Thursday, March 3, 2011

Stimulus-Response Follies: The Ordering of Time

So I'm reading this book by Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Good stuff! So far it's doing a pretty darned good job of laying out the problem of consciousness and putting to rest some unnecessary and sometimes foolish assumptions which have been used as props along the way toward addressing this problem.

A major burden of the book is to put to final rest the notion that the mind must be precisely located. But while he blurs the boundaries which might have the mind bounded by the brain (it seems pretty clear that it has to incorporate sensory inputs which are distributed at least throughout the body), he draws the line at allowing it - the mind - to spill out from the body altogether.

This restriction can be restated by his statement early on (p. 115) that "Unless there is 'precognition' in the brain (an extravagant hypothesis we will postpone indefinitely) . . . " In other words, the mind must be contained within the bounds of the skin.

Here's why I make that my contention. Precognition could be redefined subtly but trivially if we were to allow that matter outside the corporeal self might also be considered a part of rather than apart from the mind. Why is it that I must suppose that objects outside of me must somehow be represented in my mind before I can be said to have become conscious of them?

Surely I need some sensory stimulation before I will be willing to make a verbal or other commitment to the presence of objects outside of me. But essentially that only means that I must be pretty sure that someone not me would also be willing to make the same commitment.

There are also things inside of me about which I might be similarly reticent to commit, even in my brain, but would prefer to defer to some other observer, say a surgeon, before committing to anything like conscious knowledge about my sensations.

So if I don't need anything like a mental representation, then why not just leave the stimulus where it belongs, outside my body but inside my mind.

If I can be allowed to talk that way then suddenly it becomes unproblematical to think of something like precognition actually occurring. In other words there are configurations to the mind which won't ever, or at least not in time, raise to the level of consciousness but which nonetheless trigger apparent responses.

When asleep, or when buffeted by the wind or when Doctor Maxwell taps our knee with his reflex hammer, there is no need to bother the notion of consciousness with the fact of a response.

Still, it remains common to speak as though response requires a stimulus even when, as in the case of complex systems describable by chaos theory, say, it would be deuced hard if not impossible to tease out the cause from the effect: the stimulus from the response.

Without resorting to terms like chaos or complexity which might for all I know have highly technical definitions at odds with my usage, the same thing can be said of any system where it's hard to attribute cause (or intention or directionality). Sexual response, gravitational interactions, the weather.

It may be that the notion of directionality is itself a predilection - a mental construct imposed on reality and not  derived from it.

Anyhow, it strikes me as unlikely that conscious acts are ever the unambiguous result of stimuli. It seems much more supportable that we act, or invoke intention, when and only when there is some conceptual relation in our mind (even using the word "in" here goes a step too far) which makes sense enough to act.

This might happen on reflection, as when I suddenly remember that I left the stove turned on though I am too remote from it to have felt any heat. Though who knows how such thoughts are themselves initiated? But things not necessarily in the mind might also arrange themselves conceptually, let's say around the periphery of my physical limits, such that I respond as though to stimulus, when "in reality" the concept has formed itself despite me.

Rather than to act because of something held "in mind" or which came "to mind" I might act because something happened around me, like say I found myself walking into a wall which presents (not represents) a certainty that I must turn around. Now the wall need not actually be there, so long as my mind is certain that it is. But my turning, if I decide to turn and initiate my turning before the laws of physics cause me a bump, is initiated not by stimuli but rather by the conceptual in-formation of a wall as if held in mind.

This matter is simply not problematized. Very few of us are so abstracted as to walk into walls (well, it has happened to me once, finding my head turned by a pretty woman). But perhaps it should be. Depending on your rate of forward motion, turning aside from a looming wall probably (this could be tested) doesn't require any conscious intervention.

So, what has been tested by these recently celebrated Psi experiments purporting to demonstrate precognition is not the ability of mind to guess things that haven't yet happened at some frequency greater than chance. What has really been tested is the notion that there is any process outside the mind which is really fully provably outside it.

Sure, you need powerful, um, stimuli, like pornography or looming walls colliding with which might cause sudden and immediate harm. But nothing at all like precognition has to be proven, since you can't exactly prove cognition in the first place when it's just stimulus-response.

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