The Blind Spot

This also from Paul …


10 The problem is not just that when I look at the Mona Lisa, my visual experience has a certain quality, no trace of which is to be found by someone looking into my brain. For even if he did observe there a tiny image of the Mona Lisa, he would have no reason to identify it with the experience.

The above footnote is from Nagel’s 1974 paper What is it like to be a bat?’

These days of course, with brain scans etc, we can in fact see various brain activities, albeit not at a very small/detailed scale — eg we’re confined to fairly coarse, clumsy concepts, such as pleasure, pain, sex, eating, language activity etc — so for instance by looking into Nagel’s brain, we might plausibly be able to infer that Nagel’s ‘mind’ is thinking about making the comment ‘hey, that’s a nice picture’. And if we saw that his motor cortex was fired up too, then we might deduce that he was actually saying it.

But the thing is this: Really, in fact, is there ever anything more than just these clumsy things going on?? Sure, we think/feel that there are — this is our everyday subjective experience — but then we’re not aware of our retinal blindspots either, for the obvious functional/evolutionary reason that we have a more efficient/comfortable GUI if the brain blanks them out. But why shouldn’t this be the case not just for perceptions, but also for cognition as well? We *feel* we’re having ‘deep thoughts’ but, to use an analogy, it’s like Graeme Wistow’s ultimate paranoid sci fi fantasy, except that instead of alien dwarves who work 24/7 to rapidly bolt together ‘reality’ just before you walk around the next corner and see it, it’s in fact our own brains that are internally doing precisely this job for us all the time. Our personal realities are in fact coarse-grained, clumsy and full of gaps and contradictions, even if that’s not how we subjectively experience them. But then *of course* we don’t experience our ‘minds’ in this way! This is precisely because — thanks to careful evolutionary design — we lack the mental discernment that would be necessary to see so clearly!

Consider some of the usual suspects that are often listed as the highest achievements of humanity, eg art, science, insight… But what is insight [wiki says insight is…] but a good guess, or a series of good guesses? Why do you need anything more than the possession of an acute perception to account for this? Or consider science: what is science but, by definition, trial and error? Monkeys and typewriters with heuristics thrown in. How complex, how advanced is that? Or consider the arts: and then consider one of the first questions about any work of art: ‘what was the artist trying to say?’ (*) All art is up for grabs, open to interpretation, and artistic judgment tends to fall primarily to [admittedly well-read but] pretentious snobs. It is also a commonplace that the artist herself frequently ‘doesn’t understand’ what she herself has wrought. We blithely claim that art expresses something — our deepest [ie reptilian] emotions, say — when even the artist has no idea of what is actually being expressed. So, yes, sure, there are works of art, literature, music that I like, that I enjoy, that I even ‘appreciate’, but *qualitatively*, am I really doing any more than a chimp is doing when it stuffs a banana into its face or am I just fooling myself?

We experience our thoughts as profound and seamless. But we experience our dreams [wiki says dreams are …] in much the same way. One of these phenomena results from clumsy, blundering, undirected, random mental processes — and the other happens when we’re asleep. Except for a difference in perceptual acuity and input, really, there’s nothing but human vanity to encourage us to distinguish between these two processes!

To jump back to Nagel’s original question, the dichotomy is this:

(1) To the extent that consciousness is happening — eg in humans, in not-yet-invented AI robots and computers, in advanced races of space aliens, in sci-fi/horror brains-in-a-jar etc — then the subjective experience is more or less the same, albeit presumably with different GUI ‘skins’. (And this is not anthropocentric, it’s consciousness-centric.)

(2) To the extent that it’s not happening so much — eg in bats, probably — then there’s nothing to explain. What is it like to be a bat? It’s not like much of anything at all. Or if bats or whatever are in fact more ‘advanced’ or intermediate than I’m giving them credit for — if they’re up there with dogs or horses or chimps; (70 plus on the huneker scale?) — then it’s like being in the world of windows media classic player instead of itunes, ie less slick and with fewer buttons.


We don’t think; we only think that we think; all that we really do is perceive, process and store data, babble, and continue to fool ourselves. Self awareness — ie consciousness — is an illusory (delusionary?) emergent behavior.

We — or rather our brains — are excellent at detecting patterns. In fact , we’re so good at it that we detect patterns even when there’s no pattern there. Apply this to consciousness and conclude: There is no consciousness; all we’re doing is ‘seeing a pattern’ that isn’t there. You might counter that it doesn’t feel like that? Fine. But what else would you expect it to feel like?


(*) In fact writers often speak of characters ‘coming alive’ — behaving in unexpected, unwanted ways — as they write them into existence. Of course, the problem is much simplified here because we’re only talking about 3rd person reality — the Turing test, rather than a model of personal subjective reality — but still, it’s remarkably easy to create [the illusion of] a complete human being from scratch. We understand, of course, that Hamlet, for example, is a fictional creation, but from the sole evidence of just a few hundred fixed, indelible, immortal lines, we see into his very soul — and indeed, find it deeper than the souls of many actual living human beings. We make Hamlet — a non-existent person — live for us a full rich life. Clearly, we have a remarkable ability to project consciousness onto objects and abstractions. We do it all the time — seamlessly, convincingly and unconsciously. And, without even noticing, we also turn this remarkable ability to project consciousness back onto ourselves and conclude — falsely — that we too have a full rich inner life. Whereas all we really have is a quantitatively greater inventory of actions, words and behaviors than Hamlet was given for his brief allotted time upon the stage.


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