disappearMy Aeon Ideas Viewpoint on ‘Is the Self an Illusion?’.

I do sort of get why people are so keen on the idea that the self is illusory, but what puzzles me slightly is the absence of any middling, commonsensical camp. When it comes to Free Will, we have the hard-nosed deniers on the one hand and the equally uncompromising people who think determinism debases human nature; but there are quite a lot of people in the middle offering various compatibilist arguments that seek to let us have more or less the traditional concept of freedom and rigorous scientific materialism at the same time. I’m one, really. There just doesn’t seem to be the same school of thought in respect of the self; people who recognise the problem but regard the mission as sorting it out rather than erasing the concept from our vocabulary.

85 Comments

  1. 1. Jayarava says:

    I like your basic argument. However you don’t really deal with the critique of our ideas of self that I find most compelling. As Thomas Metzinger puts it we know the self must be a simulation because of the way it breaks. If we look at disorders that affect how we see ourself, as well as quirks of perception such as the rubber hand illusion, then a self as entity is out of the question. The only way to explain all the different observations is to say that the self must be generated by the brain on the fly. Or to put it another way having a first person perspective is experiential, not ontological. There is (can be) no special entity behind the experience of selfhood.

    Patricia Churchland makes an important distinction in the interminable freewill debate. She points out that many scientists and most philosophers are using a contracausal definition of freewill. They believe that decisions cannot be influenced by anything except pure reason. So the involvement of say emotions, let alone some external factor, would deny that our will is free. So most of the freewill deniers are not saying anything very interesting.

    These seem to be legacy problems. Indian philosophy also struggled with the idea of a permanent unchanging entity, which as in Christianity primarily provided for continued disembodied existence after death, but they never really bothered to ask about freewill because ancient Indians never saw themselves as the disobedient children of a father God.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Ah, you’ve spotted a point I didn’t, about proprioception. You’re right, our proprioceptive sense of ourselves and where we are is open to manipulation (although it may also tell the truth). In that sense you can fairly point to an illusion. I still don’t think that warrants full denial of the self’s existence, though.

    Interesting perspective on free will.

  3. 3. Arnold Trehub says:

    There are two embodiments of self. There is the core self (I!) and there is what Metzinger calls the phenomenal self image (PSM). Our self image is constantly changing as we mature and engage with the world. But the core self is a real neuronal part of the brain — the fixed locus of perspectival origin in our brain’s representation of the world around us. For details, see “Where Am I? Redux”, *Journal of Consciousness Studies*. The PSM requires the core self to anchor its changing constructions.

  4. 4. Sci says:

    Peter I’m not sure you’re making a compatbilist argument if you’re suggesting intentionality breaks a causal chain? Or perhaps I simply misunderstood the argument in your book? (As an aside the Gregg Rosenberg book on consciousness and causality is A Place for Consciousness. I think I mistakenly referred to it as Consciousness and Its Place in Nature previously – apologies!)

    On the subject of the self, it seems to me intentionality and subjective experience have a kind of “for-ness” (can’t recall who said this originally) and that “for-ness” would be the self. Whether this self is some intrinsic part of reality (soul?) or made up of meat is there really something that invalidates the for-ness? I suppose this is where BBT comes in, but even if we’re a collection of subroutines/heuristics/whatever it’s hard for me to understand how the for-ness would be “illusory”.

    As I said before perhaps my imagination simply can’t imagine it doesn’t exist. 🙂

  5. 5. Peter says:

    I don’t mean to say that the chain of causality is broken literally, at the physical level, only that there’s a level and a sense in which we can legitimately say the causes of behaviour are in the future.

    On Rosenberg, I actually posted about him back in the day; it seems to have been one of the “lost posts” I dropped in transition to WordPress. It should retrievable, but the comments alas will not be. I’ll try to dig it out.

    By ‘for-ness’ you mean something like it’s ‘for me’ or am I misunderstanding?

  6. 6. Richard J.R.Miles says:

    Self denial is more correct than an illusion, as a large amount of us as individuals may seem like an illusion due to us not being conscious of any of our autonomic activity, of which is a huge percentage of us. It is not an illusion but the physical activity keeping us alive, our physical homunculus which is the driver of us. This major amount of us is suprisingly taken for granted and ignored, that we cannot do without. It is probably this duality and interaction that Descartes like most people could not understand, but it is this physical not ethereal duality that we all have that is not an illusion.

  7. 7. Sci says:

    Thanks Peter – will have to reread that section of your book. I know Tallis argues there is a causal break from physical causation due to intentionality but he’s also a critic of our understanding of causality in general. I have to admit I don’t really see how compatibilism works* though I also don’t see how determinism as usually understood works so it’s not a big worry of mine. I’d think something higher level like BBT would be more of a concern.

    Would be interesting to see this lost post if it isn’t too much trouble. Regardless thanks for the offer to retrieve it!

    And yes, by “for-ness” I meant both subjectivity and intentionality are centered on a first-person perspective.

    *Arvan, who has his own controversial theory of “Libertarian Compatibilism”, at the least has a good critique of compatibilism which I think the layperson will share even if many philosophers have been convinced:

    http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2013/06/trouble-with-compatibilism.html

  8. 8. Peter says:

    Arvan seems to me to demand too much. I claim I could have done the thing I didn’t do: I can see how that might be true, or might be false, but to insist it must not be counterfactual (if we’re to be free) seems absurd…

  9. 9. Sci says:

    Peter, could you expand on your complaint? Because to me compatibilism is nonsensical for the reasons Arvan gives – if you can’t do otherwise you can’t really have the “free” part in “free will”.

  10. 10. Peter says:

    To me it goes like this. I say I could have done B, instead of A if my decision had been different. The determinist says, you couldn’t have done B because your doing A was already determined. I say yes, but it was determined only by a set of factors which includes my decision. The difference between free acts and non-free is simply that my decision is part of the determination in the free cases. Granted, in the final analysis my decision was determined too, but what matters is whether it was decisive in picking A or B. If I had been obliged to do A regardless of what I thought, that would not have been free.
    Arvan seems to get that but dismisses it because the original point still boggles his mind. I think lots of people find that, which may explain why the problem is so perennial. The correct analysis does not banish many people’s puzzlement.

  11. 11. Jayarava says:

    One of the things I take from studying Buddhism, where the argument about “self” has raged for 2500 years, is that it’s pointless to argue about the existence or non-existence of experiences. We certainly have an *experience* of selfhood; we have a first person perspective on experience. Does the experience exist? Or is it non-existent? Neither really apply, because it’s a process. It arises, or as might say now emerges as a property of having the kind of embodied mind that we have. It’s like a rainbow – we certainly see rainbows and can describe their qualities in some detail, but at no time does a rainbow “exist” as a entity. It’s a quirk of perspective, we just happen to be standing in the right place to see the spectrum created by a double internal reflection in some raindrops. We don’t argue that the rainbow exists in the raindrops either.

    Or are we saying that the metaphorical person in “first person” is in fact a real person? And then the question is, “Well, *where* is that person? Show it to me!”

    If we turn the question around and ask, “When we *affirm* a self, what are we affirming?” then it’s also productive. There seems to be no entity within an entity, no homunculus lurking in the body anywhere. So our sense of self, of being someone, just seems to be a property of a functioning body with a central nervous system, as a rainbow is a property of atmospheric physics. What does it add to assert that this amounts to a “self”? I can’t see that it adds anything.

    The point of most definite self theories is to add something immaterial that survives death. Sean Carroll has shown that there’s no longer any way that this can be the case. Physics rules it out. See for example: http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2011/05/23/physics-and-the-immortality-of-the-soul/. So if not immortality, what role does a self play in our minds. It’s possible I suppose to argue that it’s an internal reference point for sensations and actions. Fine, but that’s pretty abstract. And why call it a self? Why not call it a “reference point”?

    In other words, not only do I think that there is little room in our understanding of mind, body and universe for a self, but I’m also puzzled as to what it might add to our understanding if it did exist. We simply make too big a deal about having a first person perspective on experience because we want to be special. We want that specialness to have substance, and we’re even willing to invent an invisible, immaterial, immeasurable “substance” to support the idea.

    When we pare it back to what we know, there is no “thing” called a self. There are simply experiences that have a first person perspective on. There’s no need to affirm or deny any speculative entities. And wasn’t this the council of Occam?

  12. 12. Scott Bakker says:

    I actually think all your considerations circle around a single, and quite correct observation, Peter: eliminativism of the self (and I see Dennett belonging to this camp) needs some compelling account of the efficacy of ‘self-talk’ (which I don’t think Dennett provides).

    But this actually cuts both ways, Peter. Realists regarding the self require some compelling account of the *inefficacy of self-talk.* If ‘self’ carves nature at the joints, then why is it plagued with all the questions you raise?

    Take a step back, and it becomes a truism to assert that the self is exceptionally problematic. Why should it be problematic? Why should it so regularly split intuitions between Cartesian and Humean poles? This is the more interesting question, especially because it begins with a consensus observation.

    This is what I take as my primary explanandum: Any adequate theory of the self needs to account for the problem of the self, how it can at once seem illusory, and the most obvious of obvious things. I think I have that account: ‘self’ is a component in a system adapted to solve social problems absent any access to high-dimensional information regarding the greater organism (or system of organisms). It’s a heuristic kluge. When used in practical contexts, we should expect it to be adaptive, as obvious can be. In theoretical contexts, we should expect it to break down, to generate controversy rather than consensus.

    Because we lack meta-metacognition, we have no inkling at all when we move from practical to theoretical domains, and so suddenly, what had been obvious in one context becomes downright impenetrable in others, particularly those that adduce the very kind of detailed biological information ‘self’ is adapted to do without. ‘Self’ short-circuits.

    Those impressed by the short-circuit, declare the self an illusion. Those who can’t shake its original obviousness insist that there must be something more to the picture.

    Since I take the natural sciences to be our baseline context in discussions of the self, I call it a ‘low-dimensional illusion,’ because ultimately, the term by itself cuts no natural joints: it requires a supplemental, natural explanation to be understood.

    I see Dennett’s position as merely rhetorical in this regard, like telling mourners at Grandma Mildred’s funeral to just rename their dog ‘Mildred.’ But the challenge I would pose to you, Peter, is simply how ‘self’ *could be anything more than a kluge.*

  13. 13. VicP says:

    Peter and Company; Well there is a self which which we share with other mammals and other life forms to some extent, but it is this human narrative and thought self which gets us into all of this trouble. Maybe like it took generations to prove that 2 H’s and an O made water, this is also a skills category error to how we (nature) added the narrative self? Like how is it really made?

  14. 14. Peter says:

    Jayarava: what I mainly want to add is agency together with experience, and following from them moral responsibility and moral objecthood (and then legal personhood). When you out those with brute animal identity it seems a sturdy package to me; no wish to add immortality or the other options.

    Scott, I think many problems come from the fact that ‘self’ is a short word that actually means several things, some indeed klugey and others completely problematic. Again, I want agency, the origin of plans (but not an homunculus or module, more like an element in a real process). I reckon I can get that without falling foul of illusions – YMMV, as they say.

  15. 15. Sergio Graziosi says:

    @Peter, Arnold, Sci, and actually everyone here…

    First of all, I’d like to highlight a very special situation, it seems to me that Peter, Arnold, probably Metzinger, to some extent Scott, and myself all agree (!) on something. Perhaps Jayarava isn’t that far as well.
    Luckily, this something looks very difficult to pinpoint, therefore I’ll try to make it explicit, and restore the natural order of the universe by allowing everyone to disagree with me!

    Peter says “there may be two selves, or a more extended self”, Arnold says “There are two embodiments of self. There is the core self (I!) and there is what Metzinger calls the phenomenal self image (PSM)”. I also think there are two embodiments of self. However, I would lump together the (I!), which is a mere reference point, and PSM: to me the PSM has to function also as the (I!) in the retinoid model, or at the very least as something that contains the (I!). Which leaves me with an empty slot for the second embodiment of the self: this place is easily (for me!) taken by the set of brain mechanisms that use the information collected from the senses (as I’ve discussed here before, the body itself acts as a point of reference, which in turn makes it possible/straightforward to represent perceptions in a relative-to-(I!) fashion), so to drive action. [I suppose you could include memories in this “activity driving self”, or you could treat memories as external additional input, I don’t think it matters.]

    Thus, you end up with a model of the self, or PSM, in almost perfect* Metzinger style, plus an acting self, which is what consumes the model. Perhaps it’s fortuitous, but this in turn makes sense of the strength of dualist intuitions (@Scott #12 and gazillion other people): we perceive the PSM, which correlates with the physical very well (save rubber-hand illusions and the like), but something is missing – the acting self remains hidden. Metacognition/introspection is an action, but the PSM needs to contain (represent) almost nothing about the inner workings of the acting self (as no evolutionary advantage is granted by representing the acting self in detail, a long discussion in itself), thus, you find BBT (or something very similar, maybe a bit less pessimistic!). Also: introspectively, the prima facie and most parsimonious explanation of what you perceive is that the acting self (the true you?), must be immaterial (because as usual, What You See Is All There Is). Trying to make sense of this intuition then uncovers all the problems we know, allowing us to declare dualism as almost certainly not viable (I must add).

    The whole discussion is also irreversibly linked to the free will debate, as Peter hints: if there is no me, who is it that is “free to will”?

    I’ve written something about this recently, which very hastily dismisses the whole Self and Free Will debates as silly (in the notes!). In case you missed it, it’s here: The illusory illusions of reductionism.

    The argument in a nutshell: if you apply a reductive approach to the study of (our sense of) self, you are already assuming it is made of different interacting parts. Finding (some of) these interacting parts means your assumption was sensible; it does not mean that the self doesn’t exist! This in turn implies that the self (the acting self, to be precise) is what mechanistically generates our will, thus my will is really mine, my decisions do in fact belong to me, because I *am* (also) made of the mechanisms that produce my behaviour (and my thoughts, decisions, dispositions…).

    *The way I understand Metzinger, there are small differences between his position and mine, how could they not? For brevity, I’ll gloss over them.

  16. 16. Peter says:

    Your optimism about agreement being close never flags, Sergio – an amiable trait!

  17. 17. VicP says:

    Interesting talk with Tononi which is end of the longer one hour plus presentation. Towards the end he talks about the universal protagonist in the dream and nondescript ‘I’.

    Also discusses cerebellum learning and how we ‘out’ our motor functions when learning before they become second nature. Attributes cerebellum to skill learning only and not social learning.

    https://youtu.be/Sg4apVaKPT8

  18. 18. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Oh, I don’t know Peter.
    To me it frequently looks like the visible sign of my hopeless wishful thinking. I oscillate between this view and the thought that most people disagree because they fixate on small differences of interpretation, while the substance of what they say is indeed compatible. I would be happy if the truth was half way across these opposing extremes.

    By the way, given your exquisite Britishness, I take your comment to mean: “Sergio, of course we all strongly disagree, you’re talking nonsense again, but that’s OK”. 😉
    (I don’t think you should answer to this last spark of silliness, otherwise I’ll be tempted to keep fishing for compliments)

  19. 19. Scott Bakker says:

    Sergio: Sounds like you’re talking about the ‘mereological fallacy.’ Are you taking a Wittgensteinian slant?

    As much as I love Being No One, Metzinger’s representationalism leads him into versions of the same old problem (namely, offloading the problem of consciousness on the problem of meaning). His characterization of auto-epistemic darkness also prevents him from seeing how the problem of neglect generalizes, and therefore how ‘representation’ can be seen as an artifact of neglect.

    I just don’t see there being any PSM–I don’t see why we need it. I can see how it could arise as an artifact of reflection, however, and convince those beguiled by their intuitions…

  20. 20. Scott Bakker says:

    “Again, I want agency, the origin of plans (but not an homunculus or module, more like an element in a real process). I reckon I can get that without falling foul of illusions – YMMV, as they say.”

    Do you want ‘agency’ or an explanation of human behaviour. ‘Agency’ (which is every bit as overdetermined as ‘self’) amounts to a an intuitive (folk-based) theory of human behaviour, one that fits (in multitudinous ways) our metacognitive intuitions. But it makes sense of human behaviour without itself being explicable. In fact, it places us in precisely the same pickle as ‘self’ in this regard. Human behaviour can be explained a la zombie, so really, what you’re asking for is an explanation why it appears to us a la agency. And again, this throws you back on the inevitability of heuristic kluges, and the likelihood that agency, high-dimensionally speaking, is nothing at all.

  21. 21. Peter says:

    But I’m not relying on folk or intuitive ideas, I’ve set out in terms what agency means to me, and I claim it’s not particularly problematic.
    Animals that lack agency respond to past or present stimuli. Our ability to recognise patterns that extend over time allows our behaviour to be influenced by recognised future contingencies. Where we choose between future options we exercise what I call agency and have responsibility. Anything that has that kind of agency is a self (of one kind).
    I can have that much without worrying about how we perceive or metacognise it – because I don’t need it to be an illusion.

  22. 22. Arnold Trehub says:

    Peter: “Where we choose between future options we exercise what I call agency and have responsibility. Anything that has that kind of agency is a self (of one kind).”

    I’d put it like this: “Anything that has that kind of agency *has* a self — a fixed brain locus of perspectival origin.”

  23. 23. Peter says:

    “Fixed” is the only word I might quibble over, Arnold, depending what you mean.

  24. 24. Arnold Trehub says:

    Peter, by “fixed”, I mean that the core self (I!) is *always* the locus of perspectival origin within our brain’s spatiotemporal represention of the surrounding world. In my theory of consciousness, the core self is the locus of perspectival origin in the neuronal mechanisms of retinoid space.

  25. 25. Peter says:

    OK, Arnold, thanks!

  26. 26. VicP says:

    There appears to be no middle ground in the self debate because either people do not think (worry) about the concept at all or once you begin to investigate it is easy to see that we consist of many parts and exhibit all type of behavior under different circumstances.

    Why we have a self to begin with has more to do with our social nature as opposed to the “rugged individualism of self”. With no selves there is no one to hold responsible, reward, punish, judge, love, hate, sell to, buy from……

  27. 27. Peter says:

    Sci, I’ve brought the old Rosenberg post into WP (I’ve been meaning to do all of them for literally years) and it’s here. Turns out to be one of the old Bitbucket versus Blandula ones. I might be forced to re-read Rosenberg now to see if I still think the same…

  28. 28. Scott Bakker says:

    Peter: “But I’m not relying on folk or intuitive ideas, I’ve set out in terms what agency means to me, and I claim it’s not particularly problematic.
    Animals that lack agency respond to past or present stimuli. Our ability to recognise patterns that extend over time allows our behaviour to be influenced by recognised future contingencies. Where we choose between future options we exercise what I call agency and have responsibility. Anything that has that kind of agency is a self (of one kind).
    I can have that much without worrying about how we perceive or metacognise it – because I don’t need it to be an illusion.”

    I guess I don’t get the last part, unless you’re simply talking stipulation. The brute fact is that ‘future contingencies’ play no efficacious role in our thought because, well, they’re in the future. It’s the systematically reliable residue (via evolution and learning) of periodic past contingencies that make brains so great at gambling on the future, not the future itself! We advert to ‘goals,’ ‘agency,’ ‘purpose,’ simply because our ancestors had no way of cognizing the ‘systematically reliable residues’ actually driving our behaviour. Blind to our actual structure and dynamics, we could not cognize them as such, and so had to cognize them some other way. Causal constraint is replaced by inexplicable acausal one’s, like ‘future goals.’

    Unless I’m wrong about the above somehow, it pretty seems pretty safe to say that agency, even on your definition, suffers the same fate as self. We’re just complicated animals, is all.

  29. 29. Peter says:

    It’s true that at the basic physical level cause always comes before effect – that’s why determinism is strictly true and I’m a compatibilist, not a libertarian. But on another interesting level of description human behaviour can address future items – you surely don’t deny we’re capable of planning.
    If I see an apple I reach for it, though the payoff is a couple of seconds in the future when I get it to my mouth. Is that because I’ve got stored responses? Actually, yes it could well be; but it could also be because I recognise the reaching and eating as a single behaviour item that just happens to extend over time.
    If the apple is one that only might exist on a tree on the other side of a valley, the chronological gap is bigger, but I can still recognise the whole trip as a thing I might do and in that way the future Apple can trigger behaviour now (meanwhile the literal physical story underneath is about patterns of neuron firing, causally unproblematic).
    If we move on to planting a pip to grow a tree… But you get the idea. I reckon this type of pattern-driven behaviour is the key to foresight, intentionality, meaning, language, and in the end the whole of the Easy Problem (except the neurology).

  30. 30. Sergio Graziosi says:

    @Scott #19

    Sounds like you’re talking about the ‘mereological fallacy.’ Are you taking a Wittgensteinian slant?

    Not intentionally! I didn’t know that ‘mereological fallacy’ is a thing, but I sort-of understand why you’re asking, after checking it out.

    I’ve two things to add:
    Representationalism is very popular on the neuroscience camp, and I’m as guilty as anybody. However, people are challenging it, and some of the arguments have to be taken seriously. Thus, I’m trying to engage with the challenge, but mostly in the privacy of my own thoughts, for now. What I think/hope can eventually lead to a decent synthesis (as in thesis antithesis => synthesis) is an expansion of a theme I’ve explored here on CE.

    Let’s see if I can put it down in an intelligible form:
    Every measure is made possible by the presence of a reference point, you can’t measure anything without it. Thus, every measured value implies the existence of a reference point. If there is a reliable truth besides cogito ergo sum it may be this one.
    In the case of sensory stimuli collected by organisms, the reference point is always the organism itself. Thus, in whichever way sensory stimuli are handled (I can even avoid writing “processed”), in order to produce sensible reactions, the existence and validity of a self-as-reference-point can only be taken for granted. In turn, as I’ve suggested before, this can offer us a starting point to try understanding how intentionality and meaning enter the picture (I won’t repeat myself). One inversion that I think will be necessary to explain is the fact that “representations” don’t need to be “explicit representations”, precisely because the existence of a reference point can be taken for granted, as long as stimuli are coming-in. I’ve had a short and blunt exchange with Arnold on this, where he concluded

    […] we are talking past each other because we have significantly different understandings of what an internal model of [the] surrounding world might be.

    (making me feel a tad stupid). Since then, I’ve tried to articulate the thought in a more convincing/clear manner, with little success, but I do note that Hohwy in “The Predictive Mind” has a very good explanation of what I’m trying to get at (a thought experiment involving a chap that learns how to repair a dam without ever seeing what’s on the other side. In fact, that’s my favourite bit of the whole book). The key idea is that to model/represent some aspects of the outside world it is just necessary to have some internal structure that reliably changes its state according to what is happening outside. If you “represent” in this way different external properties, you can then start representing correlations between different measures (say, light and heat), which is just one tiny step away from learning about correlations and thus be able to place some bets on the future (making predictions!) or modelling the world, including the expected future. You can go on and on, enriching the picture of the outside at each step. All of the additional elaborations are made possible by, and hence can take for granted that, the collected stimuli are relative to some reference point, and that the reference point more or less coincides with the perceiving organism.
    Once you start measuring also qualities of your own structure, the position of your limbs, hunger, pain, whatever, you are already modelling the world+self. Once you start representing the relationships between internal and external measures you can: a. start developing an enriched self-representation; b. make predictions on the effects the world has on you (as well as the reverse).

    At this stage, I think that:
    – the implicitness of the perceiving-I,
    – the implicit correspondence between measure and model,
    – the short distance between (passive) modelling and (active) predicting
    are the keys to make all my lucubration above intelligible (I don’t think it is, right now). We shall see if I’ll be smart enough to unpack all of this in a clear enough way.
    I also think that the keyword “implicit” is what allows translating these underdeveloped ideas into the framework of BBT, but that’s for you to ponder on (if I may)…

    Scott, you are puzzled by this attempt of mine, because you don’t see why we should try to explain meaning (et al.) when we can just eliminate it. I think this goes to the core of what we disagree about (See Peter? I sometimes acknowledge disagreements, if you rub my nose against them for long enough!). You make no mystery that BBT scares the hell out of you, because you think it entails radical eliminativism: following your reasoning you just have to dismiss agency, intentionality, the self, meaning, good and bad, throw all of them out of the same window. You remain with nothing to care about, and it isn’t an agreeable prospect.
    I’ve struggled to get this last bit, because I just don’t see how the doom and gloom follows from your core intuitions. This is one of the reasons I wrote the post on the Illusionary illusions of reduction, it was not written “for” you, but it was written in the light of what I’ve learned by disagreeing with you (and many others). I think you are doing exactly the error I describe in the post: I don’t think we need to eliminate anything from the list above, I also think that the ball is in your camp if you wish to show me why I’m wrong.
    In other words, I think that the step from “we are just complicated animals”(agreed), “we can’t metacognise properly because we don’t have access to the information needed”(agreed) and “it’s the systematic lack of information that makes consciousness what it is”(agreed as well), does not justify the leap to “consciousness, self-hood, agency, meaning and intentionality are all illusions” (disagreed, when interpreted in the strong “they don’t really exist” sense). What can be said is “they are all quite different from how they appear introspectively”. They have to be, because introspection is systematically limited, even if it feels 100% authoritative.

    I’d love you to see my point and grab the chance I’m offering, you could save the things we care about and still move towards a mechanistic understanding of consciousness. (wishful thinking again!)

    Second thing: all of the above should at least provide a hint on why I think that something like the PSM/(I!) can’t be avoided (opening myself to theatre- and homunculus-inspired criticism). A reference point is there form the start (implicit and hidden as you like, but still there): expecting evolution not to use something that is already there, is reliable as death and is freakin’ useful, looks difficult to justify in my simplistic mind. Once you accept this, a faint hope to explain intentionality and meaning appears, that’s why I’m frantically gesticulating in that direction, screaming “See? See? it’s all there!”.

  31. 31. Cognicious says:

    Selves exist in the psychiatric sense. A person has a character structure. However, the word “self” doesn’t seem to refer to that here.

    Jayarava, in Post #11: “The point of most definite self theories is to add something immaterial that survives death.” I would say that this is the point (one point) of *folk* theories but not of academic *philosophical* theories, except theological ones.

    From introspection: My sense of being somebody, having (intangible) substance, as opposed to being a mere succession of experiences, is strong when I deal with moral issues. Whether others have such “self surges,” I don’t know. Think of something that makes you righteously angry; the international news provides plenty of test material for this purpose. Do you then feel greater you-ness, do you have a heightened perception of having an inside, than when doing routine tasks?

  32. 32. Sci says:

    @Peter: Thanks for finding that post for me, appreciate it and will keep it mind when my copy of Rosenberg’s book arrives!

    Have to catch up on these other posts – the link Sergio provided – all of which at a glance seem very interesting.

  33. 33. Peter says:

    Sci,

    Sadly I recall there were some interesting comments on that post originally, all lost due to my clumsiness.

    While we’re doing blasts from the past, here’s one (or two) for Sergio: The Mereological Fallacy.

  34. 34. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Thanks Peter! Nice lunchtime-break reading, much appreciated.
    All: please try not to underestimate my ignorance, I’m just a vociferous noob.
    In contrast, I’ve just been reminded that I should never underestimate the depth of Conscious Entities itself. No matter how long I read, the number of still-to-be-discovered interesting discussions seems to remain always “too high to estimate”.

  35. 35. Scott Bakker says:

    Sergio (30): [sorry, Sergio, for the amount of wind]

    “In the case of sensory stimuli collected by organisms, the reference point is always the organism itself. Thus, in whichever way sensory stimuli are handled (I can even avoid writing “processed”), in order to produce sensible reactions, the existence and validity of a self-as-reference-point can only be taken for granted.”

    I’ve called this baseline ‘taking for granted’ a number of different things over the years, ‘Occluded Frame,’ ‘Medial Neglect,’ ‘Indisposition’–terms that identify my continental philosophical background I’m sure! But I’m telling you there’s no advantage to be gained by viewing it semantic terms—least of all, ‘self.

    Ask yourself: what kind of information is taken for granted by this ‘zero point’? Answer? Pretty much everything the cognitive sciences are mining today—natural information. Since, at any given moment, the system ‘takes’ its systematic entirety ‘for granted,’ all our reasoning about ourselves also takes all this information for granted, which means—quite indisputably, I think—that we’re basically trying to solve ourselves in conditions of abject neglect.

    This is what a representation is, and obviously so: a way to think about ourselves in conditions of abject neglect. Think of how, in the absence of any information pertaining to the systematic economic and social role played by money, we’re prone to cognize it as something possessing intrinsic efficacy. We talk as if paper has the magical power of mind control. In the case of representation, neglect cues us to process the information (the difference making differences, or efficacy) as belonging to the thing, somehow. And it turns out to be an effective heuristic. When your mechanic fixes your car, why cognize the astronomically complicated evolutionary and cultural matrices that sculpted her when you can just say that she knows what she’s doing?

    Since it’s a way to work around neglect, and something impervious to deliberative metacognition (thanks again to abject neglect), it possesses inexplicable incompatibilities with nature—that is, all the difference making differences that make possible.

    The Bayesian stuff (I too loved The Predictive Mind) is excitingly powerful in many respects. The bootstrapping model will prove impossible to outdo, I think—it just resounds with evolutionary elegance. Even though Hohwy assumes his semantic acquaintance with the apparatus means the apparatus is itself semantic, the statistical way it models our brains relation to its environments leaves nothing out, save an explanation of semantic properties. An independent explanation of semantic properties, therefore, would allow for a purely mechanistic understanding of the Bayesian systems coupling us to our environments. And that’s what I’ve just given you an example of above: an independent explanation of semantic properties.

    This means there’s a way to understand our relation to the world without having to worry about semantic properties. We can keep track of the tools involving intentional cognition, accept that they are impervious to metacognition, parochial to contexts, and simply refine them the only way we can: against the kinds practical results they provide. We can throw out the bulk of philosophy as hokum, the serial misapplication of intentional cognition to intentional cognition, reasons gone mad in conditions of abject neglect.

  36. 36. Scott Bakker says:

    Sergio (30):
    “I think you are doing exactly the error I describe in the post: I don’t think we need to eliminate anything from the list above, I also think that the ball is in your camp if you wish to show me why I’m wrong.
    In other words, I think that the step from “we are just complicated animals”(agreed), “we can’t metacognise properly because we don’t have access to the information needed”(agreed) and “it’s the systematic lack of information that makes consciousness what it is”(agreed as well), does not justify the leap to “consciousness, self-hood, agency, meaning and intentionality are all illusions” (disagreed, when interpreted in the strong “they don’t really exist” sense). What can be said is “they are all quite different from how they appear introspectively”. They have to be, because introspection is systematically limited, even if it feels 100% authoritative.”

    I think your last question gets it wrong. To say “they are all quite different from how they appear introspectively” assumes that they appear at all. If you take your implicit frame of reference seriously, then the answer is by no means simple.

    Once you appreciate what metacognition, as a physical system, amounts to—once you see it for the *need to know* system that it is—then suddenly our philosophical confusion becomes an important data point in our attempt to figure out what the apparent objects of metacognition consist of. We can safely say, for instance, that experience does not provide the information required to be solved on the basis of reflection. The same way frogs only need see dots to catch flies, our ancestors only needed ‘experience’ to solve their own parochial problems. As result, experience yields only inexplicable ‘dots’ to deliberative metacognition. And we’re forever shouting, ‘that’s not a fly!’

    Look, my consistent challenge is always to get people to appreciate the profundity of their theoretical, metacognitive blindness. It *is* a kind of anosognosia I’m arguing. Imagine aliens abducted you as a child and rewired a number of cognitive illusions into your system. Over time, you or others would begin to notice peculiarities. Now imagine aliens abducted the whole human race. Those illusions would form their collective cognitive baseline, their frame of reference. They would remain (as all our biases have remained, until recently) something utterly taken for granted.

    That’s what I’m trying to get you to do: to cross your eyes until the double image finally becomes one! There’s no PSM because there doesn’t need to be. All our brain needs is a constellation of cues, simply because it can trust in the systematic integrity of the whole, that it evolved thus, learned thus, and this is what is done. Perhaps patterns of information are recapitulated, perhaps not. But no inexplicable, low-dimensional semantic ghost is required.

    And as horrific as that sounds for humanity, surely it represents a tremendous gain for cognitive science. They can begin chasing out all the philosophers for one!

  37. 37. VicP says:

    If there is a core self or core being in the lower part of the brain, consider what may be occurring between the cerebral cortex and the thalamacortical systems in the brain. They say religion and music frees the soul.

    https://youtu.be/iCN8c8BRoD0

  38. 38. Peter says:

    Not for me on that showing, Vic…

  39. 39. Callan S. says:

    Peter(29):

    If the apple is one that only might exist on a tree on the other side of a valley, the chronological gap is bigger, but I can still recognise the whole trip as a thing I might do and in that way the future Apple can trigger behaviour now (meanwhile the literal physical story underneath is about patterns of neuron firing, causally unproblematic).

    The thing is, there are a thousand other paths you could take – some might involve the apple – many, not at all.

    We only take the one path for not seeing the many.

    And not just that – we see the one path, then we see it as all there is (as much as it’ll be the only path we take, for not seeing any others).

    If there were ten doors to the apple but you can only see one, then there is only one door. That door is all there is and as much that is what you’ll take. Who doesn’t go through the only door that is there?

    The breadth of our actions is granted by the narrowness of our capacity to see options. Say you could see ten doors to the apple – you might consider yourself behaviourally diverse. But then there are a hundred doors you can’t see, don’t even know you can’t see and…as such instead you wander a narrow corridor, when contrasted against so many other doors. But if there had been only ten doors then you’d have seen all options, perfectly. And when there are more than ten doors but only ten can be seen, then you have seen all options, perfectly as much.

    That sense of seeing all options…that sense just doesn’t care if ten doors is all there is or if there are a ninety more doors is has no inkling of. It’s a sense of perfect grasp either way.

    Which seems the key to intentionality and meaning.

  40. 40. Scott Bakker says:

    Peter (29): “But on another interesting level of description human behaviour can address future items – you surely don’t deny we’re capable of planning.
    If I see an apple I reach for it, though the payoff is a couple of seconds in the future when I get it to my mouth. Is that because I’ve got stored responses? Actually, yes it could well be; but it could also be because I recognise the reaching and eating as a single behaviour item that just happens to extend over time.”

    This is one reason why I think talk regarding ‘levels of description/explanation’ is so deceptive. What we’re actually talking about are different *ecologies* of description/explanation (and given bounded cognition, how could it be otherwise?), different heuristic contexts.

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the commonsense idiom; in fact there’s nothing wrong with it until we presume to ‘unpack its nature’ via reflection. That’s where the (entirely inevitable) cognitive illusions confound us, and we come to the conclusion that we need some way to intellectually harmonize the apparent deliverances of reflection with the scientific picture.

    The commonsense idiom deals with shallow information ecologies; it comprises a way to solve problems absent information regarding what’s going on. It’s so bloody difficult to square with deep information ecologies, ‘scientific knowledge,’ because it’s adapted to make do without that information (and really, how could it be otherwise?). There’s no ‘deeper intentional reality’ to our intentional idioms. This is why intentionalists cannot even agree on how to *formulate* their explananda, let alone explain them. There’s no high dimensional facts of the matter, apart from those provided by the sciences, nothing to solve the underdetermination that paralyses all intentionalism.

    The moral is, all we need do square is our talk, not what our talk apparently ‘means.’ Likewise, all we need do is explain why reflecting on our talk is so confounding. All that’s left is the empirical job of figuring out the brain.

  41. 41. john davey says:

    Peter

    I have to disagree.

    I really do think that compatibilism must be the most obvious contradiction in the world. In fact it is really a form of liberal-friendly determinsism that attempts to justify the ongoing advocacy of old frauds like Daniel Dennet.

    If a physical state S at time T, S1 morphs to state S2 at time T2 , then determinsism states that the evolution is entirely determined by the laws of mathematical physics. That really is it. There is no place for decisions or any event that has the capability to alter the flow of subsequent events, as no event can be isolated from any other in the general mathematical evolution of the system.

    ” I say yes, but it was determined only by a set of factors which includes my decision.”

    Sorry peter but I think this is plain wrong. In a deterministic world there are no decisions, only pseudo-decisions that act as accompaniment to the flow of events. What determines things is not ‘actions’ – a human level concept – but the laws of physics.
    J
    “Granted, in the final analysis my decision was determined too, but what matters is whether it was decisive in picking A or B.”

    This seems to be having your cake and eating it. There is no way a ‘pre-determined’ decision could be decisive in “picking A or B”. What would have happened would have happened anyway. It could not be ‘decisive’ in picking anything in a pre-determined world – the latter phrase is in the language of free agency, and you seem to be having your cake and eating it.

  42. 42. Peter says:

    john,

    I understand that determinism is true. That’s fine.

    In a deterministic world there are no decisions There are if you define the word appropriately. You know there are. I’m sure you talk about decisions all the time without the least difficulty in spotting and naming them. But if you like, make it ‘a set of factors which includes my mental processes ‘ or ‘my brain processes’ – that’ll do for me.

    Ask yourself this: when someone says; ‘I acted freely’ do they generally mean something like:

    A. ‘I suspended the laws of physics and introduced a radical inconsistency into the cosmos locally’ or

    B. ‘There were no external constraints like a gun at my head or a brick wall in the way, so what I did just depended on what was going on in my head’

    I reckon B; B certainly makes a lot more sense.

  43. 43. Arnold Trehub says:

    Peter: “… so what I did just depended on what was going on in my head.”

    Exactly. You were the source — the owner — of what you did. This is your free will, unless someone put electrodes in your brain that made you act under an outside agency.

    [We’re singing from the same hymn sheet, Arnold! – Peter]

  44. 44. john davey says:


    I understand that determinism is true. That’s fine.

    I understand that physical determinism is probably true for the domains in which mathematical physics operates. As I’ve said before, I think the problem with the man-made tool that is mathematical physics is that it has no link to the mental.

    What matters is how we deal with that : do we deny the evidence of choice before our eyes or assume that our theories of matter determine how we think about the brain, without actually having the slightest idea how it works ? The correct scientific opinion – in the absence of evidence – is to assume nothing.


    B. ‘There were no external constraints like a gun at my head or a brick wall in the way, so what I did just depended on what was going on in my head’

    I think you are confusing the philosophical meaning of ‘free will’ with the legal meaning. A man making a decision with a gun at his head is still acting with philosophical free will, although for the purposes of culpability he is not acting under what the courts would term as ‘free will’. Nonetheless he could have acted otherwise – albeit with consequences – so philosophical free will is still present. In fact to exercise a choice to self-preserve under the threat of force is as good an example of ‘philosophical’ free will in action as you could name !


    ” so what I did just depended on what was going on in my head’”

    Determinists cannot use this language. It is complete contradiction. Nothing “depends” upon specific prior events. That is the language of free will !!!

    In a deterministic framework what a person just did cannot depend upon what was going on in his head. That would have gone on anyway. There are no choices. A person with choices does not exist in a deterministic system – there is just matter in motion. One state flows into another. There are no causes (other than physical laws) and no consequences. The use of higher level expressions like ‘depends upon what was going on in my head’ is not legitimate in a deterministic framework.

    Compatibilism just makes no sense. I suspect you really are a determinist – in which case why argue ? What difference does it make ?

  45. 45. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Scott #35:
    Thanks for not letting me go, perhaps one day we’ll understand each-other, if we just refuse to give up for long enough.
    Second: no need to apologise (not sure what you are apologising for), as long as we keep trying, I’m happy to participate.
    Third: your continental background does make understanding you more difficult for me, but diversity of backgrounds, while being a practical difficulty, may as well become (should be!) a resource, one more reason for me not to let you go (as long you wish to play ball).
    I actually have a long reply almost written for you, but I’ll keep it for myself for just a little longer.

    Before resuming our now customary sparring, I want to do two things:
    First thing is to upload on bioRxiv the paper I’ve been bragging about, this will allow me to make my hand-waving a little more concrete.
    Second thing is re-read your alien posts, this time in the explicit search for where you justify the necessity of elimination: on the first and second reads, I found nothing big to disagree with, and yet if was to try explaining why you are a (critical) eliminationist, I would be unable to produce a coherent answer.

    Once both things are done, I expect to resume our conversation, either under Peter’s comment of your joint essays, or on your own blog.
    In the mean time, if you want to try explaining to me (as you would to a three year-old boy, a slow one) why recognising the systematic failures of metacognition (we agree on them) grants the right of throwing away all of the theories and concepts developed (also) with the help of metacognition (in bulk and without exceptions), please feel free. As I’ve said, I certainly have something to gain from finally understanding your position (and hope the reverse applies).

    To me, recognising the systematic failures of metacognition requires to systematically re-examine all of the theories and concepts developed (also) with the help of metacognition. We should look at theories and concepts one by one, in light of the existing evidence (science) and the new theoretical development (the recognition of the systematic failures), and see what can be forgotten and what useful concepts may remain (if any). Thus, the result could be that nothing is to be kept, but as you know, we disagree on this.

  46. 46. Peter says:

    john,

    I think you are confusing the philosophical meaning of ‘free will’ with the legal meaning

    Oh, ‘the’ philosophical meaning? I think I’m doing philosophy and I’m telling you what I think ‘free will’ means. If you want to attack me, you have to attack me where I am!

    Determinists cannot use this language… the use of higher level expressions … is not legitimate

    Come on, now, stop issuing fiats about what I’m allowed to say!

    Nothing “depends” upon specific prior events.

    Really? You think the flame doesn’t depend on the striking of the match? You think the movement of my hand doesn’t depend on the firing of my neurons? Sounds strange. I thought the whole point of determinism was that prior events determined present ones?

    🙂

  47. 47. Scott Bakker says:

    Sergio (45) – “Second thing is re-read your alien posts, this time in the explicit search for where you justify the necessity of elimination: on the first and second reads, I found nothing big to disagree with, and yet if was to try explaining why you are a (critical) eliminationist, I would be unable to produce a coherent answer.”

    Then I’m flummoxed as well. Crudely put, there’s the idiom, and there’s the extension of the idiom. Intentional idioms have no extension on my account. There are no representations in the brain. No norms. No meanings. No goals. No purposes. No truths. All these idioms participate (somehow) in a system that does an incredible amount of work on the cheap *given the right contexts.*

    The fact that I express this IN intentional idioms (reference, in this case) gives people fits, because they suppose ‘references,’ ‘extensions,’ etc. *have to be real things* to do any work. What BBT shows is quite the contrary, that neglecting the real is what allows the *terms* to do the work they do.

    (Someone can complain that I’m using these idioms in a problematic context (we are talking theory), in which case I would agree. The better way to express the issue is in high altitude mechanical terms: the idioms do not reliably covary with any natural kinds.)

    But let me check out that paper of yours…

  48. 48. Arnold Trehub says:

    Scott: “The better way to express the issue is in high altitude mechanical terms: the idioms do not reliably covary with any natural kinds.)”

    I have proposed the biological design of many neuronal mechanisms that do our cognitive work, but when I try to describe their function I find that I am unable to do so without employing the idioms that you reject. For example, see Ch. 12 in *The Cognitive Brain*, here: http://www.people.umass.edu/trehub/thecognitivebrain/chapter12.pdf.

    Look at Fig. 12.3 and its caption. I have stated that the distribution of synaptic transfer weights on the dendrites of these filter cells *represent* particular objects in the subjects’ visual environment. How would you describe the relationship between the synaptic profiles of the class cells in the brain’s detection matrix and the objects seen in the environment?

  49. 49. Cognicious says:

    john davey: [In determinism] “Nothing “depends” upon specific prior events. . . . In a deterministic framework what a person just did cannot depend upon what was going on in his head.”

    It cannot? As I understand determinism, an event is determined (i.e., inevitable) because it follows from a chain of causes with origins far in the past. (How far in the past? That gets quite fuzzy. If we had all the information, could we trace every event in the present to the Big Bang?) These causes include mental activity. What goes on in one’s head counts. The contents of one’s head have causes that determine them, but they are also causes that determine one’s behavior.

  50. 50. Sci says:

    I think John Davey meant nothing depends on prior mental events, not all prior events. I think his argument is akin to the one I linked to that’s made by Marcus Arvan – compatibilism only seems coherent when you sneak in libertarian intuition.

    I have to admit that, so far, it seems to me that this is in fact the case for those possible worlds where determinism holds sway – Why I reiterated in the latest blog post that this is too low level a concern given how strange things seem at the lowest levels of reality – superposition, inherent randomness as far as anyone can prove, entanglement, and potentially retrocausality as well.

    In short, let’s worry about BBT instead of billiard ball causality. 🙂

  51. 51. Peter says:

    Sci – I like to think that what I type here depends on some prior mental events, anyway! Where do you see me sneaking in intuitions?

  52. 52. Sci says:

    @Peter: Well I was thinking more of compatibilism in general sneaking in intuitions. Your argument seems tighter though it just seems to me that under the “ism” in question the reason you had interior mental events is because of exterior physical events. The decision you make is as dependent on the Big Bang as the wall or gun impeding your actions.

    So, AFAICTell, under deterministic materialism without any intuitive feelings about our agency the self (“self”?) would be just an arbitrary circle drawn around a particular set of particles in the universe. Yet one can just easily draw circles around other causal chains in the system, all of which are equally arbitrary until our own subjectivity and intentionality enter the picture.

    Thus compatibilism comes across to my layperson reading as more of a gentleman’s agreement on how a society in a deterministic universe can preserve itself. Of course we might face a similar question in our own odd universe though at the moment things seem too bizarre at the lower levels to say anything definitive about causality or time.

  53. 53. john davey says:

    Peter

    “Oh, ‘the’ philosophical meaning? I think I’m doing philosophy and I
    i’m telling you what I think ‘free will’ means. If you want to attack me, you have to attack me where I am!”

    ok.There is determinism and there is ‘free will’. The two are not necessarily linked, or the connexion between the two is not distinct.

    There is a moral aspect of free will – popular amongst theologians and moral philosophers- about the idea of a choice freely given (not coerced, as in your example). A coerced choice has no dependency upon the existence of a pre-determined universe for it to be a choice ‘not freely given’.

    The other meaning of ‘free will’ is the psychological idea of ‘volition’ – ie that there exists a decision-making apparatus that is real, or there isn’t. If the world is pre-determined, then volition does not exist or is an illusion.

    Let’s take your example. In a pre-determined world, a man under threat of physical force has no volition (in fact, the word is meaningless) and such a man has, in no sense of the word, any ‘free will’ over how he responds. The choice he gives is determined by the laws of physics. End of.

    Let’s assume though that the world is not pre-determined : in which case, the man under threat of force still has volition – he can still agree or not agree to the demands of the threat – but the fact that the consequences are dire for him forces him to make a choice in agreement with the threat.

    In the latter case, the man has volition (what I termed – badly – philosophical free will) but no moral responsibility – no ‘moral free will’.

    In the former case, a determined world, the set of molecules operating under the laws of motion does not support or allow the existence of ideas at biological level like ‘volition’. It doesn’t exist, and neither can such ideas as ‘decisions’ in anything other than an illusory sense.


    “Come on, now, stop issuing fiats about what I’m allowed to say!”

    You’re a determinist aren’t you ? Don’t you like fiats ?

    I encourage you to exercise your free will to do so !


    “Really? You think the flame doesn’t depend on the striking of the match?
    You think the movement of my hand doesn’t depend on the firing of my neurons? Sounds strange. I thought the whole point of determinism was that prior events determined present ones?”

    I said specific prior events. In a deterministic world there aren’t really “dependencies”. When your hand moves the molecules of air we can use a shorthand of description to say that “A caused B”. But of course that’s the language of free will : specific cause ends in specific effect.

    In a predetermined world, your hand was always going to move that way at that point in time, so we might as well say what caused the air molecules to move was your mother giving birth to you, or the moon separating from the earth and making life possible, or the Big Bang.

    Only in the language of free will (of the voluntary kind) does it make sense to start a causal chain with action A and end it with a consequence of action B.

    In the language of volition it is easy to start causal chains at specific points : with determinism I don’t think it’s justified.

    Sci : I kind of agree. Determinism erodes the idea of ‘event’ if you ask me. An ‘event’ is just a point in time.

    It’s remarkable how difficult it is to speak at human level without using words and ideas linked to volition and free will. Even the use of personal verbal expressions like ‘I go’ and ‘I ate’ are suspicious in a determined world. ‘I’ in those expressions is an agent, capable of initiating action – not compatible with determinism if you ask me.

    I suspect the free will issue is linked to the issue of consciousness in this sense : we know we have it but our analytical tools – our sciences – won’t let us have it. The question therefore is how we repsond to that quandary.

  54. 54. Arnold Trehub says:

    @john: “I suspect the free will issue is linked to the issue of consciousness in this sense : we know we have it but our analytical tools – our sciences – won’t let us have it. The question therefore is how we repsond to that quandary.”

    For my response to that quandary, see “A Foundation for the Scientific Study of Consciousness”, here :

    https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Arnold_Trehub

  55. 55. Charles Wolverton says:

    “I have stated that the distribution of synaptic transfer weights on the dendrites of these filter cells *represent* particular objects in the subjects’ visual environment. How would you describe the relationship between the synaptic profiles of the class cells in the brain’s detection matrix and the objects seen in the environment?”

    If “representation” weren’t such a controversial term, it would seem a reasonable choice. But since it is, perhaps something neutral like “mapping” might be safer. And I wouldn’t describe the objects in the environment as “seen” but perhaps as “sources of visual sensory stimulation”.

    It’s admittedly tedious to have to edit one’s vocabulary like that, but I think Scott’s claim (or at least mine) is that while we have grown accustomed to using the “intentional idiom” for certain quotidian purposes, when we get into the realm of brain physiology the vocabulary of agency, intentionality, etc, is inapplicable (at least if one is a strict determinist).

  56. 56. Sci says:

    @John Davey: While his libertarian compatibilism is no doubt controversial (to put it mildly) I think Marcus Arvan is right about at least this much – that philosophical opinions, no matter how iron clad the argument seems, can and will be revised to accommodate the findings of science.

    As such I don’t think the determinism/indeterminism dichotomy is something people should lose sleep over. If, for example, we found out quantum vibrations in the microtubules (Orch-OR) were responsible for our mental events I sincerely doubt anyone is going to claim all human existence is random but only *seems* consistent. Philosophers would just revise their opinions, possibly returning to Whitehead and Bergson or insisting that a hidden determinism drives the supposedly inherent stochasiticity at the quantum level.

  57. 57. Scott Bakker says:

    Arnold (48): “I have stated that the distribution of synaptic transfer weights on the dendrites of these filter cells *represent* particular objects in the subjects’ visual environment. How would you describe the relationship between the synaptic profiles of the class cells in the brain’s detection matrix and the objects seen in the environment?”

    If you mean representations in the intentional sense (as philosophers always do), as bits of brain possessing the physical properties of ‘correctness’ and ‘aboutness,’ then I’d say your theory is in a boat load of trouble, because no one has a clue as to how ‘correctness’ or ‘aboutness’ should be formulated as explananda, let alone how they physically work.

    If you mean representations in a non-intentional sense, then you’re simply talking about various kinds of information structures in brains possessing varying kinds of behaviourally reliable covariant relations to information structures in environments. If so, then I’d say your theory is in a boatload of trouble, because you’ll be describing a kind of cognition that does not involve the properties of correctness or aboutness–which is to say, a cognition scarce worth the name.

    A lot of theorists (like Graziano, for instance) derive a lot of mileage from this ambiguity.

    Charles (55): “It’s admittedly tedious to have to edit one’s vocabulary like that, but I think Scott’s claim (or at least mine) is that while we have grown accustomed to using the “intentional idiom” for certain quotidian purposes, when we get into the realm of brain physiology the vocabulary of agency, intentionality, etc, is inapplicable (at least if one is a strict determinist).”

    Exactly this. Where I push beyond interpretavism (I think) is in providing an actual account of intentional phenomena, one that allows us to actually delimit the kinds of ecologies that are going to get us in trouble, as opposed to otherwise. Because Dennett (for example) has no such account, there’s something opportunistic about his knuckle-rapping, arguing that this idiom is fine here (when critiquing ‘greedy reductionists’) and that idiom is bad there (when critiquing intentionalists)–not to mention never making clear what a ‘real pattern’ amounts to anyway! Too much fudge.

  58. 58. Peter says:

    john,

    Your view that determinism forbids talk of particular causes (and that such talk necessarily implies volition?) seems strange and problematic to me. On the main point all I’m really seeing is a reiterated prior conviction that irrespective of how it’s formulated any compatibilism just must be false.

    It’s remarkable how difficult it is to speak at a human level without using words and ideas linked to volition and free will

    Yes. Surely better to give those words and ideas a sensible interpretation than live with incoherence between your philosophy and the ideas you actually live by? I think so, anyway!

  59. 59. Callan S. says:

    “Determinists cannot use this language… the use of higher level expressions … is not legitimate”

    Come on, now, stop issuing fiats about what I’m allowed to say!

    It kind of makes sense to do so. It’s like using the words of god to say god doesn’t exist. Cutting up bibles to make ransom note disprovals.

  60. 60. Scott Bakker says:

    Peter/John: “Your view that determinism forbids talk of particular causes (and that such talk necessarily implies volition?) seems strange and problematic to me. On the main point all I’m really seeing is a reiterated prior conviction that irrespective of how it’s formulated any compatibilism just must be false.”

    I tend to steer clear determinism debates, primarily because they’re so damned overdetermined! 😉 But most importantly, simply because *determination isn’t the problem* confronting ‘metaphysical free will,’ and never has been, which is why indeterminism provides no escape. The problem is time.

    For me, the free will debate is itself a cognitive phenomena, one that I think says a lot about how ‘reflection’ operates, the kinds of tools it uses, and the limitations of those tools. For one, it obviously constitutes a ‘crash space’ of some kind, a place where our intuitions chronically fail to solve. It also clearly demarcates causal and commonsensical intuitions, meaning that different problem-solving regimes are at work…

    This suggests that the real question of the free will debate should be: Why are these forms of cognition incompatible? Declaring that one or the other is ‘defective’ in this or that respect tells us nothing about what’s going on, and it certainly provides no basis for moving forward.

    As it turns out, the debate provides a paradigmatic example of ‘crash space,’ and is very parsimoniously explained in blind brain terms (which can also explain why so many debates regarding intentional phenomena follow similar patterns). Our self-understanding, as a matter of empirical necessity, neglects what we are, forcing us to understand our behaviour as ab initio.

  61. 61. Arnold Trehub says:

    Scott: “If you mean representations in a non-intentional sense, then you’re simply talking about various kinds of information structures in brains possessing varying kinds of behaviourally reliable covariant relations to information structures in environments. If so, then I’d say your theory is in a boatload of trouble, because you’ll be describing a kind of cognition that does not involve the properties of correctness or aboutness–which is to say, a cognition scarce worth the name.”

    I mean “representation” in the idiomatic sense of an entity “standing for” or “taking the place” of something else. Aboutness is definitely involved, but not correctness which may depend on a host of other factors depending on the context in which the idiom is used. So I have no idea why my theory is at risk because I use the idiom to help others understand the function of filter cells and class cells in a particular kind of cognitive brain mechanism.

  62. 62. Scott Bakker says:

    Arnold: “I mean “representation” in the idiomatic sense of an entity “standing for” or “taking the place” of something else. Aboutness is definitely involved, but not correctness which may depend on a host of other factors depending on the context in which the idiom is used. So I have no idea why my theory is at risk because I use the idiom to help others understand the function of filter cells and class cells in a particular kind of cognitive brain mechanism.”

    Well, it can’t be the case that anything can ‘stand for’ anything else–so even overlooking the mysteriousness of ‘standing for’ you still have to solve the problem that has shipwrecked every other soul that has braved these waters: the question of how the relation between ‘stander’ to the ‘standee’ is determined.

    So what is your naturalistic explanation of correctness? If cognition isn’t about *getting things right* then what is it? Short this explanation, Arnold, you in fact have no naturalistic account of cognition. And this, arguably, means you have no naturalistic account of consciousness.

  63. 63. Arnold Trehub says:

    Scott: “So what is your naturalistic explanation of correctness? If cognition isn’t about *getting things right* then what is it?”

    Correctness is about getting things *right enough* to survive and flourish in one’s world. My naturalistic account of consciousness is given in “Space, self, and the theater of consciousness”, “Where Am I? Redux?”, and “Evolution’s Gift: Subjectivity and the Phenomenal World”, all available at this link:

    https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Arnold_Trehub

  64. 64. Scott Bakker says:

    Arnold:”Correctness is about getting things *right enough* to survive and flourish in one’s world.”

    Big difference between giving a definition of correctness versus giving an explanation, I fear. I dunno, Arnold. We’ve been down this road a couple times now.

  65. 65. Arnold Trehub says:

    @Scott#64:

    Read “Sparse Coding of Faces in a Neuronal Model: Interpreting Cell Population Response in Object Recognition” at the link below and tell us why you think this doesn’t count as an explanation of correctness in object recognition.

    https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Arnold_Trehub/contributions

  66. 66. Sci says:

    @John Davey:

    Apologies for thinking you meant mental events when your objection – if I’m properly understanding it now – is toward the specification of causes. IIRC Putnam noted a similar problem with causal explanations of intentionality – that to specify causes was to assume intentionality.

    So I guess you are saying that compatibilism requires specification/isolation of causes for mental events, namely that the mental event at time T1 is the sole cause for the mental event at time T2. Yet under deterministic materialism this isn’t reality because everything in the universe, or at least the immediate surrounding area if we discount field effects (am I remembering my physics correctly?), is responsible.

    Let me know if I’m on the right track.

  67. 67. VicP says:

    @Scott(64)
    “Arnold:”Correctness is about getting things *right enough* to survive and flourish in one’s world.”

    Big difference between giving a definition of correctness versus giving an explanation, I fear. I dunno, Arnold. We’ve been down this road a couple times now.”

    What we are dealing with is a bioengineering problem. The lines on the blueprint show the placement of the steel girders to build the bridge, but the strength of the girders is implicit in the design. What happens in neurons is not implicit yet; as well as how all of the parts of the brain and CNS interact. I think the answers are coming sooner than we think.

  68. 68. Scott Bakker says:

    Arnold (64): “Read “Sparse Coding of Faces in a Neuronal Model: Interpreting Cell Population Response in Object Recognition” at the link below and tell us why you think this doesn’t count as an explanation of correctness in object recognition.”

    I think it counts as an explanation of object recognition. I have no idea how it counts as an explanation of correctness, nor do I know why you presume it does. I haven’t the foggiest, in fact. Really, all it does is reinforce the suspicion that you simply take the normative dimensions of cognition for granted, something you can implicitly utilize without actually ever explaining.

    For one, you would hope that a natural explanation of normativity would explain why we find it so difficult to explain!

  69. 69. Scott Bakker says:

    VicP (67): “What we are dealing with is a bioengineering problem.”

    Bioengineering in the sense that we simply don’t have the architecture required!

  70. 70. Arnold Trehub says:

    Scott,

    If you deny the normative understanding of “explanation” how do you explain any event? How could our scientific achievements ever happen in the realm of theory? Do you have a natural explanation of “normativity” that is different from our normative view that when the logical implications of a specified mechanism successfully predict an event that was previously inexplicable, we have arrived at an explanation of the event?

  71. 71. VicP says:

    Scott (69): I think I solved it.

  72. 72. Cognicious says:

    Arnold Trehub: “Do you have a natural explanation of “normativity” that is different from our normative view that when the logical implications of a specified mechanism successfully predict an event that was previously inexplicable, we have arrived at an explanation of the event?”

    We have then arrived at AN explanation but not necessarily at THE correct explanation. The difference is particularly relevant when findings are correlational. Here I take “explanation” to mean identification of the cause(s) of the event.

  73. 73. Sergio Graziosi says:

    All:
    it turns out that bioRxiv only published new data or new analyses of data, they don’t publish theoretical efforts. Therefore I had to use another channel: figshare.
    The child of my sorry mind(?) is now Publicly Available here:
    http://figshare.com/articles/Evolutionary_theory_of_consciousness_a_comprehensive_model/1520439

    Please also check my blog, where I invite readers to provide feedback:
    http://sergiograziosi.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/consciousness-at-last/
    (I hope that many posts will follow)

    I have no idea of how I found the courage to do this, but I do know for certain that all of you have helped a lot (Peter in primis, naturally). Thanks again to everyone here, I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  74. 74. Scott Bakker says:

    Arnold (70): “If you deny the normative understanding of “explanation” how do you explain any event? How could our scientific achievements ever happen in the realm of theory? Do you have a natural explanation of “normativity” that is different from our normative view that when the logical implications of a specified mechanism successfully predict an event that was previously inexplicable, we have arrived at an explanation of the event?”

    This is just another way to express the second horn of the dilemma I sketched above at (57). I have a natural account of normativity and why it seems to possess the peculiar, inexplicable properties that it does. It’s merely a theoretical explanation at the moment, but there is real work being down attempting to tease apart mechanical and intentional cognition, as well as the modularity and limits of metacognition. So far, all of it fits the picture supposed by blind brain theory (which, remember, is a theory of the appearance of consciousness, not a theory of consciousness proper–something which I leave to the likes of yourself!).

    This is what I’ve been suggesting to you for a couple years now, Arnold, that BBT could possibly relieve you of the need to worry about apparent (and quite inexplicable) intentional/normative properties.

    But you do see how, as it stands, you lack any account whatsoever?

  75. 75. Arnold Trehub says:

    Scott,

    If I understand what my philosopher friends mean by “intentional”, then I think I have explained it by my biophysical account of *subjectivity* — a brain representation of the volumetric world we live in, which includes a fixed neuronal locus of perspectival origin, our core self (I!). It has been a matter of common knowledge among neuroscientists that we have no sensory detectors for the neuronal workings of our own brain. Voila! Brain Blindness! The epistemic problem that this situation produces is addressed in my chapter “A Foundation for the Scientific Study of Consciousness”.

  76. 76. john davey says:

    Sci

    ” that philosophical opinions, no matter how iron clad the argument seems, can and will be revised to accommodate the findings of science.”

    i think that’s right. But the question is what do you do when you do think you do know, scientifically speaking ?

    Scientific ‘truth’ is not mathematical truth after all, its a fairly obscure idea.

    If we did scientifically conclude there was no “free will” (either deterministically or not-deterministically) would we have the moral ability to e.g dismantle the justice system ? After all, we might change our minds 100 years later.

    You always seem to get left with judgment calls, regardless of your opinion on FW either way.

  77. 77. john davey says:

    Peter

    “Your view that determinism forbids talk of particular causes (and that such talk necessarily implies volition?) seems strange and problematic to me.”

    The point is mathematical. If a physical system is a matrix of physical properties whose values evolve in time according to the application of mathematical functions, how can one state that one point in time is different to another ? That is the talk of cause and effect : we take the physical system at one time T and conclude that it has a relationship with the same physical system at time (T+x) that is somehow different to other points.

    It makes no sense.

    The language of cause and effect is higher level – so it’s starting point is that one point in time is different to another. That does make sense if you don’t believe in a deterministic world and you believe that human action can commence a sequence of events (something that cannot happen in a deterministic world).


    “Surely better to give those words and ideas a sensible interpretation than live with incoherence between your philosophy and the ideas you actually live by”

    I think the point is not to take philosophical speculation too seriously, particularly when the philosophical question you are discussing is really a scientific one waiting for a toolkit, as most mental philosophy is.

  78. 78. john davey says:

    Sci


    “IIRC Putnam noted a similar problem with causal explanations of intentionality – that to specify causes was to assume intentionality.”

    as I think did David Hume, although he was not address that question. He noted that cause and effect were (according to many philosophy teachers) a psychological requirement rather than anything inherent.

    “So I guess you are saying that compatibilism requires specification/isolation of causes for mental events, namely that the mental event at time T1 is the sole cause for the mental event at time T2. Yet under deterministic materialism this isn’t reality because everything in the universe, or at least the immediate surrounding area if we discount field effects (am I remembering my physics correctly?), is responsible.”

    i think so. Its the idea that one time T in a physical system P has a relationship to P at time (T + x) that is somehow different to its relationship at other points. There is no basis in mathematical physics for assuming so, and as determinism is based upon the supremacy of mathematical physics then to talk of “cause and affect” and believe in a deterministic world is not coherent.

  79. 79. Cognicious says:

    john davey: “if . . . you believe that human action can commence a sequence of events (something that cannot happen in a deterministic world).”

    In a deterministic world, I presume, each human action is determined, like every other event. But I don’t see what it is about a deterministic world that might keep a human action from having consequences. If Determinist Debbie turns on the radio (a human action), she might hear music (a resulting event) and perhaps start humming along or even dancing (further events in the sequence). That she turned on the radio at that moment was decreed from all time–because we’re in a deterministic world here–and likewise for the music and so forth. Nevertheless, the later events were caused by turning on the radio.

  80. 80. john davey says:

    Cognicious

    “In a deterministic world, I presume, each human action is determined, like every other event. But I don’t see what it is about a deterministic world that might keep a human action from having consequences. If Determinist Debbie turns on the radio (a human action), she might hear music (a resulting event) and perhaps start humming along or even dancing (further events in the sequence). That she turned on the radio at that moment was decreed from all time–because we’re in a deterministic world here–and likewise for the music and so forth.
    Nevertheless, the later events were caused by turning on the radio.

    This is a classic example of the point I’ve been making. To describe the act of ‘turning on the radio’ is to use words which contain within them ideas that believe in the truth of volition.

    Its very difficult to be a determinist and speak sensibly about it !

    In a deterministic world it makes no sense of course to talk of a person ‘turning on’ a radio. That implies a decision that changes the flow of events in the world (as you suggest) and voluntary action, which can’t exist.

    If you are a determinist, there is just matter in motion.

    What we should say is “there was a big bang which created all matter and then the universe cooled down and eventually the matter formations of the universe led to the creation of a contiguous image sequence in which a woman’s molecules apply em-forces to the molecules in a button which then allows the free movement of electrons along a particular circuit …”

    To isolate one point in the evolution of the physical structures of the universe as being separate from another (as cause and effect imply) is like suggesting that the flow of image sequence i’ve just pointed out is in some way more of a “cause” of what happens than the big bang. This makes no sense to a determinist who holds that all objects in the universe are controlled by a singular, fixed corpus of mathematical physics expressions which are invariant over time. There is only one “cause” in this system : the corpus of those expressions.

    It is probably true to say that the idea of “persons” – and indeed any biological-scale structure – is a bit superfluous to a deterministic analysis. So talk of “persons” doing things does not seem to be compatible with determinism. Physics after all does not have a concept of “people”, only matter, space and time. Its a common feature of compatibilist arguments – particularly of the Dennett kind – that they avoid physics, where talk of persons (as objects) is totally meaningless, but focus on human level arguments. This despite the fact that their main arguments stem from a belief in the axioms of mathematical physics !

  81. 81. Charles Wolverton says:

    Its very difficult to be a determinist and speak sensibly about it !

    Indeed, but I see avoiding the intentional idiom in certain contexts as sufficient. So, this statement seems rather extreme:

    In a deterministic world it makes no sense of course to talk of a person ‘turning on’ a radio. That implies a decision that changes the flow of events in the world (as you suggest) and voluntary action, which can’t exist.

    In a given context, we use a vocabulary that works in that context. In quotidian conversation, even a strict determinist uses the intentional idiom because it’s understood by almost everyone. But when the context involves a narrow slice of the population discussing arcane issues (eg, this blog), a different vocabulary is often appropriate. When speculating on the neurophysiological structures that execute an action like turning on a radio, it’s difficult at first to avoid the intentional idiom. But several years of trying to do so have made it pretty natural for me. So natural that at first I didn’t understand your quote because I couldn’t imagine how you inferred “decision” and “voluntary action” from what for me was a simple case of the deterministic functioning of what I call context-dependent behavioral dispositions – hypothetical neural structures that embody an organism’s past environmental influences and respond to exteroceptive and interoceptive stimulation by exciting motor neurons to execute learned behavior. I see no conflict between thinking of human activity in those terms and being a determinist.

    A neurophysiologist presumably could in principle translate that vocabulary into another vocabulary, but I don’t see what would be gained (relevant to the issue of determinism) by doing so. And neither do I see anything inconsistent with a determinist’s calling a human actor a “person” if confident that other discussants won’t thereby be tempted to lapse into the intentional idiom.

    If you are a determinist, there is just matter in motion.

    Agreed, but I don’t see that as limiting us to the physics vocabulary. Or even could, since that would render those of us who aren’t facile in that vocabulary mute.

  82. 82. Cognicious says:

    Is the form of determinism expressed in Posts 80 and 81 held to be an accurate account of reality? In that kind of deterministic world, nothing that happens causes anything else. People might as well be mannequins. Even purely physical events have no results. The pebble didn’t move because another stone rolled down the hill and hit it; rather, it moved “just because.” This doesn’t seem naturalistic.

    Accordingly, what is the purpose of training oneself to speak as if there had been no causes after the first big one?

  83. 83. Peter says:

    john,

    I don’t really think that what you’re talking about is determinism. Surely determinists just believe that events are pre-determined; they’re not necessarily committed to materialism at all, let alone to such a radically minimal version as the one you’re espousing.

    In fact I’m not sure your radical materialism can even accommodate determinism, because I doubt the deterministic thesis can even be stated within it; you can only say a state of affairs is, not even that it was determined.

  84. 84. Sci says:

    @Cognicious 82: What I’m taking away from John Davey’s argument is it’s not so much that things moved just because, but rather under determinism the separation of causes into mental and physical is – even in a dualist account like Leibniz’s – is just an act of desperation on the part of the compatibilist.

    To say a mental event under determinism is something special and selected apart from the rest of the causes just seems wrong, when the butterfly in Hong Kong that made changes to the weather system is likely just as “responsible” as the mental event in my skull.

    In any case this idea of determinism has increasingly less to do with the reality we actual live as described by science. Which isn’t to say that this description will ultimately be an optimistic one, but we might as well be patient. For all the grand pronouncements even some scientists make, it seems to me there’s much left to be figured about the brain, the body, and so on.

  85. 85. Charles Wolverton says:

    Is the form of determinism expressed in Posts 80 and 81 …

    For the record, my reply in 81 was only to the linguistic parts of John’s 80. I didn’t really follow the cause/effect part, so I have no opinion on it. FWIW, for me “determinism” simply means that the world as we know it proceeds in accordance with physical laws so that there is no room for “free will” no matter how that vague concept is understood. I also doubt that determinism’s becoming accepted as a correct position would have much practical import in day-to-day life other than possibly in the legal arena.

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