Friday, July 10, 2009

What is "Feeling"?

In his parting comment, Burk refers to my “retreat to feeling.” By use of the term “retreat,” he connotes that there is something inappropriate in invoking feelings when discussing the legitimacy of religious belief. “Retreat” is a metaphor for avoiding something that one cannot win against. In other words, he sees my attempt to incorporate “feeling” among the pieces of evidence we invoke in deciding what to believe as really just a way of avoiding his challenge to religious belief.

I see it, by contrast, as a way of answering that challenge—by introducing something relevant to the assessment of that challenge. The invocation of feeling will be viewed as a retreat rather than a response when “feeling” is taken to be irrelevant, so that the invocation of feeling amounts to leaving the “legitimate terrain” in which critical discourse concerning religious belief ought to be taking place.

So the question that arises is whether a consideration of “feeling” is relevant for a discussion about the legitimacy of religious belief. To answer this, we need a more precise definition of “feeling.” I suspect that at least some of what is at issue between defenders of religion who take their cue from such figures as Schleiermacher and Hermann Lotze and Rudolph Otto, and contemporary criticis of such religion, may be resolved if we progressive defenders of religion did a better job of explaining what, exactly, we mean by “feeling.”

In its most ordinary contemporary usage, “feeling” encompasses pleasure and pain, and what I might call the non-cognitive components of emotions and desires (for example, with respect to desires there’s what you want and the judgment that it is on some level worth pursuing, but then there’s how it feels to want it, which we might describe as an “intense ache” or an “urgent hunger” or a “mild interest” or some such thing).

“Feeling” as Schleiermacher used that term is a much broader concept. What it references is what is immediately present in consciousness, as opposed to the objects of consciousness (which, for Schleiermacher as for Kant, are constituted from the “manifold” of experience through the conceptualizing and unifying activity of the subject).

But part of what happens when the self constructs objects of consciousness is that certain elements of the experience feel a certain way—specifically, there is something about these elements, immediately given in experience, which inspire us to treat them as if they’re coming to us from outside of consciousness itself. They “feel” like veridical encounters with an external world. As such, feeling plays a crucial role in the construction of empirical experience. Sensory impressions “feel” a certain way, and the way that they feel is instrumental in our treating them as originating in objects beyond consciousness that are impacting our consciousness. Schleiermacher, following Kant, referred to this dimension of consciousness as its “receptivity.” There is, if you will, a feeling of being acted upon or being receptive to the other.

And, of course, there are other things that are immediately given to consciousness. When we act, there is the feeling of spontaneity—and this feeling does not merely or even primarily accompany external physical acts (which happen in the empirical world of objects that influence us, and so are intermingled with a feeling of receptivity as we experience our own physical acts as external objects that effect us). This feeling is more pure in relation to wholly internal acts of consciousness: when we imagine something or think through a problem, or decide to perform a physical act.

There is also the unity of consciousness, which suggests a single subject of consciousness, a self that is one thing in some important way. I “feel” like a unified and individual being undergoing a diversity of experiences, rather than just a cluster of sequential experiences.

And when we “toggle” between receptivity and activity, there is a sense of something underlying them both, which is now being receptive, now being active. The subject of experience and the agent of action is, in effect, the same self—a self that underlies both receptivity and activity. But putting things in this way is too conceptually loaded. What is immediately given to us in consciousness is a “feeling” in the sense that Schleiermacher has in mind, and what I offered just above is really an interpretation of that feeling.

Schleiermacher points out that when we dwell in this pivot point between receptivity and activity, when we are quiescent enough to just be that self which acts and receives, without getting caught up in either feeling, then we experience yet another feeling which he calls “the feeling of absolute dependence.” It is like out sensory receptivity—it feels as if I am being affected by something beyond me—but it is different, too.

I’m inclined to describe it in the following way: Consciousness has a subjective “pole” and an objective “pole.” Ordinary sense experience “feels” like it’s coming from the objective pole and impacting the subject. But I am the subject “facing” the objective pole of experience, the feeling of absolute dependence might be described as “coming from behind me.” And unlike the way sensory experience feels—as something outside the self effecting some part of the self in some way—the feeling of absolute dependence is a sense of the total self being effected in a fundamental way. Put in interpretive language, it feels as if I am in contact with the source of my very being, upon which all of my receptivity and activity depends.

What I want to say is this: when we move beyond merely describing the empirical world to offering a worldview, that is, an understanding of the nature of reality itself, we are moving beyond what science can do. To say that the empirical world is all that there is amounts to a worldview that goes beyond merely describing the empirical world. It takes seriously the feeling of veridicality that accompanies sense experience, but it seems to me that it “explains away” much if not most of the rest of the immediate experience of consciousness as delusions produced by the functioning of the physical brain. All my acts are caused by brain processes which can be traced back according to the laws of the empirical world in such a way that there is no genuine spontenaity. The feeling of unity is an effect of the brain’s activity—but the brain itself is a collection of things, perhaps infinitely divisible.

But why should the “contours of consciousness” beyond the empirical ones be so thoroughly dismissed? Are they truly irrelevant in trying to come to grips with the nature of reality, that is, in trying to decide which worldview we should pragmatically adopt in the course of living our lives? Is there, perhaps, a worldview that takes seriously all these feelings, and makes sense of them all—including the ones associated with empirical experience—without explaining them away? Perhaps not, but if there is wouldn’t such a worldview be better, all else being equal?

In any event, we won’t answer these questions if we pre-emptively dismiss “feeling” and regard the efforts to take feeling seriously in philosophical reflection as nothing more than a “retreat.” I suspect that such dismissal, however, may rest on the tendency to understand "feeling" in only a very narrow sense, according to which it is very easy to treat feelings as irrelevant for questions about what is real. My hope here is simply to help clarify the broader sense of feeling that I (and Schleiermacher and others) are invoking in these discussion.

I should add that I haven’t even gotten into the moral and aesthetic dimensions of human experience here, which it seems to me also need to be included in “the pool of things we are trying to make sense of” when our task is to construct a holistic account of reality rather than to merely describe the empirical world encountered in sensory experience. While I think that we can never claim to have knowledge with respect to such holistic worldviews, I think it is pragmatically impossible to avoid adopting some kind of worldview for practical purposes in the course of living our lives. And so we need to make some kind of decision. In so doing, I don't think it is fruitful to pre-emptively dismiss some things that might turn out to be relevant in the course of making such a decision. "Feeling" is one of those things, along with a pragmatic (including moral) assessment of the outcomes of living by one worldview or another.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    I understand where you are coming from in terms of feelings, and I totally get it. If you are high on peyote, you have immense feelings of meaning and also of the reality of what you are experiencing, however divorced it might be from more sober versions of reality. Such cases show with exquisite clarity that our consciousness, along with these feelings of being-ness and one's ground of perception, are >constructed<.

    Most of the time this complex of perceptions and feeling combines into an effective and accurate way of dealing with the world. But under various (physical) alterations, (a biologist might think of them as mutations), we are introduced to its contingent nature, and possibly its structure. This can be extremely scary, as in a walking nightmare or a bad LSD trip, or it can be extremely pleasant, as in the many drugs of abuse.

    So I think this question of the veridicality of the feelings of consciousness is scientific, not philosophical, and is being quite effectively dealt with, for instance by Daniel Wegner and other cognitive scientists.

    All this is not to say that our feelings about being, free will, central consciousness, etc. are bad or should be done away with. Far from- they evolved as extremely useful shorthands for getting things done and creating societies, and so they remain. They are the essence of humanity. (Ditto for moral values and so forth that a completely other discussion.) But as an analytical topic, the origin of the mind is a scientific inquiry that should, and does, go way beyond such feelings. It is subject, for instance, to normal physical laws insofar as we are dealing with the brain. And very good evidence points to the contingency of consciousness, the illusion of free will, the modularity of processing before it is knit up into the "video" of consciousness, the physical nature of many threads of processing that end up impinging on consciousness, the thorough brain-centered-ness of the whole show, and so forth.

    The visual system is a prime example, where great amounts of construction and gerry-rigging (edge detection, movement detection, hole-filling, tiny area of focus, etc.) go on behind the curtain of our awareness. It all seems so smooth, but peek behind the curtain, and it is quite sobering how >constructed< the process is. Vision is a huge part of consciousness, so it seems reasonable to extend lessons from one to the other, in abstract, at least.


  2. "But why should the 'contours of consciousness' beyond the empirical ones be so thoroughly dismissed? Are they truly irrelevant in trying to come to grips with the nature of reality, that is, in trying to decide which worldview we should pragmatically adopt in the course of living our lives?"

    It is really not clear how these issues are connected. How we want to pragmatically live our lives, and even what moral and ethical implications derive from different views of consciousness, are not determinative of the science/reality of the situation. If minds arise from brains and there is no need for supernatural "explanations", then whatever moral problems are attendant thereto are not going to change that origin, just as is the case with Darwinism more broadly. Indeed self-knowledge of this kind is of inestimable use, practically as well as philosophically. The (introspective) contours of consciousness are not dismissed as a general policy, but are used as clues to understand the mind, in combination with more analytical methods.

    Lastly, what is the efficacy of "deep introspection" as a means to figure out how our minds arise, which you have touched on occasionally? I think the answer to that is quite low. Buddhists have been doing deep introspection for millennia, and have attained remarkable experiences and self-control. They have gained a sort of working control over mind, much as a metalworker may gain practical control over iron or bronze. This is a form of understanding, but I do not think it rises to the level of philosophy, or to the level of "explanation" as understood in our society, especially if that supposed explanation draws on supernaturalism as a mode of discourse, which has been so discredited in every area where a satisfactory (if always tentative) explanation has been developed.

    Current models of brain and cognitive science- memory, emotion, bonding, motor control, visual processing- far outstrip Buddhist explanations. This is not to say that Buddhist wisdom has nothing to tell us, especially in terms of working with our minds subjectively/introspectively, and the need and capacity for compassion training- their practical and spiritual lessons are acute and important. But as explanations in the normal philosophical sense, they really don't stack up.

    The reason is that our internal senses are bad- very bad. Controlling meditation is like swimming in black pudding. You can't perceive your amygdala, or measure your dopamine levels, or gauge your gamma waves. Our minds never evolved to self-perceive- the very concept is quite beside the point. Feelings here (even broadly construed) are great, but far from an acceptable (or exclusive) basis for analysis. So the philosophical dictum to "know thyself" requires help from external sources.

  3. I think that what you are largely talking about in the end are languages to express inner experience. Religions have provided such languages, and so have the modern psychological traditions- Freud in an impossibly crude way, Jung with far more sensitivity. So have novelists and mythological traditions, alchemy, astrology, and shamanism. There is nothing invalid about seeking such expression and, in the modern mode, trying to link it up with more analytical methods approaching the same overall topic from the outside- neuroscience, etc.

    The problem is simply in treating these languages of self exploration and expression as more than they are- as glimmers of supernatural "realities" or contact with the creators of the universe. Such claims go way beyond the proper scope of these languages, however apt they may feel as metaphors. They are scientific claims, which get you tangled up with scientific methods and scientists.

  4. Great posts from Burk and Eric.

    I would argue that Buddhism is the most intriguing place for all of this. As a science of first person experience, it relies on anecdotal testimony from 2500 years worth of practitioners. Yet it starts with a goal - an assumption of value - to alleviate human suffering.

    Can we not perceive the effects of our amygdala, our gamma waves, etc. through mindfulness? Are these parts not associated with states that have been experienced and described before we could give more detailed labels to their physical mechanisms? Aren't the "effects" more relevant to human experience than third-person measurements, in the sense that third person measurements are only relevant in how they help (or hurt) the "effects"? 3rd person measurements wouldn't even occur without 1st person consciousness telling us to do it. The mind measures the mind.

    Even our perception of 3rd person reality is an aspect of our 1st person consciousness. The Buddhist idea of "no self" can also be expressed as "all is self".

    Philosophy is ever-present in Buddhism, but it, as everything, is completely contingent on 1st person verification through experience. So, even when seeking through scientific method, even when discovering origins, isn't 1st person consciousness our beginning and our end?

    The parable of the arrow tells us of how origins (explanations?) secondary. They can be helpful for sure, but Buddhism is prescriptive, looking forward from where we know we already are.

    The real key to 1st person and 3rd person experience is the snake swallowing its own tale. Hopefully, the two aspects of our consciousness aid each other. As the Dalai Lama said (paraphrase) - If we could find a way to physically suppress the negative feelings from the amygdala, that might be good spiritual practice!

    Great posts, again.

  5. Burk,

    I think you are absolutely nailing it when you speak in terms of different vocabularies. The mythos vs the logos. (hopefully not "vs" life is about trying to make them hold hands and skip together....)

    Mistaking spiritual reality for literal truth is a huge mistake. Not recognizing the power in symbols is also a huge mistake. Religious metaphors (can) describe truth that is ineffable in vernacular language. Poetry can make it FEEL right. That crazy kind of feeling that is a sense of knowing -that mindset that makes life (and anything, such as scientific exploration) worthwhile and meaningful.

    I deny the literalism of religion while trying to preserve allegiance to the source. Religion takes the source and filters it through anthropomorphizing human consciousness. The source becomes God. God becomes Yahweh. Then literalists divorce the conscious construct from the source and it becomes fundamentalist religion - an idol before God. And often an impediment to an honest exploration of the world.

    Yet we should be careful not to avoid the source - for it is meaning itself. For instance my exploration of my being is the result of my being. My search for scientific explanations for the origin of the universe comes from my consciousness. I cannot fully capture myself. Therefore - spirituality.

    An openness to possibility, to our wildest hopes and dreams (for the value in themselves) -and with caution, using logic and science as a friendly tool to better understand.

    one more side note - contemplating an electron for a while...............any materialism misperceived as a value-reducer, or as a compete sense of knowing for that matter, flies out the window.

  6. Burk wrote: "I understand where you are coming from in terms of feelings, and I totally get it." And then proceeds to write things that reveal he didn't get it at all. Burk, your entire response simply assumes there is nothing beyond the material--you offer no reason, logic, or answer as to why this must be so--especially given Eric's response. When you write, “So I think this question of the veridicality of the feelings of consciousness is scientific, not philosophical..." you are already espousing a philosophy, which is philosophical naturalism.

  7. Hi, Darrell-

    You are right that I could engage Eric's point a bit more directly. Let me quote a bit:

    "And unlike the way sensory experience feels—as something outside the self effecting some part of the self in some way—the feeling of absolute dependence is a sense of the total self being effected in a fundamental way. Put in interpretive language, it feels as if I am in contact with the source of my very being, upon which all of my receptivity and activity depends."
    "Is there, perhaps, a worldview that takes seriously all these feelings, and makes sense of them all—including the ones associated with empirical experience—without explaining them away? Perhaps not, but if there is wouldn’t such a worldview be better, all else being equal?"

    These passages presuppose an entire approach to the mechanism of consciousness and the brain generally that requires some more explicit treatment. For any brain sensation we have studied to any depth, there are mechanisms- ways in which they can be deranged, cut, impaired by stroke, etc. Vision, hearing, smell- all are subject to various hallucinations and errors.

    The feeling of consciousness (I think we agree on the observation of these source of being, etc. feelings, even if we disagree about their interpretation) undergoes similar alterations on a daily basis, in the form of sleep. This is not a minor alteration, but a thorough-going shutoff, alternating with quasi-conscious states (dreams) that enjoy the same endogenous viridicality as waking consciousness without the benefit of being veridical.

    Thus it should be patently obvious that the depth the feeling of veridicality has precious little bearing on whether it is or is not veridical. It is only when we wake up that we engage with the empirical world, get and calibrate our bearings, and resume the somewhat richer and more coherent experiences of waking life.

    As far as the feeling of being itself, which Eric is most concerned about, what reason do we have to treat it any differently in principle or practice? It disappears completely during sleep. It suffers from the same hallucinations as any other sensation under deranging conditions. Being content-less, the only relevant hallucination might be turning off, like in drinking binge, anaesthesia, sleep, etc.. Or if Eric is concerned with the connection to god and hope, then depression might form the relevant hallucination.


  8. To elaborate more involved theories of the origin of these existential feelings, or indeed your claims of supernaturalism in general, you would have to account for these simple observations by presumably theorizing that while the brain is the necessary (and fragile) medium of consciousness, it is not the source, even though the relevant scientific disciplines are ever more certain of the opposite, and even though basic physics supplies no other sources.

    Proffering some realm beyond science is extremely convenient at this point in the argument, but its worth is nil. It can not be demonstrated, its necessity for the phenomenon is absent, and its basic principles can not be enunciated. It is itself a sort of dreamworld where anything is possible and all difficulties are overcome by wishing. (Or sophistry, as per G&T).

    Obviously, if you are convinced of such a world, there is nothing I or anyone can do, demonstrate, or say to change your view, untill some deeper and more explanatory understanding of conscousness emerges through normal science (though probably not even then). But don't say that there is a burden of proof on the naturalist to speak about brain activities <-> feelings in natural terms when you done no evidentiary work of your own, except to cite a variable, materially entwined, and fallible feeling.

    As for the ideas that this feeling represents "being receptive to the other", or the ground of all being, god, and so forth, they simply communicate one's presuppositions, not observations. With a huge dollop of hubris. Some buddhists have a slightly more humble description, of the no-self state, which seems far more tenable and removes the need/temptation to invoke all the empty theories concerning "supernature".

  9. I enjoyed your followups, Burk. Good stuff.

    Sometime I would like to see you make a moral argument. I'm sure you have some on your blog you could refer me to. I am wondering how you would justify an ethical stance that you think should be applied by everyone.

    Also, I am wondering this - The mind is made up of mindless algorithms, perhaps stacked on top of each other to create what we perceive as "Mind." If this is so, then why not consider natural selection, or any other algorithm, a thought? Does a thought need a thinker? Not necessarily. By arguing algorithms, and a lack of free will, we are not thinkers either, but rather a sort of ecosystem of mindless algorithms.

    Does this idea reduce the value of Mind? Elevate the value of all processes, besides human?


    Eric often uses the term "holistic" which I think is great. His concern, it seems to me, is to make sure we never lose sight of meaning and our experience within attempts to objectively study our existence. Very relevant. Yet the idea of "irreducible" mind is not holistic. It seems to mean that we are different, not wholly causally in relationship with the world we live in. Not very holistic.

    Yet, Burk's description of subjective experience kind of amounts to - It's valuable!, but not really. Which also fails to holistically incorporate the phenomena of our existence with the study of it. It doesn't seem to recognize that we are playing the game while attempting to analyze it. We are completely on the court with little ability to look down from above. We are the universe thinking about itself.

    I do appreciate this approach when tackling literalist religion, however. But arguing against and arguing for can be two different things.

    I think this is a highly relevant, quick-read, on these issues.

  10. Burk,

    >> you would have to account for these simple observations by presumably theorizing that while the brain is the necessary (and fragile) medium of consciousness, it is not the source, even though the relevant scientific disciplines are ever more certain of the opposite, and even though basic physics supplies no other sources. <<

    I encourage you to get a copy of Edward and Emily's book "Irreducible Mind" for a good challenge to your view.

    - Pat

  11. Burk, sorry, I should have said: Edward and Emily Kelly's book. I'm so sleepy that I forgot to give their last name! Anyway, I highly recommend the book.

  12. Hi, Patrick-

    In an effort to not clutter this up too much, I did comment a bit on the Kelly book on my own blog, under the comments. From what I gather, it is highly dubious, to say the least. You might enjoy a recent podcast on the general topic.

  13. Hi, Steven-

    You bring up numerous issues, and thanks for your interest. The Karen Armstrong link was quite intriguing. Some people think that the problem of mixing up mythos and logos cropped up well over 300 years ago, though. Some think that the scolastics (Scotus, Aquinas) started the ball going in the wrong direction with their program of trying to prove the logic of god and Christianity, submitting to rationalism as a metric for faith- a sort of false god, though one we are very fond of in the west, thankfully.

    The Gnostics (and many others) would take the problem further back, to the origins of Christianty, where the orthodox church insisted on the literal truth of their story (Jesus existed, born of a virgin, rose to heaven, the word become flesh, etc.), most elements of which were widely known mythical themes that were recognized as myths and retold in numerous guises. The process of incarnating all this and remaking this story into something you had to believe literally was perhaps not the project of the earliest proto-gnostic Christians, but one of later orthodoxy, which it is Eric's project in part to reverse, make less literal, etc. (I am guessing).

    Anyhow, that is just my own take on all this. The rest of your points go to another deep issue- do we make meaning, or do we discover it? This applies to the moral rules that give our communal lives structure and meaning, as it does to personal spiritual experiences which generate individual meaning. Obviously, I am of the camp that believes that morals are made, by our personal desires and by the social negotiations by which we work out how best to satisfy each member (or oppress them, in the case of females in Islam, et al.). Thankfully, humans are not all-bad, so we can come up with fair systems if we put our minds to it. A set of talks speaks to this issue from an economic/evolutionary perspective.

    Likewise, personal meaning has its origins very much like Armstrong suggests- in the personal inner experience which has found such rich and diverse expression in art and practice. The idea that we must to have communally certified, sanctified, and enforced meanings/mythos is slightly abhorrent, though I recognize that humans are a communal species, are quite suggestible, and enjoy mass belief systems. Such systems are powerful in their dangers as well as their positive capacities, and atheists typically (and possibly temperamentally) are not so interested in them (critics are sure to jump in here to say that the unconsciously held mythos is the most dangerous one of all!). The convergence of atheism and communism was a bizarre, and I think rare, counter-instance that exhibited a utopianism that renounced skepticism and realism in many of its other key beliefs, especially about human nature.

    At any rate, aside from what is inborn in human nature, my position is that there are no intrinsic meanings, and thus it is our job continually to make them. This makes the position of theists particularly poignant, since they recognize instinctively that they have staked all their meaning on a story (mythos/logos) that is rather unstable (a matter of faith), as Eric exemplifies in navigating between the extremes of total belief and rational skepticism. To lose such a rich religious artistic edifice and start over from scratch can be extremely painful, as many ex-believers testify to. And it isn't really necessary if only one can take it as originally intended- as mythos.

    darn, I've run on too long again- cont...

  14. Lastly, the issue of valuing subjective experience while recognizing its limits is indeed complex. The human cognitive apparatus seems to have arrived at the point where we can analytically come to a decent understanding of how our minds/brains work and thus put some bounds on the beliefs/mythos that we generate with such fertility. That is reflected in arts such as novels and theater- forms of play/experimentation with subjective experience and suspension of disbelief while at the same time knowing full well that they are play- full of meaning, literate, but not literal.

    We have endless internal depths, and as mentioned above, the whole mythos exercise is vivifying in exploring and expressing who we are- the ultimate project, philsophical and otherwise. In all this my primary aim is being realistic and truthful. While we have need of hope and meaning, those needs should take second place, though I think they are compatible with a skeptical/ironic view of mythos, as well as a fully invested view.

  15. Burk writes, "Thankfully, humans are not all-bad, so we can come up with fair systems if we put our minds to it." Notice he assumes there is something called "bad" and something called "fair." But he has also just told us we make these things up. Once we truly believe that such areas (ethics/justice) are arbitrary word games we are left with nothing but the projection of power and will, which is precisely what Nietzsche predicted. Such is a nihilistic and destructive view, and one which many believe created the philosophical underpinnings for the horrors of the last century. It is amazing to still hear it propagated. So much for “progress” and “enlightenment.” It would appear we are moving backwards.

  16. Burk, thanks for an excellent entry. I enjoy your clear-headed analysis and that you recognize the need for meaning in our explorations of the world. And that we should be responsible when trying to created a value system that will inevitably be foisted on to others in some way. I agree that we create our own meaning, however....

    "While we have need of hope and meaning, those needs should take second place"

    I disagree here. I don't think explorations of reality are even possible without a created sense of meaning to guide them and motivate them. If science was not seen as fun and meaningful, no one would pursue it. And I mean in an overall sense - everything has aspects of drudgery to it.

    No intrinsic meanings? I agree. Buddhism maintains that nothing has intrinsic existence - everything is relative and only exists as compared to something else. I agree with this too.

    It's also ironic that subjective experience is where we get our sense of how objective reality is - "the third eye" etc. and our place in it. Even though our thoughts and feelings are experienced individually (though we can check our experiences with the millions of others who've had the same realizations), it is where we get our sense of how we are all connected.

    Only a true understanding, a sense of knowing, can really bring it home. This happens through direct, personal experience - direct knowledge. It's tough to describe, but everyone knows the difference between knowing something and KNOWING something.

    I have studied the early Gnostic Christians and have always been fascinated by them. OF course it's a huge umbrella term covering many different beliefs, but the emphasis on gnosis - KNOWING, is probably the same as what I mean above.

  17. Steve, if you are one who ends up having other "values" and "ethics" foisted upon you, what then? So do you really believe this is all about power and will? Who gets to decide who "foists" what upon whom? You also say we should be responsible. Why? To say such presupposes some sort of value system that would tell us what “responsible” meant. You are making the same mistake Burk does, which is you assume too much. Are you sure you have really thought this through?

  18. Some comments while I have a few moments to sit at a computer:

    It's clear that the neuroscience/cognitive science/philosophy of mind communities have drifted towards a wide consensus that the "mind"--that is, the experiencing, thinking, deciding subject of consciousness--is wholly a product of the brain. The same is true in academia in general. But I've read enough material within these disciplines to suspect that this broad consensus is at least in part a result of a methodological presumption becoming so habituated that it results in metaphysical certainty: The methodological commitment to explaining mental phenomena in terms of brain processes as far as one is able leads to the assumption that the former IS wholly explicable in terms of the latter, and that "if only we keep at it" the remaining difficulties with achieving a complete explanation will be steadily resolved.

    But the fact is that what Chalmers and Pinker and others have called "the hard problem" in philosophy of mind--namely making sense of how the private inner world of subjective experience can be produced by something so very unlike it, namely neurological processes--remains unresolved. And the clear evidence of the brain's causal impact on the field of consciousness (offered by drugs, brain injury, etc.), combined with the enormous advances in tracking correlations between mental events and brain events, can (as Burk admits in passing) be explained as readily by the hypothesis that something which is not a product of the brain achieves conscious experience through the medium of the brain.

    As I am tempted to put it: The field of conscious experience is how brain states and processes "look" to a METAPHYSICAL SELF. It is the vantage point of such a self from which complex brain processes acquire the subjectivity and unity that we encounter in consciousness and nowhere else in the physical world.

    This alternative hypothesis does not fall before Occam's Razor so long as there is some explanatory advantage that it has over the simpler hypothesis. Is there? I think so. On the reductionistic hypothesis according to which consciousness is wholly a product of the brain, it becomes hard to explain how mental phenomena can causally impact our physical bodies. But the pervasive and universal experience of our own agency is precisely this: an experience that seems to be of something going on within the field of consciousness leading to bodily changes (presumably, if we take neuroscience seriously, through the medium of the brain).

    Now it is entirely possible to explain this experience AWAY and to insist that what is going on is entirely explicable in terms of brain activity, and that our experience of "choosing on the basis of reasons" is an epiphenomenal by-product of this activity. The ethical implications for moral responsibility aside, this view may well be correct--but because it requires that we explain away a universal element of human self-understanding, any advatages that this view has in terms of simplicity is balanced out by the explanatory options that open up when we suppose there are SUBJECTS whose thinking and experiencing and acting takes places THROUGH the brain but who are not simply a by-product OF it.

    All of this is very under-explained, of course. It's intended to gesture and provoke thought more than it is intended to resolve all the important issues at stake here.

  19. Darrell,

    I don't think I"m assuming too much here - only that an intrinsic system of values cannot be logically argued without certain axiomatic assumptions of value. Basically, we have to invent our values system - this is not to say it is completely arbitrary. As Burk would probably argue, we do have certain pattern/feelings about what is right that have evolved in us over time. Of course, these evolutionary steps are only valuable in hindsight - they are not very prescriptive, EXCEPT that they give us the building blocks with which to construct our present and future value systems. I'm sure the mix of unconscious instinct with the swirling world of psychology is dizzying in trying to do what is right - at least in my experience. Most decisions involve multiple motivations to sort through and weigh.

    you are right - "responsibility" definitely means "according to my values". But that's really all there is in the end. Don't misunderstand, we all believe in certain objective values, that all should strive to live by, but we come to those values by means of our personal, created perspective (mixing conscious and unconscious motivations). The irony, of course, is that we often come to the most universal feelings of equality, by our personal explorations, etc. - a knowledge of true objectivity is found by realizing that we are personally connected to everyone and everything else - a consequence of personal exploration of KNOWING.

  20. Eric,

    I think that "irreducible mind" is a skyhook. But sometimes what is actually a giant crane can look like a skyhook at first. Basically, following the evidence without too many assumptions is always worthwhile.

    I tend to see it as more of a paradoxical loop - our consciousness, our choices, our mental states affect the physiology of the brain which are in turn created by that physiology.

    And I still like the idea that if we are an irreducible mind - very cool. If not, also very cool for instead of "devaluing" us to the level of ordinary matter or whatnot, we are elevating ordinary matter to a level similar to us. This also seems quite spiritual to me.

  21. "As I am tempted to put it: The field of conscious experience is how brain states and processes 'look' to a METAPHYSICAL SELF. It is the vantage point of such a self from which complex brain processes acquire the subjectivity and unity that we encounter in consciousness and nowhere else in the physical world."

    How is this better than the alternate formulation that consciousness is how material brain processes 'look' to themselves as they develop the subjectivity inherent in a complex, learning, and aware computational device?

    At least this view has the virtue of not appealing to metaphysics to account for physical interactions. One could posit that any computational device that does what our brain does in general terms- perceives the outer world and generates accurate models of it, is self-motivated to obsessively learn about the world, models other abstract ideas with great facility, and so forth, would automatically have a divide between its subjective experience and the models of the world it develops empirically or abstractly. No device can get around its perceptual apparatus.

    I agree that the so-called hard problem of consciousness has not yet been solved (or dis-solved to everyone's satisfaction), and also that the mainstream research program you refer to is to that extent a promise of things to come. But on the other side, appealing to such things as a "universal element of human self-understanding", as G&T are also wont to do, is not acceptable (let alone sufficient) when so much we have already learned about brains and other aspects of humanity contradicts previously held elements of common (self) understanding. Such as- that we are not animals, that consciousness is the only level of thought, that the origin of our intentions is impossible to locate in the brain, or that consciousness can not play tricks on our sense of relative timing of events, etc.

    Common understanding seems a cop-out that accepts what is no better than folk-wisdom, which has at various times included witchcraft, astrology, and psychic capacities. Confining one's models of brains to the basic tenets of physics would seem to be an advisable policy at this point, since nothing whatever else about biology has to date violated the supervening relationship it has to chemistry and physics. Working on those basic physical tenets >directly< continues to be of great interest. But the hope that brain science, of all things, is going to prompt a revolution in physics (for the justification of your common understanding) is extremely tenuous. A pipe dream, really.


    "On the reductionistic hypothesis according to which consciousness is wholly a product of the brain, it becomes hard to explain how mental phenomena can causally impact our physical bodies."

    The opposite is actually more the case. Since mental phenomena are physical in the first place (by the reductionistic theory, in the form of brain waves, synapse connections, etc.), their control over other physical phenomena, (as happens in a computer as well, with ones and zeros controlling other physical events), is easy to explain, not hard. What is hard to explain is the opposite position- how a non-physical / metaphysical entity can interact in any way with the physical world. Nothing in science to date has offered any hope that this is possible, and the laws of conservation of energy / information stipulate its impossibility.

    The issue might be that your definition of "mental phenomena" already embodies your supposition that there is nothing physical involved, thus setting up a problem of how this non-physical phenomenon interacts with the brain. You assume a soul and argue from there. But mental phenomena are physical- just now I was reading a paper on visual recognition and its genetic manpulation in rats.