There always seems to be a fine line in commentary between teasing thoughts out of the mind of another, and the downright obliteration of those very thoughts by an insidious misappropriation and transformation or distortion that takes place in any philosophical commentary. Over the years – and, I’ve literally read thousands of commentaries of specific authors, books, etc. – I’ve come to the realization that most of us will probably never agree on the meaning of reality, that we all tend to differing conceptions due to culture, natural disposition, and the inexplicable and as of yet undefined modes of our specific existences. We are a mystery that will never be wholly explained. Even the idea that we are ‘critical thinkers’ has recently been called into question with the assertion that the ‘rationalizing brain’ is a thinking machine which is far too complex to be reduced to the older forms of subjectivity and intentionality. As my friend over at Three Pound Brain, R. Scott Bakker iterates over an over: we’re all blind to our own brain, and all the cultural and philosophical baggage coined under the term ‘intentional awareness’ is sham through and through. Scott even reminds us in his provisional manifesto (here) that those of our contemporary literati and philosophical radicals (so called) are actually quite conservative – still believing in the old terms, the old mythology of the Self as Subject even under the auspices of overthrowing such conceptual bric-a-brac, etc. :
Where the Old Theory discusses ‘fragmented subjectivities,’ cognitive science has moved on to fragmented intentionalities more generally, questioning the stability and reality of things–context, affect, normativity, perception, and so on–that the Old Theory still takes for granted. The Old Theory, in other words, continues to anthropomorphize its discursive domain, positing intentionalities that the sciences are now calling into serious question. Ignorant of the truly radical alternatives, it continues to service the same folk-psychological intuitions that underwrite the cultural status quo.
Science treats us as machines, and fragmented machines at best, broken mis-measurers of reality who blinded to their own partial knowledge or lack of such assume metacognitive appropriation of the real where none is to be had. “How many puzzles whisper and cajole and actively seduce their would-be solvers? How many problems own the intellect that would overcome them?” So begins Bakker’s The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness (here). Bakker already admits to his outsider status within the domain of scientific practice and discipline that he has chosen to stake his theoretical proclivities (here), but sees this as par for the course for any viable future theory which for him will embrace “the crank, the amateur, understanding that unprecedented answers tend to come from institutionally unconstrained sources–from the weeds outside our academic gardens.”
As I continue to read Scott’s blog I have slowly ingrained myself to his terminology, which seems to float through many disciplines in search of a key to tap others of like mind. He doesn’t mind the crankiness and quirkiness of his work, or even the castigation of it he receives. For him this is all par for the course of any new theory: the test is that people cannot remain neutral to its impact, they can only love or hate it – never sit on the fence with its conceptions. Scott is an avid reader of current literature dealing with ‘intentionality’ and the sciences and philosophy of mind and consciousness. Over time he has honed his arsenal of tools and approach to his own ignorance and Socratic path. I admire his tenacity and forthrightness. He seems like the proverbial dog of Diogenes always barking at the masters bitter truths realizing that what he sees both exasperates him and astounds him. Sometimes he wants to be kicked, hoping someone will disprove his hunches; yet, time and time again, the veritable panoply of oncomers fail to convince and fall by the wayside as he continues his search for the definitive martialing of his theory.
In the Last Magic Show he alludes to the discrepancy between the appearance and the scientific descriptive portrayal of consciousness, and of the need for a supplementary theory to tease out the appearance of consciousness. But before tackling such a theory one wants Scott to first explain what he means by appearance and consciousness. Should we assume these terms mean something specific for him or that they should be qualified by the history of their use in science or philosophy; or, even as partial of the accepted definitions (ie. the OED, etc.). Do we just assume a complicity between the writer and his audience that we all have the same understanding of these terms and their heuristic use in the text? Why should I even raise this as an issue? Shouldn’t the text itself in the movement of its words bring out the meaning of these two such important terms and their use as Scott continues his discourse.
Since he does not make explicit what he means by such terms up front, then we must continue our reading and see what he is up too. In the next paragraph he unloads a bomb: “The central assumption of the present paper is that any final theory of consciousness will involve some account of multimodal neural information integration.” He actually places a footnote for this (and of course we will assume for better or worse that this is a published paper for a specific audience, and not intended for the general reader who may or may not be knowledgeable of such terminology). And, of course in the footnote he informs us that the underpinnings of much of his theory are idealizations of other theoretical work in the sciences: “Tononi’s Information Integration Theory of Consciousness (2012) and Edelman’s Dynamic Core Hypothesis (2005). The RS as proposed here is an idealization meant to draw out structural consequences perhaps belonging to any such system.”
Tonino starts with phenomenology which ties him to the whole history of a specific set of philosophical presuppositions that I will not belabor. The point is that for Tonino consciousness is ‘integrated information’: a physical and quantifiable effect of the brain and not some substantive entity either immersed or transcendent of the brain. Our consciousness is generated out of neural processes for specific evolutionary reasons. One can see the full lecture:
For Edelman and Tonino on the Dynamic Core Hypothesis one can read their Consciousness and Complexity paper here. I’ll leave this to the reader to pursue. A blog post for the future could delve into both of these in depth but for the moment I’m dealing again with R. Scott Bakker’s proposal. Yet, since these two men’s work seem to underpin his essay it might be good to know just what they are proposing.
We propose that a large cluster of neuronal groups that together constitute, on a time scale of hundreds of milliseconds, a unified neural process of high complexity be termed the “dynamic core,” in order to emphasize both its integration and its constantly changing activity patterns. The dynamic core is a functional cluster –its participating neuronal groups are much more strongly interactive among themselves than with the rest of the brain. The dynamic core must also have high complexity — its global activity patterns must be selected within less than a second out of a very large repertoire.
The point being that consciousness is the effect of a specific set of interacting neurons termed the ‘dynamic core’ and its communicative processes in integrating messages or chemical transformations from the global brain as part of a specific functionary dynamism of complex processes (feedback loops, energy transfer, chemical reactors, etc.). The crux of their goal is a theory that supports the “belief that a scientific explanation of consciousness is becoming increasingly feasible”. The point being for them is to have a scientifically valid theory that relates the phenomenology of consciousness to a “distributed neural process that is both highly integrated and highly differentiated”.
Now Bakker in his reading sees consciousness as the product of a “Recursive System (RS) of some kind, an evolutionary twist that allows the human brain to factor its own operations into its environmental estimations and interventions”(here). The use of the term ‘recursive system’ comes from the technical use made by Dynamic Core theory: “The dynamic core consists of a momentary subset of the thalamocortical system defined by active synapses. Positive feedback/reentrant signals circulate in the network of the dynamic core. The active synapses comprising the dynamic core continually change as the dynamic core updates recursively on the basis of about 100 ms.” (here) For Bakker the subjective personal identity of first person is an illusion, a confusion of our experience of consciousness which is actually a machine of neuronal activity blind to its own emergent processes which become conscious only after these specific sub-neuronal processes have emerged from the function of the Dynamic Core.
Yet, I wonder, is our awareness of being aware an illusion of this process as well? Or is it part of the actual dynamic process in its ongoing neuronal activity, being only one phase of this process and not the whole gamut? Why are we aware of our awareness to begin with? Is it because of these recursive feedback-loops interacting at such high rates and complexity that we confuse the process for something else: a center of self and subjectivity? Knowing the facts of this brain activity does not take away the awareness of our awareness, so how explain this awareness of our consciousness to begin with? This so called science tries to describe the process not the outcome, but we are more interested not in the material processes that over the evolutionary strand have due to some quirk in our natural history brought about this blind brain. What we are interested in is an explanation of why we are aware at all? Why do we need consciousness to begin with? Why this confusion of self and world, this seeming sense of a self to begin with? If we accept that this is a lie, an illusion created by the process itself then is it something useful, a happy accident of evolution? Explaining it in scientific terms doesn’t really get at the heart of the confusion so far as I can see. Knowing that we are just the fabrication of a blind brain immersed in sub-neural and neuronal processes explains only the bare minimum of the brain itself, but this doesn’t really get at consciousness at all. Instead it just complicates the matter with more questions.
Why did evolution bring about consciousness in just this specific form in humans and not in other creatures? Why are other creatures not aware of their awareness? Why humans? What brought about this strange if complicated separation between the brain and its awareness, and of its ability to recursively process its own awareness? Why are there thinking minds to begin with? What in the evolutionary process brought the need for thinking to begin with? And, why just one specific species? If that is even true.
As Bakker informs us over and over we’re we “generally don’t possess the information we think we do!” Consciousness is just the tip of a great iceberg or abyss that we are completely unaware of. Ok I’ll bite, and realize we filter out almost 99% (of course we have no quantifiable measuring stick for this, scientific or otherwise) of the data below our conscious mind. We seem to thrive quite nicely on our ignorance and let the physical brain do the rest in unconscious bliss. But one does not need a rocket scientist to tell us that if we had all that information at our disposal in one moment we’d be unable to see the forest for the trees, we’d be lost in a maze of information. So what we discover is that consciousness is a filter, a selective center of a specific set of processes that integrates the information that is processed below the stream in the brain and brings to awareness only the specific information needed to get on with the physical process of life itself. Is this so hard to accept? Surely not! We all understand that we need only what will help us get on with our work. The crux is not in this, we only become aware of it as a problem when we are unable to retrieve the information needed, when the brain for medical or other reasons does not work, and in fact breaks down and is no longer able to integrate the information: then we call for either the medical or psychological teams to investigate.
Of course Bakker is not unaware of this quagmire:
..at some point in our recent evolutionary past, perhaps coeval with the development of language, the human brain became more and more recursive, which is to say, more and more able to factor its own processes into its environmental interventions. Many different evolutionary fables may be told here, but the important thing (to stipulate at the very least) is that some twist of recursive information integration, by degrees or by leaps, led to human consciousness. Somehow, the brain developed the capacity to ‘see itself,’ more or less.
This is where my own questions start? Why? What event or strange evolutionary process brought this about? Why us and not other animals as well? If recursivity is game then why did evolution see this for just one specific species? There needs to be something more concrete that a ‘fable’ to explain this? Bakker again has a guess for this in the wings “the RS is an assemblage of ‘kluges,’ the slapdash result of haphazard mutations that produced some kind of reproductive benefit (Marcus, 2008).” But this is more surmise than actual answer. Another scientific fable to confuse more that enlighten us about the fabric of consciousness and its specific form in the human animal.
Yet, Bakker admits to my own point saying “We have good reason to suppose that the information that makes it to consciousness is every bit as strategic as it is fragmental. We may only ‘see’ an absurd fraction of what is going on, but we can nevertheless assume that it’s the fraction that matters most …” Exactly! For whatever reason the information we get is what we need to get own with our work whatever that might be, and yet sometimes we need more we need to invent other avenues of information that the brain lacks. What then? If the brain does not give us what we need what then? Could this lead us to ask other questions as to why we formed a specific type of consciousness that we did? Is brain science the last answer, the be all end all of a physical apprehension of these processes?
Sometimes I get the feeling that Bakker sees consciousness as a bit player, as a passive pony in a parade that is for the most part hidden in the recesses of recursive processes totally out of its control of sway. But is this true? Is consciousness just a passive receptacle, a sort of central void where all these recursive processes finally integrate and divulge their long labors in the unconscious brain? –
The problem lies in the dual, ‘open-closed’ structure of the RS. As a natural processor, the RS is an informatic crossroads, continuously accessing information from and feeding information to its greaterneural environment. As a consciousness generator, however, the RS is an informatic island : only theinformation that is integrated finds its way to conscious experience. This means that the actual functions subserved by the RS within the greater brain —the way it finds itself ‘plugged in’— are no more accessible to consciousness than are the functions of the greater brain. And this suggests that consciousness likely suffers any number of profound and systematic misapprehensions.
His use of the metaphor ‘plugged in’ as if this dynamic core were machine plugged into the greater databank of the brain with consciousness totally blank and devoid of knowledge of this specific engine it is connected too. I sometimes feel like we are reading a new Lovecraft novel written by a scientist rather than a literary fantasist. And of course Bakker is that as well (no pun intended).
So ultimately we come to crux of Bakker’s theory, BBT of Blind Brain Theory: “Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness simply represents an attempt to think through this question of information and access in a principled way: to speculate on what our ‘conscious brain’ can and cannot see.”
So his actual theory is quite specific more toned down that it’s actual portrayal in post after post on his blog. A speculative theory on the brains blindness and insight into its own recursive processes. Simple and sweet, yet infinitely complex in its actual goals. What I like about Bakker’s work so far is that he moves us beyond the quagmires of present philosophical literature. Current philosophy in it anit-representaionalist and representationalist literature Analytic or Continental deal with the extremes of Subject or Object. In Badiou and Zizek we start with the ‘Subject’, with others – such as the SR or OOO gang with ‘Objects’ and a multitude of those in between those two extremes measuring the world in processes. I simplify of course. But my drift is that those such as Zizek deal with the void of self, the abyss within around which consciousness like a satellite revolves in recursive formation; while others like Graham Harman consider objects as withdrawn and unknowable, as recursive dynamic systems that consciousness is totally blind too. Bakker on the other hand coming out of a naturalistic scientific philosophical background seeks scientific terminology of the newer brain sciences that try to move us beyond the use of Subject and Object altogether.
The next question that arises is ‘Time’, and specifically the now of our conscious mind, the first-person singular illusion he speaks of. As he says, “Any theory that fails to account for it fails to explain a central structural feature of consciousness as it is experienced. It certainly speaks to the difficulty of consciousness that it takes one of the most vexing problems in the history of philosophy as a component!” For RS theory time is nothing more that the integration point where the brain becomes conscious: this is the moment we experience as ‘now’. As Bakker would have it “Our experience of time is an achievement. Our experience of nowness, on the other hand, is astructural side-effect. The same way our visual field is boundless and yet enclosed by an inability to see, our temporal field – this very moment now – is boundless and yet enclosed by an inability to time. This is what makes the now so perplexing, so difficult to grasp: it is what might be called an ‘occluded structural property of experience.’”
One could spend an essay or even a book on just what Time is and its relation to consciousness. Yet, it is one of the cornerstones of many philosophical debates. In the older Newtonian universe the spatio-temporal dimensions were extensive and contained in a passive receptacle. In recent time Whitehead offered a more dynamic cross-sectional theory. As most scientists know experiments that might serve as bases for the construction of a physical theory or that might serve as tests for the confirmation of a physical theory are subject to the demand that standard conditions prevail or that suitable correction factors be introduced to ensure the consistency and the comparison of the experimental results. Otherwise, the experimental results would be one-time reports with no significance beyond isolated experiments, certainly not beyond the domain of the peculiar conditions that do prevail in the experiments. Also, were there not an assumption of standard conditions, it would follow that theories would be constructed and confirmed with reference only to peculiar conditions prevailing in particular areas where the experimentation takes place.
I’m not a Whitehead expert but feel there is an important part of his work to be still investigated. In Process and Reality we discover that for him the physical and geometrical order of nature in were described in terms of “a hierarchy of societies” (PR 147-50, 506-08). Basically, a “society” is a grouping of events which manifest a common characteristic, the presence of that characteristic being guaranteed by the relations which the events sustain. The physical and geometrical order of nature is constituted by at least three societies, “the society of pure extension,” “the geometric society,” and “the electromagnetic society.” The point to be noted is the relationship of the geometrical society and the electromagnetic society. The latter is embedded, so to speak, in the former, so that a determination of the variable physical quantities which characterize the electromagnetic society is obtained against a background of relationships which comprise a uniform metric structure:
The whole theory of the physical field is the interweaving of the individual peculiarities of actual occasions upon the background of systematic geometry. (PR 507)
[T] hese diversities and identities are correlated according to a systematic law expressible in terms of the systematic measurements derived from the geometric nexus. (PR 150)
When I think of the recursive embedding of these differing hierarchies of societies I’m reminded of how consciousness too is embedded in a recursive nexus of processes of which it is unaware, but that can be measured through a determination of certain variable physical quanta through an analogous background of relationships that comprise the uniform metric structure of the global brain itself. The now being nothing more than one of those ‘actual occasions’ upon which the background is woven. If one applied the exactitude of such geometrical precision to the brain science one might actually be able to systematically measure the peculiarities of consciousness itself in a scientific way. A testable theory!
Without going into every detail of Bakker’s essay, which I could not begin to do full justice too in one blog post. I will instead leave you with his parting words:
I sometimes fear that what we call ‘consciousness’ does not exist at all, that we ‘just are’ an integrative informatic process of a certain kind, possessing none of the characteristics we intuitively attribute to ourselves. Imagine all of your life amounting to nothing more than a series of distortions and illusions attending a recursive twist in some organism’s brain. For more than ten years I have been mulling ‘brain blindness,’ dreading it– even hating it. Threads of it appear in every novel I have written. And I still can’t quite bring myself to believe it.
This idea that we are machines, ‘integrative informatics processing’ machines at that, who have for so long assumed grandiose dribble about our personal worth and identity seems to be Bakker’s worst nightmare come true. What it seems to me is that he has discovered what is coming toward us, the future belongs to something else… something not quite human, yet born of our own strange informatics processes: the cyborgs and artificial intelligences that we may one day give birth too may look back quaintly at this troubled angel of flesh and blood and wonder just what all the fuss was about anyway. Maybe the last magic show is not for us but for our electronic children. Wouldn’t that be a recursive twist for the comic book heroes of an age to come… or is that age upon us? Nightmares indeed…