Thursday, December 23, 2010

Visual Experience/Structure in Near Death Experiences

Thomas Droulez

Judging by what people who had NDEs with clear visual aspects frequently report (including congenitally blind people, which is very disturbing and interesting, since it might tell us a lot about the functional role of the eyes and the impossibility to equate the visual field –or visual screen, to use the words used by John Smythies in his analogical functional description- and the retinal surfaces in the eyeballs –the optic lens, in his description-…. About the topic of congenitally blind people able to accurately retrieve visual information during NDEs, cf: Ring and Cooper’s excellent study… but that may be too long to develop here and now), they were able to “see through” objects (as weird as it may sounds!) and they had no limitations in their visual field (for example: no ocular rivalry any more, and no blurring!)

About the curvature of their visual field during NDEs, I do not know if we can say that it is really curved in itself, or if it phenomenologically appears as being curved, or if speaking of a “bubble” or a “spherical” form was only the verbal rendering of the experience that was the closest to what they actually experienced (they also speak of a total “omnidirectional” visual perception). If I remember well, in my description I used the terms “as if” (or something of that kind) in my first comment about visual perception during NDEs, when I was describing the subjects’ visual impressions during their anomalous near-death experiences. Some of these subjects describe it (verbally) in retrospect (perhaps because they have to use commonly shared usual frames of reference and commonly intelligible words to describe their anomalous near-death perceptual experience) as being a situation in which they (as observers) suddenly seem to be not “within” but on or rather into the surface of a spherical unit, but with no hidden parts.

It is as if they were now the surface of that sphere itself that is able to expand and contain the “external” environment. Judging by the reports, and especially those studied by Jean-Pierre, the subjects who experienced anomalous but veridical visual perceptions (for example: being able to reach distant or previously unknown places and see events happen that were later reported to have truly happened, or being able to see “through” walls or various obstacles hidden or forlorn objects the existence and aspect of which was later confirmed by people belonging to the hospital medical staff, etc) during an NDE cannot be described as static observers within a dynamically expanding/retracting spherical envelope: it would be more apt to say that it was as if they were that envelope/surface itself, because they did not have any more to revolve around an object to be able to get an overview of all its profiles at various angles, but this visual overview was presented as a unified and simultaneous view of all these profiles (I readily admit that I cannot imagine what it looks like, but maybe we can reach some understanding of that and an approximated representation of it by imagining that it would be the (higher-dimensional?) equivalent of the passage from a succession of 2D visual profiles of an object to a 3D visual presentation of that object.

The people who were able to sufficiently focus their attention on their visual experience and who later thought about the best verbal means to convey the essence of that peculiar perceptual experience, reported that, during their NDE, they were able to see the objects “entirely” as a synchronistical “multi-angle” perspective (and not as our classic/usual diachronically constructed succession of isolated visual profiles of the object with a final amodal completion of its successively hidden profiles).

We must be cautious. I think that, in a way, some of them spoke about a “spherical” or “bubble” impression mainly because of three inter-individually recurring aspects of the experience : 1/ they were able to have a 160° visual field and in some cases there are reports of a 360° visual panorama (I cannot spontaneously remember of any specific observation about the curvature, but I will check in the literature); 2/ they had a peculiar new ability of “projection” or “zooming” (both competing –motor and visual- interpretations of this ability exist) at multi-angle perspectives (as if they were the surface itself of a volume containing a lower space) to see distant places or microscopic details of their spatial environment; 3/they sometimes had peculiar “weightless” (bodily?) sensations (that’s why there are sometimes expressions in their reports like –these are not quotes, only typical samples- “I felt like a floating soap bubble” or “it was as if I was hovering above the room and I was a round cloud”: sometimes, when they think they have an “aerial body” (one of Jean-Pierre’s subjects used that expression), then they become suddenly able to locate their limbs in a kind of new reconstructed body image, but when they stop thinking that they have a body (to be more accurate: when they stop being convinced that since they are not “nothing” and they still exist as “observers” they must logically have a kind of embodiment similar to what we are used to), then they begin to feel either like a medium-sized “spherical” cloud or (less frequently reported) like a mere shrunken “point”. I am not sure to know if it tells us something about the structure of their visual “zooming” and “spreading” ability or rather about their possible new kind of embodiment…

Maybe Bill Rosar's suggestion (stated in "On Looking vs. Being Curved") about the curvature being due to the structure of the eyeballs is interesting and relevant: couldn’t it be compatible with John’s model in which (in the camera comparison) the eyes are described as being only the lenses of our optical system (so maybe: if you change the detecting device, the lenses in our analogical comparison, without modifying the screen itself, then the latter will not appear any more as a curved surface). Maybe that is what happens in NDEs: the eyes are now out of order (or never were functional, like in the cases of congenitally blind people!) and there is a whole new structure doing their job of detection and transmission…and that’s why the new “medium” induces drastic modifications of the visual field (the “screen” part of our device)?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Looking Curved vs. Being Curved

It seems best to start a new thread to continue the discussion that Bob French and I have been having lately on "Neurobabble in High Places" regarding how one relates our obvious ability to see things as curved (or straight) in the visual world, yet the postulated curvature of visual space is apparently not experienced as a curved visual world. My "diagnosis" is that in order to explain this apparent paradox we need to retrace the epistemological development of the idea of curved space, which does *not* appear to have been derived from visual experience (I believe Gauss is now credited with first advancing the notion of non-Euclidean geometries that would violate Euclid's postulate about parallel lines never converging).

In works I have read on the philosophy of space and time (Mach, Poincare, Nicod, Reichenbach, Grünbaum, and Nerlich) it has never been quite clear to me how a curved space would be perceived, particularly, how curved physical space would be perceived, except for the claim that it is locally Euclidean and therefore is perceived as being flat (ergo, "locally" Euclidean). But in the case of visual space, we perceive its entirety, not just a local region of it, so logically, we should be able to perceive its curvature. Yet most of the arguments for visual space being curved, as I have previously noted, seem not to be based on the perception of curvature, but upon discrepancies between perceived straightness (or parallelness) and third person observations of the test display stimuli employed to make those judgments (the so-called "alley experiments" originated by Blumenthal).

As geometrodynamics points out, physical space(-time) is curved because of a physical force: gravitiy. Why is visual space curved, moreover, of variable curvature as has been claimed by Bob, Indow, Koenderink et al? Is it attributable to the sphericity of the eyes themselves which, to some extent might introduce variable curvature as the eyes are deformed as they are turned?

In this regard, I was particularly interested in the NDE reports which Thomas Droulez shared from the research of Jean-Pierre Jourdan. I was particularly struck that patients reported something like an expanding bubble--this pointing to some sort of sphericality of visual space--and that the visual world as (apparently) seen from outside (from the vantage point of a "5th dimension") itself seemed to involve a kind of spherical construction as well. Perhaps Thomas or Jean-Pierre could supply more details of this apparent structure?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Neurobabble in high places and other topics.

Here are some comments, that seem appropriate for this blog, on the new book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow “The Grand Design” (New York, Bantam, 2010). (My comments in square brackets)
Key words to be queried starred in text.

They say:

“Recent experiments in neuroscience support the view that it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determines our actions, and not some agency that exists outside these laws.” (p. 32)

[This represents a total misreading of these "recent experiments" in which NCCs are illegitimately identified with phenomenal events. Also we determine our consciously motivated actions—not our brains]

“…we human beings…are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature…” (p. 181)

[ How does he know that?]

“…the raw data sent to the brain are like a badly pixilated picture with a a hole in it [the blind spot]. Fortunately the human brain *processes* that data, combining the input from both eyes, filling in gaps on the *assumption* that the visual properties of neighboring locations are similar and interpolating. Moreover, it reads a two-dimensional array of data from the retina and creates from it the *impression* of a three-dimensional space. The brain, in other words, builds a *mental picture* or model.” (pp. 46-47).

“…our brains *interpret* the input from our sensory organs by making a *model* of the outside world. We form *mental concepts* of our home, trees, other people, the lectricity that flows from wall sockets, atoms, molecules, and other universes. These *mental concept*s are the only reality we can know [no mental percepts?]. There is no model-independent test of reality.”

[These "mental" pictures and "mental" concepts suddenly appear from nowhere!!]

“Feynman realized that…a particle [going from A to B] takes every possible path connecting these points, and take them all simultaneously.” (p. 75). In two slit experiments this is“…how the particle acquires the *information* about which slits are open.” (p. 76)

[Particles acquiring information??]

[I should like to see Bill’s and Ray’s opinion on all this!]


Problems about higher dimensions

“…if a theory called the holographic principle is correct, we and our four-dimensional world may be shadows on the boundary of a larger five-dimensional space-time.” (p. 44)

[Nowhere does Hawking mention this idea again.]

“Similarly, we know our universe exhibits three large space dimensions” although “… the number of large space dimensions is not fixed by any law of physics.” (p.141)

[That's useful to know]

“There seems to be a vast landscape of possible universes.” (p. 144)

{Hawking assumes a priori that all higher-dimensional space-times must contain matter like ours]

“Although Einstein’s general theory of relativity unified space and time as space-time and involved a certain mixing of space and time, time was still different from space…In the early universe there were effectively four dimensions of space and none of time.” (p. 134)

Needs further explication—mixing?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

On Perceptual Reality

The earliest reference I can find to the phrase "perceptual reality" is in English statistician Karl Pearson's "Grammar of Science" (1892):

[The Motion of bodies] is not a reality of perception, but is the conceptual manner in which we represent the mode of perception which consists in the combination of Space with Time, by which mode we describe changes in groups of sense impressions; the perceptual reality is the complexity and variety of sense impressions.
Psychologists studying perception today would consider this rationalistic nonsense, and that it is rather the case that we literally see motion, first and foremost, and it is only the concept that comes afterward, based on the perception.

Perhaps we might try to seek some sort of consensus at this point and see where it takes us. Here is a general proposition:

Reality is achieved within the perceptual world.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Neuromythology and Neurocriticism

Recently in the context of comments about brain "maps" in the visual cortex, I quoted from the book Critical Studies in Neurology (1948) by Sir Francis Walshe whom, it seems, was also John Smythies' neurology teacher University College Hospital in London. The interesting title of the book requires some explanation, which he provides in his Foreword, "The Function of Criticism in Medicine":
When we bear in mind, as we may so profitably do, the salutary and powerful influence which critical thought and writing have had upon the development of literature, and recall the stature of some of the figures who had been both outstanding critics and creative writers in literary history, it is with a strong sense of contrast that we recognize how rarely we meet the critical in the literature of science, and how minor a role it plays in our time.

In any case, we may well ask ourselves whether, despite the many and obvious differences between literature and science, it can be altogether wholesome to find that the unresting collection of new facts in science is to so relatively slight a degree accompanied, or illuminated, by the critical assessment and synthesis of all this new information, or at least by some deliberate search after synthesis. Here, surely, integration is not keeping pace with differentiation (pp. vii-viii).
I suspect that more than one reader here may agree that now over half a century later the situation still leaves much to be desired, if anyone has ever seen the gallery of brain scans that adorn the poster presentations at annual conferences of the Society for Neuroscience. As Walshe noted: "For new facts, or what claim to be such, the editor of the scientific journal has an insatiable appetite, but to anything in the nature of critical writing, he is often found to be acutely allergic, and at the writer thereof he instinctively looks askance (p. viii)" So criticism is by no means welcome in the field, even if it is badly needed, and should rightly be seen as integral to the scientific method, rather than as something external to it, as Walshe maintained:

Facts, after all, are not science but only the raw material of that ordered knowledge which is science, and in the ordering of facts, in the capacity to choose the significant amongst them, to apply the inductive process to them and to make those syntheses which are the natural starting points for further planned experiment and observation, there also we find the highest role of the trained critical faculty. Discrimination of true from false depends upon a practiced faculty of criticism, and upon a firm grasp of the rules of evidence (ibid.)
It interesting, too, that Walshe associates critical thinking with literary criticism, rather than being one of the primary roles of philosophy, which his statements seem to imply is not part of scientific education or the practice of science itself as a discipline, but must be cultivated by the individual himself. Walshe observes: "[T]here is not a little in our literature that is inaccurate, slovenly and redundant, and, after all, our literature is but the expression of our thinking," and referring to a critical paper by Lashley and Clark on cortical cytoarchitectonics, he comments:

[T]his body of knowledge is to a grave degree illusory in its apparent precision, is based upon the study of an inadequate number of samples by methods which lack any constant standards of observation and result in conflicts of statement that have gone far too long uncriticised, even, indeed, unnoticed by workers in the field. Cortical cytoarchitectonics may not unfarily be said to have reached a degree of pseudo-precision and unreality unprecedented in neurological science (p. xif)

Given the example of brain mapping Walshe mentions, which I quoted in previous comments, one cannot help wonder if conditions since he wrote his book have really changed significantly, if one juxtaposes the following remarks with those of Hubel and Wiesel which I also quoted:

In certain other problems that have confronted the neurologist it is rather naivety than manifest inaccuracy and slovenliness that our thought and literature from time to time have displayed. For example, the hypothesis that consciousness is to be "located" in the hypothalamus reveals a crude conception of this function that might almost have derived from the animistic mythology of some savage tribe. It appears that the word "consciousness" has but to be uttered, read or heard for us to find ourselves irresistibly entertaining the illusion that some perfectly simple and unitary state is involved. This is at once dubbed an "entity" which we are impelled to "locate" tidily and compactly within some easily definable structure in the brain. In this facile process of anatomizing an abstraction, the hypothalamus finds itself the somewhat unpromising site of this profoundly complex phenomenon, and also the ark within which "centres" of sleep and of wakefulness have been reverently deposited. (p. xii)
Further bemoaning this state of affairs in terms of the "mysterious viability of the false," "repositories of obsolete lumber," "facile allegory," and a "medley of ad hoc hypotheses," Walshe concludes that "[I]t is temping, and a humbling exersise, sometimes to see the humorous side of our interests and activities, and in this mood it is not altogether inapt to say that there are chapters in neurological literature that might justly be styled 'neuromythology'" (p. xiv). But as much as anything, what Walshe has "diagnosed" is just poor or untrained critical reasoning.

That some indeed acknowledge now that there exists something akin to a "Emperor's New Clothes" situation in neuroscience today, there are now commentators who explicitly espouse neurocriticism. Here is an example from a link given on a "Neuroanthropology" blog to a blog entitled "Critique of Neuroscience":

Cornelius Borck, professor for history of medicine and science at Luebeck University, investigated the “neurorevolution” from a historical perspective. The promises for brain researchers were now repeated already for 200 years: Scientists kept repeating over and over again the imminence of a major breakthrough concerning the understanding of human mind, consciousness, and that of mental disorders. By contrast, Borck argued, the “new knowledge” often reproduced what had been known already, referring to the recommendation – recently supported by neuroscience – to teach foreign languages in early childhood. Also the language of brain researchers were noteworthy: Functional magnetic resonance imaging, for example, investigated physiological processes; nevertheless, many studies relying on this method explained their data not in physiological concepts, but in those stemming from everyday life.
What strikes me as very curious, too, is how uncritical most of so-called neurophilosophy is of neuroscience!

Monday, November 22, 2010


(up-dated Nov. 22, 2010)

Post. Entries. date of last entry

Apparent distortions 78 10/18

Evolution of Topology 18 09/14

Qualia & Consciousness 03 10/07

The very basic topology… 12 09/04

Biologico-Teleological… 45 10/26

Seeing is believing… 02 09/18

Space in the Causal Theory… 76 10/15

Structural Isomorphism 29 10/14

Phenomenal Self & VS 12 11/07

Theory of Material Dualism… 38 10/28

Frederick Paulsen… 06 10/12

Brain mechanisms vision 19 11/05

Holographic Model 10 11/04

Disappearence of… 07 11/01

Comments on … 57 11/25

Aldous Huxley 04 11/09

ETB 07 11/27

Mind Body 1 46 11/16

Mind Body 2 06 11/22

Kelvinitis 14 11/22

Friday, November 19, 2010

Kelvinitis in the year 2010

The present state of cosmology and neuroscience has a flavor akin to Lord Kelvin’s famous statement he made in 1900 that “Physics is almost complete.” Cosmologists today tend to believe that all that remains for them to do in their field is to unite relativity and quantum mechanics into a Final Theory of Everything. Almost all neuroscientists believe that they will soon be able give a full theory of consciousness solely in neurophysiological terms. However, these optimists have unfortunately overlooked a number of prominent gaps and errors in current science that have direct relevance to the question of visual space.
The list includes—
—the failure to understand the nature of the difference between physical space and phenomenal space:
—the unconscious assumption that space is necessarily three dimensional (or that space-time is necessarily four-dimensional). This assumption has recently been nibbled at by main-line cosmologists, as in brane theory.
—the failure to replace, in biology and psychology, Newtonian cosmological theory with the Special Theory of Relativity:
—the failure to understand the complex nature of time:
—the assumption, without evidence, in Brane Theory that all branes (parallel universes) must be filled with the same sort of matter as that contained in what cosmologists currently recognize as “the Universe”.
—the mistaken idea that the Identity Theory of mind-brain relations is true, and/or has been shown to be true, and not, as is easily demonstrable, totally false.
—the simultaneous use of two incompatible theories of perception—the representative theory of science and the naïve realism of folk psychology. This leads to complete confusion in the science of perception:
—the failure to understand the difference between the body image, the body schema, and the physical body:
—the widespread use of incorrect terminology throughout neuroscience, such as “The brain thinks”—as Ray and Bill have listed:
—the use by many scientists of pathological skepticism in the evaluation of the data from parapsychology.

Two simple questions will illuminate these gaps in knowledge:
“Where in the phenomenal world that you experience is your physical brain located?”
“Are the sensations that you experience parts of your own organism?”

Mind and Body, Medieval and Modern: part 2

Mind and Body, Medieval and Modern: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas Versus Descartes

by David McGraw

Part II

Saint Thomas Aquinas stood with Augustine on many key points concerning the nature of reality. This includes important points where he stood with Augustine and against Descartes on issues having to do with the specific problems of mind and body. Thus, Aquinas agreed with Augustine that matter sits at the bottom of the hierarchy of the universe. He agreed that a rational creature is superior to a dead body because God gives more to the one than to the other. Aquinas agreed that to be spiritual is to have levels of power and perfection that go beyond what can be captured within matter. He agreed that the human soul comprehends but does not exemplify extension; or rather, the soul exemplifies extension by developing and maintaining the body but not within itself. Aquinas agreed that this is so because the human soul (like God, or an angel) is superior to what does exemplify or display extension within itself. Again, he stood with Augustine against Descartes in affirming the basic division between sense and intellect, with all that this division entails for both the human subject and the nature of reality. For all these reasons, Aquinas stood with Augustine in understanding the situation of mind and body better than Descartes.
However, Augustine agreed with Descartes in speaking of the soul as numerically separate from the body and all its parts, although very differently from the way Descartes understood this thesis. Unhappily, given this separation, there is no way to avoid the enormous, and notorious, challenges that have been brought against Cartesian dualism. This point applies to Augustine's version as well.
These challenges are so severe that the strongest reason for saying materialism is true of the human person may be phrased as a modus tollens argument. "If materialism is not true, then Cartesian dualism is not false. But Cartesian dualism is clearly false and obviously absurd. Therefore, materialism is true." This conclusion does follow, and the criticism of Cartesian dualism is certainly correct. Consequently, materialism is often accepted as the only theoretical framework worth taking seriously.
But there is another possibility. One can deny materialism apart from affirming Cartesian or even Augustinian dualism. Long before Descartes, there was what might be called the theory of the "top down" structure of the human subject. The origins of this theory go back to ancient times. This theory is what Aquinas followed.
This "top down" theory is something like a dualism of attributes within a single substance. But this substance is really more mental than material or corporeal. For it is not correct to say that mental attributes belong to the body. The truth is almost exactly the opposite. This theory is much more like Strawson's idea of the person, with mind and body together, as the primary unit. However, the sort of personalism proposed here has the mind as the dominant factor within the person. To speak in a picturesque metaphor, one could almost say the mind reaches down to include the body, and this complex of mind and body is the human person. Perhaps the chief fault of this metaphor is that the mind does not so much reach down as though it were exercising strength. Instead, it would be better to say that the (human) mind spills down or lapses into matter because of its natural weakness. (The human soul is "weak" as needing to be involved with matter instead of being able to stand alone as a pure spirit.) Thus, this theory is almost like idealism, since the body may be said to be a function of the mind, except that the body is fully real. More properly, this theory is to idealism (more or less) what traditional epiphenomenalism is to materialism. For this reason, one might speak of this theory as "reverse epiphenomenalism," and this theory has been spoken of in this way on this basis.
Thus, Descartes was right to speak of himself as a thinking thing. But whether thinking allows or excludes extension as an attribute is a separate question. The thing that thinks might turn out to be material, or spiritual, or some sort of hybrid. What is proposed here is that the thing that thinks (the “rational substance”) is a kind of hybrid. Intellect and will belong to the inner spirituality of the person, and this inner spirituality is a level or layer within someone that is above the material. On the other hand, the spiritual soul of the human person is also the "organizing and architectonic principle" of the living animal body. The thing (or “substance”) that is the person is then the rational animal as a living being.
This theory may be explicated more fully by going into its historical development. Plato argued against materialism, but he also affirmed full dualism. However, Plato also said that the soul weaves the body around itself. This statement is too clearly metaphorical to be more than merely suggestive as it stands. Then again, one must presumably say that the body is derived from the functioning of the soul instead of having the mental life of the person be developed out of the functioning of the body. If it means anything at all to say the soul weaves the body around itself, it has to mean at least this much. This kind of reverse epiphenomenalism is the third alternative, apart from both materialism and dualism. Plato combined this thesis, that the soul develops and maintains the body, with full dualism. But these theories can be distinguished.
After Plato, Aristotle spoke of the soul as the form of the body. What he meant by this idea may be subject to interpretation. On the other side, Aristotle argued against materialism as regards the thinking mind. If he had said the thinking mind is part of the human individual, then he might be committed to saying the soul develops the body. As it is, what Aristotle believed about the thinking mind may also be subject to interpretation. In any event, Aristotle gave the chief dignity to form over matter. A thing's form is the principal basis for the thing to be what it is and to do what it does. So, Aristotle's answer seems to be that the soul develops the body instead of being derived from the body as an epiphenomenon.
This theory was clearly the answer given by Thomas Aquinas. Like Plato and Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas argued against materialism on the ground that reasoning transcends matter. But he also opposed full dualism. Instead, Saint Thomas said that the soul is the chief active principle within the person. There are intellectual capabilities because there is more to the (human) soul than what is involved in being the organizing and architectonic principle of the body. Abstract thinking belongs to this superior level within the person.
This theory seems to be the best available answer regarding mind and body. One of the strongest reasons in favor of this theory is that it has the most serious advantages of Cartesian dualism, but escapes the four chief objections. This point will be demonstrated by examining each of these four objections in turn.
To begin with, there are two obvious problems concerning individual identity. First of all, there is the problem of individual identity as regards diversity from others. For one must ask in what ways things are differentiated to be numerically separate from each other. As Aquinas pointed out, God is diffferentiated from other things by the very fact that He is infinite and they are finite. Things other than God can be differentiated from each other in some material way, or by differing in kind or species, or perhaps in both ways. (Two dogs differ from each other in virtue of material facts, or material stuff, or both. A dog differs from a cat in kind or species, and that fact would be enough by itself to establish them as separate beings.) That is all.
Along this line, Thomas Aquinas spoke of angels as (created) pure spirits. But in order to do this, he had to say that each angel differs in kind or species from every other angel. Only in this way can one angel be numerically diverse from another. An angel is created and so is not God. Since angels have no material stuff in them, and no material restrictions upon them, there is only the difference in kind or species to make them separate from each other.
Now, if the human mind were truly a separate substance from the body, it would presumably be a pure spirit in the manner of an angel. So, if there were to be a multitude of separate human minds, then they would all have to differ in kind or species from each other. But in fact, the available evidence points very strongly in the opposite direction. Therefore, the evidence is clearly against dualism.
On the other hand, this argument fails to reach the kind of "top down" personalism proposed here in anything like the same way. A human person is a sort of material substance, even though it is also much more than this. Thus, a human person is fully subject to multiplicity within the same species, like any other animal but unlike an angel.
Second, there is a problem of individual identity as regards continuity through time. What happens when someone falls into a deep coma, so that there is no mental life at all going on inside the person? A dualist must either insist that mental life does not fully cease even in deep coma or admit that the person's life has lapsed in such cases. Either of these answers is at least seriously questionable given the available evidence.
For Aquinas, the answer is clear enough. Mental dispositions can exist apart from being exercised, just like any other dispositions. (For example, a man can be intelligent even when he is not thinking, just as a lump of salt or sugar can be soluable when it is not presently being dissolved.) Even if the person “could not be” restored to having mental life, this would show only that the impediments to natural functioning could not be removed by the available healing arts. The person would still exist as a rational substance. Moreover, it would be false to say that the person is then a substance with no qualities or events actually present. So long as there is bodily life, the qualities that arise out of bodily functioning belong to the person, since the nature of the distinctively human person includes the body. These bodily qualities and events are enough for the life of the person to continue as something actually occurrent.
To be sure, this second problem weighs much less heavily on Augustine than it does on Descartes. The reason is that Augustine was much more concerned than Descartes to affirm that the soul develops and maintains the body. Therefore, Augustine could stand with Aquinas and say that, in such cases, the soul is still exercising vital functioning over the body, even though no mental life is presently being exercised.
Third, there is the problem about how the mind of a human person works. Once again, if the human mind were truly a separate substance from the body, it would presumably be a pure spirit in the manner of an angel. In that case, the mental life of a human person would presumably be free from any weaknesses or limitations derived from matter. But this is clearly false. Moreover, such weaknesses and limitations, so far from being externally imposed on the mind, appear to derive from the inner nature of the mind. Furthermore, these restrictions seem to reach even those distinctive operations of intellect and will with the strongest claim to transcend matter. Thus, once again, full dualism appears contrary to the available evidence.
On the other hand, the theory proposed here is fully compatible with all this evidence. A human person looks very much like an animal with some distinctively spiritual capabilities laid on top of its nature as an animal. The reason is that this is what a human person is in fact. Intellect and will exist only in conjunction with the person's nature as an animal, even though they transcend this nature. For this reason, abstract thinking and deliberate choice occur only within the context defined by someone's life as an animal (where this life is taken to include imagination and emotion as well as sensory perception). All this remains so even though these activities are ultimately irreducible to any kind of purely animal functioning.
What this involves can be illustrated from the specific concerns over visual experience. Aquinas agreed with Augustine that the soul to which intellect and will belong is the same soul that animates the body. They agreed also that the soul is nonspatial, albeit as transcending spatial restrictions and not as lacking anything. But then it seems mysterious how the soul can accommodate the vast spaces that show up in visual experience. Augustine answered that this is so because of the soul's superior power. Aquinas would (almost) agree, but in a different way.
Saint Thomas considered that, properly speaking, it is the human person to which mental life belongs, rather than the soul as such. Along this line, the soul's superior power allows the spaces that show up in visual experience to be accommodated by establishing and holding the body as an integral part of the person. Insofar as something literally spatial is needed to accomodate these spaces, this something is present, and it is the body of the person. Sensory experience (visual or otherwise) is a function of the body, just as abstract thinking and deliberate choice are functions of the spiritual soul. But since body and soul together make up the human person as a single unit, these functions are combined to make up the mental life of the person as something unified.
What if it were to be proposed that the soul itself is literally spatial? The answer to this proposal involves going back and considering a prior question. Why should one affirm any soul in the first place, instead of just attributing mental life to the body? One answer is that self aware consciousness seems to require something deeply unified as the subject to which it belongs, and the body is not sufficiently unified. Descartes seems to have been right about this. But then the soul cannot itself be spread out in the same way as the body, or there would be the same problem all over again. This "top down" theory provides for Descartes's insight but avoids the problem about experiencing space.
Fourth, and most notorious, there is the problem about interaction. Even if there could be a separate human mind with the required attributes, one would still have to ask how it is related to the body. Since mind and body are supposed to be fully constituted substances, they would have to interact causally. No mechanism for such interaction is even minimally plausible. However, the basic problem is far deeper than this. The problem is that the theory turns out to be demonstrably incoherent as regards the body. For the body has to be a fully constituted substance, and yet it must be naturally ordered to receive causal influence from the mind. This influence appears not to be externally imposed on the body: it appears instead to fit right into the functioning of the body. Thus, the functioning of the body must be profoundly incomplete in some way to make room for this influence. But this result is contrary to the claim that the body is a fully constituted substance.
On the other hand, this evidence may even support the theory proposed here, for the body is not claimed to be a fully constituted substance within itself. Instead, the soul is the organizing principle of the body. The mental life of the human person can govern bodily activity by influencing how bodily processes are organized. There remains some question about the mechanism, but the basic problem of conceptual logic is eliminated.
Yet the body seems to be fully organized within itself as a material system. No spiritual activity appears to be required for the body to be what it is and do what it does as a body.
The answer to this objection depends on observing a fine distinction. The human body is organized within itself in the sense that the material system works out on its own terms as a material system. However, the body exists as a unified whole only because it is the body of some living person. The soul is the organizing and architectonic principle of the body, but not as though the body needed some magical glue to hold it together. Instead, the body is deeply unified and integrated as a living thing, instead of being a mere machine. The body is a unified whole in virtue of being alive. But the body is animated with the distinctive life of a person. Thus, the basis for the human body to exist and operate as a whole also includes capabilities that go above and beyond what belongs to the functioning of material things as material. It is in this way that the soul acts as the form of the body.
Will this answer work out? Paradoxically, it can be made to stand if materialism can avoid being absurd on its face. Any sophisticated materialism has to allow higher animals, and especially human subjects, to be more than machines. For mechanism cannot contain or support the mental life of a dog or a cat, let alone that of a man or a woman. The obvious answer is that all these are living beings instead of mere machines. But then this point about the advantage of being alive cuts both ways. Different types of beings may be alive in different modes and have various capabilities on that basis. In the case of the human subject, the mode in which the animal is alive turns out to be exalted enough to allow for even distinctively spiritual functioning. That is all. "Top down" personalism is vindicated on this basis.
Along this line, there is no substitution within the human person of spiritual activity for material functioning of the body. What has to be understood here is that the idea of "top down" structure is taken very seriously as regards the human person and indeed the nature of reality as a whole. Lower levels work out correctly on their own terms as far as may be, and higher levels work by means of lower levels as far as may be. In the present case, intellect and will cannot be wholly reduced to, or constructed from, the lower levels of the human person. (That is what it is for these faculties to transcend those lower levels.) But still, intellect and will work largely by means of emotion, imagination, sensory perception, et cetera. (A man may implement or promote the functioning of his intellect and will by imposing discipline on these subordinate functions, in terms of forming pictures in his mind, directing or calming his feelings, and so on.) Again, the work of imagination, et cetera, is accomplished by means of complex patterns and processes of neural functioning, and this functioning is accomplished by means of low level metabolism, and this metabolism works by means of "nitty gritty" electrochemistry, and so on right down to the underlying quantum physics (or whatever the truth turns out to be). At no point is there any substitution of higher level functioning for that of the lower level.
Given all this, one of the strongest arguments for materialism is easily answered. Yes, of course the activities of intellect and will are strongly correlated with neural electrochemistry. Since the higher levels of the person work by means of the lower levels as far as may be, what these higher levels do or fail to do will be largely influenced by what does or does not happen on the lower levels. Similarly, what the craftsman does or fails to do will be largely influenced by what does or does not happen to his tools. But even so, the craftsman is clearly superior to his tools. So here in like manner, intellect and will are superior to neural electrochemistry.
Then again, Saint Thomas can give this answer. What Descartes can say is much more problematic.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mind and Body, Medieval and Modern: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas Versus Descartes

by David McGraw

Part I

In order to examine rightly whether materialism is true of the human person, one must first understand what is at stake and what alternatives there may be. In this age of Western philosophical history, that point entails that one must begin by resolving some of the errors and confusions derived from Rene Descartes. Like his predecessors, Descartes said materialism is not true of the human person, but what he meant be this denial turns out to be seriously different from what they meant.
Descartes thought of himself as a "second Augustine." In fact, the comparison of Descartes with Augustine shows rather clearly where they differ and where Descartes went wrong.
Saint Augustine exalted number as the principle of material things. Indeed, in one way, Augustine would almost be willing to agree to the thesis that material objects have only mathematical attributes, but not in the way Descartes imagined. The exact difference between them on this point is the heart of the dispute.
Augustine accepted and used Aristotle's analysis of material objects when it served his purposes, but his basic framework was Platonic or Neoplatonic. This comes out clearly in his analysis of how matter is informed. Divine wisdom is the principle of cosmic order. A dead body partakes of Divine wisdom only in the least and lowest measure. Because of this, the dead body has only number but not life or reason. In this way, and in this way only, Augustine would almost agree that material things have only mathematical attributes. Bodies have nothing more than number, measure, and weight only as being comparatively weak and shadowy on this basis.
Again, God creates matter and so must in some way contain material attributes within Himself. But He contains these attributes only by comprehending them within His knowledge and power, not by exemplifying or displaying them within His own nature. Mathematical attributes are not aspects of the Divine nature, and they are not a spillover or overfolw from the Divine nature, for there is no spillover or overflow. There is creation. God makes there be things that are not Himself and that receive from Him.
Augustine proclaimed all this, and Descartes would say he affirmed it. But Descartes did not follow out the consequence. A rational creature is superior to a dead body because God gives more to the one that to the other, and the same God is giving in both cases, although in different measures. Thus, when a created spirit does not have various mathematical attributes, this is not because it lacks something that matter has. It is rather that a created spirirt is so richly powerful by nature as to transcend the whole order of material being, including the attributes proper to material things.
The same God gives existence and attributes to both soul and body. This point is critically important. Augustine considered that matter sits at the bottom of the hierarchy of the universe. But Descartes was really denying that there is any hierarchy of the universe. Matter has the mathematical attributes, but the soul does not. Thus, they belong to different orders of being. Plato and Augustine might have to argue about whether matter is too weak and shadowy to contain or support mental life. But for Descartes, such life is simply irrelevant to matter. Mental life belongs to the soul instead of the body because the soul is the right kind of thing, and the body is the wrong kind of thing, to have these functions. So, if matter may be said to be weak, this is not because it is lacking compared to the soul. It is only because matter does not share in any law or structure that makes the connection of soul and body possible. Descartes strips down matter, but chiefly because he strips down the whole universe by denying such laws and structures.
Along this line, Descartes did not really share Augustine's strict opposition to materialism, although he would say he did. Descartes agreed with Augustine that God is totally immaterial and incorporeal. However, the concept of being purely spiritual did not mean to Descartes what it meant to his predecessors. His concept was negative in the wrong way.
The old positive concept is of levels of power and perfection that cannot be captured within matter. A pure spirit is unextended, but not because it lacks anything. Rather, it is not limited by space. Thus, God "virtually" contains attributes that He does not display. Somewhat analogously, the human soul comprehends but does not exemplify extension. More properly, the soul exemplifies extension by developing and maintaining the body, but not within itself. Descartes may have thought in these terms about God, but he did not think this way about the soul. But Augustine thought this way about both God and the soul.
On this basis, it is almost as if Descartes did not really think materialism is false of the human person after all. The reason is that the soul cannot rightly be said to be superior to the body, since the inner functioning of the soul belongs to a different order of being from the life of the body. It is almost as if the soul exercises mental life instead of developing and maintaining the body. On the other side, Augustine was very clear that the soul to which mental life belongs is the same soul that animates the body.
Yet Augustine agreed with Descartes that the human soul is numerically separate from the body and all its parts. Once again, however, the soul is separate from the body as superior to the body. It is not as though body and soul were beings of different orders that had to be magically joined at the pineal gland.
Then again, perhaps the challenge is to know what may be involved in transcending the whole order of material being in this way. In fact, Augustine himself found this hard to understand. His breakthrough came when he read the books of the "Platonists." Now, Plato was concerned with the fact of reasoning, and there is an obvious way in which reasoning involves going beyond material limitations. Given this, one can then think of things with this capability as belonging to some superior order of being (which is what Plato did in contemplating the soul).
In what way does reasoning go beyond material limitations? One who reasons is concerned with abstract principles that apply generally. (For instance, a veterinarian may think abstractly about dogs in general.) These principles apply fully and undividedly to each of a multitude of things. (The whole of what the veterinarian knows about dogs applies in its totality to each of Fido, and Rover, and Spot, and so on.) On the other side, the concrete example is just that, an example of the principles it embodies. (The veterinarian is aware of the particular dog Sparky as a given instance of what he knows.) Again, one who reasons can cut across time and space to contemplate the events and situations of remote ages and remote regions. (An astronomer does this in thinking about galaxies long ago and far away.) Indeed, reasoning involves latching onto principles that stand fast forever, beyond time and change. (Mathematics is an obvious illustration of this.) Through reasoning, one can go beyond the limits even of actual reality to be concerned with hypothetical cases. (A scientist can think about would result if such and such were to happen.) On all these points, one who reasons reaches beyond the limitations of the material.
What must be noted here is that, in view of all these considerations, knowledge based on reasoning is also superior to knowledge based on observing through the senses. Unhappily, Descartes lumped together intellectual functioning and sensory experience as mental, in contradistinction to the material. In doing this, he ended up downgrading the traditional division between sense and intellect. This error was cirtical. For sensory experience does not have these benefits, and so it stands with the material, across the great divide from intellectual functioning. Therefore, one who stands within the tradition derived from Descartes may well find the idea of spirit as superior to matter hard to understand, for he has lost sight of the principal manifestation of this superiority in ordinary human experience.
With all these considerations in view, one may go back and examine whether materialism is true of the human person. Perhaps the first thing to note is that the modern version of the problem about mind and body is not the version that was important in earlier centuries. A philosopher concerned with the modern problem will answer crude versions of materialism by saying these theories cannot account for the mental life of a dog or a cat, let alone that of a man or a woman. This answer, however, is clearly not relevant to the problem as Plato understood it. Plato argued that the soul is not merely a function or combination of bodily processes, for it can exercise effective control over animal appetites. This reply belongs to a different world from that of the modern version.
In earlier centuries, it was considered that the material world is reasonably rich, as opposed to being stripped down in the manner of Descartes. The question was whether, given this, the human subject must then include some level or layer above the material. Plato said yes, as did Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. They said this because they believed (1) the distinctive functions of intellect and will reach above the material and (2) these functions cannot really be constructed from lower level processes.Whether all this is correct or not, these thimkers at least asked the right questions more than those who follow Descartes.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Evolutionary Theory of Being (ETB)


Lothar Kleine-Horst

My contribution to this discussion forum will predominantly be to present my "Empiristic theory of visual gestalt perception" (ETVG) and discuss it by comparing it to other theories of visual perception. But since the ETVG is an integrated part of a higher order theory, the "Evolutionary theory of Being" (ETB), it can not really be understood without being related to this supertheory. So I am going to present the ETB before presenting the ETVG. Unexpected and far-reaching conclusions for visual perception, for example, can be drawn from the ETB.

The "Theory of Man" is a theory of Being as well, as it describes the structure of Being in which evolution of "all that is" happens, and Man is the highest "thing" created by the evolution. This theory is a part of a bookchapter (KH 2008, 2010) and also to find with its URL:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Aldous Huxley on Secondary Qualities

In his Doors of Perception Aldous Huxley makes a most interesting comment about a fundamental shift that seems to occur in visual consciousness under the influence of the "psychedelic" drug, Mescalin:

Mescalin raises all colors to a higher power and makes the percipient aware of innumerable fine shades of difference, to which, at ordinary times, he is completely blind. It would seem that, for Mind at Large, the so-called secondary characters of things are primary. Unlike Locke, it evidently feels that colors are more important, better worth attending to, than masses, positions and dimensions (p. 27).

What intrigues me about his remarks is that by this alteration in color, attention is drawn to color and drawn away from the "primary qualities" of VS. I have already argued that even in ordinary VS, it is literally color that is primary, not the quantitative or quantifiable magnitudes that it contains by virtue of the juxtaposition of different colors, because without the color, there is no VS at all (and by "color" I am including black and white). There are no lines, no surfaces, no shapes--in short, no geometry!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Comments on “Why the Mind is not a Computer” by Raymond Tallis

1. I strongly agree with the aim of this book, which is to combat, by reaching the truth, the destructive effects of neurophilosophy and the Identity Theory (IT) on human freedom, dignity and behaviour. Tallis starts with an excellent deconstruction of the neurobabble that dominates so much present day discussion in the area of brain and consciousness (vide Frege, and Ryle, and later Dennett, Chalmers, Blakemore, Carter, etc.). His principle diagnosis is that these “science-cringers” (what a marvelous term!) believe that people are machines. They also attribute to the brain properties and activities that properly belong to the person whose brain it is. In particular he claims that the brain does not compute—people compute. Computers do not compute either—they are merely accessories to the people that program and use them. He also rejects the Identity theory and says that certain brain activities are necessary but not necessary and sufficient conditions for “ordinary consciousness and behaviour” (p. 29). He puts it thus: “To see people as machines—genetically determined or programmable—is no light matter…Neurophilosophy is simply wrong about human beings and their place in—and outside of—nature.”
He equates, provisionally, neurophilosophy with scientism and quotes Tzvetan Todorov, who linked scientism with the development of Nazi and Stalinist ideology. Tallis qualifies this by saying that we should perhaps not take scientism in a healthy society too seriously—“or perhaps we should”. He suggests that only in a society sick for other reasons does scientism leads to wickedness. On this point, I suggest, one needs to read John Cornwell’s book “Hitler’s Scientists” which will soon incline us to leave out any ‘perhaps’ in our estimation of the potential evils of scientism given the frailty of human beings.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Disappearance of Appearance

Raymond Tallis, M.D.

It is [Bishop] Berkeley’s merit to have realised that the Cartesian/Newtonian philosophers, seeking to account for a seeable world, succeeded only in substituting a world that could in no sense be seen. He realised that they had substituted a theory of optics for a theory of visual perception.

--L Susan Stebbing

3.6 Why There Can Never Be a Brain Science of Consciousness: The Disappearance of Appearance

There are many other aspects of consciousness that elude any kind of conceptually coherent explanation. For example, it is not clear how, within the population of nerve impulses, we could find the basis for the absolutely fundamental difference between the level of consciousness (alert v drowsy v comatose) and its content; between background lighting and that which is lit. And what about the active directing of attention or racking one’s brains to remember something? But I won’t pursue these problems because I think I have already given enough reasons for maintaining that not only are neural explanations inadequate but they are wrong in principle and their current inadequacy won’t be amended by technological advances enabling ever more complete accounts of what is going on the brain. These, however, are only symptoms of a fundamental contradiction in neural theories of consciousness that I want to discuss now. The contradiction vitiates the very idea that certain material events in the brain could make the world around the organism or (in the case of human beings) the person appear to that organism or that person. The materialist account of mind requires us to confer on brain events properties that actually run contrary to the physical notion the matter of which they are formed.

Let us go back to what Daniel Dennett (accurately, I believe) calls ‘the contemporary orthodoxy’ in a passage quoted in Section 1.2:

There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of physics, chemistry and physiology – and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain… We can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition and growth. 62

This, the clearest possible statement of the metaphysical framework of Neuromania, shows why it is a castle built on sand. Once we look past the relentless personification of the brain and bits of the brain indulged in by neuromaniacs – to be discussed in Chapter 5 – we will see that Neuromania has to look for consciousness in material events (neural activity), located in a material object (the brain) while holding that the final truth of material events and material objects is captured in the laws of physics. The trouble with physical science, however, is that it is committed to seeing the world in the absence of consciousness; indeed, at its heart is the disappearance of appearance. This presents not one but three insuperable problems for Neuromania. They are inextricably connected but it is helpful to address them separately: the first concerns the nature of nerve impulses; the second concerns the things nerve impulses are supposed to make appear; and the third relates to the supposed capability of nerve impulses to make those things appear.

Nerve Impulses Don’t Have Definite Appearances.

Let us get back to basics. If I claimed that consciousness was identical with neural activity, then you might reasonably assume that I had a clear idea what I meant by ‘neural activity’. We have already seen that there are serious ambiguities in this concept which leaves it unclear how we should think of what goes on in those parts of the brain that are supposedly associated with subjective experience. Is ‘neural activity’ something that is delivered to a certain place in the brain? Or is it the sum total of what is happening in several places of the brain? If so, where is the summing and the totalling taking place? Does consciousness reside in the travelling of nerve impulses along neurons or its arrival at a synapse? These questions invite a closer look at what we think a nerve impulse is. In trying to think about this we run into an immediate difficult, one that we glossed over in chapter 1, when we described nerve impulses: that of trying to get clear about what a nerve impulse is in itself.

You may think that that had been spelled out in (fairly pitiless) detail in Chapter 1. It will be noticed, however, that the nerve impulse could be described in different ways. Here are some:

a) the instantaneous passage of sodium and other ions through the semi-permeable membrane that surrounds the axon of the nerve fibre leading to an alteration in the potential difference across the membrane at the point of passage;

b) a pattern of events taking place at a particular point on the membrane that occurs over a time of the order of milliseconds and is represented by a wave or a spike traced on an oscilloscope screen – in other words, the sum total of the changes in the potential difference across the membrane;

c) the overall journey of the wave along the length of the nerve axon – a propagated displacement of the alterations in the potential difference along the length of the axon – a displacement of a displacement;

d) a part of a summed total of many millions of nerve impulses as seen on an EEG or inferred from an fMRI scan.

Since the nerve impulse may be represented with equal validity as being any of these thing, it is intrinsically none of them. The properties that are ascribed to them – being a passage of ions at a particular place, being a wave at a point on the axon, waves, being the journey of a travelling wave (and by this means binding together different places in the brain), or adding up to macroscopically visible activity occupying certain quantities of brain tissue at a certain intensity – are observer-dependent.

To put it slightly differently, there are different ‘takes’ on a nerve impulse. It could be seen as an influx of sodium ions at a particular point in the neuron followed by an efflux of said ions. Or as a change of the potential difference between the inside and the outside of the membrane at a particular place. Or as a succession of events, lasting about a millisecond, at a particular point in the neuron. Or as a wave of activity at that point. Or as a wave moving along the neuron. Or as a wave arriving rather than travelling. Or as one of a crowd of waves, several thousand, several million or several billion strong, occurring in a particular place in the brain. There are many other candidates – for example patches of coloured pixels in brain scans or brain maps. But I hope the point will have been made: the appearance of a nerve impulse depends on how it is looked at. It is not in itself a local passage of sodium ions or in itself part of a billion-strong crowd of waves, otherwise it would have to be both of these at the same time.

And it is not just a matter of how the impulse appears. What a nerve impulse is depends upon how it is viewed. A micro-pipette recording from a single neuron will deliver a different account of a nerve impulse compared with an EEG recording large-scale activity through the skull. Or, to draw the conclusion that should be blindingly obvious to anyone who is not ideologically wedded to Neuromania, the nerve impulse does not have any intrinsic determinate appearance or character. It depends how it is looked at, on how it is teased apart or put together. We are deceived if we think that scientific instruments reveal what it looks like ‘in itself’. It is easy to overlook this when we confuse the representation(s) of the nerve impulse with the thing in itself. We are less likely to do so if we remind ourselves that there are many competing ways of representing a nerve impulse. Some of these representations see the impulse as extended over time – as for example when it is envisaged as propagating along the length of the neuron. Temporal depth, as we have just discussed, is not to be found in matter – or in material events such as nerve impulses. The nerve impulse requires a viewpoint (provided by a highly mediated consciousness involving sophisticated scientific instrumentation) to be either an instantaneous displacement in potential difference at a particular point in space and time; or a spike extended over a short time at particular place; or a spike moving over space and time; or a member of a crowd of spikes moving over space and time and spreading over space and building up over time.

Anyone who still thinks that neural activity has an intrinsic appearance that is independent of observers might want to reflect on this final twist. Some of the ways we may represent nerve impulses to ourselves can be analysed into two or more takes that correspond to incompatible viewpoints. For example, seeing the impulse as a travelling spike requires a observation over time at a particular place (this generates the image of the spike) and observation at successive places.

Material Objects Do Not Have (Phenomenal) Appearances When Viewed Through the Eyes of Physics.

Nerve impulses are not uniquely impoverished in having no intrinsic appearances. This lack of intrinsic appearance is evident throughout the material world as seen through the eyes of physical science. This was noted early in the history of modern science. Galileo - and subsequently philosophers such as Descartes and John Locke – marginalised most of the things that make up the appearance of material objects as being (mere) ‘secondary qualities’. Colours, tastes, smells, sounds and so on exist only where there are observers and they do not correspond to what, according to physical science, is objectively there. As Galileo said, ‘If living creatures were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated’ 63. The material world has only primary qualities such as solidity, extension, motion, number and shape. These by themselves would not, however, amount to a full-blown appearance. You couldn’t imagine an object without a colour (and ‘colour’ here includes black and white). Primary qualities by themselves don’t really amount to much. An object such as a cup reduced to its primary qualities would not only lack colour etc but also features such as being near or far, looking small or large, and being related to this object rather than that. Indeed, it would boil down to naked numbers which capture (abstracted) figure, motion, size and so on. This is what lies behind Galileo’s famous assertion that the book of nature is written in mathematical language. One manifestation of this view is connected with the centrality of measurement in science and the reduction of the phenomenal world to numerical quantities and the unfolding of events to the relationships between quantities, ultimately expressed in equations. The output of measurement is a number - of abstract units, or patterns of numbers of abstract units or general laws connecting numbers of abstract units.

Let’s illustrate what happens when we progress from immediate (subjective) experience to (objective) measurement with a simple example. Imagine you and are looking at a table. Because we are looking at it from different angles, it seems square to you and oblong to me and I think it is bigger than another table and you think it is smaller. We decide to settle our disagreement by making a measurement and discover that it is 3 feet by 2 feet. End of argument; but also end of the appearance of the table. It is no longer ‘square’-looking or ‘oblong’-looking. It has no secondary qualities and it lacks position and relationship to us. We have replaced its appearance by two numbers. You might want to argue that there is a residue of appearance: the appearances that are necessary to make the measurement; for example the appearance of the ruler next to the table. But of course, these appearances set aside once we have the result: ‘2 foot by 3 foot’ gives no hint of the appearance of the devices (the tape measure or ruler) by which the measurement was made or of the processes which led up to the measurement. They are as irrelevant as the quarrel we had over which side of the tape measure to use. And the actual appearance of the measurement as written down - ‘2 foot by 3 foot’ - is equally irrelevant. It would not matter whether the result was written in blue ink or black, was written as “2’ by 3’” or “2 foot by 3 foot” or “Two foot by three foot” or whether it was spoken or presented on a screen.64

We seem, therefore, to have a disappearance of appearance as we move from subjective experience towards the scientific, quantitative and ultimately mathematical account of the world as matter. This loss of appearance is strikingly illustrated by those great equations that encompass the sum total of appearances such as “e=mc2” . But is also present at a more homely level when we try to envisage material objects as they are in themselves. Think of a rock. I can look at the rock from the front or from the back, from above or below, from near or far, in bright light or dim. In each of an (innumerable) range of possible circumstances it will have a slightly or radically different appearance. In itself, it has no definite appearance: it simple offers the possibility of an appearance to a potential observer. (Though those possibilities are constrained – the rock cannot look like a bowl of custard.) So we can see that, as we get closer to the material world ‘in-itself’, as a piece of matter, so we lose appearances – colour, nearness or farness, perspective. (The history of science, which is progress towards greater generalisation is a gradual shedding of perspective – a journey towards that Thomas Nagel described as ‘a view from nowhere’.) You might want to say, it still has primary qualities. Weight, size, shape may exist independently of any consciousness, as is evident from the fact that the rock may have an impact irrespective of any perceiver. It may provide shelter to grass, stop the dampness in the soil underneath it from drying out so quickly, arrest the path of another rock rolling down the hill, cast shadows and so on. Primary qualities, however, do not add up to an appearance. A rock does not have the wherewithal to generate the way it would appear in consciousness – even less from ‘from a long way off’ or ‘from close to’. It is, of course, potentially all of these things but the potential will not be realised unless the rock is observed. If those appearances were intrinsic rather than merely potential, if they were in the rock itself, then it would be in conflict with itself, trying, for example, to look as it does from far off and from nearby at the same time. Like the nerve impulse, the rock – or indeed any other material object considered in the absence of an observer, as matter - does not have an appearance. Such appearances as material objects do have are the ‘takes’ that external observers – or an entire community of scientific observers coming to a conclusion about the way of representing impulses – have on them. While the objects provides certain constraints on ‘takes’, it does not of itself deliver takes; ‘takes’ require consciousness; indeed, consciousness is made up of takes. Material objects as viewed by physics ‘in themselves’, as matter, have no appearances. The very notion of a complete account of the world in physical terms is of a world without appearance, a world without consciousness.

Nothing in (Appearanceless) Nerve Impulses Suggests that Have the Ability to Make Appearanceless Material Things Have Phenomenal Appearances.

So far we have arrived at two conclusions: firstly, nerve impulses do not have definite appearances or character in themselves; and, secondly, they share this lack with all material items when the latter are considered independently of an observer, most obviously when see them through the mathematical eyes of physics. We are now in a position to see the inherent contradiction of trying to find consciousness in nerve impulses or, more broadly, to see consciousness as a property arising out of certain events in the material world. Consciousness is, at the basic level, appearances or appearings-to but neither nerve impulses nor the material world have appearances. So there is absolutely no basis for the assumption, central to Neuromania, that the intrinsically appearance-less material world will flower into appearance to a bit of that world (the brain) simply because of the particular material properties of that bit of the world – for example its ability to allow the passage of sodium ions through semi-permeable membranes. We cannot expect to find anything in a material object, however fashioned, that can capture the difference between a thought and a pebble, or between a supposedly thoughtful brain and a definitely thoughtless kidney. And there is even more obviously nothing in the difference between a spinal cord and a cerebral cortex to explain why the former should be thoughtless and the latter (in parts) thoughtful. The idea that nerve impulses can journey towards a place where they are consciousness implies that, by moving from one material place to another, they become able to be the appearance of things other than themselves, is nothing short of barmy. If this is physics, it is not as we know it, Jim!

The difficulty of seeing how nerve impulses confer appearance upon the material world has led some to suggest that we do not experience the world as such, only nerve impulses. But what we have said already knocks on the head this ‘last ditch’ position which, as it were, tucks consciousness back into the neural activity, making it as it were be ‘of itself’. Iain McGilchrist, whose extraordinary The Master and His Emissary represents Neuromania at its most extreme, asserts that ‘one could call “the mind” the brain’s experience of itself’ 65 and many others have suggested that consciousness is our perception of some physical processes in the brain. In short, that consciousness and appearance are made of the appearance of nerve impulses to themselves! Leaving aside the fact that nerve impulses do not have a definite appearance apart from a viewpoint which has a certain take on them, there is no reason why they should be riddled with self-awareness that is, mysteriously, awareness of the material world that is their immediate and remote cause. 66

The science within which neuroscience is framed is ultimately physical science that sees both the observed object and the brain as material entities. Matter itself, by definition, ex officio as it were, does not have an appearance corresponding to the kind of things we experience in consciousness. No more does energy. There is nothing in either corresponding to my seeing my red hat. The light-mediated rubbing together of an appearance-less object (my brain) with appearance-less light arising from an appearance-less object (my hat) is hardly going to explain the appearance of my hat to me, the owner of the brain, even less my sense that the hat is independent of me (a foundational intuition of physics) or that it has the potential to yield an infinity of other different appearances (the foundational intuition of the public world we humans live in). If the end-point of physics is the disappearance of appearance, it is impossible to see how there can be a physical explanation of the appearance of appearance.

So, the neural theory of consciousness is at odds with the very notion of matter that lies at the heart of the ‘orthodoxy’ – to use Dennett’s word – that underpins it. The ordinary concept of matter has its roots in the intuition that, while matter is ultimately revealed though sense perception, through intentionality, the material objects we perceive have an existence beyond the experiences we have of them. What objects are in themselves is disconnected from appearances. This becomes increasingly evident as the fundamental scientific idea of things being composed of ‘matter’ (or matter and energy) is elaborated. The objects that surround us are analysed as elementary particles that are remote from the phenomenal world experienced and lived in by conscious beings. As the scientific gaze goes beyond ordinary objects, perceived in the ordinary way, to their underlying material reality, so it progresses from things that have qualities to things that are characterised by numbers. It is not by accident that atoms are colourless, odourless etc and are defined by numbers that capture their size, speed and quantities. Experiences and experienced phenomena are replaced by numbers, patterns, and laws. There is a progressive disappearance of appearance.

Further empirical research within the current way of understanding the problem will not take us any closer to a neural explanation of consciousness. What is needed is a revolution in the way in which we approach the problem. This may require us to see that it is more than a problem. Or even, to use the standard term applied to phenomenal consciousness, ‘a hard problem’. It is a mystery.

Notes and References

62. Daniel C. Dennet Consciousness Explained (London: Penguin Books, 1991).

63. Galileo Galilei The Assayer published 1623

64. The idea that we get closer to the essence of something as we progressively abstract from it toward mathematics most certainly does not apply to consciousness. This does not stop Neuromaniacs such as Paul Churchland suggesting that sensations really boil down to spiking frequencies in different vector spaces of the brain. See Matter and Consciousness Revised edition (Bradford Book: MIT Press, Cambridge Mass 1988).

65. Iain McGilchrist The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009) p.19. Indeed, this ‘solution’ makes things worse for the neural theory of consciousness. Consider my consciousness of this rock in front of me. There is no such thing (within the rock) as what it is like to be that rock. And there is no such thing as what it is like to be my body qua organism. And there is no such thing as what it is like to be my brain understood as a material object. The McGilchrist version of the neural theory requires all three things, if I am to be aware of a rock. Most mysteriously, it requires that ‘what it is like to be a brain’ should be the revelation of what it is like to be a body and what a rock is like.


N.B. The above chapter is from Dr. Tallis's forthcoming book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Holographic model of human memory and tridimensionality of the space of perception

Simon Berkovich
Department of Computer Science
The George Washington University

1. A hypothesis that human memory operates on the principles of holography had been put forward by K. Pribram [1]. This hypothesis has been investigated, elaborated, and discussed in numerous publications [2,3,4,5]. As said in [5], without this idea “there had been a total absence of even the prospects of general theory of biological memory”.

The reason for the high regard of holography is that, apparently, it offers the only known method for distributed representation of information corresponding to the functionality of the brain. The two basic paradoxical facts about human memory are well interpreted by means of the properties of the holograms (see Fig. 1):

- Like a hologram, human memory, as observed in classical works of K. Lashley [6], does not keep information in a particular location; and in both cases, the entire information contents can be recovered from a piece of the whole structure.

- With holography it is possible to recognize partially matching patterns invariant to certain distortions; this provides the most important feature of human memory - associative access.

Fig. 1
The principle of holography – partial match recall
Light pulses from a laser are split into two beams: a reference beam going
straightly and a signal beam going through an object. The two beams meet at
the recording medium producing an interference pattern – a hologram. For
another object the same can be done with a reference beam at a different angle.
As the recording medium is irradiated by a signal beam from a part of an object

the corresponding reference beam, feasibly with lesser intensity, is recreated

2. In holography, the dimensionality of informational structures is determined by the restrictions on the wave propagation patterns. There are two basic types of wave propagation (Fig. 2): (a) waves can keep the whole medium behind agitated, for example, this happens on water surfaces; or, (b) waves can move with a sharp front leaving the media behind quiet, for example, this is the case for electromagnetic waves. The latter situation occurs in accordance with the so-called Huygens’ principle when the propagating front is created by secondary waves.

It has been noticed in [7] that holography can be effectively implemented only with the second type of wave propagation because for the first type of wave propagation the region of waves interference is extensive. It turns out that in a strict sense Huygens' principle is efficacious only in a 3D space [8]. As a result, a holographic model of human memory can directly manipulate only with 2D structures. Perception of 3D objects is done through temporal sequences of the 2D cross-sections. As to the objects of higher dimensions, their effectual representation in the holographic memory is not possible [7]. This implies that for the developed model the interface between the memory and the brain has to operate with 2D segments.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

3. To begin with, a holographic mechanism needs a source of coherent waves to implement the scheme in

Fig. 1. Apparently, in conventional science a source of waves for holography is not at hand neither for the brain, nor for the cosmos. Importantly, in the words of Karl Pribram, “holography does not like boundaries”.

The fascination with holography has been also extended towards the Universe where the properties of holography are applied to rationalize the weirdness of quantum mechanics. To explicate the key point of non-locality David Bohm introduced a concept, which he called “implicate” or “enfolded” order; the holography is attracted just as analogy showing that the whole world can be enfolded in each of its parts [4].

Processing in neuronal system coordinates activities in different brain areas. Vision system produces 2D patterns; other senses mainly produce 1D sequences signals. Access to holographic memory is done by 2D patterns, so to enable access to the memory by 1D inputs it is necessary to have serial-to-parallel conversion providing 2D patterns. As a result, inputs from various senses can be accommodated and cross searches between them become possible.

The best that neuroscientists can say for the moment is that human memory is a stored pattern of connections between neurons in the brain. Each neuron makes about 5,000 to 10,000 synaptic connections with other neurons. Such a structure is not an effective computer engineering apparatus, but now Yasser Roudi and Peter Latham at University College London [10] have found that even with 10,000 connections per neuron, a network could only store about 100 memories – regardless of how many neurons were in the network. Current explanation of the brain attracts the Long-Term Potentiation to strengthen synaptic connections for the task of memory. However, switching times in neuron processing are about 10-2 sec and covalent modifications of proteins for LTP last minutes [11]. These time scales are absolutely incompatible with the speed of brain operations. As to other performance characteristics, notably, reliability and fault-tolerance, the pattern of connections between neurons cannot be even thought of to match human memory. Hence, workings of human brain tend to be attributed to perplexing quantum world or problematic non-Turing computations (see, e.g. [12]).

Information processing functions associated with human brain constitute a problem of acute discomfort to thinkers for millennia. Said St. Augustine, V century: “The way in which minds are attached to bodies is beyond man’s understanding”, Blaise Pascal, XVII century: “Man is to himself the most wonderful object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body is, still less what the mind is, and least of all how a body should be united to a mind”, Steven Weinberg, XX century: “How memories are stored in the brain is not likely to be affected by the discovery of the final theory”.

The contemporaneous philosophical thought tacitly admits that the considered problem cannot be incorporated into the existing knowledge; see, e.g., an article in the encyclopedia [13]: “It may well be that the relation between mind and body is an ultimate, unique, and unanalyzable one. If so, philosophical wisdom would consist in giving up the attempt to understand the relation in terms of other more familiar ones and accepting it as the anomaly it is”.

We have suggested a paradigm analogous to the concept of “Cloud Computing” that gives
an elegant constructive solution to the problem of the organization of mind where individual brains are not stand-alone computers but collective users getting shared access to portions of the holographic memory of the Universe [14, 15, 16]. A critical consideration of such an idea can be found in [17]. With the existing worldview attaining the extraordinary performance of the brain is absolutely inconceivable.


1. K.H. Pribram, “Languages of the Brain”, Brandon House, London, 1981.

2. P.R. Westlake, “The Possibilities of Neural Holographic Processes within the
Brain”, Kybernetik, 7, No. 4, pp. 129-153, 1970

3. Ken Wilber (editor), “The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes”,
Shambhala Publications, Boulder & London, 1982

4. M. Talbot, “The Holographic Universe”, Harper Perennial, New York, 1991

5. P. Pietsch, “Shufflebrain. The Quest for the Hologramic Mind”, Houghton Mifflin
Company, Boston, 1981

6. K. S. Lashley, “In search of the engram”(1950), in the book: Neurocomputing
Foundations of Research, editors J. Anderson and E. Rosenfeld, pp. 57-63,
MIT Press, 1988

7. S. Ya.. Berkovich, “The Dimensionality of the Informational Structures in the
Space of Perception (Posing of Problem)”, Biophysics, 21, pp. 1136-1140, 1976

8. R. Courant, D. Hilbert, “Methods of Mathematical Physics, Vol. I”,
Interscience Publishers, New York, 1953

9. S. Berkovich, “Shaping the computational model with content-addressable memory”,
E-Newsletters for Science and Technology, Issue 1, Number 1, 2007, pp 1-3,
European Academy of Sciences,

10. “Brain connections cause rethink over human memory”, New Scientist,
issue 2621, page 23, 18 September 2007

11. Amit Etkin, Gleb Shumyatsky, Christofer J. Pittinger, and Eric R. Kandel,
“Genetic Analyses of Functional Connectivity in the Nervous System”, pp. 221- 240,
in “Databasing the Brain”, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2005

12. Roger Penrose, "Shadows of the Mind", Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1994

13. Jerome Shaffer, “Mind-Body Problem”, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 5,
p. 345, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, 1972

14. S. Y. Berkovich, “On the “barcode” functionality of the DNA, or The phenomenon
of Life in the physical Universe”, Dorrance Publishing Co, Pittsburgh, PA, 2003
(almost a full version of this book is at

15. Simon Y. Berkovich and Hanan M. Al Shargi, “Constructive Approach to
Fundamental Science: Selected Writings”, University Readers, San Diego, 2010

16. Berkovich S. “On the information processing capabilities of the brain: shifting the
paradigm”, Nanobiology, 2, 1993, pp. 99-107

17. Donald R. Forsdyke, “Samuel Butler and human long term memory
Is the cupboard bare?”, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 258, 2009, pp. 156-164