Sunday, 17 May 2015

The 'Hard Problem' and Self Hood

This is a reply to a comment on the article 'Self requisite for causation'. This is a sidetrack from the essay but it is an interesting set of musings nonetheless.

I am kind of convinced that there is, or has been, no a selves ever on the Earth. For animals I think all vertebrates have phenomenal, attentional, and cognitive self models. I don't know much about invertebrates.

Hi, glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for bringing this up!

It is certainly fascinating to uncover the similarities that organisms share, especially when it comes to consciousness and cognition. It is always mind blowing looking in to this field but there is always the danger of anthropomorphising - where we assign the attributes of humans to animals.

This is where 'the hard problem' really comes in to play, since there is no way we could even begin to imagine what 'other experience' was like. That being said though, it is not in the realms of fantasy to imagine that other neural networks support phenomenal consciousness in other vertebrates.

I think you are quite right to discount the possibility in creatures which lack neuronal functioning, such as insects. However, me might ask where do we draw the line?

As a thought experiment we might look at simpler brain structures until we find a species with one neuron say. We would then likely suggest that it is too simple to be conscious. Then we would be obliged, according to our categorisations of conscious & non conscious beings, to account for what level of neuronal functioning - i.e. number of neurons and patterns of firing etc. - is requisite for consciousness.

This problem is intractable and can only ever be an inference within the constraints of our hard problem of consciousness. Interestingly it also asks many more questions too such as, is there a golden ratio for neuronal functioning?
Is degree of consciousness something linearly or logarithmically related to neuron complexity?
Is consciousness some kind of on/off state that only occurs once a threshold has been reached?

In this sense, we are currently shut out of an answer to these problems and our attribution of what species are, or are not conscious, is nothing more than arbitrary guesswork. Add to this the problem of other minds, and the fellow sceptics among us have a field day everyday!
However, a recent article in New Scientist suggests that consciousness arises from temporal stable states in neuron firings, that last hundredths of a second. This really is interesting and may hold a key to unlocking this problem.

It is at least intuitive that chimpanzees and the like have quite a rich phenomenal experience. As far as the existence of self model is concerned, I have previously postulated that it arose as a structural requirement necessary before language appeared. 

I wrote an article about it in 2011 You will probably find it interesting but you will have to forgive my poor writing style and RT style erroneous reasoning as it was written before I was versed in philosophy! 

In any case, the kinds of brain function we would be looking at would include episodic memory i.e. remembering events, the re-sequencing of 'nyeeps' (chunks of phenomenal data), behavioural recognition, and crucially, awareness of another's knowledge or cognitive ability.
The kind of example behaviours we would see from this functioning might include evidence of planning according to past experience, ability to make tools, noticing the intentions of others, and demonstrating awareness of whether others have noticed danger.

Interestingly, all these attributes are displayed by different members of the ape family. Crucially, this leads us to suggest that the self model is not limited to humans, and allows us to postulate that the brains modelling of the world in a relational capacity to the body that contains and protects it, is a function that could have evolved and is present in other species. There we have a plausible explanation of what self hood really is, instead of trying to say it is an entity divided from the 'objective world' as such.

As far as agency is concerned, I would suggest self hood consists in embodied human agency manifested as phenomenal experience. I.e. we are not something calling the shots separate from the brain, or passing judgement on the phenomena that arises, or rearranging 'nyeeps' in to new sequences to make plans.

'We' are nothing but the manifestation of the appearance of phenomenal experience arising within the brain as it goes about its business in the world. Hence, we can demonstrate the lack of control and free will that we thought we had because life lives itself, it always has without the need for bringing a separate 'you' in to the equation.

Naturally, we throw up many more questions (its always a can of worms!) such as, am I committed to saying consciousness is epiphenomena? How do we suppose there really is an external world in which these brains subsist? - I could go on but there is plenty to chew on here and I hope to explore these questions in my future ramblings!

The aim of self requisite for causation was not to 'convince' you there were never any selves, it was more to trash dualism and really question the suppositions upon which the notion of selves are based. 
Its not much use for me to convince anyone one model of reality is true over the other, however, I do want you to look in experience. Admittedly here we are dealing with the logical end of the bargain and I hope this helps to highlight the untested assumptions we have never dared or even thought about questioning.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I should say your last words are kind of preaching to the choir for me because since I read Being No One by Metzinger, I am fairly convinced that no such thing as a self exists. And for free will, I see it as such a paradoxical concept that onus probandi should clearly be on those who claim that there is free will.

I don't think I'm anthropomorphising at all about other animals, since self-models as a stable process surely didn't come to the scene of evolution with Homo Sapiens. Well, maybe we'd better study this creature more closely: It is thought to be the closest relative of the most recent ancestor of vertebrates. My hypothesis is that we will find a primitive self-model in it. For complex invertebrates like octopuses my concern is that this model may be so diffuse throughout the organism that it may be wrong to classify it as a distinct process. For lower invertebrates like insects, I am again not so sure. Yet, I have no problem with classifying all animals with a nervous system as sentient beings, even the most primitive. And speaking of phenomenal experiences, having a nervous system is sufficient IMHO. Apart from nuances we are on the same side in terms of selfhood.

Well if we come to humans, I read some of your posts about methods for experiencing that there is no self, but didn't bother to try them for I'm already convinced, cognitively speaking. However, speaking of phenomenally experiencing this, in another words "the self-model as a model" becoming transiently opaque, I've been experiencing this in brief episodes for years, and I can say it's a pretty terrifying experience for me.

Now the important thing is, you probably know Metzinger claims that accepting the nonexistence of a self can be a opportunity for humans to save ourselves from the chains of Nature, and be "free" (and if you don't know about it, please read the very last footnote of Being No One, it's excellent). Yet I can't say I've been successful. Maybe we should discuss about reaching a persistent opacity, without going mad. Practices or meditations, I don't know, but I feel there is a way out. Maybe you can enlighten people, as you seemingly understand Buddhist way of life and thinking better. I read about Buddhism and Taoism also, and admired them, but it had no permanent effect in my life, unfortunately.

Lastly I wouldn't want you to go out of your direction for this blog for explaining things to me, especially considering you said in your last post that you are very busy. Please go on as you planned. I am a person who prefers listening and reading thousand times over discussing. Hopefully we can exchange ideas in the future, when both of us may have a more relaxed schedule.


Gh0$T V1Ru$ said...

Hi, I don't think you are anthropomorphising either, I was just highlighting the danger when we think about consciousness. It is certainly interesting to look at basic species like the Lamprey and reading that was enough to highlight the total inadequacy of my one neuron thought experiment. I would agree your intuition regarding the nervous system being necessary is on the money too.

My argument though, is that this is outside the realms of validation. Whilst I agree it is a sensible and well reasoned inference, I am agnostic about it. We always have the nagging doubt about whether the simple apparatus in a species such as lamprey is sufficient to provide the stability required for phenomenal experience. My intuition tells me it probably is though, thank you for sharing this.

As for the self, if we come to an intellectual understanding, I view this as a sign post to seeing Anatta. I used to force this view on people and get them to do phenomenological looking. However, I gave up on that a few years ago. Not only can I not logically validate it, I cannot give you any reason why you should. You needn't read this but I documented this explanatory gap previously.

With the limited information you provided here, it seems you may experience episodes of depersonalisation? I can imagine within the context of believing you are (an illusory?) self in the world that this could be terrifying. My view is that believing in no self, having not experienced it, is detrimental to a person and I always caveat to any explorer that nobody should take on beliefs about there being no self.
This opaqueness you describe happens to me frequently – sometimes a few times a day. However, I view it as 'oneness' within the context of non-duality, so rather than being something that invokes fear, it is somewhat cool to experience and is more like satori for me.

It would be wrong for me to second guess what Metzinger is saying as I have only read his earlier work and not 'Being no one'. I'm merely guessing he shares Julian Baginni's view: The intellectual understanding of no self can be the foundation for a new enlightened way of living.

I disagree with Baginni. Firstly the intellectual understanding of it does not demolish our established ways of thinking or societal conditioning. Going about phenomenological enquiry demolishes assumptions and foundations that support the notion of believing you are an entity separate from experience. Simply believing something is not enquiry - It is merely incorporating new knowledge in to a pre-existing framework that is already distorted with contradiction and error.

Secondly, adopting this belief introduces people to a new pattern of doublethink. On the one hand they believe they don't exist, yet are subject to destructive ego patterns, greed, and being self centred. This experience contradicts their belief and in order to believe simultaneously that one does not exist and, yet is still subject to the same patterns, one has to live in a state of denial. This is not conducive to a new enlightened way of living.
If anything, this introduces a more nihilistic conception of the world than seeing the self for what it is through enquiry. IMHO I actually think Baginni's view is more dangerous simply because in my experience at truth strike, I saw people adopting a belief in no self and getting stuck in a vortex of nihilism which can be destabilising.

An example of how changing beliefs is superfluous for real change would be 'ethical capitalism' = the same broken system with a few new beliefs to try and make piecemeal changes without addressing the fundamental contradictions that lie at its heart.
If we want to see a real carthasis of humanity, we need to root out the false beliefs that no longer serve us and actually propagate a cycle of false and deluded thinking throughout peoples lives.
I think Baginni's heart is in the right place but his project is misguided.



Anonymous said...

Yes, what I've been having is surely some kind of depersonalization/derealization, however I don't perceive it as a disorder or something. What's more, probably it should be a default state for a more objective perception of "reality", minus the anxiety, like your experience.

Call me naive but I don't think the main problems about conscious experience are outside validation. To this day we haven't had a problem that is proved not adequately explainable by a mechanical approach to the nervous system. Neurology is rapidly discovering the right tools for the so-called "hard problem of consciousness". We have a very good road map thanks to philosophers like Metzinger, we kind of know where to look. But an important change of point of view is also required.

Real problem for me is what to do with our new knowledge. I see you tried to convince people fanatically in the past, with the hope that it will somehow save the world, and got angry when they (naturally) couldn't understand. I used to be like this too, sort of. Nowadays I've turned my direction to other matters that I perceive to be more urgent for our planet, and to be honest I'm open to all kinds of solutions including direct violence and terrorism, yet problems about mind and consciousness remain very important for me. Sadly my fellows are too ignorant, and I just can't tell them to go and read thousands of pages of Metzinger, Dennett, Nagel, etc.

By the way The Ego Tunnel that you've read is not an earlier work of Metzinger, it's mainly a summary, or a layman's version, of the much more detailed and technical Being No One. The latter is surely his magnum opus, and one of the most important philosophy texts ever written, even taking numerous weak points into account. From his recent articles and personal communication I know he's revised some of them.

I support your points about the potential paradoxes about phenomenological inquiry. That's why I mention a phenomenological opacity of our self-model and our model of intentionality relations, instead of a cognitive one. There is a reason that moments of deepest understanding are almost always subsymbolic, nonreportable. I've never tried drugs but seriously considering, especially Ayahuasca. In the future systematic brain stimulation may also help. However, with no adequate framework, all these experiences may leave no permanent marks.

I hope you'll discuss in your future posts about how to fight these false beliefs, for a realistic possibility of leaving a positive effect on society.

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