. They often gave commands to do domestic tasks. Although people did not always like them, they spoke about them as relationships. One man explained, ‘They talk as if elder people advising younger people’. A woman heard seven or eight of her female relatives scold her constantly. They told her that she should die; but they also told her to bathe, to shop, and to go into the kitchen and prepare food.

Now consider Jaynes’ hypothetical description of the Egyptian concept of “ka” or “spirit double”:

It is obvious from the preceding chapters that the ka requires a reinterpretation as a bicameral voice. It is, I believe, what the ili or personal god was in Mesopotamia. A man’s ka was his articulate directing voice which he heard inwardly, perhaps in a parental or authoritative accents, but which when heard by his friends or relatives even after his own death, was, of course, hallucinated as his own voice…

The ka of the god-king is of particular interest. It was heard, I suggest, by the king in the accents of his own father…

[In early civilizations]…each person had a part of his nervous system which was divine, by which he was ordered about like any slave, a voice or voices which indeed were what we call volition and empowered what they commanded and were related to the hallucinated voices of others in a carefully established hierarchy.

Going back to the Luhrmann interviews, we can see the essential social-hierarchical component of bicamerality still at work today in voice-hearers:

They made comments that suggested that these voices were both social relationships and entertainment: ‘I like my mother’s voice’; later, this woman added ‘I have a companion to talk [to] . . . [laughs] I need not go out to speak. I can talk within myself!’

Jaynes’ other suggestion about bicamerality is that the voices served a behavioral function: they weren’t just echoes of a broken nervous system, but were a way for the human nervous system to guide itself adaptively. They are a channel for what Jaynes called “stored-up admonitory wisdom”. Luhrmann cites one man as saying ‘[the voices] just tell me to do the right thing. If I hadn’t had these voices I would have been dead long ago.”

Now imagine an entire city where the majority of people are voice-hearers and there is an elaborate cultural mythology for interpreting the voices as “personal gods”, where hearing divine or special voices talk to you is perfectly normal in every way. Can you imagine it? Jaynes could. But it stretches the imagination. But that’s no reason to think it wasn’t the case. Just because modern people with modern minds not hearing voices find that situation “psychotic” or “crazy” doesn’t mean that bicamerality has always been limited to 1-2% of the population. It was likely spread throughout the population in much greater proportion than it is today. It is in fact part of the human gene pool, which is why schizophrenia today has such a large genetic component. Complicated cognitive mechanisms such as voice hearing don’t just stay in the gene pool for no reason. It suggests that it was adaptive in the not too distant past. And for some people in some cultures, as Luhrmann indicates, it still serves an adaptive function. John Geiger’s book The Third Man Factor also talks about the adaptive function of vestigial bicamerality in the context of extreme survival, where people on the verge of life and death have been guided to safety by following the instructions of hallucinated voices.



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Correcting Misinterpretations of Julian Jaynes’ Theory – Bernard Baars edition

In one of only three posts at his seemingly defunct blog Your Conscious Brain, neuroscientist Bernard Baars writes:

A few decades ago the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes speculated that consciousness is a recent phenomenon – just a few thousand years old. Jaynes thought so based on a difference between the language of Homer’s Illiad and the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, he claimed, the voices of the gods are perceived to come from the outside world. In the Illiad, on the other hand, the gods are thought to speak inside of the heroes’ heads.

But fully formed language is now believed to date back some 50,000 to 100,000 years, and as for consciousness, at least sensory consciousness seems to be much, much more ancient. Hemispheric lateralization such as we find in language can be observed in guinea pigs and song birds. The hoped-for “language gene” of FOXP2 is known to exist in alligators. Human cognitive faculties are spun off from much more ancient adaptations

There are several misleading things going on here.

First, Baars engages in the classic bait-and-switch move by attacking Jaynes for a view he never held. Jaynes would totally agree that “sensory consciousness” is an ancient phenomenon shared with animals – that’s why he was so careful to distinguish perception and cognition generally from what he thought of as “consciousness” – a short-hand term for what philosophers would call “reflective self-consciousness”.

Later Baars admits “That is not to say that tree shrews have ‘higher level consciousness’ (Edelman, 1989), which is heavily dependent on language, executive and social functions, the brain bases of human culture.” But that type of “higher level consciousness” is exactly what Jaynes claimed to be a recent development based on language! So why would Baars start off saying Jaynes thought “consciousness” is a recent development when in the context of Baar’s own vocabulary he should have said “Jaynes speculated that higher-order consciousness is a recent phenomenon”? Even a cursory inspection of Jaynes’ book would show that it’s no refutation of his theory to point out that sensory awareness is ancient and shared with animals – this falls under the general umbrella of what Jaynes’ called “perceptual reactivity”.

Why do people bring up Jaynes only in brief, stereotyped snippets only to immediately dismiss the theory as preposterous? I don’t know. I suspect it’s because people never bothered to read the 1990 edition that has an “afterword” where Jaynes complains about the obstacles he’s had in getting academics to give him a fair reading. Or I suspect they never read the book at all – or read it so long ago that they only remember a distorted version like a bad translation at the end of the children’s game “telephone”.

Second, Baars implies that Jaynes’ only line of evidence for his view is the differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey. This is misleading. The transition in writing style from the Iliad to the Odyssey represents a shift in cognitive ability that is typical in different ancient literature as well, including the Old Testament (compare the oldest book, Amos, to the latest books, like Song of Solomon). Also, Jaynes’ evidence base included reports in cultural anthropology.

Baars also writes that  “fully formed language is now believed to date back some 50,000 to 100,000 years” as if this is supposed to be a crucial blow to Jaynes’ view. As Jaynes writes in his 1990 afterword,

A weak form of the theory would state that, yes, consciousness is based on language, but instead of its being so recent, it began back at the beginning of language, perhaps even before civilization…

The exact dates don’t matter – Jaynes was always flexible on this point, knowing that new archeological finds could overturn the precise dates he hypothesized. But the general point is that if you’re a social constructivist about higher-order consciousness, then it doesn’t matter if the type of language necessary to support it is 12k years old or 50k years old. The point is that it’s not millions of years old and shared by non-linguistic animals. That’s what is interesting about Jaynes’ theory.

I’ll end with another remark from Jaynes’ 1990 afterword that was prescient indeed:

A favorite practice of some professional intellectuals when at first faced with a theory as large as the one I have presented is to search for that loose thread which, when pulled, will unravel all the rest. And rightly so. It is a part of the discipline of scientific thinking. In any work covering so much of the terrain of human nature and history, hustling into territories jealously guarded by myriad aggressive specialists, there are bound to be such errances, sometimes of fact but I fear more often of tone. But that the knitting of this book is such that a tug on such a bad stitch will unravel all the rest is more of a hope on the part of the orthodox than a fact in the scientific pursuit of truth. The book is not a single hypothesis.

EDIT: Apparently this is the 500th post on this blog. Cool.

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Quote of the Day – Geoffrey Miller on Small-minded Theorizing in Evolutionary Psychology

The view of the mind as a pragmatic, problem-solving survivalist has also inhibited research on the evolution of human creativity, morality, and language. Some primate researchers have suggested that human creative intelligence evolved as nothing more than a way to invent Machiavellian tricks to deceive and manipulate others. Human morality has been reduced to a tit-for-tat accountant that keeps track of who owes what to whom. Theories of language evolution have neglected human story-telling, poetry, wit, and song. You have probably read accounts of evolutionary psychology in the popular press, and felt the same unease that it is missing something important. Theories based on the survival of the fittest can nibble away at the edges of human nature, but they do not take us to the heart of the mind.

~Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind

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Quote of the Day – A Paleontology of Consciousness

What we need is a paleontology of consciousness, in which we can discern stratum by stratum how this metaphored world we call subjective consciousness was built up and under what particular social pressures.

~Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 216

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The Refrigerator Light Problem

1.0 The Problem of Phenomenal Consciousness

Phenomenal consciousness has a familiar guise but is frustratingly mysterious. Difficult to define (Goldman, 1993), it involves the sense of there being “something-it-is-like” for an entity to exist. Many theorists have studied phenomenal consciousness and concluded physicalism is false (Chalmers, 1995, 2003; Jackson, 1982; Kripke, 1972; Nagel, 1974). Other theorists defend physicalism on metaphysical grounds but argue there is an unbridgeable “explanatory gap” for phenomenal consciousness (Howell, 2009; Levine, 1983, 2001). “Mysterians” have argued the explanatory gap is intractable because of how the human mind works (McGinn, 1989; 1999). Whatever it is, phenomenal consciousness seems to lurk amidst biological processes but never plays a clearly identifiable causal role that couldn’t be performed nonconsciously (Flanagan & Polger, 1995). After all, some philosophers argue for the possibility of a “zombie” (Chalmers, 1996) physically identical to humans but entirely devoid of phenomenal consciousness.

Debates in the sprawling consciousness literature often come down to differences in intuition concerning the basic question of what consciousness actually is. One question we might have about its nature concerns its pervasiveness. First, is consciousness pervasive throughout our own waking life? Second, is it pervasive throughout the animal kingdom? We might be tempted to answer the first question by introspecting on our experience and hoping that will help us with the second question. However, introspecting on our experience generates a well known puzzle known as the “refrigerator light problem”.

2.0 The Refrigerator Light Problem
2.1 Thick vs thin

The refrigerator light problem is motivated by the question, “Consciousness seems pervasive in our waking life, but just how pervasive is it?” Analogously, we can ask whether the refrigerator light is always on. Naively, it seems like it’s on even when the door is closed, but is it really? The question is easily answered because we can investigate the design and function of refrigerators and conclude that the light is designed to turn off when the door is closed. We could even cut a hole in the door to see for ourselves. However, the functional approach won’t work with phenomenal consciousness because we currently lack a theory of how phenomenal consciousness works or any consensus on what its possible function might be, or whether it could even serve a function.

The refrigerator light problem is the problem of deciding between two mutually exclusive views of consciousness (Schwitzgebel, 2007):

The Thick View: Consciousness seems pervasive because it is pervasive, but we often cannot access or report this consciousness.
The Thin View: Consciousness seems pervasive, but this is just an illusion.

The thick view is straightforward to understand, but the thin view is prima facie counterintuitive. How could we be wrong about how our own consciousness seems to us? Many philosophers argue that a reality/appearance distinction for consciousness itself is nonsensical because consciousness just is how things seem. In other words, if consciousness seems pervasive, then it is pervasive.

On the thin view, however, the fact that it seems like consciousness is pervasive is a result of consciousness generating a false sense of pervasiveness. The thin theorist thinks that anytime we try to become aware of what-it-is-like to enjoy nonintrospective experience, we activate our introspection by inquiring and corrupt the data. The thin theorist is for methodological reasons skeptical about the idea of phenomenal consciousness existing without our ability to access or attend to it. If phenomenal consciousness can exist without any ability to report it then how can psychologists study it if subjects must issue a report that they are conscious? Anytime a subject reports they are conscious, you can’t rule out that it is the reporting doing all the work. The thin theorist challenges us to become aware of these nonintrospective experiences such that we can report on their existence and meaningfully theorize about them.

Philosophers might appeal to special phenomenological properties to falsify the thin view. This won’t work because, in principle, one could develop a thin view to accommodate any of the special phenomenological properties ascribed to phenomenal consciousness such as the pervasive “raw feeling” of redness when introspecting on what-it-is-like to look at a strawberry or the “painfulness” of pain. Thin theory can simply explain away the experience of pervasiveness as an illusion generated by a mechanism that itself isn’t pervasive. Julian Jaynes is famous for defending a strong thin view:

Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of…It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that doesn’t have any light shining on it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not. (1976, p. 23)

Thin vs thick views represent the two most common interpretations of the refrigerator light problem, and both seem to account for the data equally well. The problem is that from the perspective of introspection, both theories are indistinguishable. The mere possibility of the thin view being true motivates the methodological dilemma of the refrigerator light problem. How do we rule out thin explanations of thick phenomenology?

2.2 The Difference Introspection Makes

The intractability of the refrigerator light depends on the inevitable influence introspection has on nonintrospective experience. Consider the following case. Jones loves strawberries. He eats one a day at 3:00 pm. All day, Jones looks forward to 3:00 pm because it’s the one time of the day when he can savor the moment and take a break from the hustle-and-bustle of work. When 3:00 pm arrives, he first gazes longingly at the strawberry, his eyes soaking up its patterns of texture and color while his reflective mind contemplates how it will taste. Now Jones reaches out for the strawberry, puts it up to his mouth, and bites into it slowly, savoring and paying attention to the sweetness and delicate fibrosity that is distinctive of strawberries. What’s crucial is that Jones is not just enjoying the strawberry, but introspecting on the fact that he is enjoying the strawberry. That is, he is aware of the strawberry but also meta-aware of his first-order awareness.

Suppose we ask Jones what it’s like for him to enjoy the strawberry when he is not introspecting. The refrigerator light problem will completely stump him. Moreover, suppose we want to ascribe consciousness to Jones (or Jones wants to ascribe it to himself). Should we ascribe it before he starts introspecting or after? Naturally, the answer depends on whether we accept a thin or thick view. According to a thin view, whatever is present in Jones’ experience prior to introspection does not warrant the label “consciousness”. The thin theorist might call this pervasive property “nonconscious qualia” (Rosenthal, 1997), but they reserve the term “consciousness” to describe Jones’ metarepresentational awareness that his perceiving. The thin theorist would agree with William Calvin when he says, in defining “consciousness”, “The term should capture something of our advanced abilities rather than covering the commonplace” (1989, p. 78).

What about nonhuman animals? Whereas a thin theorist would say there is a difference in kind between human and rat consciousnesss, the thick theorist is likely to say that both the rat and Jones share the most important kind of pervasive consciousness. Is this jostling a purely terminological squabble? Kriegel (2009) has argued that the debate is substantial because theorists have different intuitions about the source of mystery for consciousness. The thick theorist thinks the mystery originates with first-order pervasiveness; the thin theorist thinks it originates with second-order awareness. Unfortunately, a squabble over intuitions is just as stale as a terminological dispute.

3.0 The Generality of the Refrigerator Light Problem
3.1 Introducing the Stipulation Strategy

If you are a scientist wanting to tackle the Hard problem of phenomenal consciousness, how would you respond to the refrigerator light problem? If the debate between thin and thick theories is either terminological or based on conflicting intuitions, what do you do? The only strategy I can think of for circumventing the terminological arbitrariness is to embrace it using what I call the stipulation strategy. It works like this. You first agree that we cannot resolve the thin vs thick debate using introspection alone. Unfazed, you simply stipulate some criterion for pointing phenomenal consciousness out such that it can be detected with empirical methods.

Possible criteria are diverse and differ from scientist to scientist. Some theorists stipulate that you will find phenomenal consciousness anytime you can find first-order (FO) perceptual representations of the right kind (Baars, 1997; Block, 1995; Byrne, 1997; Dretske, 1993, 2006; Tye, 1997). This would allow us to find many instances of phenomenal consciousness throughout the biological world, especially in creatures with nervous systems. However, we might have a more restricted criterion that says you will find phenomenal consciousness anytime you have higher-order (HO) thoughts/perceptions (Gennaro, 2004; Lycan, 1997; Rosenthal, 2005), restricting the instantiations of phenomenal consciousness to mammals or maybe even primates depending on your understanding of higher-order cognition. Or, more controversially, you might have a panpsychist stipulation criterion that makes it possible to point out phenomenal consciousness in the inorganic world.

Once we understand how the stipulation strategy works, the significance of any possible reductive explanation becomes trivialized qua explanation of phenomenal consciousness. To apply this result to contemporary views, I will start with FO theory, apply the same argument to HO theory, and then discuss the more counterintuitive (but equally plausible) theory of panpsychism.

3.2 The First-order Gambit

FO theorists deny the transitivity principle and claim one does not need to be meta-aware in order for there to be something-it-is-like to exist. The idea is that we can be in genuine conscious states but completely unaware of being in them. That is, FO theorists think there can be something-it-is-like for S to exist without S being aware of what-it-is-like for S to exist, a possibility HO theorists think absurd if not downright incoherent because the phrase “for S” suggests meta-awareness.

FO approaches are characterized by their use of perceptual awareness as the stipulation criterion for consciousness. A representative example is Dretske, who says “Seeing, hearing, and smelling x are ways of being conscious of x. Seeing a tree, smelling a rose, and feeling a wrinkle is to be (perceptually) aware (conscious) of the tree, the rose, and the wrinkle” (1993, p. 265). Dretske argues that once you understand what consciousness is (perceptual awareness), you will realize that one can be pervasively conscious without being meta-aware that you are conscious.

However, there is a serious problem with trying to reconcile the implications of theoretical stipulation criteria with common intuitions about which creatures are conscious. The problem with using perceptual awareness as our criterion is that it casts its net widely, perhaps too widely if you think phenomenality is only realized in nervous systems. Since many FO theorists think that if we are going to have a scientific explanation of phenomenal consciousness at all it must be a neural explanation (Block, 2007; Koch, 2004) they will want to avoid ascribing consciousness to nonneural organisms. However, if we stipulate that a bat has phenomenal consciousness in virtue of its capacity for perceptual awareness, I see no principled way of looking at the phylogenetic timeline and marking the evolution of neural systems as the origin of perceptual awareness.

To see why, consider chemotaxis in unicellular bacteria (Kirby, 2009; Van Haastert & Devreotes, 2004). Recently chemotaxis has been modeled using informatic or computational theory rather than classical mechanistic biology (Bourret & Stock, 2002; Bray, 1995; Danchin, 2009; Shapiro, 2007). A simple demonstration of chemotaxis would occur if you stuck a bacterium in a petri dish that had a small concentration of sugar on one side. The bacterium would be able to intelligently discriminate the sugar side from the non-sugar side and regulate its swimming behavior to move upstream the gradient. Naturally we assume the bacterium is able to perceive the presence of sugar and respond appropriately. On this simplistic notion of perceiving, perceiving a stimulus is, roughly speaking, a matter of valenced behavioral discrimination of that stimulus. By valenced, I mean that the stimuli are valued as either attractive or aversive with respect to the goals of the organism (in this case, survival and homeostasis). If the bacterium simply moved around randomly when placed in a sugar gradient such that the sugar had no particular attractive or aversive force, we might conclude that the bacterium is not capable of perceiving sugar, or that sugar is not ecologically relevant to the goals of the organism. But if the bacterium always moved upstream of the sugar gradient, it is natural to say that the bacterium is capable of perceiving the presence of sugar. Likewise, if there were a toxin placed in the petri dish, we would expect this to be valenced as aversive and the bacteria would react appropriately by avoiding it, with appropriateness understood in terms of the goal of survival

Described in this minimal way, perceptual awareness in its most basic form does not seem so special that only creatures with nerve cells are capable of it. Someone might object that this is not a case of genuine perceptual awareness because there is nothing-it-is-like for the bacterium to sense the sugar or that its goals are not genuine goals. But how do we actually know this? How could we know this? For all we know, there is something-it-is-like for the bacterium to perceive the sugar. If we use perceptual awareness as our stipulation criterion, then we are fully justified in ascribing consciousness to even unicellulars.

Furthermore, it is misleading to say bacteria only respond to “proximal” stimulation, and therefore are not truly perceiving. Proximal stimulation implies an implausible “snapshot” picture of stimulation where the stimulation happens instantaneously at a receptor surface. But if stimuli can have a spatial (adjacent) component why can they not also have a temporal (successive) component? As J.J. Gibson put it, “Transformations of pattern are just as [biologically] stimulating as patterns are” (Gibson, 1966). And this is what researchers studying chemotaxis actually find: “for optimal chemotactic sensitivity [cells] combine spatial and temporal information” (Van Haastert & Devreotes, 2004, p. 626). The distinction between proximal stimulation and distal perception rests on a misunderstanding of what actually stimulates organisms.

Interestingly, the FO gambit offers resources for responding to the zombie problem. Since we have independent reasons to think bacteria are entirely physical creatures, if perceptual awareness is used as a stipulation criterion then the idea of zombie bacteria is inconceivable. Because bacterial perception is biochemical in nature, a perfect physical duplicate of a bacteria would satisfy the stipulation criterion we apply to creatures in the actual world. The problem, however, is that we have no compelling reason to choose FO stipulation criteria over any other, including HO criteria.

3.3 The Higher-order Gambit

HO theories are reductive and emphasize some kind of metacognitive representation as a criterion for ascribing phenomenal consciousness to a creature (e.g. awareness that you are aware). These HO representations are postulated in order to capture the “transitivity principle” (Rosenthal, 1997), which says that a conscious state is a state whose subject is, in some way, aware of being in it. A controversial corollary of the transitivity principle is that there are some genuinely qualitative mental states that are nonconscious e.g. nonconscious pain.
Neurologically motivated HO theories like Baar’s Global Workspace model (1988; 1997) and Dehaene’s Global Neuronal Workspace model (Dehaene et al., 2006; Dehaene, Kerszberg, & Changeux, 1998; 2001; Gong et al., 2009) have had great empirical success but they are deeply unsatisfying as explanations of phenomenal consciousness. HO theory can explain our ability to report on or monitor our experiences, but many philosophers wonder how it could provide an explanation for phenomenal consciousness (Chalmers, 1995). Ambitious HO theorists reply by insisting they do in fact have an explanation of how phenomenal consciousness arises from nonconscious mental states.

However, ambitious HO approaches suffer from the same problem of arbitrariness that FO approaches did. In order decide between FO and HO stipulation criteria we need to first decide on either a thick or thin interpretation of the refrigerator light problem. Since introspection is no help, we are forced to use the stipulation strategy. But why choose a HO stipulation strategy over a FO one? If everyone had the same intuitions concerning which creatures were conscious we could generate stipulation criteria that perfectly match these intuitions. The problem is that theorists have different intuitions concerning what creatures (beside themselves) are in fact conscious. Surprisingly, some theorists might go beyond the biological world altogether and claim inorganic entities are conscious.

3.4 The Panpsychist Gambit

A more radical stipulation strategy is possible. If antiphysicalist arguments suggest that neurons and biology have nothing to do with phenomenal consciousness, we might think that phenomenal consciousness is a fundamental feature of reality. On this view, matter itself is intrinsically experiential. Another idea is that phenomenality is necessitated by an even more fundamental property, called a protophenomenal property (Chalmers, 2003).

Panpsychism is a less popular stipulation gambit, but at least one prominent scientist has recently used a stipulation criterion that leads to panpsychism (although he downplays this result). Guilio Tononi (2008) proposes integrated information as a promising stipulation criterion. The intellectual weight of the theory rests on a thought experiment involving a photodiode. A photodiode discriminates between light and no light. But does the photodiode see the light? Does it experience the light? Most people would think no. But the photodiode does integrate information (1 bit to be precise) and therefore, according to the theory of integrated information, has some experience, however dim. Whatever theoretical or practical benefits come with accepting the theory of integrated information, when it comes to the Hard problem of phenomenal consciousness we are left scratching our heads as to why integrated information is the best criterion for picking out phenomenal consciousness. Given the criterion leads to ascriptions of phenomenality to a photodiode, many theorists will take this as good reason for thinking the criterion itself is wrong given their pretheoretical intuitions about what entities are phenomenally conscious. But as we have learned, intuitions are diverse as they are unreliable.


Unable to define phenomenal consciousness, theorists are tempted to use their introspection to “point out” the phenomenon. The refrigerator light problem is motivated by the problem of deciding between thin and thick views of your own phenomenal consciousness using introspection alone. If introspection is supposed to help us understand what phenomenal consciousness is, and the refrigerator light problem prevents introspection from deciding between thin and thick views, then we need some other methodological procedure. The only option available is the stipulation strategy whereby we arbitrarily stipulate a criterion for pointing it out e.g. integrated information, or higher-order thoughts. The problem is that any proposed stipulation criterion is just as plausible as any other given we lack a pretheoretical consensus on basic questions such as the function of phenomenal consciousness. Our only hope is to push for the standardization of stipulation criteria.

p.s. If anyone wants the full reference for a citation, just ask.


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Book review: John Geiger's The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible

Have you ever wondered where the archetype of a “guardian angel”, “vision guide”, “helper”, or “Third Man” comes from? Why, in extreme survival situations, is it common for people to report the experience of a “presence” assisting them? John Geiger’s book The Third Man Factor is a comprehensive compilation of reports from mountaineers, explorers, sailors, adventurers, divers, and other persons faced with death in extreme survival situations who all report strangely similar accounts of a “presence” helping, comforting, motivating, or advising them, a phenomenon often dubbed the “Third Man Factor” from Ernest Shackleton’s famous report that during his harrowing travels in polar regions “it seemed to me often that we were four not three”. It’s call the “Third Man” factor not the “Fourth Man” factor because T.S. Eliot thought a trio was more poetic when he channel’s Shackleton’s story:

Who is the third who walks always besides you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I looked ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?

The Waste Land

The Third Man Factor is one of the most riveting books I have ever read. This is not only because of the nature of the extreme survival tales but because the Third Man factor is one of the most interesting psychological phenomena ever recorded. Allow me to quote some first-hand descriptions of the Third Man factor:

“It was something I couldn’t see but it was a physical presence. It told me what to do. The only decision I had made at that point in time was to lie down next to Rick and to fall asleep and to accept death. That’s the only decision I made. All decisions made subsequent to that were made by the presence. I was merely taking instructions…I understood what it wanted me to do. It wanted me to live.”

“It seemed to me that this ‘presence’ was a strong, helpful and friendly one, and it was not until Camp VI was sighted that the link connecting me, as it seemed at the time to the beyond, was snapped.”

“Then all at once I became aware of something new and strange, a consciousness of a ‘presence’, a feeling that I was not alone.”

“I could feel his invisible presence sitting there comfortingly beside me in that lonely little raft lost so hopelessly in the vast Atlantic.”

“Two hours later, he was awoken with a start by a stern voice: ‘Get up. It’s your turn at the helm.'”

“I didn’t pray, and I’m not a religious man usually, but for the whole voyage I’d had the strange feeling that someone else was with me, watching over me, and keeping me safe from harm.”

“…a strange sensation as if someone were in the boat with me. How can I explain it –not a mystical experience, just a calm feeling of assurance that someone was there helping and sharing tasks. Looking back, I do not feel that my mind became deranged — I was just quite certain that I was not alone.”

“It was then that he became acutely aware of a presence with him. Venables felt that it was an older person: ‘I never identified him, but this alter ego was to accompany me on and off for the rest of that day, sometimes comforting me and advising me, sometimes seeking my support.”

“I don’t often talk about my companion watcher these days…After the Breach when I first spoke of him to people, they reacted quite predictably: “What an imagination!”…At first I persisted in my stand: ‘He was real. There in the flesh or at least in some concrete form I could see.’ Now I know this and say this to you: He was there and as real as you or I.”

“I’ve never believed in apparitions, but how can I explain the forms I carried with me through so many hours of this day? Transparent forms in human outline – voices that spoke with authority and clearness.”

Clearly this is a very real psychological phenomena. I see no reason to believe that these reports are somehow getting the phenomenology wrong. What interests me is how the Third Man factor is closely intertwined with religious history. For ages, religious persons have reported experiences of “guardian angels” assisting them or comforting them. Almost all primitive cultures believe in various spirits or ephemeral beings, and the concept of seeking out such beings on “vision quests” is quite familiar. I think atheists and skeptics can learn a lot about the epistemology of religious belief from understanding the Third Man factor. Many atheists assume that believers are irrational in using “mere subjective experience” to argue for the rationality of their belief in supernatural phenomena. Arguably, it is less rational in today’s modern scientific society with ample brain-based explanations, but to understand the persistence and appeal of religion in modern times we have to understand its origins in prescientific eras. I see no reason to think that the Third Man factor is a modern phenomena. Likely it has a hardwired biological underpinning that would have been present in humans long before we knew anything about how the brain works. Consider this telling quote from the book:

“Once again I became aware of what I can only describe as a Presence, which filled me with an exaltation beyond all earthly feeling. As it passed, I walked back to the ship, I felt wholly convinced that no agnostic, no skeptic, no atheist, no humanist, no doubter, would ever take from me the certainty of the existence of God.”

How can you argue against that? You can’t really. Now imagine the epistemic situation prior to the invention of brain science. If you experienced a Third Man, then you would be quite rational in explaining that experience in terms of your local cultural narrative whether Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or animism. For Christians, they would have explained it in terms of the Biblical concept of an angel. For some Christians, the Third Man could also take the form of Jesus or God himself rather than just a “lower” entity like an angel (or demon). From an epistemological perspective, the Third Man factor is extremely interesting. It explains why many believers are “certain” that God exists and that nothing could ever change their minds: they have experienced the Third Man. I have no doubt the Third Man factor is also at play in alien abduction experiences.

Of course, there is a perfectly rational explanation for such phenomena if you accept the findings of modern neuroscience and philosophical naturalism. As Geiger discusses several times, one of the most promising theories to explain the Third Man is Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism. On the basis of multiple sources of evidence, Jaynes argues that at the dawn of history, humans had a much lower stress threshold to trigger hallucinations. Moreover, he argues (convincingly, imo) that such hallucinations could have had an adaptive function reinforced by natural selection. Such “hallucinatory control” is a type of decision making that manifests psychologically in the form of hallucinations, particularly of authoritative voices giving commands. Jaynes argues that command hallucinations allow for a novel form of self-stimulation and self-regulation (I can’t prove it, but I suspect this is where Dennett got his own ideas about self-stimulation from in Consciousness Explained, albeit stripped of the hallucination aspect). Such self-stimulations replaced the promptings by others (e.g. leaders) that would have triggered stereotyped behavioral patterns. By prompting oneself internally, humans would have been able to engage in more complex, “time-delayed” behaviors in the absence of verbal promptings by others. 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 narratizethe 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. (Jaynes, 1976, p. 134)

This might sound implausible, but consider the jury-rigging or “klugeish” nature of evolutionary tinkering. Evolution could have taken a preexisting language system and redeployed it to be used to issue commands, not externally with a voice, but internally to oneself. Such “promptings” could act as a jury-rigged memory buffer system. With such machinery in place, humans would have been able to achieve feats of complex culture building. Religious narratives would have co-evolved along with the expansion of this self-stimulation system, giving birth to modern religious concepts.

We already have good “proximal” explanations of the Third Man in terms of brain science. But what we lacked, and what Jaynes offers, is an “ultimate” explanation of the Third Man, one that gives an evolutionary story in adaptationist language. Whether or not Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism is fully corroborated in all its minute details (to the extent that it can given its historical hypotheses), I believe Geiger’s brilliant and compelling book is just another piece of evidence in support of Jaynesian ideas. On the theory of bicameralism, the Third Man is a vestigial remnant of a preexisting system of behavioral self-stimulation that used internally generated hallucinations as a way to transfer linguistic information to other, “encapsulated” areas of the brain.

If you are interested, Geiger has setup an online forum for people across the world to share stories of their own Third Man experience. Check it out:


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