duchamp_bride1Based on the recommendation of my friend Jerry the Anthropologist, last week I picked up a few books by the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. Yesterday, during the day and on the flight from Dallas to Dayton, I was able to get through about half of A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. Like most of Jerry’s recommendations, the book does not disappoint, and presents a rich and sophisticated discussion of consciousness at both the phenomenological level and the neurological level, which is informed by debates surrounding mind in the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy of mind, along with a vast array of material from neurology and psychology (Edelman himself is a Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist). Edelman and Tononi are at pains to develop a neurological account of consciousness.

If their approach is so interesting and provocative, much of this has to do with a simple shift in how they pose the question. I have been taken to task by some for claiming that the neurological foundation of consciousness is a done deal or largely established conclusion. It has been pointed out to me that this remains a hotly debated issue and that, as of yet, we do not yet have a neurological account of how consciousness emerges from neuronal activity. I am, of course, aware of this. If I am led to claim that there is no serious dualistic contender for the physicalist hypothesis, then this is not because we have an account of how consciousness arises from the brain, but because massive bodies of observational evidence have emerged with respect to various brain injuries and whatnot showing that consciousness is a physical phenomena. The state of neurology with respect to its ability to account for consciousness is analogous to the state of biology following Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution through natural selection. All of the evidence gathered in the wake of Darwin’s theory indicated the truth of his account (broadly construed). What was lacking was an account of the mechanism by which traits could be passed on. Despite Mendel, we would have to wait nearly a hundred years before that mechanism was discovered and before we began to understand how, precisely, it works. The situation with neurology is very similar. We largely know that brain produces consciousness, but there are a number of big and mysterious “x’s” as to how the brain does this.

One of the things that makes Edelman’s approach so promising– and such a departure from many other assumptions about consciousness –is that he shifts the issue from the question of how consciousness is produced, to the question of when consciousness is produced. To be sure, an answer to the question of “how?” is still the ultimate aim, but if the question of when is so promising, then this is because it helps us to zero in on those processes and their structures generative of consciousness. Edelman’s enquiry proceeds along both phenomenological and neurological axis. Phenomenologically he is attentive to the lived experience of consciousness, its indivisible unity, our sense of self, its internally differentiated nature (not unlike Bergson’s description of multiple durations in Duration and Simultaneity), etc. But most importantly, he is attentive to when consciousness arises at the phenomenological level of experience and when it passes away or disappear. The issue here isn’t simply one of falling asleep, but ranges throughout a number of states in our lived experience. Thus, to take a trite example, when I was learning to type I was highly conscious of the movements of my fingers, the letters on the keyboard, the screen, and the text that I was transposing on to the computer screen. Now, unless I am typing about typing, I am non-conscious of most of these activities, simply doing them in an automatic way.

read on!

duchamp_twine_installation_19421Phenomenologically this is an important observation, for it underlines the manner in which we risk significantly distorting the nature of thought if we privilege consciousness. That is, if we privilege the milieu of awareness, we risk modeling all of thought on a very limited range of phenomena. The phenomenologists, of course, were aware of this as can be seen in Husserl’s exquisite analyses of habitus and passive synthesis in Cartesian Meditations, Analyses Concerning Active and Passive Synthesis, and Experience and Judgment. Indeed, in this connection we could also cite Hume or even Aristotle’s account of “character” and “disposition” in the Nichomachean Ethics.

Although Edelman himself doesn’t draw this connection, however, I think this simple observation marks a danger sign for philosophers and how they approach certain questions. In other words, our lived position as philosophers creates something akin to a transcendental illusion in how we approach certain questions. As philosophers our experience in doing philosophy is marked by a high degree of awareness or consciousness, due to the difficulty of the texts we work with, the simple fact of working over a problem, etc. As in the case of learning how to type where we become, as it were, hyperconscious, philosophical engagement with texts and problems perpetually places us in a field that could be described as a “problem-field” that is thus accompanied by a high degree of awareness. In and of itself, this is not a problem. It becomes a problem, however, when we transpose this highly specific and particular form of thought to all lived experience. Here we have the beginnings of something akin to Bourdieu’s critique of intellectualism in his magnificent Pascalian Meditations. There Bourdieu shows how the social and lived position of the academic leads them to distort questions of practice by formulating phenomena of habitus in terms of rule following.

At the neurological level, Edelmen’s findings are even more interesting. By posing the question of consciousness in terms of when consciousness is, Edelmen is able to correlate conscious states with various neurological phenomena. His discovery is that consciousness isn’t localized in a particular region of the brain, nor even in a number of regions, but rather is the result of a process involving specific neuronal interactions. This, of course, sounds like a truism that most of us are familiar with; however the devil’s in the details. The thesis isn’t that consciousness is the result of a widely distributed activity of neurons, but rather the specifics of this activity are all important. Here I cannot begin to do Edelman’s discussion of these processes justice, but hopefully a few observations will convey a sense of what he is up to. In non-conscious states such as non-REM sleep or epileptic seizures (and a variety of common states not pertaining to illness or disorder can be cited as well), the brain is nonetheless highly active. What differs between conscious states of awareness and non-conscious states is not whether or where the neurons are firing, but rather the way in which they are firing. Non-REM sleep, for example, is characterized by a high degree of homogenous firing among these massive networks of neurons. The neurons, as it were, become synchronized. A similar pattern of neuronal activity accompanies conversion symptoms characteristic of hysteria, where the patient experiences paralysis of an arm or blindness without the cause being bodily in nature. This pattern of firing can be fruitfully compared to degrees of entropy (which Edelman himself does). Thus, for example, when a gas is placed in a box, the particles making up that gas tend to distribute evenly throughout the entire container indicating a high degree of entropy. Consciousness seems to arise only when firing patterns become significantly differentiated and non-synchronized within the neurological system.

Closely connected with all of this is what Edelman refers to as “reentery”. As Wikipedia describes it,

the third tenet of Edelman’s thesis is the concept of reentrant signalling between neuronal groups. He defines reentry as the ongoing recursive dynamic interchange of signals which occurs in parallel between brain maps and which continuously interrelates these maps to each other in time and space. It depends for its operations on the intricate networks of massively parallel reciprocal connections within and between neuronal groups, which arise through the processes of developmental and experiential selection outlined above. Edelman describes reentry as “a form of ongoing higher-order selection … that appears to be unique to animal brains” and that “there is no other object in the known universe so completely distinguished by reentrant circuitry as the human brain”.

Initially reentery sounds like the phenomenon of feedback, but the two are entirely different. If there is a crucial difference between feedback and reentry, then this is because feedback is based on the pre-existence of a code. In the phenomenon of feedback, the information produced as a result of an operation is used to modify the next sequence of operations. Thus, for example, I am on a boat, drifting in a vertical line across the current approaching me horizontally, to reach the shore of an island in the middle of the river (I’m thinking of my parent’s house in Yardley that overlooks the Delaware River and an island in the middle). In navigating the river I have my target that I am trying to reach. As I adjust the rudder of my boat information is produced relative to this target. The boat drifts down stream. I turn my rudder to the left to direct myself to the point I’m trying to reach. Now my angle of approach is too much to the left. I turn my rudder slightly to the right. Information is produced from the prior event or operation that functions for subsequent operations in a continuous process of self-regulation. The code is generated as a result of the telos or the “attractor state” of the system (depending on the sort of system we’re talking about). The movements of the boat, left and right, function as 0’s and 1’s with respect to the attractor-state. Luhmann, in The Reality of the Mass Media, gives an excellent account of how various media systems are based on these sorts of binary codes in the autopoiesis of media subsystems. For example, news media are regulated by the information/non-information code which is determined by whether or not an event repeats a prior event (information consisting of that difference that makes a difference).

If re-entry differs from feedback, then this is because it is the emergence of order without a code. That is, how are we to account for the emergence of ordered systems without presupposing a prior code? Another way of posing this question would be to ask “how is the ontogeny of information possible?” In order for information to function as information there must be a pre-existent code. Put otherwise, we could say that “codes” are the a priori condition for the possibility of information. We could say they are the norms governing information. But what if there is no code or a priori accounting for order? Edelman evokes the dynamics of re-entry to account for this sort of emergence. In an analogy worthy of the mysterious machine described by Tournier at the end of Friday, Edelman writes that,

Because of the dynamic and parallel nature of reentry and because it is a process of higher-order selection, it is not easy to provide a metaphor that captures all the properties of reentry. Try this: Imagine a peculiar (and even weird) string quartet, in which each player responds by improvisation to ideas and cues of his or her own, as well as to all kinds of sensory cues in the environment. Since there is no score, each player would provide his or her own characteristic tunes, but initially these various tunes would not be coordinated with those of the other players. Now imagine that the bodies of the players are connected to each other by myriad fine threads so that their actions and movements are rapidly conveyed back and forth through signals of changing thread tensions that act simultaneously to time each player’s actions. Signals that instantaneously connect the four players would lead to a correlation of their sounds; thus, new, more cohesive, and more integrated sounds would emerge out of the otherwise independent efforts of each player. This correlative process would alter the next action of each player, and by these means the process would be repeated but with new emergent tunes that were even more correlated. Although no conductor would instruct or doordinate the group and each player would still maintain his or her style and role, the player’ overall productions would lead to a kind of mutually coherent music that each one acting alone would not produce.” (49)

Now imagine a transcendental idealist or a functionalist (Fodor, but we could also add Chomsky) walking into the room once this little symphony has achieved coherence. How would the transcendental idealist account for the conditions for the possibility of this quartet? No doubt the transcendental idealist would conclude that the quartet was able to produce this beautiful music by following a set of rules (the musical score) that coordinate their actions and instruments. In other words, the music would be doubled by a crystalline structure of rules that function as the condition under which the performance is possible. Moreover, perhaps, the transcendental idealist would posit a teleology at work in their performance that governs their actions and whether or not the performance is adequate to their aim.

In his critique of transcendental idealism and much philosophy besides, Deleuze never ceased to rail against this mode of “explanation”. According to Deleuze (for more detail cf. my Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence), such transcendental approaches suffer from the circularity of tracing the transcendental from the empirical. Put in more concrete terms, they begin with the actualized or constituted phenomena and then double it with a set of conditions for this phenomena based on their resemblance to the phenomena to be grounded. Thus, for example, the relation between the musical score and the performance, where the score, speaking charitably, functions as a sort of topological structure or set of rules for producing the performance. In the case of Fodor’s functionalist account of mind, for example, we need not look at the genesis of mental structures at the neurological level to account for them, but can content ourselves with examining the relation between inputs and outputs and the rules or operators that would generate this sort of relation between input and output. In Kant we get the “metaphysical exposition” and then the transcendental account, where the transcendental account is a doubling based on resemblance to what is posited in the metaphysical account (as can be seen with especial clarity in the move from the table of judgments to the categories).

One will protest that this poses no problem for the functionalist because the functional structures described in the “transcendental” account in no way conflict with neurology, and, insofar as operational structures are substrate neutral, they can be analyzed without having to discuss the properties of the substrate (Dennett falls into this fallacy, as well, with his account of gene processes as algorithms, thereby placing information already in genes such that it is simply a matter of those processes inexorably unfolding). Generally, in this connection, one will find comparisons of mind to a computer. The computationalist will protest that no harm is done with the functional description because 1) it still manages to capture the input-output relation, and 2) because knowledge of this function or input-output relation is necessary for the investigation of the neurological processes in any event anyway. But if the computer analogy is so poor when discussing neurology, then this is because neurons do not follow a program and lack the accuracy of computer operations (each performance is different).

The central problem with the functionalist account is that it reifies the functional relation. Deleuze never ceases to denounce Kant and phenomenology because, he claims, it raises recognition and resemblance to the status of the ground of thought, effectively becoming an apologist for doxa and the State. It might sound as if this is merely a political or normative critique of the Image of Thought, gnashing its teeth at wanting things to be otherwise and therefore in strict denial of the facts, but in truth the issue is much more fundamental. Returning to Edelman’s wonderful metaphor, the key point not to be missed is that the final outcome of the interactions of the musicians connected by their gossamer strings is that the final outcome of coherent music is aleatory. The coordination of their respective styles and actions is punctuated throughout by all sorts of aleatory events and encounters that could have produced a very different outcome. While brains have a similar architecture, each brain is absolutely unique and individual, with synaptic connections and ongoing synaptic processes formative of new connections and abolishing old connections, that, as Leibniz would put it, reflect the entire universe from a particular point of view (we would have to add that that point of view is itself continuously transforming itself).

The problem, then, with such transcendental approaches is that they reify the transcendental structures in a way that completely misses the creative outcome of the output. If Deleuze is so interested in aesthetics, then this isn’t because he has a particular pre-occupation of art or beauty, but because he discerns in artistic production something akin to the ontogeny of perception and cognition in a child and even the ontogeny of modes of sensibility among different species. The work of art speaks not to an instance of the transcendental aesthetic in the Kantian sense, where we already have universal a priori forms of time and space and the work of art is merely a synthesis of these structures along with empirical matter in the style of an idiosyncratic individual. No, for Deleuze the work of art is itself the genesis of an entirely new form of sensibility, an emergence out of chaos, the production of its own order. No doubt this notion of the transcendental as a field of aleatory genesis is missed because philosophers all too often privilege the standpoint of the adult and the “healthy”, ignoring childhood development and various brain and mental disorders. Information is not there at the outset, but rather is the result of an ontogeny. It is something that must be produced, created, or evented in an emergent process.

If such an account holds true, then the transcendental conditions share no resemblance to actualized experience. As Deleuze puts it,

There is a crucial experience of difference and a corresponding experiment: every time we find ourselves confronted or bound by a limitation or an opposition, we should ask what such a situation presupposes. It presupposes a swarm of differences, a pluralism of free, wild or untamed differences; a properly differential and original space and time; all of which persist alongside the simplifications of limitation and opposition. A more profound real element must be defined in order for oppositions of forces or limitations of forms to be drawn, one which is determined as an abstract and potential multiplicity. Oppositions are roughly cut from a delicate milieu of overlapping perspectives, of communicating distances, divergences and disparities, of heterogeneous potentials and intensities. Nor is it primarily a question of dissolving tensions in the identical, but rather of distributing the disparities in a multiplicity. Limitations correspond to a simple first-order power– in a space with a single dimension and a single direction, where, as in Leibniz’s example of boats borne on a current, there may be collisions, but these collisions necessarily serve to limit and to equalise, but not to neutralise or to oppose. As for opposition, it represents in turn the second-order power, where it is as though things were spread out upon a flat surface, polarised in a single plane, and the synthesis itself took place only in a false depth– that is, in a fictitious third dimension added to the others which does no more than double the plane. In any case, what is missing is the original, intensive depth which is the matrix of the entire space and the first affirmation of difference: here, that which only afterwards appears as linear limitation and flat opposition lives and simmers in the form of free differences. Everywhere, couples and polarities presuppose bundles and networks, organised oppositions presuppose radiations in all directions. (DR, 50 – 51)

What is to be thought is the emergence of an aleatory order out of this swarm of differences, the ongoing coordination and connection of this swarm of differences, not a set of pre-existent categories, forms, and syntheses that are held to either be “functional” conditions or genetically inborn structures.