Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Epiphenomenalist Critique

I have recently been attempting entrance into the deeper caves of subtleties in Nietzsche's thought on the mind and action. Nietzsche, so far in my understanding from reading both him and secondary literature, seems to assert that the mind is epiphenomenal (from a phenomenological account of action), and that our consciousness does not actually cause actions. A couple weeks ago, I discussed this topic after reading a related article.

Basically, Nietzsche asserts that our body is composed of many drives, and that these drives play out their interactions, and the (ongoing) result of this struggle is a deep cause. This deep cause then causes both our motor action and our sense of desire for wanting to act out that motor action. In other words, our mental desires (i.e. motives or intentions) do not cause actions, but rather, a deep cause causes both our mental desire to act and a corresponding action.

From this epiphenomenal picture of mind and action, I began to ask myself, "what is the purpose of this consciousness that does not cause actions?"

(Against the notion of free will, there is an experiment that shows that when you move your hand, the nervous system signal to move your hand becomes active significantly, a few hundred milliseconds, before the person's conscious brain becomes aware of the desire to act ("Bereitschaftspotential"). There is also some contemporary, psychology literature on related epiphenomenal themes, a book I am interested in reading).

To answer this question, as to the purpose of consciousness, all I can conceive of is that consciousness (our subjective perspective) is the visual throne of the body (the primary location of sensation collection). (However, there can be other secondary locations of sensation collection, for example, reflexes that synapse sensory neurons and immediately fire back motor neurons from the spine or even unconscious perceptions, as with blindsight.)

Therefore, whichever drive or set of drives wins out in the "unconscious" struggle (among drives) is then able to temporarily appropriate the visual throne for their advantage. What is the advantage of this appropriation?—that with consciousness, a drive can monitor whether or not its resultant "deep cause" was carried out, and through consciousness, the drive can receive feedback (the strength of the drive can be reduced after the "mental desire" is satisfied).

Having a consciousness allows the body to translate the drives into the organized symbols, shapes, words, flavors (qualia) of our conscious experience in order to effectively satisfy the drives and give them feedback. What is the role of language?—could it be a way for consciousness to simplify the manifold multiplicity of sensations and make it easier for a drive to discern among (conscious) sensory possibilities.

I'm trying to decide if we can say that consciousness does not cause any actions at all or just that consciousness causes very few actions (but that it's nonsensical to identify with these few actions caused by consciousness any more than to identify with actions caused by unconscious processes). Perhaps my thoughts are getting mixed up in this unrefined use of language.

Wikipedia says, epiphenomenalism denies that the mind (as in its states, not its processing) has any influence on the body or any other part of the physical world: while mental states are caused by physical states, mental states do not have any influence on physical states ("Epiphenomenalism"). I don't mind reducing the role of consciousness; however, it doesn't seem to make sense to delete its role altogether (then my experience would just be an inert event). However, I agree with the physicalism that epiphenomenalism implies, that (from a third-person perspective) our actions are the cause of our physiological type-facts and our (social and material) environment, not of a transcendent mind that appears to exist from the first person.

Also, it would make sense if mental states reduced to physical states; however, it seems to me that I am creating problems here by conflating various uses of the term consciousness. Isn't epiphenomenalism a term meant to describe our first-person (phenomenological) experience of what is (from a third-person perspective) an embodied series of physical processes. Therefore, I should be saying "the first-person experience of consciousness is epiphenomenal," while "the material processes that generate such things that we call "consciousness," "actions," "desires," and "unconscious events" are all physical and that it would be nonsensical to call consciousness transcendent from a third-person perspective because these processes occur in a material environment (material body) and because such a thing as a "mind" is nonsensical from a third-person perspective."

In a physical sense, the parts of the brain that we call consciousness (a map constantly shifting per their activation) are those parts which monitor whether or not a desire is satisfied and the desire is stopped (satisfied) when a sufficient stimulus is received; additionally, when a desire is stopped, a different desire is then being monitored. Hence, consciousness, even as a physical entity, remains on the receiving end of sensation; however, it still has a significant role (perhaps, it is that, as humans, we are accustomed to valuing things highly based on their ability to act and this inability to act seems to render consciousness valueless). Nevertheless, consciousness acts indirectly by organizing sensory information (both the affects of drives and the sensations of the environment) to compel, via focusing, several activities among possible activities. However, the focusing, the compulsion, is the result of events outside of consciousness; nevertheless, the fact that consciousness has an ongoing role means that it is essential part of our activity.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Twenty-Three years since I was Born

Yesterday, August 9th, was my twenty-third birthday. Roxanna and I celebrated by going out to eat sushi in downtown Berkeley.

I received some wonderful presents. My parents gave me, in word, the upcoming third-generation ipod touch, an instrument which has revealed itself to be extremely useful. I've been using Roxanna's ipod touch while reading, and the ability to look up words and ideas in wikipedia, or the various academic encyclopedias and dictionaries online, has quickened my pace in reading and acquiring new ideas. Next, Roxanna's parents sent me the wonderful collection of essays on Nietzsche's philosophy of mind and action titled Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy. (I previously remarked on an essay by Leiter, "Nietzsche's Theory of the Will," which appears in this collection. At present, I'm eager to read what other individuals have also presented in this vein.) Finally, Roxanna gave me Paul Ree's Basic Writings, which contains his Psychological Observations and The Origin of the Moral Sensations, two works which influenced Nietzsche.

My favorite of all my presents was Roxanna's other gift, the preplatonic philosopher, Gorgias the Nihilist! Here is a photograph of him, Gorgias, becoming acquianted with Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and the rest of the little guys. Hopefully I'll be able to talk to him more after Fall semester's Ancient Greek language class, because at the current moment, Nietzsche is translating all his remarks, and he appears a little shy.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Nietzsche's Causal Essentialism

I recently read Brian Leiter's article titled "Nietzsche's Theory of the Will," published in Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy, a collection of essays which I am deeply coveting.

The article begins by discussing the difference between (1) the subjective experience of willing and (2) the naturalistic and scientific description of how willing is actually processed. Nietzsche does not want to place subjectivity or consciousness in a transcendental realm (one that describes the will as autonomous and causa sui, self-caused), but rather in a physical realm where it is subject to the body and the material world, a world which is united in causality. Against a free, therefore, transcendent will, Nietzsche's naturalism entails a type of determinism.

In (1) the subjective experience of willing, a phenomenological account correlates our actions with what seemed to precede them, a motive. However, in (2) the naturalistic and scientific description of willing, a deep cause is the cause of both our action and our apparent desire to act. This is because we merely identify with the feeling of command that reinforces when a conscious desire arises in apparent conjunction with an action and seems prove to the agent that they are causally related. Consciousness is misled into believing (or feeling that) it was behind actions because it also receives feedback from the feeling of command that arises after a desire is satisfied, satisfied through success in the corresponding action. Thus, our consciousness is given a desire by the deep cause, and our body is also put into motion by the deep cause, and hence, when the desire and the satisfied completion of an action are put together, we feel pleasure (the feeling of command).

If, in an alternate instance, our desire was not satisfied, then we would become displeasedly conscious of this result instead of receiving pleasure. Nevertheless, the source of the compulsion to act as well as the compulsion to-desire-to-act is the deep cause. The desire to act does not cause the action, it only measures whether or not the action was fulfilled.

The deep cause makes our mind aware that we must monitor the result of a compulsion to act; this desire (or awareness) carries the deep cause's preference, and the result elicits a particular feeling of feedback through which the body knows whether or not the deep cause was appropriately fulfilled. Additionally, consciousness is our focused perceptions (including internal sensations) turned into manageable concepts. In other words, perception is put into focus (with a desire) by the deep cause.

The types of compulsions and desires that are discharged into action and consciousness by the deep cause are the result of a struggle between a plurality of drives. These “unconscious” drives relate primarily to the constitution of each individual, which for Nietzsche can be called “type-facts”. Type-facts, for Nietzsche, are either physiological facts about the person, or facts about the person's unconscious drives or affects. The claim, then, is that each person has certain largely immutable physiological and psychic traits that constitute the "type" of person he or she is Leiter 115-6. Nevertheless, the notion that our general constitution is predominantly immutable does not prevent the unpredictability of manifest actions, for an individual can have type-facts so inclined toward complex behavior that seems unpredictable to other individuals. The complex of drives in each of us is different, based on our physiological constitution, and the way actions are manifest is based on the structure of the environment.

My favorite part of the article was the very exciting footnote number eleven. In this footnote, Leiter mentions his term causal essentialism, which I think is fucking wonderful. There are two, possible, rudimentary, incompatibilist views of freedom of will, these are libertarian free will and hard determinism. Libertarianism proclaims that freedom of will is correct at the exclusion of determinism. Hard determinism proclaims that determinism is correct at the exclusion of freedom of will. (Check out this diagram.)

However, hard determinism, or classical determinism, has grown to include the connotation that certain, very particular fixed laws govern the universe. So, for example, we could believe that we are causally determined and that particular stable and universal laws, such as Newton's law of universal gravitation, were the immobile structure of this causal determination.

Nietzsche was against this view of classical determinism, with its stable, universal laws. His fatalism took the view that we are determined by our physiology and our environment (a naturalistic conception) but that these determinants struggle to produce a resultnot that there are strict, stable, necessary result determining laws. The very laws themselves must be continuously redefined by their context because interactions among material objects continuously redefine themselves; the rule attempts to modify another rule while it, itself, is modified.

Nietzsche says, We need 'unities' in order to be able to reckon: that does not mean we must suppose that such unities exist. We have borrowed the concept of unity from our 'ego' concept—our oldest article of faith WP 635. The ego, which can appear to us as an indivisible essence, is only unified from our subjective, phenomenological perspective.

The ego is multiplicity, a plurality of relations of tension and release—willing must be understood in this same manner. Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only as a word – BGE 19.

Rules are useful fictions that help conceptualize and predict phenomena. Nietzsche discusses this unstable basis of rule following while discussing the concept “thing,” the concept by which phenomena is dissected into manageable parts through language. 'Things' do not behave regularly, according to a rule: there are no things (—they are fictions invented by us); they have just as little under the constraint of necessity. There is no obedience here: for that something is as it is, as strong or as weak, is not the consequence of an obedience or a rule or a compulsion— WP 634. Nietzsche isn't saying that determinism is wrong, but that there is no fixed, metaphysical rule, no obedience to such universal rules. He continues, The degree of resistance and the degree of superior power—this is the question in every event: if, for our day-to-day calculations, we know how to express this in formulas and “laws,” so much the better for us! But we have not introduced any 'morality' into the world by the fiction that it is obedient— WP 634.

All of our generalizations are generalizations for a fictional paradigm, an imaginary world, and this imaginary world must not be confused with the natural world, which operates on forces that enter into conflict and continuously redefine themselves.

There is no law: every power draws its ultimate consequence at every moment. Calculability exists precisely because things are unable to be other than they are WP 634.

In other words, we could say that there are forces but that each force is being redefined as it moves in and out of interactions. In other words, we can map these forces with rules, but rules have difficultly mirroring the more flexible or complex forces.

Digressing a little bit, this dilemma reminds me of the three-body problem (or more generally the n-body problem) in classical mechanics. In my own words and as I understand it, the motion and positions of two bodies can be studied because you effectively combine their masses and their distance, treating it almost as if one body was a non-existent point at a distance and as if the other body took full responsibility for the total mass of the system. However, when you have three bodies in motion, even with the assistance of the most complex computer, you cannot precisely calculate the behavior of the system because each of the three bodies is effectively modifying the motion of the other bodies and is itself being modified. Thus, such problems arise in systems where three or more (i.e. n) bodies interact.

However, to a certain degree, we rarely run into three bodies in motion. For example, when calculating the behavior between the sun and a planet, we could say that it is being influenced by all the other mass in the universe in some way; nevertheless, this influence is negligible. Thus, a physicist would treat such a system as a two-body system. But nevertheless, there are many other cases in which three significant bodies are close enough to each other to make calculations difficult.

A few months ago, I read this passage from a question and answer page on dark matter,

Q: If we are not sure exactly what dark matter is, how are we sure the laws of gravity apply the same way as they do to normal matter?

The physicist answers,

A: We aren't exactly sure! But physicists prefer theories that keep laws universal and assign different properties to the particles. For example, we could formulate a different law of gravity for each planet in our solar system, but it feels more elegant to have a single equivalent law that just needs to know each planet's mass. With dark matter, we know that it is not normal matter. So we prefer a theory that introduces a mysterious new particle rather than theories that introduce a mysterious new particle and simultaneously alter the behavior of gravity.

And all of this reminds me of how Ptolemy's geocentric model of the universe, which was meticulously modified to account for the apparent retrograde motion, did not represent the actual sun-centered solar system, though it was able to track the behavior of the planets fairly well (better than even Copernicus' heliocentric model!—whose model also lacked elliptical orbits). We continuously modify the extensions of our theories until the foundation of our theory is so tense that it breaks and requires reassembly with a new, naturalistic innocence.

Returning to conclude on the exciting new term: causal essentialism describes a world that is entirely immanent (there is nothing transcendent or causa sui) and returns us (the agents) to a vivid world that is in flux.

So what does it mean to be determined? All it means is that the world is immanent, natural, real.

Causal essentialism does not deprive of us of our personal, type-fact constructed physiology, and it does not prevent us from subjectively feeling free and from seeking the re-evaluation of values, a necessary endeavor because expressions of our constitution are satisfied and dissatisfied according to the constraints of current values. Causal essentialism heralds a naturalistic framework for understanding reality. As Nietzsche says, We, however, want to become who we are—human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves! To that end we must become the best students and discoverers of everything lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be creators in this sense—while hitherto all valuations and ideals have been built on ignorance of physics or in contradiction to it. So, long live physics! And even more long live what compels us to it—our honesty GS 335.

In this vein, we may be constituted by relatively immutable type-facts, we are, however, only able to fulfill the compulsions of our constitution through our understanding that our ability to exert our strength depends on our comprehension of the world of physical matter and the walking horizon of values.

Presently, I am looking into footnote fourteen of Leiter's article, an interesting footnote where he discusses an objection by Katsafanas to his and Deleuze's ascription of the epiphenomenalist critique to Nietzsche.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Nietzsche Grid

Currently working on the Nietzsche Grid. Please offer your suggestions at the Nietzsche Grid Blog.

Thank you.