Sunday, 27 March 2022

contra aftab contra gipps contra seth

In a recent blogpost Awais Aftab has expressed some welcome disagreements with what I wrote in my critique of Anil Seth's conception of perception 'Seth's vision' post. What follows is my response.

heliocentric or geocentric: what's the truth?

Aftab writes of a 

scientific model according to which [the] sun is in orbit around the earth. This scientific model is decidedly false; the sun is not in orbit around the earth, however things appear to us.

Here Aftab's flatly disagreeing with what I wrote in my original post - I expressly denied that this is a decidedly false claim. But he doesn't argue his case - so I'll now just reiterate and expand mine. It's important to note, before we begin, that whilst the explicit topic is astronomical, the real issue - to which we'll return after the physics is expounded - concerns instead the relevance of considerations of linguistic meaning when what's under discussion are allegedly scientific questions. 

So: I take it as axiomatic that if we're to model the movements of bodies we must always first stipulate a reference frame. Being decidedly terrestrial creatures it's our typical habit to use the earth's surface as this 'immobile'-by-definition reference frame for ordinary modelling and measurements. This use amounts to a tacit stipulation, a stipulation which gives us a rule of representation: movements of people and cars and birds are to be measured relative to the earth's surface (and not, say, relative to that hypomanic rabbit running hither and thither over there, since that'd really complicate everything terribly). Such rules of representation aren't themselves representations: they aren't, that is, themselves happily styled 'true' or 'false'. There's no such thing as a 'correct stipulation'. There are just reference frames which are more or less useful depending on our needs. 

Now, when we're discussing the movements of celestial bodies, we might surely offer either the sun or the earth as our reference frame. We could of course stipulate the moon but, depending on the scientific context, that'd probably make the maths very complex. Might we follow Newton and pin our frame instead to the 'fixed stars'? Well, we'd first need to say in what sense they're 'fixed', since it's generally thought that, what with the  expansion of the universe, many of them are moving apart from one another. And we'd surely want to avoid Newton's notions of 'absolutely fixed', or 'absolute motion', or 'absolute duration', etc., since, so far as I know, that idea - of motion or duration not relative to any particular spatial or temporal reference frame but just, somehow, 'in itself' - has never been provided with a meaning. But at any rate, if we stipulate the earth, then the sun will properly be said to be moving around it - and vice versa. 

Given this I simply find it hard to know what's meant by Aftab's 'This scientific model is decidedly false; the sun is not in orbit around the earth, however things appear to us.' But perhaps he would say 'But in science we always call the simplest model decidedly true and the more complex model decidedly false.' Well, we could say this - though I don't think we always, or even usually, do. (I think we typically just talk of the advantages of simplicity, and leave off talk of truth and falsity for when instead we're talking about representational fit. That, at least, stops us getting into unnecessary muddles.) But, sure, I'm happy if we do decide to use the word 'true' like that: now we all know what we mean, philosophy has done its clarificatory job, and we're back not talking past each other. So now, because of what it does for astronomical science, we'll say that a heliocentric model is there the 'true one'. Or because of what it does for botanical science (you're trying to measure the light shifting over a plant's leaves, and it's rather easier to think of the sun moving overhead rather than of the plant orbiting the sun), we'll say that the geocentric model is there the 'true one'. My concern though is that there was rather a whiff of 'but in fact, or really, or as science reveals to us, it's the earth that orbits the sun and not vice versa' to both Aftab's and Seth's presentations. And, at least on its face, such an 'in fact' appears to rather transcend mere matters of simplicity. Instead it seems to be an 'in fact' which has (...in fact...) rather gone on semantic holiday. An 'in fact' which, like Newton's notions of 'absolute' motion or duration, has attempted to prescind from particular contexts of enquiry, forgetting that it's only ever relative to a context that such notions enjoy a meaning.

Well, wait... why does any of this matter - wasn't the real topic the cognitive neuroscience of perception? So, well, yes: this all has to do with how we understand the significance of philosophy - in particular: philosophical reflection on linguistic meaning - for (would-be) scientific enquiry. So let's now turn to this.

language... or science?

After claiming that the geocentric view is 'decidedly false' Aftab goes on to urge that:

We shouldn't be so preoccupied with the language itself that we forget there is an independent scientific question to be asked. In a similar way, questions pertaining to the use of language about perception should not lead us to ignore the scientific questions at hand.

Similar comments regarding the relation of linguistic philosophy to matters scientific are offered later:

To remember how to correctly use the word perceive doesn’t by itself tell us what the correct scientific psychological account of perception is, and any scientific psychological account of perception has to take into account the fact that the brain is confined inside the skull and only has access to signals in the sensory nerves. 

Does the brain approximate Bayes’s rule in the process of perception? This is an empirical question, to be settled by scientific inquiry, but it certainly cannot be settled or eliminated by an analysis of ordinary language.

So, first, what is the 'independent scientific question to be asked' here, in this first context which, to recall, had to do with celestial movements? I confess the only one I can think of as a candidate might go something like: 'But, really, Dr Gipps, please leave aside all these parochial matters to do with this or that human-interest-relative context, and turn instead to matters of the raw scientific truth: just tell us, Dr Gipps: does the earth orbit the sun, or does the sun orbit the earth?!!' Yet, as I was at pains to show, it's here precisely philosophical considerations regarding language use - i.e. considerations regarding what it makes sense to say - and especially of distinguishing rules of representation (which as such aren't usefully described as true or false) from representations (which as such are either true or false) - which reveals that this just isn't a good question! We might at first think we know what it means. (Just like Anscombe, at first, thought she knew what she meant when she said that it seemed to her as if the sun went round the earth.) But then we think it through, and it turns out that we don't!

Turning now to perception, Aftab is of course correct that recalling how the word 'perceive' is properly used tells us nothing about which bona fide scientific theory of perception is correct. (And nothing in my original post declared anything else.) Where linguistic philosophy comes into its own, though, is when it helps clarify whether we are indeed asking bona fide scientific questions. My claim was that Seth seemed to think he was asking and answering clear scientific questions... but that this may be illusory. Now, philosophy can't help us answer scientific questions - but it can help us distinguish genuine from merely ersatz such questions. So, just as Seth and Aftab seem - if I'm not mistaken - to wrongly take 'Does the sun orbit the earth, or is it that the earth orbits the sun?' as a straightforwardly clear question - so too does Seth, as I read him, take his particular questions and answers regarding 'how we perceive' to enjoy a clear sense. But the appearance of meaningfulness, I claim, may be only a product of certain prior misunderstandings regarding how concepts work. If you conceptually assimilate donkeys to positive numbers, you may well think it a straightforwardly intelligible scientific question to ask just what the square root of a particular donkey is. (I don't say that we couldn't give this question a sense; only that it doesn't enjoy one on its face.) To undo that assimilation is not to obstruct scientific progress, but rather to point out that it seems we didn't so much as have a scientific question on the table. From Gellner's idiotic Words and Things onwards, philosophers have accused linguistic philosophy as being somehow antithetical to science. As I see it, however, this is entirely backwards. No science at all can happen if the questions being asked are not even empirical because they're riddled with conceptual confusion. By helpfully picking this apart, the linguistic philosopher is the one contributing to strengthening the scientific framework, whereas the would-be scientist who just ploughs on regardless despite their tacit confusion is holding back scientific progress by instead covertly indulging metaphysical nonsense.

brains and their owners

Aftab agrees that there is 'no mystery to how I see thing. I just do. I look around and see the world in all its beauty and ugliness. But in order for the brain to make this possible, an explanation is needed.' Brains however made perception possible long before explanations were available; I suspect Aftab really means: 'in order for us to understand how brain activity makes perception possible, we require a scientific explanation'. This to me seems utterly unobjectionable: sure, explanations aren't always required before we can understand something, but when we've got 'how does that work?' questions going on, an explanation will be just the ticket! So, yes: so far, so unobjectionable. Yet after noting that I suggest that an answer in neurological (I think 'neuroscientific' would have been a happier word choice by me) terms is required here, Aftab urges that this would:

not offer us the explanation we need; what will be missing will be explanation that connects the neurological activity to the perceiving I. There is, therefore, a cognitive and psychological question here as well. What cognitive and psychological processes are involved in our ordinary experience of perception?

I confess to not yet understanding this. If I want to know how, say, a Porsche can accelerate so quickly - the acceleration admittedly being a property of the whole car - I'll naturally be satisfied with an answer in purely mechanical terms, one which tells me about the functioning of the carburettor etc. Sure, I'll want to know too how the carburettor is connected to the throttle and the fuel supply and the engine and thereby to the wheels - but there seems to me no requirement for an extra kind of story, told at some other level of explanation, wherein I relate all of this to the accelerating car. Or, well, perhaps other details will be relevant too: depending on where I was coming from when I asked about the Porsche's acceleration, I might find it more illuminating to hear about the extraordinary funding of their R&D relative to other car manufacturers. But at any rate, we can I think imagine someone who is only interested in the question of what it is in the car itself that enables its rapid acceleration. And here they will, I think, be satisfied with a story about the mechanical goings on under the bonnet. So too a story about the eye, the optic nerve, the striate cortex, etc etc., which outlined the machinery of perception and detailed its operation could, I think, work in a similar way. 

Aftab goes on to tell us that:

any scientific psychological account of perception has to take into account the fact that the brain is confined inside the skull and only has access to signals in the sensory nerves. The relationship between the voltage changes in the nerve membranes and the world outside the sensory organs is not a question that has a straightforward obvious answer, and I refuse to accept that this is a meaningless question that arises only because we are confused about how we use the word “perceive”!

Now I'm not sure what it means to talk of a brain being 'confined' (perhaps 'safely contained'?) in a skull, and of it only having 'access' to this or that sensory signal. But perhaps the Porsche analogy can help us here. So you notice that whilst I wanted to understand the acceleration of the whole car, we somehow talked mainly about the carburettor and other internal components. The carburettor, however, doesn't have direct 'access' to the wheels or the road; it only has only has 'access' to the fuel and the air. This, you suggest, makes for an explanatory problem. ... Well, I demur. It may well be that the relation of acceleration to air intake is not straightforward: much will also depend on the current pitch of the road, the current speed, the drag of the vehicle etc. By all means, let's look at the whole picture. And the same - except more so - will be true of the 'relationship between the voltage changes in the nerve membranes and the world outside the sensory organs'. None of these enquiries will involve us in asking meaningless questions (and, note, I never claimed that they did); none of them presuppose confusion about how the word 'perceive' is used. What would be a confusion, though, would be the assumption that the brain's generation of perception / the carburettor's generation of acceleration required it to reconstruct or represent or make inferences regarding what's happening outside the skull / engine. (Or to put it otherwise: what would be a confusion would be if we conflated 'access' in the mechanical sense of i) enjoying this or that degree of causal connectedness to the world, with 'access' in the epistemic sense of ii) making the world's acquaintance.) No: such activities, if we're meaning them in their normal senses, are properties not of the brain or carburettor but instead, at times, of the person whose brain or car is under discussion.

prediction and inference

Let's now turn to that last question about brainy inferences etc in more detail. The part of Aftab's critique I find most thought-provoking is this: 

it strikes me as quite valid to hypothesize or talk about prediction in an analogous way to ordinary language but in a manner that doesn’t require intention or agency, etc. This is especially because we can meaningfully talk about mathematical models making predictions, and a variety of non-intentional, non-agential systems can enact said mathematical models.

Johannes Kepler
Now, I confess that while I think I can understand what it is for a mathematical model to make a prediction, I'm not entirely sure what it means for a system to enact a mathematical model, and I'm not at all sure what it means to say that the modelled system is itself making predictions. ... But let's turn again to the celestial analogue for a first pass. So: Kepler provided us with an equation to figure out the movements of two celestial bodies relative to one another. . We can model the moon's movements around the earth using this equation. If we said that 'the moon-earth system enacts this model', we're basically saying the same thing in different words. And we can use the model to help us predict the moon's location. But note, we can now deploy metonymy to arrive at: the model predicts where the moon will be in an hour.

So, if that's what Aftab means by a 'system enacting a mathematical model', then I should say that I can see nothing wrong with it. To transfer it now to the context of the brain, we might say this: Neuroscientists can model, and predict, how activity in part of the brain covaries with past and present sensory stimulation and motor activity (say) using a particular model. We then shunt the words around a bit to arrive at: 'this is the model the brain enacts'. We will say the same too for the release of insulin in the pancreas in response to blood sugar changes etc. We can model this mathematically; lo: the pancreas enacts the model. But what we don't yet get to, from the notion of a mathematical model making predictions, is a cogent sense in which the planets, the pancreas, or the brain are themselves predicting anything. So it looks to me like we'll need something other than the metonymic, conceptually parasitic, notion of 'mathematical models making predictions' to get us to a sense for 'the brain makes predictions'. 

linguistic innovation

This takes me to a part of Aftab's critique which I thought simply unfair:

Helmholtz, when he described perception as an inference, used inference in an analogous way: “[the “psychical activities” leading to perception] are in general not conscious, but rather unconscious. In their outcomes they are like inferences insofar as we from the observed effect on our senses arrive at an idea of the cause of this effect.” (Helmholtz 1867) [my emphasis, notice use of “like inference” suggesting an analogy].

The... problem I have is with the insistence that unless an explicit definition is offered, the use must be considered muddled or nonsensical. Just because Helmholtz does not further specify what “like inference” is supposed to be, does that make it muddled and nonsensical? I don’t think so. Scientific ideas often begin as a sort of analogy, and are further refined and made more precise over time. Didn’t Wittgenstein have something to say about the meaning of a word being its use? If a word is being used by an entire community of scientists, can we not recognize that use as legitimate, even if a formal definition is lacking?

I leave aside the issue of whether Helmholtz or we know what Helmholtz is saying when he talks of
Hermann von Helmholtz

unconscious psychical activity leading to a perception, or of perception involving us ('we') working out what the causes of sensory stimulations are. I happen to find that all exceptionally murky, but it's not what Aftab is after. Instead he's pointing to the idea that Helmholtz's inferences are only like ordinary inferences. So, ok: fine! But then Aftab effectively claims that I was saying that unless Helmholtz, Seth, whoever, offers an explicit definition of a term used in a new sense, that new use must be considered nonsensical or muddled. But this really wasn't at all what I was saying - and I also don't think I've seen any Wittgensteinian commentators on cognitive neuroscience say anything like this. 

The easiest way to get clear about this is to rehearse the dialectic. As I offered it, my challenge was two-pronged, and went like this:

a) If you, cognitive neuroscientist, are intending such and such a term in its ordinary sense, then your claims are, for reasons I've given, simply nonsensical.

b) If however you're using it in a new, or somewhat new, sense, a sense that we readers don't yet know, might you please both acknowledge when this is so (so we don't wrongly assume that you mean it in the ordinary sense), and also make this new meaning clear for us? If it's a new technical scientific sense, then yes a definition really would be lovely, since that's rather how we tend to do things in science. However perhaps you might instead give some paradigmatic examples, or do what you can to make clear what would falsify your claims, or elucidate whatever ascription conditions you can for the concept, etc.? Doing literally nothing to make yourself clear, however, well, dude: that's not cool! For making oneself clear isn't just a job for philosophers! It's part and parcel of ordinary responsible scientific practice.

This is why, in my original post, I kept asking if Seth would tell us what he meant, rather than simply said 'what you're saying is nonsense'. I think I demonstrated that it would be nonsense if he was using the terms in the ordinary way. I think I demonstrated that Seth is bizarrely insouciant regarding the need to tell a reader of a popular book what his terms mean - and I do rather suspect that this might be because he doesn't think he is using terms in anything other than an ordinary sense. But I certainly can't demonstrate that there's not some occult sense he's employing. I can however complain that it is occult.

on use 

Finally, what of this?:

Didn’t Wittgenstein have something to say about the meaning of a word being its use? If a word is being used by an entire community of scientists, can we not recognise that use as legitimate, even if a formal definition is lacking?

Well, I think it depends on what's meant both by 'can we' and by 'use'! 

It's certainly true that there are indeed times when words are used with bona fide meanings despite the absence of any clear definition. I see no reason why this shouldn't obtain in science as well as in everyday life or in humanities discourses etc. 

And it's surely true that we might often do well to presume that a word has sense on its users' lips. Innocent until proven guilty!, we might say, for matters of meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
But it's surely not the case that use inexorably makes for meaning. Just as a whole scientific community can be in error about matters of fact, I see no reason to think that they might not sometimes also be in error regarding whether certain of their own terms are meaningful. Or, to put it otherwise, I see no reason to suppose that scientists may not sometimes be 'held captive by pictures' or, to again put it otherwise, be unwittingly subject to 'illusions of sense'. (Some sciences are, I suspect, rather more prone to such illusions of sense than others. I have in mind physics like string theory, economics, psychology and cognitive science as the major contenders... but don't plan to argue this any time soon!) Newtonian physicists talked of 'absolute motion/space/duration', but this chat of theirs didn't ipso facto make such concepts meaningful! For as Wittgenstein might have put it, Newton had already unwittingly 'sublimed the logic of the language' of motion/etc, so his terms no longer enjoyed meaning.

To understand how Wittgenstein's comments on meaning and use don't commit him to the idea that any widespread use inexorably makes for meaning, it helps to distinguish between two senses of 'use'. In the first sense 'use1' refers to however a term or phrase is deployed by those who utter or write it. It refers, that is, to the mere fact of its deployment, the mere fact that people voice it. In the second sense, 'use2' contrasts with 'misuse'. (Use1 includes both uses2 and misuses2, but also includes such uses of terms as have no meaning and so which can't even be misused.) Now, people often mistakenly think that when Wittgenstein talked of the internal relationship between meaning and use, it was use1 he had in mind - as if he were trying to provide a reductive definition of 'meaning' in terms of how we shunt words about. I think this quite wrong, and that it's only the correct uses, the uses2, of a term that are of a piece with its meaning. (Glock: 'Meaning is a matter not of how an expression is actually used and understood, but of how it is (or ought to be) used and understood by members of a linguistic community. What is semantically relevant is the correct use of expressions.') So, to summarise: whether a community's deployment of an expression is meaningful is not something guaranteed simply by their using it. And whether it's meaningful will instead amount to whether it's use can be elucidated, whether it avoids oscillating unstably between different senses encouraging the making of illicit inferences, whether clear negations of propositions deploying the term can be formulated, and sometimes, yes, even whether it can be clearly defined.

Saturday, 19 March 2022

diagnostic function


In a recent episode of The Life Scientific, the guest - psychologist Julia Shaw (who researches false memories, forensic psychology, and bisexuality) - talks about coming to understand that her father was schizophrenic. She'd been home-schooled by him and, when she was 14, she realised that, whilst she 'didn't have a word for it', for him all was not well. After 9/11, for example, he spoke only to her; he was clearly out drinking too much in the day; he'd come home drunk from the bar and they'd watch Mortal Kombat through and through, or do a lot of sparring. ... And then later, in one of her first clinical psychology lessons, she learns about the 'paranoid schizophrenia' diagnosis: "Oh my God", she thinks, "that's my dad! It sort of put a construct to all of his behaviour and a lot of the experiences I had growing up."

Psychologists and psychiatrists of a so-called 'critical' bent have often challenged the value of such seemingly 'baggy' constructs as make up diagnostic systems. Now - and in what follows I set aside the value of diagnoses to the diagnosed individuals themselves - Shaw herself clearly found it very useful. I don't here intend to question this utility. What I want to ask is instead what the utility consists in. For I think it too easy to quickly assume that the value consists only in possession of a new label to describe what's going on. And for 'critical' psychs to then take issue with the rather magical-seeming notion that coming into possession of a mere word can provide substantive knowledge of anything more than semantics. (Thus Shaw eagerly takes up Al-Khalili's suggestion that the illumination came because "nobody had labelled" his paranoid behaviour 'schizophrenia' before.) The question of diagnostic utility then too quickly gets corralled both into a general discussion of the benefits and disbenefits of constructs in our lives - for example, do they organise our experience in useful ways - and also into a more specific discussion of whether the principles governing one particular organisation, one particular construct (one diagnosis, that is), are reliable and valid, or are instead arbitrary, haphazard, and pseudoscientific.

George Kelly
What occurred to me, though, as Shaw was speaking, was that the value of knowing one's father to be schizophrenic may consist more in the clarity that arrives in truly knowing someone for mad. Not just mad in a loose way, either; not just 'mad' in a way which could be taken for a metaphor or a slur. But rather, mad in this, rather than that, way. It is not me; it is not the situation; it is not just another way of being human; not one way of making sense rather than another. It is instead my dad: there's something wrong with him; he's lost his reason. He's been quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, insane all these years. That this insanity has a particular form - it is schizophrenic rather than melancholic or obsessional, say - is of note here, I want to suggest, not simply because it offers some sense-making relief through the 'organisation' of one's previously disparate experience. (This constructivist trope of sense-making as organising is so central to so much psychology, from Kelly onwards that it can boggle psychologists' heads if you suggest we'd actually do better to adopt a rather more Aristotelian, rather less Kantian, anthropology.) For what matters here is, I suggest, not so much any particular organisation but rather (what I call) allocation. The diagnosis, first and foremost, enables not the provision of a 'subjective' organisation, but the recognition of an objective fact: that my dad's not in his right mind. Relational disturbances are now allocated to their proper source: they're not primarily a function of myself; they're not an irreducible function of the relationship itself; they're not a matter of the form of a particular social context; instead they're properly said to be of my father. And the provision of this, rather than that, diagnostic category - I suggest - may serve the function not primarily of further finessing the general diagnosis of insanity. Instead it validates it; it subserves it. 

An analogy may be helpful. We're struggling in one of our relationships, and come to realise that the problem lies not within ourself, nor within a systemic property of the relationship, but instead in our friend or colleague. They are, we come to realise, vicious (i.e. vice-ridden). 'Why do you say that?' your spouse says. What makes it apt to say they're being a git, and what makes it apt to say they're being a git? And now you offer the judgement that they suffer a particular form of gititude: they're always drawing attention to the faults of others whilst boasting of their own successes. This can be important to note in its own right, of course. (By analogy: think of the different treatment implications that can sometimes follow from psychiatric diagnosis.) But what may be rather more helpful, from the provision of this more fine-grained judgement of gititude, is the warrant it provides for your taking your moral attitude of condemnation to your friend or colleague. If you want to ratify your allocation of someone to a genus, then showing how they meet the mark of belonging to a particular species within that genus will tend to do it. 

To return now from morals to madness: the value of knowing one's father for schizophrenic may, I suggest, lie rather less in now knowing what treatment is indicated, or in understanding that he's one amongst others who have somewhat similar difficulties. Instead it may lie rather more in securely knowing that adopting a moral or relational approach is here inapt since he's not in his right mind. The dangers of such an allocation should be clear: that now every troubling thought or feeling or action of his is now chalked up to his insanity rather than to his situation or to oneself. But the possibility of abusing psychiatric judgement in this way is hardly grounds for avoiding it - any more than we do well to avoid moral judgement just because it may wrongly be used when instead psychiatric judgement would be more apt. Knowing him to be deeply, ongoingly, rationally awry in the way he experiences and responds to the world helps one get one's bearings, to know what's what. And we aren't forced to think of this as the provision from within ourselves, from within our language, of a scheme which we as it were 'impose' on our 'raw' experience of him. Leave those tired constructivist metaphors aside for a moment, and think instead on what it is to acknowledge morally or psychiatrically objective situations, rather than to construe some allegedly non-intrinsically psychiatric or moral situation a particular way. It's not that we're now making sense of him, if you like, but that we've now recognised what's what. Dad is mentally unwell. His behaviour isn't some version of normal of which I should be struggling harder to make sense. It's something which of its nature is not rationally intelligible. In this way he's a patient, not a rational agent. For this reason the social contract must be renegotiated. Losses must be mourned. But the relief of saying 'I shan't keep trying to play with someone who's breaking the rules', as it were - (and the 'as it were' is important unless we're to drift into unholy Szaszian libertarianism) - is palpable. I shall no longer bang my head against the cliff face of his unreason. I will no longer always try to reach shared understanding with him. There he goes - my poor dad. But here I am, freed now from the impossible obligation of, as it were, living within an impossible home. I can now carry on rationally - since I can now recognise that: he cannot.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

self love

A peculiar ambiguity is built into the English language regarding self-love. On the one hand: take pride in your work! On the other: pride is the mother of all sins. On the one hand: love your neighbour as yourself! On the other: self-love is an abomination. On the one hand: it's good to work and relate in such ways as lead to one feeling satisfied with oneself. On the other: self-satisfaction is morally ugly. We find psychoanalysis wrestling with this too, asking itself if it needs a concept of 'healthy narcissism' to complement the pathological sort. 

This seems an extraordinary carelessness on the part of our language. 'Self-love' almost appears antonymic (cp 'cleave', 'sanction', 'fast'). So: what's going on?

The clue I'd like to pick up concerns how the word 'self' works in the English language. I think there's grounds to consider it an example of what Ryle rather misleadingly styled systematically misleading expressions. We are primed, by virtue of some inbuilt semantic stupidity, to think meaning inexorably a function merely of reference. And so we imagine that the contribution of 'self' to the phrase 'self love' is simply to supply that love's object. That, however, is not how 'self' often works in the language. 

Take 'self-consciousness'. Rather than being simply a matter of being conscious of oneself, the ordinary concept typically has to do with an excessive awareness of how others see us. Or take the concept of 'selfishness'. If 'self' simply specified the object of an attitude, then we might think it perfectly alright to sometimes be selfish. After all, we are in our own needs and desires as deserving, ceteris paribus, as anyone else - and in fact, being best placed to meet our own needs, we do well to try to meet and realise them. But no, selfishness doesn't just have to do with our attempting to meet our own needs or realising our own desires. It instead has to do with doing those things at the expense of others, or with not considering others' needs.

'Self', then, makes an important contribution to the English language which it is easy at first to overlook. Now: how about 'self love'? The suggestion I make here is that toxic self-love and pride concern not simply an esteem which has oneself as the object. Rather, they essentially involve self-in-relation-to-others, and they involve us in making a comparative, 'better than', judgement. Taking a healthy pride in one's work, by contrast, doesn't involve placing it in relation to the work of others. It involves valuing doing work with great care, and acting according to that value.

And loving oneself? The implicit divine injunction clearly doesn't have to do with a longing to be with ourselves (whatever that might mean). It instead has to do with wanting the best for oneself. That we want this it takes for granted. (We might not do so these days in the West. Sharon Salzburg has a great story about asking the Dalai Lama '“Your Holiness, what do you think about self-hatred?”... He looked at me seeming somewhat confused and asked in response: “What’s that?” ... When I explained to him what I meant by the term — talking about the cycle of self-judgment, guilt, unproductive thought patterns — he asked me, “How could you think of yourself that way?” and explained that we all have “Buddha nature”.') This isn't a matter of 'wanting better for oneself than for others'. Life is not, or at least is not always, a zero sum game. No, it's a matter of wanting to flourish, to be healthy and happy, simpliciter. 

Contrast self-love or narcissism of the noxious sort, which aims at personal gain at the expense of the fulfilment of duties to others.

Why are people primed to conflate the forms of pride? Yes, the language is confusing, but that's surely not the end of the matter. So I'm imagining, now, the kind of person who thinks all pride is an evil. Why might they think that? Well, here's one possibility. Perhaps it's because their sense of self is so insecure, so weak, that they can't imagine one being pleased for oneself unless that be parsed through relationships with others. For this person, so lost in dependent or counterdepeindent forms of identity, any pride will necessarily involve a positioning of the self in relation to other. Rather than grow into a mature independent self, this poor person is left having to constantly manage himself. Keeping a suspicious eye on his self-satisfaction will be a central part of this.

For those interested, I recommend John Lippitt's Kierkegaard and the Problem of Self-Love for a non-linguistic, deeper, exploration of these issues.

Sunday, 13 March 2022

it didn't hurt before, yet was so much less painful when it was fixed

A while ago a friend told me that, before he had his hip replaced, he wasn't experiencing discomfort - yet that, after he'd had the replacement, he was so much more comfortable! This, from a philosophical point of view, is an interesting experience. We typically use here phrases like become 'unaware of', or 'habituate to', (the pain) here to try to explain what was going on, to make good an apparent contradiction, but it's not obvious that they get us very far. To make the explanation work we construe discomfort on the model of our awareness of an object ... but since discomfort and our awareness of discomfort just aren't two different phenomena, one an experience and the other that experience's object, the explanation rather falls apart on us.

That life is like this, though: this is undeniable. No amount of Sartrean objections to the Freudian unconscious, the unknown experience, obviate the observation. And, let's face it, something similar happens with regard emotional rather than physical pain too. A patient, prior to developing a capacity for self-sympathy, typically remains oblivious to such hurts as can not only later be acknowledged but also then be acknowledged to - in some sense - have been alive earlier too. This happens, and far more widely than is typically acknowledged.

I don't raise this issue to try to psychologically explain it. It is, perhaps, not ultimately something that even requires explanation: it may instead simply be "there like our life", something in which we must acquiesce, an aspect of life to which we must just offer acknowledgement. And yet, if that's so, and if we're to not feel cheated of understanding, we shall surely instead at least require some explanation as to why it's hard so to do.

My own favourite metaphor for unconscious emotional life is owed not to the psychoanalysts but to the existential phenomenologists. We indwell unconscious affect like a fish which knows not of water yet endlessly swims within it; we can't get the distance from it to mentalise it. This water, though, runs all the way through us, so shaping the seeing eye that it can't itself be pulled into view. It structures the Lichtung's fabric, rather than shows up within it - and yet, being part of our very 'flesh' in this way, it's alive within every encounter we have. We could pile up the metaphors here, and they're useful both for bringing into view the phenomenon in question and for avoiding an unhelpful, personal/subpersonal-levels-muddling, pseudo-explanation in terms of (say) 'interoception'. And yet, let's face it, they're not really explanations. They don't really explain how it's possible; they just provide a picture which offers the phenomenon acknowledgement.

I've no doubt that my friend with the hip replacement was, before his operation, also walking in such a manner as would minimise discomfort without realising that he was even doing this. (Thomas Fuchs writes well about this sort of phenomenon in his treatment of unconscious mental life.) This too provides a helpful fact, as it were, with which to bolster our stand against the idea that Sartre's apt critique of the Freudian idea of the censor takes us far by way of refuting the notion of unconscious experience. We motivatedly veer away from that which we yet don't even experience. We don't need to think on what we yet somehow know to avoid. 

The ACT idea that it's futile to try to avoid such thoughts or feelings ("whatever you do, don't think about a pink elephant") as (in particular) make for misery, so we should instead make room for them whilst defusing from them, is ultimately perhaps somewhat limited. For people do, it seems, manage rather well to intentionally not think about or engage with affective 'pink elephants'. In fact I'm happy to here report some results newly in: that I myself have succeeded in very intentionally not thinking on a certain topic, and maintaining instead a clear mind, for a few minutes at a time. If the very idea seems paradoxical then it may be high time to update our sense of what it is to direct our attention away from that which inwardly vexes us. And in truth, certain depressed and procrastinating patients are, in fact, the ultimate masters of this: their affective ostrich heads remain resolutely buried in the unmentalising sands.

One tempting but ultimately vacuous option here would be to talk of 'levels of consciousness'. We say something like 'my friend's pain did not "rise to the level" of a truly conscious experience, but instead plied its trade under the radar of self-conscious suffering'. This Freudian submerged iceberg metaphor, however, doesn't really get us anywhere. It just rehearses the fact of the phenomenon in question, whilst once again inviting us to occupy an epistemic perspective on our own suffering even as it denies that suffering can be understood ('thetically' / 'positionally') as its own intentional object.

Wilfred Bion
Now Bion, it seems to me, is onto something important when he distinguishes mental pain and mental suffering. (He's talking about patients who he wants to say "experience pain but not suffering. They may be suffering in the eyes of the analyst because the analyst can, and indeed must, suffer. The patient may say he suffers but this is only because he does not know what suffering is and mistakes feeling pain for suffering it.") Self-solicitude and the capacity to suffer typically come along together, I believe, and the first may be born of the experience of 'internalising' the parent/analyst's solicitude. And yet we get nowhere here if at this point we just invent and pile on faculties and mechanisms, symbolisation, alpha function, etc. Whilst there's nothing wrong with the analytic concepts, there is something wrong with such of their users as take themselves to now be in possession of a causal explanation as to how disturbances of thought and feeling obtain - rather than, more modestly, a phenomenological articulation of clinically important facts.

Christopher Bollas talks of the 'unthought known', a concept I've found of value in my own life. One has an emotionally charged realisation regarding a significant fact or happening from earlier in life and can now attest that that about which one can now think, one nevertheless in some sense knew about all along. Is it just that the significance of the newly appreciated fact is now more clearly available to one? Well, it is that (but not the 'just'), but what this way of putting it misses is the significance of the knowledge in question. This knowledge is indwelt, it structures one's relationships like an inexorable yet by-oneself-unformulable a priori (Jonathan Lear writes well on this) rather than as one thinkable way of being among other possibilities.

The underappreciated Bede Rundle once suggested that it's intelligible that withdrawing one's hand from a pricking pin need not constitute a response to pain - if 'to' here means 'caused by'. Instead it could be that the pain and the response were effects of a common cause. 'I winced with pain' might, he said, be as or more apt a locution, in this regard, than 'The pain made me wince':

Compare an explanation which puts the shaking of a man's hand down to nervousness. 'Because he is nervous' does not here amount to a causal claim, but locates the behaviour within a larger set of circumstances, within a cluster of reactions whose causal structure has yet to be disentangled. / Closely analogous to pain is the example of sound: the hearing of a loud bang can actually succeed a startled reaction associated with it, minute though the time lag is. Note that, while this rules out the auditory experience as cause of the reaction, it does not necessarily contradict the claim of the sound to be cause, since, despite the different grammars of 'sound' and 'sound wave', their points of contact may allow the sound to be credited with causing whatever is attributable to the agency of the waves.  

This is interesting. It's natural to object: but were he to not have felt pain, he shouldn't have withdrawn from the pin. And yet: is this not an empirical claim? Isn't it at least intelligible, that is, that the body's reflexive movements be sometimes a response to injury rather than to injury's sensation? Similarly: I remember that I once saw a huge snake on the path and jumped in fright - and that the jumping, the startle, obtained before I'd got a clear idea of what I was looking at. Here, however, we're rather far from 'unfelt pain', and rather closer to 'unfelt injury'. For what we'd instead be analogically after here, let's recall, is the idea of a body with/from which one disidentifies, as it were, when one's injured, and so avoids feeling pain - and with which one reidentifies at a later time - at which time one can not only feel pain again but also newly acknowledge its prior presence.

Thinking about the relation of mood to emotion might help here. Thus when in a true mood one's not typically suffering a discretely emotional experience - but out of a mood can crystallise a particular emotion, at which point the mood ceases and one instead starts to genuinely suffer the emotion. Looking back at the moody time we might say: 'I now can see how much pain I was in / how angry I was before'. Looking back to times of what we call 'dissociation' can be like this too. My proposal now is that this isn't simply a subjunctive/hypothetical claim: that were I to not have been dissociated, I should then have felt pain / anger. For what that misses is that there's a whole new ease of being now in play which itself bespeaks a prior unregistered pain.

So how can we understand why it's hard to acknowledge what's manifestly true: what I'm calling 'the fact of unfelt pain'? My proposal is as follows: We tend to misconstrue nouns as inexorably referring to things - and it's characteristic of our concepts of things to have but a few criteria of identity and, moreover, criteria of identity which inexorably co-occur. It's also the case that when we think of intense physical pain, we tend to think it's impossible that we wouldn't be alive to it. Finally, we tend to imagine that the later acknowledgement of an earlier psychological truth (about ourselves) amounts to a kind of memory judgement - a recognition of the truth of a proposition which concerns an earlier state of affairs. Pain, both physical and mental, is however not at all like this.

First of all, there are several criteria for pain, and these can come apart. There's the behavioural response (move away from pain-inducing stimuli). There's the expressive response (the grimace). There's the pre-emptive avoidant behaviour. There's the expressive or reportative present-moment self-ascription. And then there's the later acknowledgement of the earlier pain. (I leave out the body's physiological activity which to my mind is extrinsic to the concept.) The meeting of any of these may be enabled by somewhat different physiological mechanisms. (Wincing, now, becomes criterial for pain - rather than something which, as Rundle suggests, may merely be an effect of a common cause. Thinking about what it is to wince, i.e. about the internal relation of 'wincing' and 'pain', should also help us out here!) The wrong way to think about these criteria is as evidence for the obtaining of a singular inner fact. Pain is not, as it were, an inner torchlight that is either on or off - the behaviour in question being evidence that the switch is in one or the other position. That is to make of pain what, following Wittgenstein, we may call a mythical 'beetle in a box', and once we've done that the temptation will be to think our denial of the torchlight makes of it 'a nothing' rather than 'a something'. Whereas what we ought to do is to here reiterate our question: ok, let's assume for the sake of argument that your talk of a torchlight beam is cogent: when do we properly say of someone that their torchlight beam is on?

Second, we typically find the pain of significant injury to be so intrusive and unresponsive to the will that we find it hard to imagine not being able to avow (i.e. express through self-ascribing) it. Yet why should that be? I simply have had patients who only came to be able to acknowledge the pain caused by significant injury after we looked together at their pain with ordinary respectful sympathy.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that a 'delay' in the avowal of a psychological fact needn't turn it into an empirical (i.e. merely factive, potentially erroneous) claim, i.e. needn't turn it into the expression of a judgement about one's own past state. I form a resolution, but do so while out hiking. My immediately calling my friend and sharing it is no more truly criterial for the fact of the resolution than is my finally doing so the next day - or six months later. I may of course never share it; I may forget about it; none of this, however, turns the times when I do share of it into something less than an avowal (i.e. when I voice the earlier resolution, rather than simply voice a judgement that I once made that resolution. Which isn't, of course, to say that I couldn't do the latter: as I might when I've quite forgotten it, and even on looking at the declaration of it in my diary cannot form an 'inner connection' with it - but yet have no cause to reject my diary entry.).

To conclude, I want to ask whether, to sustain the attribution of pain to he who sincerely doesn't avow it, we must posit the operation of a defeating condition. Is it intelligible that my friend, or my patients, who were not, as we say, 'aware' of their pain at t1, but at t2 can offer a belated avowal for t1's pain, be properly said to have yet been in pain at t1 unless we also have an explanation as why they couldn't avow it at t1? Must we refer to a broader character trait of self-neglect, or (what needn't be an entirely different matter) the operation of a dissociative defence mechanism, in order to sustain the attribution of unavowable pain at t1? Or will a later acknowledgement suffice? Well, it may differ from case to case as to where our shared intuitions as to intelligibility lie - and in fact there also need be no universally shared set of intuitions here either. There may be an indeterminacy in the very concept, that is, perhaps especially when we come to mental pain.

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

seth's vision

on it 'looking as if' the sun goes round the earth

Anscombe and Wittgenstein
      by Dave McKean
A gloriously pithy little dialogue between Wittgenstein and Anscombe goes like so: 

Wittgenstein: ‘Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth turned on its axis?’

Anscombe: ‘I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the Earth.’

Wittgenstein: ‘Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the Earth turned on its axis?’

On this, in chapter 4 of his 'Being You', Anil Seth offers a gloriously muddled take:

In this delightful exchange between Wittgenstein and his fellow philosopher (and biographer) Elizabeth Anscombe, the legendary German thinker uses the Copernican revolution to illustrate the point that how things seem is not necessarily how they are. Although it seems as though the sun goes around the Earth, it is of course the Earth rotating around its own axis that gives us night and day, and it is the sun, not the Earth, that sits at the centre of the solar system. Nothing new here, you might think, and you’d be right. But Wittgenstein was driving at something deeper. His real message for Anscombe was that even with a greater understanding of how things actually are, at some level things still appear the same way they always did. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, same as always.

What's gone wrong here? Leave aside the fibs about Wittgenstein being German and about Anscombe being his biographer. Leave aside too the unhappy idea that 'really', or 'of course', it's the earth spinning on its axis, and not the sun orbiting the earth, that accounts for there being night and day. (Doesn't it just depend - as Einstein points out in his little introduction to relativity theory - on which you stipulate as your reference frame?!) Also put aside the notion that it's any more than a truism that the sun, rather than the earth, sits at the centre of the solar system. Focus instead on the fact that Wittgenstein's lesson for Anscombe is neither that 'how things seem is not necessarily how they are' nor that 'even with a greater understanding of how things actually are, at some level things still appear the same way they always did'. His point is instead that it in truth no more seems to us as if the sun goes round the earth than it seems as if the earth goes round the sun! Wittgenstein's emphasis isn't here on the 'no more'; it's instead on the presumption that 'seems as if' is here being deployed with any meaning at all. Anscombe's point, to repeat, is that she was caught up in a mere illusion of sense.

Not only is Wittgenstein offering neither the surface nor the deeper message which Seth ascribes to him, but the lessons Seth suggests are in truth ruled out by Wittgenstein's actual lesson. (Something can't meaningfully be said to seem one way rather than another, with or without greater understanding coming into it, if 'seem' is used without meaning.) Anscombe makes all this perfectly clear, by the way, in the very paragraph from which Seth takes his extract:

The general method Wittgenstein does suggest is that of 'shewing that a man has supplied no meaning [or perhaps: "no reference"] for certain signs in his sentences'. I can illustrate the method from Wittgenstein's later way of discussing problems. He once greeted me with the question: 'Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?' I replied: 'I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.' 'Well,' he asked, 'what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?' This question brought it out that I had hitherto given no relevant meaning to 'it looks as if' in 'it looks as if the sun goes round the earth'. My reply was to hold out my hands with the palms upward, and raise them from my knees in a circular sweep, at the same time leaning backwards and assuming a dizzy expression. 'Exactly!' he said. In another case, I might have found that I could not supply any meaning other than that suggested by a naive conception, which could be destroyed by a question. The naive conception is really thoughtlessness, but it may take the power of a Copernicus effectively to call it in question.

If it seems peculiar, at this point in our discussion, that Seth should just ignore Wittgenstein's actual lesson, I hope it shan't by the discussion's end. Or at least, that it won't seem peculiar for him. For what we find, again and again as we read his chapter, is him doing precisely what Wittgenstein was teaching us to not do: he (like many a neuropsychologist colleague of his) uses familiar terms but fails to assign them meanings in the novel contexts in which they're redeployed. (Perhaps he's somehow assumed not that the meaning of words in sentences is a function of their use-in-context, but - to borrow a metaphor a friend of mine once offered - that they carry self-contained meanings about with them in little semantic rucksacks on their backs.) And just as he projects his own favoured scheme for representing the interactions between sun and planets onto that scheme's objects - so that he now imagines it makes ready sense to proffer that 'really' or 'of course' the earth goes round the sun - so too does he without demur project his own (rather peculiar, anthropomorphising) forms of description onto the operation of the perceptual system, mistaking this for the proffering of insight into the essential nature of perceptual reality contact itself. 

Let's consider some examples.

'I open my eyes and it seems as though there's a real world out there'

Here's how Seth continues his discussion:

As with the solar system, so with perception. I open my eyes and it seems as though there’s a real world out there. Today, I’m at home in Brighton. There are no cypress trees like there were in Santa Cruz, just the usual scatter of objects on my desk, a red chair in the corner, and beyond the window a totter of chimney pots. These objects seem to have specific shapes and colours, and for the ones closer at hand, smells and textures too. This is how things seem.

Although it may seem as though my senses provide transparent windows onto a mind-independent reality, and that perception is a process of ‘reading out’ sensory data, what’s really going on is – I believe – quite different. [all italics in original]

What does Seth mean here by 'it seems as though there's a real world out there'? Recall that the ordinary use of either 'seems as though' or 'looks as if', in the context of talk about perceptual judgement, is either i) to distinguish veridical perception from perceptual illusion or hallucination, or ii) to express self-conscious caution. The point of i) saying 'it looked as if there was an oasis there' is to make clear that here we're instead talking of a mirage. (And we understand what visual illusions are precisely by contrasting them with the ordinary business of seeing what's actually going on about us.) The point of saying ii) 'well it looks as if the golf ball's gone into the hole' is to make it clear that, being 50 rather than 2 yards away, we can't see it very well so may be wrong. Yet when it comes to 'I open my eyes and it seems as thought there's a real world out there' it's obvious that Seth is using the phrase 'it seems as though' in neither of these senses. He's not i) contrasting cases of misleading visual appearance with cases of ordinary perceptual encounter that take in how things are - since he's talking about ordinary, non-illusory, perceptual experience. It's not as if he could intelligibly say 'But it's all illusion, all a perceptual maya veil' since then we've lost the contrast ('veridical perception') which gives the concept of 'illusion' any content. And he's not ii) talking about being meaningfully cautious in perceptually less-than-ideal circumstances, since he's imagining our just opening our eyes in the day time and seeing whatever's right in front of us. So what does Seth mean by 'it seems as though'? 

Well, he doesn't tell us. He uses words outside of their normal sense-affording context of application, but fails to spell out how he's instead using them. It's as if he were trying to extrapolate from the manifest intelligibility of 'The partly submerged pencil looks bent' to a putative intelligibility for 'This ordinary pencil right in front of me, in ordinary lighting, in a circumstance in which there's no hint of anything being awry, looks straight'. But any such transfer of meaning is illusory; the only illusion we here encounter is (not sensory but) one of meaning. Or, well, perhaps Seth does intend something specific, something else, with his words! But speaking as the reader of a book which is presumably written in order to be understood - it would've been nice to have been told what it was!

'commonsense' ... or 'out there'?

As a foil for his own 'perception as controlled hallucination' view (we'll get to this later), Seth offers  something called a 'commonsense' or 'how things seem' conception of perception. This conception sees the world as being 'out there', and holds that our senses are 'windows' onto this 'external' reality, windows looked out of by 'the self', an 'I behind the eyes' which 'receives' and 'processes' 'sense data' in order to 'build an inner picture of an outside world'. ... And yet, and of course, if we're sitting in our study looking at the objects on the desk or the red chair, we don't experience these objects as 'out there'. After all, it doesn't 'seem' to us, we don't take it as commonsense to suppose, that we're somehow trapped inside our own bodies or heads! We might use the 'out there' locution to articulate what's beyond the front door, but such talk presupposes for its very intelligibility some perceivable 'in here' with which we may contrast it. And yet, in the case of looking at the paraphernalia on one's desk, there's no perceivable 'in here' to offer an intelligibility-providing contrast. (Thank goodness, right? Think how gruesome it'd be if the eyes pointed inwards.) And we look with, rather than through, our eyes. (What would I even look through my eyes with?! We may have adult teeth waiting in the wings to replace our milk teeth, but we don't have further eyes behind the alleged windows provided by our ordinary eyes.) What it is about this view that warrants its description as 'common sense' - rather than as something which, in a different sense of the idiom, really is rather 'out there' - is utterly unclear. It instead looks to me far more like what in C18th philosophy, and in even today's sciences of perception, but not for the man on the street, is fairly common nonsense. 

Dan Dennett
In truth Seth himself acknowledges that this conception is no more than conceptual confusion writ large: he notes that it gets us caught up in what Dennett calls the 'fallacy of 'double transduction'' whereby inner images are invoked to explain perception of the world, leaving us with the equally problematic issue of how we see these inner images. What Seth doesn't do, however, is question whether the question to which this 'inner image' view of perception offers an answer has a cogent sense.  Now, one way to mobilise the 'how do we see?' question, one way to give it at least the appearance of intelligibility, is to imagine first that we really are somehow stuck inside our own skulls, and therefore forced to perceptually reconstruct a now external world using images that appear on the retina. And now the question 'well how do we do that?!' will - to say the least - appear pressing. But undo, avoid, this alienated conception of our perceptual encounter with the world, and it's none too obvious that there's a question remaining which requires the provision of an alternative answer. If 'how do we see?' is to be understood as inviting an answer in neurological terms, then all well and good.  But a psychological or an epistemological answer? What, exactly, is the psychological or epistemological problem that the question is addressing?! I can't myself see one, and so don't see what it is that a psychology of vision is here supposed to be doing. But perhaps there is a good question hereabouts? Well, I'm all ears: do tell!

perception: 'generated by the brain'?

Part of this allegedly 'commonsense' view has it that we ordinarily think that 'A coffee cup out there in the world leads to a perception of a coffee cup generated within the brain.' And it turns out that whilst Seth will dispute a neurophysiological outside-in or bottom-up theory - one in which the neurological events enabling perception follow a unidirectional cascade from eyeball to striate cortex etc - he actually agrees with (what in fact is) this only allegedly 'commonsense' view that perception is 'generated within the brain'. 

Nobody (sane) could disagree that we're dependent for our perception on the activity of the brain. In order to see - to actually see, that is - a cat, the following ingredients are required: 1 medium sized cat, a few ounces of light, 1 or 2 retinae, and a goodly pinch both of optical nerve, and of striate cortex, activation. (Or, if all we're after is a mere cat hallucination, we may leave out the first 4 ingredients.) From none of this does it follow, however, that perception is intelligibly described as 'generated within' the brain. Perception just isn't the right kind of thing to be 'generated' anywhere. (In truth, and en passant: whilst I just offered the above 5 ingredients as a recipe for perception, we ought to acknowledge that, to truly be counted a perceiver, one must also enjoy animate life: a body, and all the neural and physiological movement control apparatus to sustain such a life. But let's not get into that here!)

Now, if we'd subscribed to what Seth construes as the 'commonsense' view - that perception involves inner images - we can I think imagine thinking of perception as being generated, since its in the nature of the coming about of images that we do talk intelligibly of their generation. Absent some such conception, however, and it's hard to see what talk of 'generation' could be getting at, let alone talk of 'generation within the brain'. Compare my paying for my shopping. Paying, like perceiving, is something I do. But must the paying be generated somewhere, perhaps somewhere within me? No, of course not. This isn't to doubt that it happens - it most certainly does (I'm not a thief). It's instead to doubt that there's any clearly intelligible role for talk of 'generation' here. So too, I suggest, for the idea that perception is 'generated by' - or as Seth also says, 'a construction of' - the brain. Perception is not the name of an entity or process; it's instead an action - which is to say, or by which I mean: it's something I do. The action relies on the generation of ATP, neurotransmitters, etc., sure. And when I do perceive, all sorts of activity obtains in my CNS - which activity certainly is generated. But my perceiving is neither such activity itself, nor some further activity generated by it; it's not itself activity in this sense - though in a different sense we might describe it as an activity.   

This idea of perception as something somehow 'coming about' within us pops up throughout Seth's discussion, and colludes there with other peculiar ideas such as that our perceptual consciousness is not of the world but of what is generated by neurological processes: 'Whenever we are conscious, we are conscious of something, or of many things. These are the contents of consciousness. To understand how they come about...[we should consider the functioning of the brain].' The idea here seems to be that what you are conscious of, when you are perceptually aware of something, is something which comes about inside the brain. This however is straightforwardly mistaken: what you're conscious of, when you actually perceive something, is something that's on the desk in front of you! And if you want to know how pencils, laptops and coffee cups come about - well, don't ask a neuropsychologist! (To voice this is not to engage in either naive or sophisticated or philosophical or psychological theorising about perception: it's merely to remember how to use the word 'perceive'.) ... Or perhaps Seth had in mind what philosophers call the 'intentional' rather than 'material' objects when talking about consciousness's 'contents'? But, well, that hardly helps, since we aren't conscious of intentional objects: they're logical constructs, not perceptibilia.

the brain: 'constantly making predictions'?

When presenting his opponent, Seth frequently merges together two different stories about perception into one. The first narrative is an empirically false theory: a neurological story about perception being enabled by a merely bottom-up stream of neuronal activity that begins at the retinae and moves on to the striate cortex, activating 'feature detectors' as it goes along its merry afferent way. The other is not even false: it's the philosophically confused notion of a perceiving person as allegedly being in the desperate epistemic predicament of having to reconstruct the glories of the visual scene from the meagre data to be found on the retinae - as if we were all somehow trapped inside our own skulls. Bring these together and we arrive at the idea of the brain now being involved in somehow solving this poor person's predicament. (As far as I can tell we also find something like this latter muddle in Helmholtz, Gregory, Frith, and in much of contemporary cognitive neuroscience.)

Rather than separating out the empirically testable from the philosophically confused, Seth's own positive alternative is also something of an unholy hybrid. One aspect of it is a scientifically intriguing story - this has visual perception neurologically underwritten not only by afferent 'bottom-up' enervation deriving from retinal stimulation but also, and more importantly, by a complex 'top-down' set of central processes. Unfortunately however, and so far as I could tell (I've read chapter 4 carefully but rather skipped about in the rest of the book), Seth tells us absolutely nothing at all about the actual neurological details. (Perhaps he thought the reader just wouldn't find this of interest. ... I admit to finding this all a great shame. To return to Wittgenstein for a moment: recall his discussion with Bouwsma about the difference between the ghastly pop-sci writing of the likes of Jeans or Eddington, and the patient, empirically detailed, well-grounded, accessible writing found in Faraday's Chemical History of the Candle. The former tends toward the sensational and merges inchoate philosophical claims with poorly elucidated empirical details; the latter deploys careful plain prose to describe actual empirical details, making a circumscribed matter truly intelligible to a lay reader. Speaking for myself I found Seth's popular book ( - I'll own that I know nothing of his actual neuroscientific contributions, and have no idea if I'd even understand them - ), with its lack of actual neuroscientific detail and its sweeping, conceptually awry, claims about consciousness, to be rather more Jeans than Faraday.) The other is the philosophically confused notion articulated above: of an anthropomorphised brain in the dismal epistemic predicament of somehow fathoming an external world from the confines of its own bony cavern.

Here's the story as he develops it:

[T]he brain is constantly making predictions about the causes of its sensory signals, predictions which cascade in a top-down direction through the brain’s perceptual hierarchies (the grey arrows in the image opposite). If you happen to be looking at a coffee cup, your visual cortex will be formulating predictions about the causes of the sensory signals that originate from this coffee cup.

What is it for a brain to make predictions? Well, let's recall first what it is for a creature to make predictions. To predict you must first be able to 'dict' - i.e. verbally communicate, describe what is happening right now. After this you must be able to enjoy the kinds of thoughts about the future which are afforded to such language users as have mastered tensed verbs. Animals and young children can anticipate or expect (we ascribe anticipation to them on the basis of their ongoing coping with a changing world, on the basis of their lack of surprise by changes, etc.) but not predict. Such mastery of tensed verbs is of course not simply a matter of being able to say certain things. It's rather a skill which requires its performer to be culturally situated, to act and react in such ways as warrant us talking of intention and agency, to be able to use a whole lot of other language too, to mean what one says, and so on. Literally none of these things are possible for non-human animals or pre-linguistic children, let alone any of their behaviourally inert, non-vocal, non-verbal internal organs. 

So we're forced to conclude that - since it'd be a nonsense to say that a brain is actually expecting or anticipating, let alone predicting, anything - Seth must either i) be in a terrible muddle, or ii) be, wittingly or unwittingly, using the word 'predict' in a special way. Let's adopt interpretative charity and assume the latter. Seth is really talking, we might say, about 'prediction2'. The question arises: what are the criteria governing its use; what are its ascription conditions? When shall we say of a natural process - e.g. one occurring in the brain - that it constitutes a prediction2? Shall it be that, say, a leaf predicts2 the sun's position if it turns the leaf not to where the sun now is but to where it will maximise photosynthesis in twenty minutes? Shall we say that a pancreas (let's imagine, I've no idea how they work...) predicts2 what insulin shall be required to digest the food that's being eaten if it releases it not in response to current blood sugar levels but instead in response to mastication or smell? Well, we can do! That's just fine! A perfectly innocent metaphor which we perfectly well understand. Unfortunately, however, Seth doesn't tell us what he means by 'predict', so his theory remains either cogent yet occult, or, if he was intending his word in the normal sense, incoherent.

It might be argued: 'But surely scientists extend or creatively misuse words all the time; scientific theorising is riddled with metaphor, and this is all for the better!' It's important to note that with that I have absolutely no quarrel. All I ask is that the metaphor user or new sense deployer stop at some point to explain what this new or extended use is. Otherwise we just shan't know what's being talked about.

'perception as controlled hallucination'

Hippolyte Taine
The central claim of Seth's presentation is that hallucination is 'controlled hallucination'; he takes the idea from Frith (who presumably got it from Taine). We arrive at this prima facie extraordinary claim by pushing the above-described hybrid account to its limits. On the one hand we accept a new empirical theory of vision, one which gives pride of place to an array of 'top-down' activity in the striate cortex, and which correlatively diminishes the role of 'bottom-up', relentlessly afferent, neural activity. On the other hand we accept the mapping of such inner activity in the CNS onto that conceptually corrupt epistemological story: which has us stuck in our own heads, which has perception generated within the brain, which somehow either 'identifies' perceptual acts with their most central neurobiological substrates or sees the latter as 'generating' the former. These central processes, recall, are not under the direct control of afferent sensory stimuli. They are brought into causal connection with such stimuli, but what serves to ready one's bodily movement (i.e. ultimately to underwrite one's very understanding of one's environment) has a lot more to do with internally-generated, rather than afferently controlled, neural activity.

So how do we get to 'controlled hallucination'? Well, having accepted i) the unhelpful philosophical idea that internal neural processes either are or generate perceptual experiences, whilst ii) promoting the valuable empirical idea that perceptual activity is made possible by largely top-down rather than bottom-up neurological processes, we arrive at the idea that actual perceptual experiences exist or arise independently of their objects! It's this odd admixture of epistemology and neuroscience that results in a perfectly legitimate (if radically under-described in 'Being You') neurological story taking on such extraordinary epistemological garb.

The truth, of course, is that far from veridical perception being helpfully theorised in terms of hallucination, it is necessarily that against which hallucination can be understood for what it is. Again, only on an 18th century picture according to which experiences go on somehow 'inside us' could anyone even begin to think of hallucination as the stuff of perception itself. We only have to recall what it is to hallucinate - to have an experience which in some ways if not in all is for one as if one were actually perceiving something despite the fact that one isn't - to realise what a non-starter it is. Perception, considered epistemologically, has to do with our 'openness' to the world, our capacity to 'take in' how things are. Those are epistemological metaphors, mind you: they've nothing to do with subpersonal goings on in the retinae, optical nerve, or striate cortex. There is simply no reason to superimpose the two pictures, any more than there's reason to superimpose the facts about the control of movements by the motor cortex onto a story about acting on intention. (A point Susan Hurley made back in 1998.) Neither the intentions nor the perceptual experiences are 'inside' us; action is not 'output' and sensation is not 'input'; the subpersonal is not the instantiation of the personal.

Søren Overgaard has recently made the point that something like a performative contradiction appears to lie at the heart of the 'perception is hallucination' view, just as it famously does for the 'eliminative materialist' and the 'logical positivist' projects. The cognitive scientist, after all, presumably got the evidence for his view by inspecting brain scans, reading papers, etc. But according to Seth he in fact experienced a hallucination of these scans, papers, etc. It is of the essence of hallucination,  however, that it provides no actual knowledge of the world about one. So the theory would appear to be based upon no actual evidence. Now clearly this is a rather cheeky objection. But it's important to understand it for the challenge it is, which may be put like this: 'You say perception is hallucination, but obviously, in any ordinary sense of the word, it is not. So please, please, tell us what instead you mean by 'hallucination'!'

'chairs aren't red'

Not content to leave us with the paradox of perception as hallucination, Seth next ventures into the notion that chairs (which ones? ... red ones...) aren't red. We get there by way of some standard-issue and utterly sound observations regarding the context- and light-levels- influenced nature of our perceptual judgements combined, once again, with some decidedly C18th philosophy - this time to do not only with a conception of perception as something happening inside us but also with 'secondary qualities' (colour, sound, etc.) not truly  belonging to objects. How now does the story go?

Seth begins by pointing out that our capacity to judge the colour of objects is enabled not only by our responsivity to light of this or that wavelength, but also by a range of contextual factors including the form of illumination in play. 'Take a white piece of paper outdoors and it still looks white, even though the light it reflects now has a very different spectral composition'. So far, so good: it's not simply that different lighting and contexts can mislead us as to the actual colour of a thing (as assessed by taking it outside into daylight); it's also that we can correctly perceive that something is the same colour even when the wavelength of the light reflected from it alters considerably.

From this, however, Seth argues - not against the reductionist notion that wavelength is a happy index of colour, but - that the 'brain infers' the 'invariant property' of 'the way in which the paper reflects light', and that this 'inference' or 'best guess' 'appear[s] in our conscious experience'. We finally arrive at the subjectivist notion that 'colour is not a definite property of things-in-themselves', but instead 'a useful device that evolution has hit upon' to keep track of objects in changing lighting conditions. But how do we get here? How do we get to the idea that colour is a property not of things themselves but is instead 'the subjective, phenomenological aspect' of the 'mechanisms of perception' deployed by the brain to keep track of objects through keeping a bead on the 'way-in-which-they-reflect-light'? 

So far as I can tell, the thought tacitly underlying Seth's theory here owes nothing to science and everything to scientism. It's the thought, that is, that the 'real' properties of things are what's discernible by natural scientific investigation. We can I think see this in such peculiar lines as the following: 'Chairs aren't red just as they aren't ugly or old-fashioned or avant-garde.' But of course, chairs can in fact truly be ugly or old-fashioned or red, so it's obvious he's not using the term 'is' or 'really' in the normal way. With this deviation in play he effectively invites us to simply leave behind our ordinary use of 'real' to distinguish the actual colour of things from the colour they merely appear to have under certain odd lighting conditions or behind a hastily added disguise. But, well, why would we use the word 'real' in this new way? How does it help rather than confound? Which scientific facts about vision are illuminated rather than obscured by such a usage? I must here own that I just can't think of a cogent reason to speak of red chairs not being red.

Seth arrives at the thought that 'we assume that we each see the world in roughly the same way, and most of the time perhaps we do. But even if this is so, it isn’t because red chairs really are red'. Here we're rather back to where we started, with a use of the words 'assume' and 'same way' without a manifest sense in the context of their applications. I assume that you and I both see the red chair as red? Well, sure, I typically assume that you've nothing wrong with your eyes. But what does it even mean: to see a red thing as red? (To not be making a mistake about its colour perhaps?) Or: what's even meant by 'same or different way' here? Once again, Seth puts words together in what look to be grammatically well-formed sentences - but we're left with no understanding of what they mean in the particular context of his prose.