16 March 2013

The Brain’s Glass is Half Full

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:06 am

My brain doesn’t have to understand its own workings in order to work. Even a frog can see a fly, hop toward it, and catch it mid-flight with its tongue, all without knowing how its neuromuscular apparatus accomplishes these feats. I don’t know through introspection how I see and run and catch a ball, how I feel warmth or hunger or sexual arousal, how I understand spoken language or remember the name of my elementary school. Why should I expect my ability to decide and to take intentional action to be any more accessible to introspection than any of these other neurological functions?

Humans are at least partially aware of their own limitations. I don’t have much body fur, but if I turn on the heat inside and put on a coat when I go out I can survive in a cold climate. I can’t outrun a zebra, but if I get in my Jeep and drive after it I can overtake the zebra. I have a hard time remembering a 9-digit number, and even then my memory degrades rapidly, but if I write the 9 digits down I can retrieve them when I need them. Humans build and use tools largely to compensate for their mental and physical limitations: this ability is paradigmatic of human intentionality.

Cognitive psychology as an empirical subdiscipline emerged in the late 60s not from philosophical idealism but from behaviorism, which regarded all behavior as an automatic stimulus-response mechanism unmediated by thought. Cognitive psychology presented empirical evidence supporting the alternative contention that there is a black box intervening between S and R, processing inputs and preparing outputs. Neurologists are exploring more directly how the black box works. But explanation won’t change functionality. When Copernicus figured out that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, and when Galileo confirmed the heliocentric system observationally, people didn’t suddenly spin off the surface of the world and float into space, nor did they suddenly stop seeing the sun rise in the east and set in the west. If a satisfactory empirical explanation of intentionality is achieved, that won’t mean that people will suddenly stop intending or realize that they’d never in their lives actually intended anything.


  1. Why should I expect my ability to decide and to take intentional action to be any more accessible to introspection than any of these other neurological functions?

    i have been thinking about something along these lines. The more it ‘feels intentional’, the more it seems to matter to oneself. When in a low period, the same things are done, they are not often done as well, for example. Even if they ARE, it’s as if they shouldn’t be, because of the contrast with the general grey atmosphere. Something ‘intentional’, or related to it, gives a sense of power, even if it wasn’t necessary to generate the action or perception to begin with. I often reflect on my worst times, and how I perceived colours or what have you. It wasn’t at all the same as when I felt ‘up’, which may be related to what ‘intentional’ or at least ‘feeling intentional’, is.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 17 March 2013 @ 10:48 am

  2. Enter the void, Patrick — it’s good to hear from you. Your comment is the first on Ktismatics in nearly 3 weeks. I haven’t gone back to confirm, but this is almost surely the longest comment drought since Erdman first showed up here in September 2006, about a month after I started the blog. In addition to my recent posts I’ve been laying down strings of hard-won and clever observations on other blogs that I’d rarely or never visited before and never previously commented on. While two of those bloggers have hit the “like” button on a couple of my recent posts, which I do appreciate, they’ve not commented here, even though my latest posts are related to joint discussions elsewhere. In commenting on those other blogs, part of my intention was to draw new commenters to Ktismatics. Whenever I initiate an intentional action that fails to achieve the intended results, I find myself thrown back reflexively on the intentionality itself: maybe that’s not what I really wanted, maybe I should have quit after two attempts, maybe I should have persisted even longer, etc. And as you say, the more the intentionality comes to the fore, the more important the actions seem, the more important also their lack of consequence, and so the grey begins to envelop the scene. I have, though, come to certain conclusions about this round of posting and commenting, certain unintended positive consequences have accrued to my own benefit — that sort of reflection is also stimulated by the void, the gap between intention and result. It’s a way of performing Step Two.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 March 2013 @ 12:19 pm

    • “How polite and thoughtful”, I first thought that last line. And it is that too. And if you read the post I just did this morning about last night’s dreams, I have to have been referring to Step Two myself, but it did not occur to me even once as I was writing it up, in fact, not till I read your reply here. Definitely can be a ‘slow learner’ sometimes. So what, quickness is not everything.

      There is almost nothing worse than a Productive Blue Period. I have never ever hated anything so much, and it is my great pleasure to tell you that, cf. my Dream-post, I really did walk some two miles with 50% of Sciatica (or maybe it was just 35%) in my left leg that I first got about 2 1/2 months ago, so unneurotically (unlike when the skin scar was healing, which never ‘hurt’, but made me a full-time hysteric) and screechingly painful that I could only walk half a block for 2 solid weeks (the knee as well as lower back, especially when NO weight was put on it, just hanging there while standing). But I never ‘worried’ about it, even with a vision or two of wheelchairs, and one of my sisters hoping ‘you won’t have to get an operation’. And I tolerated the hideousness of Trader Joe’s yuppies to get the Dry Vermouth and the even worse assholes of Whole Foods to get the Marzipan (some one of these behind me, younger but less ‘well-preserved’, said “It’s your turn, Junior”. I can’t help it if he’s so homely.)

      What’s hard about a ‘Productive Blue Period’ is that things ‘are working out’, but it seems to have less of your own control than would make it at least somewhat enjoyable. Not that it would work without what you do have to be as intentional as possible about; it would totally fail. And yet that gives no comfort at all. You just do it because it would be worse if you didn’t. That’s why it felt good to have Marzipan in the house again, even though I haven’t quite the energy to make my best Italian Rum Sponge Cake with Chocolate Marzipan Creme Patissiere Filling this week. That goes along with something I said in another post about the importance of ‘inexpensive luxury’, not that in a sense Marzipan is truly inexpensive (it’s $6 a tube), because the dailiness of life really is like prison if you don’t have the special thing now and then. And when it’s spring, the luxuries can be quite money-cost free, if you enjoy nature. But the Marzipan didn’t have anything to do with anything except some kind of subjective desire, no matter how trivial it is in itself.

      Well, my void’s bigger than your void, I can assure you. I get few hits but don’t care. After we discussed ‘bare life writing’ around Xmas, I even said ‘the little text’ was my version of ‘bare life writing’, because I could write a good one only if it was bountiful like that one, that the ‘bare life’ for me came in having then nothing at all to write, and I have not had much, though obviously a few things sneaked in, about which I have little else to say except that not using proper names was a better way if you gotta do that kind of thing. Then in one of those dreams last night was the suggestion of the superintendent’s wife’s ‘bare life’, why she lost total control in the stairwell, trying to blame me for her dereliction of duty. I realized that that’s much how she and her husband live, trying to appease the tenants and keep the landlord satisfied that they’re doing their job. But I’ve ceased to pity them much, and thought I liked them till now. This woman actually told me I’d ‘gotten this guy IN TROUBLE’, as if a landlord would withhold a $2500 security because of a simple report of a noise-nuisance complaint in which I even emphasized ‘what a nice guy’ he is (he’s not really all that nice, and even did the booming music at 8 a.m. one morning, and was very unpleasant when I beat on his door. It was for that reason that I reported it instead of dealing with it directly, but her explosion was hard to take, till a couple of other tenants explained it well to me after all these years of imagining I ‘loved our Bosnian superintendents’. And they are just LOVELY around Christmas, and for a few months afterward.

      I imagine that one is ‘reversing gears’ in a Productive Blue Period’, and that probably accounts for some of the sense of constant blueness. It has made me wonder if a lot of people don’t get addicted to anti-depressants, though, who aren’t clinically depressed, because as I’ve worked on these difficult matters, I found that my tolerance for either I was given to try was nil, and I quit them both. The only thing that made things better was getting closer to the end of the irksome processes. I bet these kinds of reactional depression and clinical depression get mixed up a lot more often than anyone knows.

      Strange, though, not a sign of ‘wearing of the green’ outside, and I forgot all about it till this minute. The parade I’ve been to once, and it was a surreal one, in 2003: It’s on 5th Avenue, and there was a huge blanket of snow in Central Park. I enjoyed seeing the red-faced bagpipers in their green kilts finally (that was already after a lot of years), but once was enough.

      As for the intentional comments that weren’t responded to, that sometimes happens with you and me in particular, because we’re not as integral to the networks of these bleugs and there spheres. I am glad I have my own now, though, so if I need to do a big polemic of one, as I have during the week, I don’t even have to mention what the name of it is, or who runs it, much less speak to them in any direct way.

      Oh yes (as if this wasn’t long enough), the ‘end’ of that ‘scene’ was basically a series of cryptic remarks about ‘long stories’ written at the parody blog, which I did just answer without any reference to the real identity of the person writing them. He’s completely changed since then, but I was not interested in any more of the endless ‘Scottish’ talk. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with being interested in Scotland, but it had become a near-comedy routine to hear this crap about Scotland this, Scotland that endlessly–and the word ‘liberty’ was used a great deal there. There are those who do prefer the word ‘liberty’ to ‘freedom’, which is all right, but it tells you who they are as well, because more use ‘freedom’, and the leftist bleugosphere doesn’t worry about either at all. They are fully content that all leftist bleugers don’t have to yearn to bleug free since Ms. Lazarus.


      Comment by Patrick Mullins — 17 March 2013 @ 1:10 pm

      • That wasn’t quite clear: His remarks about ‘long stories’ were obviously about my ‘little text’, and I was just in no mood. I was surprised he admitted it so easily, but maybe he’s in some sort of recovery himself. This admission he did with the term ‘S-H-O-R-T’.


        Comment by Patrick Mullins — 17 March 2013 @ 1:31 pm

  3. I loved the fresh almond croissants in France. The filling is frangipane, a creamier concoction than marzipan — probably frangipane is what your recipe delivers when you mix the marzipan with egg and cream and sugar. Most of the bloggers I’ve encountered recently who write about objects and the human mind are enthusiasts of continental philosophy and/or the posthuman singularity, so it’s not too surprising that my measured empirical tone didn’t resonate. As you say, I’m an outsider to those circles, which is the case even in a fictional sense, where the nihilistic sensationalism of Lovecraft and Ballard seems to dominate the collective sensibility. I may come back and comment on your intricate dream post, but right now I’m setting out on my St. Patrick’s Day solo parade in my kelly green t-shirt mailed to me last year by A’s college roommate.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 March 2013 @ 2:35 pm

    • You are a semi-outsider, more than you used to be. I’m a complete outsider. You’re obviously much more polite, even you said ‘my father is definitely ruder than I am’. But we’re both ‘free agents’ and although we’ve both got academic credentials too, those aren’t the kind that most of those intertwined ones have, whether Shaviro, Dean, Bryant, Harman, or the English ones either. They might not respond to your comments, because you don’t have anything to ‘get’ from it ambition-wise, yours is the ‘use value’, they’re doing a lot of ‘exchange value’, you know, for would-be leftists. You have a lot of readers, though, so it’s not quite the same. Also, it’s true I didn’t comment for 3 weeks, but I also don’t comment anywhere else, except when I was in no mood to hear my ‘little text’ trashed by that smart-ass. I’m glad, by the way, the ‘reactosphere’ is in full swing now: With every new post, you see the loss of fire of the extreme right-wingers. They have each other just like the Ku Klux Klan ‘has each other’, doesn’t matter if they’re more educated. Strange, they want to be respected like the ‘supercilious leftists’ they abhor.

      One of the Britisms I like most, and like to remember to use, and dislike that I forget it since we Americans all learn it later, is ‘scold’. Krugman speaks of the ‘deficit scolds’ and Dowd talks about ‘national scolds’. And the extremes of the bleugosphere, with the hard Marxists and the ‘reactosphere’ are all total scolds. Very little time is given to appreciating or savouring anything. The leftists hate most everything, and the reactos think savouring anything is laziness and time-wasting.

      I have had good Frangipane Tarts here, and also there’s one plain deli which gets amazing simple almond croissants, and you have no idea why. They probably don’t even know it. I think my creme patissiere filling is somewhat different, since it’s basically the cream puff filling, and I just flavour with the whole tube of Marzipan, which is much tastier for this than plain almond paste. The French creme patissiere is much better than that filling for the Swedish Semla I learned with that girl a few years ago. Jack is so disgusting to people about their cooking, including me, but I loved when he told the Swede “Well, it’s a bit dry”.


      Comment by Patrick Mullins — 17 March 2013 @ 8:41 pm

    • The conversations on the other blogs I’ve visited trace a similar trajectory: assertion and counter-assertion, argument and counter-argument, insult and counter-insult. Then after a skirmish the two sides retreat to their separate bunkers in order to fortify their strength through solidarity. Maybe I’m just being a scold myself now. I don’t deny the emotional appeal of mutual antagonism and choosing sides, and probably in fields like politics the prior commitments are largely unshakable among those who enter actively into the rhetorical fray. But empirical investigation just doesn’t tend to operate very well under those conditions. So when it comes to the question of whether humans have intentions or not, or how you know whether the universe is made up of objects or not, a patient and systematic evaluation of the evidence seems necessary before extended closing arguments are launched.


      Comment by ktismatics — 18 March 2013 @ 6:21 am

      • First time commenter on this blog, though I have read it for some time. I appreciate this post and the comments above. I enjoy reading Three Pound Brain, though my participation in the discussion is always limited, as I really am not at all well-read in the neuroscience literature. But I very much agree with your points above, and I very often find the blog discussions, while exciting sometimes, really unhelpful in that most important area that you identify: patient and systematic evaluation of the evidence. For instance, this is perhaps a naive question, but where is the evidence, precisely? I have taken it that it would be in the findings of experiments and research studies published in peer-reviewed journals and the like. But every time I read those journals (the ones that I do have access to), the findings are often extremely specific, and I wonder how it is that very abstract, wide philosophical ideas relate to these, as it seems to me, more modest empirical findings. Add to that the very different presuppositions that the philosophizers bring to the data, and I become even more skeptical of how they relate or how the evidence causes the philosophy (be it eliminativist, relational, realist, whatever). Am I crazy and/or stupid or is there something to this? The blogs of all kinds will talk about how this or that is supported by evidence, but what the evidence is and the precise nature of that support is rarely examined, at least in the sense you are talking about, examined before the philosophical argument is made.


        Comment by Joseph C Goodson — 20 March 2013 @ 3:29 am

      • Hi Joseph. My whining succeeded — a new commenter. Still, I didn’t start whining until after I’d evaluated the evidence and concluded that my attempts to snag new commenters had failed. So the whining wasn’t an intentional tactic, at least not consciously so. Any rate, I’ve seen your comments elsewhere Joseph, but I’ve not interacted with you directly before either.

        I’m not presently well-read in any particular literature, having taken to dilettantish dabblings in various streams. But the empirical psychology literature is much as you describe it: a congeries of individual research reports each summarizing the systematic investigation of a narrowly constrained, very specific hypothesis. These studies don’t typically follow a single line of inquiry, since the same findings are often relevant across several areas of ongoing work — more an expanding network than a straight line. The network gets even more intricate when the empirical work spans multiple subspecialties; e.g., intentionality is investigated not just by neurologists but also by cognitive psychologists, social psychologists, developmentalists, and psycholinguists. The network tends to grow from the surface rather than the roots, with most of the citations being to other very recent empirical studies rather than to foundational theoretical treatises. Few active scientists write whole books; even the systematic reviews of recent work and theory pieces rarely exceed journal article length. All of which makes it hard to get an overview of any particular ongoing area of investigation. Metzinger has written some very engaging book-length discussions of neuroscience, but he, like Scott Bakker, comes at the subject from the top down, buttressing a grand theory with supporting evidence while generally ignoring more ambiguous or contradictory findings, rather than bottom-up via the systematic sifting of the ongoing accumulation of small empiricisms.

        Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory is the sort of overarching idea that metaphysicians love but that usually don’t play much of a role in the ongoing empirical work. On that last long thread about OOO at Three Pound Brain, Scott disavowed any intentions of subjecting BBT to empirical scrutiny, preferring rather to deploy it as a philosophical idea supported by empiricism. I do think that BBT does suggest specific hypotheses that could be, and that have been, empirically investigated. Neuropath is a thought experiment that purports to do just that. Per The Argument propounded by the titular character, self-consciousness deludes us into thinking that everything we “intend” or “decide” to do is actually caused by unconscious and thus irresistible brain activity. Therefore, putting The Argument to the test surgically requires either (1) eliminating the intentionality feature of self-consciousness, or (2) rewiring self-consciousness so to that it becomes aware of the causal sequences already taking place in the brain. If the experimental subject begins to think and act differently following surgery, then we could infer that intentionality was having some impact on the brain’s cause-effect sequences before it was short-circuited. This would suggest strongly that intentionality is not an illusion, since it has empirically demonstrable effects. Conversely, if short-circuiting intentional self-consciousness has no discernible effect on the subject’s thoughts and actions, then arguably it is unreal. The Neuropath did act differently, and radically so, after his own surgery, and he wanted his friend to experience this radical change as well. But the empirical fact that thought and behavior did change after the surgical excision of intentionality and self-awareness fails to support the hypothesis that intentionality is merely an illusion with no effect on brains and behaviors. Of course if the Neuropath acted the same before and after his neurosurgery, then The Argument would be supported at the expense of losing all of the horrific shit that pushes the book’s thriller plot along. That the characters do think and act differently — and entertainingly so — after the surgery suggests that The Argument fails the empirical test posed in the plot.


        Comment by ktismatics — 20 March 2013 @ 6:57 am

  4. I haven’t looked around much lately, but are there any blogs around with the sort of naturalist (for lack of a better word) leanings of here and Dead Voles? I haven’t seen any. The continental stuff is now beyond my ability to stomach.

    Speaking of which — I have been thinking a lot lately about the sort of psychology issues you mention in the last paragraph of the post. It seems to me sometimes that psychology is so ripe for development. How many good theories of mind do we have that approach continuity with neuroscience? Do we need to worry about the contents of the black box to get there? Is what we know now about the brain enough to get us started?

    It seems that, like cognitive psychology, cognitive linguistics has been able to make some progress.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 17 March 2013 @ 10:55 pm

    • One of the blogs on which I commented is Three Pound Brain. It’s hosted by Scott Bakker, a philosophy grad student turned genre novelist who argues from a naturalistic framework for what he terms the Blind Brain Theory. According to the BBT, the human brain is blind to its own functioning, and to its own non-functioning. So, insists Bakker, the human brain is unaware that intentionality is an illusion, a rationale the brain conjures after the fact to rationalize the automatic operations of its own cause-effect machinery. It’s certainly not a crackpot theory, but it’s also certainly not definitively supported by neuroscience. Awhile back I wrote a post about Bakker’s novel Neuropath, in which a gleefully sadistic CIA neurosurgeon genius purports to prove the tenets of BBT with his scalpel, slicing out the intentionality module from people’s brains to demonstrate its uselessness. He’d make a good nemesis on one of these forensic TV shows. I wrote a post maybe six months ago contending that the results of the Neuropath’s experiment failed to support his hypothesis, that his scalpel was decidedly not Occam’s Razor. Bakker reminds me of some of the new grad students in psych who held strong a-priori commitments and who were looking to empiricism as a means not of testing those commitments against evidence but of assembling proof texts for supporting their contentions.

      Psychology isn’t just ripe for development; it is being continually developed. For a hundred years empirical psych and neurology have functioned largely in parallel, not really expanding much into each other’s turf. But there’s a lot of empirical evidence supporting intentionality in attention, memory, decision-making, problem-solving. Also psycholinguistics, as you note — I’ve previously written several posts about Michael Tomasello’s findings and “usage-based” theory of language evolution and acquisition. So I think the neurologists have to account for the empirical psych findings as well as their own in order to develop a robust theory.

      My daughter is a double major in college: psych and English. She says that in her developmental psych class the students all want to look at the lesion studies rather than the less invasive observations and experiments. Brain science is hot right now, but there’s also a lot of cross-disciplinary work underway. You and I have discussed neural modeling, in which layers of factor-analytic algorithms process sensory inputs into more useful and meaningful chunks of information. Factor analysis was decidedly not the traditional tool of choice for neuropsych people, who liked to dissect brains of invertebrates and rats. Factor analysis was used much more frequently by researchers who, constrained by those pesky ethics boards, had to replace experimental control with statistical control of observed variables. Only relatively recently did the “hard” brain-cutters start talking to the “soft” stat-runners. Statisticians and software engineers have become crucial translators and integrators across these subdisciplines.


      Comment by ktismatics — 18 March 2013 @ 6:48 am

  5. Interesting post, ktismatics. I’m not pretending that BBT is anywhere as well developed as it needs to be. But it does provide a systematic way to naturalize intentionality, and so long as no one can point out reasons why it is obviously wrong, then it remains the only workable theory of its kind out there. That alone, I would argue, warrants a long hard and critical look. The thing is, you’re entirely right: nothing will change if noocentrism ks overthrown, except our understanding of who we are and our place in nature. The problem is that intentionality underwrites so bloody much. All I’m asking is that people a) do not write the theory off for institutional reasons (my outgroup status has nothing to do with anything; and b) demonstrate the obvious errors that would render BBT moot. It’s very curious when you think about how many people are reading these pieces and offering little more than vague second order commentary. Show me a way out of this beast! I appreciate that I’m just a hack, and that the gestalt of BBT requires some work, but if you take a cursory glance at the controversy surrounding Kant’s evocation of Copernicus, for instance, the way BBT simply sidesteps the tradition and offers a parsimonious reading of the paradox is nothing short of bizarre for it’s facility. This is even moreso the case when it comes to controversies within the philosophy of mind. Were I a professional philosopher this is the work that I would do, writing one paper for every controversy. As it stands I’m already facing a revolt among my fiction readership! Take a deeper look is all I’m saying.


    Comment by rsbakker — 23 March 2013 @ 7:39 am

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Scott. I’d say that you and I share a commitment to the importance of empiricism as providing evidence for the limitations of “pure” thought. Apparently I’m more persuaded than you that empiricism also serves as a tool for overcoming the limitations of thought. I might be wrong about your position though: taking a strong stance on one horn of the dilemma does keep the conversation more lively.

    Your post and discussion of OOO was a big success, even if it did seem toward the end to devolve a bit into name-calling. That thread was the first I remember in which Levi Bryant was prepared to address the “how do you know” question head on. His willingness to subject his constructs to empirical falsification strikes me as a significant step forward. It seems though that many of the philosophy-oriented interlocutors are disappointed by this move, wanting to stay in the realm of pure ideation. I’m still not quite sure what can be done with the acidic power of your skepticism, which would dissolve even the neuroscience on which BBT is predicated. My sense is that a guy like Terence Blake would answer the “how do you know” question by insisting that you cannot know, that reality doesn’t just withdraw (per Harman) but that it is always-already inaccessible (per Laruelle). I’m not sure how pluralism is of much use if none of the multiple pathways leads you out of the woods.

    Even if you’re not a professional philosopher you’ve got a lot more background in the field than I do. Whether by training or inclination I tend toward the empirical approach of breaking down the big theories into smaller hypotheses that can be pitted not against counter-arguments but against observable evidence. I agree with you that human cognition operates under severe limitations, many of which are inaccessible to introspection. Somewhere you mentioned Kahneman: his work illustrates the biases humans introduce in deploying heuristics to compensate for limited processing capacity. While awareness of Kahneman’s findings might not keep me from making the same old mistakes, I do become more skeptical of my own decisions, more willing to use decision aids (second opinions, pencil and paper, calculators, computers, algorithms, decision support systems) to second-guess myself, and hopefully to do better.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 March 2013 @ 10:42 am

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