Tuesday, 24 June 2014

"Perplexities of Consciousness" by Eric Schwitzgebel: A Critical Review

"I wish I could find my way through this morass. I can't. So I aim to drag you down into it with me."—Eric Schwitzgebel
Is introspection a skill? Could regular practice or disciplined training enhance our introspective acuity or is introspection impervious to all attempts at improvement? Why is the literature and research on introspection so riven with disagreement and is there the slightest hope of resolving even just one of the many conflicts that beleaguer the study of what for many of us is such a seemingly familiar and incontestable part of experience?

These, and many related questions are raised by Eric Schwitzgebel's provocative book "Perplexities of Consciousness" (2011) which seeks to thoroughly undermine any unjustified certainties we might harbour about our inner world. In seven chapters of scrupulous research and analytical enquiry, Schwitzgebel mounts a devastating case against introspection that should leave even the most stalwart of advocates baffled by the puzzles and bamboozled by the paradoxes.

Why, for instance, was it so common during the mid 20th Century for people to report only ever dreaming in black and white? Does a tilted circular coin look elliptical or simply circular and tilted. How can the lines in some optical illusions appear to be different lengths even when we know they are the same? What is the exact sequence of colours that comprise the fading of an after-image? Were you aware of your left foot before I just drew your attention to it? Are you aware of every sensation currently stimulating your body or of only the portions that you attend to? Reports gathered from numerous studies are radically at odds over these kinds of questions and the signs that some form of resolution can be found are—at least if Schwitzgebel is to be believed—vanishingly remote.

Much as I admire, Schwitzgebel's impeccable research and thought provoking inquisitiveness I have to declare a serious disagreement with his project as a whole and therefore the assumptions on which it stands. Schwitzgebel is by no means a fool but I would contend that the study of introspection is little more than a fool's errand, one that is guaranteed only ever to end up mired in incomplete and inconclusive findings for reasons that I hope to make clear.

Despite Schwitzgebel's attempts to remain objective in this study, one underlying assumption goes unchecked. He is evidently under the unshakeable impression that introspection is a skill that can be improved. From this seemingly innocuous assumption flow all of the perplexities that swell the pages of this book.

Introspection, like thought or mindedness more generally, is best conceived not as a skill in-and-of-itself but as an essential component in the exercise of skills. Several prominent philosophers have pointed this out already, most notably Gilbert Ryle or Norman Malcolm in his 1977 essay: "Thinking". If introspection were a skill, it would be a singular exception to the rule that improvement comes through practice. We can't improve introspection simply by regular and determined acts of introspection. You don't learn what horses look like by determined introspection. You learn what horses look like through the observation of horses (or images or models of horses)—preferably aided by the use of a representational medium of some kind.

The perplexities Schwitzgebel so assiduously uncovers are the consequence of extricating the mental from the performative. When the mental is considered in this way and scrutinised in isolation from what it enables, then of course the results will be skewed, contradictory and incoherent. Why should this route of enquiry be any more conclusive or revealing regarding our abilities than a corresponding study of the performative component of skills stripped of all dependence on mind? Are robots skilful?

Treating introspection in isolation from the skills of which it forms an integral part and expecting it to yield reliable results is like expecting a shaken bag of Lego to produce interesting constructions. Lego needs to be interacted with by minded creatures in order to realise its potential. The surprises to which Lego often leads are neither the result of random variation nor of intuitive foresight. They are the result of an interplay between expectation and unexpected discovery, of prediction and speculative experiment. This process is iterative, accumulative and reliant upon ongoing feedback. Without this indispensable interplay we are left either with impoverished introspection or unproductive random variation. Neither is of much efficacy on its own and hence the perplexities of trying to make sense of introspection divorced from the skills it both enables and in part constitutes.

"Perplexities of Consciousness" is a book to be ambivalent about. As a tool for understanding consciousness it is of doubtful value but as a body of evidence to challenge the idea that introspection is a skill, it could barely be more authoritative. It is curious though that Schwitzgebel is not led by the evidence he gathers to the realisation that there is something seriously amiss in standard accounts of consciousness, something that can only be resolved by radical reconceptualisation along the lines that I have sketched, lines that Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, Norman Malcolm, J.J. Gibson and Donald Brook have already mapped out but that seem to have been all but forgotten by contemporary philosophy. 

The morass of which Schwitzgebel speaks is simply a figment of unalloyed introspection.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Public Opinions and Reasoned Arguments

If you've spent any time communicating online, it’s likely that you will have encountered one or two expressed opinions that led you to intervene with a contrasting view. You may even have been involved in a heated exchange or an outright argument. Such public disputes rarely end amicably and the chances that later discussions with the same person will be free of antipathy decrease in proportion to the level of derision and vitriol reached.

Human psychology is shaped by attitudes and dispositions that have evolved over millions of years, yet many modern forms of communication create new forms of interaction that demand new skills, new social norms and perhaps even new ethical standards. Adaptable as we are, it might be argued that of our social skills are much less informed by deliberative debate and rational analysis than they are by more direct forms of physical interaction. In a physical conflict for instance, it would almost never be wise to switch sides, especially in full view. Such a move would be practically suicidal. Perhaps this explains why online arguments so rarely result in anyone admitting they’re wrong. The impulse is always to defend your corner, to go on the offensive or to duck out altogether but almost never to say: "Oh, I see now that you're right and I have been wrong all along."

An important factor in many disagreements is known in psychology as the "Backfire Effect", which is what happens when people become entrenched in their position when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs. If the theory is correct then the prognosis is pretty dismal. When we develop beliefs we often invest significant amounts of time, energy and, on occasion even lost friendships in the process. No wonder then that people are loath to renounce their hard-won beliefs. How often do politicians or philosophers radically change their minds and shift their views? Very rarely, yet they can't all be right in their adopted positions. On the contrary, most must be wrong in some very significant ways.

Only scientific evidence seems to exert any substantial force in overturning false assumptions and even here people show astonishing resilience in the face of the facts placed before them. Take climate change denialism or creationism for just two prominent examples.

Until very recently I assumed that it should be possible to change people's minds through reasoned argument. I was under this misconception because it seemed to me that I had experienced several instances, even very recently, where my own opinions were radically altered by the force of reason. It strikes me now though, that this wasn't quite what happened at all. I was receptive to new ideas because my thinking wasn't yet settled on these issues. I was conducting my thoughts on certain subjects in a kind of hazy but workable uncertainty that was probably relatively easy to overturn, even though the reconfiguration was far from easy on my part. Now that my mind is made up, a much greater investment of evidence and argument would be required to persuade me that my thinking needs to change once again on these issues.

But what about the many experts whose theories are based upon false assumptions? What would it take to persuade them that there are better ways to explain the issues? As it turns out, trying to persuade experts is nothing more than a vain and hopeless fantasy. Expert beliefs are simply too entrenched, and confronting people with their errors, no matter how subtly or politely, is rarely, if ever, effective and never endearing. The more successful approach is to cultivate experts by other more ingratiating means, essentially by befriending them, in the hope that that they might at least acknowledge your alternative theory and perhaps discuss it with others or cite it in their own work. But getting them to change their mind, especially in a public context, will almost never occur by force of reason alone.

If however, an expert were to encounter a well reasoned theory in private, where the stakes are significantly lower, then perhaps there is a chance that this might find them receptive enough to begin the journey of reconstituting their ideas. But, of course, they would first need to be exposed to this well reasoned theory and to recognise that it's worthy of their close attention. The likelihood of such an eventuality is actually pretty slim.

So, if I am right in this analysis, and I should say that I'm not yet entirely certain, then the only reliably fruitful application of reasoned argument in a public context is in helping people to see the flaws in other theories before they commit themselves to them, before they make their minds up. Perhaps reasoned argument has its most important place, not in changing minds but in keeping minds open long enough that they might have an opportunity to recognise the most coherent ideas available.

As far as your own beliefs go, all you can hope is that none of your mistaken assumptions are so strongly held that you can never be persuaded to change them.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Visibilia and Perceptibilia

Perhaps the best way to introduce visibilia is through a novel but commonplace example. When we view someone in profile, we see a person who appears to have only one eye. If we were to produce an observational drawing of what we see, it would be inaccurate to render them with two eyes where only one is visible. So perhaps in this sense we might be forgiven if, on consideration, we became a little confused about how best to describe what we actually perceive.

Essentially visibilia are appearances in which things of one kind look-like things of another kind. A question that plagues contemporary philosophy of perception and perceptual psychology is whether there might be any truth to the claim that we actually perceive visibilia, whether they have any causal influence on us or whether, on the contrary, they are non existent figments. Several other questions arise. If visibilia are non-existent, then how did we ever come to conceive of them in the first place or to mistake whatever it is that we do perceive for them? And don’t photographs categorically prove the existence of visibilia? Aren’t visibilia out there in the world in a measurable quantifiable sense and if so then surely we perceive them? Surely visibilia have influence upon us?

Michael Martin (2010) argues that mirror images, rainbows, holograms and even the sky should be included in the class of visibilia. We might even say these things are more visibilia than perceptibilia – the contrast will turn out to be informative.

Many keyboards have been tapped into oblivion over the questions of visibilia yet there seems to be no easy resolution to the problem. However, perhaps rather than focusing on examples like mirrors and rainbows etc. it might be more revealing to dwell a little on the more absurd example I gave at the outset. If it is true that we do indeed perceive a one-eyed person when viewed in profile, then this sight should surely be a little surprising. If we could conduct a brain scan of someone as they watch another person rotating, there should be peaks of arousal when the observer sees only one eye and perhaps yet more arousal when they see no eyes at all—as the figure turns to face away from the viewer.

I would be willing to wager a considerable sum that there wouldn’t be any appreciable arousal at all. In fact I suspect that the level of arousal might actually diminish as any face is turned away from us.

I’m not at all convinced that we perceive visibilia, and the reason I’m not convinced is because perception is in no way an impoverished snapshot of the world. Perception, at every moment, is interlaced with knowledge about the things that we see. We have a confidence bordering on certainty that the person moving before us is a three dimensional being. And in the instant that we see them we are host to a profusion of latent expectations about what we would be likely to see as they move around etc. These expectations do not suddenly come into being in the moment of encounter. They are merely part of our repertoire of possible responses to the world: our knowledge. As someone spins around before us the perceptible properties constantly update and confirm what we already know and, whenever they do not confirm what we know, it is then that we should expect to register some form of surprise because we now see something unexpected.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Perception Defined

Q: What would you say is the most important thing to establish as a basis for explaining perception?

A: A definitive theory of representation. There are countless theories of perception, yet only one—and I’ve researched this field extensively—is based on a fully fledged theory of representation. Donald Brook, an art theorist working in Australia since the 1960’s, has developed a theory of representation that I think deserves to be much more widely disseminated, debated and applied than it has. His interest in the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin led him to reject much Continental philosophy at a time when the influence of thinkers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida was at its height. I suspect that this is in part responsible for the paucity of response to his work despite its fairly wide dissemination internationally.

Q: What do you see as the importance of Brook’s work?

A: Brook’s theories offer several vital critical distinctions and conceptual tools that help to explain a number of longstanding philosophical perplexities. His theory of representation in particular provides a thorough account of the ways that shared sensory fallibilities enable representational practices to emerge and develop. It also clarifies the difference between practices of denotation or signification, which are by no means fundamental to nonverbal representation, and practices of efficacious substitution that are. By situating representation in an evolutionary context and by paying close attention to nonverbal procedures of representation, Brook has also fleshed out a powerful account of the emergence of language. Without wanting to sound grandiose, I think that his work offers important insights that have the potential to help significantly in the pursuit of a theory of consciousness. Moreover, without a theory of representation, the like of which is to be found in much of Brook’s work, I very much doubt that even the less daunting but nonetheless significant questions of perception will be settled any time soon.

Q: So I guess you'd recommend that readers wanting to follow this discussion should probably start by reading our last dialogue on the subject of representation.

A: That wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Q: So, on the basis of Brook’s work, how would you define perception?

A: Perception is an evolved form of responsiveness—a knowhow we might say—constituted by dispositions to represent the things with which we are causally engaged. It is an immediately available capacity to substitute one thing for another, because there are respects in which these things are sensorily indiscriminable from one anotherat least for members of a community of perceivers sharing similar sensory strengths and weaknesses.

Q: Could you explain what you mean by a disposition to represent?

A: I mean a behavioural pre-disposition or pre-conditioning to indicate, name, describe, draw, construct, mimic or select a matching, simulating or symbolizing object that is usefully substitutable for one or more things that are currently stimulating our senses.

Q: But surely the capacity to represent things is learned? Are you saying that perception only emerges as we become capable of drawing or describing things?

A: Drawing and describing are highly evolved skills that have only been available to humans in relatively recent evolutionary time, so no, I think the capacity to select a matching or simulating object relative to the originally encountered object is a more fundamental skill.

Q: Is this also a learned skill then?

A: We certainly get better at all forms of representation through practice but it may be the case that some rudimentary perceptual skills are genetically inherited. Simulating is a more plastic and manipulable practice than matching, although both are genetically inheritable.

Q: Does this mean that animals might also qualify as perceivers?

There's a great deal of evidence, particularly among social species, that animals communicate with one another in simple ways. Communication relies on representational practices, so yes, I think we have every reason to suppose that many animals qualify as perceivers.

Q: And insects?

A: To the extent that insects are capable of acts of communication, we have good reason to consider them as perceivers, yes.

Q: So, if a creature is not capable of representing anything in any shape or form, then you would say that it's not a perceiver?

A: That's right. But bear in mind that creatures may be capable of producing representations, despite the lack of overt evidence of their doing so that we would regard as persuasive.

Q: Then, how could we ever be sure they are perceivers?

A: Well we couldn't, but that's where neuroscience might help by developing ways to trigger and detect these causally influential dispositions to represent.

Q: What about things that we don’t perceive but that influence us anyway, things like UV light for instance?

A: Yes, there are many. Perception is really just the tip of an iceberg of sensory responsiveness. Our bodies are involved in countless ongoing sensorily mediated processes that are either completely inaccessible to perception or are only accessible when we turn our attention to them.

Q: Is all perception conscious then?

A: To be unconsciousness is to be incapable of perception, yes.

Q: What about dreaming?

A: Dreaming is an unconscious or semi-conscious state in which various dispositions to represent are triggered by ongoing brain activity of a sort that is largely or perhaps wholly uninfluenced by sensory input.

Q: So, dreaming would only qualify as a perceptual state if it involved sensory input, which it rarely if ever does?

A: That’s right.

Q: Psychologists often conduct experiments using optical illusions because these are thought to indicate something about perception. Can you shed any light on the perplexities of optical illusions?

A: This is something I have researched quite a lot recently. If we return to our previous discussion about practices of representation, we will find that many optical illusions exploit culturally acquired skills of image-recognition and simulation. In the 1960's, for example, several studies were undertaken to examine whether individuals living in different cultures were differentially susceptible to optical illusions. Individuals living in cultures where pictorial representations were rarely used—even otherwise literate cultures—were found to be unaffected by optical illusions. The perplexity created by many optical illusions is simply due to the fact that our biologically as well as culturally evolved skills enable us to represent what we see in two equally viable ways. Other optical illusions expose related fallibilities of colour or motion perception, some of which we have learnt to exploit through the use of filmmaking techniques and others of which we may perhaps find new ways to systematically exploit in representational terms in the future.

Q: So do you agree that optical illusions are deceptive because they lead us to make inaccurate judgements?

A: Apologies, but of all the misconceptions about perception, what you have just said is probably the most prevalent and the most obstructive to insight. Most optical illusions have nothing whatsoever to do with ratiocination or other forms of conceptual thought. Optical illusions exploit mistakes—or fallibilities—yes, but the fallibilities are on the level of sensory discrimination, not intellect. Knowing that we are looking at an illusion doesn’t make it any less illusory. And this is because neither our conceptual knowledge nor our ability to rationalise play any part in the underlying sensory discriminations that characterise perception. Our procedural knowledge, on the other hand—our knowledge of how to use representations—does have an influence on our perception, as I mentioned. Noticing what philosophers call “elusive appearances” or “vilibilia” is a non-conceptual knowhow that has developed through culture.

Q: Could you elaborate?

A: Sure. The fact that we are able to conceive of visibilia has been enabled by pictorial techniques that have been developed over thousands of years and that have found their most familiar apotheosis in the invention of photography. Indeed, only very recently has it become clear the degree to which our procedural knowledge and visual concepts are informed by culturally evolved skills of representation. Guy Deutsche’s 2011 book “Through the Language Glass” eloquently describes how people in simple cultures have no concept of blue but only develop the concept as a consequence of practices of pictorial representation and representationally informed language use.

Q: You often mention evolution. Do you have a theory of how perception, as contrasted with regular behavioural responsiveness, evolved?

A: I do. Practices of representation are social by their very nature and their evolution is undoubtedly the consequence of long histories of social coexistence amongst similarly sensorily endowed organisms. Organisms have evolved to respond to the environments in which they live, but in doing so they have also developed the capacity to respond to one another. The behaviour of other organisms has the capacity to provide valuable cues that, if responded to in the right way, could make the difference between survival and extinction. Similarly, the ability to respond to the behaviour of another individual by behaving likewise is the basis of mimicry, a skill we see widely in the animal world and one that I suspect is centrally implicated in the emergence of representational practices and the perceptual capacities that these practices enable.

Q: I'm not sure I understand. Surely these practices of representation are public, whereas perception is a mental process.

A: To an extent you’re right—perception is indeed a mental process but it would be a mistake, I think, to assume that representing practices are purely public. For an organism to deliberately produce a representation, even of the most basic kind, it must direct its actions by way of biological mechanisms, many of which are private. I suggest that these dispositions to produce publicly perceptible representations form the basis of what we know as perception.