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The origin of an organism’s cognitive premises cannot be accounted for without an appeal to its embodied evolutionary context, which provides the reasons for its reasons.
Much of what enters consciousness cannot be catalogued as experience of the external world. Dreams, hallucinations, thoughts, imagination, emotions, visual afterimages, and phantom pains are examples of experiences that may refer in some way to events or features in the world, yet are not directly experiences of the world. This fact of experience suggests another category of being than that of external things: ‘the mental’ as opposed to ‘the physical,’ ‘mind’ versus ‘body,’ ‘subjective’ versus ‘objective.’
Such dualities pose fundamental questions. If some experiences are not experiences of the world, then of what? If some experiences are not revelations of real things, then how can we be sure that any are? The very existence of the mental realm seems to cast doubt on the reality of the physical one, for how can we be certain to which category a given experience belongs? And, if we admit the mental as different from the physical, how does it interact with the physical world? How do thoughts and will animate the body, and how does the physical brain produce the inner “show” of experience? How does the machinery of the brain, as Leibniz put it, produce an experience of the color blue, and how does the desire to wiggle one’s finger move the machinery of the hand?
Many answers to such questions have been proposed, but it can almost be said that the problem itself is more significant than any solution. It is one of those fateful issues in philosophy that divide opinion into camps that perennially disagree, a paradox that evades any common ground for agreement. That we are cursed and blessed with two seemingly disparate perspectives is an inescapable consequence of reflexive consciousness, without which there would be no Mind-Body Problem—but no humanity either.
One of these philosophical camps believes that what is fundamentally real is the world of physical matter, energy, space and time. This is the position of materialism, in which scientific theories generally are grounded. The challenge for materialism is to explain the how the spectacle of experience can be produced by the physical brain. Yet many people do not agree that the physical world is the fundamental reality. They remind us that consciousness cannot so easily be explained in physical terms. Moreover, mystical experiences seem especially difficult to account for, as are paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, out of body episodes, and precognition. These seem to point to consciousness itself as the fundamental reality. This is the position of idealism, which is at the core of most religious teaching. The challenge for idealism is to explain the appearance of a consistent, interpersonal, and complex external world. If it is all but a private dream, then it may as well be as irrational, inconsistent, sketchy and inscrutable as literal dreams often are. But it is not. If it is a dream or illusion, it is a recurring, self-consistent, highly detailed, and largely communal one.
To the extent the mental and the physical coincide, any influence between mind and body must work both ways. How consciousness might influence the brain is the other side of the coin to the question of how it arises from brain states. Is consciousness merely “epiphenomenal,” a one-way product of brain activity, or does it influence brain states? This includes the question of how intention or will interfaces with motor action. Descartes thought that the soul and the brain interacted somehow in the pineal gland. This was a precursor of many quasi-physical explanations of mind-body interaction to follow, including modern ideas about the role of quantum events in neurons.
While none of these addresses the categorical gap of the so-called hard problem, they may have implications for the concept of free will. (See, for example, Roger Penrose The Emperor’s New Mind.) Alan Turing had speculated that the nervous system acts as an amplifier of quantum events, which might be influenced by the will. Turing goes on to speculate that “spirit” or “will” could influence micro events throughout the universe, which appear to us as random simply because they do not benefit from being part of some physical system (e.g. a brain) that could amplify them. In a letter to the grieving mother of his deceased friend, Turing gathers under the rubric “effects of spirit” all potential of matter to self-organize that might resemble intentionality, or as he calls it, ‘will.’: “There is now the question which must be answered as to how the action of the other atoms of the universe are regulated. Probably by the same law and simply by the remote effects of spirit but since they have no amplifying apparatus they seem to be regulated by pure chance.” [Alan Turing, Turing Archive, AMT/C/29 Jan 31, 1934, quoted in David Leavitt The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the invention of the computer Atlas/Norton 2006, p100] This may be far-fetched, but on the other hand our mechanist view of the “inanimate” universe is highly prejudiced.
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While such a mapping is not an image in a literal sense (no Cartesian theater), this does not preclude an internal agent that uses the information represented.
It is fair to ask: to whom and by whom are “meanings” conveyed? What agents are involved? The awkwardness of such questions should not be used to rhetorically dismiss the notion of internal agency, which should rather be taken at face value to indicate an avenue of further research. While the organism as a whole is the agent of its molar behavior, neural processing cannot be understood without embracing agency within the organism as well. For otherwise, neural processing can only be understood in terms of efficient cause (that is, without teleology), or else in terms of a teleology that belongs to the investigator—which is to say, not understood at all. By transferring all agency, meaning, intentionality, and point of view implicitly to the human investigator, the computational metaphor avoids this difficulty—but at the cost of the explanatory gap.
Descartes was perhaps the first to intuit a computational explanation of mental functioning. He had set out first to reduce physics to the mathematics of space. Through the coordinate system that bears his name, extension is made equivalent to number. Physical events in the brain could thus embody logical or even numerical operations, which could then represent spatial relations—and, hence, external reality. Even lacking modern technology, Descartes seemed to intuit what we now call information processing. He recognized that the afferent nerves relay a pattern of signals to be interpreted, not a copy of the world. His insight into the equivalence of geometry with algebra, of visible shapes with abstract formal operations, must have suggested then, as it does now, a possible avenue toward a “semantic” theory of perceptual representation. Just as geometrical figures may be generated by algebraic operations, so might the shapes and colors we experience in vision, for instance, be generated by purely symbolic operations, carried out by neural events in the brain.
In any case, Descartes recognized that there is no need for any resemblance of such operations to the things they represent, for the relationship is not physical or even structural, but conventional and symbolic. Yet, because of the dualism with which he is associated, philosophers scorn any hint of the ‘Cartesian theater’, even though Descartes himself notes the logical regression involved in positing observers within observers. While substance dualism is to be avoided, rejecting it does not preclude the notions of an inner workspace, of sub-personal agency, or of internal communication. Only the misuse of point of view ties these concepts to the fallacy of the Cartesian theater.
Clearly there are no literal display screens or iconic representations for an inner personage to monitor, no one in the brain engaged in text-messaging. The homunculus, or “little man,” is a conceptual surrogate for the consciousness of the observer—the counterpart, in psychology or philosophy of mind, of the “demon” in classical physics. The idea of an inner screen of consciousness somewhere in the brain obviously implies someone to watch the it; but then this personage must have an inner screen too, with someone to watch it, ad infinitum. Such a display is useful to the human user of a computer, for example, to summarize information and perform further operations upon it. From the point of view of the computer, however, its operations do not require a literal graphic display to be searched. It is similarly a naive assumption that it is useful to an organism to display to itself, in a literal image, some stage in its neural processing.
Yet, such metaphors (of a monitoring screen or control panel in the head, for example) are caricatures of neural processes that indeed occur. It is not surprising that there may be, in some instances, “something that it is like” for them to be occurring. The fallacy involved in the Cartesian theater arises from reifying some object of introspection as a literal image inside the head, with an inner witness to scrutinize it. However, the notion of internal agency is useful precisely in order to understand the logic of sub-personal processing—as though from a personal viewpoint, but without literally substituting the observer’s consciousness. Indeed, the rationale in the first place for the notion of the homunculus was similarly heuristic.
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…physical or mental terms as two descriptions containing the same information.
Of course, an organism—with its internal workings—is part of the network of efficient causes in the universe as well as being an agent in its own right, a first cause. Unlike inanimate matter, some physical connections within the organism are clearly logical connections as well causal (in the sense we speak of the logic of a program or wiring diagram).
Like causal description of inanimate processes, causal description of a creature’s behavior can be viewed as a sequence of physical events in space and time, without regard to the creature’s agency or intention. The behavior then may appear to arise in a deterministic way, proceeding inexorably from sensory stimulus, through electrochemical connections within the organism, to motor response. All of this takes place implicitly from a third-person point of view, as events in the physical world, both inside and outside the organism. But such a molecular description can hardly account for the behavior of an organism as an autonomous agent. By definition, determinism excludes such agency, which always remains an unknown force outside the system.
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…both neurological and “logical”—while not necessarily rational or conscious.
That is, in the same way that a circuit diagram represents both physical connections and the function they serve. While we normally think of it in human terms, “intention” in a broader sense could describe any convergence of means toward end, e.g., the adaptation of organisms to their environment. It then means something like Aristotle’s final cause. (In normal usage, intention conveys the directedness of the more technical intension, which implies an agent acting upon a system separate from it—a relationship of subject to object.) But here we are trying to understand precisely those processes by which a system creates and programs itself.
Intentional connections do not necessarily correspond to an observer’s reason, logic, or expectation, any more than any other part of nature does. An organism’s own internal connections define what is logic for it—its “program.” The key difference is that the organism is its own programmer (or else nature at large is its programmer); and the program evolved from the bottom up. (Of course, the brain of the human programmer or observer had also to evolve from the bottom up before it could presume to stand in metaphorically for the organism’s agency.)