Thursday, April 22, 2010

Consciousness: post hoc

Following is a conversation I had with Jason Stackhouse that sprang out of talking about my article that recently ran on Reality Sandwich. (For newcomers here, Jason is an old friend of mine; we've also co-written several projects together. He's an excellent writer, I suggest you check out his blog. This is probably the same debate we've been having in some form for ten years now, but it's still just as fun.)

(Click post title for conversation.)
Jason: Philosophy's not exactly my area, but the writing's damned good. That, I'll vouch for.
It's rhetoric, but very good rhetoric.
Good work.

me: Thanks. Yeah, everything is rhetoric ;)

I get at that more in another part of the intended book
the "science" part of "social sciences" is pretty much a sham
let it be what it is

Jason: yup
Though, with better statistical modeling and near-universal surveillance, we could really get somewhere.

me: ;p
in theory the fusion of statistical modelling and game theory could tell someone what a person was going to do

Jason: Could tell you what a rational party would do.

me: but we've seen in the financial sector what can happen as a result of a single incorrect hypothesis / equation

Jason: Eh. Apes is apes.

me: oddly, to an extent i'll agree with that ;)
symbols and self consciousness throw a curve-ball. (and some certain elements of the unconscious in regard to symbols are REALLY weird.) but, in most social interactions, you can stand outside it and watch most of it play out as a series of desires/fears interacting

individuals are actually a lot more perplexing than most social behavior, in a lot of ways

(of course social dynamics are composed of individual agents but that's not really how they seem to play themselves out- it's almost like certain scripts come into play that are relevant only to group dynamics that can override individual ones)

Jason: Self-awareness is post-hoc.
Ditto free will or conscious decision-making.

me: hmmm

Jason: I don't like it, but it's science.

me: i'm more willing to grant the latter than the former though i do think those are some of those are essentially unknowable

Jason: Decide to flip me off and the nerve impulse to do it is already halfway down your arm before 'you' 'decide'.

me: of course, action and awareness aren't necessarily the same

some people could probably decide to flip you off and do it before even being remotely aware of it.

whereas others are so introspective that they'll probably likely never flip anyone off because they'll spend so much time and energy thinking about it.

i've seen those people. they're weird. (and usually either japanese or live on the internet. or both.)

Jason: It's malfunctioning modeling wetware. Structures used to track and predict environmental factors turned inward. The fox did this because... becomes I did this because...

It's narrative.

Look what happens with brain damage- people will rationalize and tell you up and down why they do things, can't do things, etc...

me: narrative, yes. i think that's one of the points are working towards with IoM actually though not in those terms

Jason: But it's all post-hoc

me: in other words you're saying self is an illusion

(in the sense of true agency etc)

Jason: Yup.

me: you're a buddhist.

Jason: I follow current neurology.

me: yeah it's just funny cause what you're saying is buddhist philosophy

Jason: Well, they're right, then.

me: "nirvana" is the dissolution of the SENSE of self

there's no self that actually needs dissolution

Jason: "I" don't agree, either. But facts are facts.

me: yes and no ;p

facts may be facts but how they were derived and how they are interpreted is never certain

(wine causes cancer! no wait, it cures it!)

Jason: With those, it's more of a find-the-money thing, with lazy journalism thrown in.

me: yeah. weak example. the thing is i agree in a sense that consciousness is post hoc but i don't agree with the behaviorist model of what's actually determining our actions, thoughts, etc

Jason: Indeed. Too simple. We'll get there.

me: maybe

i think there are things that can't be known by logic

Jason: That's made me chuckle, regarding the self-awareness tests we propose for general-AI.

If it doesn't have a self-referential narrative taking all the credit, it's... what? Not 'intelligent'?

It's funny.

Break the hardware, the consciousness will prattle on like it's still in charge. Google around a bit on split-brain studies, anton's blindness, etc.

There are even delusions of sightedness in the blind. Damascus syndrome, IIRC.

And the I is right out front, explaining that it only tripped because someone moved the furniture and it wasn't paying attention.

It's a narrator.

That's all. A passenger, not the driver.

me: a myth-maker, yes

there may be no driver

paradoxically somehow this makes me feel more sense of the existence of "spirit" (etc), not less

Jason: Um.
Well, good for you, then.

me: there's nothing more "real" about matter, over and above anything else

Jason: Oh, shush.

me: well, hold on. if all our experience is being narrated by something that's essentially an illusion, how can we turn around and then say that the subjects of that experience (sense and matter included) are any more "real"

Jason: Ah.

me: it makes ALL of it myth

at least that's the philosophical position i've been taking with the immanence of myth ;)

Jason: Cute.
I don't have a response past that, but I feel as though you're trying to shoulder-throw the objective universe.

me: what i'm saying is that it makes its illusory quality kind of irrelevant, what's important then is that the essential nature of the world as we know it is narrative

("myth.") i don't have any particular position about the object/ive, in terms of whether it exists or not; what we KNOW is our experience.

i guess i'm saying, if we live in an illusion, a dream, a delusion, and its underlying quality is narrative-- then that's where we live then. let's work with that, rather than degrade it. why are we trying to logic ourselves out of the box?

(and why do we have faith that logic is a tool that could get us out?)

the alternate position is a kind of materialistic nihilism.

i guess people could feel superior in their sense of being somehow "closer" to the truth but it doesn't seem an especially interesting or useful state of mind to live in. nor is it possible to prove.

Jason: In my case? My answer is that I've built my life mostly around the knowledge that my neurology is flawed. Enlightenment, if I can call it that, is 'out there'.

me: the usefulness of the objective is mostly for modelling.

(whether for applications in biology, engineering, space exploration, agriculture, ...)

what's weird to me is that our present worldview seems like people want to LIVE there.

we live in the dream. :)

Jason: And the dream runs on objective hardware.

me: if you want to use that metaphor, sure. ;P

a hindu might say something else, but mean the same thing.

and there's something (i'm fairly sure) under all those metaphors we'll use for what our experience "runs on" but we're still and forever looking at it from this side. like i said, it's all just yearning for the other / object.

Jason: Hm.

me: modern science, medicine, and psychology, for instance, seem to think more and more that the delusions of a schizophrenic aren't important. really the same opinion is held for a "properly" functioning individual, they just aren't as concerned about them (in the sense of treatment.)

that follows from the underlying worldview, certainly. but it doesn't seem to yield the desired results (treatment) and i think part of that is because no value is given to the dimension of our experience. Jung obviously was very big on this.

that isn't to say that science shouldn't be used for what it's good for but, i know from my own experience, when the symbols and complaints of my psychology were ignored and medication was given blindly, the end result wasn't at all beneficial. whereas when i personally went in and dealt with them on their own level - well, i wouldn't say i'm "cured" by any stretch of the imagination - but i'm certainly better off than i was when i was 16, or 24.

if you have a vision where a being comes to you and asks for you to leave 3 stones under a tree outside, you can dismiss it on scientific grounds, or you can over emphasize it and really go nuts- or you can go put those stones where they belong and maybe after the fact figure out what that 'narrative' was all about.

anyway, that's pretty much the point i've come to after however long with these things.

1 comment:

  1. About your mention of "narrative"... it's a nice and useful notion (have you read about cognitive psychology? a therapeutic branch of it is called narrative therapy, they write very interesting articles) but I think it really depends on the eye of the beholder (the "quality of awareness" of the percipient). From my current understanding (and to some extent, direct experience) of Buddhism, one of its core notions (conceptual narratives, yes, but with a different kind of cognitive goal in mind) is that one level of our current cognition needs narratives, mostly for pragmatic operation in the material and social world, and interaction, but strongly emphasizes that "reality is not a narrative" or the classical Korzybskian "the map is not the territory", and that deep down (or inside, or whatever metaphor one prefers), there is no narrative but other modes of percepto-interaction with "reality". Indeed, even the classical subjective-objective polarity would be a kind of "perceptual narrative" which consciousness can transcend. But I feel I'm saying something that's obvious to you. What we call synchronicity couldn't even be considered if we don't give this "coniunctio oppositorum" a chance. And they (Buddhists) take it to the extreme, insisting strongly that there is no narrative underneath. That there are processes beyond all our stories and the musings of our monkey minds, but that they are not narratives! Thus the classical example of the Zen disciple who experiences a vision of the Buddha and the master hits him with his stick and says "keep meditating and it will disappear" ("no narratives, fool!"). And even "deeper", there seems to be a really powerful mystery relating to the "true nature of reality". This relates to the Mahayana Buddhist notion of sunyata, or fundamental "voidness" of reality (also Ain Soph in Qabalah, etc). It all sounds so abstruse, that's why I really like Zen buddhism that intertwines all of this with daily life (non-narrative awareness within a narratively-configured but ultimately deeply mysterious process? or Blake's "the universe in a grain of sand")...



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