Home > computation, consciousness, Perception, philosophy > Jesse Prinz -On the (Dis)unity of Consciousness

Jesse Prinz -On the (Dis)unity of Consciousness

September 25, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Jesse Prinz gives a well developed perspective on neuronal synchronization as the correlate to attention and explores the question of binding. As always, neuroscience offers important details and clues for us to guide our understanding, however, knowledge alone may not be the pure and unbiased resource that we presume it to be. The assumptions that we make about a world in which we have already defined consciousness to be the behavior of neurons are not neutral. They direct and some cases self-validate the approach as much as any cognitive bias could. For those who watch the video, here are my comments:

To begin with, aren’t unity and disunity qualitative discernments within consciousness? To me, the binding problem is most likely generated from the assumption that consciousness arises a posteriori of distinctions like part-whole, when in fact, awareness may be identical to the capacity for any distinction at all, and is therefore outside of any notion of ‘it-ness’, ‘unity’, or multiplicity. To me, it is clear that consciousness is unified, not-unified, both unified and not unified, and neither unified nor not unified. If we call consciousness ‘attention’, what should we call our awareness of the periphery of our awareness – of memories and intuitions?

The assumption that needs to be questioned is that sub-conscious awareness is different from consciousness in some material way. Our awareness of our awareness is of course limited, but that doesn’t mean that low level ‘processing’ is not also private experience in its own right.

Pointing to synchronization of neuronal activity as causing attention just pushes the hard problem down to a microphenomenal level. In order to synchronize with each other, neurons themselves would ostensibly have to be aware and pay attention to each other in some way.

Synchrony may not be the cause, but the symptom. Experience is stepped down from the top and up from the bottom in the same way that I am using codes of letters to make words which together communicate my top-down ideas. Neurons are the brain’s ‘alphabet’, they are not the author of consciousness, they are not sufficient for consciousness, but they are necessary for a human quality of consciousness. (In my opinion).

Later on, when he covers the idea of Primitive Unity, he dismisses holistic awareness on the basis of separate areas of the brain contribute separate information, but that is based on an expectation that the brain is the cause of awareness rather than the event horizon of privacy as it becomes public (and vice versa) on many levels and scales. The whole idea of ‘building whole experiences’ from atomistic parts assumes holism as a possibility, even as it seeks to deny that possibility. How can a whole experience be built without an expectation of wholes?

Attention is not what consciousness is, it is what consciousness does. In order for attention to exist, there must first be the capacity to receive sensation and to appreciate that sensation qualitatively. Only then, when we have something to pay attention to, can be find our capacity to participate actively in what we perceive.

As far as the refrigerator light idea goes, I think that is a good line of thought to explore with consciousness as I think it should lead to a questioning not only of the constancy of the light, but of the darkness as well. We cannot assume that either the naive state of light on or the sophisticated state of light on with door open/off when closed is more real than the other. Instead, each view only reflects the perspective which is getting the attention. When we look at consciousness from the point of view of a brain, we can only find explanations which break consciousness apart into subconscious and impersonal operations. It is a confirmation bias of a different sort which is never considered.

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  1. phiguy110
    September 27, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    “To me, it is clear that consciousness is unified, not-unified, both unified and not unified, and neither unified nor not unified.” In the context of this piece I understand your point here, but I think stressing the “unified” nature of a conscious experience is an important aspect to understanding what consciousness IS. It’s certainly unified in some “deep” sense, in that a moment of awareness can not be understood apart from its holistic totality, and, as such, can never be wholly understood outside itself. (Ironically, it can’t be wholly “understood” within itself either, but, from within, the blind spot contributes to what it is intrinsically. That sounds like it makes no sense but somehow I can make hay of it.) In other posts you stress this point, even referring to conscious experiences as “monads” if I remember correctly. (I expect a revival of Leibnizian metaphysics in the years ahead, as a monad is a intelligible non-spatial metaphorical shell on which to model a conscious state.) You also mention how each conscious experience is a unique location of “here and now” -ness that can never be perfectly reproduced in principle. This irreproducibility has deep metaphysical consequences and speaks to each experiences essential ontological unity and uniqueness.

    Again, the video here goes to show why talking about these issues is so challenging to many. To seriously make sense of the situation requires taking a conceptual vantage point of such ontological and epistemological distance form our everyday language that understanding itself starts to become meta-textualized in the act of explanation. MSM is trying to articulate concepts about how we articulate concepts; it’s a fun house hall of mirrors that most scientists don’t want to gaze at. The metaphorical game of “brains” and “neurons” is just too tempting; it satisfies our deepest intuitions that all things can be explained in objective spatiotemporal paradigms. Kant knew we couldn’t but didn’t see a way out of the problem. Perhaps he just didn’t think hard enough.

    Can this level of abstract thought be sustained as a program of understanding and meaning exchange? Sometimes I suspect that a principled attempt to describe the functioning of our own minds could lead to radically different experiences of being in the world. If we are creatures with reflective consciousness, perhaps this is the beginning to a transition where the reflection begins mirroring the mirror. The consequences could be weirder than we imagine (especially if there are unpredictable network effects). There is reason to suspect people are going to seek out this knowledge however. Even if AI is impossible (as you suspect) the growing plausibility of the idea in general consciousness is going to push large numbers of people into thinking about these issues. Some brave souls might even seek out a blog like this. Conscious or no, it’s hard to imagine that our phones and computers wont be at least sophisticated enough in 20 years time that people will start to wonder “how do I relate to this THING?” Suddenly, abstract metaphyical issues, long since ignored for practical reasons, will reassert themselves with a vengeance. They already are, to a limited coterie. I’m actually convinced this HAS to happen and is “built” into the system. What the consequences of this growing interest in consciousness portend, I can only speculate.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. September 27, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    BTW, MSM should be MSR, obviously. 😛

  3. September 27, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Thanks, as always. I agree that certainly our conscious experience as human beings is loaded with references to unity. I would almost say that awareness is identical to uniqueness as far as it seems to me that commonality or statistical likelihood would be derived from a more fundamental pool of infinite improbability than the other way around, although awareness is of course more than just a mathematical concept.

    In the absolute sense, it gets tricky. I think about how the difference between difference and indifference is already a difference, and in a similar way, the capacity to discern an absence from a presence, or one thing and multiple things would be one capacity. Maybe there is a distinction to be made between a local sense of unity and a boundaryless unity (which, there could only be one of).

    In the back of my mind, I hope that if anything I can write here winds up making a difference in some way, that it would be in the context of technology for full-sensory movies or brain to brain connections. I’m really only opposed to Strong AI when it assumes to replace the brain completely, but I’m all for neuro-augmentation.

  4. September 27, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    Thanks. Glad you don’t mind my comments. I really enjoy thinking about these ideas, and literally, there is almost nowhere out there to express them. (At least at this sort of conceptual “level.”)

    I too hope for brain-to-computer interfaces but, I’d hate to hook up to a computer and then experience a “crash”…from the inside. The first “experience explorers” (“sense spelunkers?”) will be brave souls indeed. (Now there’s a sci-fi plot set-up for you.)

    Also, you asked before about other interesting thinkers on the internet who discuss these issues. You really should check out Three Pound Brain (http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/) by R. Scott Bakker. He’s actually your negative image. Where you see sense, he apprehends only info-blindness, where you posit participation, he is chained to undiscovered causes, where you project totality he disintegrates into fragmented multiplicity. It sounds like the standard scientific materialism approach but his grasp of the concepts is far beyond the usual back and forth that usually dominates these topics. Ultimately, I think sense wins because, well, ultimately the other view has to admit that they can’t make sense of, well, anything, including their own ability (or inability) to make sense of this fact. (It’s like a vortex of meaninglessness, even as the meaninglessness comes to make more and more “sense.”)

    I also enjoy reading the philosophy of Edward Feser (edwardfeser.blogspot.com) and though I can’t follow him all the way into conservative Catholic orthodoxy, his understanding of the conceptual framework behind the mind/body problem is equal if not superior to any of the “big names” in the field. Particularly penetrating was his multi-part take-down of materialist philosopher Alex Rosenberg and his book “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.”

    If I can posit a request:

    Could you write a piece about “gravity.” I think MSR could provide an interesting framework for thinking about this subject. My guess is that gravity is actually the barest ability that sense has at the deepest level to seek out itself. It’s the “force of attraction.” Gravity looks absolute, but it’s actually intentional through and through.

    • October 2, 2013 at 4:04 pm

      Hey, sorry for the wait. Thanks for the recs. I have seen Three Pound Brain before and I think we might have even talked-debated before. I’m impressed generally with his approach, even though, as you say, we are sort of diametrically opposed (which is not as much of a problem as it could be, since, in MSR, opposite is just a primitive way of being alike). I’ll check out Edward Feser though, and collect my thoughts on gravity into something soon.

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