I’ve been reading A.C. Grayling’s biography of Descartes: he advances the novel theory that Descartes was a spy. This is actually a rather shrewd suggestion which makes quite a lot of sense given Descartes’ wandering, secretive life. On balance I think he probably wasn’t conducting secret espionage missions – it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure, of course – but I think it’s certainly an idea any future biographer will have to address.

I was interested, though, to see what Grayling made of the stove.  Descartes himself tells us that when held up in Germany by the advance of winter, he spent the day alone in a stove, and that was where his radical rebuilding of his own beliefs began.  This famous incident has the sort of place in the history of philosophy that the apple falling on Newton’s head has in the history of science: and it has been doubted and queried in a similar way. But Descartes seems pretty clear about it: “je demeurais tout le jour enfermé seul dans un poêle, où j’avais tout le loisir m’entretenir de mes pensées”.

Some say it must in fact have been a bread-oven or a similarly large affair: Descartes was not a large man and he was particularly averse to cold and disturbance, but it would surely have to have been a commodious stove for him to have been comfortable in there all day. Some say that Bavarian houses of the period had large stoves, and certainly in the baroque palaces of the region one can see vast ornate ones that look as if they might have had room for a diminutive French philosopher. Some commonsensical people say that “un poêle” must simply have meant a stove-heated room; and this is in fact the view which Grayling adopts firmly and without discussion.

Personally I’m inclined to take Descartes’ words at face value; but really the question of whether he really sat in a real stove misses the point. Why does Descartes, a rather secretive man, even mention the matter at all? It must be because, true or not, it has metaphorical significance; it gives us additional keys to Descartes’ meaning which we ought not to discard out of literal-mindedness. (Grayling, in fairness, is writing history, not philosophy.)

For one thing Descartes’ isolation in the stove functions as a sort of thought-experiment. He wants to be able to doubt everything, but it’s hard to dismiss the world as a set of illusions when it’s battering away at your senses: so suppose we were in a place that was warm, dark, and silent?  Second, it recalls Plato’s cave metaphor. Plato had his unfortunate exemplar chained in a cave where his only knowledge of the world outside came from flickering shadows on the wall; he wanted to suggest that what we take to be the real world is a similarly poor reflection of a majestic eternal reality. Descartes wants to work up a similar metaphor to a quite different conclusion, ultimately vindicating our senses and the physical world; perhaps this points up his rebellion against ancient authority. Third, in a way congenial to modern thinking and probably not unacceptable to Descartes, the isolation in the stove resembles and evokes the isolation of the brain in the skull.

The stove metaphor has other possible implications, but for us the most interesting thing is perhaps how it embodies and possibly helped to consolidate one of the most persistent metaphors about consciousness, one that has figured strongly in discussion for centuries, remains dominant, yet is really quite unwarranted. This is that consciousness is internal. We routinely talk about “the external world” when discussing mental experience. The external world is what the senses are supposed to tell us about, but sometimes fail to; it is distinct from an internal world where we receive the messages and where things like emotions and intentions have their existence. The impression of consciousness being inside looking out is strongly reinforced by the way the ears and the brain seem to feed straight into the brain: but we know that impression of being located in the head would be the same if human anatomy actually put the brain in the stomach, so long as the eyes and ears remained where they are. In fact our discussions would make just as much sense if we described consciousness as external and the physical world as internal (or consciousness as ‘above’ and the physical world as ‘below’ or vice versa)

If we take consciousness to be a neural process there is of course, a sense in which it is certainly in the brain; but only in the sense that my money is in the bank’s computer (though I can’t get it out with a hammer) or Pride and Prejudice is in the pages of that book over there (and not, after all, in my head). Strictly or properly, stories and totals don’t have the property of physical location, and nor, really, does consciousness.

Does it matter if the metaphor is convenient? Well, it may well be that the traditional inside view encourages us to fall into certain errors. It has often been argued (and still is) for example that because we’re sometimes wrong about what we’re seeing or hearing, we must in fact only ever see an intermediate representation, never the  real world itself. I think this is a mistake, but it’s one that the internal/external view helps to make plausible.  It may well be, in my opinion, that habitually thinking of consciousness as having a simple physical location makes it more difficult for us to understand it properly.

So perhaps we ought to make a concerted effort to stop, but to be honest I think the metaphor is just too deeply rooted. At the end of the day you can take the thinker out of the stove, but you can’t take the stove out of the thinker.

46 Comments

  1. 1. scott bakker says:

    Coming out of the Continental tradition I was literally trained to regard the metaphorics of inside/outside as a conceptually bankrupt way to consider subjectivity. Moving onto Wittgenstein only reinforced this outlook. But I’m nowhere near so convinced anymore. Just for instance, how should we make sense of ‘shut ins’?

    The stove, like the skull, is simply a convenient way to understand the flow of information. Hiding in a stove allowed Descartes to conceal information regarding his existence. Hiding in the skull, it seems fair to reason, allows consciousness to do the same more generally. You could say this is why we find neuroscience so flummoxing: it’s like hearing Descartes voice, then finding the stove empty when we throw the door open. An externalist approach to consciousness is simply one of the ways we can explain the ‘empty stove problem.’ Descartes was never there in the first place! He’s actually a larger system that includes the kitchen, the village, what have you. My preferred approach is just to say that Descartes simply isn’t what we thought he was, that what we see locked up in our own stoves doesn’t exist.

    Imagine if Descartes, like Plato’s prisoners, was *born* in his stove, then just ask the question of information flow. The most he could see (access) of himself in the stove would be cramped shadows, indeterminate shapes which would *have* to be his informatic baseline for ‘self,’ whereas through the cracks of the door he could see bright swathes of the external world. Now if he were placed opposite another stove and watched it open, would he recognize the high-fidelity, unbounded figure revealed as a version of himself?

    Probably not, *especially* given his genius for rationalization. He can’t trust what he sees through the cracks, but these cramped shapes he knows with certainty – How could he not when they are all the information he has ever had?

    I bake, therefore I am.

    Nowadays I’m inclined to think the problem isn’t so much the metaphorics of inside/outside generally so much as the way they are posed. We just need to look at the inside/outside in the proper way.

  2. 2. Vicente says:

    This post has, inmediately, brought up to me this other recent post by Matthieu Ricard. In particular regarding the benefits of the stove to get isolated from the world…

    http://www.matthieuricard.org/en/index.php/blog/237_lhermite/

  3. 3. VicP says:

    To paraphrase Joseph Heller…”I am the stove.”

    Had someone lit the stove with Descartes in it what would he have said?…”I cook therefore I burn.”…”I am going to be served ala de cartes.”…”I can doubt I am in the stove but….”

  4. 4. scott bakker says:

    More like, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!”

  5. 5. Vijay Vikram says:

    I do so agree with you about the internal vs external. It is a habit
    we inherited from Descartes. It is the mind/body problem.
    Alternately, one may posit that internal and external are both aspects of a something we may call experience, awareness, dasein or manifestation or narrative or being or some such. Or to take it further, anything that shows up is, in effect, the world, the universe. And it shows up in what? Therein lies the paradox, for anything we may posit as a fundamental ground for manifestation– anything prior to manifestation– cannot be described since any description belongs to manifestation itself and so cannot be prior to manifestation. And the notion “prior to manifestation” is manifestation too. So, is there such a thing as “prior to manifestation” that could be a fundament for the world?
    This issue is, however, a red herring. For the fundamental characteristic of the universe and of any particularity at all–is that it is. In other words, any and all of universe exhibits its
    fundamental character to us moment after moment, inescapably in the simple fact that it is–whether thought or thing or sense or feeling or objectivity or subjectivity and so on.
    To put it more simply—-the fundamental character of the universe is ever and everywhere and always–patent.

  6. 6. Vicente says:

    Vijay,

    cannot be described since any description belongs to manifestation itself

    Yes, so the main substantial difference relies on perceiving the manifestation… isn’t it.

    What do you mean by “patent” in your last sentence? is it that for each of us the Universe is what we experience, and nothing else, irrespective of what its very nature could be? maybe naive realism is not so naive, after all.

  7. 7. Arnold Trehub says:

    Peter: “It has often been argued (and still is) for example that because we’re sometimes wrong about what we’re seeing or hearing, we must in fact only ever see an intermediate representation, never the real world itself. I think this is a mistake, but it’s one that the internal/external view helps to make plausible.”

    Why do you think this view is a mistake, Peter?

    A recent discussion on *Edge* of Lee Smolin’s views about the laws of nature ties into the inside-outside question. See here:

    http://www.edge.org/conversation/think-about-nature

  8. 8. Vicente says:

    Arnold,

    very interesting, I’ll get Smolin’s book. My main concern is that if the laws of physics evolve, what are the laws that rule that evolution? do those laws evolve themselves? if not, we go to the start, if yes, we enter into an infinite recursion, AGAIN !! Panta Rhei.

    I think this one of the reasons for which Charles Sanders Peirce stated that the very nature of reality is randomness (modulated with the weird concept of “habits” that he introduced).

    In my view this is related to the idea that consciousness requires of changing contents to operate, there is no possible consciousness with stationary or constant contents (e.g. sacchades?). This is another reason for which I think that you primordial conscious state, based on the initial activation of the retinoid system, cannot be conscious by definition.It could only hold consciousness during the ramp up, and transition to next state phases, but that is not your state, strictly speaking. Change is needed.

    But, getting to your point, if we cannot even measure physical constants, what about the rest?

  9. 9. Vicente says:

    Arnold, even more, this idea of evolving laws of physics evokes some kind of universal (global) consciousness, that requires of continous change to exist.

  10. 10. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “This is another reason for which I think that you[r] primordial conscious state, based on the initial activation of the retinoid system, cannot be conscious by definition. It could only hold consciousness during the ramp up, and transition to next state phases, but that is not your state, strictly speaking. Change is needed.”

    The notion of a “frozen” state is just an explanatory convenience. Retinoid space has both structure and *dynamics*. The very nature of dynamics is change. The initial activation of consciousness (C1) in egocentric retinoid space, as I see it, is by an increment of diffuse excitation from the ascending reticular activating system. Perceptual and cognitive content quickly follows. So I don’t see the problem as you see it.

    I don’t understand why evolving laws of physics must lead to some kind of “universal (global) consciousness”. It seems to me that for every change in the laws of physics there is simply a revision of the historical record of the dominant theoretical models in physics.

  11. 11. Vicente says:

    Arnold,

    Smolin is referring to a real change in the behaviour of reality, the genuine laws of physics evolving, not a change in our models. There is no revision involved. Smolin says that the constants: gravitational, Planck, etc, change with time, or the fundamental interactions, or the number and nature of possible fundamental interactions, real (not theoretical)physics in general evolve. At the beginning the laws of physics operating were different from current ones, like the species populating the Earth at the Jurasic age were others. This is why he proposes a historical dimension for physics (not accepted so far). Sanders Peirce takes this idea to the extreme. The only thing that does not change is change itself, Heraclitus.

  12. 12. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “Smolin is referring to a real change in the behaviour of reality, the genuine laws of physics evolving, not a change in our models.”

    Neither Smolin nor any other mortal can describe the behavior of reality! The best science can do is make educated guesses about reality. These guesses are the laws/models of physics and they are inventions of the human brain. Did you read my response to Smolin, here?

    http://www.edge.org/conversation/think-about-nature#25166

  13. 13. Vicente says:

    Arnold,
    These guesses are the laws/models of physics and they are inventions of the human brain

    I am 100% sure of the veracity of your statement. But, the problem Smolin presents is that when the brain tries to make those guesses considering the whole (cosmology), the current Newtonian paradigm, appropriate for local enviroment, fails. This is fully compatible with the first point, it is just adding an additional constraint, to the ones already limiting the scientific method.

    As for your answer to Smolin, looking at the last paragraph, I don’t agree as I haven’t in the last discussions. Phenomenal experience cannot be measured in the same fashion as Galaxies speed when drifting apart. Of course, we could argue, appealing to the first point, that galaxies(as concepts)are just consciouns products, and get entagled in an infernal argument.

  14. 14. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “Phenomenal experience cannot be measured in the same fashion as Galaxies speed when drifting apart.”

    I agree that different kinds of events in nature must be measured in different ways. Phenomenal experience cannot be measured in the same way as we measure the “behavior” of galaxies. But this relates to an extremely important point. What would you describe as the *essential* difference in the logic of measurement between the two-slit experiment in physics and the SMTT experiment in psychophysics?

  15. 15. Vicente says:

    Well, in the two-slit experiment it is possible to measure “assign a figure” to all relevant paremeters involved in the experiment’s layout and its outcomes .

    Of course, accuracies and experimental errors to be taken into account.

    You can also numerically describe the SMTT expermimental setup. Now, could you assign figures to the phenomenal experience descriptions provided by the subjects? (irrespective of any accuracy consideration).

    The essential difference is that for the latter there is a lack of possible measurement of the outcomes. Testimonies do not qualify for measurements in physics. And it gets worse, not even the subjects could estimate numerically (by introspection) any parameters of their own experience.

    Imagine a circle…. tell me its radius value.

    Please note that I am not questioning the quality and interest of the SMTT experiment, that I believe very good.

    To measure is to measure. Quantities.

  16. 16. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “Now, could you assign figures to the phenomenal experience descriptions provided by the subjects? (irrespective of any accuracy consideration). …. The essential difference is that for the latter there is a lack of possible measurement of the outcomes. Testimonies do not qualify for measurements in physics.”

    Aside from testimonies (which can be relevant information in assessing qualitative experience), there are these objective figures/measurements in the SMTT response:

    1. When the subject adjusts the width of the hallucinated triangle to match its height, the phenomenal experience of the triangle’s width is measured in the maximum number of pixels between the bottom dot and the top dot exposed in the vertical slit.

    2. The time interval between the disappearance of the dots in the slit and their reappearance establishes the temporal threshold for having the conscious experience of a triangle in space. On the basis of the experimental findings, we can say that excitation of each autaptic cell in the brain’s retinoid space must be refreshed within ~250 milliseconds for the conscious experience of the triangle to be created and sustained.

    3. Any observer looking over the shoulder of the subject will have approximately the same phenomenal experience as the subject. They, like the subject, will have a vivid visual experience of a triangle moving back-and-forth out there in front of them when there is no such thing in their visual field. The only current explanation for this hallucinatory experience is based on the neuronal structure and dynamics of the brain’s putative retinoid system.

  17. 17. Vicente says:

    Arnold,

    the phenomenal experience of the triangle’s width is measured in the maximum number of pixels between the bottom dot and the top dot exposed in the vertical slit

    The most I could admit is that the size of the “phenomenal triangle” is proportional to that number of pixels, that definitely does not represent an absolute measure (which should be given in meters).

    Regarding the duration of the experience, I agree that, errors aside, and considering a “fault free” subject, you could say you are measuring the experience time.

    This space-time asymmetry puzzles me a bit.

    The point is that to access an important part of the experiment’s system, a human intermediary is needed(who you have to trust, there is no place for trust in physics), and you can’t provide an absolute measure either.

    None of these points invalidate the experiment. There are many cases, in medicine or pharmacy (that are supposedly more quantifiable), were the subjects reporting constitutes the basis of a study. Of course statistics (double blind trials etc) have to be used.

    Of course, in all delusions and hallucinatory experiences, the only explanations available are always based on the neuronal structure and dynamics of some of the brain’s systems. In the SMTT case in particular, on the brain’s putative retinoid system dynamics.

  18. 18. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “The point is that to access an important part of the experiment’s system, a human intermediary is needed(who you have to trust, there is no place for trust in physics), and you can’t provide an absolute measure either.”

    1. If ten qualified scientists look over the shoulder of the subject and each describe their phenomenal experience as corresponding to the subject’s overtly displayed experience, wouldn’t you say that the experimental result is to be trusted?

    2. Can you give an example of an experiment in physics that does not need a human intermediary to observe and report the result?

    3. What exactly do you mean by an *absolute* measure?

    Vicente: “Testimonies do not qualify for measurements in physics.”

    There is no other basis for establishing consensus on the canons of physics than the *testimony* of physicists! They testify about their observations of measurements. This is what happens in the SMTT experiment, doesn’t it?

  19. 19. Vicente says:

    Arnold,

    1. I trust the results of the experiment.

    2. Many. Nowadays you have many experimental setups using automatic measurings systems. An electronic thermometer with a probe, or a current or voltage meter, or any instrument taking long series of measurements (at a high sampling rate).

    3. A measurement that provides a quantity for the paremeter, e.g. the “phenomenal triangle” height is 0.08 m +/- 0.003m (impossible to say in the SMTT experiment).

    No, their reproducible instruments and data testify about themselves.

    All these events and circumstances take place within the bounds of conscious minds. But this is another philosophical discussion beyond the scope of the current one.

  20. 20. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente,

    1. Good.

    2. My SMTT experiment is the same. The subjects’ responses were automatically measured, recorded, analyzed, plotted, and printed out by computer. But in this experiment, as in all experiments, the printout/data has to be interpreted by humans conducting the experiment. In the Higgs experiment, for example, the printout of the critical particle trace (direction/shape), its decay, and the trace paths of the resulting decay particles had to be interpreted by the experimenters (all humans, I believe).

    3. The parameters that are measured in physics are the observed *effects* of the theoretical entity being studied. There is no way that a theoretical entity exhibits its parameters directly. That’s why spectroscopy, bubble chambers, voltmeters, etc. have to be used. In the SMTT experiment, the theoretical entity is the phenomenal triangle in retinoid space, and the effects of having this conscious experience are measured by the subjects’ rate adjustments and the images (direction/shape) they provide the experimenters as observed effects of the theoretical entity (the phenomenal triangle in retinoid space).

    Measuring instruments and data printouts are totally dumb; they can’t “testify about themselves”. Science has to come to terms with this brute fact.

  21. 21. Vicente says:

    Arnold, you are a bit selective extracting points from my comments… hmmm

    1. In the CERN experiments the amount of data is so big that unless recorded and preprocessed automatically it would be impossible to see anything (traces are automatically inferred from the multiple data collected by the detectors). And then, mostly important, you get absolute measured values related to the particles (energy, momemtum, spin, charge, etc) with concrete values, whatever the very nature of those particles is (different issue).

    2. What is the height of the “phenomenal triangle” in meters?

    Please, answer first to the second question
    Duck Soup – Groucho Marx

  22. 22. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente, we are all selective when we choose points for comment. If you feel that an important point is neglected you say so.

    Vicente: “What is the height of the “phenomenal triangle” in meters?”

    Why should its height be measured in meters? In the context of psychophysics it makes more sense to measure the phenomenal height in visual angle. This would depend on the number of screen pixels/cm and the distance in cm between the slit and the subject. In my experiments, I measured the contraction ratio of the phenomenal triangle as a function of horizontal oscillation rate.

    You still haven’t answered my question: What exactly do you mean by an *absolute* measure?

  23. 23. Vicente says:

    Arnold, it was not a serious complaint (I always forget that written language lacks of metalanguage, so important).

    The visual angle does not refer to phenomenal entities. The size of the projection of the image on the retina, is not phenomenal either.

    By an absolute measure, I mean to assign a concrete value directly to a parameter. For example, to measure the visual angle (not phenomenal) in radians. I am not referring to absolute reference systems.

    I believe the retina is the last stage at which the original image geometry is preserved to some extent. After that, information is fragmented and allocated to different areas of the visual processing chain, isn’t it.

    I still don’t see very well why this fact of not accessing the phenomenal world poses such a big problem to you. Historians don’t complain because they can’t go back to witness historic events. They just try their best with the available records. Each field has its own specificities.

    Subjectivity is a central pilar of your definition of consciousness. I believe you have limited the idea of subjectivity to its geometrical (I!) meaning, but subjectivity has a more important meaning, which is the one that opposes it to objectivity. So absolute, in this case, also includes objectivity.

    Getting back to the point, could you provide some objective absolute measures of the phenomenal triangle, i.e. of the mental image experienced by the subject.

    You can choose any other mental image of your convenience.

  24. 24. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “Getting back to the point, could you provide some objective absolute measures of the phenomenal triangle, i.e. of the mental image experienced by the subject.”

    In the retinoid model of consciousness, the phenomenal triangle is an autaptic-cell activation pattern in retinoid space. We aren’t able to provide an “absolute objective measure” of this distinctive brain activity because we can’t actually go into the brain and measure this neuronal pattern. That is why I have proposed the bridging principle of corresponding analogs. Whatever your intuitions about this, the validity of the retinoid model of consciousness depends, as does any theoretical model, on its power to successfully predict relevant objective (i.e., multiple-observer consensus) phenomena.

  25. 25. Vicente says:

    Arnold,

    We have eventually arrived to the origin.

    You say: the phenomenal triangle is an autaptic-cell activation pattern in retinoid space.

    I say: the phenomenal triangle is related to an autaptic-cell activation pattern in retinoid space (NCC).

    That activity pattern does not ressemble my visual experience of a triangle at all, but let’s leave it like that.

  26. 26. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “I say: the phenomenal triangle is related to an autaptic-cell activation pattern in retinoid space (NCC)…
    That activity pattern does not ressemble my visual experience of a triangle at all …”

    This simply reflects the dilemma of the first-person perspective. If you experienced your autaptic-cell activation pattern in retinoid space you would NOT experience the world around you! Consciousness is your experience of your brain from the INSIDE — the subjective perspective. Scientists experience your brain and its effects from the OUTSIDE — the third-person, objective perspective. Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory hinges on this.

  27. 27. Vicente says:

    Arnold,

    That is stating the obvious.

    How does that happen? How can there be first-person perspectives? Why is the nature of these experiences so disparate? etc etc etc…

    And to make it more interesting, a third-person perspective of some brain activity, is at the same time someone’s first-person perspective of its own brain activity induced by observing that other brain activity. There is really nothing outside first-person perspectives. All we really experience is our brain from the inside, isn’t it?

    The conclusion is that consciousness is a fantastic conundrum (for the moment).

  28. 28. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “All we really experience is our brain from the inside, isn’t it?”

    Certainly, but when it comes to understanding consciousness within a scientific framework, we have an epistemic problem, not an ontological problem. I hope my forthcoming chapter helps clarify the dilemma.

  29. 29. Tom Clark says:

    Arnold:

    “Consciousness is your experience of your brain from the INSIDE — the subjective perspective. Scientists experience your brain and its effects from the OUTSIDE — the third-person, objective perspective.”

    I think it’s a mistake to suppose that consciousness constitutes an internal subjective perspective on the brain analogous to having an objective perspective on an external object, if indeed that’s what you’re suggesting here. Consciousness is experience, and what we experience – the contents of experience – isn’t the brain but the various states of affairs that the brain represents to be the case, for instance that there’s a cat on the mat or that I’m in pain. We’re not in an observational, perspectival relationship to either to our brain or our experience, rather they *constitute* us as representational systems and loci of experience. What we experience – what we model via the brain’s representational capacities that somehow gives rise to consciousness – is the world, not the brain.

    So when we speak of the first person subjective perspective what we’re really talking about is the fact that only *I* as this particular subject am constituted by this experience; my experience isn’t available to anyone else, so is not a possible third person object of observation as is my brain. The categorical privacy of experience, along with its irreducibly qualitative nature, is what sets up the hard problem and the problem of other minds. It also creates difficulties for physicalism – the world as modeled via quantitative measurement – as a purportedly complete description of what’s real.

    I disambiguate various senses of the first person perspective in “Killing the observer”, http://www.naturalism.org/kto.htm#Istperson

  30. 30. Arnold Trehub says:

    Tom: “I think it’s a mistake to suppose that consciousness constitutes an internal subjective perspective on the brain analogous to having an objective perspective on an external object, if indeed that’s what you’re suggesting here.”

    I certainly don’t intend to suggest that our subjective experiential perspective within the retinoid space of our brain is “analogous to having an objective perspective [an observation] on an external object”. I explicitly deny that the self is an observer. For example see here:

    http://theassc.org/documents/where_am_i_redux

    I have had a long-standing argument with Bernard Baars about this very point.

  31. 31. Tom Clark says:

    Thanks Arnold. So perhaps you could clarify what you mean when you said “Consciousness is your experience of your brain from the INSIDE — the subjective perspective.”

  32. 32. Arnold Trehub says:

    What I mean is that the activity of a particular mechanism inside your brain is your conscious experience — the subjective perspective. Isn’t this also your experiencing the activity of your brain from the inside? Maybe the latter is unclear.

  33. 33. Michael Baggot says:

    Arnold, do these autaptic cells require some sort of observer or do they simply exist in some sort of personal ontological transparency? How does the brain gather spatial information from this autaptic tableau? If there is an experiencer what exactly is it?

  34. 34. Tom Clark says:

    Arnold:

    “What I mean is that the activity of a particular mechanism inside your brain is your conscious experience.”

    This is a clear statement of the physicalist identity claim, which of course is controversial for reasons we’ve discussed many times.

    “Isn’t this also your experiencing the activity of your brain from the inside? Maybe the latter is unclear.”

    Yes, this muddies the waters of the identity claim by making brain activity itself the object of experience, what is phenomenally represented in experience, when what you mean is that brain activity just *is* experience.

    What we experience – the contents of consciousness – is what the brain is representing in those ways empirically found to be associated with consciousness, about which see “Experimental and Theoretical Approaches to Conscious Processing” by Dehaene and Changeux, http://www.unicog.org/publications/DehaeneChangeux_ReviewConsciousness_Neuron2011.pdf The brain isn’t representing its own activity (that wouldn’t get us very far!) but rather states of affairs in the world, including the body. Why this representational process, now being specified in more and more detail, ends up entailing phenomenal consciousness is the hard problem.

    Dehaene and Changeux say “Recent experimental studies and theoretical models have begun to address the challenge of establishing a causal link between subjective conscious experience and measurable neuronal activity.” But of course on your identity claim conscious experience isn’t caused by neuronal activity as a further effect (and indeed we don’t see a further effect, only neural activity) it *is* that activity. Then one wonders how something categorically private and irreducibly qualitative (experience) can be literally identical to something publicly observable and without qualities (neuronal activity). Since both the causal and identity relations are problematic, as you know I’d suggest looking for non-causal entailments that get us from representation to consciousness.

  35. 35. Arnold Trehub says:

    Tom,

    As I see it, the mind-brain identity claim is problematic because of the meaning of the word “identity”. Understanding the relationship between brain activity (B) and conscious experience (M) becomes an epistemological problem because the logical implication of MB-identity demands a perfect overlap between the descriptors of M and and the descriptors of B, which is an impossibility in the real world. As you know, I believe the way to proceed is to adopt the metaphysical stance of dual-aspect monism and the bridging principle that says: For any instance of conscious content there is a corresponding analog in the biophysical state of the brain. I have a chapter in a book to be published by Cambridge U. Press this August (?) which I hope will clarify the MB-identity dilemma and clear the way for more productive scientific work on consciousness.

    I am familiar with Dehaene’s and Changeux’s publications. This is what I wrote in *Edge* in response to an extended presentation by Dehaene:

    _Stan Dehaene has done excellent work in exploring the neuronal correlates of the brain’s global workspace. But we have to recognize that what he and his colleagues are measuring are the brain changes in response to a novel perception of a previously masked object by a person who is already conscious. I agree with Steve Pinker that a global workspace is a key function of consciousness, but it is not an explanation of consciousness. In order to understand consciousness we have to explain how the brain is able to represent a volumetric world filled with objects and events from our own privileged egocentric perspective — the problem of subjectivity. This challenge is compounded by the fact that we have no sensory apparatus for detecting the 3D space in which we live. Recent work combining empirical measures of phenomenal experience, brain imaging, and detailed neuronal modeling, are making encouraging progress in our effort to understand consciousness and subjectivity._

  36. 36. Arnold Trehub says:

    Michael: “… do these autaptic cells require some sort of observer or do they simply exist in some sort of personal ontological transparency? How does the brain gather spatial information from this autaptic tableau? If there is an experiencer what exactly is it?”

    The conscious “experiencer” is the global egocentric/subjective pattern of autaptic-cell activity in retinoid space. The brain gathers spatial information by excursions of its heuristic self locus and the perceptual activity of its preconscious synaptic matrices. For more about this, see “Analysis and Representation of Object Relations”, and “Where Am I? Redux”, here:

    http://people.umass.edu/trehub/thecognitivebrain/chapter7.pdf

    http://theassc.org/documents/where_am_i_redux

  37. 37. Tom Clark says:

    Arnold:

    “I see it, the mind-brain identity claim is problematic because of the meaning of the word ‘identity’.”

    Ok, so I guess you’d say it isn’t the case, as you put it earlier, that “the activity of a particular mechanism inside your brain is your conscious experience.”

    Dual aspect monism has it that experience (M) and neural activity (B) are two different aspects, one phenomenal, the other physical, of a single thing. That single thing can’t be physical, since the physical isn’t an aspect of itself, it *is* itself. So I’m wondering what it is that the two aspects are aspects of on your view.

    “Understanding the relationship between brain activity (B) and conscious experience (M) becomes an epistemological problem because the logical implication of MB-identity demands a perfect overlap between the descriptors of M and and the descriptors of B, which is an impossibility in the real world.”

    An example of this would be helpful since I’m not sure what a descriptor of M would be, that is, an informative descriptor of a basic conscious experience, e.g., of pain, that we would then find to overlap with descriptors of B, its neural correlates. We have informative quantitative descriptors of physical objects and processes like neural activity but when it comes to basic qualities (qualia) there is no further vocabulary by which to characterize them, e.g., say what experiences of red, vanilla, pain are like in and of themselves. So I don’t see how we can put a description of red in registration with a description of its neural correlates to see what the overlap might be. But maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’re getting at here. Again, an example would help.

    Re the relationship of M and B, your bridging principle correctly points to the observed tight correlation between them, but I don’t see it as explaining that correlation. Put in terms of dual aspect monism, an explanation would say why or in what respects the single thing has two aspects. For instance, it might say (and present evidence for) the idea that they are distinct, objective, mind-independent properties of the single thing. Alternatively, it might say are they are appearances of that thing, a function of our being in an observational relation to it (keeping in mind that we’re not in an observational relationship either to our brains or our experience, as we agreed above).

    “In order to understand consciousness we have to explain how the brain is able to represent a volumetric world filled with objects and events from our own privileged egocentric perspective — the problem of subjectivity.”

    Well, there’s also the (hard) problem of getting from the quantitative to the qualitative, which is what the quoted characterization of the problem of understanding consciousness seems to leave out. But I look forward to your chapter in which I hope all becomes clear!

  38. 38. Arnold Trehub says:

    Tom: “Ok, so I guess you’d say it isn’t the case, as you put it earlier, that “the activity of a particular mechanism inside your brain is your conscious experience.”

    Not so. From my 3rd-person scientific perspective I feel justified in saying that “the activity of a particular mechanism inside your brain is your conscious experience.”

    As a neuroscientist, I feel uneasy in the philosophical arena but I think we can make some headway in grappling with your interesting comments. Maybe we should wait until my chapter appears.

  39. 39. Arnold Trehub says:

    Tom,

    In the meantime, here is something that puzzles me. Do you consider the logic that justifies a philosophical conclusion to be a part of the physical world, or do you consider it something apart from the physical world?

  40. 40. Tom Clark says:

    As a naturalist, I don’t think there’s any other world but the physical one science describes, so logic perforce is contained within in it. Logical inferences don’t exist independently of a physical substrate of some sort, but of course their status as logical depends on their conforming to formal relations which are independent of the type of substrate. A species of real patterns, as Dennett would put it.

    http://www.naturalism.org/systematizing_naturalism.htm#existence

  41. 41. Arnold Trehub says:

    Tom, I agree with most of what you say in # 40. But I wonder about “formal relations” when you write “… but of course their status as logical depends on their conforming to formal relations which are independent of the type of substrate”. Isn’t the very existence of any particular “formal relation” an invention of the cognitive brain? If so, how can the existence of any *logical* relation be independent of the biological substrate of the cognitive brain that constructs it?

  42. 42. Richard J R Miles says:

    Arnold, ref 41, the body initially evolved the brain not vice versa, do not forget that.

  43. 43. Tom Clark says:

    Arnold:

    “Isn’t the very existence of any particular ‘formal relation’ an invention of the cognitive brain? If so, how can the existence of any *logical* relation be independent of the biological substrate of the cognitive brain that constructs it?”

    I’d say that formal and logical relations are invented as tools to model the world in various abstract ways, e.g., identity, transitivity, if-then statements, etc. Any representational system, biological or not, needing to make its way in the world at our level of competence would come up with them. So although logical relations aren’t independent of the existence of such systems, I see them as being independent of the sort of substrate the systems are made of.

  44. 44. Arnold Trehub says:

    Tom,

    So in our brain’s transparent representation of the world (retinoid space?) we can have an opaque model/representation of a possible non-biological system that invents a formal logic just as our brain does. Anything is possible.

  45. 45. Vicente says:

    Arnold (#39),

    Maybe, the question could be rephrased as: can you introduce that logic into a physical model? and describe it as a result of the four fundamental interactions. That is what Jean-Mary Laplace said, that given the Universe initial conditions you could predict the atoms getting arranged into a book of logic or mathematics… Nowadays, he would have said that you could estimate the probability for that to happen, but the materialistic baseline doesn’t change much.

    Tom,

    How did the biological substrates “invented” logical tools without already having logical tools. How could any being say: a=b; b=c; a=c without being equipped with a formal and logical reasoning apparatus in advance?

  46. 46. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente and Tom,

    Look at the *innate* elementary logic of the semantic network described in *The Cognitive Brain*, here:

    http://people.umass.edu/trehub/thecognitivebrain/chapter6.pdf

    Our propositional systems of formal logic required the evolutionary emergence of the human brain.

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