Sunday, May 10, 2020

Notes on Reading The Spread Mind, by Riccardo Manzotti

Subtitled, "Why Consciousness and the World are One," this book is a masterful reworking of theories of consciousness. Unfortunately, I'm not sure it really touches on what consciousness is, though it certainly does help to make clear what it's not.

I find the book truly exciting. There is a genuine breakthrough here. Manzotti's own analogy to the move from spontaneous generation to understanding seeds and germination is apt. We truly have been laboring in a world of pure fantasy when it comes to understanding the workings of mind in matter.

For me, in just the way that Richard Dawkins exposes the wonder in the facts of evolution (to me much more wonderful than to suppose that some god just made things as they are!), Mazotti exposes the facts of consciousness as both far more wonderful and far simpler (like evolution to explain complexity) than trying to map the brain as though it were some ultra complex computer for which we don't have a plan. I believe that he links the brain more directly to the sensory organs, and by doing that also does away with the need for any kind of complex internal representation 'inside' our heads, of the world as it is 'outside.'

Even though it makes sense in evolutionary terms for us to locate ourselves in 'the center of gravity' of our perceptions, where our most consequential organ resides behind that famous Italian 'testa dura,' Manzotti properly locates our mind as distributed among those things that we perceive. He goes even further to say that we are our perceptions. I differ with him in only subtle ways. 

As always, I expect no readers, and am really just selfishly posting my notes in case I wish to refer to them myself. I hardly ever do refer to my own notes, but my second and more important reason to do this is that writing is a kind of thinking out loud on steroids. I am firmly in the camp - as is, apparently, Manzotti - that I don't know what I think until I hear myself say it (or as he puts it, until I see it, which is apparently the more proper attribution).

I wrote to him after writing to Tim Parks, and both were kind enough to respond to me. Parks really just handed me off to Mazotti, noting that he had, himself, moved on from Spread Mind. And predictably (to me) Manzotti gave me a cursory and apparently peremptory response that he doesn't know much about emotion. 

I believe that I can offer Manzotti both an enhancement to his approach, and a broader generalization. I ask for nothing in return. I'm not looking for an endorsement. I'm looking for better understanding of how things work. 

So perhaps I should start with what generalization means in this context. I've just re-read Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, wherein he effectively lays out a theory of replicators. His minimal unit for the gene - heuristically and not structurally so designated - is that segment of "code" which persists as a unit through a variety of "robot" hosts which exhibit ever-elaborating behaviors. He does not describe a zero-sum game of winners and losers, but rather a living world of symbionts and parasites and multi-species colonies such as humans, which exist in an environment which co-evolves along with the replicators. Such is life.

Dawkins and Manzotti are both distinguished for me by having given a nod to Julian Jaynes' thesis as laid out in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. (Incidentally, I believe Jaynes is wrong about Consciousness, as I will try to show below, but he may have been correct in a lot of other ways.)

There are two things which are hard for me to miss. The first is the similarity between Dawkins' elemental gene and Manzotti's object of perception. The second is the similarity between genes so defined, and memes in language which may also persist in remarkable fashion.  I have always been heartened by archaeological excavations inside China which validate the integrity of their classic texts down through the ages. 

There may be some confusion here about what information can mean with regard to genes, which seem to encode it. Dawkins seems to think they do, in the sense of an ontogenetic plan. 

Manzotti seems to think that information is simply what passes between objects in the perceptual act which brings each object into being reciprocally. He doesn't think that information is what gets stored in our brains, say. The perceptions are stored (postponed) directly.

Well, genetic "information" is only useful in some certain environmental context, so that may be a distinction without a difference, but I do think that genes exist as objects, if not as objects we can perceive very directly (without theory and instrumentation). In some sense they mediate between a latent object and the environment. 

The other important bit of my recent reading has been Mark Solms' on how consciousness is seated in the brainstem - the affective centers - which lies prior to and beneath our otherwise bicameral cortical brain. 

Solms writes together with a physicist about something like the economy of the mind. The problem is survival, and the organism must respond quickly to threats and opportunities. No time for thinking really, and so emotion moves to the fore as an efficient means to sort among subconscious cognitions to choose a good path into the future. Emotion here means a felt sense of toward and away from danger and homeostasis. 

That felt sense - affect - requires two brain functions, neither of which require bicamerality, broken down or otherwise. The first is perception, as described by Manzotti. Perception operates in what Manzotti describes as an expansive "now" where percepts may be distributed in time and space. Crucially, for me, he denies the existence of  'relations' among things/percepts in his dogmatically causal universe. 

In place of relations, he talks about information as that which crosses the divide between realized things. I believe his purpose here is to demolish any notion that the brain is in any sense analogous to an information storage and retrieval device.

For me, of course, relation is a real object 'out there,' just as percepts are. Here's why: The second quality of mind, required for good choices, is generalization. A conscious mind's primary responsibility is to match perception in the NOW to generalized past perception, in order to make a prediction according to generalized patterns of what has happened in the past, depending on choices previously made in the similar or general situation, or accidents befallen. These generalizations and memories/delayed perceptions must be on the subject's mind.

It is the project of both Manzotti and myself to disassemble mind as some interior process apart from objective reality, and to move beyond subject/object dualism.

Again, I make the physicist's argument for economy. It is simply inefficient and therefore ineffective for the brain to have to recall all experience. In essence, you've seen one tiger and you've seen them all. That's what re-cognition means. What gets "stored" are not the perceptions themselves, but rather the generalizations among perceptions, as a kind of efficient shorthand, with specific instances highlighted for more prominent recall by their emotive valence: That time the tiger had me by the foot.

Like Manzotti, I don't imagine a storage device. Instead, I imagine a whizzing mesh of bejillions of neurons repeating the experience of those perceptions which compose us as unique individuals, over and over again for so long as is economically required. 

So let me lay out what I think a little bit further. First, consciousness occurs at the inception of likely the most primitive brain - probably in reptiles. I'm far too much of a generalist myself to have anything terribly specific to say here (or anywhere) so I beg your indulgence, gentle Reader. Consciousness is just simply defined as that interplay among past experience, future projection, generalized perception, and efficient emotive choice. 

There may be two kinds of feelings, but feelings they are nonetheless. Colin Turbayne's The Myth of Metaphor has been a very useful book for me in this regard. So I distinguish between perceptual feelings - sensations - and affective feelings, which are felt more directly as they engage things already present to mind in the nexus of the NOW between past and future. 

And so of course I think relations are real, even though these exist only in mind. But the mind, remember, is distributed among all those actual things that we have perceived across the unique trajectories of our lives. So 'in the mind' becomes a misleading phrase. Perhaps ‘on the mind’ is better, but it's easy to see how one might mistakenly induce Platonic forms from generalization as a basic mental process. It seems as though there might be an actual idealized tiger, just as it seems as though there must be some soul as motivator for the gene-hosting robot. Both of these notions are very basic and fundamental errors. 

These errors derive from written language, which formed the sort of "consciousness" Jaynes was actually writing about. 

Clearly, in Jaynesean terms, much of humanity remains bicameral. They may be able to read, but not so much to think. (I don't think that I have the power to move on to what thinking might be, but I do believe that it has to do with the written language, which becomes a defining feature for humanity). 

Bicameral minds are the believers in some sacred text. Some single Bible. Such things stop thought, as they are meant to do. What is significant is that what they believe in is The Word. Oh my!

Manzotti, as far as I can tell, is a believer in the sacred text of Materialism, the false God of Science. I have to say that while I am a pure materialist as far as it can take me, I hardly believe that it will take me to the ends of the cosmos. 

There is nobody quite so dogmatic as a beginning grad student of physics. Their professors have generally learned to be more open-minded. I am frankly mystified by Manzotti's brand of materialism. He trips over this toes trying to stick to it. That hardly feels necessary.

Given that I think relations do exist (are real), then I must regard conception, as counterpoint to perception, to be real as well. A concept is a felt relation among objects held largely static (in suspension) by the mind. Just as visual perception requires that the eyes are moving, I don't think that there is any such thing as static anything, conceptual or perceptual. But I do think it makes an accurate generalization to call conception the relation among otherwise unconnected - perceptually - percepts. E-motion is still motion, after all. Wanting and needing relate in some temporal sense.

So another quibble that I have with Mazotti is that he seems to believe that time is not just the fourth dimension as I believe it to be, but that time is ever going cosmically forward, and what we perceive - what composes our minds - is change. 

He deconstructs time in the same way he deconstructs temperature. We have been misled by scientific authorities (experts, priests, whatever) into believing that their metric time and temperature is more real than our experiences of either. But I am finding Manzotti now to be putting himself into the spot of the expert, in the way of my very real felt experiences.

I don't believe that time has a direction. I do believe that life does, as described by Dawkins, and that this is what is meant by time's arrow. Survival means making decisions into the future based on experiences in the past. No agency, no time. 

We can't step out of time., of course. Or can we? By my read, all that is needed for thought is the strange collection of grasping hands with opposable thumbs, recognizable individual faces, a musical voice box, and the tools we make and use. Most notably, those tools now include both syluses and keyboards. In a way - a very mild way for sure - thinking can take us out of time. While the little but massively important decisions are made pre-consciously, emotively, and often automatically; the big decisions, like buying a car, require lots more conscious back and forth.

In Manzotti's purely perceptual cause and effect world, if time were to stop there would be nothing. To me, that is no different from saying that if time as a dimension did not exist, there would be no life. Three dimensions are plenty for systems which never evolve. Well, not really, but you know what I mean. Big Bang be not proud.

I am fairly well convinced that Mazotti is correct as far as he goes. As do I, he wishes to pull the rug out from under the Platonic world, where mind is apart from matter and somehow uniquely capable to apprehend those ideal forms which are supposed to undergird the messy phenomenal world.

Interestingly, for Plato, and for all of science which follows after him, the ideal world - the world of ideas - is both out there and more "Real" than the world that we perceive. Manzotti and I turn that on its head. If ideas exist, they are sure "out there" and not in our head, but in a special way. They are not reifications of something that is in our head. They are, instead, generalizations which enable us to link multiple perceptions as being of a category. We need to know a wolf when we see one. That's what evolution means.

Circles and squares and lines and faces are abstractions from the real which are useful, and not only to humans.

I don't buy Platonism, but I go further than Manzotti by locating emotion also in the world and not in the mind. But I'm not so ready as he seems to be to simply dispose of emotion as just a complex case of material phenomenon. I'm also not so ready as he is to dispose of agency as something like an illusion.

As I have done, he takes as persuasive the evidence that we make decisions before we take conscious ownership of them. And so he places agency in the external causal realm as well as something that we can only think we do ourselves, but which is, rather, done for us, by the complex of  'out-there' reality which each of our bodies uniquely composes.

First causes are apparently lost deep in the causal web which generates what we perceive as ourselves. Nevermind how this obviates chaos theory and quantum physics, it just seems like a lazy way to dispose of agency. Agency is, after all, something that we perceive directly, just as we do our consciousness.

Unlike Manzotti, and probably unlike most others, I don't consider that time is a cosmically set direction. This is evident at the level of particle physics where, by many interpretations, 'particles' must move back in time in order to make sense of certain results.

My nuance is that time - which crucially here, is the root of causality - is more a conspiracy of first, lived life, and second, most - but not all - of material reality. My distinction does no harm to ordinary causal principles, but it is an important distinction, I believe.

Not only theoretically, but actually, agency disrupts ordinary causality. While it feels like an act of  mind apart from matter, I would say that agency is more mind as part of matter. Mind is, for me, a part of the cosmos out there.

I'm not trying to explain away random, but then again I sort-of am. I would define agency as first the matching of concept with percept (the pattern recognition game) and second the emotive selection of a course of action depending mostly on the match.

This is a chicken/egg problem, and I don't care which comes first between conception and perception.  I only know that agency precedes consciousness in some sense, while consciousness is that which admits of conceptual formation. So consciousness must also be abroad in the world and not (only) in our heads.

But how could this work, and what difference would it make? Well, I'm defining 'concepts' as 'static' slices of dynamic reality, much as Manzotti defines his apple.  I'm saying further that while the cosmos as we know it is fully dynamic, as are our brains and certainly our perceptions, the cosmos can't and couldn't exist apart from conceptual reality.

Of course this all becomes linguistically silly as I am forced to say that the cosmos can't be conceived without conception. But my claim is that this formulation is no more crazed than linguistically possible but meaningless statements about 'God is love' or 'the meaning of life.'

In any case, Manzotti seems to want to have his cake and eat it. First he insists that each slice in time of his iconic apple is a separate perceptual apple. He explicitly states that the apple is not some sort of four-dimensional 'worm.'

But then later on he wants to define constructed reality as 'objects,' such as constellations which are often made of stars sometimes many light years apart from one another. Or pieces of music which are objectified only over time.

Of course he is right that these are all perceptual experiences, and I agree with him that mind exists outside of body in the objects of our perception across time. But when I identify my friends as unitary assemblages, I am surely doing something which is at least analogous to what Plato did with his 'ideas' and cave-bound movie screen. I am doing that as an extension of my survival moves. 

The key difference is ontological; regarding which is the real and which the illusion. The idealization of an object which I am describing is simply an abstraction from the raw stuff of perception. It is the most familiar sort of mental move, and one clearly essential for our evolutionary devolution into consciousness.

All animals must be able accurately to identify predators, if the selfish genes contained in their assemblages are to survive. It won't do any good if one has to identify each and every threat anew. So even the most primitive animal mind must form a generalized wolf in order to respond to the actual one in front of it.

Agency then is just this matching between object and form. Survival depends on it, and conscious mind has been nature's most effective preservative for those successfully selfish genes which have made it through the eons.

What Manzotti seems to have trouble doing is to locate conceptions outside the mind, and so he tosses out the baby with the bathwater, I would say. But it is the very act of perceiving a constellation which is conception. Constellations are reassuringly stable; almost Platonically stable, or ideal. No wonder most every persistent civilization has wanted to bring such stability down to earth! They've done it by religion or its ilk (Taoism nor Confucianism are religions in the normal sense of that term, but they do it too). Now we try to do it by science. 

I am appreciative that Manzotti correctly posits that the photons which impinge on our eyes from stars some multitude of light-years distant have 'themselves' experienced/perceived no passage of time at all. The stars are thus literally present in some sense of simultaneity, which is itself, necessarily, a relative term.

I will continue to try to work this out (for you!) but I find it very complicated. It is my claim that emotions are both reciprocal and simultaneous in a radical usage of those terms. This distinguishes emotion from perception which entails forceful impingement by way of motion. Of course the stars are eons distant, but it is my claim that all of evolution is present in the moment of NOW. It is my claim that there is a direction to evolution if not to time, and that direction may be described as Love. Pure and simple. OK fine, so maybe God is Love. Who am I to say?

So when I notice Bill Gates striving to do good for the world while simultaneously buying ever bigger houses and perhaps even maga-yachts, I have to wonder: What in the world does one do inside such things? To me, that question is far more theoretical than the one about what goes on inside the mind. Bill Gates apparently thinks his brain is a CPU. OK, so whatever he does inside his massive many houses, I don't care. I'm glad he still thinks more clearly than our zero-sum politicans do.

I don't care and couldn't care less, but now that's a problem for me. I don't want to be noticed. I have absolutely zero desire to be present for anyone other than those who love me. I would otherwise like to disappear into the background.

And yet let's just say that there's a non-zero chance that I have something important to say. Then I would have to announce myself, as it were. I have been spending nearly my entire life trying to find someone who has already figured this stuff out. It feels like a hot potato to me.

You and I both know that the world is in a crazy place now. We are overrunning the planet and the coronavirus is but the most gentle possible wake-up call. And still we won't heed it. We don't seem to have any way to assess what's going on with digital reality, even while our minds are warped by selfy moving images of ourselves right down to our first moments on the planet.

And here now is a theoretical framework for understanding what is going on, and we can't pay attention for long enough beneath all the Trump-eting and streaming of a sort which titillates our, what, minds? Is mind even left anymore?

So this is how we will re-assimilate to the stew of creation? We will simply dissolve because we could never figure what to do with consciousness except to amuse ourselves to death? To play host to the virus of money? To allow robotic AI to take us over?

Really the most powerful thing about Manzotti's theory is that it utterly dismantles any notion that the brain is identical to the mind. The mind is now a distributed quality, and the body is an experiencing machine, if you will, except that here the term machine is entirely inappropriate now. That usage could only make sense if you thought that the eyes truly were the portal into some self inside his skin; some self which has a complex brain where images and memories and conceptual breakthroughs are stored and might be released at any moment.

In fact, the brain becomes more like an antenna, though a very elaborate receiving device indeed, for the reception and cataloging of all that individual's experience. The cataloging is not, as is often thought in this cybernetic age, engaged with storage. Storage is for shelves and computers. The brain, instead, simply distinguishes between perceptions which must be acted on right here and now, and those which can't be acted on because they project into the future or are of something too far away in either time or space or both. 

We have no problem understanding now how things far away - even bejillions of lightyears away - impinge on us perceptually. Perceptions from the past then, which once had been near and actionable, just keep spinning in the apparatus of our brains, like a backwash in a downstream flow, according to one metaphor developed perhaps together with writer Tim Parks. The brain, in other words, must keep moving itself, in order for memory to go on living.

But left out, I think, is some understanding of abstraction and generalization. These are required for efficiency of perceptual cataloging and retrieval. An instance of a lion must bring up other instances, and the strong memories they may carry. In the moment, the match between a present perception and a past one, now generalized by the mind, must be near instant so that the mind "knows" what to do in that first instant, and well before we take conscious ownership of our decisions. 

Buying a car is a decision which might involve lots of back and forth, and might never problematize what we call "free will," where we know from neurological testing that quick decisions, like pushing a button, are made before we are conscious enough of a choice to make it. 

Not too long ago, my daughter moved to New Haven, CT where I spent a big chunk of my life. She indulged me driving her around and showing her where I'd lived and some of the things I'd built. Each visit, and especially each sighting of something I'd built, in many cases still surviving, triggered the massive release of memories which were nowise in my head. These memories were in the world around me, and rich beyond belief. 

I'm sure that it's conventional to assume that the memories are somehow stored in my brain, but if they are I certainly do know that I would never have retrieved those memories with my daughter, especially as I continue to grow older (and older!). But they were so ready when I saw things. So there!

Ever since that experience, which was transformational for me somehow - I guess there was a long gap between my living there and returning, which made New Haven unlike many other places I have lived - ever since then, I have felt bad for folks in Shanghai, where I've also spent considerable time. In the case of Shanghai, if I were gone for even a month or two, my favorite restaurant might be gone, and buildings torn down or built. China seems to have no sense of the Spread Mind, and the dangers of too much change too fast.

Well, how would they? The cultural revolution, so recent in my life space, was designed to wipe out cultural memory, though their written language won't let it go so quickly. 

In New Haven, it took some work to find certain places. I had to circle and retreat and try a different advance before finding the professor's house I sat, and the porch steps I built. I had to work things out in the landscape. I couldn't quite remember street names, but when they came back they felt very familiar again indeed. 

This is proof enough for me that the Spread Mind is both real and the right way to call it. I am excited. I really am.

Most of us are familiar with the emotional stimulus to memory. People my age know exactly where we were and what was going on when JFK was shot, or when the trade towers went down. Or when we did something really stupid, or had an accident which might have hurt us badly, especially when it was because of our own omission to take proper care.

These are interruptions of agency. There's nothing you can do about distant events (in general) but when they impact you, there is sometimes a heavy emotional load. We know from Mark Solms' work that emotion is the efficient mover for agency. Prior to that is the need to make rapid preconscious decisions based on matches between generalized memory and perception.

So the very most important functional structures of the brain must be consistent across species. Perhaps some question remains about whether animals are conscious, but I don't see why. From an evolutionary point of view, of course any animal with a brain must use that brain to generalize, to abstract (take the relevant and easily recognizable features of perception and recall them as a special case of generalized identity). They just simply don't stop and think about it very much. Thinking is our peculiar curse.

Humans have the additional fact of language, which allows generalization and abstraction to be communicated, and the higher level generalization of a name to further decrease the load on the brain to remember. Note that I am not saying that the brain holds memory banks. I'm saying that brains somehow hold perceptions, just as Manzotti does.

Interestingly as well, the longstanding controversy about the existence of a Chomskyan "black box" for language that is internal to the brain disappears. The structure of language is built into our surroundings as we interact with them on the basis of "higher" brain function which now includes naming things as well as actions, all of which must now be percepts in the world.

Unlike me, Manzotti provides a framework for testing according to scientific procedures. His theories are easily falsified, and he provides many examples of how his approach exposes many false and unscientific assumptions surrounding the understanding of the brain around which research into consciousness remains focused. Many of these examples regard dreams and hallucinations and how false assumptions reinforce the mistaken belief that the brain can produce reality from whole cloth.

But his sidestepping of agency is crucial here. Agency is real, and we need it now. Full stop. The breakdown of the bicameral mind occured because we could outer our words. There was no longer any need to hallucinate the voice of either God or the alpha male to know how to behave socially. We could work it out collectively, once we could write our thinking out. Now we must move away from our magic screens of so many sizes and confront actual reality all over again. Virtual reality is a con-game.


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