Monday, October 30, 2006

Well stone me witless!

‘The first issue for Wittgenstein in dealing with sensations was the issue of possession. "How do we know who owns particular sensations? This is also Edelman’s first move "only through direct possession by an individual of the appropriate morphology and experience do qualia [sensations that something is conscious of?] arise.
I do not, Wittgenstein points out, either possess or require behavioural or other criterial evidence to justify my utterance of first person, present tense psychological statements such as 'I have toothache', which involve the use of 'I' as subject.
It is a mistake to assume from this that 'I' used as subject refers to an immaterial ego or self seated in my body - on the contrary, Wittgenstein argues, the truth is that 'I' in its subject use is not a referring expression at all - it does not function as the name of anything.
Wittgenstein realised that if we examine carefully what we think we are refering to, when we refer to ourselves, ultimately we cannot find anything. The individual self is illusory.


The Feeling of Mattering to Oneself

We are still unable to say what consciousness is. It is a mysterious phenomenon, but according to Nicholas Humphrey it is precisely this elusive quality that is the whole point of consciousness. "It has to be like that, he says, because it evolved to give its possessors a sense of owning a ‘self worth having’." If something is worth having, it is worth preserving.
Yet consciousness is not actually necessary for self-preservation; indeed, it has no obvious function. A hypothetical robot could be programmed to react to threats and preserve itself, without having a sense of self-ownership or even consciousness. In primitive creatures there is no consciouness of self, merely perception of sensory data. Unconscious, automatic reflex responses preserve the organism from harm. Unconscious self-maintainance still occurs in humans. In the phenomenon known as ‘blindsight’ human test subjects perceive objects, and may react to them, without registering them consciously.
As organisms evolved through natural selection, and became better and better at self-preservation, they began to develop forethought and the ability to project an imaginary self into future hypothetical situations, the better to prepare for them and avoid threats. They began to identify with this imaginary self. Ego, or the sense of owning oneself, of mattering to oneself, is a byproduct of projection into the future which does not exist.
Is this identification with a fictional self necessary in order to function in a complex human environment, or is it just a vestigial institution to be discarded in the evolutionary process? Would a superfunctional, supersophisticated artificial intelligence understand the human need for the sense of self to be considered real or meaningful? Chris Nunn, in ‘New Scientist’, speculates that "even if consciousness evolved because it provided a sense that individuals matter, it could be the case that they do matter in some non-illusory sense. Maybe their mattering was a truth that provided the basis for evolution to work on."
Humphrey - along with other figures in consciousness studies, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet - holds the reductionist view that consciousness should probably seen as an illusionary property. Interestingly, the idea of an illusory human subject is also favoured by many theologians.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Ownership of Self in Consciousness

Like Locke, Antonio Damasio stresses quality of ownership, of self, of self-awareness in consciousness.
Damasio holds that the neurobiology of consciousness faces two fundamental general problems: ‘the problem of how the movie-in-the-brain is generated, and the problem of how the brain also generates the sense that there is an owner and observer for that movie.’ Extended consciousness, as he calls it, ‘provides the organism with an elaborate sense of self’. Analogously to Locke, Damasio believes that besides the ‘images of what we perceive externally’, there is also ‘this other presence that signifies you, as observer of the things imaged, potential actor on the things imaged. There is a presence of you in a particular relationship with some object. If there were no such presence, how would your thoughts belong to you?’ And like William James, he holds that the self is a feeling: ‘the simplest form of such a presence is also an image, actually the kind of image that constitutes a feeling. In that perspective, the presence of you is the feeling of what happens when your being is modified by the acts of apprehending something. The presence never quits, from the moment of awakening to the moment sleep begins. The presence must be there or there is no you.’

Monday, October 16, 2006


The Australian Prime Minister recently praised Thatcher, Reagan and John Paul II for being the three main figures who dismantled soviet communism, the enemy of western liberal democracy - I thought it sort of rotted from within, but that's another story - Yet JP II described liberal democracy as a "culture of death" in his encyclical ‘Gospel of Life’.

John Milbank, in support of the papal view, wrote:
"recent events" [does he mean the War in Iraq?]"demonstrate that liberal democracy can itself devolve into a mode of tyranny. This occurs for a variety of reasons. An intrinsic indifference to truth, as opposed to majority opinion, means in practice that the manipulation of opinion will usually carry the day. Governments then typically discover that the manipulation of fear is more effective than the manipulation of promise. This is in keeping with the central premises of liberalism, which, as Pierre Manent says, are based in Manichean fashion upon the ontological primacy of evil and violence: at the beginning is a threatened individual, piece of property, or racial terrain."

Milbank needs to clarify what he means by ‘liberalism’.
"In the US, the word ‘liberalism’ belongs above all to the left of the political spectrum, while on the European continent it belongs to the right. In one case, liberalism is the opposite of conservatism, while in the other it could in fact be confused with it. For most Europeans, the most typical ‘liberal’ politicians of the second half of the twentieth century are Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In Europe, liberalism is defined above all by individualism, belief in free exchange and the omnipotence of the market, and the critique of the large state."
-Alain de Benoist, ‘Reply to Milbank’, Telos Spring 2006

Friday, October 06, 2006

Richard Dawkins

In her review of Richard Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion', Mary Midgley points out that Dawkins is labouring under the same flawed ideology he is attacking.

Correctly linking fundamentalist religion with atrocities throughout history, he proposes that science should replace religion entirely. ("Imagine there's no religion too").
This is rather like saying that because American and Nazi social Darwinist scientists misappropriated Darwin's ideas for racist ends, ultimately leading to the Holocaust, all science should be done away with.

By redefining Pantheism and Buddhism as non-religions, Dawkins tries to steer around the fact that many of the greatest scientists, such as Einstein, had pantheistic religious attitudes, and that Buddhism has not been credited with much in the way of atrocities. A religion with a ubiquitous god (Pantheism), or one without the concept of god(Buddhism), can still be a religion in the proper sense of the word. Pantheism does not even entail a belief in the supernatural or metaphysical, since god and world are seen as coextensive.
It could be argued in fact that the removal of religion by Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot, aided their horrendous crimes, by removing all vestiges of moral conscience in the perpetrators. When it comes to mindless violence, atheist dictatorships do not have a much better record than theocracies.

Midgley is to be commended for pointing out the pressing need to find the causes of fundamentalist religious thinking rather than simply reacting against it. If scientists react, they fall in to the same trap as religious opponents of evolution reacting to the misuse of Darwin's ideas.
Religion - particularly in its more introspective forms: Sufism, Zen, Gnosticism - is concerned mainly with self-knowledge (or should be), while science is concerned with knowledge of the world. The false rivalry between Science and Religion largely disappears when, like Einstein, one experiences self and world as a continuum.

The Buddha recognised that bodha (Self-knowledge) and dharma (religion) are codependent. Ultimately, however, the realisation of the Self supersedes human religious mores.

Self-knowledge is of great advantage to scientists, helping them to see when their prejudices and desires are distorting their objectivity, as was the case with social Darwinism.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Parallax Thinking and the Problem of Personal Identity

"[Heisenberg asserted that] the object can never be known, owing to the interference of our own observational system, the insertion of our own point of view and related equipment between ourselves and the reality in question. Heisenberg is then truly 'postmodern' in the assertion of an absolute indeterminacy of the real or the object, which withdraws into the status of a Kantian noumenon. In parallax thinking, however, the object can certainly be determined, but only indirectly, by way of a triangulation based on the incommensurability of the observations. The object thus is unrepresentable: it constitutes precisely that gap or inner distance which Lacan theorised for the psyche, and which renders personal identity forever problematic...The great binary oppositions - subject v. object, materialism v. idealism, economics v. politics - are all ways of naming this fundamental gap..."
-Frederic Jameson