On the Shoulders of Giants

This is the third and final story in a trilogy about a father and daughter. The first two were The Project, and Calling the Cage Freedom


Image: Stepping Stones, by Paul Stevenson, CC BY 2.0

“OK, so I’ve been reading that book Figments of Reality“, Seve said to me, coming out onto the deck with lemonade for the two of us. “The biologist and the mathematician seem to be very smart, and they use this running story about creatures from Zarathustra to help the reader imagine how we humans might appear to an alien race and hence what we might actually be. I like the bit about us being emergent properties of the creatures that make us up, and about the brain being a feature-detection system that evolved for their benefit, not ‘ours’. But the ending makes no sense at all.”

“Quite a bit of it makes no sense, like their insistence that time is real, for example. They’re science fiction writers. They make up stories and posit that they might be true. You have to cherry-pick.”

“They talk about qualia — characteristics of things — and they write this”, she said, reading from her notebook:

On the ‘figment’ level our brains do not perceive the universe in a passive manner; instead, they project the inner world of figments [artificial but useful representations of reality] back on to (our conception of) the outer world of reality, so that our private inner world appears to us – but not to anybody else – to be ‘out there’. Our brains, in this sense, create their own realities – and this enables them to attach vivid labels to prosaic reality, labels that are vivid because they are inside our minds where our personal identities also [seem to] reside; but also labels that have evolved to be vivid because we survive much better if they are….

This leads to a delightful paradox. Perceived reality (as opposed to real reality) seems vivid to our perceptions, not because it is real, but because it is virtual. ‘Red’ is a vivid construct of our minds, which we plaster over our perceptions by projecting them back into the outside world. There is an objective sense in which the outside world is red too – it reflects light of an appropriate wavelength. But that is a different kind of ‘redness’ altogether, with none of the vividness that our minds use for ‘red’ decoration of London buses and blood… If you don’t like this line of thought, bear in mind that many animals – bees in particular – see light at ultra-violet wavelengths, and hence pick up vivid ‘colours’ that we do not see at all. The bee’s virtual world is different from our virtual world, and while they both are rooted in the same objective reality, they are [utterly] different interpretations of it… 

[We share Daniel Dennett’s] view of the mind as a conglomerate of loosely knit processes, each semi-independent of the others, which he refers to as ‘pandemonium’… Today’s computer operating systems involve large numbers of semi-autonomous subprograms known as ‘demons’, which wait until they are called on, do their thing, report their results, and shut up shop again… The apparently organised behaviour of the computer emerges from the interactions between demons… Dennett tells us that the human mind is somewhat like that. You – with your strong, overriding sense of ‘you-ness’, the feeling that what you experience is experienced by a single entity, and that this entity is very much in charge – may well feel that the idea that ‘you’ are an emergent feature of pandemonium is ludicrous. However, there is a great deal of evidence that the brain/mind is organised in just that manner.

Seve looked up at me to make sure I was listening, and following her. She’s considerate that way, waiting for my slower mind to catch up with hers. She continued reading: “Then they relate some of this evidence to support this argument and go on to say:

We find Dennett’s story the most convincing among those currently on offer. However, we wish to add a final gloss, the idea that the brain’s independent units are brought together by a general feature-detecting system, which does not organise them, but instead rationalises their independent decisions. We call this unit the ‘ringmaster’, by analogy with circus usage… [The circus ringmaster’s] job is not to control the events: it is to give the impression that they are under control by interpreting them to the audience. If a clown accidentally falls off the shetland pony, the ringmaster’s job is to pretend that it was a deliberate part of the act. The clowns, indeed, are the bane of the ringmaster’s life, so he spends a lot of time looking as if he’s in control of them, when in fact they are largely in control of him. Like the ringmaster in a circus, the ringmaster in our heads gives the impression of being in charge when in fact it is not.

We emphasise that the ringmaster is not a homunculus sitting in a Cartesian Theatre, observing the play of sensory impressions on a screen… The ringmaster is just another demon in the pandemonium, and its role is to appear to the emergent phenomenon that is ‘me’ to be making sense of everything else that is going on

Seve raised her eyebrows and glanced at me again. She seemed annoyed at my smile — we had talked a lot about the failure of scientists to ‘find’ a “homunculus” (aka a soul, centre, self or controlling ‘entity’) somewhere in the brain-body fabric. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t fazed by the idea of ‘selves’ as ’emergent phenomena’, as processes rather than ‘things’. I’d thought about it a lot and still found it bewildering; I had to keep cycling back and clarifying for myself what that actually meant. She continued reading her notes from the book: “Then they explain why they believe this is true. Their conclusion is:

The ringmaster is a master-rationaliser. So what happens if (when!) it directs its rationalising propensities at itself? It becomes aware of an apparent ‘I’ inside. This is where self-awareness comes from: it is what you get when a generalised feature-detector makes a recursive attempt to detect itself.

In short: the problem of self-awareness is a special case of awareness – feature-detection – in general. As soon as such a system recognises some aspect of ‘self’ as a feature, hence the kind of thing that it can detect, the recursive loop is closed. We repeat, yet again: the ringmaster is not the ‘self’ itself. It is a mental demon involved in creating the illusion of there being a self… ‘Self’ is not a thing, but a process, which preserves an apparent sense of identity even as it changes complicitly with everything around it, both inside and outside the mind… Environment and culture maintain the [appearance of] continuity of the human sense of self, and that, repeated across many individuals, in turn maintains the [appearance of] continuity of environment and culture. That is what it is like to be a human,

Seve looked at me. “So far, so good”, she said.

I laughed. “At your age I wouldn’t have even been able to fathom what you just read, let alone care to discuss or debate it. What have you done with my daughter?”

“I don’t actually have a problem with any of this”, she replied, ignoring my silly question. “It makes sense that the ‘self’, or at least ‘self-awareness’, awareness of the ‘self-process’, evolved, and it makes sense that it seems real — in fact to ‘us’ it can’t be seen as anything other than real, because ‘real’ to ‘us’ is whatever is detected as a feature. Even though it’s an illusion. And I even agree with you that, while its emergence was an evolutionary advantage for a while, it is no longer — it is the source of all enduring, vivid, negative feelings and suffering, and “a useless bit of software” as Tony puts it, and we’d be better without it. I wish my self was gone, but I know I can’t do anything about that.” She looked at me sadly, and somewhat sympathetically. The self, she knew as well as I, was the real ‘demon’, and I’d suffered with one much longer than she had.

“So then”, she went on, “they go on to talk about the issue of free will, and, like we were discussing the other day, conclude that it really doesn’t exist — it’s just a rationalization of the mind-process. The chapter is called, hilariously, ‘We Wanted to Have a Chapter on Free Will, but We Decided not to, so Here It Is.’ So they say ‘How on Earth can pandemonium make a choice’ and after discussing what that means they say [and here she continued reading]:

The argument seems to be heading inexorably towards the conclusion that free will is ‘just’ an illusion… If Dennett is right, consciousness is ‘just’ an illusion too, the upshot of mindless pandemonium. Consciousness and qualia are complicit, and it is qualia that give an animal an [evolutionary] edge; so the illusion of having a conscious mind is a figment of reality. The rules for the interaction of mental ‘demons’ have been refined over millions of years to produce the emergent phenomenon of [apparent] consciousness,… ‘Just’ an illusion? Oh no. A carefully crafted illusion, only one without a craftsman. An illusion that appears vividly real to the ‘I’ inside.

It is the same, we suspect, with free will… We get such a vivid feeling that we have free will, because that feeling is the quale [singular of qualia] of pandemonic decision-making – what it feels like, not what it ‘really’ is.

She gave me her are you following me? look, and went on: “They acknowledge that what seems to be free will is simply the result of our biological and enculturated nature — that what we do in the moment is not a matter of choice, but, given the apparent situation of the moment, and how we’ve been biologically and culturally entrained, the only thing we could possibly have done. If they left it at that, at least you’d have to say — I’d have to say — their argument is at least coherent and consistent. I wouldn’t especially like it — as you know I’m not persuaded that there is no free will. But then they totally destroy their credibility by arguing that the culture is ‘right’ to lock up misbehavers, despite their total lack of control over what they do, for the sake of their own and others’ safety! And then predict the future will see the emergence of a ‘multicultural extelligence’ of humans collectively and successfully stewarding the planet and the stars for everyone’s mutual benefit! Why would they ruin such a brilliant argument with such an illogical and preposterous happy-sci-fi-movie conclusion?”

“I don’t suppose they had any choice”, I replied, smiling.

Seve threw a pillow at me.

“I’m serious”, I said. “It’s enculturated in us to give people hope, and to be hopeful ourselves. I’m guessing they knew they’d pushed their readers to their limits, and they wanted to hold on to what they’d conveyed, radical as it was 20 years ago when they wrote it. Others, including our friend Robert Sapolsky, have pushed this further by arguing that holding people responsible for their uncontrollable behaviour is unreasonable, and others have countered that we can’t (now that our culture is globalized) change the whole culture to prevent behaviours that most find intolerable, so we have to limit those behaviours any way we can. Messrs Stewart and Cohen, and Daniel Dennett, just sowed the seeds of doubt about what most people still consider incontrovertible truths. It’s up to people like you, and maybe me, if you think I can help, to carry the argument to its next steps, or its logical conclusion, and forgive them the faulty conclusions and starry-eyed prognostications that they had no alternative but to come to at that time. You, my dear, have to stand on the shoulders of giants.”

“What if I don’t want the responsibility?”, she said to me, with a sly smile.

“You have no choice in the matter”, I replied.

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2 Responses to On the Shoulders of Giants

  1. Paul Heft says:

    A quibble regarding the claim that “what we do in the moment is not a matter of choice, but, given the apparent situation of the moment, and how we’ve been biologically and culturally entrained, the only thing we could possibly have done.” (Emphasis added)
    I suspect it’s more likely that the various demons (mental processes, mostly unconscious) simultaneously (well, around the same time) lean towards more or less different behaviors. Their alternatives are given weights depending on (who knows what?) the current levels of nutrients and hormones, sensations (e.g., nervous information from organs such as the stomach, muscles, etc., or information from the lymphatic system), distractions (oh oh, what was that motion on the periphery?), and so on. The combination of weighted alternatives results in a (possibly nuanced or ambiguous) behavior for the moment.
    Thus there isn’t an “only” thing that was possible to do in the moment. Various possible alternatives or directions existed, leading to a resulting behavior. (This is one source of “surprises”.) This does not mean there is “free will” of some internal actor, and the rationalizing capacity still needs to follow, generating thoughts conceptualizing what the behavior was, and perhaps why it was “selected”.

  2. Don Stewart says:

    Dave
    Have you noticed how closely your descriptions follow the Neo-Confucian philosophy which dates back to the Song Dynasty in China? There is material and there is the living impulse which forms the relationships which constitute the world of living things that we can see, and which we experience in ourselves.

    Of course, we know more than the Neo-Confucians did (for example, that we have a symbiotic relationship between gut microbes and the ‘real human’), but the thinking is remarkably similar. At the same time as the Europeans were thinking, following Francis Bacon, that it was a good idea to hang witches and dominate nature, the Chinese were thinking that harmonizing with nature was the way forward. From my perspective, the ‘disembowel and dominate’ philosophy has led us to a dead end from which we may not escape.

    I second the thought in Paul Heft’s posting about the alternatives available. We know that the brain operates by prediction and error correction. We know that a baseball outfielder could not catch a fly ball if prediction and error correction were not second nature to humans.

    Now that implies that, at any given moment, we can imagine different future states, and choose between them. A man playing baseball, who has been playing baseball and catching fly balls since childhood, will be a better selector than someone who has never seen a baseball. So we have the ability to learn. A considerable amount of the learning is available to the Prefrontal Cortex, which can influence choices of a relatively small number of the decisions we make. (Most decision are unconscious, such as whether to breathe or not.) Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that a European might make different decisions than a Song dynasty resident of China. It is also reasonable to suggest that a human may learn things from, for example, books. I try to learn something from a book most every morning.

    Whether what I am doing involves ‘free choice’ or is instead a function of everything in my history and my environment is, to me, a useless question.

    Don Stewart
    PS For some thoughts on Neo-Confucianism and how it is appropriate for our perilous times, see The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent.

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