correspondentA quick mention for an interesting piece in the NYT reviewing reader’s opinions on two of the most famous arguments about qualia, all in the sensible hands of Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

Also worth a look is this essay considering the history of ideas about animal consciousness, leading up to a favourable mention for Thomas Nagel and his seminal paper on What Is It Like To Be A Bat – more on Nagel and his recent book very soon.

If you missed it I also recommend a look at Scott Bakker’s post on Reengineering Dennett: Intentionality and the Curse of Dimensionality.


  1. 1. Arnold Trehub says:

    In Scott Bakker’s post about intentionality and dimensionality he writes:

    “If he [Dennett] had, I want to suggest, he would have seen that intentionality, like avoidance, is best explained in terms of missing information, which is to say, as a kind of perspectival illusion.”

    I think the approach of “missing information” that Scott advocates here has little explanatory power. On the other hand, the theory that evolution has endowed us with an innate brain mechanism (retinoid space), that transparently represents the volumetric space we live in, explains intentionality in terms of *added* information instead of *missing* information. The perspectival projection of a 3D cube from a 2D surface that Scott illustrates in his essay is explained by the neuronal structure and dynamics of the brain’s retinoid system. See “Why 2D Perspective Works” in this article:

    I agree with Scott that we are blind to the workings of our own brain, but this blindness alone can’t explain why we see objects and events *out there*, outside of our own brain.

  2. 2. scott bakker says:

    We’ve hashed this out at length many times in the past, Arnold, and I fear I still don’t understand how any of your proposed mechanisms explain the peculiarities of intentionality (let alone phenomenality!). BBT, on the other hand, isn’t a theory of consciousness. It’s a theory about why consciousness appears the way it does, and why it seems so devilishly difficult to explain as a result. It simply proposes a new way of conceptualizing a host of old problems that may or may not make them more tractable. Experiment without theory, as they say, is blind, and it seems clear to me that if any corner of scientific endeavour is suffering from the absence of the proper theoretical gestalt, it is consciousness research. Anything that promises to clear the field for fresh approaches, I think, is valuable for this very reason. BBT offers a parsimonious, systematic way to drastically reconceptualize what it is we think we’re trying to explain. Nothing more or less. So I fear comparing it to Retinoid Theory is misplaced.

  3. 3. Arnold Trehub says:

    We’ve certainly discussed this, but hashed it out? I’ m not a philosopher, so maybe I have an erroneous understanding of “intentionality”. As I understand it, *intentionality* refers to the fact that our phenomenal experience is always *about* something in the world, not in our brain. If this is the case, then the retinoid theory is a strong candidate as an explanation of intentionality. If I have the wrong idea about intentionality, please correct me.

    Consciousness appears the way it does because of the way the cognitive neuronal machinery of the human brain works. That said, I agree with you that most people have the intuition that what happens in the brain cannot be their conscious experience because they can never directly perceive (are blind) to the doings of their own brain, whereas they are vividly aware of events all around them that are clearly not like the activity of billions of nerve cells.

    Scott: ” BBT offers a parsimonious, systematic way to drastically reconceptualize what it is we think we’re trying to explain. Nothing more or less. So I fear comparing it to Retinoid Theory is misplaced.”

    I take it that what you are trying to explain is the unwillingness of most people to accept the proposition that consciousness is the activity of the brain. OK. But then you seem to be grappling with the problems of intentionality and dimensionality, and it is on these issues that I bring up the relevance of Retinoid Theory. I see two separate questions that you seem to be conflating.

  4. 4. VicP says:

    Gents: I think both of you have ideas of great merit. The retinoidal model at some level can be found in every organism with a sensorimotor system. BBT can also be aligned with Dense Brain Theory or we have an unpacking problem when it comes to understanding consciousness. I agree with Scott that our language makes the problem a lot more complex than how evolution actually made us. Like you Arnold I am not a philosopher so I may confuse volition with intentionality but to me most out their are poor engineers so they fail to reverse engineer by ignoring the rest of the central nervous system so we end up with bizarre notions like brains in vats and matrix theory or thought experiments which our ignorance underlying leads to Blindness etc.

    Since nature is a lot more elegant I am going to start with a more stimulus response approach to CNS development. Instead of a dense brain approach I am going to start with an extended spinal approach and address the brain as a multilayered “retina” which “sees” lower brain function or an overlaying umbrella. By ignoring neocortical layering, they lose the natural dimension which nature builds in so you wind up exactly where Scott brilliantly says we are with BBT and all of the metaphysical soup they swim in.

    BTW my Umbrella Theory is an adaptation of Dennetts’s Multiple Drafts because the multilayering yields the interactive states which operate through the CNS.

    I weighed in on this overlaying approach in the Richard Brown CO5 Conference Tononi IIT Debate which was based on Mateo Grasso’s paper:

  5. 5. Jorge says:

    Thanks for the link VicP! I really liked that essay. I happen to think positions like Type F monism and B-type materialism are deeply problematic (conflict of intuition situations arise) but he did a fine job explaining why it looks like Tononi’s IIT falls into one of these two categories.

    I might butcher this, but here’s a good way to remember the difference between volition and intentionality (they are kind of linked).

    Volition: the “feeling” of willing to do something. Like when you think to yourself “I want that cookie” and you COMMAND your arm to to move to the cookie. You feel as though “you” are the beginning of that event, and that this happens in some sense without cause, as though by Cartesian Soul Magic. Which is patently ridiculous.

    Intentionality: Someone watches you move your arm towards the cookie. They adopt the “intentional stance” (thanks again Dan!) and say something like “he move his arm because he wanted the cookie”, that is, they attribute a future-directed motivation towards your action. The deep philosophical issue here is that atoms, molecules and even DNA and cells are not “about” anything. A cell doesn’t move towards a chemo-attractant because it “wants” it, it does so due to a complicated BUT REDUCIBLE chain of physical-mechanical events. Likewise, human minds and their internal representations aren’t about anything. Or maybe we are. I have no clue.

  6. 6. VicP says:

    Jorge: Thanks for the reply. Well I think according to BBT the conflicts of metaphysical intuitions arise because of informatic illusions. Since the third person perspective causes us to perceive the world dualistically, when we turn the same scope on our own brains we have difficulty reverse engineering our own “machinery”.

    I theorize the brain as an “eye” because the brain’s “optic nerve” is rooted in the body. We can say the eye, visual cortex and associated visual control system is our brain inside of our brain or is actually our mind inside of our mind. Argue that blind people have working minds but most of their visual machinery works except for the image system and of course blind people learn linguistically from the rest of us.

    I posed the question on the PhilPapers thread to Richard Brown if visual image is not direct realism, what is audio information? Of course I see no problem with indirect realism of sight because the sight image is converted photon energy which flicker fuses in the brain in the same time domain as language and music.

  7. 7. VicP says:

    Jorge: Concerning the aboutness characteristic, when you’re stranded on a desert island you may catch fish with your hands and eat them raw or eat insects and wild berries. Mayor Bloomberg who is also the astute business man who became a billionaire by inventing and selling the Financial trader’s Bloomberg Terminal. He also knows that by adding a penny of fructose corn based syrup and 16 additional ounces of carbonated water and a larger plastic cup, business men can supersize the metabolic disaster of a fast food meal and add half a dollar of pure profit and make it more “appealing” to a hungry customer on a low income, or make it a “win-win” for the fast food franchisee. Conservative activists like Sarah Palin who drinks a 32 oz Big Gulp at the conservative CPAC convention see Mayor Mike as a nanny state liberal. However when her and Todd are moose hunting in Alaska, they probably rarely see a McDonald’s franchise in the urban woods.

  8. 8. scott bakker says:

    Jorge, VicP: The key thing to keep in mind with Chalmer’s taxonomy is that you have to buy his initial interpretation of the Mary and Zombie arguments. I liked Grasso’s paper (thanks for the link, VicP) but I was left with the sense that it really didn’t clarify all that much in the end… Chalmer’s comments suggest as much, I think.

    Arnold: We actually have spilled quite a few pixels on the topic, Arnold. As I said then, your account in no way that I can fathom can explain why intentionality causes all the cognitive problems that it does. Pointing to a certain mechanism, and saying, This explains x! on the basis of some *interpretation* of the explanandum x isn’t all that convincing unless you can show how your interpretation is itself warranted. This is why you continually run into the philosophical resistance you do. And as I say, I think BBT, far from being incompatible with your view, provides the a kind of interpretation that a good number of mechanistic explanations can latch onto.

  9. 9. Arnold Trehub says:

    Scott: “This explains x! on the basis of some *interpretation* of the explanandum x isn’t all that convincing unless you can show how your interpretation is itself warranted.”

    My interpretation is warranted/justified in the way that other scientific interpretations are justified, namely by passing relevant empirical tests. The best example (among many) of why the retinoid model/interpretation of intentionality is warranted is the empirical finding in the SMTT experiments that I have described. This theoretical interpretation of intentionality predicts, on the basis of the neuronal structure and dynamics of the brain’s putative retinoid mechanism, that we should be able to induce and systematically control a vivid conscious experience of an object moving in the space out in front of the subject when, in fact, the subject has no such object in his visual/sensory field. In this case, the phenomenal/intentional experience is *about* what seems to the subject to be a real object out there in the world. It is obvious that this “seen” object is nothing more than a particular state of the subject’s brain, explained by the biophysical properties of the retinoid system. What better evidence that my interpretation is warranted would you ask for? It strikes me that the SMTT experiment demonstrates the complementarity of intentional experience and brain events, similar to the double-slit experiment demonstrating the complementarity of particle and wave in theoretical physics.

  10. 10. scott bakker says:

    If only it were so simple, Arnold. If only intentionality were so simple (let alone phenomenality)! When the explananda are relatively easy to intersubjectively define, then this is indeed the way scientific explanation typically proceeds. Such is not the case with consciousness – not even remotely. I think BBT explains why: we’ve needed a ‘dual theory’ approach all along, one that explains, in empirically tractable terms, why we seem to have so much difficulty settling on some interpretation of the explanandum in this one case.

    But if this isn’t the case, why do you think your theory runs into the resistence it does?

  11. 11. Arnold Trehub says:

    Scott: ” I think BBT explains why: we’ve needed a ‘dual theory’ approach all along, one that explains, in empirically tractable terms, why we seem to have so much difficulty settling on some interpretation of the explanandum in this one case. … But if this isn’t the case, why do you think your theory runs into the resistence it does?”

    First let me say that I agree with your claim that our being blind to the neuronal activity of our own brain gives a strong bias against the notion that our conscious experience/intentionality is constituted by the activity of particular kinds of neuronal mechanisms in the brain (BBT). That said, I think the more significant reason for resistance to the retinoid theory is that it stands in a long line of other candidate theories of consciousness that have led to an explanatory morass with no convincing empirical support. In order to understand that the retinoid theory is a significant departure from other theories of consciousness one has to take the trouble to plow through *The Cognitive Brain*, understand the mechanisms that have been proposed, and see how they have the competence to create subjectivity, the analogical representation in a biological medium of a volumetric space around a fixed locus of perspectival origin (I!), that can be filled with all kinds of sensory images and events — our phenomenal world. Then they have to take serious account of the many relevant empirical findings that have been successfully predicted by the brain mechanisms that have been proposed. Recently, resistance has lessened as more investigators have become acquainted with the retinoid model and the phenomena that it has successfully predicted.

    In the Philosophical Papers Forum I encounter the strong intuition that the firing of neurons in one’s brain can’t be one’s conscious experience because our conscious experience isn’t anything like the firing of neurons (BBT). But I think I’m making progress in convincing some that empirical evidence trumps personal intuition. On the bright side, I think it is safe to say that there are more people today than there were fifty years ago who are willing to put their intuitions aside and accept that some kinds of invisible subatomic entities can be considered as both particle and wave. So there is hope.

  12. 12. scott bakker says:

    Arnold: I agree with you regarding the ‘explanatory morass.’ And as someone peddling a counterintuitive reconceptualization of the problems to be solved, I do understand the difficulties of rising above the background din. But then, I do seem to encounter quite a few eliminativists these days…

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