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Book Discussion: Aping Mankind (part two)

As promised, here is part two of my discussion on Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind. In part one, I went over how impressed I was with the fact that his reasons for rejecting evolutionary and neuroscientific explanations of consciousness (without involving religious ideas) are the same as my own. I have never read another author who has so closely expressed my views in one place – the underlying weakness of “information” as an objectively real system and the unscientific assumptions that arise from the retrospective (reverse engineered) view of consciousness.

I can’t fault the author for leaving off where he does, sort of painted into a corner where all scientific and spiritual explanations are unworkable. I feel like he spent so much intellectual energy mounting a strong critique of the status quo that he has not had the time or wherewithal to develop a path forward – a path, which I think I have been on.

Midway through the book, Tallis’ views take a turn toward human exceptionalism which leaves little room for relating the human experience to the universe in general – something which to me is the most important part of understanding consciousness. He rightfully defends the humanities against the encroachment of the various neuro-prefixed replacements, pointing out the essential gulf between things like art, literature, religion, law, and what can possibly be modeled from neuroscience or evolutionary biology. He talks about how even if we started out with a world that could be generated by a brain, we have long since transcended that with a whole semiosphere of accumulated inter-brain constructs that can no longer be considered neurological or biological.

The book does a good job, at least for me, of pointing out the fallacy that all of these new sciences make in ‘sawing off the limb that they sit on’ – how science itself can only be a meaningless flood of neurotransmitters evolved into yet another ‘hard wired’ plumage of peacock feathers to attract mates. The author correctly says that talent is not always positively linked to show-off behaviors, and that often times genius goes unappreciated while lesser lights attain celebrity due to their extroversion and marketing efforts.

I agree. If we were to take the “Neuromaniac-Darwinitic” view of humanity seriously, then “truth” itself could only be certain neurotransmitters or truth-correlate signals in a particular area of the brain. In that case, we should no longer require that we do experiments with our flawed perception of a simulated universe, but instead simply dump a few thousand micrograms of some isomer here or there, tweak a bit of brain matter with the right combination of electromagnetic stimulation, and voila – truth must appear, just as the delusion of God appears when we stimulate the “God spot” of the brain.

However, I think that Professor Tallis misses the opportunity to get on the right side of history in recognizing the sentience of other organisms, though they are different and arguably less significant kinds of awareness in comparison to our own. We know about bacteria and plants communicating. We know about the strange properties of entanglement and uncertainty. These understandings I think are not compatible with an isolationist view of psyche. Human psyche, sure, but it’s still on the same continent as other animals. Dolphins understand zero, ants ranch aphids, etc. We also know that the brain isn’t the same thing as a foot. fMRIs don’t predict the existence of consciousness, but once we know what we are looking for, I don’t agree that they will continue to be the blunt instruments that they are now. We won’t be able to live in a hard drive, but we may live to see the day when we computers will help us blur the boundary between our inner and outer worlds – living other lives as other people, producing our own full sensory movies, etc. That’s not the same thing as making a computer that cares or leaving our brain behind to live in a computer program.

The door that I think Tallis has missed – or maybe he tried the doorknob too few times, is panpsychism (or panexperientialism). While he understands perfectly Searle’s Chinese Room and why a computer can never feel like a person feels, he doesn’t look carefully enough at our own blindness to different kinds of consciousness. I talk a lot about how poor the record is of human beings recognizing consciousness even within our own species through history, but even within our own families our prejudice against the consciousness of children is substantial. When we think of human exceptionalism, we really mean adult normative human exceptionalism.

As adults, we routinely dismiss the significance of childhood awareness, seeing it only as a functionally important but materially trivial developmental stage, valid only in relation to the development of productive skills as an adult. As we grow up, we often subject younger people, siblings, classmates, etc to derision – accusing them of immaturity, being a baby, etc. Like a dream or drug experience, we grow to see our childhood hopes and dreams as lacking realism, while our current hopes and dreams are elevated to a more worthwhile status. Of course, children see through adults more than we think. They, more than even adults do, sense just how tremendously boring, hypocritical, and full of crap grown ups really are. They have good memories and are more observant of us than we are of them.

My view is that this is more than a social custom. I think it reveals a structural feature of consciousness itself – not only human consciousness but the scientific nature of what awareness literally is. Awareness is how whole entities care more about the things that are important to them or define them and less about other things. This can’t happen just by giving us an electric shock until we ‘care’ about something. Instead it happens by qualitatively foregrounding channels of experiential content and backgrounding others. This isn’t a process of invention where clever ways of multiplexing data must be developed out of whole cloth in each species or individual. I think that it is a case of attaining larger ‘chips off the old block’; recovering more of the sense of the totality through the juxtaposition of multiple channels of sense. Our presentation of the world is presented to us as a unified experience worth caring about, propped up by tent poles of super-signifying semantic motives. These are not literal props, but narrative devices. Characters, scenes, plot elements.

I think this kind of panpsychism is not at all unlikely. Just as we cannot see microwaves with our eyes, we cannot participate in parts of the universe with which we share no common spatiotemporal scope. We can’t fit the human big-top circus into the flea circus. We can look at an anthill and reluctantly admit that they are doing something intelligent, but I do not think that we should insist, as Tallis does, that ants have nothing more than dovetailed automaticity to explain their behavior. That’s what it looks like to us, and they are likely to be objectively more automatic than we are, but they probably still participate in an ant universe as individual ants. I agree with Tallis that human civilization represents a quantum leap, maybe the final leap in animal evolution, but I don’t think that there is anything objectively improbable about that, given the improbability of life and awareness itself. Tallis makes a lot of presumptuous dismissals of the possibility of animal intelligence which I think are overstated and will not age well as more ecological science comes to pass.

The question for me is not whether human exceptionalism is justified or not but to what degree our feeling of exceptionalism is anthropic (the inevitable feeling that we would wind up having because we are humans and humans are so great) or…’soliopic’ (the experience that every participant in the universe must have as an inevitable consequence of subjectivity and therefore casts their own species-centric universe with inferior seeming characters).

The way human consciousness has proved to be biased in favor of the self and others who in some way seem likeable to us, and with the microcosmic universes opened to us through scientific instruments, I have no trouble understanding how we might be blind to some level of awareness in every piece of the material universe. Speed up a galaxy a million times and it’s like a whirlpool or sparkler in a cosmic fireworks show. Slow down a human voice and it sounds like a whale. It’s all related.

I don’t think that this contradicts human exceptionalism though, it just places it in a context of exponential sensorimotive development – we host a Cambrian Explosion of perceptual depths…condensed histories experienced from a single vantage point – an “I myself”. This exponential explosion is qualitative, not merely quantitative, so that it is like having more spectra of primary colors, not just more black and white pixels. In this sense, we are unique in the universe.

Each person exists on the same level of unrepeatable idiopathy that water or the color read exist on. Original, genuine, root level. More than the sum of our cells and experiences, not just in an emergent way like dry metal bearings would have, in a group, an slippery quality, but in a novel, unprecedented way like blue is to yellow. My conjecture is that these are not emergent properties, but recovered properties – like leveling up in a game.

This is why the internet isn’t going to suddenly become self aware like Skynet. It can’t level up for the same reason that silicon has never leveled up to a single celled organism. It’s either not possible or it hasn’t happened yet. Either way, in the mean time, our Cambrian Explosion of human interiority has subdivided time exponentially into intervals so brief that the evolution of Silicon has seemed to stop in its tracks by comparison (or maybe literally stopped it by being first…there’s that cosmic anthropic principle again). It’s the ‘by comparison’ part that is key. I don’t think we can tell exactly how biased we are as to what constitutes life or awareness but I suspect that the bias is very great and perhaps absolute – i.e. our view of silicon may ultimately be nothing more than that, a view, a character in our story.

Tallis view of panpsychism then, I think is a naive one. He hasn’t really committed to the premise for long enough to find what is behind the front door. He, like most people, are thinking that the idea of panpsychism has to mean that every atom would have to be like an independent living being, instead of a micropsychic experience that might be as foreign to us as a bolt of lightning is compared to our own body. Once we entertain the idea that the symmetry of mind and matter is significant, we can see how interior evolution is much different and more private than anything we could conceive of as a three dimensional material phenomenon. We have to really get down on the floor of existence here and see how the inside of our mind is truly and utterly unlike anything that is outside of the mind. Then we can imagine that our entire interior is but one ‘temporal apartment’ in a universe of interior-temporal solar systems and galaxies. Not talking about literal planets and apartments, but just how your self seems to you now, an ‘apart’-ment. This is what time and space are really made of.

The simple formula of matter-energy-space versus sense-motive-time should give us an idea of how the idea of panpsychism is just the beginning, just the tip of an infinity of icebergs with qualitative experiences more diverse than all of the forms of matter that we can imagine put together. Eternity exists for these subjects to multiply and discover their universe and each other through their experientially acumulated filters.

I think that this is the path forward the author is looking for. A way to honor the depth and realism of human consciousness without falling back on pre-scientific assumptions. We don’t need to go ‘back to the drawing board’ as he suggests – neuroscience and evolutionary biology are not as entirely malignant as he fears, but we do need to recontextualize them in a much, much larger physical universe built on symmetry and sense. Not on matter or information, but on that which is informed and matters. At the same time, we need a much smaller universe which is not built on anything in particular except everythingness and the fragmentation-reconnection-respiration thereof.

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  1. November 25, 2012 at 9:08 pm

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