David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: October 2006 (page 1 of 2)

Fun with Consciousness

I love the philosophy of consciousness. Is there any other field of philosophy that proceeds with so few objective reference points, where people spend so much time fighting over pure first principles? Yes, probably, but they aren’t as interesting to me as consciousness. Some (like a certain eliminativist I was arguing with earlier tonight) argue for its nonexistence; others (Descartes, anyone?) argue that it’s all that there definitely is. And throughout, language is thoroughly inadequate of providing referentiality to any of it. Late Wittgenstein isn’t the only one who would agree with that; early Wittgenstein would agree too.

Quick crash course for those who are not quite as obsessed with these things: consciousness = internal, subjective experience. It means that when I poke you, you don’t only react with behavior indicating pain (yelping, yelling, etc.), but you also have some internal, private sense of actual pain. These two things, as one can read over and over in later Wittgenstein, have no apparent necessary connection to one another. But at least for me, it’s a rather significant assumption I make that other people have rather similar private subjective experience to mine that matches up with their behavior in similar ways.

See also Thomas Disch’s Fun With Your New Head. “Taste, see, smell, and ‘pain’ with a HEAD. Every minute is different from the next minute in incredible thought-chaos of a HEAD.”

Steven Shaviro reviewed a new s-f novel called Blindsight by Peter Watts. It sounds a little pulpy, and it’s unlikely that I’ll get around to it any time soon, at least not until I finish Thomas Metzinger’s marvelous  Being No One. But Shaviro has conveniently described some of the consciousness aspects that come into play:

What really distinguishes the aliens is that they are zombies: not in the George Romero, living dead sense, but in the sense that the term has been used by cognitive science and the philosophy of mind. A zombie is a being who acts just as you or I do, who shows clear signs of language, intelligence, and so on; but who is inwardly devoid of sentience or consciousness. It’s the old Cartesian/solipsist dilemma: I know that I have consciousness, interiority, and a sense of self; but how do I know that you have all these things? For all I know–since all I really know (according to Descartes) comes from introspection, everyone else in the world may well be a machine, or an
automoton, only simulating consciousness. 

Now, there’s a caveat here, in that the aliens aren’t actually philosophical zombies, because these aliens don’t act like you or I do, or even as conscious aliens would. Watts provides clear behavioral indicators for what non-conscious intelligent beings would act like and how they would differ. I’ll get to those in a moment. A real zombie, in the sense that David Chalmers and all put it, requires the assumption that there are no behavioral or linguistic (or even neurological) cues that peg someone as having subjective experience or not. The Waggish-zombie would claim to be conscious, just as I do.

Given the possibility of true zombies, consciousness is epiphenomenal, i.e., it has no bearing whatsoever on physical events. Epiphenomenal consciousness lacks causal force, and it is superfluous to any causal chain of events. This leads to some fairly bizarre scenarios, like this one that Raymond Smullyan describes (he actually uses it against dualism, but it works against epiphenomenalism as well):

Then came the discovery of the miracle drug! Its effect on the taker was to annihilate the soul or mind entirely but to leave the body functioning exactly as before. Absolutely no observable change came over the taker; the body continued to act just as if it still had a soul. Not the closest friend or observer could possibly know that the taker had taken the drug, unless the taker informed him.

Then a person who wishes to have no more subjective experience (to escape various pains and traumas), but not to hurt anyone by committing explicit suicide, takes the pill. And of course, he promptly says, “Damn, it didn’t work!”

Right then. Epiphenomenalism also leads to boring books! Reading about the difference between people who do and don’t have consciousness but act the same either way is not terribly exciting. (Actually, I can think of one way in which it would be interesting, but I’m keeping it a secret in case I write about it some day.) So Watts cooks up a few differences to keep things going:

By the end of the novel, the difference between conscious beings and zombies seems to be that only conscious beings possess aesthetics. The aliens in the novel are a bit like logical positivists: they have no aesthetic sensibility, and find aesthetic and affective statements to be, strictly speaking, meaningless. They can carry on complex conversations, despite not “understanding’’ what the words mean; but they can only regard non-functional expressions as a sort of spam. In this way, Watts’ Darwinism ends up confirming Kant: the defining attribute of the aesthetic is that it is unavoidably “disinterested,’’ that its purposiveness of structure serves no actual (empirical or utilitarian) purpose. In other words, an aesthetic sensibility — which at this point we can pretty much equate with consciousness tout court — is not an evolutionary adaptation, but mere nonadaptive byproduct.

Again, though, this is ultimately an arbitrary and suppositional distinction. There’s no necessary reason why beings without consciousness and subjective experience couldn’t have an aesthetics, just as there could well be an aesthetics amongst a group of people who each saw a different color of the spectrum. Under Wittgenstein, aesthetics remains a series of rule-application speech acts, wholly independent from private subjective experience.

Shaviro hypothesizes that it is putatively nonadaptive behavior like aesthetics that constitutes “human-ness,” but I’m frankly surprised that a Marxist like him would claim that aesthetics ever indeed is disinterested. (He may simply be playing this out as a consequence of Watts’s views.) Yet the moment consciousness becomes more than purely epiphenomenal, it is completely up for grabs as adaptive, precisely because it must manifest itself in particular types of behavior, but without any contingent restrictions on what those behaviors could be. To imply a particular link between consciousness and certain types of behavior (such as the href=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test>mirror test, which
proves self-awareness but hardly indicates anything about subjective experience) is wholly speculative. The epiphenomenalists go too far in the other direction by saying that there cannot be any necessary connections between behavior and consciousness; the answer is that we simply don’t know yet.

Now, the book is speculative fiction; my issue is that the speculation assumes too much. This is no worse a sin than many consciousness philosophers and neurologists, but as a hypothesis for behavioral differences, I don’t find the aesthetics argument particularly compelling at first glance. If there were general behavioral differences between beings with and without subjective experience, my intuition suggests that they would be far greater than mere aesthetics, and I’m all for the next writer who wants to take a shot at guessing what they would be.

L’Archive du Mal

(Anselm Kiefer, “Volkszahlung”)

Magdalena Tulli: Moving Parts

Many years ago, in an interview I can no longer locate, Gregory Rabassa said that Osman Lins was a writer’s writer, one who tended to be liked most by those who were plagued by the creative process. It never did quite work for me, because creativity is such a variegated thing and the eye that stares at itself in Lins’s Avalovara became too decontextualized for me to see in it an analogy with the writer in the world, rather than the more romantic notion of the writer standing independent from reality. Better the anxieties of George Gissing’s New Grub Street or even Nicholson Baker’s U and I. But Rabassa quoted what he considered the ur-text for Lins, a passage by Cortazar in Hopscotch describing an ideal for a novel:

Everything would be a kind of disquiet, a continuous uprooting, a territory where psychological causality would yield disconcertedly, and those puppets would destroy each other or love each other or recognize each other without suspecting too much that life is trying to change its key in and through and by them, that a barely conceivable attempt is born in man as one other day there were being born the reason-key, the feeling-key, the pragmatism-key. That with each successive defeat there is an approach towards the final mutation, and that man only is in that he searches to be, plans to be, thumbing through words and modes of behavior and joy sprinkled with blood and other rhetorical pieces like this one.

On the other hand, there is Magdalena Tulli’s Moving Parts, a book that contextualizes itself in Polish history more than in the creative process, but still adopts a stance that appears most intuitively graspable by a writer. The metafictional conceit is there on the first page with the appearance of “the narrator,” and it can be hard to swallow. Sometimes it threatens to obliterate the text with the banal reminder that yes, this is a book you are reading. More often, though, and more successfully, Tulli debates the role of the will to organize facts and the question of who has the moral authority to do so.

The narrator does not narrate; he cannot get started. The story that he seeks out has noise in it, and the noise is not ordered. The proposed story of two couples and their love affairs jaggedly intersects with other motifs that grow more sinister, from suicide and random violence to the increasing encroachment by the Nazi occupation and gunboats at Kamchatka, although the novel never fixes itself in time as much as it does in space. (There are still cell phones popping up.) It ends in a multi-leveled and overtly Dante-esque hell, complete with elevator.

The narrator is not a narrator, but a joke of the pretense of being one. Here he goes around, trying to assemble a simple story while the world is exploding and collapsing around him. Comparisons to Bruno Schulz are inadequate, because Tulli never finds that serenity that Schulz locates in his creations. She rejects it; when the narrator looks for order (as with the elevator), it’s a trap door into more possibilities that are never sorted out. Our narrator, the old artificer, grows petulant and unlikable, not to mention trivial. To the end, the book resists structure (though not flow), and in that indefiniteness, it resembles the more stringent French nouveaux romans, but also Miroslav Krleza in its more active politicization. Tulli earns her plaudits; the book is something different from your average allegory, and it feels different.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: An Incident…

His eyes were gradually opened to the way all the world’s shapes and colors lived in his objects. He saw in the intricacy of their ornaments an enchanted image of the intricate wonders of the world. He discovered the forms of animals and the forms of flowers, and the gradual transition from one to the other…and he discovered the moon and the stars, the crystal ball, the mystical circles sprouting wings of seraphim. For a long time he was drunk on this great, profound beauty that was his, and all his days were more beautiful and less empty among these objects, which were no longer dead and insignifcant, but a great legacy, the divine work of all the generations.

Yet he felt the triviality of all these things along with their beauty. The thought of death never left him for long, and it often came over him when he was among laughing and noisy people, at night, or as he ate.

“Tale of the 672nd Night”

My mind’s been on Kleist lately, a figure whom Gabriel Josipovici says had no contemporaries or followers, and he didn’t–not for a while, at least. But by the end of the 19th century, the spirit of Kleist’s anti-fairytales come back in full force in the stories of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal mixed a brew of German traditions together and came up with something that, in his prose, is alternately gauzy and brutal. (His ghastly “Tale of the 672nd Night” throws E.T.A. Hoffman in the mix and produces something even more violent and disturbing than Kleist.) Amongst all the beauty there is always a worm of destruction to sever, to corrupt, to poison. The worm emerges more slowly and linearly than it does in Kleist, who tends to spiral out of bounds very rapidly, but when it does, it is more insidious and sometimes more punishing, as it is for the merchant’s son in “672nd Night,” who is methodically arranged for death. But in both, that worm is never something that comes from a logical procession of romantic ideas, as it is in Goethe or Buchner, but something that attacks the supposed underpinnings of the story itself.

His most Kleistian moment comes in “An Incident in the Life of Marshall de Bassompierre.” The Marshall rides through Paris and meets a flirty shopkeeper, then invites her to bed. She accedes, and from there we descend to fire, plague, and death, and only the Marshall escapes to tell the tale. The herald of misfortune is the shopkeeper’s announcement, “May I die a miserable death if I have ever belonged to anyone other than my husband and you or desired anyone else in the world!” And then there is the spectral, wordless appearance of her husband, seen by the Marshall through the window of the shop….

It is not only that the adultery ends so morbidly, but that the motivations of the shopkeeper are so inverted from their initial appearance. Once she is undermined, the Marshall himself turns from a romantic nobleman into a diseased lothario, and narratively speaking, it is the shopkeeper who brings about this change in perception. The shopkeeper, who meets an end not so far from Dido’s after she was spurned by Aeneas, fails in the revenge architected by her husband, but succeeds in impressing himself on the Marshall much as Dido did:

“I shall die unavenged, but I shall die,”
she says. “Thus, thus, I gladly go below
to shadows. May the savage Dardan drink
with his own eyes this fire from the deep
and take with him the omen of my death.”

IV 909-913

When the shopkeeper dies on her pyre, having offered herself up to the Marshall in what he thinks of as a casual affair, she and not her husband turns the “incident” into something far more serious. The purported motive of revenge fades in front of a far more sordid affair invoking powers beyond the control of the Marshall or the cuckolded husband.

[Request to readers: can anyone fill me in on the sources for this story in Goethe and in Bassompierre’s actual memoir? Online searches turn up nothing in a language I read.]

Note on Merleau-Ponty’s “Cogito”

But, it will be asked, if the unity of the world is not based on that of consciousness, and if the world is not the outcome of a constituting effort, how does it come about that appearances accord with each other and group themselves together into things, ideas and truths? And why do our random thoughts, the events of our life and those of collective history, at least at certain times assume common significance and direction, and allow themselves to be subsumed under one idea? Why does my life succeed in drawing itself together in order to project itself in words, intentions and acts? This is the problem of rationality.

Phenomenology of Perception (475)

(I’m using Merleau-Ponty here because he’s more lyrical and because Husserl is just too damn hard.)

The value of phenomenology for me is in the destruction of the subject-object construction. Descartes sets it up, then Hume and Kant and their compatriots develop it and refine it until there’s a nice movement from the world through the structure of the mind (the categories, the senses, whatever) to perception to mind. It’s that last jump, the most ethereal one, that the phenomenologists rip apart. They think about the little subjective pixie in the mind (aka, the “What-it-is-like-to-be” pixie) who just perceives all these perceptions, and the whole thing falls apart. The pixie gets smaller and smaller until it’s not capable of doing much of anything, and then you’re stuck figuring out (1) what it does, and (2) how it does it, both of which no longer have any positive answer.

By making the perceptual primary and denying any subjective unification beyond that perception, Merleau-Ponty and co. don’t necessarily solve this problem, but they at least avoid the contradiction. Perception is ego is subject. Then Merleau-Ponty specifically pushes the other way and connects experience back to into the world until our bodies are our minds reaching into the world and merging with it.

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