Ktismatics

29 May 2012

Why Life?

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:12 am

At Dead Voles I’ve been participating in an intermittent multipronged discussion of Terrence Deacon’s 2012 book Incomplete Nature. Deacon proposes a pathway by which life might have emerged in an inanimate universe. Here I have to confess that I don’t quite get two of Deacon’s main points: (1) some kinds of self-organizing systems spontaneously become ends-driven; and (2) understanding how such systems come into being depends not so much on the components of which they’re composed but on the constraints they impose and propagate.

Self-organizing systems seem to counteract the second law of thermodynamics, which specifies that everything in the universe tends toward disorder, or a state of energy equilibrium. However, self-organizing systems, which emerge under far-from equilibrium conditions, actually maximize the rate of equilibration and entropy gain. The organized structure of the system serves to accelerate system-wide expenditure of potential energy. Deacon presents the example of a stream with a boulder in the stream bed. The stream will spontaneously organize a system of eddies and currents around the boulder, seeming to resist the spontaneous downhill movement of the water. However, the eddies actually serve to move the water downstream past the boulder more efficiently than would be the case if the flow were disrupted in a less organized way. Because a self-organizing system is such an efficient entropy-maximizing apparatus, it also tends to self-disorganize. E.g., once the stream wears away the boulder, the system of eddies spontaneously relapses into a smooth flow.

So why would a self-organizing system ever reach the point where it seeks to perpetuate itself? It’s ridiculous to imagine an eddy in the stream trying to keep the boulder from disintegrating, or trying to position more boulders in the stream bed so that more eddies can be born. But living beings seem to do it: they actively seek out nutrients and avoid/repair damage in order to keep themselves alive; and they reproduce in order to make more beings like themselves. Deacon summarizes four ways in which organisms invert the spontaneous order-producing “morphodynamics” of self-organizing systems via “teleodynamics”:

1.  Organisms depend on and utilize energetic and material gradients in their environment in order to perform work or to sustain the constraints of their persistent, far-from-equilibrium dynamics, and to maintain constraints that are critical for countering the tendency toward thermodynamic decay.

2.  Organisms actively reorganize their internal dynamics and relationships to the environment in ways that specifically counter or compensate for any depletion of the gradients that is necessary to maintain their dynamical integrity and their capacity to so respond.

3.  Many organisms have evolved means of gradient assessment and spatial mobility that enable them to anticipate and avoid conditions of depleted gradients and to seek out more optimal ingredients.

4.  Organisms and ecosystems evolve toward forms of organization that increase the indirectness of the “dissipation-path length” of energy and material throughput in order to extract more work from the available gradients.

Deacon goes on to characterize organisms in abstract terms:

Living organisms are integrated and bounded wholes, constituted by processes that maintain persistent self-similarity. These processes are functions, not merely chemical reactions, because they exist to produce specific self-promoting physical consequences. These functions are adaptive and have evolved with respect to certain requirements in their environment that may or may not obtain. And these adaptations exist for the sake of preserving the integrity and persistence of these integrated systems and their unbroken chain of ancestral forms for which they are defining links.

Deacon describes at some length how a hypothetical system could organize itself teleodynamically, maintaining ongoing contact with a substrate of energy and material while simultaneously self-constructing a barrier around itself to prevent dissolution. What I don’t get is why such a system would spontaneously organize itself. The best I can figure, extrapolating from Deacon’s discussion of self-organization, is that a teleodynamic system organizes, protects, and replicates itself in order to dissipate potential energy more efficiently than less complex morphodynamic systems, thereby accelerating the general universal tendency toward maximum entropy. It’s certainly the case that I’m using up more of the universe’s potential energy now than I will when I’m dead and all of my metabolic functions have ceased. Maybe that’s the main purpose of my existence: to accelerate the heat death of the universe.

Maybe I’ll write something about constraint propagation later. But it’s 5 a.m. now, time to slow my metabolism for awhile by going to sleep. That way I can recharge myself for another round of energy dissipation, incrementally fulfilling my ongoing mission in the universe.

24 May 2012

Ontology for Whose Sake?

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:54 am

On Tuesday I was browsing the 2 March 2012 Times Literary Supplement when I came across an article written by Daniel Dennett. In the essay, entitled “Sakes and Dints and Other Definitions that Philosophers Really Need Not Seek,” Dennett wonders about the ontological status of numbers, melodies, miles, electronic dollars, cahoots, smithereens, voices, haircuts, centers of gravity, minds — “the riotous assembly of candidate things” that humans deal with all the time. Should all of them be eliminated from material reality as mere epiphenomena, or should there be some robust ontology of objects that encompasses them all?

Ontology, it seems to me, has been resolutely reductive and minimalist in its attempts to come up with an exhaustive list of kingdoms, classes, genera and species of things. No doubt the motivation has been the right one: to prepare the dishevelled cornucopia for scientific accounting, with everything put ultimately in terms of atoms and the void, space-time points, or (by somewhat different reductive trajectories) substances and universals, events and properties and relations. As is well known, these Procrustean beds provide metaphysicians with no end of difficult challenges, trying to fit all the candidates into one austere collection of pigeonholes or another.

Take holes for example:

Our reliance on the concept of holes has a deep biological or ecological source, since holes are Gibsonian affordances par excellence, put to all manner of uses in the course of staying alive and well in a hostile world. Ubiquitous and familiar though they are, it is surprisingly hard to say what holes are made of, if anything, what their identity conditions are, whether they are concrete or abstract, how to count them, and so forth.

Dennett tentatively suggests regarding the hole as a meaningful category in naive physics but not in scientific physics.

But not so fast: holes may play a potent role in organizing the patterns studied in the special sciences — consider the importance of membranes and their multiple varieties of portals in cell biology, for instance — and what about the slit that figures so prominently in quantum physics?

Dennett regards the categorization of things as “more a matter of diplomacy than of philosophy.”

It is not that there is or must be — there might be — a univocal, all-in, metaphysical truth about what there is, but just better and worse ways of helping people move between different ontological frameworks, appreciating at least the main complexities of the failures of registration that are encountered.

He concludes:

The perspective I would recommend is that of the diplomatic anthropologist, not the metaphysician intent on limning the ultimate structure of reality. The ontology of everyday life is now teeming with items that sit rather awkwardly in the world of atoms and molecules. If we can understand how this population explosion came about, and why it is so valuable to us as agents in the world, we can perhaps discharge our philosophical obligations without ever answering the ultimate ontological question. To me it looks more and more like professional make-work, an artefact of our reasonable but ultimately optional desire for systematicity, rather than a deeper mystery in need of solving.

20 May 2012

Great Thinkers and Lunatics — William James continued

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:33 am

Great thinkers have vast premonitory glimpses of schemes of relation between terms, which hardly even as verbal images enter the mind, so rapid is the whole process. [Footnote: Mozart describes thus his manner of composing: First bits and crumbs of the piece come and gradually join together in his mind; then the soul getting warmed to the work, the thing grows more and more, “and I spread it out broader and clearer, and at last it gets almost finished in my head, even when it is a long piece, so that I can see the whole of it at a single glance in my mind, as if it were a beautiful painting or a handsome human being; in which way I do not hear it in my imagination at all as a succession — the way it must come later — but all at once, as it were. It is a rare feast! All the inventing and making goes on in me as in a beautiful strong dream. But the best of all is the hearing of it all at once.”]

We all of us have this permanent consciousness of whither our thought is going. It is a feeling, like any other, a feeling of what thoughts are next to arise, before they have arisen. This field of view of consciousness varies very much in extent, depending largely on the degree of mental freshness or fatigue. When very fresh, our minds carry an immense horizon with them. The present image shoots its perspective far before it, irradiating in advance the regions in which lie the thoughts as yet unborn. Under ordinary conditions the halo of felt relations is much more circumscribed. And in states of extreme brain-fag the horizon is narrowed almost to the passing word, — the associative machinery, however, providing for the next word turning up in orderly sequence, until at last the tired thinker is led to some kind of a conclusion. At certain moments he may find himself doubting whether his thoughts have not come to a full stop; but the vague sense of a plus ultra makes him ever struggle on towards a more definite expression of what may be; whilst the slowness of his utterance shows how difficult, under such conditions, the labor of thinking must be…

There are every year works published whose contents show them to be by real lunatics… The border line between objective sense and nonsense is hard to draw; that between subjective sense and nonsense, impossible. Subjectively, any collection of words may make sense — even the wildest words of a dream — if only one does not doubt their belonging together. Take the obscurer passages in Hegel: it is a fair question whether the rationality included in them be anything more than the fact that the words all belong to a common vocabulary, and are strung together on a scheme of predication and relation — immediacy, self-relation, and what  not — which has habitually recurred. Yet there seems no reason to doubt that the subjective feeling of the rationality of these sentences was strong in the writer as he penned them, or even that some readers by straining may have reproduced it in themselves…

17 May 2012

I’m Goin’ to…

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:31 pm

16 May 2012

Consciousness is Personal — William James continued

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:35 am

[Excerpts from The Principles of Psychology, 1890 by William James; Volume One, Chapter IX: “The Stream of Thought”]

Every thought tends to be part of a personal consciousness.

My thought belongs with my other thoughts, and your thoughts with your other thoughts. Whether anywhere in the room there be a mere thought, which is nobody’s thought, we have no means of ascertaining, for we have no experience of its like. Each of these minds keeps its own thoughts to itself. There is no giving or bartering between them. No thought even comes into direct sight of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism is the law. It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned… On these terms the personal self rather than the thought might be regarded as the immediate datum of psychology. The universal conscious fact is not ‘feelings and thoughts exist’ but ‘I think’ and ‘I feel.’

What now is the common whole. The natural name for it is myself, I, or me

When Paul and Peter wake up in the same bed, and recognize that they have been asleep, each one of them mentally reaches back and makes connection with but one of the two streams of thought that were broken by the sleeping hours… Peter’s present instantly finds out Peter’s past, and never by mistake knits itself on to that of Paul. Paul’s thought in turn is as little liable to go astray. The past thought of Peter is appropriated by the present Peter alone… The community of self is what the time-gap cannot break in twain…

The mind, in short, works on the data it receives very much as a sculptor works on his block of stone. In a sense the statue stood there from eternity. But there are a thousand different ones beside it, and the sculptor alone is to thank for having extricated this one from the rest. Just so the world of each of us, howsoever different our several views of it may be, all lay embedded in the primordial chaos of sensations, which gave the mere matter to the thought of all of us indifferently. We may, if we like, by our reasonings unwind things back to that black and jointless continuity of space and moving clouds of swarming atoms which science calls the only real world. But all the while the world we feel and live in will be that which our ancestors and we, by slowly cumulative strokes of choice, have extricated out of this, like sculptors, by simply rejecting certain portions of the given stuff. Other sculptors, other statues from the same stone! Other minds, other worlds from the same monotonous and inexpressive chaos! My world is but one in a million alike embedded, alike real to those who may extract them. How different must be the worlds in the consciousnesses of ant, cuttle-fish, or crab!

But in my mind and your mind the rejected portions and the selected portions of the original world-stuff are to a great extent the same. The human race as a whole largely agrees as to what it shall notice and name, and what not. And among the noticed parts we select in much the same way for accentuation and preference or subordination and dislike. There is, however, one entirely extraordinary case in which no two men ever are known to choose alike. One great splitting of the whole universe into two halves is made by each of us; and for each of us almost all of the interest attaches to one of the halves; but we all draw the line of division between them in a different place. When I say that we all call the two halves by the same names, and that those names are ‘me‘ and ‘not-me‘ respectively, it will at once be seen what I mean. The altogether unique kind of interest which each human mind feels in those parts of creation, which it can call me or mine may be a moral riddle, but it is a fundamental psychological fact. No mind can take the same interest in his neighbor’s me as in his own. The neighbor’s me falls together with all the rest of things in one foreign mass, against which his own me stands out in startling relief. Even the trodden worm, as Lotze somewhere says, contrasts his own suffering self with the whole remaining universe, though he have no clear conception either of himself or of what the universe may be. He is for me a mere part of the world; for him it is I who am the mere part. Each of us dichotomizes the Kosmos in a different place.

15 May 2012

Haunted Hotel

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:16 pm

I’m sitting at a desk in my hotel room on the thirty-third floor watching the five p.m. traffic flow unimpeded through downtown Kansas City. Rush hour here is nearly indistinguishable from any other hour of the day, this being one of those Western US cities that sprawls across vast expanses of flatland.

It’s a Sheraton hotel, but an old brass plaque mounted inside the elevator still reads “Hyatt.” I  don’t know when the building changed ownership, but I do know when disaster befell it:

The Hyatt Regency hotel walkway collapse was a collapse of an interior suspended skywalk system that occurred on Friday July 17, 1981, in Kansas City, Missouri, United States, killing 114 people and injuring 216 others during a tea dance. At the time, it was the deadliest structural collapse in U.S. history, not to be surpassed until the Collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001.

Here’s the Wikipedia article.

9 May 2012

William James: Unconscious Eliminativist

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:04 pm

Following on from the nineteenth century German psychophysicians’ understanding of unconscious mental processes, I was curious about what William James, the acknowledged founder of American academic psychology, had to say on the subject. Surprisingly, James, who brought the idea of the “stream of consciousness” into Western public awareness, discounted the unconscious altogether. He deployed logic rather than empirical evidence to debunk the contemporary Continental consensus established by the convergence of philosophers and physiological psychologists. All mental activity is conscious, said James, but the stream typically flows so quickly, generating such transitory results, that the mind retains no memory of its own conscious activity. He acknowledges that neurons may be stimulated before erupting into conscious thought. However, these sub-liminal “affections” or “nerve sensations” are mere reactions to sensory stimuli rather than active unconscious mental activity. We can bring to mind the color of our house, the arrangement of the furniture, and whether the door opens out or in not because these facts are stirring about in an unconscious limbo awaiting conscious retrieval, but because past events modify the molecular structure of the brain itself, resulting in a “predisposition” to act upon familiar quadrants the world more efficiently, as if we had been thinking about them in the background all along.

The theory that James advances is far from a crackpot idea, though in James’ time there were no methods available for evaluating these ideas empirically. James was no experimentalist so he wouldn’t have had much interest in doing the research anyway. James the pragmatist firmly asserted that consciousness is <i>for</i> something; I suspect he found it hard to imagine how an unconscious process could have a purpose or end. Here’s a quote from Volume One of his monumental 1890 Principles of Psychology, in which James lambastes the philosophers of the unconscious:

Hartmann fairly boxes the compass of the universe with the principle of unconscious thought. For him there is no namable thing that does not exemplify it. But his logic is so lax and his failure to consider the most obvious alternatives so complete that it would, on the whole, be a waste of time to look at his arguments in detail. The same is true of Schopenhauer, in whom the mythology reaches its climax.

James describes Schopenhauer’s theory that human unconscious visual perception causes and creates spatiality in the world it perceives. “It is, as I said, pure mythology,” James concludes. But he throws out the baby with the bathwater. Visual perception does use sensory inputs to generate a representation of the world, a representation consisting of flat surfaces/edges arrayed in three-dimensional space. This representational activity does take place outside of conscious awareness, as Schopenhauer asserted. Just because the 3D world exists independently of unconscious perception, as James the realist counters, does not mean that visual perception is not an unconscious representational reconstruction of that real world in the mind. Still, James, while eliminating the unconscious, does acknowledge that “certain results, similar to results of reasoning, may be wrought out by rapid brain-processes to which no ideation seems attached.” That sounds like unconscious process to me.

Here’s an odd wrinkle in James’ dismissal of the unconscious. Freud wasn’t the first to investigate hysteria; his mentor Pierre Janet, along with Alfred Binet (famous for inventing the intelligence test) had already devoted considerable attention to the disorder. They used hypnosis to simulate hysteria in the lab, inducing effects like limb anesthesia through suggestion, effects that would disappear once the subject was brought out of the trance. James conducted his own experiments with automatic writing, during which the hand moving the planchette, seemingly outside of conscious control, could generate meaningful phrases. Weren’t these strange perceptions and behaviors and writings evidence of unconscious thought? No, James insisted:

It must be admitted that in certain persons, at least, the total possible consciousness may be split into parts which coexist but mutually ignore each other, and share the objects of knowledge between them. More remarkable still, they are complementary. Give the object to one of the consciousnesses, and by that fact you remove it from the other or others. Barring a certain common fund of information, like the command of language, etc., what the upper self knows the under self is ignorant of, and vice versa.

James’ long-term impact on American psychology is mixed. His pragmatism endured; his resistance to systematic experimentation and to the unconscious did not. Ironically, this combination of experimentation with ends-driven human activity resulted in the dominance of behaviorism in American psychological research. The idea that unintentional activity can yield adaptively useful outcomes — an idea that James rejected — is integral to Darwinian evolution. The success of the means-ends, stimulus-response model in predicting and shaping behavior resulted in the idea that all human cognition is unconscious, that the brain automatically reacts to external stimuli as motivated by instincts and drives, with no need for cogitation. As John Watson wrote in his 1913 “Behaviorist Manifesto”:

Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness.

It seems to be common knowledge among theory bloggists that empirical psychology is too rational, too dismissive of the unconscious, perhaps infected by neoliberal false consciousness. What’s being ignored is the historical context. When, at Cornell in 1967, Ulric Neisser coined the term “cognitive psychology,” he was trying to carve out space in a field dominated by behaviorism where consciousness and its characteristic activities — decision-making, problem-solving, intention — had virtually disappeared. In a sense the current wave of neurophilosophical “eliminative materialism” recapitulates the behaviorists’ argument.The middle road seems most likely: just as unconsciousness is “for something,” so too is consciousness. It’s a pragmatic allocation of limited energy resources for the human brain to conduct much of its operations unconsciously, distributed widely around the neural network, reserving the efforts of the relatively energy-intensive consciousness for mental tasks that benefit from concentrated attention and linear processing.

So now I’m more curious about James’ understanding of the “stream of consciousness.” Another post perhaps.

7 May 2012

White Flight or Movin’ On Up?

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 11:29 am

This post was prompted by reading the comments on another blog, in which the “white flight” from US cities over the past century supposedly represents a fear response to black and latino crime culture…

I remember learning in a college economics course that, in urban areas worldwide, real estate prices increase the closer the property gets to downtown. As a Chicagoland kid I was surprised. Sure, the Gold Coast high-rises were deluxe, but most of the central city residents were poor people living in tenements. Yes, the price gradient holds true in the ghettos too, the professor assured us: it’s the price per square foot that needs to be considered. Most inner-city apartments are very small. To rent an apartment on the near South or North Side might cost half the monthly mortgage payment for a single-family house in the suburbs, but the apartment might be 500 square feet while the house is 2000 square feet, not including the cute little yard and garden area.

This discrepancy in price per square foot was a prime motivator for real estate investors to buy up inner-city apartment buildings and then rent them out: the unit markup is higher, yielding greater return on investment. To get out of the inner city money pit, a renter had to have enough money both to put down a deposit and to pay the mortgage — white-collar workers for the most part. Developers of suburban subdivisions made it harder and harder to get out of the rent trap: they kept building bigger houses with bigger price tags. I don’t have the statistics ready to hand, but I recall that the average single-family home in the US nearly doubled in size from the mid-60s to the mid-00s. The divide between urban and suburban widened: the suburbanites kept buying bigger houses farther away from downtown; the poor were left behind, stuck with paying those exorbitant per-square-foot monthly rents in the inner city or, if they could scrape the money together, buying a little place in the first-ring suburbs that their first-generation owners had flipped for a tidy profit.

No doubt the slumlords realized that their inner-city party was coming to an end. Blue-collar jobs were being exported overseas, so fewer of their working-class tenants had the money to make the exorbitant inner-city rent payments.  The tenement owners started selling off their inner-city rental units one at a time to the people who lived in them. Prices were cheaper than suburban houses, plus the bankers cooked up zero-down balloon payment schemes to lure in even the most precarious potential buyers. The balloons inflated, then they burst. The mortgage banks repossessed the houses, then they got bailed out by the federal government so they could hold onto those “toxic assets.” Gradually they’ve been selling their housing inventory off, mostly to investors who buy these units as rental properties. So the real estate investors sold their inner-city properties to families at inflated prices, then bought them back from the banks at deflated prices — sell high, buy low. And now the investors are renting those same properties back to the families to whom they sold them a few years ago, families who defaulted on their mortgage payments because their jobs got outsourced or robotized.

5 May 2012

H.30.B.M Withdraws to the Spirit World

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:24 am

Then (December 2010)…

…and now

3 May 2012

The Unconscious and the Psychophysicians

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:48 am

In discussion of the preceding post about Freud and the unconscious, Michael of Ombhurbhuva noted that Henri Bergson had, in one of his books, responded to Fechner’s ideas about consciousness and the unconscious. I had begun writing a comment about Fechner, but then it got to be such a long ramble I decided it might work better as a post. So I moved the comment to my clipboard where I intended to finish it off and post it this morning. Sadly my computer shut down unexpectedly, which meant the erasure of this comment-cum-post. Pissed off, I intended just to forget it, but through obsession or obduracy I found myself on my morning walk mourning and rehearsing what had been lost. So now here I am, rewriting the post. I don’t doubt that it will be different from, and inferior to, the legendary lost text.

As I recall, the central ideas were three:

  1. The experimental psychologists before Freud regarded the unconscious not as a kind of jail where previously-conscious thoughts and imaginings were consigned by the ego for having been judged too naughty, but as the wellspring and foundation of conscious thought.
  2. The early experimentalists, like Freud, regarded inhibition of thought as an artificial obstacle to freedom rather than as an integral mental function. As for Freud, this theory was grounded in metaphysics rather than science, and arguably it inhibited for a time the understanding of mental processes even as it stimulated experimental investigation.
  3. The early experimentalists regarded the unconscious mind as composed of elementary percepts and ideas. In this regard too their philosophical precommitments both advanced and hindered their empirical work.

Gustav Theodor Fechner merits a chapter in Edmund Boring’s 1950 landmark A History of Experimental Psychology as the first psychologist who actually performed rigorous scientific experiments — a research program Fechner called “psychophysics.” Fechner, whose first important work was published in 1851, assayed to demonstrate with empirical precision a theory propounded thirty years earlier by the philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart. In Herbart’s scheme, human psychology is both mechanical and elemental. Though the mind is a unified whole, its  content is composed of a storehouse of distinct percepts and ideas. These mental elements jostle with each other and reinforce one another in an ongoing effort to attain conscious expression. In 1825 Herbart wrote:

“Every movement of the ideas is confined between two fixed points: their state of complete inhibition, their state of complete liberty… There is a natural and constant effort of all the ideas to revert to their state of complete liberty (absence of inhibition).”

Herbart worked out his ideas in the form of mathematical equations; however, his formulae for mental dynamics were based on logic and theory rather than empirical evidence. Fechner began the work of refining the elegant abstractions with messy data and statistical analysis. His work focused largely on visual perception. Since it was impossible for Fechner to tamper directly with the retina and optic nerve and visual cortex, he systematically varied the environmental stimuli to which the human neural pathways respond. In particular, he wanted to find the “just noticeable difference,” or “jnd”: the precise intensity of a stimulus that triggers the buildup of neural activation to the point where it passes the limen into consciousness. Fechner believed that, whereas stimulus information is continuous, sensations are discrete: a specific pitch or volume of sound, a distinct color or intensity of luminance. If the stimulus activates the neural sensation to a sufficient level (the jnd), that sensation passes the limen into conscious perception.

If, per Herbart, all elements of the mind tend toward uninhibited expression, why don’t all of the elementary percepts — specific colors, brightnesses, pitches, etc. — clamor to become conscious at the same time? Because, Fechner reminds us, the elementary mental content must be activated by environmental stimuli. Still, Fechner labels those sensations that don’t reach the jnd for becoming conscious as “negative sensations.” By implication, sounds and sights in the environment don’t just trigger the corresponding sensations in the mind; they also inhibit all of the other competing sensations. In this sense the environment simultaneously triggers the free expression of some elements of mental content while imposing external restraints on other elements.

Now back to the presuppositions. Why had Herbart insisted that mental content consisted of pre-existing percepts and ideas? Arguably the historical fact that in 1804 Herbart succeeded Kant as chair at Konigsberg is important. Why for Herbart were the elements of mind separate and distinct? Because Herbart saw himself as a disciple of Leibnitz, philosophical father of the “monad.” Why had Herbart been so insistent that free expression of mental content was its natural tendency, with inhibition imposing an artificial constraint? As a philosopher, Herbart contended that only positive things and forces are real. Constraint, being a negative force, is unreal and a hindrance to reality.

As Herbart’s intellectual heir, Fechner perpetuated these presuppositions. Why then did he focus not on the contents of the mind but on the stimulus value of the environment? Before he turned to psychology, Fechner had been a physicist. In 1839 he suffered what today we might call a nervous breakdown or burnout: William James described it as “habit neurosis;” Fechner regarded it as a spiritual crisis. It took him three years to recover, during which time he became deeply religious. He embraced panpsychism, writing a treatise describing the mental life of plants. Writes Boring:

“His philosophical solution of the spiritual problem lay in his affirmation of the identity of mind and matter and in the assurance that the entire universe can be regarded as readily from the point of view of its consciousness… The demonstration of the consciousness of plants was but a step in the program.”

By implication, the resonance of sensation with environmental stimuli beyond the jnd could be construed as the material world becoming conscious of itself.

I recall that in the earlier, now vanished version of this post I noted similarities and differences of the psychophysicians’ understanding of mind compared with contemporary neuroscientific models. Certainly it’s possible to trace the lineage through the intervening two hundred years from Herbart to the present. Perhaps the most important difference is that the neurons aren’t assigned to discrete percepts or ideas that either do or do not pass the limen into consciousness. Rather, even what in our conscious awareness we regard as elements are distributed more widely across multiple neurons and synaptic connections. Bringing an idea into consciousness doesn’t consist of retrieving it as a discrete unit, but of assembling it dynamically from this wider neural activity. One consequence is that the current version of this post probably contains not a single 4-word string that is identical with its lost predecessor. My retrieval from memory is also a rethinking.

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