Meta-Linguistics (dialoguing with Layman Pascal)

Thanks to Bruce Alderman, Layman Pascal, and The Integral Stage for another great conversation! Here’s Bruce’s description:

How does our understanding of the relationship between language and reality evolve as we develop, individually and culturally? What does it mean for language to be the house of being? Is there any sense in seeking a universal language? What is the impact of the new social media on our communication habits, patterns, and expectations? What new metamodern or integral skills and attitudes to language might help us navigate our current meaning crises? How might we be empowered by confronting, and owning, language’s limits?

Parsimonious Panpsychism? (response to Julian Walker)

This following is copied from a Facebook post Julian Walker made in response to Bruce Alderman’s defense of panpsychism (in the “Integral 2.0” group). I wanted to weigh in (my comments are below): 

“PANPSYCHISM is not more PARSIMONIOUS than EMERGENTISM (Reply to Bruce on his thoughts about the David/Matthew debate)

In a way I hear you very eloquently restating Matthews stance.Which to me reifies the concept of consciousness and then makes it seem like this impossible emergent property.

But if what we mean by “consciousness” is rather a collection of evolved adaptive responses that gradually become not only more complex, but more self reflective? then it is not so unreasonable to see reactions to acid/alkali or light or other stimuli leading to moving one way or another etc eventually leading to more complex sensorimotor dynamics.

Biology is physical, and consciousness emerges as an expression of how physical organisms interact with their environment. It’s embodied, not ethereal.

Those sensorimotor dynamics emerge out of necessity and have survival value; eventually differentiating and complexifying into visual, auditory, sensate, olfactory organs with their own inputs and processing, and their own implications in terms of what they “mean” and how we should behave in response.

There did not have to be a ghost in that machine or some nascent form of “consciousness” already there waiting to perceive and reflect on these stimuli —it all co-emerges.

(Professor VS Ramachnadrans incredible 9 minute answer to the question of Self, Qualia, and Consciousness from the TSN interview with Roger Bingham up on YouTube, is for me the best exploration of this process. )

In a way I think this is why I and others intuit some kind of initial dualist underpinnings in panpsychism, or maybe why idealists and those with religious metaphysical affinities can migrate over to panpsychism.

Likewise I think “interiority” is again being reified as a literal space or dimension, instead of as increasing self reflective awareness, along with a deepening capacity to learn via memory, and plan via imagination etcAwareness doesn’t really happen “inside” in some literal way… it just seems like it because of how the brain evolved.

It is a perhaps as quixotic task to go in search of an ultimate explanation or origin of this interior space or entirely new ontological dimension as it is to try assert that music existed at the Big Bang, or else how could it just arise out of nowhere as this incredible phenomenon with rhythm, tempo, melody and harmony.

Similarly, meaning, emotions, language, and abstraction all ride on these adaptations and become elaborated into what we now see and experience in terms of human consciousness and culture.

On this view postulating something called “consciousness” in places where it has not been evolved via adaptation seems incoherent and unnecessary.

The argument that panpsychism is more parsimonious because otherwise how can we explain the “sudden appearance of interiority “ etc is to me just an argument from incredulity, combined of course with these reification/semantic mistakes.

It’s also a kind of question begging, because you’re left having to explain:

1) why we only see evidence for consciousness in living organisms.

2) why else that consciousness becomes more complex as brains do the same.

3) why brains that are damaged or intoxicated are reduced or distorted in their processes.

4) how exactly consciousness could be present in the early universe, but unexpressed.

Does water have to be present in hydrogen and oxygen prior to the conditions being right for it to emerge? What about all the elements that only became possible as the universe cooled and got larger, were they already there before they emerged? Protons and electrons were not interacting in ways that gave rise to the entirely new chemical reactions elements make possible once they did, and the intuition that therefore those elements were either already there or are part of some intelligent design with an inevitable teleology that implies pre existing sentience can’t help but seem like creationism. We can have an incomplete answer (emergentism) whilst being grounded in what all the evidence, and I do mean all the evidence, we have so far suggests.

My response:

To begin with, the charge that emergentism is more parsimonious assumes that we have a theoretical mechanism for how emergence occurs that is simple/economical. No such theory exists that I am aware of. So how do we know it is more parsimonious? It seems at least as probable to me that interiority and exteriority are equiprimordial, and on this assumption, no theoretical gymnastics are required later on down the evolutionary road to explain how surfaces could become persons. In fact, as William James was among the first to point out, evolution starts to make a lot more sense and require fewer leaps if interiority goes all the way down. So which ontology is really more parsimonious?? Julian might admit the lack of a theoretical mechanism for emergence is an IOU, and claim that lots of smart neuroscientists are working on it as we speak. But to my mind, this is not just another “easy” problem for the scientific method to resolve. If we accept Chalmers’ “hard problem” framing, then the question of whether there can be a theoretical mechanism that explains the emergence of interior wholeness/a psychological point of view out of exterior parts/the point-instants of materialistic physics is in fact an ontological or metaphysical one, rather than a strictly scientific one. Julian probably doesn’t accept Chalmers’ framing, though I’d like to see him argue against the rather elaborate and analytically tight case the Chalmers has published. Of course, the hard problem framing assumes we accept a standard materialist ontology of simply located material particles floating in empty space and directionless time. This ontology is highly suspect, not because woo woo philosophers challenged it, but because reductionistic physicists brought about the quantum and relativistic revolutions in the early 20th century. Physicists no longer hold to the old 19th century form of materialism, but unfortunately many in biology and cognitive science are still presupposing such an ontology. Why? Because 100 years of positivist anti-philosophy have created a situation wherein very few philosophers were willing to risk their reputations doing metaphysics at precisely the time when natural science needed a new metaphysics. Whitehead was among the exceptions. In any event, once we let go of the old materialistic ontology that not even physics still holds, new avenues are opened up for resolving the now softer hard problem of consciousness.

Julian complains that panpsychists “reify the notion of consciousness,” when as many neuroscientists will point out, it is actually a collection of a whole bunch of different capacities. “Consciousness” is certainly a suitcase term that allows those who use it to carry around all sorts of baggage. For the purposes of philosophy of mind, however, we can and must extract the essence of these various capacities: some call it “phenomenal awareness,” others call it “qualitative experience,” and still others “something it is like to be.” The point is that, for the purposes of understanding the ontology of mind, all the various modes of consciousness can be boiled down to some sort of “feeling” that provides their condition of possibility. Of course, we can take a behaviorist approach and try to explain how all the capacities that supposedly imply “consciousness” can actually be explained mechanically as just sophisticated input/output computations. But this amounts to a form of epiphenomenalism where the conscious “something it is like to be” plays no role whatsoever in the behavior of the organism. We are then left having to admit that consciousness is just an illusion and cannot evolve, since in order to be selected for it would have to confer some advantage to the organism in question. We are thus left with a ghost in the machine that should not exist. Julian wants to say consciousness evolved, so clearly the behaviorist approach to explaining it in terms of blind neural computations is not going to work. If consciousness exists, if it is part of the actual world and influences the behavior of our organism, then we will need to pursue other explanations for it than neural computation. Even if such mechanistic approaches were exhaustive in their explanations of organismic behavior (they aren’t, but let’s go with it for a second), that would still leave some sort of illusory consciousness to explain. Saying consciousness is an illusion doesn’t help us, because as Descartes was already well aware, the fact that consciousness “seems to be” is essential to its very nature. Consciousness could be defined as “seemingness.” So the question I’d have for the computational neural reductionist is “why do we seem to be conscious?” I’m left wondering who is really guilty of reification here…

Julian claims panpsychism is dualist. There are forms of panpsychism, particularly those growing in popularity among analytic philosophers of mind at the moment, that are indeed dualistic. These are the approaches that say consciousness or its proto- forms are a kind of “intrinsic property” of matter. These analytic panpsychists claim that physics tells us only about the relational or structural aspects of matter, and that the intrinsic nature of matter is, in fact, some sort of proto-consciousness. This is one way to avoid the hard problem of consciousness, but unfortunately it leads to another problem: the combination problem (also first pointed out by William James, who we should all really be reading more of, as so many of the problems endlessly debated to this day were brilliantly dealt with more than a century ago). James offered a possible solution to this problem, and Whitehead followed through on its development in his process-relational ontology. Whitehead’s process-relational panpsychism is unlike the dualistic substance-property panpsychism of the analytic school (e.g., Philip Goff and Galen Strawson). Whitehead avoids dualism by pointing out the way interiority and exteriority are dialectically entangled. You literally cannot understand what you mean when you posit one as existing without implicitly assuming the reality of the other. As Alan Watts put it, the simple but profound fact of the matter (and the mind!) is that “every outside has an inside, and every inside has an outside.” Whitehead’s metaphysical rendering of “experience” is not simply an account of the “inside,” but an account of how interiority and exteriority oscillate in a wave-like way through phases of potentiality and actuality. Each experient begins by inheriting a public past, then enjoying it in a private present, and finally perishing as a public intention for the future. So experience has an object-to-subject-to-object (or “superject”) pattern to it. It is not simply interior but rather an attempt to account for the ontologically basic dialectical entanglement of interior and exterior.

Julian claims we only see evidence of consciousness in living organisms. What evidence is that, exactly? Certain kinds of behavior we commonly associate with mental capacities? Ok, but this is behavior, not consciousness. Certain kids of neural activity that self-reports suggest is associated with consciousness? Ok, but again, this is all behavior. My point is that if we get stuck in the “only exteriors are really real” paradigm, to be consistent we are forced to say that, actually, there’s no evidence for consciousness ANYWHERE in the physical universe. It simply doesn’t add anything to physical reality to posit its existence. Of course, as human beings, this sounds absurd. But I don’t know how to avoid this theoretical conclusion given the premise that a reified understanding of exterior physical reality is in fact *all* of reality.

Julian’s claim that the emergence of consciousness is just like the emergence of water from H and O atoms is the result of a common confusion of the ontic and the ontological. Interiority is not just a new state of matter like liquidity. If matter is imagined in the Cartesian way as extended bits of stuff in mechanical motion, then experience or interiority is a new domain of Being and not just another being among beings.

In short, the IOU theory of the emergence of consciousness from matter is not so much “incomplete” as it is incoherent.

Consciousness in the Wild

I just finished a 2.5 hour debate with David Long (moderated by Bruce Alderman of The Integral Stage). David is a proponent of “Integral 2.0,” an attempted upgrade of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory which David feels amounts to a kind of idealistic creationism when it comes to cosmological questions and the origins of consciousness. David argues for a form of emergentism, the idea that consciousness or sentience emerges out of neutral physics and chemistry at some point in evolutionary history. I argued against emergentism by pointing out that as an account of consciousness it ultimately collapses into either epiphenomenalism or dualism (I unpack why in this article). I argue in favor of a Schellingian/Whiteheadian form of evolutionary panpsychism. The debate should be uploaded in the next few days, and I will share it here. Below are a few reflections offered in an attempt to bridge my position with David’s.

I’m fine with saying that consciousness is an emergent property/product of a complex system. But the system in question is not just the neurons in the skull, it’s the system of the universe.

When we abstract brain physiology from the wider organism-environment field and evolutionary developmental history to which it belongs, when we stick a brain in a laboratory fMRI machine, we may learn some interesting things about how we’re wired up to respond to the world. DARPA/The Pentagon is spending billions on brain science, because it pays off if the goal is the instrumentalization of human souls. It could also pay off therapeutically, if that’s what society valued.

But consciousness is different “in the wild.” Out here in the midst of human history on an imperiled planet earth we conscious beings find ourselves not only embodied but embedded within the body of the world. This world-body’s horizons are analogous to our rentinal blind spot where the optic nerve enters the eye. The light of sight recedes into the darkness of a seer unseen.

As an emergent product of cosmogenesis, consciousness can’t quite get a handle on its comic origin. A finger can’t touch itself. An eye can’t see itself.

We reach for the edge of space-time only to have it recede from us at an ever-accelerating rate. My consciousness is limited in its capacity for ever-vigilant attentiveness to the entire experiential field encompassing me. My focus on this field is always shifting from locus to locus and fades off at fractal edges. Consciousness is an emergent product of the entire history and extent of the cosmos. I mean this quite literally and physically. What else could it be?

Death Denial in a Panpsychist Cosmos: A Dialogue with Corey Anton

Partially edited Transcript (if you feel inspired please do feel free to finish the editing of this transcript and post it as a comment below!):

Matt Segall: Well, good to see you.

Corey Anton: Great to see you

Matt Segall: So how’s it going

Corey Anton: It’s going really great and thank you so much for making this time I’m really happy to talk with you, you really, You know you’re you’ve always been one of my favorite YouTubers going all the way back in some way. You were the inspiration for me, opening the channel. I mean, I really enjoyed your channel. Way back you know over 10 years ago now. Uh, you know what I wanted to do today. And, well, it started with the politics of death video that you had posted a while back. Maybe about a week or so ago. Yeah. And I was going to post a response. And then Spirit Science had posted up a video on near death experiences. You’ve done a couple of video responses to David Long on this issue of emergentism versus panpsychism. I would like to go back to this original issue that you raised in the politics of death and see if we can talk a little bit about some of what’s going on there and then see sort of where it takes us.

Matt Segall: That’s great. Yeah, I’d love to try to tie all those things together, they are intimately connected, and to be able to that draw out

Corey Anton: Yeah, that

Matt Segall: Would be a lot of fun. So

Corey Anton: I am offering this up as I think, you know, in the spirit of, you know, of open inquiry and honesty about what I seem to think what seems to be the case. And what you know. I guess we really don’t know. I mean, there’s all kinds of different ways that we could come at some of these, you know, these different questions and concerns. But it would be, I mean, one way that I would want to come into it is in response to your politics of death, I would say, yes, there is a great concern over the meaning of death as it gets caught within an overly circumscribed individualism as once people have they’ve misunderstood organismal integrity with something like radical independence of the organism like as if the organism is independent of an environment, just because it maintains something like an organismal integrity. And I think for me the question would be, you know, to maximize one’s, we’ll call it spiritual potency or one’s recognition of the sacredness of existence. It has to do with this discovery of who one really is and that one is as a place and moment of everything that’s ever existed. And so as I think as soon as one sheds the false ego, the false sense of self that comes from a visual bias of trusting that the eyes are the true register of what boundaries are. As soon as you start to realize that the word, the spoken word, opens one up to historical dimensions, to dimensions of depth that are unseen. Words are not really material in the same way that we think about something that is visual that can be put on a scale that can be subject to compositional analysis and it’s materiality is basically subject to, again, this kind of reductivism. And let me say one last thing about this and I’ll sort of see what you want to say to any of that. But it’s that I think you know one of the simple ways to come at it, even from like a rudimentary biological orientation is to say to someone, okay, what will you do with the fact of genitalia? Because now you can look at your body and ask how does your genitalia relate to the rest of the body. And how are the hormones related and all of the organs relate to one another, which you’re never going to understand genitalia by just looking at the isolated individual separated at the skin. I mean, that kind of empiricism is going to wholly miss the kind of deep, profound sociality that’s etched in our body, not only with the fact that we have navels but the fact that we’ve come into the world by coming out of another person, like literally come into the world by coming out of another person. And we call these “private parts,” but they are really the ultimately social parts of our being. And it’s sort of, you know, it’s a statement that we call them our private parts, because we were older sociality. Because we try to define ourselves as these kind of atomistic individuals located, you know, again, inside the boundaries of the skin or something like that.

Matt Segall: Yeah, that’s a wonderful sort of preamble to enter into this conversation and I really appreciate everything that you’re saying, and would want to echo it, you know, there’s deep agreement here. And so I think what you’re describing how I would maybe rephrase it would be to say that in the modern period where individualism became basically the religion for modern societies, liberal society I guess, since communism was an alternative which had more of a sense of collective identity. But even there, there was a sense of the individual life as ceasing at death and that whatever we are is somehow limited to the individual body. I think in the whole history of human culture, the changing relationship to death and understanding of what happens when you die is one of, it seems to be at the core, you know, as Ernest Becker and other anthropologists have said our relationship to death seems to be at the base of our cultural, of our culture’s and our of our own sense of what is meaningful. Ultimately, and so how we respond to the fact of death is what gives us our sense of meaning and purpose and death is the end of human life in many senses of “end,” as in, it is only through death and engaging with the mystery of death that we can find purpose, and in the modern individualist context, it becomes difficult to find meaning in the face of death that isn’t just based in greed. And so what what you’re pointing to is the deeper social ground that, for example, if we even just look at our bodies, our sex organs. So they’re not our private parts. I love that they’re actually the most transpersonal of our organs. And actually there’s an interesting symmetry here that I think, you know, it may make modern Protestant but also all patriarchal culture blush and feel shame, but there’s a profound symmetry in the body developmentally between the the genitalia and the face, and like the sensory organs of the face and the sexual organs. The way that the bottom half of the body is structured, these are sprung from the same growth forms that shape the human body.

Corey Anton: You’re right. Okay, now that I think that’s exactly right. So let’s chase that down. Okay, that’s a good way to come out and this is where when people try to reduce it all down to the brain, it gets all confusing. And not only is the brain multi-modular, but the body has an array of different sensory-motor capacities and it includes the different senses traditionally defined like sight and hearing and touch but it includes the kind of space and time dynamics of the possibilities of reproduction. Or the fact that we need to sleep, or that we always have to have food chains at a certain distance from ourselves and we metabolize things at a certain rate. I mean, like the boundaries of the skin are illusory, but the eye is so easily fooled. This is how you get people thinking they’re going to galavant around the stars. You know they’re they’re missing all the ways in which you need the atmospheric pressure. The gravitational constants that are here. Relative to this massive, this planet like when you jump up and down, you’re actually affecting the gravity of the earth. We do the equation. I mean, it’s actually in there, you know, We’re more cosmic, then I think we we recognize and there isn’t integrity to the body, but what we need to go to is this kind of world-openness that comes from the different sense modalities. So this would be a different way to sort of echo what you were saying. But I would try to further it out this way so you know, Archimedes’ great discovery of how you can measure the volume of a complex object, like the crown right he sets it in the water and then it displaces a certain amount of water. He says, look, this is the volume that this thing occupies. But if I asked about a living body. See, this is where the panpsychism starts: When I talk about the the crown, I can understand that object that is subject to a kind of reductive compositional analysis and I can say I comprehend the whole of the crown by submerging it and then showing the amount of water displaced and saying, that’s how it’s occupying space. But me, my body, all of us, not only did we grow out of another person through nutritive commerce and metabolism and really very complicated processes, unlike that crown. I say that I occupy space. I don’t occupy space in a way that a thing does like I could take this pen and I can put it in a drawer, but it doesn’t feel the confinement of the space whereas a living organism, through its sensory capacities, its motor capacities… And it’s not just representational. This is absolutely crucial. I think is one of the biggest failures is for people to imagine that everything is just representational, you know, once you move to the difference between seeing, hearing, and touch you realize that okay like my eyes right now are registering and they’re representing the distances I am from the wall, but my legs do a lot more than represent that distance. They’re the source of those distances that I can take myself closer to or further away from that and to that extent, motility, the fact that my body has a directionality that my hands have things within certain reach and there’s a sort of spatial temporal dynamics of that and then hearing has a dynamic that intersects with that and then vision has an intersect and then once you get language that comes back in and then communication technologies start looping back and double backing over…You get this massive intersecting dynamic of modes of space and time, and we ask this question about consciousness and where does it start. How did it begin, that part of us, which is asking that question is a highly mediated social historical accomplishment it already depends upon calendars, all sorts of media technologies…

Matt Segall: So let me, I want to get to the panpsychism issue. Because I certainly don’t think that a crown or any artifact is conscious or has a soul or anything like that. But what you’re saying about space-time and the way that living organisms sort of bring forth their own space-time envelopes and that the organism and the environment are actually part of, they’re one system. Life is the system of relationship between organism and environment. And organisms and one another. But so the sex organs, right!? There’s something about the sex organs that connect us to a transpersonal past and future. And there’s something about the sense organs that connect us more to a personal sense of here and now. And then language allows us then to reconnect consciously to the way that our sex organs connect us to a deeper past and a future. Language, then, I think in a way is, again, if these, if you think of the top and the bottom half of the body as just grown from the same root and in a way fractally repeating one another, language takes on a profound fucundity as the Logos. Logos has this erotic and sexual dimension to it that is connecting us through time in a way that I think is closer to the way that our genitalia are connecting us through time than it is to the way that our sense organs are connecting us to the here and now. Language takes us out of the here and now of the sensory present and puts us in touch with, I think, that deeper dimension of reality that are our sex organs connect us to, that our genes connect us to, but unconsciously.

Corey Anton: Speech and sperm. They come from common roots. Oh for sure there’s, you screw with people’s heads when you talk with them, literally, there’s a fecundity that comes from the sowing of seeds, meaning dissemination, you know, these are all skills that are, you know this, there’s some way to talk about communication in these terms.

Matt Segall: Doesn’t it feel like culture in general, but like, especially modern individualist cultures have reacted against this in sort of like shame or the sense of like an unwillingness to to recognize the way in which we are not just ourselves? Yeah, and that we are constantly involved in these acts of generation with one another?

Corey Anton: Yeah, let’s get at it. So, I mean, I think I’m going to go back to the touch stuff and the sight versus hearing, and then language. I do have a new book that’s coming out hopefully in December and I’m trying to bring the cost down right now haggling with the publisher, at any rate, I’m really excited about it, but it’s about how non-being. Let me give some examples: These things that I’m talking about are from the book, you know, like this genitalia stuff, but I mean, one of the ways to get at it is to show that there are differences between actualities and possibilities and the different senses have different domains and ranges of possibilities, and language opens up even, you know, a wider range of kinds of temporal possibilities, rather than just like organisms’ possibilities in space. The way that like, in the ear, as the predator and prey sense allow for hunting down of prey and or eluding a predator. But you know when you try to think about something like touch, you know it sounds crazy to say it, but think about it. Touch has no possibilities. Touch is absolutely actual at all points. It’s that part of you which is wholly fully actual and you’re always standing somewhere, you’re always sitting somewhere, you’re always in contact. Now, you could see like right now I can see this pen in my hand. But see possibilities of where I can move it with my hand, but my hand moves wherever it moves! Somone might to to force this and will say that sight is just nothing more than a field of actualities as much as the field of action is. And I say blah! Those ideas are not good phenomenology, these are people overly obsessed with neuromania. They’ve way reduced the complexity of human experience down to the way it comes out in the brain scan and not really registered the phenomenological differences between those spatial-temporal horizons of sight, those of hearing, and those are touch. So, as I say, you know, I think sight offers this vast expanse of possibilities. It’s why it makes athletic competition so fun to watch. You can see all the possibilities that people are managing, you know, when you throw a dart, you are the dart! In the world of touch, this leaves your hand and it lands wherever does, but you can see all the places where you wanted it to land or where it didn’t land… You know, so I think once once you deal with the issue of possibilities, now you have a non-materialist, non-reductive move. And I think this is one of the real accomplishments of Deacon’s Incomplete Nature is that he does deal with possibilities, being part of what makes things up and that is, you know, a possible state a goal or an intended state, even if it’s never actualized can be part of what made the thing do it, as we say. One last thing on this. I think one of the ways to bring it to a head is the difference, I go out in the sun and I close my eyes. Now the sun overcomes the actual photons are overcoming great lengths to tan my skin and that is they’re touching my skin. The skin tan is one of actuality it’s because I’m they’re exposing my zone, the zone, but soon as I opened my eyes. Now there’s a field of possibilities. I mean, even though they’re both amount to chemicals and different photons, you know, in one sense, interacting with my eyes and once they’ve interacted with my skin, and both can be reduced to chemical analysis. But the phenomenological difference between seeing this, if I open my eyes, my eyes are going to be one of the few senses, they’re going to give me a quick place of where I can locate shade and not die from the sun. So, I mean, my eyes clearly afford a realm of possibilities. And if there’s possibilities that means it’s not a concatenate chain of just everything unfolding. There has to be something like, at the very least, organismal complexity looping in upon itself, the more organisms have, more and more. So this is sort of a Strange Loop stuff of Douglas Hofstadter. As soon as you start to get to touch and then smell and then taste and then hearing and then sight and then forms of language and then communication technologies. It’s this multifolded very, very complex horizonal field of different possibilities. So, I mean, I think that’s where you’d have to get out a lot of the non-reductionism.

Meta-Politics – a discussion with Layman Pascal on “The Integral Stage”

META-POLITICS – This is the first episode in a new conversation series between Layman Pascal and Matthew T. Segall. After touching on the deep strangeness of our time, and on the importance of finding a new post/metaphysical nexus for politics, religion, and ecology (a reintegration of the value spheres) Layman and Matt take up an extended reflection on meta-politics and the shape of a post-progressive political movement. They delve into such topics as developmental politics, the integral critique of modernity, the religious dimension of social movements, and a meta-progressive vision for social upgrade.