Category Archives: neuroscience

Everything Happens at Once

Everything happens all at once.  Inching forward, at a steady rate of one second per second. When we tell a causal story, such as describing the action of a machine, we pick out one strand in that whole, prioritising it over all others, and generating an artificial cleft between foreground and background. But everything is part of everything, all flowing together.  Heraclitus’ vision, I think.  Among that we pick out agents and the inanimate, and bring into being shitty gods, minds, subjects.  

This is not a moving slice through a 4-dimensional manifold, as Parmenides and Newton would have it.  This has very many more dimensions, for it must accommodate your unfolding locus of experience and mine.  The number of dimensions is not at issue, really.  Professor Bohm seems to assure us of that.  What matters more is how one treats the divide between subject and object.  How we apply the carving knife, for the image we are carving is our self portrait.  Like a mewling infant, we do not know what we look like, but we react anyway, sticking out our tongue at the world as it sticks its tongue out at us. 

Relational thinking

This little quote from Thomas Fuchs makes an important point:

The brain does not generate a mind. It mediates a relationship between organism and environment. This gives rise to the P-world. Phenomenologists call this being-in-the-world. But that domain is not co-extensive with the person. Those elements of meaning that contribute to the disparate facets of the person arise in many such relations, not only those of organism and environment, but among organisms, and in complex interactions among individuals and collectives at many scales.

Just as the cells in a liver lead very free lives modulo the constraint that they act in a manner suitable for maintaining the liver, so we too see ourselves as free, while we simultaneously constitute a dynamic reality at many scales, each with its own limited form of lawfulness.

Causality and “one second per second”

How fast does time unfold?  Silly question.  It unfolds at one second per second.  The tautology makes it clear that time, itself, does not have a rate.  Rather, it is a coordinate system that allows us to label, order, and sequence events.  This way of viewing time is called the B-series, and can be contrasted with the experience of time, the A-series, which is perpetually of a present moment, separating an established past from an indefinite future.  These are radically different ways of conceptualizing time.

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Clash of kinds of knowledge

There is a clash at the moment: two ways of knowing about ourselves are on offer, and they are very incompatible.  From where I’m standing, it looks as if both grew out of psychology, but in fact one *is* latter day cognitive psychology and much attendant baggage, while the other looks Eastern, almost Taoist at times.  The latter emerges from a consideration of the combined insights of the enactive tradition (both Noë and Varela), Harry Heft’s synthesis of Gibsonian Ecological Psychology and Barker’s Ecobehavioral Psychology, Coordination Dynamics and similar Dynamical approaches, Radical Constructivism, and more besides, I’m sure. Continue reading

Thinking about Perception and Action

In my current draft of “On the Origin of the Phenomenal” [A manuscript elsewhere], I am at pains to claim that the P-world of present experience arises based on a bedrock of the perception-action relation, which is heavily mediated and embedded in time through the nervous system.

Part of the supporting argumentation stems from the good offices of Ecological Psychology, in which lawfulness in the Perception/Action relation is a major concern. The paradigmatic case of diving gannets seeks to relate overt action (wing folding) to the energetic flux on the receptor surface. Similar concerns arise in the entire literature on affordance, in Turvey’s pendulum work, Bingham’s hefting, etc etc. The swaying room of Lisker and Lee is my favourite illustration.

But this claim is not going to reach many people who are not already familiar with the kind of lawfulness uncovered in such circles. The terms “Perception” and “Action” are loaded, and induce all kinds of unwanted and unwarranted associations in most readers.

“Perception” is probably being misapplied egregiously, not least by myself. We talk of perceiving when we discover events, things, and contingencies in our immediate environment. We perceive chairs, car crashes, storms, the misery and joy of others, and in talking of these remarkable feats, we label them, making use of a rich categorization scheme populated with uncontroversial categories such as chairs, car crashes, storms, misery, joy, and others. All of these are uncontroversial because they do fine service in our daily intercourse. We have language precisely because we can then use such terms efficiently, facilitating our mutual behavioral coordination, and getting on with the more pressing business of reaching our several goals. But for my purposes, in which I am considering the epistemological position of an abstract organism, O, in an abstract environment, E, we can not rely on any such categorization scheme. As argued elsewhere, we see chairs, …., others precisely because of the kind of thing we are, and not because there are chairs and others in some unobserved, objective, world.

Furthermore, the lawfulness to which I allude, is not rooted in a rich category structure like this. Rather, the lawfulness obtains between the informative flux at the sensory surfaces of an organism, and its attendant (not consequent) movement. (We will get to action in a minute.) It would be tedious to write “the physical, chemical, energetic gradients and their derivatives expressed at the sensory receptive surfaces separating the spatial domain of the organism, O, from its surrounding environment, E” all the time. This information (predicated upon the constitution, organization and capacity to act of the organism) is the “perception” end of that lawful relation that is the bedrock of experience. Without this information, there would be no perception. Calling it “sensation” does not help, but instead threatens to drag the discussion back to the 19th Century.

May that stand as a caveat for the term “Perception”. Now to “Action”.

As with perception, the term “Action” has many associations, and the word serves many functions, not all of which are required here. Although not as problematic as the previous case, there are pitfalls to be avoided. The main one lies in the presumption of intentionality, agency and goal-directedness. None of these are required. By “Action”, I mean observable movement. Even calling it “behavior” buys into a huge set of associations of plans, goals, and other mental constructs that have no place yet in the emerging vocabulary. Agency is the most problematic of these lurking assumptions, and relinquishing the notion of agency will be difficult as the discussion proceeds.

But one can not remain divorced from every day usage for ever. Somehow, it is necessary to build bridges back to our terms of convention, and our familiar situation. As we consider more complex explanation of more complex organisms, with nervous systems embedded in time, we will find it increasingly seductive to think of sensory information as input, and behavior as output. No matter how much we may be convinced that this is suspect, it is ingrained in our language. And as we do, the story being told will morph gradually until the organism seems to acquire goals, plans, and a stubborn independence of will. With that, the separation of organism from nature is complete, and we have reconstructed the duality we set out to banish. But hopefully we will remain conscious of the imitations of any account couched in such terms.

One of my main goals is to illustrate how to conceive of man as inseparable from his world. Our conventional linguistic habits introduce the tragic separation, even in consideration of the simplest of animals.

On Observables and Subjectivity

On Observables and Subjectivity

Paris, CDG Airport, 16th Oct

Geertz quotes Ryle as objecting to the view that a golfer cannot at once conform to the laws of ballistics, obey the rules of golf, and play with elegance. (Isn’t Ryle wonderful!).

The first constraint pertains, of course, to the familiar notion of physical law, in a Newtonian framework. The latter two speak of human interpretation and even experience. It is worth considering just what the limits of that which may be expressed within the Newtonian framework are, and how my present approach may help to shed more light than hitherto on the relation between that and the latter two observations.

A Newtonian account ought firstly to be separated from modern physical accounts. The former speaks of physics as we observe it at the human scale. Its regularities and concepts work well at everday spatial and temporal scales: they describe the movements of things as big as oranges and as fast as dogs. Happily, they continue to bear predictive fruit at some remove from the human reference point1. That we now have a physics that supplants the entire Newtonian framework need be of no concern, for those observations one can make that speak of an understanding at variance with the classical approach are all, without exception, to be made at removes impossibly distant from the familiar time and spatial scales of phenomenal experience. For our purposes here, Newtonian physics is, in fact, a human centered physics. The supposedly objective framework is none such, for it has a human center.

On my account, we are beginning to have a story to tell about what it is to come at the world from a specific point of view, with an understanding that is anchored in a specific spatial and temporal scale. We get this from the observation of the relation between perception and action as they generate the encountered world of an active organism. The essence of this relation can be seen already in observing the relation between a single cell and its environment, and the fundamental link between perception and action in generating immediate experience of a world does not change from the bacterium to the human. In observing the lawfulness of the relation between perception and action, we also see why the encountered world has the specific scales it has, and thus why all organisms meet the world from a specific perspective. No organism encounters a pre-made world.

What we see in this framework is the regularity in the relation between specific forms of energetic gradients that impinge on the sensory surfaces of an organism, and the attendant (not consequent!) motion, or action, of the same. In this picture, the very best physical account we may come up with of nervous system activity is limited to the observation that brains move muscles. There is not, and never will be, a Newtonian account of goals, plans, the rules of golf, or the elegance of the golfer. The Newtonian account is, of course, deterministic, but it is not, nor should it aspire to be, exhaustive.

It may be less destructive to our innate sense of agency, if we look at a cell instead, for there we can already see the strengths and limitations of a Newtonian account. We can imagine, I believe, a more-or-less fully “mechanistic” description of the processes of metabolism. We can describe in exhaustive detail the dynamics that capture the lawful processes of change, distinguishing those that are proper to the cell itself (endogenous dynamics) and those that arise from interaction between the cell and its environment. But the fullest account we may obtain in this fashion is incomplete. Therein lies one limit of empirical science as it pertains to human experience. We cannot observe the agency of the cell. Philosophers have guessed wildly here. What I refer to as agency has been called Will, Vital force, Soul, Spirit, and numerous other things. No observation will reveal this. There is a mystery here, in the emergence of a temporally extended form of organization that is self-sustaining. We need new mathematics to describe it. But it does not appear insurmountable, once we locate the mystery in the right place!

For many people, a Newtonian approach to understanding observables is co-extensive with a scientific approach. Science is larger that that, and the Newtonian account is by no means an objective account that trumps all others, for it does not make reference to experience.

[1] It is worth considering how the concepts and methods of Newtonian physics work beyond the domain they arose in: that of everyday experience. We can generate a magnification of the head of a mite. Enlarged a thousand-fold, we see a monster, but an interpretable monster, with parts that are solid, built of ratchets, hooks, armour plates, hairs. We then have a paradoxical reaction. The thing is ugly and if it were to be encountered at a human scale it would terrify us, yet we find it only curious. It is no more troubling than an artistic representation of an anaethema, as in a horror film. Some may lose sleep over it, but we can all see that our emotional reaction needs to be tempered, for we recognize that we have gone beyond the bounds of possible experience.

Overcoming Dualisms

Sometimes, we increase our understanding by introducing distinctions. If you look at a lump and can’t figure out its structure, you might make a distinction, and notice that the lump is a composite of two distinct things, and suddenly you understand its structure much better. We do this all the time, as when we identify two kinds of diabetes, with similar symptoms (the lump) but distinct etiologies (juvenile and acquired). Or when we learn the name of a new flower.

At other times, we learn by reconciling apparently distinct things. In this case, we see two entities turning out to be but different images of the same underlying structure. We do this often also, as when reading a story, the plot falls into place and you can reconcile previously incongruous sub-plots, or when we recognize the mother in the child.

Should we consider these to be distinct enterprises? Is the first Science and the second Religion? Hardly. Yet the knowledge offered by the contemplative traditions seems to be that obtained by following the second course exclusively, while the first is a caricature of purely reductionistic science.

But I think in bringing experience under the fold of collective inquiry, or in finding ways of discussing experience that, at least, do not offend scientists too much, we are making progress in the second way, and science, or our common stock of understanding, improves as a result. Here are some that merit our attention:

In talking about minds, we habitually use the terms “inner” and “outer”. This is a strange linguistic habit, and we should be taken somewhat aback if asked about the spatial referents of these terms. There are none, although convention locates the “inner” space within the head. However, if we look inside, we see only brains. Unifying these two is a huge hurdle, and possibly one of the resolutions of opposites that may be said to accompany enlightenment. The extended mind thesis testifies to the possibility of unifying the language in which we discuss these two, though it stops short of recognizing that they are not distinct realms, going for the cheap gag of making you imagine your mind somehow leaking out into the world.

Another pair that admit of unification is rather surprising: perception and action are not separate things. We have been thinking of them as input and output to something, and have identified with the middle bit, and called it mind. However, the cellular example (described elsewhere) perfectly illustrates the relation between perception and action, whereby we can see that they are co-determining, and not in a relation as cause and effect. This is true for a single cell, and it is true for humans. We can see the direct relationship only sometimes: the swaying room in which the optic flow at the retina allows the coupling of room and torso motion nicely illustrates the coupling between perception and action which is so tight that they become indistinguishable. Nervous systems mediate this relationship, making it harder for us to see, but the lawfulness of the relation still obtains. The mediation is what ultimately gives rise to phenomenal worlds. So if perception/action are unified, that places us in a bit of a bind. It presents with the puzzle of interpreting present experience, which now seems to be deterministic or at least sufficiently lawful that it will not support our notions of volition and agency. If the perception/action relation is invertible, present experience does not consist of cause and effect.

One way out of this bind is to recognize the P-world as distinct from the self. The P-world is present experience, and in recognizing it, we can learn to overcome several dualities. In present experience, the P-world, the subject/object divide is no more. There is no distinction between the perciever and the percept. Attention/Salience is another dualism that is hereby overcome. Salience is the “outer” form of attention. Attention the “inner” form of salience. Damasio does this nicely in his work when he distinguishes between emotion and feeling (if I am correct here, I need to check), one of which is the phenomenological concept, the other the observable counterpart.

The uncanny valley

Here’s an anti-resonance phenomenon for you: the uncanny valley. The creepiness is an error signal for a process that tries to see itself. That’s why the mirror system is so bloody important.  WHen it works, its a resonance phenomenon.  You can practically see it in the fMRI images, pulsing, as it strives to ‘recognize’ itself.  That recognition is a reverberation.