Descartes Demon as Scientistic Heuristic: Part 2

Preamble: none of what I say below is based on a hard look at Neuroscience or an attempt to extrapolate findings of neuroscience. It is the explicit theorizing that Bakker forbids and suggests is near extinction. Or constitutive of our Intentionalist delusion. So be it.

In future posts I hope to detail the more comprehensive ideas in Semiotics and BioSemiotics I think that can incorporate, not slovenly follow, the Neurosciences.

A quick way to grasp the kernel of Blind Brain Theory runs as follows (a more thorough pass can be found here). The cause of my belief of a blue sky outside today is, of course, the blue sky outside today. But it is not as though I experience the blue sky causing me to experience the blue sky—I simply experience the blue sky. The ‘externalist’ axis of causation—the medial, or enabling, axis—is entirely occluded. All the machinery responsible for conscious experience is neglected: causal provenance is a victim of what might be called medial neglect. Now the fact that we can metacognize experience means that we’ve evolved some kind of metacognitive capacity, machinery for solving problems that require the brain to interpret its own operations, problems such as, say, ‘holding your tongue at Thanksgiving dinner.’ Medial neglect, as one might imagine, imposes a profound constraint on metacognitive problem-solving: namely, that only those problems that can be solved absent causal information can be solved at all. Given the astronomical causal complexities underwriting experience, this makes metacognitive problem-solving heuristic in the extreme. Metacognition hangs sideways in a system it cannot possibly hope to cognize in anything remotely approaching a high-dimensional manner, the manner that our brain cognizes its environments more generally.

Problems with BBT:

(1) The notion of “cause” that undergirds the theory is spurious.

Does the blue sky cause me to see it in the same way we would say a stone ’causes’ a window to shatter? There is no evidence that this is so. Visual experience cannot be reduced to an inout/ouput linearity not even when the ‘brain’ as a self contained ‘system’ is acounted for ( i.e when we theoritically or experiementally deduce what the brain contributes to experience). This for the simple reason that the relationship between eyes, light, and brain, and yes ‘mind’ combine across varying networks that enabe ‘seeing.’ These varying networks are the conditions for visual experience not its cause in the simplistic sense postulated in the abstract above.

Blind Brain theory is creation of a particular individual that has been posted on the internet – the many conditions that had to be met for me to even ‘read’ cannot be captured or explained by such a paltry notion of ’cause.’ The BBT cannot explain itself. Of course, it will be argued that this fact is a virtue of the theory since any contravening reason for denying the theory is professed to be an example of just what it is arguing. BBT aims to explain why you find it unsatisfactory (our experience is occluded from the real causes) without any positive account of how itself came to be. It pops up miracously from the incognizable causes to give an account of this incognizability . That Bakker finds this a feature of his theory, not a bug is spurious. After all, on the premise that the real causes cannot be known or are so complicated to occlude actual knowledge, postulating actual knowledge of the cause for this occlusion is untenable. That is, the suggestion that the trillions of operations cannot be cognized is itself generated from these trillions of operations and cannot itself warrant its existence. For this reason it is as guilty of the question begging charge it lobs around. It simply assumes a distinction between what the brain does generally [ how it cognizes the ‘environment’] and what meta-cognition does [when reflecting on its own processes] but fails to see that this distinction has no warrant as it offers no argument for the viability of this distinction in the first place, how it is somehow not a meta-cognition. What is left then are are statements for BBT and statements against BBT and nothing to arbitrate them since BBT contends that at the basis of all this of this is occluded causes. Unless BBT exempts itself from the operations it postulates and become a variant of the ‘supernatural’ positions it castigates I fail to see how it escapes this vicious circle.

As an aside, this is ultimately why arguments that supposedly show how vastly ignorant we are or try to place limits on knowledge always fail – knowledge is not a static, ready made thing we can encompass in a container but an ever evolving process – the reason it cannot be cognized singularly is because it is not a ‘thing’ that is waiting there to be cognized.

2. The asymmetry between what the brain does and what we consciously experience is only problematic from a certain viewpoint.

According to the latest estimates, the human brain performs some 38 000 trillion operations persecond. When you compare this to the amount of information that reaches conscious awareness, the disproportion becomes nothing short of remarkable. What are the consequences of this radical informaticasymmetry? The Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness (BBT) represents an attempt to’explain away’ several of the most perplexing features of consciousness in terms of information loss and depletion. The first-person perspective, it argues, is the expression of the kinds and quantities of information that, for a variety of structural and developmental reasons, cannot be accessed by the ‘conscious brain.’ Puzzles as profound and persistent as the now, personal identity, conscious unity, and most troubling of all, intentionality, could very well be kinds of illusions foisted on conscious awarenessby different versions of the informatic limitation expressed, for instance, in the boundary of your visualfield.

Now, this asymmetry between information that is out there (38 trillions operations per second) and what reaches our conscious awareness is fundamental to this theorizing. But why is this vast quantity of things going on a problem or “remarkable”? Well, from the standpoint of causal and scientific analysis that attempts to discover “mechanisms” at the root of our perceptions. This knowledge is, of course, useful. Without this background perspective, however, why should I think there is an “asymmetry” ? In a negative sense? Why isn’t it simply that while I am perceiving all these things are happening? Is my lack of awareness of 38 trillion operations per second an actual cognitive lack or a lack created by abstracting out “operations” and distinguishing them from my “awareness”? I contend the latter for there is no apparent reason why I need to be aware of these operations such that not being aware of them is reason to create an illusion in place of them.

Imagine, for example, that a Google car becomes conscious in a century ( or less – who knows anymore, everything is right around the corner – we are the post-human, post intentional, decades away fem the Semantic Apocalypse ). From our basic BBT theory, we know already what’s going to happen. (1) The car, non-conscious as of today, is ‘driving’ perfectly fine, getting into no accidents. It can navigate it’s environment without any need of conscious decision making, just input-output, causal problem solving. (2) For some evolutionary reason/ function, or less loaded, ‘causal’ event the car becomes more ‘complex’ and develops consciousness (3) in developing this consciousness it still is able to drive without accidents but this consciousness because of its complexity now requires it to “believe” it is actually driving the car.

So, it was able to mindlessly drive before but at a sufficient level of complexity it is necessary that it ‘believe’ itself in actual control of the car. At another stage of its evolution the Google car realizes that it wasn’t in control at all and its belief and experience of control was a heuristic foisted on it because of the trillions of things going on while driving. So even though many of these things were going on before, the addition of consciousness now means that the Google car must think itself in control, to be literally driving the car. Why? Because it can’t be conscious of all the things that are actually responsible for the driving. But it was driving perfectly fine without this knowledge. So, when, precisely, did it need to have this knowledge and thus created a heuristic in place of having it? If there is no need to know the state of the quantum just to cross the street, there is no need to create an illusion of this knowledge to cross the street. There is simply no motivation for the theory. This is so even if we attempt to re-describe ordinary knowledge as “approximation” to knowledge at a quantum or scientific level but again this entire procedure is vitiated by the notion of “heuristics” that will attempt to salvage it. Again, since heuristics go all the way down and there was never ever any need to know the quantum level of things, there is no need for a heuristics based on an absence of further heuristic knowledge of the quantum events – it is simply irrelevant. There is no need for such elaborate deceptions just to know how to keep your mouth shut at Thanksgiving dinner – the notion of ‘medial neglect’ as employed by BBT simply stands in for causes not actually articulated, causes assumed to be going on, without any explanation as to why.

Here, of course, the shotgun charge of “question-begging” will be deployed again. But I fail how to see the position doesn’t descend into a vulgar panpsychism if this is the case. The rock has no need to know its chemistry to flourish as a rock. Some explanation needs to be forthcoming as to why, only in humans, apparently, delusion has risen in regards to causes nothing else needs to know.

What we end up with is something akin to a Ventriloquist arguing with all seriousness that it is not him that is the ventriloquist but the puppet on his arm. Any distinction that we argue applies to him ( say being alive) and not the puppet is dismissed as question-begging since we assume we’re alive without having a robust cognitive science theory ( and by and large we do not ) of this so-called entity ‘life.’ And round and round we go until finally exasperation sets in.

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2 Responses to Descartes Demon as Scientistic Heuristic: Part 2

  1. Michael S. Pearl says:

    I do not understand the devotion to – the appeal of – chains of thought which conclude in the various sorts of broad eliminativisms (and the delusions and illusions upon which they depend or which go hand-in-hand with eliminativisms). I am especially puzzled by (the polite way of saying not impressed with) scientistic eliminativisms (of which the so-called Blind Brain Theory would seem to want to be one).

    For the sake of convenient brevity, I will refer to a Scientific American blog from December 2, 2013, in order to introduce some of my thinking with regard to these eliminativisms. In that article, Ferris Jabr goes so far as to say that life does not exist. He might prefer to imagine it to be more precise to say that he explains “Why life does not really exist” as per the title of his essay. The gist of his thinking is as follows:

    For as long as people have studied life they have struggled to define it. Even today, scientists have no satisfactory or universally accepted definition of life. … on the most fundamental level, what is the difference between an inanimate machine and a living one? Do people, cats, plants and other creatures belong in one category and … computers, stars and rocks in another? My conclusion: No. In fact, I decided, life does not actually exist. … No one has ever managed to compile a set of physical properties that unites all living things and excludes everything we label inanimate. … We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.

    Were Jabr’s essay intended as an analysis of problems with/limitations of human understanding and expression, then it could at least be made to have some utility. But the conclusion that something does not exist if it has no determinate definition is simply (albeit in multiple ways) preposterous. It could be argued that from Jabr’s conclusion it follows that perceptions that there is life are illusions/delusions. But the more interesting question (to the extent that it is interesting at all) is whether the illusion/delusion position follows necessarily (which would be to say to the exclusion of all other possible positions).

    In the case of Jabr, he admits of life as a concept, a notion – just not a reality. Given such a distinction, the question which follows is whether priority is always to be given to those matters which are non-conceptual, non-notional reality? Would such a prioritization be at all distinguishable from a value, a valuing? Inasmuch as a value is a concept, is it, too, not a reality in the same way that life is not a reality?

    Eliminativist ways of thinking (and I include Jabr’s in that category, even if Jabr’s position amounts to nothing more than being eliminativist in terms of particular semantics) remain confined to retrospection. But, do they all remain apart from valuing? This question is relevant, because valuing is not confined to retrospection. A significant appeal of retrospection is the fact that it is limited to a presumed determinateness and, therefore, provides access to (and basis for) such concepts as truth and knowledge. In contradistinction, valuing always entails a prospective element and hopes for wisdom instead of merely knowledge about the already determinate (see The Importance of Nonsense for more detail about the distinction between wisdom and knowledge). So far as you are aware, is there valuing which follows from or is associated with the Blind Brain Theory?

    On a separate matter, the charge of “question begging” is often very telling. It is, to be generous, a technicality employed to proclaim the conjunction of the unpersuasiveness of an alternative/contrary interpretation and the formal rationality of the preferred interpretation that is being maintained without alteration. Is persuasion a necessary goal of thoughtful engagement? No. Likewise to the extent that refutation is appropriate, it is most often simply in service as a tool against certainty so that other possibilities will also be pursued. Most often, and nearly always, it is stimulation rather than persuasion or refutation that is the usefulness of thoughtful engagement.

  2. Chen says:

    Good point, Michael. And I need to reread that essay. Eventually, I’ll post something using our questions as a jumping point. I find myself constantly amazed at how readily and easily we cede control of our minds and bodies to abstractions, engendering habits of thought that leave us powerless to do anything in the face of ever accelerating technology. The relation to your point is that this constitutes a valuing, a preference and choice for these abstractions over and against our lived being. And for a purpose I cannot really understand.

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