Metzinger’s Atman and Capitalist Ideology

by Tom Pepper

 

Locke with Descartes in a headlock
Locke with Descartes in a headlock

Introduction

Over the last year or so, I have many times dismissed Thomas Metzinger’s “Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity” as flawed, and claimed that it functions to produce a capitalist ideology of the subject under the guise of science.  This summary rejection of Metzinger’s project has angered and frustrated a few participants here, and I have only ever given brief and cursory explanations of the problems I find in this particular form of cognitive reductivism.  Here, I propose to give a somewhat fuller account of what is wrong with Metzinger’s theory, with the hope of avoiding having this same argument every time his name comes up.

I am going to focus on his essay “Précis: Being No One,” in which he sketches the argument of his very long book.  This is not meant as a formal academic refutation of all of his work, by any means.  The “Précis” is sufficient because it focuses on exactly those parts of his book that I find to be most problematic; it is also useful because, being fairly short, any readers not familiar with Metzinger can get a good idea of his project by reading it themselves (I provide a link to the pdf version below).  It is my hope that after reading this, any reader can extend the argument against Metzinger’s theory to the rest of his project on her own.  There has been little criticism of Metzinger from the discipline of philosophy in the English-speaking world; no doubt this is largely because the philosophical errors in his work are so startlingly obvious that most philosophers would be embarrassed to take the time to point them out.  It would be a bit like asking Freud to engage in debate with Dr. Phil.  However, I am no Freud, and don’t have quite as far to stoop.  There have, however, been some responses to Metzinger from philosophers, and I give links to some of them below; although the emphasis is different from my own, they basically find the same fundamental faults in his work.  Perhaps if Metzinger did not claim to have finally solved once and for all the perennial mind/body, and then offered only a recycled solution that any undergraduate philosophy student should be embarrassed not to recognize as a familiar error, no philosopher at all would have wasted any time on him.  If one makes grand claims, one ought to at least make grand errors.

What I propose here is simply to point out the major problems with the Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, explaining why it fails to solve the problem it claims to have solved.  In fact, it fails to even recognize what the problem actually is.  Then I will proceed to explain how this theory functions as capitalist ideology, working to ensure the reproduction of the existing relations of production.

Problems With the Self-Model Theory

I will begin with the most damaging error—which is also the one most often pointed out by those who criticize Metzinger.  In philosophy, this error has many names, such as the “homunculus problem” or the problem of “infinite regress”; I will here refer to it as the “subtle atman” problem.  This is when we depend on a transcendent and non-determined “consciousness” to explain how our consciousness is completely determined and not at all transcendent.  When someone asserts that there is no ultimate essence or core self, but his account of how the apparent self (conventional self, phenomenal self, illusory self, etc.) arises requires the existence of an ultimate consciousness, then he is simply sneaking an atman in the back door.  This is the problem Hume faced when he attempted in his Treatise on Human Nature to account for the mind completely from within a naturalist and reductive model.  Here is how Galen Strawson explains this problem in his book The Evident Connection:

    Within a year, Hume sees that he can’t maintain the view that this is the true idea of the mind, although his empiricist principles commit him to the view that it is.  Or rather, he sees that it’s not the idea of the mind that he’s worked with in his philosophy, although his empiricist principles commit him to working with no other. This is his problem: the empiricistically ‘true’ idea of the mind isn’t consistent with his philosophical commitments considered as a whole. . . He realizes that he has throughout his philosophy made us of—presupposed—a notion of the mind or self that is open to the objection that it is not legitimate by his own lights. (33-34, emphasis added.)

Now, Hume realized the error he was making, and had the courage not to hide behind the lame excuse that this is just a matter of the conventions of language.  He understood that his empiricist model of the mind required the existence of a Cartesian separate consciousness—that it is not merely our conventional way of speaking that makes this error, but a failure of this explanation; the problem was that the working of the empiricist model always required the existence of some separate, undetermined, guiding consciousness, and Hume rejected the possibility of anything resembling a soul or any kind of transcendent essence.  Ever since, this has been a problem that no reductionist model of the mind has been able to solve, and a problem that every undergraduate philosophy student is required to understand.

Metzinger, however, clearly remains oblivious to this centuries-old error.  His Self-Model Theory consistently makes exactly the same error, and refuses to accept or recognize that it is a real problem.  He asserts that his theory claims that “no such things as selves exist in the world,” that there is no “unchangeable essence or …thing” but only a conceptual error in which a model of a self is mistaken for such a core essence or thing (3).  And here is the problem.  Who is making this mistake?  What consciousness is making the error of falsely believing that a “representation” of a self is an actual self?  If a mistake is being made, who is making it?  This rhetorical sleight-of hand runs throughout Metzinger’s book and articles, but I will offer just a handful of examples from the “Precis” alone:


“autoepistemic closure”…refers to an a “inbuilt blind spot”, a structurally anchored deficit in the capacity to gain knowledge about oneself.(2)

Who is “blind” to this particular spot?  What transcendent consciousness is unable to gain this particular self-knowledge?

The phenomenal property of selfhood as such is a representational construct…It is a truly phenomenal property in terms of being an appearance only. (3)

To whom is this representation made?  Who is mistaking this “appearance” for a real thing?

The transparency of the self-model is a special form of inner darkness.  It consists in the fact that the representational character of the contents of self-consciousness is not accessible to subjective experience. (4)

How can we possibly understand this “subjective experience” which is denied access to the workings of the brain, except as some kind of transcendent consciousness?

The contents of conscious experience are characterized by my ability to react directly to them with a multitude of my mental and bodily capacities: I can direct my attention toward a perceived color or bodily sensation. (6)

Who is doing the “directing” here?  Who is the (undetermined, freely choosing) owner of “capacities” and how does she choose where to direct those capacities?

I could extend these examples for pages, even without leaving this one essay.  But it should be clear enough that, like Hume in the treatise, Metzinger makes use of a philosophical concept of a free and undetermined consciousness that is not legitimate according to his own theory.

As with Hume, this goes beyond merely accidentally lapsing into the errors of ordinary language.  Metzinger’s model requires the existence of a transcendent and undetermined consciousness, a subtle atman.  As with cognitive science generally, which takes the computer as the model of the mind, there must be a programmer or operator who remains separate from the system and directs its actions and evaluates outcomes.  Metzinger proposes the existence of a “model” of the self, and suggests that there is not self because this model is only a model, not an actual self.  We act in the world, on Metzinger’s model, by observing this model and evaluating how it relates to “objects” in the world, and then choosing to “direct” our mental capacities to act in a certain way; the guiding consciousness which does this directing does so completely undetermined by the system, except for the limitations on its knowledge which arise from mistaking the self-model for an actual self.  This error, for Metzinger, is functional—it is biologically and evolutionarily useful—but it might at some point become limiting of the capacity of this transcendent and undetermined consciousness—this atman—to acquire correct knowledge.

There is some passing attempt to defend against this error, but it is a rather weak defense.  Either Metzinger doesn’t really see the extent of the problem, or doesn’t want to call attention to the complete failure of his system.  He gives the tired claim that this is a matter of “linguistic tools from public space” (19), but he doesn’t seem to be completely aware that he has made use of those “tools” throughout his own argument, and that it fundamentally depends upon them.  Clearly we could avoid the use of conventional language in academic discourse—Metzinger’s many invented or redefined terms should be evidence of this fact.  This is not a matter of a necessity of common language and clarity, because he is not hesitant to redefine terms throughout his project and insist that we ignore their common meaning.  And while we may frequently fall into the use of linguistic convention in, for instance, explaining how our computer works (the computer thinks this is an error, etc.), we could, and often do, avoid this kind of language when we need to.  Metzinger also tries to avoid this problem with the mind-as-computer analogy: “Any machine can do self-directed modeling”(22).  Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem at all, because there is always a separate consciousness working to direct the machine to do this purportedly “self-directed” work.

This one problem alone should be enough to discredit Metzinger’s repackaged empiricism.  I will, however, point out three other problems that are made particularly clear in this essay.  This doesn’t even begin to cover all of the errors in the book of which this is the précis.  It will, however, give us some indication of where to look for the ideological purpose of Metzinger’s pseudo-science.

One enormous problem is the insistence that this is a neurological account of the mind, an account that explains how the mind arises from the brain.  This is asserted, but there is in fact no evidence whatsoever that this theory corresponds to anything in the brain.  It is simply assumed that if we limit all research to trying to find “neural correlates” for the “constraints” of the system, we will find them eventually.  For each “constraint,” however, we are informed that there is no evidence whatsoever to support the theory: “Currently no detailed theories concerning possible neural correlates…for the appearance of a coherent, conscious model of the world do exist. However, there are a number of interesting speculative hypotheses”(7); “Neural correlates of the window of presence Very little is known in terms of implementational details” (10); “Neural correlates of convolved holism Once again, we have to admit that not enough empirical data are currently available in order to be able to make and precise statements”(16).  In the absence of any neurological evidence for the theory, and given the obvious lack of conceptual coherence, why should we accept this theory at all?  Why would anyone even consider it?  I will return to the ideological motivations for accepting a theory which lacks both empirical support and theoretical coherence.

Another philosophical error is the assumption, common in empiricism, that objects have an inherent givenness which we passively perceive.  The world, on this understanding, organizes itself naturally, and we are simply machines designed to detect and adapt to it.  Since Heidegger, the problem with this conception should be too obvious to need explanation, but I will do so, briefly, anyway.  Metzinger assumes that our perception of objects in the world is related to an erroneous self-model, but that the objects as such are simply given.  That is, we may be mistaken about how an object can be of use to us, but we are always seeing the thing as it naturally occurs, always “carving nature at the joints,” in our perceptions of it. We may have varying degrees of detail in our perception, but the discrete objects we perceive are objects “from their own side,” as it were.  All perception is the accumulation of “information”: “complex information pertaining to dynamical subject-object relations can be extracted from reality and used for selective and flexible further processing”(4, emphasis added).  The “first-person perspective” is always “trying to give fine-grained and clear descriptions of target phenomena”(5), and the limitations on this are always at the “neurobiological level”(5).  In a revealingly Kantian example, Metzinger explains that when we look at  “a beautiful landscape” we can achieve a “briefly emerging integrated whole”(15).  Kant assumes that the aesthetic appreciation of a landscape is evidence that our sense perceptions are in correct alignment with our concepts, that we are perceiving the world correctly and so are thinking correctly, and are correctly adjusted to the world.  If we do not perceive as aesthetically pleasing what is generally perceived as beautiful, this is an indication of an error in our thought or senses.  Metzinger’s theory depends very heavily on this Kantian aesthetics of the beautiful, meant to encourage political stability and acceptance of the existing social system, and to pathologize any discontent—I will return to this point later.

The problem with this assumption of a “reality” which we detect in perceptual “information” is that it just doesn’t correspond in any way to how people actually live and interact in the world.  As Andrew Collier puts it, empiricism “can take experience itself to be an authority above criticism, unaware of the way experience can confirm our prejudices, since we may see what we have been taught to see”(72, emphasis added).  The beauty of a landscape is a learned perception.  In fact, many more of our perceptions of the world are learned in language and social practices—even including visual perceptions and sensations of taste and smell.  Metzinger’s model very powerfully insists on an atomistic subject correctly perceiving the world, with possible errors or limits in our evolutionary biology.  He cannot consider the role of the social formations in producing the subject at all.

This leads to the final problem I will discuss here: the ridiculously naïve theory of language.  For Metzinger, we all develop a “private language” along with our model of our self, and then, once we have developed this (illusory) self and (neurologically determined) language, we are complete atomistic subjects who can enter into social relationships and “the transition from biological to cultural evolution”(31) begins.  As Metzinger explains the process, it begins with “processing by subsymbolic mechanisms like attention or implicit memory,” gradually working up to “concept formation, metacognition and verbal report”(6).  These perceptions are “entirely determined by the properties of your brain”(24), and even the sense of “self” we develop is an empirical and biologically determined concept, never socially constructed.  Metzinger claims that  his theory is “truly radical” because it asserts that “no such things as selves exist in the world”(24).  The self is only an error that the  transcendent consciousness (which does not exist) makes when it mistakes the biologically determined “self-model” for its own mirror image.

Again, this concept of language acquisition is probably too obviously absurd today for there to be any necessity to point out the error, but I will do so anyway.  Clearly we do not produce a language from neurologically predetermined perceptual dispositions.  It should be obvious to anyone who speaks a language that we enter into a pre-existing language because of our social experiences, not neurological predispositions.  This theory of language is required by the Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, however.  If language were socially produced, it could be a result of social formations and a site of social struggle, and this would require us to look for the mind and the subject in social formations instead of in the brain the computer metaphors of cognitive science.

I have offered only a cursory indication of the most glaring errors of Metzinger’s theory.  Still, it should be enough to make anyone wonder why anyone would be duped into accepting it.  In fact, I have to admit that while writing this I feel a bit like someone who is offering scientific arguments against the existence of fairies, since I don’t personally know of any academic in the U.S. who does take Metzinger seriously.  Nevertheless, it seems that several participants on this blog think he has something important to say, and so I offer a short account of why I think giving Metzinger serious attention is a mistake.  I will proceed, now, to explain the ideological implications of Metzinger’s project, and try to account for why it might be appealing despite the total absence of empirical support or theoretical coherence.

Ideological Function of the Theory

Once again, I am using the term ideology in the Althusserian sense.  An ideology is not an error or illusion or deception or trick or “false consciousness”!!!  An ideology is a belief imbedded in a practice that functions to reproduce the existing relations of production.  Ideology is our relations to our relations of production, the way we experience our existence in the world, and so is necessarily very real, with real causal powers.  It is not “real” in any mind-independent way, however.  While the existence of the planets and the stars that make up our solar system are completely mind-independent, in that they would continue to exist regardless of whether there were any conscious beings to know about them, our ideologies would cease to exist if we did.  This does not make them any less real.  The United States is a very real entity, with real causal powers, but it is completely ideological, in this sense, because it is mind-dependent, would cease to exist if there were no people left to believe in it and follow its laws, and it functions to reproduce the global capitalist economic system.

Of course, ideology can be based on error, and can require deception.  It doesn’t need to, though.  Perhaps the worst kind of error is when an ideological concept is mistaken for a scientific truth.  The idea that “hard work” is good is an ideological concept—it cannot be “proven” false, because it is true to the extent that we believe in it, and that we get some benefit and satisfaction from doing whatever counts as “hard work” in our culture.  However, if we claim that the virtue of hard work is a “natural” need of the species, that it is a concept that is true separate from our particular cultural construction of “work” and subjective experience of satisfaction, we are attempting to reify an ideology and delude people, including ourselves.  Whenever an ideology requires deception or error, whenever it can only be perpetuated by limiting knowledge or requiring belief in a falsehood, it is a safe bet that it is an ideology that is oppressive and that we is not in our best interest to perpetuate.

How might Metzinger’s theory function as an ideology?  It clearly requires both ignorance and error, so it is likely an ideology we would not willingly accept and participate in if we were made aware of it.  Let’s consider some of the possible ideological functions this theory might serve.

Political quietism:  As the very Kantian aesthetic example mentioned above would suggest, one function of the theory would seem to be to produce subjects who would seek to adjust themselves to the existing social system, and never consider that their difficulties result from that system.  Any problems would result in some internal error in “representation” or information processing, and the solution would be to make adjustment to the atomistic machine that is the human individual until she can adequately function in whatever role she is put in.  The best indication of proper functioning, of course, is proper aesthetic sensibility: the appreciation of a beautiful  landscape, and the total absence of any annoying concepts concerning the social construction of taste, or landscapes, would be an indication that the system is working well.  Once this occurs, the soul trapped in this machine would feel at home, and the machine itself would seem “transparent”; and, of course, that soul/consciousness could be safely ignored.

Naturalizing emotions:  Reproducing Romantic ideology, Metzigner separates out emotion and thought, assigning the former “natural” and causal status and suggesting that the latter has no real causal power and can be changed at will (apparently at the will of the transcendent consciousness that does not exist).  Discussing “system-related information,” he asserts that there is a “degree of flexibility and autonomy in dealing with the contents of self-consciousness”(19).  Emotions are similar to bodily sensations of pain and hunger, naturally occurring and highly inflexible, while “thoughts are something that may not even be determined…before being spoken loud or writing down”(19).  The suggestion is that our emotions are not culturally influenced, but hard-wired, while our thoughts are more ephemeral and ultimately not really important at all, since they are the outcome of our actions, mere epiphenomenon which never motivate action themselves.  I won’t bother to argue for the position that emotions are very much cultural constructs here; the point is that this assumption that the particular emotions we happen to have are natural and motivating reifies our existing ideology.  In addition, Metzinger simply assumes without even feeling the need to argue the point that thought cannot motivate action, that it is powerless and a mere epiphenomenon.

To offer just one contrasting position, Spinoza argues that emotions in fact are thoughts, they are simply thoughts which are “inadequate” or imprecise, and so lead to difficulty in acting in the world.  Clear and correct thought, on the other hand, can both motivate our actions (we do things for reasons we have in mind, not only because of feelings in our “gut”), and can lead to more successful and correct action, provided we participate in a collective which produces correct ideas together (on this argument, see Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, particularly chapter 5).  Metzinger’s naturalization of emotions and reduction of thought to epiphenomena functions, once again, to reify our existing ideology; more troubling yet, it suggests that only imprecise and inadequate ideas are motivating and “true” ideas, and therefore that we can only be motivated by an ideology which distorts reality.  This particular point could be developed more rigorously, using Metzinger’s Being No-one, but I’m not sure it is necessary, seeing that Metzinger isn’t really taken that seriously by mainstream thought; I offer it here only to indicate the problem.

Atomist and private property: As I have already pointed out, Metzinger has a completely atomistic concept of human minds, in which each individual consciousness is produced by an individual body’s interaction with the “information” in the world, and only once the brain has produced a consciousness and a private language does the individual interact with other individuals.  Along with this absolute atomism, he assumes the completely natural and biological occurrence of the most important “phenomenal property” in the whole functionalist account of the subject: “The property of mineness (also often called the ‘sense of ownership’)” (19).  The mistaken belief that we have a private consciousness which is not at all socially constructed is a central error of capitalist social formations, leading to frustration and suffering in our everyday lives.  “The private consciousness and the mystified consciousness go hand in hand” Henri Lefebvre explains in Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. I, “reinforcing each other and becoming increasingly entrenched as a result of instabilities which have their origins in real life” (153).  Metzinger places the concept of the atomistic consciousness in the category of scientific fact (it really is completely individually produced according to neurological necessity), and the ideological concept of “private property” becomes  simply a necessary error, one we must have because it is necessary for the working of the entire model: it “bundles [the] differing forms of phenomenal content”(19).   Lefebvre, again, explains the ideological importance of this pairing of our existence and ownership: “Under capitalist regimes, ‘to exist’ and ‘to have’ are identical…And this situation is not a theoretical one…it is an ‘absolutely desperate’ reality; the man who has nothing finds himself ‘separated from existence in general’” (155).  Metzinger simply takes this capitalist social formation for an eternal scientific truth.

Structural Mystification:  Perhaps most importantly, should Metzinger’s theory be widely accepted, it would produce a discipline which functions to produce a certain kind of “knowledge” while obscuring and preventing the production of other kinds of knowledge.  Gary Potter uses the term “structural mystification” to name a particular pair of contradictory concepts concerning knowledge production: “1) the production and dissemination of knowledge is an essential characteristic of all educational systems; and 2) the obfuscation of the production of knowledge and the restriction (and sometimes outright prevention) of the dissemination of knowledge are essential characteristics of the educational systems” (134).  The point is that mystification works not by preventing the production of knowledge, but by insisting that one kind of knowledge is the “right kind” to be produced, and thereby framing the problem in certain disciplinary ways that will function exactly to prevent the problem from ever being solved.  If the study of the structure of the subject were pursued in the way Metzinger would have us pursue it, we would seek the “neural correlates” which he is sure, despite his own admission of an absolute absence of evidence, must someday be found.  We would try to determine what kinds of perceptions and emotions a subject should be exposed to in order to produce the right kind of behavior in the world.  But there would be no discipline in which we could consider the social formations which actually  give rise to our “mind,” and so no way to examine how we might change those social formations to reduce suffering or, to put it more positively, to increase our capacity to interact with and enjoy the world and one another.

The ultimate goal of Metzinger’s project, I would suggest, is to frame the problem in such a way that it become completely impossible to see it clearly, much less to solve it.  In this way, it works to ensure the reproduction of the existing relations of production, and to avoid any production of knowledge of those relations and their oppressive effects.  And then we must, as Metzinger does, fall back on the assertion that “certain aspects of consciousness are ineffable” (The Ego Tunnel, 9).

Concluding Remarks

What I have offered in this brief, informal essay is not a thorough critique of Metzinger’s theory.  Such a critique would require that I trace these errors through his entire system, point out all the other many errors the system contains, and demonstrate that they are unquestionably fatal errors, that they cannot be overcome without rejecting all of the foundational premises.  Personally, I don’t think Metzinger’s work is worth the time or effort it would take to do this kind of critique; it simply isn’t sufficiently popular or sufficiently “convincing” to spend the time on it.

What I have offered instead is a mere indication of the most obvious and damaging errors, and the ideological function such a project might serve.  I hope that anyone who might be mislead or confused by Metzinger’s “Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity” will be able to see these errors in the rest of his writings, and move on to more productive kinds of intellectual work.

Can we now put the Metzinger debate to rest, folks?

Metzinger’s essay “Précis: Being No One”:

http://www.philosophie.uni-mainz.de/Dateien/beingnoone2.pdf

 

Some short critiques of Metzinger:

Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl:  “The Limits of Representationalism: A Phenomenological Critique of Thomas Metzinger’s Self-Model Theory.”  Synthesis Philosophica, 40 (2/2005) pp. (355–371).

Hamish Thompson:  “Review of Being No-one: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity.” Essays in Philosophy, 6 (1/2005) http://commons.pacificu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1202&context=eip

Lynne Rudder Baker: “Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective” http://people.umass.edu/lrb/files/bak07natM.pdf

Lynne Rudder Baker: “Does Naturalism Rest on a Mistake.” American Philosophical Quarterly 48.2 (2011): 161-173.  http://people.umass.edu/lrb/files/bak07natM.pdf

Works Cited

Baliber, Étienne.  Spinoza and Politics.  London: Verso, 2008.

Collier, Andrew. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy. London: Verso, 1994.

Lefebvre, Henri.  The Critique of Everyday Life: Introduction (Vol. I).  London: Verso, 2008.

Potter, Garry.  “Power and Knowledge: A Dialectical Contradiction.”  Journal of Critical Realism. 9.2 (2010): 133-154.

Strawson, Galen. The Evident Connection: Hume on Personal Identity.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

74 thoughts on “Metzinger’s Atman and Capitalist Ideology

  1. The irony here is captured in just one sentence “I could extend these examples for pages, even without leaving this one essay.” So someone who proposes (by his own arguments) to be a transcendent self who writes essays and makes arguments is criticising another philosopher for discussing the phenomenology of selfhood. Either you critique applies to your own argument which therefore entirely refutes itself; or you have erred in some way.

  2. Jayarava (#1). I don’t understand your point. Can you elaborate some? Who is proposing “to be a transcendent self” here? Did we read the same essay? I know you have written a good deal about Metzinger’s first-person perspective. So, if you have some time and are so inclined, further remarks would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  3. Can we now put the Metzinger debate to rest, folks?

    Honestly I’ve been waiting for your essay Tom hoping that it can give us here some impetus to better understand what’s really wrong with that Metzinger, and you end it by such a rhetorical flourish! I hope that’s just a joke not a symptom of your intellectual grandiosity. I wrote “here” above because for anyone who tried to delve deeper into Metzinger’s work and various polemics that followed it, its pretty clear that your “informal” essay is bounded to have just a local impact, it certainly can help you in some way to uphold your ideological hegemony on this blog. But all in all I don’t say that it has no value in itself. It certainly prods me to delve into these issues even deeper. So for that thank you.

    In fact, I have to admit that while writing this I feel a bit like someone who is offering scientific arguments against the existence of fairies, since I don’t personally know of any academic in the U.S. who does take Metzinger seriously. (…) This particular point could be developed more rigorously, using Metzinger’s Being No-one, but I’m not sure it is necessary, seeing that Metzinger isn’t really taken that seriously by mainstream thought

    For starters, I don’t really understand what do you mean by “mainstream thought” in this context. Have you for example had a chance at least to skim through a debate in the journal Psyche Vol. 11 – 2005 and Vol. 12 – 2006 Have you? Or is it not “mainstream” enough for you to take it seriously? I realize that some of the people involved in that particular debate are not American academics – what a shame! – but do you really think that only those academics in US that are known by you personally can have something valuable, not to mention, affirmative to say about Metzinger theory?

  4. Tomek (#5) and Jayarava (#1). I am hoping that you will address the two main contentions of Tom’s piece: (1) Metzinger’s theory invokes the very entity the theory is designed to disprove, and (2) the result is a view of the person that serves the capitalist political-social status quo.

    Do you think that Tom gets the “Precis” wrong? Can you point out passages that would support a genuine anatman reading of Metzinger’s theory? If you think he gets the theory right concerning Metzinger’s inability to escape an atmanistic entity, do you disagree with his conclusion regarding the ideological implications?

    David (#3, 4). I wonder if some original message of yours got lost. I’ll check the spam folder.

  5. On first reading I am disappointed.

    First, the entire text is written under assumption that anybody who argues with you Tom is a moron.

    Second, the text is written not to ignite a discussion but to stop it (see last sentence).

    Third, the point you want to proof is presumed rather than proofed.

    ———–

    For first and second point: I don’t know how any discussion with you here could go on under these assumptions. This has nothing to do, to repeat myself, with cognitive sciences but with who has the right ideology and who has the wrong. This is not “struggle” but autocratic implementation of “right view”.

    ———-

    For the third point: “Autoepistemic closure” is an epistemological description not a phenomenological. It refers, among other things, to the fact that it is not possible on the phenomenological level to see that the homunculus doesn’t exist on the epistemological level. Or, to put it another way, “phenomenal transparency” means it is impossible to experience in the first person perspective that the ‘homunculus-representation’ is just that – a representation.

    You disregard this distinction and are therefor able to assert that Metzinger is guilty of producing an homunuculean infinite regress.

    I think that is a basic error in your argumentation against Metzinger.

    ———–

    One point to show how you construct arguments: You assert that Metzinger presumes that:

    “it is simply assumed that if we limit all research to trying to find “neural correlates” for the “constraints” of the system, we will find them eventually.”

    This is not true for Metzinger. Searching for neurological correlates for the “constraints” is only one point out of four.

    “[T]he phenomenological level of description (which operates from the first-person perspective, trying to give fine-grained and clear descriptions of the target phenomena), the representationalist level (which analyses these targets as forms of representational content), the functionalist level (describing causal roles and computational features), and the neurobiological level (which, wherever this is already possible, points to potential neural correlates in the domain of biological systems).” (p. 5)

    So there are four levels of description, not one (neural correlates). Your conclusion

    “in the absence of any neurological evidence for the theory, and given the obvious lack of conceptual coherence, why should we accept this theory at all?”

    therefore is rather polemical then consistent.

    ——–

    Your “revealingly Kantian example” is another point.

    The “briefly emerging integrated whole” you are talking about is only the last bit of a short but complex paragraph. You say “Kant assumes that the aesthetic appreciation of a landscape is evidence that our sense perceptions are in correct alignment with our concepts” and that “Metzinger’s theory depends very heavily on this Kantian aesthetics of the beautiful, meant to encourage political stability and acceptance of the existing social system.”

    But the paragraph you cite from (2.4.1) has nothing to do with encouraging “political stability”. Metzinger is trying here to explain something different, namely the “phenomenology of embedded wholes”. This is not about the “acceptance of the existing social system”.

    But the next paragraph is one of those I think which could bring more light how a given social system might appear as natural: 2.4.2. Convolved holism as a representational property and as an informational/computational strategy

    “Phenomenal information […], is that subset of active information, which is available to the system in an integrated form.”

    The integration of information without the system being aware phenomenologically about the procedures of integration might be one point where we could realize why sociality seems so natural. And it might be the point where capitalism might intervene to further exploit the human. This than is the point where it becomes political: Not Metzinger’s attempt to outline a theory but the political system trying the theory out for its own profit.

    The same goes for Boyer’s “domains proper” and “actual domains”.

    Furthermore Metzinger is speaking in para 2.4.1 about “a beautiful landscape” indeed. But it is about “integrated arrays of objects, including relations between these objects and implicit contextual information” and a “complex, multimodal scene including sounds, smells, and certain social context”. This is the immediate context of your example and in both citations just mentioned the social sphere is present.

    There are a lot more instances where you take a citation out of context.

    Also, as I tried to point out in a thread I don’t remember, Metzinger’s model is able to integrate the social sphere. That the “constraints” of his “Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity” consists of four sections doesn’t mean interaction isn’t put into consideration. But this would be part of other faculties. The point is that what Metzinger is describing might be in the same way subject to deformation or highjacking like Boyer’s “domains proper”. That is the point where ideology begins to interact with the system’s phylogenetical heritage.

    Apart from this, Metzinger’s 4th chapter is the one where interaction comes into the play directly.

    “Any computational system operating under a world-model centered by coherent self- model has introduced the most fundamental partitioning of its informational space possible: the differentiation between the processing of environment-related and system- related information.” (p. 27)

    And further:

    “Other agent-modeling: The system can become aware of the fact that other systems have a first-person perspective too. This permits action coordination and cooperative behavior. (p. 30)

    It is only that metzinger isn’t addressing sociality in the first place – what he is making clear from the beginning.

    ———-

    So for Glenn’s two question:

    1) See my third point above.

    2) Work like Metzinger’s is indeed contributing to the political status quo but (probably) not in the way Tom is asserting. I might indeed be the case that empiricism and representationalism are wrongheaded from a marxist point of view. This would be the point I would be interested in (Tom, Patrick you both might have to say something about this). The form of capitalism which is established now which is indeed atomizing humans (Facebook, Google etc.) will use information about the human consciousness like the ones Metzinger and Boyer are providing to gain more insight into its functioning. Form there control will ever more be optimized.

    I would propose that cognitive sciences are working in a way with a part of the real foundation on which ideology arises – that is the biological foundation. Marx, Engels, Lenin didn’t know anything about this.

    Regarding cognitive sciences the question then is how to part capitalist ideology from valuable insight into the working of the cognitive system of the human?

  6. Well, Matthias, I said I’d give it a shot, and I did. If you don’t want to understand the problem, I can’t do anything about that. True, Metzinger “isn’t addressing sociality,” and that’s exactly my point–he assumes that perceptions are NOT social. He is wrong about that. The “autoepistemic closure” has not bearing at all on the homunculus problem–the homunculus is not what is “hidden in darkness” but what DOES the flawed perceiving of the representation. I can’t make this any clearer than I have, and I can’t tell whether you just WON’T understand it for personal/ideological reasons or you just don’t have the intellectual capacity to grasp this. It isn’t a very difficult point, really–any sophomore philosophy student should get this easily–so I have to think it is the former. In which case, there’s nothing more to say: you choose to believe a falsehood.

  7. Glenn, I think Matthias has better articulated the concerns with the article. But to clarify my point. Tom argues, in little asides, that Metzinger is assuming a transcendental self which knows. But he is not putting Metzinger’s argument in Metzinger’s context. Metzinger begins with phenomenology. His model of the self is a “phenomenal self model”. Take this comment by Tom:

    “autoepistemic closure”…refers to an a “inbuilt blind spot”, a structurally anchored deficit in the capacity to gain knowledge about oneself.(2)

    Who is “blind” to this particular spot? What transcendent consciousness is unable to gain this particular self-knowledge?

    The phenomenon being considered is self knowledge. We all have self knowledge and Tom’s argument obviously proceeds from self-knowledge, since he is telling us about himself and what that self thinks. Look at the first couple of paragraphs of his essay. I count 10 uses of first-person pronouns in the first two paragraphs alone. Tom is asserting himself or his ‘self’. Indeed, as he winds up to his political inferences and the tone gets more and more strident the impression is of an ego desperately defending itself from perceived existential threats. At the end he admits that the argument is personal. To whom one wonders? To whom?

    Of course I don’t have to assume that Tom’s self is transcendent for it to hold and vigorously assert an opinion. Tom would presumably argue that the opinions he professes are not held by a transcendent self, but given the overall tone of his argument this would amount to special pleading. He can’t have his cake and eat it. Is there anything quite so funny as an egotist arguing against a transcendental self?

    Apologies if this appears to be a personal attack. It’s not intended as personal, it is intended to show what happens to Tom’s argument when it is applied to his own writing. His own writing becomes an exercise in doing exactly what he says invalidates Metzinger’s texts. Thus it is self-inconsistent and self-invalidating. Quite brilliant really.

    Metzinger seeks to account for the phenomenology of the first person perspective. When Metzinger says “there is no self” he specifically means that there is no homunculus which provides us with the first person perspective, but that in it’s place proposes a phenomenal self model; a virtual construct that has the target properties to give us a first person perspective that is generated on the fly and in the moment (remembering that Metzinger is a younger colleague of Antonio Damasio who’s work is ever-present in Metzinger). That we model the self in this way can be deduced from the way that our phenomenal self can be manipulated or broken (examples of this make up the bulk of Metzinger’s evidence across all of his work). However as he admits his approach is conjecture based on indirect observation. Knowledge progresses by conjecture and refutation – Tom presents an ideological argument seemingly directed at the conjecture without offering any evidence.

    Metzinger does not give this phenomenal self model any substance, or argue that it exists over and above the brain processes that create it moment to moment. To read this as transcendental is just mendacious.

    Metzinger’s answer to the question “who is blind” is that he thinks our brain creates a phenomenal self model has blind spots when it comes to self-knowledge – the model which constructs our sense of self is far from perfect. Now that he has a plausible model, he and others are in search of more direct evidence for or against. Tom seems to object to the scientific process itself and does not wish to participate in it.

    Tom’s essay amounts to an elaborate ideologically motivated straw man argument. I’m not sure why Tom feels the need to package his political ideology as a criticism of Metzinger, but it fails miserably. We are being invited to throw conjecture and refutation out the window and substitute a clash of egoistic opinions. It’s all very post-modern, lots of exciting language games and stirring rhetoric, and emotive discussion. But there has to be more to life.

  8. And here is the problem. Who is making this mistake? What consciousness is making the error of falsely believing that a “representation” of a self is an actual self?

    Tom, the mistake is made by nothing else but the biological organism (yours or mine) – itself individual product of evolution – which uses the PSM, first and foremost, as its – to quote Metzinger from Ego Tunnel – “advanced interface designed to appropriate and control a body.” (p. 106) This virtual interface does not need any prerequisite in a form of some kind of transcendental Kantian consciousness that owns the body, because the bodily self is the product of multisensory integration. And mind that I do not claim here that it’s a pure epiphenomenon of bodily experiences (Humean “bundle”), I rather suggest that the ownership arises in an organism from the integration of external and internal sources of information. I think that if you do not accept this as a fundamental naturalistic, starting assumption any further discussion with you won’t be possible. And everything shows up to now that if anybody is promoting around here atman it is precisely you, by obsessively attributing it to Metzinger. Anyway it’s quite a spectacle to see you put in headlock by Matthias and Jayarava last comments. Your response to it (Matthias comment) just proves that your last sentence in the essay was not a simple joke but a clear symptom of your intellectual grandiosity.

  9. I humbly submit that my precis of Metzinger’s idea on selfhood, The First Person Perspective is of considerably more help to us in discussing the implications of his thought.

    Asked is the self an illusion? He replies “For the self to be an illusion there would have to be someone whose illusion it was, and there is no one,” thus: “if it is an illusion, it is no one’s illusion”.

    In the Ego Tunnel (p.210) he says:

    “The emerging image of Homo sapiens is of a species whose members once longed to have immortal souls but are slowly recognising they are self-less ego machines.”

    This is not someone who posits a transcendental self. Metzinger himself is cautious in his own exploration of the social and political implications of his work which he discusses at the end of The Ego Tunnel. Clearly they will be profound as our image of ourselves changes under the onslaught of new information coming out of the neuro-sciences and other sources of knowledge. He notes a few possible problems, including the ethical implications of undermining someone’s world view against their will. But he doesn’t seem to have a feel for politics as such, just as he is largely ignorant of Buddhism.

    Personally I find Metzinger liberating. If the self is virtual, plastic and subject to faults then we can and must redefine the individual. But I don’t see how we can really understand the political implications of Metzinger’s conjectures unless we see him in the light of the 21st century scientific project. We seek to more accurately know ourselves, and this inevitably includes, for example, understanding ourselves as social apes (I’m reading Diamond’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee at present). He ought to be read in conjunction with people like Jeremy Rifkin (The Empathetic Civilisation).

    As the nature of our self and society becomes more clear I expect we will abandon the tired political rhetoric of the 19th and 20th centuries. Neo-Liberalism is driving most of us into poverty and slavery; while Marxism has lost any real credibility as an alternative. Post-Modernism was briefly popular outside France but now also seems dated and irrelevant.

    The old guard and their politics need to die before a new way of doing politics can emerge. Though I was on the leading edge of generation X (never trust a hippy!) I doubt I’ll see anything but the preceding calamity before the change in my lifetime. And I do see calamity ahead: environmental, economic, and social upheaval on scales we can scarcely imagine.

    Die, you old bastards! Die! I’ll be joining you before long.

  10. I am posting the following excellent question on behalf of an unnamable reader. Please answer:

    To all:

    In what way is the individual as subject-node in a web of social relations observed by an ambiguous self (for lack of a better term and used so that this idea of self resides in pre-decisional status as to whether it be characterized as homuncular or infinitely regressive) different from the first-person perspective as phenomenal construct observed by an ambiguous self?

  11. Two parts of Tom’s critique of Metzinger are, I think, correct, important, and relevant to Buddhism.

    I have thought about writing them up before myself. I would have presented them very differently, but I think the substance of those parts of Tom’s argument are right, however dysfunctional the style.

    These points are closely related to both my PhD thesis work and my current philosophical writing project, and central to my world view. Because they are inherently difficult, it’s hard for me to write something as brief as a blog comment about them. They are rooted in Heidegger’s analysis of practical activity, such as hammering. There is an “aha!” moment that can occur when you read that, and then everything changes. Getting there is difficult, and the more cognitive science you know, the harder it is, because you have to set aside that whole paradigm. (Its empirical results are hugely valuable, but its interpretations are fundamentally wrong; and there is a coherent alternative.)

    The first point is that representationalism can’t work. We can actually prove it’s unworkable, using cognitive science’s own methods, not Continental philosophical obscurantism. (I did some of this in my Master’s thesis work, with theorems and stuff.)

    There’s several reasons it doesn’t work, and several ways of proving that. One approach: representationalism tries to replace a single spook (the homunculus) with zillions of “representations”; but these are just as spooky. There is, and can be, no naturalistic account of in virtue of what something is a representation.

    The second point is that objects are not objectively given. The “segmentation” of an object, its separation from the-world-at-large, is an active accomplishment. Segmentation is relative to purposes, and it is an inherently social activity.

    My PhD thesis sketched a naturalistic (computational) but non-representational account of intentionality-in-action, including active segmentation, with at least a nod to social construction. (This is described briefly and surreally in “I seem to be a fiction” on http://meaningness.com/; the footnotes point to proper academic write-ups.)

    My current work—such as “Boundaries, objects, and connections,” new on the same site, uses active segmentation to undermine “All Is One” interpretations of Buddhism. I think those are disastrously wrong, common, harmful, and dangerous.

    Getting these points across takes at minimum a book, not an ill-tempered blog post, much less a comment. I’m writing a book, but it’s difficult material and slow going.

  12. #13. David. You’re just dogmatically stating that something can’t be so without really going into why. I’ve no doubt that you believe what you say and feel you have good reasons to say it, but you’re asking us to take your word for it.

    The trouble with these philosophical or even political critiques of the conjectures made by neuro-scientists is that they don’t engage with the science at all. It’s all done in the abstract. For example we do know that perception is made up of representations because *we can see them* in brain imaging studies, and we can infer them from the way that consciousness malfunctions when the brain is injured. In the case of visual representations we can see that they sometimes take the same form as the object – and that by imaging the brain we can infer the object being seen.

    The argument that representationalism can’t contribute to explaining consciousness a priori is just an ideological statement based on what you believe to be true. It makes a zillion assumptions about what consciousness is that remain in the realm of the abstract. Representation is no more spooky that memory states in a computer – a little more complex, but no more spooky. Are we saying not that computers cannot really be adding numbers together because registers are spooky? Or shall we dismiss the packet switching network that enables this virtual written debate because packets of data are spooky? Neurons have no states? Groups of neurons don’t work together to create stable states? The brain is not organised into functional units? These all seem to be implied by your statements.

    Your second point seems to stray into Rupert Sheldrake territory. You seem to be denying the link between cognition and the brain. Metzinger does not seem deny that there are high level, or even a priori factors in interpreting experience, or that our perceptions are to some extent socially determined. Again you seem to want to avoid engaging with the observations made about the brain and how it’s functioning affects our consciousness.

    I don’t think it’s much help to anyone to claim that you know better but that you can’t really explain it. We now know that you have an opinion, but not much more. So what?

    What I see in your critique and in Toms, is a real failure to engage with Metzinger’s presentation of his evidence. I get no sense that either of you have carefully read his work and have specific criticisms of how he has understood his data. I don’t get any sense at all that either of you have understood his data any better than he has. If there is a better way to understand the available data then by all means let us see it. But to just say “Oh no he’s wrong” without saying how he has erred is just meaningless, not meaningness.

    What is it about empirical data that frightens philosophers so much that they retreat into the abstract. In the end Metzinger’s work is a working conjecture which plausibly explains the data, and provides testable hypotheses.

    I’m reminded of this quote:

    “There is now no safer occupation than talking bad science to philosophers, except talking bad philosophy to scientists.” Midgley, Mary. 1979. ‘Gene-juggling’. Philosophy. 54(210): 439-458.

  13. You’re just dogmatically stating that something can’t be so without really going into why.

    Yes; that’s due to constraints of length. I did write a slew of published academic papers about this back in the 1980s, and if someone wants to go into more depth those are still available.

    You are (understandably) mistaking my point of view here. My world-view is basically naturalistic, and I have a very thorough grounding in cognitive science (with publications in, for example, the journal Cognitive Science). I am not a mind-body dualist. My target is representationalism, not physicalism. It is possible to be thoroughly physicalist while rejecting representationalism (which is what my PhD thesis work showed).

    we do know that perception is made up of representations because *we can see them* in brain imaging studies

    What we can see are retinotopic cortical maps (for instance). We can understand causally how those function—as physicalism would predict. Declaring that they are representations is a metaphysical addition. That is both unnecessary and unworkable.

    Representation is no more spooky tha[n] memory states in a computer – a little more complex, but no more spooky.

    During the 60s through 80s, philosophers of mind and artificial intelligence guys engaged in a delightful Folie à Deux. The philosophers thought that the AI guys had an explanation for how representations are physically grounded. We AI guys thought the philosophers had an explanation for what makes something a representation.

    In the late 80s, we started talking to each other, and realized that neither side had the missing piece. That basically killed off AI. Unfortunately, the philosophers found a new dance partner: neuroscientists. Neuroscientists are even more philosophically naive than AI guys were, so they just take what philosophers say as gospel and get on with measuring things. Philosophers of mind are now in bad faith, because some did understand why AI failed, and all the same arguments apply to neuroscience. They don’t want to hear that, so they pretend they didn’t.

    Are we saying not that computers cannot really be adding numbers together because registers are spooky?

    An adder is some doped silicon with electrons going through it. Addition is not a physical fact about the adder; it’s a purpose-laden, social, human attribution. It’s not an arbitrary attribution, and you can’t get any old bit of silicon to add. But it’s still not an inherent property. A register does not hold a binary number; it holds electrons.

    You seem to be denying the link between cognition and the brain.

    No, definitely nothing like that! If you held a gun to my head, I’d say that the materialist approach to the mind/body problem must somehow be right, despite its problems. Some of the people Tom cited do want to attack materialism, but that’s not my agenda at all.

    I don’t think it’s much help to anyone to claim that you know better but that you can’t really explain it.

    I can explain it, and have, in hard-science academic journal articles, and am doing so now again for a completely different (popular) audience… But not in a blog comment!

    Something I should have said is that Metzinger’s data are interesting and useful and parts of his story are probably right.

  14. The responses here just prove what a fool I was for trying to explain this. Anyone who can understand it probably already did, and those without the capacity to understand it will just get angry and make ridiculous arguments.

    Jayarava asserts that my use of the first-person pronoun proves that my own argument is contradictory. Anyone who would make this error is probably incapable of grasping any logical argument. Clearly, the first person pronoun has nothing to do with the problem. When Metzinger says, in the first paragraph of his essay, “I deliberately and completely exclude…”, this does not contradict his theory, because the use of the first person pronoun, or the existence of a bodily individual, is not in question. However, when his theory requires the existence of a directing consciousness which can focus attention, make choices, and use mental capacities separate from any causal determination, his system defeats itself. And then, of course, Jayarave asserts that there is neurological proof of the system, something which Metzinger admits is not the case.

    So, one could quote his assertions that there is no soul, but this doesn’t change anything: it merely proves my point. He asserts that this doesn’t exist, but his system requires its existence in order explain anything. This is exactly the Humean error, and is apparently difficult to see if one needs desperately to cling to the idea of an atomistic consciousness.

    Tomek thinks that simply restating Metzinger’s postion and doing it poorly and obscurely will solve the problem—because a summary and unclear statement can avoid the problems with the assumption that consciousness is the processing of “information.” But this problem will always return if we try to explain any actual thing a person does, which is why Metzinger cannot avoid it.

    Chapman wants to accept empiricism but reject Metzinger; this just leaves us with the tired “there is no solution” response, because cognitive science and its empiricist assumptions are all fatally flawed. Then he offers his own inability to understand continental philosophy in support of his argument (David, millions of people understand it very well; it is never a good idea to take your own intellectual limitations as proof that you are right). And, of course, Chapman has to jump on the train of ad hominem attacks, to be part of the in-crowd.

    The ad hominem attacks are, at least, encouraging. If what I say about Metzinger feels like a personal attack, and calls up a personal attack in response, it is perhaps because some ideological illusions are being stripped away. Anyone who points out your errors and illusions is going to seem hostile, ill-tempered, and mean, like the kid in kindergarten who goes around telling the other kids there is not Santa Claus.

    I also think that this problem is the greatest difficulty people have with grasping Buddhist thought. Fully accepting the non-existence of any kind of atman is the only real problem. It isn’t the demand for right speech or time spent in zazen or any other pop-buddhist crap that makes it “difficult”, but the inability to accept this one point, and the tendency for the atman to subtly creep back in. I have had interactions with many Buddhist teachers who become quite irrationally angry when this error is pointed out to them. Like Jayarava, they make incoherent claims that my pointing out their assumption of an atman is clinging to an atman—as if the goal were to do what Metzinger does, and simply obscure the atman sufficiently so we don’t notice that the self is socially constructed.

    Those attached to this position probably cannot be “converted,” but perhaps others can take this problem as a sort of koan, and try to really grasp the problem with Metzinger’s theory completely instead of finding sophistical ways to avoid seeing it.

    RE #12: I cannot understand the question here—but perhaps it is directed at Jayarava?

  15. Chapman wants to accept empiricism but reject Metzinger; this just leaves us with the tired “there is no solution” response, because cognitive science and its empiricist assumptions are all fatally flawed.

    I don’t accept empiricism, and I have offered an alternative solution. (Again, in published work elsewhere, not in a blog comment.) I explicitly argued that cognitive science and its empiricist assumptions are fatally flawed.

    Then he offers his own inability to understand continental philosophy in support of his argument

    Are you referring to my mention of “obscurantism”? I can’t find anything else in what I wrote that might suggest anything like this.

    As I said, my worldview is heavily influenced by Heidegger’s Being and Time, which I’ve read three times and think I understand pretty well. I’m also influenced significantly by (for instance) Foucault, and most of all by Nietzsche.

    My point was that for people who refuse to read such things, the argument can be stated in cognitive science’s own language.

    Refusing to read them is unfortunate, but it’s understandable. Any honest Continentalist would agree that much of the language is deliberately obscure. Some of the major figures have said that about their own work.

  16. I’d like to follow up on the register point, because it may make particularly clear what I mean when I say that representations are irreducibly spooky.

    A register, for those not familiar with them, is a bit of computer circuitry that “holds” a single number. A computer’s memory consists of several billion registers.

    A number, however, is a non-physical thing. Exactly what numbers are is unclear. Most mathematicians think they live in a different, non-physical world, that of the Platonic Forms.

    Now we have something closely analogous to the mind-body problem. How does a bit of silicon reach into the world of Platonic Forms to grab and hold numbers? How does the Platonic Form of addition determine the outcome of a physical process?

    The answer is, of course, that this doesn’t happen. Registers do not hold numbers. They can’t; they are physical and numbers aren’t. They just hold electrons.

    It is a human attribution that particular arrangements of electrons will be interpreted as representing numbers. We do the representing, not the computer.

    At this point it is easy to get confused and think that humans must have some magical property that lets us do this, probably involving quantum voodoo. I think this is highly unlikely (although not disproven).

    It is definitely disproven that representation is an individual human ability. It’s inherently social.

    Again, we can see this in the case of a register. A register can “hold” a symbol, such as the letter A. (How do we know whether the register holds a number or a letter? Again, not a physical fact; it’s a human attribution.)

    Which symbol does a particular pattern of electrons in the register represent? There is no fact of the matter about this, and it has varied across time and social groups. (Compare EBCDIC and ASCII, e.g.) Currently, it is defined by the Unicode Consortium, a highly-political international quasi-governmental organization. It’s an irreducibly social fact that the hex number 41 “represents” the letter A.

    The Chinese government deliberately screwed up the Tibetan block of Unicode. Representation is power. I don’t agree with the details of Tom’s political analysis, but he’s right that these issues are inherently political.

  17. Hello Tom,
    I’m afraid I can’t make a clear judgement regarding your essay. I am still in the process of reading Mezingers précis. I’m finding it tough going; for one thing my reading is complicated by the fact that I have to tease out the meaning of unfamiliar terminology as I go along. (same with Badiou) Secondly I am finding it a lot more interesting then I imagined I would. This in turn has changed my attitude to the process of reading (same applies to Badiou) I simply have lost interest in approaching a text from the standpoint of confirming what I think I already know.

    What I can say is that any theory that reduces subjectivity, collective or otherwise, to internal representational states and self-simulations and just leaves it at that is a theory that I would find incomprehensible. Metzinger does present his picture of internal representational states and self- models as a process embedded within wider biological entities nested within environments. That is to say his project could be seen in the broader context of of evolutionary biology. But in my opinion his commitment to narrow representationalism makes such integration unlikely or impossible.

    For me a narrow representational or computational model is unacceptable. Any model must at a minimum include the body as an integrated component of the cognitive process. And the body must in turn be integrated into a model that treats the environment, particularly the ‘manmade’ environment, as the broader field within which human activity is inextricability embedded. Here the concept of intentionality is key. It is the intentional nature of cognition, its quality of always being directed at its object that is the crucial connective that binds the brain/mind complex to its environment in a reciprocal relationship of conditioning and being conditioned. To put it crudely

    ‘If I think that I might decide to visit mars’

    although this statement is conditioned on the fact that neural processes are an enabling factor in my ability to conceptual myself as an agent and also to conceptualise myself as being conscious of myself as so conceptualizing (all of which is contained within my sentence) this does not disqualify Mars—which always has and always will exist as a mind independent entity outside of the brain and its neural processes—- as a crucial conditioning factor of undeniable import ; nor does it disqualify language (socially constructed, pregiven, and laden with meaningful intentionality) as another primary conditioning factor.

    All of this is to an extent already accepted by a large segment of the cognitive science community . Many cogitative scientists have abandoned or radically curtailed their reliance on computational theories in favour of theories of embodied cognition and enactivism. Such theories privilege bodily states in their interaction with environments and question rigid and often arbitrary divisions between internal/external, brain/body, body/environment etc etc.

    On the question of infinite regress and the homunculus I am not sure what I think. On first having the self- model theory pointed out to me by Tomek I immediately dismissed it as just another version of Kantianism. I can see your point on it clearly but I am not sure you have it right. In any event I think that while it is an important philosophical point because it addresses the central deficiency of the representational standpoint it does so from the wrong standpoint, or at least from a stand point that doesn’t include the already explicated scientific critique of representationalism. For me the nub of the matter is Metzingers reliance on representationalism and its refutations is best perused from the embodied cognition standpoint. This achieves two things at once: it includes empirical science as a factor in the critique and it connects the critique to a long line of philosophical enquiry (through Hubert Dreyfus to Merleau Ponty and from him to Husserl and Heidigger.)

    Where I absolutely agree with you is on the question of the connection between atomistic readings of neuro-biology and individualism. This sort of hijacking of science to the service of ideological justifications for free market economics and competition is something that has to be fought against on all levels.
    This is true especially for Americans, given the ubiquity of individualism as an ideological construct of the right. And it is just as significant in relation to the project here of combating xbuddhisms quietist values —- detachment, submissiveness, consensus, and political withdrawal.

  18. RE 18: I do get your point David, and I agree that cognitive science does fail on its own terms, without even the need to argue against fundamental premises. But I think it is still more important to argue against the fundamental premises–otherwise, we are left with wrong premises trying to construct a new theory that is bound to fail–it’s like arguing the details of unicorn anatomy.

    I can’t imagine what you take Foucault (or Heidegger for that matter) to be saying, if you could still insist that the mind is completely in the brain. Your reject “empiricism” but accept “physicalism” and the “materialist” approach to the mind/body problem? What do you think “empiricism” means? We seem to have different definitions of the term. We also seem to have very different definitions of the term materialist, if you think anyone I cited in my post rejects materialism–they might reject naive or “vulgar” reductive materialism, but they are all very much materialists in the proper sense. (Heidegger, of course, was not–he had no trouble accepting the existence of God and a soul).

    If you could let go of this absurd attachment to reductive materialism, you might find it much easier to think clearly and correctly!

    Patrick: I will admit that I first came to Metzinger seriously hoping, perhaps even expecting, that he had something new and useful to say. I had heard some positive comments about him, some vague and tantalizing references to his ideas, and I really hoped he would teach me something I didn’t know. So I was quite disappointed to find Locke repackaged in modern terms–I kept reading, thinking that at some point there must be something more, something new, it just can’t be that stupid–I bought his books, read his articles in the journals, and finally had to give up on him, disappointed, not because he didn’t say what I already thought, but because he said nothing I hadn’t already thought and moved beyond.

    The “embodied” or “embedded” cognition theories aren’t really much better (again, I had hopes at one point…); they are really just one more attempt to keep the consciousness atomistic and inside the individual brain–just moving the self/other border a bit doesn’t change much. It is still an attempt to avoid the primary role of social structures on human consciousness.

  19. Hi David
    Re 19

    Again, we can see this in the case of a register. A register can “hold” a symbol, such as the letter A. (How do we know whether the register holds a number or a letter? Again, not a physical fact; it’s a human attribution.)Which symbol does a particular pattern of electrons in the register represent? There is no fact of the matter about this, and it has varied across time and social groups. (Compare EBCDIC and ASCII, e.g.) Currently, it is defined by the Unicode Consortium, a highly-political international quasi-governmental organization. It’s an irreducibly social fact that the hex number 41 “represents” the letter A.

    Doesn’t this apply equally to any language? If I hook myself up to a brain scan and then read a text, although you can take a reading from the machine and arrive at an estimation of what exactly was happing across my brain processes during the reading, this will not allow access to the content of the text I have read. Content is here dependent of language as something pre-given and socially constructed. There undoubtedly is a correlation between the neural brain activity and the physical process of articulating speech(it would be impossible without that foundation) even the most exact correlation will not give you access to the meaning. For that you need to listen to me as I read, or read the text itself. Correlation will never deliver meaning.

  20. Tom #21:

    I think that the failures of the fundamental premises can themselves be stated in the language of cognitivism. I hope I’ve just done that with the register example. The representational content of a register is not a physical fact about the register; it is an irreducibly social fact. This is not mysterious; it’s entirely straightforward.

    I do not in the least think that “the mind is in the brain.” Obviously, you will understand that this does not imply that it’s a spooky substance that leaks out of the brain and goes on astral adventures; but I need to deny that explicitly, because that’s what cognitivists are likely to hear otherwise. Based on your anatman paper, I think our views of this are quite similar.

    I also think it is currently difficult to get this across to anyone not steeped in the Continental tradition. Better explanations are needed. Continentals generally have less than zero desire to make produce those. I consider that a big practical problem, and an ethical failing. Mostly Continentals are interested only in playing in-group status games, based on making things as difficult to understand as possible, rather than communicating with outsiders.

    Patrick #22:

    Yes, it probably applies equally to any language.

    The point of this example is that technical people are likely to take a register holding a number as a totally unproblematic example of representation. This is the bedrock of the whole representational theory of mind. But I’m pointing out that this idea is actually entirely “spooky,” in the sense that it unavoidably invokes non-physical entities in a way that is entirely unexplained (and unexplainable, because it’s untrue).

    Once you realize that registers can’t hold numbers, the whole cognitivist project collapses.

    Of course, the scientific results are unaffected. It’s just the cognitivist metaphysics that dies.

    As long as one explains neuroscience results in causal terms, rather than representational (metaphysical) ones, there is no problem there. My paper in Cognitive Science made heavy use of what were, at the time, cutting-edge neuroscience results.

  21. David
    Sorry but just so I understand this point. I think Its the nub of the matter…You mean that numbers are non-physical…there they cant be ‘held’ …register here being an actual physical piece of a printed circuit board or something of that nature, so that a phyical object can’t ‘hold’ a mentel construct… all we find there is a signal of some sort…have I got it! Number being a purly social construct…a language!

  22. Jayarava: I’m not sure, was that in response to stuff I said? If so, and if you think it contradicts what I said, could you say more?

    The first article shows, roughly, that perceiving particular sorts of objects causes brain activity in particular regions. This has been believed for ages and is presumably correct. (I explicitly endorsed it in my Cognitive Science paper.) This is a causal account, which is unproblematic, and has nothing to do with spooky representations.

    The second article looks more complicated—I read the abstract and wasn’t sure where it was heading—so I wouldn’t comment on it unless/until you explain how you think it’s relevant.

  23. This is spooky indeed. Representationalism refuted by the observation that the attribution of the meaning to the sign is arbitrary.

    Well, perhaps I don’t get the point because I didn’t read Being and Time three times. But at least I don’t have to apologize for a hastily written #7 wherein one or two sentences would need some clarification. Why should I? I should train in mentioning my achievements without saying anything substantial at all.

    I should tell anybody more about my habilitation I have written in some parallel universe (Einheit im Nichts: Die mystische Theologie des Christentums, des Hinduismus und Buddhismus im Vergleich) which is of course too complicated to explicate in a blog comment. Perhaps I simply should shut up but I think it is better to ramble on a bit.

    Or I could look by myself how to refute my third point in #7. Just for fun. Just for some thinking instead of reveling in my own narcism.

    The point is I find this blog interesting because every now and then I get something to learn. …btw, no Tom, your text isn’t futile. Patrick in reaction to you for example is putting in some good points. And I add: Is Metzinger an idealist? Wouldn’t be the Marxist point to begin unraveling his position to ask how he with his theory as part of the superstructure is determined by the infrastructure… isn’t it? And is he really Kantian? I don’t know yet. But I think it is a bit more complicated than just telling a signifier from the signified. Sorry for being obscure, I am just too turned on by my own significance. But obviously it wasn’t enough to read the whole Arno Schmidt three times (another obscure continentalist).

    But to be serious, could anybody please read the stuff about Metzinger (after reading his Précis of course) which has been linked here in this thread. Could anybody, just for those who really want to have some real food for thought, please write an essay about the pros and cons of his position? And can you, while you are at it, add a plural ‘s’ to representationalism?

    In the mean time I’ll read some stuff like Einführung in die Theorien von Karl Marx, some Laruelle – Anticapiltalist and some ISA-stuff. Perhaps I get it and I cut to pieces Metzinger all by my own. Just for fun.

    And at last: what is with #12? Do I detect an evasion of the question?

    In what way is the individual as subject-node in a web of social relations observed by an ambiguous self?

  24. Representationalism refuted by the observation that the attribution of the meaning to the sign is arbitrary.

    Sorry, I must have been unclear; that’s not the point.

    The point is that the attribution is external to the computer. We can say that a register with a particular distribution of electrons represents the letter A for us; we can’t say that it represents the letter A all by itself.

    The same problem would seem to apply to “mental representations”—unless brains have unexpected metaphysical properties that computers don’t.

    Attributions are not arbitrary; they are conditioned by numerous factors. For example, Unicode was conditioned by the Chinese government’s desire to prevent Tibetans communicating electronically in their own language. They are also conditioned by evolution in multiple ways, for instance.

  25. Tom,

    A few questions as I try to wrap my head around Metzinger and your critique. First, am I correct in understanding that what Metzinger is trying to do is ‘find’ the human mind. Reduce it to it’s core with in the individual body? This is a big question in philosophy, is it not?

    Concerning ‘infinite regress’, this is a classic philosophical error that Metzinger falls into. Is this error kind of like using math to explain the non-existence of math? There is no core self, BUT the illusion of a core self is from some transcendental consciousness. Right?

    I’m just taking this piece by piece. Thanks for your input.

    Craig

  26. Jayarava-

    This critique is a straw man argument? Really? I don’t think that is fair. If Buddhism really is about ending suffering and capitalism causes so much of it, then we should be tearing it down left and right in any and all philosophy…etc. No? It doesn’t seem like Metzinger says anything new, at least to us Buddhists, and while he’s at it he makes some basic philosophical errors.

    Craig

  27. Unnamable reader (#12):

    How is

    an unnamable-observing-thing which both finds itself in some way associated with the individual known as Lurker-X and bears witness to a socially constructed person referred to in the world as Lurker-X

    different from

    an unnamable-observing-thing which both finds itself in some way associated with the individual known as Lurker-X and bears witness to a first-person constructor of phenomena referred to in the world as Lurker-X?

  28. Rereading this thread I have to hold myself back not to become really sarcastic about some posts.

    The only post which directly adresses Metzinger’s text in this thread which is of any use here is Patrick’s #20.

    David, you obviously don’t get my point in #28. Did you actually read Metzinger’s Précise for example? Or what do you mean with “representationalism” anyway? You seem to think that cognitive scientists who work within concepts of representationalism believe in brains as registers holding meaning by itself (btw, thanks a lot for pointing out to me that this isn’t the case, that’s so nice).

    I am really annoyed be oversimplifications like this. This kind of argumentation in my view has a too close resemblance to any other discussion among X-Buddhists on a structural level (or to any other philosophie which has to hold to its decision). I mean by this for example the construction of false dilemmas to push the opponent into a corner. Representationalism vs. no-representationalism is such a false dilemma if nobody even tries to define what kind of representationalism we are talking about. The atman/anatman dualism is such a false dilemma too.

    The goal of a dialogue which is structured in this way is – of course – to establish supremacy at all cost. And with this I am once again talking about interaction instead of the topic.

    I see two very different approaches to knowledge here. One is absolutely sure about its position (sufficiency). The other is able to put into question its position. The former usually mistakes the latter position as a weakness.

    I am tired of this. Like Tomek the kind of biased view on cognitive sciences propagated here makes me want to understand more about it. I see that the view presented here isn’t scientific at all. It’s just polemic.

    In this regard there should be mentioned Glenn’s questions in #6. For example “Do you think that Tom gets the “Precis” wrong?” For this question to be answered I would first have to got into how Tom represents Metzinger’s position. What I find is that Tom is distorting Metzinger to an extent that I am not willing to go into this at all in detail (take the paragraph “Naturalizing emotions” as an example). Before writing a detailed text about what Metzinger writes and what Tom makes of it I’d rather spend my time reading something like Philosophical Foundations of Neurosciences or something similar.

    I think, maybe, the problem is that you Tom think Metzinger must be wrong because he is working from within the capitalistic frame work without an explicit critique of this frame work. This seem to be something like a top-down approach to the problem. Wouldn’t it be better to do it the other way around: bottom-up? What determines Metzinger to think in the way he thinks? What is the cultural and economical background or infrastructure he is embedded in which makes him think in certain ways? Is it possible to identify and to describe this infrastructure in more detail? We are living in an economy which is indeed fragmenting and atomizing the individual. How does this infrastructure influences concepts like Metzinger’s?

  29. Matthias: This is the just too stupid to believe. After all your whining that I wouldn’t explain my problem with Metzinger, I agreed to do it, and your response is that you can’t waste your time trying to understand what I wrote because you have better things to do? And you know I’m wrong, but you won’t say why or where? And you have the nerve to say this after all your complaining that I wouldn’t offer exactly this kind of critique. I’m sorry you’re stupid, Matthias, but it isn’t my fault. You can do something about it if you want, or you can whine and throw fits like a baby, but I’m not your mother or your therapist and I’m done with your crap. Whenever anyone advances an argument, a reason for a claim, you say this is “cheap rhetoric” or shutting down discussion; when somebody asserts an opinion with no evidence or argument at all (so long as it agrees with what you would like to believe), you say they are engaging in open discussion. You have this exactly backwards. Asserting opinions with now support is dogmatism; offering arguments for beliefs is open discussion. I know you cannot read well, or reason well, and that you desperately want to believe in Metzinger (I’m not quite sure why), so any explanation of his errors angers you–it is hard to continue to believe something that is just stupid, counterfactual, and illogical. I have explained why someone might like to believe in Metzinger’s crap. The first, most important, thing to realize is that he is just wrong, that his theory does not describe or explain anything that actually exists in the world–it functions to help people avoid understanding what really exists in the world. Cling to you illusions if you want, or listen to those smarter than you are and learn something. Your choice.

    Craig: I’ll try to address you questions later on. I spent all day yesterday in an eight-hour class in counseling psychology, where we alternated between learning all about “mindful practices” and learning how to fill out forms to make insurance companies think this is something they should pay for (the latter was the bulk of the course). I need a few hours to decompress before I try to engage Metzinger again. And right now, I’m off to teach “Dharma School”: Shinran for kids. Kids are so much smarter than grad students in psychology!

  30. Tom, I already did give examples about what I mean. Everybody willing to read may compare what is written in the Précis in paragraph 3.1.1. and what you make of it in the paragraph “Naturalizing emotions”. I think you have written something which backfires on you – just as what you write in #34 does.

  31. After all your whining that I wouldn’t explain my problem with Metzinger …

    Tom (#34) Whining? Just let me remind you how had you responded to a clear explanation of you basic misunderstanding of Metzinger’s PSM. Matthias wrote in #7:

    “Autoepistemic closure” is an epistemological description not a phenomenological. It refers, among other things, to the fact that it is not possible on the phenomenological level to see that the homunculus doesn’t exist on the epistemological level. Or, to put it another way, “phenomenal transparency” means it is impossible to experience in the first person perspective that the ‘homunculus-representation’ is just that – a representation.

    You disregard this distinction and are therefore able to assert that Metzinger is guilty of producing an homunuculean infinite regress.

    And the only words that we heard from you in response were those (#8):

    The “autoepistemic closure” has not bearing at all on the homunculus problem–the homunculus is not what is “hidden in darkness” but what DOES the flawed perceiving of the representation. I can’t make this any clearer than I have, and I can’t tell whether you just WON’T understand it for personal/ideological reasons or you just don’t have the intellectual capacity to grasp this. It isn’t a very difficult point, really–any sophomore philosophy student should get this easily–so I have to think it is the former. In which case, there’s nothing more to say: you choose to believe a falsehood.

    No wonder that Matthias does not want to waste his time to try to discuss those complex issues with you, who evidently do no want to discuss and understand them.

  32. One would wish that our Comrade Pepper have that fresh attitude toward Metzinger as Mr. Zizek has. If you would want to see what I mean just have a look at this video – start around 6:00 and spend on it at least 15 minutes and hopefully you’ll know what I mean. Enjoy!

  33. #37. For the impatient among you: Zizek gets to Metzinger explicitly at 15:35.

    Addendum: Having watched to the very end, I see that, overall, Zizek discusses Metzinger and cognitive science obliquely. He does make concrete remarks here and there, but in his usual style, quickly diverges. Not that the divergence is disconnected from the point, just that he doesn’t stay with the cog sci referents. Still, it’s a fun lecture.

  34. That Zizek-Lecture is wonderful (up until the first 20 minutes, have to hear the rest later).

    He states: if we accept the cognitivist breakthrough (if!), then the question is how to “subjectivize” it? (1) That is: the gap between the everyday self and the the assertion that the ego is just a neural automaton?

    In a way this has can be aligned to the question in #12:

    In what way is the individual as subject-node in a web of social relations observed by an ambiguous self?

    We just change “neural automation” into “ideological automaton”. How do we subjectivize this?

    The answers Zizek gives might be helpful here too.
    1) We accept the gap (everyday self/✝/automaton) and live with it.
    2) We take the Habermas answer. We take the experience of self as some kind of apriori and accept on the other side that self is a kind of social practice.
    3) We accept the Churchland position that the self ist a superstition like god. Ω

    The problem stays with us with each position. We cannot deny the experience of ourselves as selves. One more possibility here is the Buddhist position (although I would deny only Buddhists are capable if this – and x-buddhists never are even near to it):

    4) We go into a certain kind of meditative training and try to reach a point where we experience thought without an entity which is thinking “I am thinking”.

    I think the last position is possible. But it is at the same time the most dangerous one because with the absence of “I am thinking” (no, this is not about no-thinking!) all moral values are vanishing. We can then burn ourselves, like the monk in Saigon in 1965, to protest against an oppressive regime or we can slaughter chinese woman and children in Nanking like those zen-warriors Victoria portrays in Zen at War.

    Position 4) would also be part of my answer to the question in #12. Another part of this answer would be that it is possible to make differential observations about ones own biografie. This is a kind of observation like the one with the necker cube Metzinger mentions in the Précis wherewith we can observe that the formation of our view normally is really escaping our attention. In a differential biographical observation one would see that some parts of autobiographical knowledge about me aren’t true or contradictory to other information. This can be quite embarrassing which is the reason this couldn’t be done be a narcissistic person. At least with this kind of observation one would see that the self is a fleeting entity. One would then have to ask what the cause for the changing self image is?

    As an example. If I begin to write down the parts of my biografie wich have to do with Buddhism, I realize that I tend to be skewed to the side that I have always been very very very skeptical in regards of guruismus. But I can remember situations in which I succumbed to the lure of thaumaturgical refuge.

    Re my epistemological vs. phenomenological argument. I can see how it can be refuted I think. Although I don’t know yet if it interferes with Metzinger’s position.

    (1) He uses “subjectivize” I think he probably means “subjectification”….
    ✝ you are here
    Ω I like this one too

  35. Matthias #33:

    I am sorry that I seem to have given offense. We are all bringing some personal back-story to this discussion. Evidently, it is a continuation of an argument that I have not read any earlier parts of, and so due to ignorance—perhaps among other reasons—said something obnoxious.

    I read Jayarava‘s posts on Metzinger as they came out, and found them interesting. Based on that, and other recommendations, I read the first parts of The Ego Tunnel and skimmed the rest. I have read the first half of the Precis, and skimmed the rest.

    Some here find some of what Metzinger says important, useful, and likely true. And I agree with that! Particularly, I agree that there is no substantial, essential, or individual self (Precis 1.2). I’m also a methodological naturalist/physicalist, and think the various sciences of mind are importantly relevant for Buddhism and leading a life generally.

    On the other hand, Tom has pointed out problems with Metzinger which I also see, and think are important and relevant for Buddhism and life generally.

    So, it’s possible that we actually can all agree, if we came to see clearly what is right and wrong in his theory.

    I don’t understand what was offensive in what I said. If you can be more specific, I can make a more specific apology. Otherwise, I can commit to trying to explain what I think is wrong with Metzinger—if that would be helpful. I had hoped to avoid that, because it may be a big project, but I’m willing, having “stuck my foot in it” as the English expression goes.

    Could we start with the Wikipedia article on “Mental representation”? It’s short and clear. When I say “representationalism”, I mean that. This is the dominant theoretical paradigm in cognitive science and Anglophone philosophy of mind.

    You seem to think that cognitive scientists who work within concepts of representationalism believe in brains as registers holding meaning by itself

    Yes… I do they think that… I used to be one of them, so that is first hand.

    Now I want to make an important distinction. “Representation” is used in probably lots of ways, but I want to separate causal and non-causal uses.

    Neurophysiologists have found that the firing of some neurons in V1 cortex closely correlates with particular colors positioned in particular parts of the visual field. We can say that these neurons “represent color.” This linguistic usage is unproblematic so long as it is not confused with non-causal representation.

    Representationalists suggest that my knowledge that the Punic War was waged between Rome and Carthage is encoded in a language called “mentalese” and stored as a data structure in my brain. This is a non-causal story about representation. There’s no specific explanation of how Carthage is causally connected to that part of my brain.

    The question is, for whom is the mentalese sentence a representation? If you are an anti-homuncularist, it seems that the answer has to be: for no one; the sentence does the representation all by itself. That’s just what it means, inherently.

    Obviously, I can’t speak for Tom, but I think that when he says Metzinger gets into the infinite regress problem, his point is that a mental representation has to be a representation for someone; you can’t have a representation without a homunculus.

    Others here, of a cognitivist persuasion, might say: yes, you can, mental representations can have inherent meanings.

    Now the causal type arguably can; we could say that a certain neuron firing “means” that there’s a red spot in front of your eyes. (This stretches the meaning of “means” pretty far, but OK.)

    For non-causal representations, no physicalist story has been found for how they could work. This is why I call them “spooky.” Somehow, a thing in my head is supposed to refer to Carthage, which hasn’t even existed for 2000 years. What physical properties does a brain thing have to have to refer to that?

    There are several different specific reasons to think that no answer is possible (quite apart from the fact that no one has been able to find one). Hillary Putnam’s XYZ/H2O argument is one famous example.

    On the other hand, we do have a general explanation for how meaning can emerge among socially situated, embodied, engaged animals (such as ourselves). This explanation is still quite vague, but there are no strong objections to it that I know of, and its development shows active progress.

    If you want to know more, I’ll do my best to explain further.

    OK, back to Metzinger. It seems to me that he takes non-causal representations as non-problematic, and some parts of his theory depend on them. He doesn’t seem to distinguish between the two cases. (If it were the case that his theory could be made fully causal, I would withdraw this objection. I have several other objections, but it’s probably difficult enough to discuss this one.)

    His general insistence that “we” cannot directly perceive the world, but only experience fallible representations or simulations of it, suggests my interpretation. As soon as it becomes possible for a representation to be wrong, there is no longer a direct causal coupling. The representation has to have some meaning other than that which can be explained causally. This other meaning will be “spooky” in the sense that its content is not explainable in physical terms.

    In section 4.1, Metzinger explicitly acknowledges that representation (“GOFI”) is not a physical relation. He distinguishes representation in general from self-representation of GOFI (which he calls PMIR). So, could PMIR be a causal representation? It would be a causal representation of a non-physical thing; how could that work?

    And he doesn’t seem to reject GOFI at all, despite its explicit non-physicality. So, is he committed to physicalism, or not?

    I’m afraid that I can’t find a coherent sense in which “we” can perceive things via non-causal representations without being homunculi watching a movie inside the head. A causal account is one in which the organism as a whole is directly causally coupled to its environment. That seems to me to be the only way to dispel the spooks.

    A final process note. I agree strongly with you about the dysfunction of the argumentative style here. I am here as a casual guest, so I hesitate to criticize the venue. However, many people have told me privately that they consider that the nastiness discredits everything that is said here, and that they don’t read the blog for that reason.

    I think that’s a great pity, because this is one of the very few places where there’s serious discussion of the intersection of Western thought and Buddhism. I keep coming back here, despite the poisonous atmosphere, for that reason.

  36. David: I know that I am bringing my “personal back-story” into this far too much. When I discovered this blog, I was encouraged to find someplace where it was possible to engage in intelligent conversation about Buddhist thought without the sutra-quoting or right-speech rules or stupid new-age platitudes. Now, it has become a place to endlessly defend against unthinking right-wing ideologues. Tomek cannot see any difference between my 20-page post and Matthias saying he can’t be bothered–he sees my 20 pages of writing as a refusal to say anything at all, and this kind of argument seems to be the rule here instead of the exception. Matthias thinks that simple assertion of opinion is free and open discussion, and using arguments and facts is dictatorial, forcing someone to believe something just because there are facts and good arguments to support the position instead of allowing that their unreasoned counterfactual belief is just as good. He refuses to understand what I say, and his own inability to read and think proves that my argument “backfires.” I am just disappointed, frankly, that this has become one more place where I cannot expect any reasoned or intelligent argument. This has happened in too many parts of my life lately, and I’m sorry to have to give up on this blog as I have had to on the sangha I was involved in, on top of facing spending another year in the horrifying thought-free world of American academic psychology.

    I offered my 20 pages of thoughts on this. While Matthias and Tomek may see this as refusing to say anything or make an argument, while their flat assertions of belief in one sentence are free and open discussion, well, I don’t care anymore what these idiots think.

    I don’t agree with your position, David, but you give arguments for what you believe. Good luck. That’s just going to be dismissed as “cheap rhetoric” by these dim bulbs. They don’t want you troubling their comforting capitalist ideologies with annoying things like facts, logic, and thought.

  37. Matthias (#39).

    I think the last position is possible. But it is at the same time the most dangerous one because with the absence of “I am thinking” (no, this is not about no-thinking!) all moral values are vanishing.

    Yes, and towards the end, he elaborates on this feature of arriving “at the other shore,” nirvana, in very stark terms. He remarks, for example, that someone who has genuinely done so should be able to torture other people without the slightest qualm. Why? Because that person has penetrated the illusory, empty nature of self and phenomena, “blah, blah” (as Zizek ends many of his sentences). Maybe that has relevance to Metzinger’s notion of (non-)agency, too.

    David (#40). I am saying something in passing, unrelated to the current post.

    A final process note. I agree strongly with you about the dysfunction of the argumentative style here. I am here as a casual guest, so I hesitate to criticize the venue. However, many people have told me privately that they consider that the nastiness discredits everything that is said here, and that they don’t read the blog for that reason.

    I think that’s a great pity, because this is one of the very few places where there’s serious discussion of the intersection of Western thought and Buddhism. I keep coming back here, despite the poisonous atmosphere, for that reason.

    Are you sure you are not confusing a part with the whole? And if so, which part? Tom, for instance, employs many rhetorical styles and strategies here. So do I. Is the entire style of the blog dysfunctionally argumentative? Be precise, please. And why in the world would you hesitate to criticize?

    This idea that “nastiness discredits everything that is said here” or anywhere else is pure bullshit. And the fact that I expressed that truth in a “nasty” manner does not discredit it one fucking iota. It just presumably makes it more difficult for you to engage it. One person’s nastiness, moreover, is another’s fresh and honest. Our next post will be on the issue of right-speech, so I’ll say more there. But if the “many people” you refer to include among them people like Ted Meissner, Vincent Horn, Stephen Schettini, Kenneth Folk, Justin Whittaker, Hokai Sokal, and Seth Segall, then all I can say is this: You are confusing rhetoric for reality. There are likely many, and quite complex, reasons that these people do not engage us here. (I would bet my left nut, by the way, that every single one of them reads this blog regularly. In fact, I am certain in most cases. I mean, how many readers live in Rijeka, Croatia? But let’s leave that for now.) I don’t want to get into the reasons I suspect your “many people” refuse to engage (and many of those reasons would sound quite unkind to the nicenistas), I will just leave it as a confusion of rhetoric vs. reality and hope that some analysis is forthcoming. That these “many people” make the kinds of choices they do about which blogs merit their participation and which do not is an important datum in itself, and helps to illuminate contemporary western x-buddhism. So, maybe don’t be so quick to think the matter is settled once Papa Ted Meissner renders his judgement on a blog or style of communication. Maybe there are other, more telling but uncomfortable reasons that he does not do so. Remember, these “many people,” without a single exception, are holding themselves up as authorities not only in x-buddhism but in how to live life. And yet they have limits to what they can tolerate?

    May I suggest you go back and read your very own piece on the cult of niceness in x-buddhist circles?

    Finally, has it occurred to you that there might be a direct relationship between the “seriousness” of the discussions here and the “poisonous atmosphere”? Might one of the necessary conditions of a genuinely serious forum with a radical agenda be an atmosphere that must appear noxious to those readers inculcated in the very ideological dupery we are aiming to expose? Buddhist Geeks, The Secular Buddhist Forum, Schettini and all the others are shining examples and perpetuators of the very form of x-buddhist thought that we are trying to render obsolete here. Some day, people will look back on their texts and see what we see when we read the texts of Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, or the New Thought “thinkers” of the last two centuries. Why not accelerate that perception?

    Anyway, please read and move back to Metzinger . . .

  38. Tom,
    In an earlier comment on another tread I put several questions to you that I think are relevant, both to the questions you address in your Metzinger essay concerning the relationship between cognitive science and Philosophical speculation, ideology and political and the difference or otherwise between truth and relative truth or provisionality ( the evolutionary nature of truths)
    I would like to put them again but in a more concise way. It may be that you do not want to answer them here in the middle of a discussion about Metzinger, although I think there is an underlying conversation going on here about truth that bears on the metzinger thing and even more on the dispute between you and Matthias and Tomek. Until this is clarified all discussion will end in stalemate. But it may be that they can wait. But not for long by the looks of things

    Why do I ask these questions (apart from their reverence to my own enquiry)
    Well I think they are crucial to an understanding of the obvious polarization that has developed here between you and Mathiass. As I see things it comes down to a view of truth that sees it as an evolving enquiry in which all parties have a contribution to make and in which no party is privileged with any sort of special transcendental of historically conditioned access to truth; and another view of the truth that sees Marxism privileged in some way or that sees a special place for Truth in relation to mere knowledge (alla Badiou)

    I think if you were able to clarify all of this it would go a long way to explaining what many see as your dogmatic assertions concerning your own position. I think if we can clarify this then we can begin to discuss the more fundamental question beneath the disagreements. Perhaps then we can design a format in which we can systematically discuss the differences while proceeding with the very large area of agreement that has already been established. I really think that any talk by anyone about withdrawal is totally unnecessary.

    My own position, for what its worth, is that I have completely lost faith with the classical Marxist appropriation of scientific ocularity. As far as Badious conception of truth is concerned I have an open mind for the simple reason that I am 95% ignorant of his thought and will not be anything else for the foreseeable future (judging by the difficulties I have encountered during the small forays I have made into his thought so far. Btw I would be very interested in any online project that involved a slow analytical exploration of any of Badious’ texts)
    So , even if you disagree with the above point about group cohesion, could you give me your thoughts on the following?

    1) Does Marxism privilege the Marxist with a special access on the truth? By this I mean does the Dialectical relationship between Marxist practice and the actuality of the social relations of capitalist production privilage Marxism and Marxists with a historically determined access to the theoretical understanding of the internal contradictions inherent in capitalist social relations?. Another way of asking this question is; Do you still hold adherence to the classical Marxist position that Marxism is, by the fact of its appropriation of the dialectical method from Hegelian Idealism and its application to the historical development of capitalism, able to posit truths concerning capitalism that are not available to those outside of the Marxist dispensation. In other words is there a scientific or quasi-scientific aspect to Marxism’s access to truth that privileges it in the same way as the exact sciences are privileged?
    2) My second question is related to the above; is this source of your conviction that you have in a sure grip on truth? In the sense in which Matthias has described it here;

    I see two very different approaches to knowledge here. One is absolutely sure about its position (sufficiency). The other is able to put into question its position. The former usually mistakes the latter position as a weakness.

    3)If this is not the case is it the case that you see truth not in the light of classical Marxism’s appropriation of quasi scientific justifications but in relation of the very different explication of truth found in the work of Badiou ; that is an idea of absolute truth and the difference between this and mere knowledge as a historically determined category subject to continual correction and a process of addition and subtraction ; in other words an evolved and evolving concept of truth. I think this quote from Badiou puts it well;

    Modern philosophy is a criticism of truth as adequation. Truth is not limited to the form of judgment. Heidegger suggests that it is a historic destiny. I will start from the following idea: Truth is first of all something new. What transmits, what repeats, we shall call knowledge. Distinguishing truth from knowledge is essential. It is a distinction already made in the work of Kant, between reason and understanding, and it is as you know a capital distinction for Heidegger, who distinguishes truth as aletheia, and understanding as cognition, science, techne. Aletheia is always properly a beginning.

    I haven’t got very far yet in my reading of Badiou but I think I have gotten far enough to see that here a far different explication of truth is being made. Is this the foundation of your quite explicate expression of your own grip on truth

    (3
    Is your idea of truth in some way a combination of these two ways of approaching the problem of the verification of truths? If so I would be very interested in a short explication of such a merger, as I haven’t the foggiest how that might look (I mean this sincerely and not a sarcastic aside)

  39. David #40

    You haven’t been offensive at all. You have been juggling around (I really don’t know an english term) about your knowledge without showing it. That provoked my sarcasm. Now you are perfectly clear (as far as I can tell after one reading) and that’s something very different. The point is, I am not conversant in cognitive sciences and the the reason to get engaged here is that I am willing to learn something. Your last post and the differentiation you make is just what is needed in such a discussion. Thanks a lot. I come back to it.

    Tom #41

    You know perfectly well that this is not true: “Matthias thinks that simple assertion of opinion is free and open discussion, and using arguments and facts is dictatorial…” If we could come down from this rage it would be a true advantage. I can see that you argument from the position Patrick is asking you about in #43. I could even sense an argumentation how one can come to this point of view (via Laruelle, Anti-Capitalist by A. r. Galloway in Laruelle and Non-Pholosophie), although I am not as far as to really understand it. The point is, if you really have something to say about truth (as Badiou explicates) you loose your way in anger. Anyway, there is no reason for any withdrawal. This struggle is part of the project.

  40. RE #43: Patrick, I’m really not willing to engage on this board anymore–I just don’t have the energy right now. If you want to email me about your questions, I’ll give you my response–I can’t speak for marxists in general.

  41. Is the entire style of the blog dysfunctionally argumentative?

    No; but enough that I find it problematic.

    And [why] in the world would you hesitate to criticize?

    (Guessing at “why” as textual correction here. In which case:) because it’s impolite to criticize one’s host. That doesn’t mean one should never do it, but I think one should hesitate first.

    To the substance of your point:

    One who wishes to communicate must take complete responsibility for the communication. This is not only an ethical point, it’s a practical one. If most of your potential audience cannot hear what you have to say, you are not communicating effectively.

    If most of your audience pretends to be offended but actually reads and understands what you have to say, and accepts it to the same extent they would if you said it with less hostility, then there is no practical problem. I doubt that, but I don’t have evidence, and it’s a counterfactual anyway, so neither, really, do you…

    has it occurred to you that there might be a direct relationship between the “seriousness” of the discussions here and the “poisonous atmosphere”?

    Yes; I don’t dismiss that. Serious academic debates, and serious technical debates in industry, can be heated.

    There’s a distinction between fierce disagreement about content, versus ad hominem insults. The former can be intensely uncomfortable, but is often productive. The latter, not; and I see quite a lot of that here.

  42. David (#46),

    There’s a distinction between fierce disagreement about content, versus ad hominem insults. The former can be intensely uncomfortable, but is often productive. The latter, not; and I see quite a lot of that here.

    Jesus, so take the bad with the good. Let me recast Nietzsche a bit: There’s nothing more ridiculous than a blogger who wants to be liked.

    Are these x-buddhist answer-men really so damn precious? Or are they simply sanctimonious?

  43. Jesus, so take the bad with the good.

    I do. But the point is, much of your potential audience may be less willing. You may consider that they ought not to be offended. But people are as they are, not as they ought to be. Of course, you may not want to be heard by people who are not as you think they ought to be.

    I just remembered that I wrote a piece titled “How not to argue about Buddhism” which may be relevant:

    http://meaningness.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/how-not-to-argue-about-buddhism/

    The first hyperlink in that is to an essay by Paul Graham, “How to disagree”, that I recommend highly.

  44. Re 46: David: I had to laugh at your comment. Do you actually know what “ad hominem” means? Maybe you should look it up.

    David Chapman
    ‏@Meaningness
    Tom Pepper is unnecessarily obnoxious, but his unique interpretation of anatman is significant and constructive: http://ow.ly/gSLrb

    This, for instance, is NOT an ad hominem remark. If I am obnoxious, and you like to point such things out, go ahead. An ad hominem argument would be to claim that because I am obnoxious my argument is therefore wrong and can be ignored. If someone is stupid, and so makes stupid arguments, then that is a reason to ignore their argument, and is still NOT an ad hominem argument–stupid arguments can be ignored just because they are stupid, and stupid people are more likely to make them. You might want to get this distinction straight.

    On the other hand, if what you meant is that you disapprove of making irrelevant or extraneous disparaging remarks about people that don’t bear on their argument, well, I suppose this wasn’t you sending this “tweet”? And don’t worry David, I don’t follow your twits, or whatever they’re called, somebody emailed it to me, I believing hoping I would be insulted or something. I don’t really give a fuck if anyone thinks I’m an obnoxious jerk, though. I am just tired of trying to present arguments and getting unreasoned assertions in response.

  45. Matthias #44:

    Ah! Thank you very much. I can now make a more specific apology. I wrongly assumed that you had read a fair amount of cognitive science. I should not have done that. I would have written differently, earlier, if I had bothered to check with you.

  46. Tom #49:

    I’ve re-checked the definition of ad hominem, and as far as I can tell I was using it accurately.

    I agree that my tweet was not ad hominem. I thought it was important, when advertising your work, to acknowledge that you are unnecessarily obnoxious, and yet to insist some of what you write is highly valuable anyway.

    This is a possibility that not many people are willing to accept—certainly not many Buddhists. It needs to be pointed out.

    Had I not done so, I expect many people would have thought “Oh, Chapman doesn’t realize that Tom Pepper is a bad person and therefore we must ignore him. I can safely ignore this tweet too.”

    Actually, a couple of people told me that anyway.

  47. David, you really don’t have to offer any lame excuses. If you want to insult me, just have the courage to go ahead and do it without justification. I know I am a very “bad person” to most x-buddhists. I do horrible, dreadful things like tell the truth, ask people to think, and speak frankly. What could be more horrible to a Buddhist than someone who thinks AND tells the truth? But really, are you naive enough to think that anybody who is put off by my persona would possibly have the intelligence to understand my essay anyway? Don’t try to sell them something they aren’t ready or willing to handle–most x-buddhists shouldn’t bother trying to read half of what is on this blog. One reason I am so blunt and “obnoxious” is because I don’t want to bother, at this level of discourse, with people whose feelings will be hurt by telling them the truth or who will be scared into complete stupidity by mention of the word capitalism and start shouting jingoist slogans. Unfortunately, these people have now reached critical mass here anyway, it seems.

  48. At the risk of sounding like the guy who’s only read the introduction to Anti-Oedipus (OK, I haven’t even finished the introduction yet), this quote (from Foucault, in said intro) might be relevant here:

    “Do not think one has to be sad to be a militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.”

  49. Some further remarks.

    I don’t know if it is useful to point them out because the debate here in this thread seems to be rather ideological then fact-oriented – at least in some parts of the thread.

    1) IMO it is important to see why Metzinger was brought up here on this blog in the first place. As far as I know Jayarava was the first here to mention Metzinger’s Egotunnel. Later I came in and brought up Metzinger’s Précis, Being No One. My point was that Being No One is a useful argumentative tool to deconstruct the ontology of certain meditative states as they are described in certain forms of Tibetan Buddhism. That is my main point!

    In particular Being No One looks like a good tool to naturalize claims about so called “most subtle forms of consciousness” put forward by people like the Dalai Lama and generally by Varayana practitioners.

    For this naturalization any insight into our cognitive structures and how consciousness emerges form it (of course in relation to social interaction, symbol manipulation etc. bla bla) is of value. Cognitive sciences put a wedge between the phenomenal we perceive in first person view and the cognitive structures which are the biotic base for this consciousness.

    But they are also not the first to do this. Freud did it. One can put in the wedge with developmental psychology, with Foucault, Derrida etc. Developmental Psychology would teach the fragility of the autobiographical narrative we construct. Foucault would teach historical contingency of the form of self we live. Derrida would show that an original nowness, just being in the moment, is a dream.

    In each case we can deconstruct naïve “folk psychological” thinking about the self and meditative states it can allegedly achieve.

    Tomek seems to be of my opinion (in regard to Being No One) and so we exchanged some thoughts about this every now and then on this blog.

    To repeat it: The main point here is to deconstruct meditation and to achieve at least an ontologically more frugal explanation of it (Occam’s razor). We can therefore at least begin to deflate some of x-buddhism’s mysticism.

    Tom refuses any kind of using Metzinger in this way on the ground that Metzinger is guilty of constructing a theory about cognition which has as its only goal the reproduction of capitalist ideology. I think we should distinguish between these two points of view. Mine (and possibly Tomek’s) is to lay at rest myths about meditation. Tom’s is to lay at rest the mystification of the self as an atomistic self-dependent and socially independent being. I think both positions work towards a demystification of the self and in this share common ground.

    The answer to the question if Metzinger’s Theory is of any use to the deconstruction of meditation possible hinges on the answer to the question if his theory is in its entirety useless.

    2) How do I work with such complex theories which obviously need a lot of background knowledge if I am not conversant in cognitive sciences? One rule is to look at the plausibility of the arguments of the people who want to explain something. A general rule in this regard is to rule out sufficiency! Sufficiency has nothing to say. That was the characteristic which attracted me to Glenn’s project here at once: the sufficiency of x-buddhism disregarded. If I should give an example in which “lineage” I see myself regarding the acquiring of knowledge I would see myself much more in the line of Socrates than in any Buddhist affinity. Being inquiring is it. Knowing sufficiently what all is about is being dead already (and as a trader I would say: bet against sufficiency! They are going to crash anyway. The only question, as ever in trading, is the timing). Regarding Tom’s (seeming?) sufficiency the most important question is put forward by Patrick in #41:

    Does Marxism privilege the Marxist with a special access on the truth?

    It seems to me that there could be a very interesting answer to this question which is neither sufficient nor insufficient. Galloway in Laruelle, Anti-Capitalist puts it this way:

    […] Marxism alone posits a pure immanent material base, one that is determinate, immovable and immanent to itself unsupplemented by any idealist scaffold.

    I don’t understand the full impact of this but as a seasoned autodidact I smack something important here. Therefore I hope the debate goes on.

    3) The homunculus problem. Has Metzinger’s theory a homunculus problem? Tom begins his Metzinger destruction with the following statement:

    I will begin with the most damaging error—which is also the one most often pointed out by those who criticize Metzinger.  In philosophy, this error has many names, such as the “homunculus problem” or the problem of “infinite regress” […]. (emphasis added)

    I tried to find this “most often” pointed out error, but I didn’t. A google search “metzinger homunculus” brought nothing to light. If anybody nows another critique of Metzinger which is based on the homunculus problem please link it.

    I did a word search in the nine articles in Psyche Vol 11 (2005) which debate Metzinger’s theory and got zero hits.

    Even Graham Harman in his The Problem with Metzinger does not mention the homunculus with one word (and he is very critical about him). He has many good points I think against Metzinger (as far as me dim bulb can see) but he doesn’t seem to think that the homunculus is a problem.

    With this indirect method I suspect that it seems like the homunculus is not the major issue with Being No One.

    4) The homunculus as the good old subject-object dichotomy. The latter of course leads into an infinite regress. I see this. The question is if Metzinger’s theory really gets stuck in this quagmire? Metzinger in 4.1 says:

    The phenomenal model of the intentionality relation (PMIR) is a conscious mental model, and its content is an ongoing, episodic subject–object-relation.

    The question here is, does Metzinger means with “subject–object-relation” in this context the same as the Cartesian “I” which as an subject sets its thought/doubt as object and therefore regresses infinitely? Put in another way, is the subject in Metzinger’s “subject–object-relation” the same as in a Kantian setting where the consciousness/I is seen as an absolute and general ‘container’ in which thoughts arise?

    5) Representationalism. Other than David says in #40 Metzinger distinguishes between causal and non-causel representations. Please check for this Transparently Oneself in the Psyche Vol 11 (2005) by Dorothée Legrand (link in #5):

    Metzinger makes a crucial distinction between intentional and phenomenal content. While classical representationalism uses only one name, intentional content, whether the represented object exists or not, Metzinger uses two. More specifically, in his terminology, the content is intentional when it depends on the existence of the represented object, while it is phenomenal when it does not depend on the existence of the represented object. (p. 4; emphasis added)

    And also check Being No One Chap. 4 again. In regard of Metzinger’s form of representationalism Legrand’s paper is very interesting!

    What emerges here is that the question about representationalism is far more difficult than David suggests. And in this regard: pointing to the Wikipedia article about “Mental representation” and then claiming “This is the dominant theoretical paradigm in cognitive science and Anglophone philosophy of mind” is a kind of oversimplification which proposes – once again – a false dilemma and reeks of sufficiency.

    6) All this said, I refuse to deal with this problem in a manner which over simplifies the whole topic to an extent that is ridiculous. I am willing to content that Metzinger is part of a absurdly egotistic capitalistic structure and we might interrogated him from this point of view rather then the other way around – i.e. not top-down, about what is wrong with this or that part of his theory. I am also willing to content that this whole topic is far to complex for me to deal with it in any satisfying way right now (the textbook which I got Metzinger’s Being No One from holds roughly 200 pages about representationalism… compare this to a pale wikipedia article). But this means not that me dim bulb give up thinking upon entry into the holy circle of those who pretend to already know it all.

  50. Matthias (#54). Thanks for that comment. I think that bifurcated approach to Metzinger is a way beyond the impasse here. My initial interest in his phenomenal self-model was also motivated by my giving thought to the rhetoric of meditation. In the meantime, I have also become more attuned to the invisible political, social, and ideological underpinnings of even the most abstract ideas and theories. I am finding it increasingly difficult to separate ultimately these two apparently distinct strands. But maybe such separating is valuable along the way.

    Anyway, you’ve given us a way to keep the dialogue going. Thanks. I’ll come back later…

  51. Just to clarify a couple of things: the term “homunculus problem” is just one of the many names this problem goes under–I use the term “subtle atman” myself. The essays I gave links to do point out this problem, although they don’t use that term for it. Particularly, Baker discusses this problem at some length.

    My argument was in this post, and continues to be, that Metzinger’s theory is ultimately idealist. Therefore, it is of no use in attempting to deconstruct Tibetan meditation practices, which are also idealist. Both assume the existence of a transcendent atman, and differ only in what specific set of cultural (ideological) practices they want this delusion to help support.

    As for the quote from Galloway that Matthias cites above, I would say that this is precisely the reason that the marxist dialectical method has a privileged access to the truth: because the dialectical method deals with the truth of a given situation, not with some ideal truth. Marx gives us the truth of the capitalist economic system, not a “truth” of some ideal state of human society. The truth, in Badiou’s sense, is always found at the limit of the existing system of knowledge–it is never an transcendent truth, but always the truth of how the existing situation is structured, how it functions (including whose interest it serves and whom it oppresses), and how it can be changed. To understand why the marxist dialectic has a privileged access to truth, of course, one would have to drop the attachment to the dream of a transcendent and eternal truth; this is, ironically, the fantasy of all capitalist ideology and at the same time the error all postmodern capitalists accuse marxists of making; it is, of course, the on error no marxist would make. But the postmodernists continue to assume the existence of the transcendent truth they deny, and accuse marxists of being wrong about what that transcendent truth is. Then, of course, they accuse marxists of being wrong because they won’t specify what transcendent truth is. First of all, I never borrowed your kettle, and second, it already had a hole in it when you gave it to me, and third, it was undamaged when I returned it to you…

  52. Matthias (#54) — This is a helpful clarification! As I mentioned, I don’t know the history of this debate, and missed the point, at least partly.

    I suggest that there are three different issues here, which might be confused with each other. First, the mind/body problem: is the mind made of a non-physical substance different from the body and the physical world? Second, the self/no-self problem: is there a unified, separate, durable, well-defined “executive” part of the mind? Third, the question of rebirth: does part of the mind continue to exist after death?

    (Here I’m using the word “self” in a Western psychological sense; it might or might not be the same as “atman,” which I don’t really understand, and doubt anyone else does either.)

    It has always been difficult to reconcile anatman with rebirth. What is reborn, if not the atman? Personally, I haven’t found any coherent explanation. I don’t exactly disbelieve in rebirth, because I can’t even understand what the claim is.

    In particular, I agree that the Geluk explanation of “very subtle mind” surviving death is improbable and unattractive and de facto atman-ism. (Note that this particular concept is not shared by the Nyingma tradition that I practice, which explicitly rejects “very subtle mind,” although its own conception of rebirth is not necessarily better.)

    Jayarava has been explicit about not believing in rebirth, and it sounds like you don’t either. So perhaps this is part of your motivation?

    One might reason: if there is no self, then there is no reason to postulate a separate mind-substance, and if there is no mind-substance, there is nothing that could escape death to be reborn.

    I am sympathetic to that line of reasoning, but unfortunately I think it actually doesn’t work. If it doesn’t work even in general, then the specifics of Metzinger’s theory might be irrelevant. And in that case we would not have any reason to sort out what is right and wrong in his work.

    Based on having read mostly only summaries of Metzinger’s work, my impression is that his main concern is the mind/body problem. This is the central issue in Anglophone philosophy of mind, and the driving concern for much of cognitive science. The question is: how do qualia (subjective experiences) arise in a purely physical organism—a biological machine? Metzinger is proposing a sort of machine that, he suggests, could have qualia.

    I have several problems with the details of the proposal. But let’s set that aside, and ask: should we care as Buddhists about this? In particular, would it make a definite difference for either anatman or rebirth if he succeeded? I think the answer is no.

    There’s two parts to this. The first is that it seems to me that Metzinger’s machine has a self in the sense of “a unified, separate, durable, well-defined executive.” When he says that “there is no self, really,” he seems to mean that “what me mistake as a ‘self’ is only a representation of mental functioning, and brain machinery that produces and uses that representation.” But, that seems to be more-or-less exactly what we ordinarily mean by “a self.”

    If this is right, then what Metzinger is trying to refute is not “self” in this sense, but non-physical mind-stuff. And, the way he tries to get rid of mind-stuff is by postulating a mechanical self.

    Then, one of my objections to Metzinger is that this sort of self is what one finds doesn’t exist when practicing vipassana-type meditation.

    The second objection is that the question of rebirth is logically independent from the question of mind-stuff; and both are logically independent from the question of executive self. In other words, we could have mind-stuff without rebirth, or rebirth without mind-stuff. We could have either with or without an executive self.

    For mind-stuff without rebirth: the non-physical mind-stuff might be annihilated at the moment of death. (That might be what death means.) I don’t find this likely, but only because I don’t find non-physical mind-stuff likely.

    For rebirth without mind-stuff, I’ll borrow an argument from the Catholic philosopher Peter van Inwagen. He’s committed to the idea that you are bodily resurrected in heaven or hell after the Final Judgement. He’s also staunchly committed to physicalism, for everything except God. So he absolutely denies that there is any mind-stuff. The mind is simply the operation of the brain, period. So how can you be resurrected? Isn’t this a logical contradiction?

    It isn’t. For example, he says, at the moment of death, God could remove your brain and replace it with an atom-by-atom identical copy. The copy would rot, which isn’t a problem. God can keep your brain on ice until Judgement Day, and then stick it in a new body in heaven or hell. Your mind is simply the operation of your brain, so you are in fact resurrected, purely physically, with no mind-stuff involved.

    van Inwagen says that this isn’t a specific proposal; God might accomplish resurrection some other way. It just demonstrates that resurrection and physicalism are not logically incompatible.

    With slight alteration, the same argument applies to Buddhist rebirth. Let’s say you are purely physical, and there is no mind-stuff. After death, some critical physical part of your brain goes into a developing organism and becomes the critical part of its brain.

    This might sound silly or off-topic, but that’s only because our Western preconception is that the soul as immaterial. In fact, some Abhidharma texts, and some Tibetan texts, seem to conceive of rebirth in van Inwagen-like terms. It’s not totally explicit that the reborn-thing is physical, because the mind/body problem isn’t thematized in Buddhist philosophy in quite the same way, but the descriptions of the process seem compatible with a physicalist interpretation. (I don’t find this at all likely, but it’s logically and physically possible.)

    Since Buddhist theory has been extensively revised in the past 150 years to conform to popular Western ideas, it’s not surprising that the Dalai Lama (for instance) presents rebirth in non-physical mind-stuff terms.

    So where does that leave us? It means that eliminating mind-stuff from our thinking doesn’t preclude rebirth. And, not believing in rebirth doesn’t mean you have to take any particular position on the mind/body problem.

    OK, back to Metzinger. If what we care about is anatman or rebirth, maybe he is now irrelevant.

    But maybe the mind/body problem, and rebirth, have nothing to do with why we might find Metzinger useful. Maybe we just want a naturalistic explanation for meditation.

    If so, I think there are better psychological frameworks to start from. Particularly, it seems that most of what Metzinger does is sketch a mechanical theory of an executive self, which seems inconsistent with my meditation experience.

    If we want to understand meditation in scientific terms, there are lots of people working specifically on that. Their work is more relevant, because Metzinger’s concern is the mind/body problem, not the psychology and neuroscience of meditation.

    Depending on what the motivations are, we may or may not want to go into more details about Metzinger. Regarding the issues raised in #54, here are some very brief responses, which I can enlarge if this is of continuing interest:

    I am uninterested in the relationship (if any) between Metzinger and Marxism.

    The problem of the homunculus is essentially the same as the mind/body problem, or questions of the physicalism, naturalism, or materialism of the mind. (Different words for the same issue.)

    The intentional vs. phenomenological content distinction is not the same as the causal vs. non-causal representation distinction.

    Matthias’s point 4: Metzinger says explicitly, in the Precis 4.1, that the content of the PMIR is a non-physical relation. This seems like a huge problem. What’s the good of a physical explanation for a non-physical thing?

    Metzinger sets out to be a physicalist/materialist, but the representational framework makes that impossible. Non-causal representations are inherently “spooky” (non-physical), as he explicitly admits. The project is doomed from the start.

    Tom #56 puts this as Mezinger being “ultimately idealist.” I don’t think I’d say it quite that way, but I think we agree on the fundamental problem.

  53. Tom’s is to lay at rest the mystification of the self as an atomistic self-dependent and socially independent being.

    Matthias (#54), this is all fine, but please explain to me how is it possible to even begin a real conversation with people like Tom – focused solely on their collectivist conception of the “mind”, seeing a specter of atman everywhere – about a strictly naturalistic approach to consciousness, where things like for example “pre-linguistic phenomenal model of reality anchored in our brain” is a staple (phrase taken from that very interesting interview with Metzinger, especially in the context of this post). Where “consciousness in the brain” is a starting point, without which any talk about any kind of more complex social cognition is simply impossible? Where there really is a way to think about selfless person, and where there is “no narrator, just selfless dynamical self-organization”.

    Maybe I’m completely missing something here – but I just can’t imagine this conversation can go beyond the impasse without Tom shedding his ideological anti-reductionst resentment and at least try to understand that without theoretical dismantling of his “radio” first, by the help of interdisciplinary approach as that offered by Metzinger, there is no way to put the “subtle atman” at rest.

  54. Re 56
    Tom

    As for the quote from Galloway that Matthias cites above, I would say that this is precisely the reason that the Marxist dialectical method has a privileged access to the truth: because the dialectical method deals with the truth of a given situation, not with some ideal truth. Marx gives us the truth of the capitalist economic system, not a “truth” of some ideal state of human society. The truth, in Badiou’s sense, is always found at the limit of the existing system of knowledge–it is never an transcendent truth, but always the truth of how the existing situation is structured, how it functions (including whose interest it serves and whom it oppresses), and how it can be changed.

    I can’t see from this how Marxism has a privileged access to truth. We could say that idealism fails to grasp the truth contained in the given situation and posits a transcendental truth: but if truth resides in the given situation then it is open to all who look for it there. They are looking in the right place for clues. Science looks for it in physical processes and the results are falsifiable; In the sphere of economics, social relations, ideological formations and political thought and practice no such falsifiability applies. Marx borrowed the dialectical method from Hegal and, as he said, turned it right side up in an effort to counteract crude forms of materialism which saw thought process and ideological formations as simple reflections of material processes. He restored to materialism an active element, which was present in Hegel’s idealism.
    For the social sphere this meant that there was always an unpredictable element—the capacity for human choice, individual and collective, to determine underlying ‘material conditions’ in unpredictable evolving patterns of mutual determination. In this situation no one had a grip on truth, transcendental or otherwise, which is why Marx himself eschewed predicting any particular scenario for the future beyond the broadest outlines.( The pauperisation of the proletariat being one: wrong as it happened. Marx failed to predict the determination of workers to force improvements to their living standards and conditions and the eventual control of the working class movement by reformers and social democrats)

    Marxism’s privileged access to the truth, on the other hand, is clearly traceable in the historical development of Marxist ideology: starting with Engel’s anti-Duhring , continuing with Lenin’s ‘dialectical materialism’, and ending with Stalin’s simplified and distorted versions of dialectical and historical materialism—-which had by then appropriated for itself the grandiose title ‘Scientific Socialism’ —– the scientific to distinguish it from lesser varieties of ‘bourgeois ideology’ contained within the ‘propaganda’ of ‘utopianists’, ‘anarchists’ and ‘reformists’ all of whom received a bullet in the head for their trouble or were starved and worked to death.

    Privileged access my ass!

    Tomek
    Re

    this is all fine, but please explain to me how is it possible to even begin a real conversation with people like Tom

    I came across a comment by Matthias on another tread directed to you concerning meditation methodologies and their relationship to theories of mind, in which he proposed a systematic enquiry composed of three separate but related categories.

    1) objective third person
    2) subjective first person
    3) inter-subjective

    This might be a good way to proceed, especially in the light of the present impasse (if its even that. Seems more like an amazingly productive dialogue that is actually getting somewhere ) It would have the effect of separating issues so that when one strand stalls and is concentrated on a particularly contentious issue (all to the good!) the others might be able to proceed. In other words this would be a formalizing of what is actually already happening. For instance the discussion about the ideological implications of Metzingers theory (intersubjective) could be distinguished from the scientific (first person) and both could proceed as separate but related enquiries. Or if this is not formalised maybe you could just think in this way to allow dialogue to proceed while not giving up sustained and rigorous expression of your own stance? (Tom too)

  55. Patrick (#59), you’re saying that the dialog here is actually getting somewhere. Maybe it is but I’m not so sure. In one of the initial comments that we together exchanged on this blog, I quoted couple of long fragments from Being No One, and one of them just returned to me when I read the above comment, where Tom summaries his argument saying that “Metzinger’s theory is ultimately idealist” and that both Tibetan Buddhists and Metzinger “assume the existence of a transcendent atman.” Now try to read the following passage and tell me where do you see in Metzinger’s explanation any trace of “transcendent atman” and idealism:

    I call this the “principle of necessary self-reification”: Any self-modeling system, operating under real-world constraints and evolutionary pressures, will have to constantly minimize the computational resources needed to make system-related information available on the level of conscious experience. Because, as I have just pointed out, self-modeling possesses a potentially infinite and circular logical structure, it has to find an efficient way to break the reflexive loop. One simple and efficient way to interrupt a circular structure is by introducing an untranscendable object. My hypothesis is that the phenomenon of transparent self-modeling developed as an evolutionary viable strategy because it constituted a reliable way of making system-related information available without entangling the system in endless internal loops of higher-order self-modeling. Any biological system on the path to self-awareness must find a solution to this problem, or it will greatly diminish its reproductive success. (p. 338)

    What I actually see is that he makes explicitly clear that there is actually “untranscendable object” which results from a “real-world constraints and evolutionary pressures” that affect any self-modeling system as our human bio-physical organism. But this seemingly “spooky” result of “necessary self-reification” does not introduce some “transcendent atman”, but opens up a phenomenal state space, where first, appearing of the reality is possible, and than in turn, the system embeds in that representation of the world complex internal image of itself, which, to make the system computationally more efficient, is transparent to itself (hence untranscendable object). But this “object”, which can be easily misunderstood as some “atman”, is in fact an evolutionary strategy to break the infinite regress of self-representation in which a biological organism would be otherwise caught and in effect unable to reproduce successfully.

  56. Tomek #60:

    Since Metzinger’s goal is to solve the infinite regress problem, it’s natural that he asserts that he has done so. But asserting that he has solved it is not the same thing as solving it.

    The fundamental question is: what physical feature of a mental representation of X, makes it a mental representation of X? If Metzinger had an answer to that, he would have solved the regress problem. Otherwise, not.

    If he has an answer, I missed it in the fraction of his work I read.

    (Note, mostly to Tom: This is the problem I think Metzinger has to solve, as he is apparently trying to be a reductive materialist. I am not a reductive materialist, so I don’t particularly care about that problem myself. I used to be a reductive materialist, when I was doing AI, but I am no longer committed to reduction, and am only methodologically a naturalist, not ontologically a materialist.)

  57. David (#61), thanks for your comment, but I don’t think that looking for ncc is the fundamental question. Surely it is a very important issue, that Metzinger tries to address to some extant, although as his critic G. Harman says, those attempts are “nearly masochistic throughout the book” because “we still have no idea what the neural correlates for any aspect of consciousness might be.” But does it really prevents us from understanding the multilevel construction of consciousness? I think it certainly doesn’t. The issues such as infinite regress can be very plausibly explained on other descriptive levels, not just physical-neurological as you suggest, but also on other levels such as functional and informational-compuattional levels of description – that was I guess what Metzinger was trying to suggest in the above quote.

    My basic point in quoting that fraction of Being No One was to say that, unlike Kant in his idealism, Metzinger refuses to make the transcendental subject the ultimate foundation of conditions or rather “constraints” constitutive of phenomenal consciousness and self-consciousness. Instead, following the success of neuroscience, it is the brain (and evolution) that must ultimately produce the conditions underlying our experience. This entails that at each step, Metzinger provides some functional explanation of his constraints of phenomenal experience – what they add to the organism that helps in its survival. In order to illustrate it he also uses various cases of neurological disorders where particular constraint may be absent as the result of neurological damage. One of the constraints is transparency constraint which produces this functionally “necessary self-reification” so easily confused with ideas such as “atman”. This self-reification is a precondition for what Metzinger calls a ‘world-zero’. This refers to the untranscendable experience of being situated into a coherent and stable world. It is the source of naive realism – the simple belief that there is a stable world. Functionally, the evolutionary value stems from the fact that this gives the organism a reference point for any hypotheses, planning or simulation of possible actions. With a reference point in world-zero, the organism can now begin to compare models of actions and try to discern the best plan. It is, clearly, a key evolutionary step.

    (Thanks Nick Srnircek!)

  58. Hello Tomek,

    When I said I think the dialogue here is getting somewhere I didn’t mean that it has reached a conclusion of some sort or was lightly to; I meant that valuable arguments are being made and issues are being clarified— at least have to agree that you are having to clarify your own position by being repeatedly challenged to articulate it and to see it in the context of opposing views.

    Representationalism:
    Needless to say I am not qualified to pronounce on scientific issues: so when Metzinger looks to neurobiological evidence to justify his theory I can’t say anything what-so-ever.
    But I think the transparent self theory rests on extrapolation from evidence and not direct evidence.
    I was struck in my reading of Metzingers précis by the passage you quote but I wasn’t able to decide the question it poses: is the transparent self model just another version of the homunculus and the infinite regress or is it a way for the organism to conserve energy by overcoming a self-perpetuating loop?
    I can see that such a loop is allowable in biology-for instance the phenomenon of autopoiesis is an instance of causal circularity in which the organism through spontaneous self-organization of environmental material, constructs and maintains its own boundary visa vie the environment, and is subsequently limited in its interaction with that environment by that very same boundary
    The transparent self model could be seen as a strategy in which the organism creates out of its own activity an untrancendable object that avoids a recursive loop and frees energy for object directed activity.
    But I don’t know how that overcomes the ‘spooky’ objection David makes

    The fundamental question is: what physical feature of a mental representation of X, makes it a mental representation of X? If Metzinger had an answer to that, he would have solved the regress problem.

    Hello Matthias.
    Re 54
    On Metzinger and ideology. Re (2

    Well, I feel even less qualified to pronounce on this then I did a few weeks ago; and that because so much has been clarified. For myself I am trying to be careful to separate the science question from the philosophical question, a procedure that has helped me . In metzinger’s transparent self theory where does the science end and the philosophical begin, or can such a separation even be made?
    But first; even when the science ends doesn’t Metzinger as a scientist have the right to extrapolate as part of the scientific procedure of extrapolating a working model in order to make it available for future testing? The answer has to be yes. This has a bearing on Toms position.

    Fundamental challenges to received ideas and peer reaction (almost always rejection owing to the force of established theories) is the way science works. There are two major challenges to new theories; the first is pervasive at the moment—–corporate and governmental (read military) attempts to control and suppress scientific research and extrapolation. The other is a hangover from the period of totalist dictatorships of the right and left—an ideological attack that characterises research findings or the scientific model extrapolated from findings as ‘reactionary’ or ‘ideological’ or ‘racist’, or ‘sexist’, or ‘immoral’—-the list goes on. Of course such criticism (as opposed to the conspiracies of vested interests) is exactly what is needed.; but such criticism is ideological in nature—it is a concerted effort to push a particular ‘world view’ or ‘stance’ or ‘way of looking at things’ in opposition to other ways, worldviews etc. All very well.

    But Toms view adds something more. Because he sees Marxism as having a privileged access to truths, to the given situation, he places his criticism of Metzingers view alongside Metzingers scientific findings as being of equal value. And from a standpoint of privileged access comparable to the privilege afforded science, he proceeds to attack Metzingers extrapolations as ideology while proclaiming his own position as having the force of truth; that is as having a force equal to the force of scientific findings. At least that’s my reading of his view expressed in response to your Galloway quote.

    >
    Re: Infinite regress:

    There is something very Kantian about this Quote from Dorothee Lergand’s on Metzingers espistomology:

    On the contrary, Metzinger considers immediacy as a phenomenal illusion, hiding what experience really is: a phenomenally transparent representation whose content we illusorily experience as in the world outside. As already underlined above:

    From an epistemological perspective, we see that our phenomenal states at no point in time establish a direct and immediate contact with the world for us… However, on the level of phenomenal representation …, this fact is systematically suppressed (p.59).

    In Metzinger’s view, then, due to transparency, we are caught up in the illusion that we
    reach the world outside, while, in reality, the only thing we get is representational content

    The question is does that amount to an infinite regress or is it a description of a ontological fact: that it is a description of the way a system can generate an untrancendable object transparent to another sub-set of the same system? I can’t say at the moment.

    An alternative (or complementary?) model

    As it happens I prefer another approach, the enactivism of Francisco Varla, Evan Thomson, and Eleanor Rorch, among others . This seems to me to be more useful in the project you propose below, although I am complicating an already complicated discussion by introducing it, but that can’t be helped.

    The main point here is to deconstruct meditation and to achieve at least an ontologically more frugal explanation of it (Occam’s razor). We can therefore at least begin to deflate some of x-buddhism’s mysticism.

    I prefer Enactivism in the above context for the following reasons.
    (1 It addresses the mind/ body problem from a wider biological perspective that is able to emphasize the matrix of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ processes that manifest as the human organism, without cementing already rigid divisions between body/mind, inside/outside, ground/agency etc etc
    (2 It gives equal credence to the phenomenological evidence of first person introspection.
    (3 It’s conception of autopoiesis solves the problem of how an organism is at once a unique and identifiable entity and at the same time inseparably embedded within and dependent on its environment. In Buddhist terms it preserves a version of the self as real in the sense of the self being an identifiable, bounded agent on a relative level, while showing how its relativity is that very condition whereby it can be defined as empty.
    (4 It gives equal credence to the way linguistic and social structures impact on (2 and (3.
    (5 It addresses Xbuddhist notions of emptiness and dependent origination on the ontological level.
    I don’t rule out a situation where Metzingers transparent self model can be integrated with the above. Dorothee Legrend seems to point to crossovers between representationalism and enactivism in some of what she says about Metzinger.

    For instance:

    Indeed, he also acknowledges some form of externalism in that mental representations “utilize resources that are physically external for their concrete realization”: “the actual ‘vehicle’ of representation, does not necessarily have its boundaries at our skin” (p.21). This externalism is not merely physical, but also functional: “a system mayfunctionally expand well across its physical boundaries, for example, by transiently establishing sensorimotor loops”

    An again:

    an important consequence of Metzinger’s distinction between intentional and phenomenal contents is that he steps over the classical internalism/externalism divide. Indeed, he acknowledges a form of externalism for intentional content, while he defends internalism for phenomenal content.

    I can’t say whether there is anything to this. I could be way off the mark in my understanding of what ‘externality’ means in such a context. On the scientific level only time will tell; or maybe such an integration already exists? On the philosophical level exploring areas of commonality between Metzinger, enactivism, and Buddhist concepts of emptiness and dependent origination would be an interesting project
    On the overall question I am not very sure about my grasp on any of this and so I totally identify with your parting sentence

    But this means not that me dim bulb give up thinking upon entry into the holy circle of those who pretend to already know it all.

    An overall view of the Enactivist approach can be found here http://www.eucognition.org/index.php?page=embodied-dynamicism-and-enactivism
    An essay on the interface between Enactivism, Husserl’s phemonenology, and classical Buddhist philosophy can be found re. http://www.academia.edu/245595/Enacting_the_self_Buddhist_and_Enactivist_approacheo_the_emergence_of_the_self

  59. This is a reply to #62 and #63. This will probably be my last comment on this thread. These issues are important and relevant to Buddhism, but this is not a good format for discussing them.

    Overall, I don’t think Metzinger is a good starting point for understanding meditation or Buddhism in a naturalistic way. If you want neuroscience research, there’s more recent work that is more directly relevant. And, Metzinger’s theoretical framework is vintage-1990 analytic philosophy of mind. If you want analytic philosophy of mind, it has moved along quite a lot since then. I think it’s still broken, but it has at least recognized some of the serious problems that are ignored in the work of Metzinger that I’ve read.

    I don’t think that looking for ncc is the fundamental question.

    That’s not the fundamental problem I pointed at. I was pointing out that Metzinger’s theoretical framework has an inherent infinite regress / spookiness problem because it is based on non-causal mental representations. This problem is now extensively understood in analytic philosophy of mind. This is an in-principle problem, not an empirical one. It can’t be solved by neuroscientists, because it’s inherently philosophical, not scientific.

    Again: Metzinger explicitly acknowledges that non-physical relationships are fundamental to his theory. That is a problem that cannot be solved by neuroscientific investigation.

    The issues such as infinite regress can be very plausibly explained on other descriptive levels, not just physical-neurological as you suggest, but also on other levels such as functional and informational-compuattional levels of description

    No, they can’t. During the 70s and 80s, analytic philosophers of mind tried to push the fundamental problem of representation off on AI people (“the functional and informational-computational level of description”). That conclusively failed. There can be no computational explanation for how a thing-in-the-head can represent a causally distant state of affairs. Once we pointed this out in the late 80s, philosophers lost interest in AI.

    Now they try to push the same problem off onto neuroscientists, but the problem is intrinsic. Unless you are a vitalist (and think bio stuff is magic), neurons are no more able to represent distal affairs than computer circuitry can.

    Metzinger refuses to make the transcendental subject the ultimate foundation

    Yes, he wants to get rid of the homunculus / transcendental subject. But he can’t.

    If you want to learn more about this, one starting point would be the literature on John Searle’s “original intentionality” idea. Here’s a basic summary:

    Suppose I write “Snow is white” on a piece of paper. This is a representation, whose content (meaning) is the fact that snow is white. For whom is it a representation, and how? It is a representation for people who can read English.

    The representation is not a representation for the piece of paper. It has only “derived intentionality.” Its intentionality (meaningness) is derived from human beings. We have “original intentionality,” so that we can mean things by ourselves (according to Searle).

    The representational theory of mind says that you know snow is white because there is the sentence “snow is white” in your head, encoded in some structure or process, in a language called “mentalese.”

    Now, the question is: what is it about this mentalese sentence that makes it mean that snow is white? It’s just a physical thing, like some graphite smeared on paper. Graphite doesn’t mean anything without someone to read it. How is the brain thing different?

    Implicitly, the answer always is that there is a homunculus who is capable of reading and understanding and using mentalese. Of course, this gives rise to the infinite regress. So that answer is unacceptable.

    Searle’s own answer is vitalist—neurons are magic, roughly. Few other people find that acceptable.

    There is no other answer. There can’t be (for lots of reasons that have been worked out especially in the past 25 years, since this problem became understood acutely). Things-in-the-head cannot mean anything, just by themselves.

    This is fatal for Metzinger, because his theory is that experience consists of representations that (he insists) are decoupled from the world.

    The actual resolution is that meaning is dependent on embodiment, engagement in practical activity, and a community of meaning-making. If you want to understand this, some of the “enactivist” work Patrick pointed to in #63 is directly relevant.

    it is the brain (and evolution) that must ultimately produce the conditions underlying our experience.

    No: it is the brain interacting with the world. You cannot understand experience by cutting the brain off from the world. Experience is experience of the world; it can be understood only in terms of causal loops that go rapidly back and forth across the self/other non-boundary.

    this gives the organism a reference point for any hypotheses, planning or simulation of possible actions. With a reference point in world-zero, the organism can now begin to compare models of actions and try to discern the best plan. It is, clearly, a key evolutionary step.

    It’s an interesting coincidence that you mention planning and simulation of possible actions, because this was the focus of my work in the late 1980s. I showed mathematically that there are insuperable computational obstacles to doing this. This was not speculative philosophy, it was a definitive scientific result, accepted by everyone in the field. It permanently ended the entire program of general-purpose planning and action simulation.

    Working with Phil Agre and others, I developed an alternative account of practical activity, partly from an understanding of Heidegger’s Being and Time, which was based on close causal coupling of the actor and the world, rather than representations. This has been the paradigm for robotics ever since.

    (The footnotes to http://meaningness.com/metablog/ken-wilber-boomeritis-artificial-intelligence include links to PDF copies of the published papers describing both the mathematical result and this later work.)

    Our work was an early example of “enactivism” (although that word hadn’t been invented yet). I agree with Patrick that this is a much more promising approach. I would be considerably interested in approaches to understanding meditation and Buddhism that come out of work of this sort. Patrick, thank you for the link to the MacKenzie paper; I’ll read that!

    In the Dorothee Legrend quotes, I believe that the internalism/externalism distinction refers to Hillary Putnam’s XYZ/H2O thought experiment, and the considerable literature that came out of that.

    A subsequent development was the “extended mind” work pioneered by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, which has been a major topic in analytic philosophy of mind during the past ten years. It’s worth reading about that if you are interested in these issues. It’s not radical enough, I think, but is pointing in a more nearly right direction.

  60. David, I find your writing frustrating.

    Your writing about Metzinger is full of “it seems like he means this, it seems like he means that” without mostly saying some thing specific. It seems to me that you reframe the debate in your own words to stay with your view.

    There are a lot of statements you make which sound profound but are vague and empty of any information. For example you say (in #54)

    the problem of the homunculus is essentially the same as the mind/body problem, or questions of the physicalism, naturalism, or materialism of the mind. (Different words for the same issue.)

    So naturalism is the same as the homunculus problem?

    Or you say

    here I’m using the word “self” in a Western psychological sense; it might or might not be the same as “atman,” which I don’t really understand, and doubt anyone else does either.

    What is this about? The self in “a Western psychological sense” and “it might or might not be the same as “ātman” and on top of this you put that nobody understands anyway what this is all about. What are we talking about then?

    Or you say

    I don’t exactly disbelieve in rebirth, because I can’t even understand what the claim is.

    But you go on any way to discuss it with the conclusion

    OK, back to Metzinger. If what we care about is anatman or rebirth, maybe he is now irrelevant.

    You don’t know what rebirth or what (an)ātman is but Metzinger becomes irrelevant anyway. What the fuck are you talking about?

    And for what is this strange detour into rebirth anyway?

    Btw, you say

    Since Buddhist theory has been extensively revised in the past 150 years to conform to popular Western ideas, it’s not surprising that the Dalai Lama (for instance) presents rebirth in non-physical mind-stuff terms.

    It is very clear what rebirth means in Tibetan Buddhism and this is not just something about “popular Western ideas” which have been filtering into it. Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism is about individual mind surviving death and incarnating in another body in flesh and blood. This is so since pre-buddhist times. The bardo literature and Tibetan folk-tails about extra-corporal journeys point into the same direction. (This is a simplification too but I leave at that.)

    It seems to me you want to leave every door open about rebirth etc. The only door you are sure to close is the one regarding Metzinger – who, in the end, makes rebirth impossible…

    As you say you practice in a Nyngma-lineage (Aro gTer right?) is this the reason to be so vague about rebirth. They believe in a lot of strange and weird things. Mantra healing, weather making, divination etc. – and, of course, rebirth. How do you reconcile this with your world view to be a “methodological naturalist”? (#61)

    However this might be, in regard to Metzinger, if the most serious problem here is the homunculus why then nobody addresses the problem except you? Are all these people (point 3 in #54) stupid or ideologically deluded?

    If the latter is the case shouldn’t we ask again rather what the base is which constitutes their ideologically deluded consciousness rather then juggling around with lots of allusions about AI, Heidegger or Searle the vitalist with his magic neurons?

    You reduce complex structures to simplifications. That’s you general strategy. One can see this too in your writing at your blogs. That rather might be your personal solution to some contradictions you have to confront when practicing Vajrayana Buddhism while at the same time being educated in western sciences. But it is not a good solution when every body agrees about a problem that it is complex and one should delve into it further. It looks like a strategy of evasion.

    Couldn’t you simply clarify what the “right direction” is you alude to in your last question in #64?

  61. Since both Patrick and David have already mentioned couple of times in this thread enactivism as a potential alternative to Metzinger’s representationalism, I would like to share with you here a large portion of an interview with R. Brassier, in which I think, he quite clearly captures what is really at stake when we consider those two competing currents within contemporary philosophy of mind:

    Brassier: Contemporary philosophers can be sorted into two basic camps: in the first, there are those who want to explain science in terms of human experience; in the second, there are those who want to explain human experience in terms of science … I side with those in the second camp.

    Question: But is there situation really this black and white? The last two decades saw the emergence of enactivism, for example, which attempt to steer clear from the pitfalls of both extreme positions. Does your adherence to naturalism necessarily commit you to a full abandonment of folk theorizing?

    B: Nothing is ever black and white, but sometimes it is philosophically necessary render it so. I am aware of enactivism, embodied cognition, and the extended mind hypothesis, and while I think these approaches perform a philosophical service by pointing representationalist orthodoxy in the philosophy of mind, I find claims about enactivism’s philosophical radicality to be much exaggerated. Much of it strikes me as Aristotelianism in a cognitive scientific dress. Enactivist critiques of representationalism are certainly instructive, but their proposed alternative is all too familiar. Enactivism invites us “to understand the regularity of the world we are experiencing at every moment, but without any point of reference independent of ourselves that would give certainty to our descriptions and cognitive assertions. Indeed the whole mechanism of generating ourselves, as the world we bring forth in our coexistence with others, will always have precisely that mixture of regularity and mutability, that combination of solidity and shifting sand, so typical of human experience when we look as it up clese”* This is as succinct an encapsulation of the correlationist credo as one could wish for. I confess I fail to see what is philosophically challenging about it. Certainly, it challenges Cartesian dualism, but is this really still a hallmark of contemporary philosophical radicality? The enactivism critique of representationalism is too easily co-opted by the brand of tubthumping anti-dualism whose affinities with new-age spiritualism have been rightly denounced by Zizek and others. I don’t find it coincidental that a philosophical ideology that places such a metaphysical premium on embodiment and affect should arise precisely at that juncture where the full spectrum dominance of neoliberal capitalism has successfully extirpated the ideals of rationalist universalism both in theory and in practice. A metaphysics of embodied affect is a retreat rather than an advance from the impasses of subject-object dualism. I think that a challenge is to re-caonceive the theory and practice of rational universalism in post-computational (i.e. non-anthropological) terms. Inferentialism provides some of the resources required to do just that. It preserves the normative kernel of rationalism, while discarding its metaphysical shell. This is to say that Sellars and Brandom retain Hagel’s insight into the historicity of reason, while jettisoning the neo-Aristotelian substantialization of mind which mired orthodoxy of Hegelianism in theology. So in answer to your question: my adherence to methodological naturalism commits me to discriminating between epistemically perspicuous accounts of the structural links between phenomenology and folk theorising, as exemplified by Metzinger’s self-model theory of subjectivity, or Pascal Boyer’s work on folk metaphysics, and the metaphysical inflation of phenomenological experience that leads philosophers like Maturana, Varela, and Thompson to promote a kind of new-age Protagoreanism.

    * The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Maturana, Varela, Thompson

  62. Re 59: Patrick, since you seem to be actually attempting to sort out these problems, I will try to help clarify the issues for you.

    I can’t see from this how Marxism has a privileged access to truth. We could say that idealism fails to grasp the truth contained in the given situation and posits a transcendental truth: but if truth resides in the given situation then it is open to all who look for it there. They are looking in the right place for clues. Science looks for it in physical processes and the results are falsifiable; In the sphere of economics, social relations, ideological formations and political thought and practice no such falsifiability applies.

    Falsifiability is not really how “science” works. Science always really works by proving a positive—unless you have positively proven your results, then cannot “falsify” your theory. As Hume made absolutely clear, any causal explanation is a metaphor, a theory, and needs to be held loosely, but this doesn’t mean that we are necessarily wrong about empirical observations. In the sphere of the social, we can certainly produce knowledge that is just as scientific as the knowledge of physics, but only if we recognize how science actually works and stop clinging to a mistaken Popperian methodolatry. I think that Roy Bhaskar, before his turn to some kind of absurd Vedantism, made this perfectly clear in his brilliant “A Realist Theory of Science” and “The Possibility of Naturalism.”

    Marx borrowed the dialectical method from Hegal and, as he said, turned it right side up in an effort to counteract crude forms of materialism which saw thought process and ideological formations as simple reflections of material processes. He restored to materialism an active element, which was present in Hegel’s idealism.

    Marx didn’t “borrow” and idealist method, but transformed the dialectic in a way that eliminates the need for idealism.

    For the social sphere this meant that there was always an unpredictable element—the capacity for human choice, individual and collective, to determine underlying ‘material conditions’ in unpredictable evolving patterns of mutual determination. In this situation no one had a grip on truth, transcendental or otherwise, which is why Marx himself eschewed predicting any particular scenario for the future beyond the broadest outlines.( The pauperisation of the proletariat being one: wrong as it happened. Marx failed to predict the determination of workers to force improvements to their living standards and conditions and the eventual control of the working class movement by reformers and social democrats)

    Of course we cannot predict the future, and we can only have scientific knowledge of the existing state of the situation. To fall back into the language of “unpredictable evolving patterns” is a sad mistake, though. We certainly can choose to change things, but this is not the same thing as being determined by “unpredictable” forces. The division is not between the predictable and the unpredictable, but between science and ideology. This is the division you are consistently unable to see clearly. We can, in fact, have scientific knowledge of our ideology, but we will always need to have an ideology, which is chosen in human symbolic systems, not produced by chance or by laws of physics. And the continued and increasing exploitation of the proletariat did actually occur. Just because the proletariat was shifted to another continent, so that countries like the US could, for a time, become increasing professional/managerial does not mean that capitalism was any less exploitative during the post-WWII years of American abundance and union power. Don’t be so naïve. Moving the poor out of sight is a common strategy of ruling classes.

    Marxism’s privileged access to the truth, on the other hand, is clearly traceable in the historical development of Marxist ideology: starting with Engel’s anti-Duhring , continuing with Lenin’s ‘dialectical materialism’, and ending with Stalin’s simplified and distorted versions of dialectical and historical materialism—-which had by then appropriated for itself the grandiose title ‘Scientific Socialism’ —– the scientific to distinguish it from lesser varieties of ‘bourgeois ideology’ contained within the ‘propaganda’ of ‘utopianists’, ‘anarchists’ and ‘reformists’ all of whom received a bullet in the head for their trouble or were starved and worked to death.
    Privileged access my ass!

    This is an example of your confusion of the ideological with the scientific. The materialist dialectic has a privileged ability to see things correctly, because it eliminates any form of idealist illusion. (This, by the way, is the true meaning of “Occam’s razor.” Occam does not say that simpler is better; he says that the explanation that requires the fewest unprovable assumptions is better—eliminating any explanation that requires acts of god, pure chance, or idealist entities is the goal of science, not necessarily simplicity). You confuse a correct marxist explanation of the capitalist economy with the Stalinist ideology of state-run capitalism, and assume because the latter (and ideology of a form of capitalism) requires error and illusion, the former (as scientific account of a social formation) must be wrong. This doesn’t follow. In fact, the oppression required to maintain state-run capitalism would only tend to prove that Marx’s scientific analysis of this particular social formation was actually correct.

    For instance the discussion about the ideological implications of Metzingers theory (intersubjective) could be distinguished from the scientific (first person) and both could proceed as separate but related enquiries. Or if this is not formalised maybe you could just think in this way to allow dialogue to proceed while not giving up sustained and rigorous expression of your own stance? (Tom too)

    No, there is no way to separate the scientific from the ideological in this case, because there is no scientific component of Metzinger’s theory, as he admits. There is no neurological evidence for his account of the mind, it is pure speculation and serves only an ideological purpose. He assumes the existence of a core consciousness, which is mistaken about what it actually perceives, and places this consciousness in the trap of a body and brain that fools it. This requires the existence of a dualistic, idealist “mind,” undetermined by any material cause and so able to “direct” and “choose” at will, but doing so incorrectly because the body has “fooled” it. This is pure ideology of the worst kind—ideology masquerading as science, and ideology which requires us to accept false beliefs.

    If we could say that Metzinger was correctly explaining how the subject is produced in a capitalist society, then we could make this separation and set aside whether this is desirable in order to examine how it occurs. But since the explanation he gives is purely mythical (there are no “neurological correlates,” as he repeatedly admits—although he insists we will someday find them), we cannot make this separation. The requirement for a core transcendent consciousness should be a clear indication that this is not science, but ideology masquerading as science. To waste our time with Metzinger is like studying the sociology of gnomes, and “setting aside” the question of our belief in them.

    You need to be able to make the distinction between correct knowledge of a given situation, and the ideology in which we reproduce that situation. Until you can make this separation consistently, you will never understand marxist thought—or, I would argue, Buddhist thought.

    And all the various “embedded” or “embodied” or “enactivist” or “situated” consciousness theories are not better. They all assume an atomistic self interacting with an external environment, and ultimately need recourse to an idealist consciousness, and atman, which they simply push out of sight as long as possible. It is worth examining these theories, as an intellectual exercise in deconstruction—to detect the points at which the subtle atman makes its appearance. But it is a mistake to accept them without this examination, because they only lead to reification of the fundamental ideological error of idealism—the fundamental error that so much of Buddhist thought and practice attempts to help us break free of. (And, of course, that reactionary Buddhist thought works to sneak back in.)

    I offer this, Patrick, to help you to clarify your thinking. I hope you’ll take it in the spirit in which it is intended, and ignore the string of idiotic responses that will likely no follow from Tomek and Sid an the rest of the reactionaries. I would be happy to try to further clarify this, if you have any questions.

  63. Hello Tom,
    I read this after I made the comment on the other tread, Thanks for such a long and detailed reply.Will take time out and give it thought …don’t expect a reply for some time!
    As for taking it in the spirit in which it was given , well, as far as I am concerned you don’t need to walk on egg shells. I was once involved in a heated political debate where an opponent pulled a gun! Ha! Although I have to say you do have an irritating habit of sounding just a trifle school-masterish at times. The odd expletitive, though, more than mitigates …..

  64. David (and everybody else), re a point in #57

    Then, one of my objections to Metzinger is that this sort of self is what one finds doesn’t exist when practicing vipassana-type meditation.

    I think you mean some kind of lhagtong, isn’t it? Would you mind to explain what you mean with one doesn’t find a self in this praxis?

    It is my experience that one can literally watch how a thought establishes itself out of nothing (from a phenomenal point of view not from an ideological) in consciousness and that one can literally watch the vanishing of a thought (the latter is the the quality capitalist exploitation begins to use to pacify its slaves). Do we still have here a subject object-dichotomie? If I put it as a proposition it is. But is it still a proposition if I watch, whereby watching is not the proposition “I do watch X” but the very act of doing it… or to use a drastic example of what I mean: Is having an orgasm a proposition? (Can a proposition ever be an orgasm?)

    That is one question. The next is: What is the ineffable and possibly non-propositional watcher? In other words, what is the referent of the first “I” in the the sentence “I know that I think” with the second being the actual thought? Is the first “I” of the same quality as the second? I think there are clearly different qualities here. For example when I am day dreaming I am thinking without knowing it. Only if I pay attention I become conscious of the content of my day dream. What is paying attention?

    A further point. There is a famous point in mahamudra literature about the breaking down of the differentiation between movement and stillness, which is possibly referring to the experience that paying attention and that what one attends to becomes integrated. That is, the at first forced differentiation of watcher and watched becomes seamless.

    Now, what in all this is a self or the absence of it?

    Another question: Is the very act of paying attention an intentional act? I mean does it has an object? Paying attention is obviously something which is done, but could it be done without an object?

    It is easy to deconstruct a self from the third person perspective. Is it really posible to do it from within, in first person perspectiv? We still have question #12 looming…

  65. Matthias: I’ll offer my thoughts on this problem. When you say “I know that I think,” you are reproducing the error that produces belief in the atman. If you think you are attending to the content of your thoughts, you are, of course, attending to some of them, but not to the thoughts about that content. These thoughts–the belief that I can passively “watch” my thoughts arise and dissolve–is just another set of thoughts produced in a discourse, socially produced, but which we are taught to mistake for an unproduced “true self.” In the “mindfulness” practice of watching your thoughts with detachment, you are actually participating in a socially produced discourse of “mindfulness” and not realizing it. The mind always and only thinks, and consciousness is always and only in socially produced symbolic systems produced between multiple individuals. Can the body act without thought? Sure it can–have you ever seen a chicken with its head cut off? Sometimes they can walk about and respond to stimuli for hours. But there is no mind there. Even a brain-dead body can be stimulated to orgasm, but there is not mind that “has” the orgasm, except in a symbolic system which gives the bodily response meaning.

    There are multiple discourses, and we can examine one discourse with another; we can do this because there is no “first person” at all, the mind is always collective. The fact that you can’t deconstruct the subtle atman from a “first person” perspective isn’t important, because you never really have such a perspective anyway–if you think you do, you are in delusion.

    My original understanding of Vipassana meditation, years ago, was that it was an attempt to recognize exactly this–the real causes and conditions of all the thoughts we believe “we” are having. We then realize, like Hume when he “looks within,” that there is no self, only another discourse (not the term Hume would use, but..) which is always produced socially. Even the “looking within” is just a socially produced discourse. Then we lose the need to find the directing “will” deep within. Instead, we see that the “self” is socially constructed, and we can begin, also in “sati” meditation, to examine the causes and the effects of this particular construction of conventional self, and determine (again, in a collectively produced discourse) what actions might produce a better “self.”

    Of course, Vipassana as I’ve encountered it over the last couple of years has become the opposite of this–it is now an attempt to produce a discourse in which we are fooled into believing we DO have a core transcendent mind that is undetermined by discourse and social formations, and this is what they now call “anatman”: the mistaken belief that this “witnessing mind” is NOT created by the discourse/practice of retreat buddhism.

  66. Hi Matthias’
    Re 69
    I too was struck by Davids allusion to vipassana practice. (By the way what does the word lhagtong mean? I can’t find it in the dictionary.)
    I think talking about Mahamudra practice is always a slippery business but here is my take on practice, using your comment as a sort of template.

    A thought establishes itself out of nothing…and that one can literally watch the vanishing of a thought.

    This watching of the arisal of a particular thought and the subsidence of that thought is what I consider to be my basic meditation practice.
    It is never, though, just an unthinking procedure—there is a huge difference for me between a non-conceptual practice and a unthinking one. Mahamudra is a non -conceptual path. It presumes the veracity of the middle path understanding of emptiness, arrived at by conceptual analysis. It starts there, at the end of a highly sustained analysis of dependent origination; this is absolutely essential, otherwise one is simply meditating as a corpse. Conceptual analysis is, however, excluded from the meditation session proper.

    And yet the pointing out instructions asks one to ask a set of very precise questions; where any particular thought that arises might come from, where it might possibly go, and about what exactly it might be made of or where it might abide if and when it persists?
    The difference between the two forms of thinking can only be that in conceptual analysis the process of thought is rigorous and sustained—that is a sort of ‘spotlight’ attention focuses on a particular thought so that its implications can be precisely teased out, and a self-perpetuating continuum of enquiry is initiated.
    . In the Mahamudra procedure this teasing out is not allowed. After the question ‘where does this thought come from’ is posed, the thought procedure itself is bracketed and instead attention is switched to the mere arisal, abiding, or disappearance of thought..

    Do we still have here a subject object-dichotomie? If I put it as a proposition it is. But is it still a proposition if I watch, whereby watching is not the proposition “I do watch X” but the very act of doing it

    I read ‘proposition’ here as the process of teasing out and proliferation.

    I do watch X” but the very act of doing it

    I read this as the process of ‘teasing out’ bracketed, and a spotlight attention focused on mere arising, mere persistence and mere subsidence.

    This is the stage of what you call,

    forced differentiation of watcher and watched

    The next stage for me is where true vipassana begins

    One sees that there is no place from which a thought can arise, no place in which it can persist, and no place into which it can subside.

    Further if there is no place from which thought can arise then it follows that no thought in actual fact arises, or persists, or subsides.

    And one sees that the watcher of thought is itself only another thought. It too is but the mere non -arisal, non- persistence and non -subsidence of thought

    This is the stage you call;

    watcher and watched becomes seamless.

    When this seamlessness is seen to be exactly the same as the arising of dualistic thought, when the thought of the watcher once more arises and one is no longer perturbed by this fact, one has reached the stage of non-meditation, or what Zen calls ‘just sitting’, and Dzogchen calls the ‘natural state’; in ontological terms just plain immanence.
    Those xbuddhists who conflate this experience and proceed to fill the void with the paraphernalia of xbuddhism’s cornucopia of wonders, are in fact not engaged in the practice of Mahamudra but in the practice of proliferating thought in conditioned ways, and exactly at the point you describe; where a thought is about to naturally ‘self-liberate’ they grasp after it and thought immediately reproduces an ideological formation, most often a thought that reifies the watcher as some sort of transcendental blissful awareness. A subtle atman is reintroduced by the backdoor.

  67. If anyone is interested in Zizek’s thoughts on Metzinger, and cognitivism generally, there is an interesting and fairly short chapter on this in his book Less Than Nothing: “Interlude 6: Cognitivism and the Loop of Self-Positing,” where he explains “what Metzinger misses.”

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