Thursday, December 22, 2005

Disassembling "you" (or "I")

(This is another post in a series, starting with this and continuing with this, on the so-called "explanatory gap" in any current, or perhaps any possible, theory of consciousness and the reality of conscious experience.)

In the first post in this series, I used the phrase "the view you get" in referring to a particular perspective on the phenomenon of experience, namely that from within the phenomenon. This has the less than fortunate effect, however, of appearing, yet again, to support that old homunculus image of a little person inside your head monitoring a bunch of screens. So perhaps it's time to tackle that image head-on -- and ask, where exactly is this "you" (or "I")? We seem to be inside our own heads at least, correct? After all, we can see, if indistinctly, the edges of some facial features. But then, too, when we touch something it's clearly we who do the touching, so in that sense it seems as though we extend throughout our bodies as well. But we don't exactly think of ourselves as some kind of mental fluid nor do we think that if we lose a part of our body we really lose a part of our selves -- rather, it's more like spatial location, while limited to our bodies, is somehow just not a pertinent or appropriate consideration for our selves beyond that. If we have an implicit intuition about the nature of our self, it's more likely something without spatial dimension, like a point of view, or a point-source of agency. In fact, I think, this intuition is itself the source of much of the intuitive power of that notion of an "explanatory gap" -- a point-source of agency seems something inherently at odds with the very basis of mechanistic (aka "reductive") explanation of any sort.

But what if "you" were not such a point-source at all? What if in reality this "you" and "I" were an intricate assemblage of parts, components, and functions? Few people doubt that such mechanisms play a role in the self, of course, but even fewer, I think, believe that that role exhausts the self -- even most philosophers, it seems to me, cling at least implicitly to the notion of a core of selfhood, or "you"- and "I"-ness, that lurks like a ghost or homunculus in the heart of the machine. But look at what happens to the "you" if you suffer some brain damage or impairment -- unlike with bodily impairment, the "you" itself is degraded in some degree, in ways that the "you" may or may not be aware of. As illustrated in the writings of Oliver Sachs, for example, some of these damaged versions of "you" exhibit strange or bizarre impairments, and certain kinds of damage can alter the personality, character, and essence of "you". Beyond some point, "you" not only lose cognitive function, but the sense of self as subject is gone as well, and after that point consciousness itself is gone. (It's interesting, in this context, to think of the scene in 2001 in which HAL's component parts are, one by one, deactivated.) So it would seem that there really is no core or essence of "you" that is distinct from the machinery that makes up the "you".

In ordinary speech, of course, we use such pronouns casually, as simple indexicals, and can safely ignore these complications. But we should be cautious of such language habits when we come to talk about experience, where casual intuitions can become an obstacle to understanding. Taking "you" to mean a functional assemblage of component parts, for example, will change significantly the meaning of the phrase that initiated this post: "the view you get" as a part of the phenomenon of experience -- we're no longer speaking of a dimensionless agent secreted in the heart of the phenomenon, then, but rather of a complex piece of machinery in its own right, specialized to detect signals of a particular kind (e.g., qualia), and that is itself a component of a larger mechanism. For that sort of mechanism, it evidently makes sense to speak not only of the "point of view" of a machine, but of its feelings as well.

UPDATE: Here's the conclusion to this series.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Light and darkness: consciousness and reflex

(This is another post in a series, starting with this one, on the so-called "explanatory gap" in any current, or perhaps any possible, theory of consciousness and the reality of conscious experience.)

"Why is the performance of these functions [that are 'in the vicinity of experience'] accompanied by experience?" Chalmers asks, in the paper that re-introduced the idea of an "explanatory gap" in all attempts to construct an explanation of consciousness. A little later he puts the same question a bit differently: "Why doesn't all this information-processing go on 'in the dark', free of any inner feel?" It was, presumably, his inability to find an answer to such questions that lay behind his use of the "zombie" thought-experiment to argue against a materialist, and in favor of a dualist, approach to comprehending consciousness as a phenomenon. My argument here, however, is that he gave up too quickly.

In asking why there is experience, as in an "inner feel", Chalmers appears to be asking for a functional reason for experience, not necessarily for a mechanism (which may or may not be the case, but let's assume so). With that understanding, then, we can compare a conscious response to a stimulus with another type of response which really does go on "in the dark", as Chalmers puts it -- and then ask what additional functionality does consciousness or feeling supply? That other type of response is the reflex: if you accidentally touch a hot surface, for example, your hand moves away before you're able to feel anything -- a very simple instance of information-processing "in the dark", as it were. Yet, slightly later, you still do feel the pain as well -- why? Because the feeling is an essential component of a more sophisticated kind of response-generator or behavior control. It is the bearer of necessary information, about the location, type, and severity of the injury, for example, but it also provides that information in a significantly passive form -- i.e., simply as feeling, not as a direct connection to a response -- that is the key to the functional adaptability of consciousness as a control mechanism. Of course, any sort of pain is a form of feeling that, unlike sight, say, or hearing, has a built-in motivational component of varying strength, but the point of the feeling is precisely that, while it may motivate a response, it doesn't direct one, and so the motivation may be over-ridden under dire enough circumstances -- conscious experience, in other words, is a vital component of a behavior control mechanism of astonishing flexibility, without which we would be "in the dark" in a more than just literal sense.

Which is the problem with Chalmers' hypothetical zombies -- without the "light" of experience, such entities lack the form of information that provides consciousness with the free play needed for its flexibility. Now Chalmers, of course, starts out by viewing experience as something inherently different from a mechanism of any sort, and so will always return to his insistence that, given any mechanism, even one of an allegedly "conscious" kind, one can always view it's processes as "dark", or without feeling, which therefore always makes the feeling (for him) appear as an addition to the mechanical, causal processes, or as an "epiphenomenon". In fact, Chalmers must insist not just that you can view any possible mechanical process as dark, but that you must so view it, since feeling and mechanism are fundamentally distinct.

And this, despite everything I've said to this point, might be considered to be half right -- it accurately reports one's intuition from one of two possible perspectives on a phenomenon. Consider, for example, a researcher studying the difference between reflex and conscious response in another organism, and who doesn't, obviously, have direct observational access to the experience itself, but must rely on proxies of one sort or another (e.g. verbal report, other behavioral signs, neural activity, etc.) -- from her perspective, even if she could trace every single neural signal involved in the two different processes, and even though one might be more complex than the other, both would be as apparently "dark", since no trace of "feeling" would ever be observed. As soon as the same researcher studies her own reactions to the same stimulus, on the other hand, it's immediately evident that, while the reflex is as dark as before, the conscious response is inextricably connected with feeling -- indeed, "feeling" is the very meaning of such a response. The difference between the two cases is solely one of situation or perspective -- in the first case she was external to the phenomenon; in the second, "she" was a part of the phenomenon. What Chalmers does, to generate the intuition of an "explanatory gap", is to superimpose the two perspectives, in effect, which produces a rather odd and puzzling sort of double vision, certainly, but which has nothing in itself to do with an explanatory deficiency.

UPDATE: Here's the conclusion to this series.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

That "explanatory gap" again

(This is the first of what may -- but may not -- be a series of posts on the so-called "explanatory gap": the supposed gulf between any current, and perhaps any possible, explanation of conscious experience and its reality.)

Without question, conscious experience (aka qualia, phenomenal experience, etc.) presents special problems of interpretation and explanation. On the one hand, we can't doubt that it exists (despite some philosophical quibbling over exactly what that's supposed to mean), nor does anyone seriously doubt that it's a characteristic of other human beings than oneself. Virtually all ordinary people (i.e., non-philosophers), in fact, also think it's a characteristic of a number of other animal species as well, but those same people are also likely to want to draw a line somewhere down the phylogenetic chain, and pretty certainly will wish to exclude things like rocks and machines from the class of conscious entities. So from a scientific (i.e., physicalist or naturalist) perspective, in other words, conscious experience appears to be an entirely natural phenomenon, that's evolved in certain organisms but not others, that's localized in time and space, and that's as subject to cause and effect as any other phenomenon. Yet on the other hand, out of all phenomena, and in a very odd sort of way, it seems to be alone in being inherently unobservable -- not unobservable because it's too small or too quick or too slow, in other words, but because it's not something that can be observed, even in principle. We can see the effects of the phenomenon, in the sense of the behavior it generates, and we can see something of the underlying mechanisms that themselves generate the phenomenon, but we can't see "seeing" itself ... or see "hearing", or "tasting", or "hurting", etc. Experience itself, in other words, can only be experienced, rather than observed, and each conscious entity can only experience its own experience.

Little wonder, then, that all attempts at an explanation of conscious experience have left at least an appearance of an "explanatory gap" -- as David Chalmers says, in his seminal paper on this topic:


... even when we have explained the performance of all the cognitive and behavioral functions in the vicinity of experience - perceptual discrimination, categorization, internal access, verbal report - there may still remain a further unanswered question: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience? A simple explanation of the functions leaves this question open. [emphasis his]

This sense of a gap or inadequacy, that remains even after all attempts at explanation, is a persistent one, to an almost surprising extent, and in what follows I want to look at some of the reasons for that. A start would be to notice that not all gaps are explanatory gaps -- some "gaps" may be a sign not so much of a lack or absence but rather simply of a difference, in the same ordinary way, for example, that categories are different (failing to recognize such difference leading to the familiar notion of the "category mistake"). Here are some examples of simple differences that might appear, wrongly, as an "explanatory gap":

  • There's a difference between an explanation of function -- which is an answer to the "why" question -- and an explanation of mechanism -- which answers the "how". In particular, it may be possible to answer why there is experience -- because experience just is the information necessary for behavior control, for example -- without, yet, being able to answer how there is experience.
  • There's also a difference between any sort of explanation of a phenomenon and the phenomenon itself. This may seem obvious, and indeed it is in almost any other instance, but there often seems to be an element of this difference implicit in complaints along the lines of: "but that explanation still doesn't give us the experience of red, say", even if both the function and the mechanism of experience had been explained. Part of the problem may be that both explanation and experience are phenomena of consciousness, and we may have an expectation that the latter should be contained somehow in the former (partly at least for reasons given in the next point).
  • And then there's a difference in perspective, between the view of a phenomenon from the outside, as it were, and the view from inside -- the view you get when you're not just a part of the phenomenon yourself, but when the "view" itself is the phenomenon. With this difference in perspective, of course, we're getting closer to the nub of the real problem here -- it's as though explanation, in the unique case of this particular phenomenon, is trying to wrap back on its own origins, and baffling itself with its own reflection.


Now, I don't expect any of this to dispel the appearance, at least, of an "explanatory gap", an appearance that has a very powerful grip on our intuitions. But what I hope these kinds of reflections might begin to suggest is that much of the philosophic problem of conscious experience is located not necessarily in the phenomenon itself but rather in the particular, and peculiar, nature of that "gap".

UPDATE: Here's the conclusion to this series.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Against evolutionary psychology

This too one might think an odd topic for a blog that describes itself as "devoted to the 'naturalist' explanation of the related phenomena of consciousness and culture", a phrase that could almost serve as a succinct characterization of Evolutionary Psychology* (often abbreviated as EP) itself. But "natural", even when speaking of biological organisms, is not limited to "genetic", and my argument with EP has to do precisely with that implied limitation. Like social constructionism, of course (which we might as well abbreviate as SC), EP comes in a range of varieties, from "weak" to "strong", and, just as with SC, the weak versions are largely unexceptionable: there's no doubt that mental and cultural phenomena are products of biological -- meaning genetic -- evolution, and as such exhibit features that derive directly from such evolution. But, also as with SC, there's a "strong" version of the school as well, which implies that the most adaptive and significant features of mind and culture are genetically derived, and that what is not so derived is merely conventional, or more or less arbitrary and random. And this is to make a profound mistake -- it misses or ignores the fact that culture is itself a natural phenomenon that has broad influence on human psychology and society, and that responds to the same kinds of environmental selection pressures that biological evolution does, only more rapidly. A little more specifically, the school of EP exhibits three main sources of error, as I see it:

  • It fails to understand culture itself as a wholly natural phenomenon, as physical in its basis in neural structure as genetics is in its basis in DNA.
  • It therefore fails to appreciate that culture itself is susceptible to a general Darwinian process of natural selection (though different, obviously, in its mechanisms) -- and that, in adapting to environmental challenges and opportunities far more rapidly than biology, culture can not only come into conflict with biology but can be a source of biological selection pressure itself.
  • And that failure in turn leads to an under-appreciation of the idea that the most important contribution of biological evolution to human environmental fitness has been to cede psychological and social ground to culture, precisely by reducing the role of instinct and other genetic factors on human behavior.


It's instructive to put social constructionism and evolutionary psychology side by side, actually, and then to see them both as twin expressions of an undercurrent of ideological/political struggle that's been a feature of the culture for a while now. The former is aptly characterized as a type of anti-essentialism, and the latter, more recent school (in its contemporary versions), as perhaps an anti-anti-essentialism -- with each, depending on its degree of politicization, repelling the other toward increasingly untenable extremes. But even in their weaker, less political versions, both these schools simply miss the most salient fact about culture: that it too, just like DNA, is embedded in the natural, physical world. So, contrary to social constructionism, cultural concepts are driven by the real, natural environment; and contrary to evolutionary psychology, cultural concepts are themselves the primary evolutionary response to that environment.

*Here's the Wikipedia article (a start, but badly written even by Wikipedia standards); here's an FAQ by one of the important names in the field; and here's a "Primer" by Cosmides and Toobey, the two at the start of the recent surge in interest.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Against social constructionism

Which might seem like an odd title for a post in a context that has repeatedly stressed the point that "symbols", aka "concepts", are in fact "socially constructed", and has maintained that "language-based consciousness is an inherently social phenomenon". If you compare that with, for example, the Wikipedia's rather bland characterization of "the focus" of social constructionism -- "to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the creation of their perceived reality" -- you could certainly be forgiven for assuming that the stance of this blog is implicitly social constructionist. But that assumption would be wrong, in all but a rather weak sense. In fact, of course, there are a number of different varieties of this school, as there are for most, but it's possible, here as elsewhere, to distinguish two general strains or strengths. One is a relatively "weak" version that simply isolates a particular phenomenon as a focus of sociological investigation -- knowledge as a social construct; the other is a stronger, more sweeping, and usually political version that makes claims, or at least has implications, about the nature of the phenomena -- knowledge is a social construct. The former version seems fairly innocuous in that it seems clear enough that knowledge, whatever it may be, is in fact socially produced and disseminated. And even the latter isn't inherently wrong -- it accords, in fact, with at least a portion of the "epistemological inversion" I've been proposing, in which "knowledge" or explanation is seen not as congruence with an external reality but rather as a more or less effective structure (i.e., construction) built out of phenomenal experience. But the problem is that social constructionism is a sociological theory, and as such, its followers have, understandably, tended to set aside epistemological and philosophical issues generally in order to concentrate on the purely sociological issues involved. This setting-aside of epistemology, in combination with a strong claim about the nature of knowledge, and -- it needs to be said -- with an obvious political and ideological temptation, has lead social constructionism into serious difficulties and a kind of hubristic error. For some of its practitioners, I think, and at least for a time, it began to seem as though sociology (particularly in a politicized form) could provide a critique of all knowledge, scientific as well as popular. And then came the Social Text debacle, aka "Sokal's Hoax", and a quiet, chastened retreat.

So what, after all, is the real problem with social constructionism? It's that, in neglecting epistemology, it's neglecting half the equation, so to speak. That other half is what gives meaning to the term "objectivity" -- the immersive environment that's independent of any human construction. Without that as a backstop -- that is, as long as we stay solely in the realm of social interactions -- it can appear as though concepts and knowledge are indefinitely plastic. And then, within a political or ideological context, it can seem as though "reality" has been constructed merely for political ends, and so can be re-constructed at will to serve different political ends. But the fundamental and ultimate criterion for knowledge, given its constructed nature, is its effectiveness within a natural environment, a criterion which goes far beyond politics. Social constructionism is correct to note that, as opposed to versions of platonism, abstractions are cultural constructions (though in this they are already well beyond politics alone), not objects inhering in nature ("nature" itself being just one of those constructions). But it goes fatally wrong in failing to see that, as Marx said of history (and as I've noted before), we do not make such constructions just as we please. It ends up, ironically, becoming a kind of cultural idealism.