Saturday, November 07, 2009

Consciousness: Conceptualization versus Epiphenomenalism

Paul Katsafanas and Brian Leiter have contrasting views on how Nietzsche views conciousness.

Leiter reads Nietzsche as saying that consciousness is epiphenomenal (at least for ascriptions of moral responsibility to be made); that is, conscious thoughts occur alongside bio-mechanical and behavioral activity, but these thoughts don't actually have any causal relevance of their own. That is, some primary cause causes both a desire to pop-up in consciousness and some action to occur. So, from our first-person experience, it seems like the action occurred because of the desire that popped-up in our consciousness—it seems like the desire caused the action—but, in fact, the desire and the action were both caused by the primary cause (or deep cause). From this scenario, consciousness can be described as epiphenomenal—and I've struggled to accept this conclusion. I do sympathize with Leiter's naturalism, but the conclusion of epiphenomenalism (versions of which have been articulated in Nietzsche on Morality, "Nietzsche's Theory of the Will" and "Nietzsche's Philosophy of Action") seems a bit extreme.

Katsafanas has a startling, bizarre and exciting reading of Nietzsche that I have hesitated to embrace. It is quite startling to hear someone say that consciousness is merely conceptualization (that consciousness is characterized by the turning into concepts of bio-mechanical sensations) as he argues in "Nietzsche's Theory of Mind"; but the more I think about it, the more interesting consciousness as conceptualization starts to appear...

Nietzsche seems to view consciousness as passive, as indicated in many passages, but this does not imply that consciousness is causally irrelevant. He could merely be saying that consciousness is passive because it does not initiate any actions of its own accord.

The activity we call "self-reflection", that is, when we sit back and withhold our actions and desires and contemplate the best course of action, this isn't something initiated by the strength of consciousness, but rather, the strength for "self-reflection" depends on just another drive (or group of drives) that is using consciousness to withhold the influence of rival drives. (Katsafanas discusses "self-reflection" in "Nietzsche on Agency and Self-Ignorance," "Nietzsche's Philosophical Psychology" and "Activity and Passivity in Reflective Agency".) For example, the drive could be using consciousness to contemplate and determine which drives are actually rivals or allies (for its own ends) before allowing the exertion of those allied drives and pushing the repression of the rivals.

About consciousness — well, I don't think the force behind intentions actually originates in consciousness. I think consciousness is like equipment, for example, like a hammer.

Imagine that your inner drives are compelling your arm to smash a gigantic vase. You rush over to the vase and start beating on it and pieces fly everywhere. Now, imagine that you did the same thing, but this time you had a hammer in your hand. Your smashing of the vase would be much more effective with the hammer!

Now, if a philosopher were to interpret Nietzsche as a full-on epiphenomenalist (that is, those who believe that Nietzsche thinks that consciousness is causally irrelevant — i.e., conscious states occur alongside bio-mechanical activity but these conscious states have no causal relevance in the etiology of actions), they would seem to be exaggerating particular passages (or drawing a premature conclusion while ignoring passages that contradict this conclusion). Yes, of course when we look at consciousness on its own (and when Nietzsche does this) it seems like consciousness is passive — no genuine intentions arise out of consciousness — no actions begin in consciousness.

However, when we pick up the hammer, we don't notice any intentions in the hammer either. Nevertheless, the hammer does have a causal impact in that it increases the effectiveness of our drives (it assists in a more effective smashing of the vase). So, the hammer and consciousness may appear passive (on isolated examination), but that doesn't mean that either hammering or conscious thought is causally irrelevant to action — instead, they amplify the effect of the drives (that is their causal influence).

Katsafanas, in "Nietzsche's Theory of Mind", argues that Nietzsche thinks that consciousness is anything that has been transformed into concepts in the mind. This can be explained in two steps. Step one: basically, you have the world and some filtering occurs when you perceive. For example, you could be colorblind and see only with two color cones—so you lose a lot information in the act of perception. Or you could be like most humans and blind to ultraviolet light. There you have your perceptions and some unconscious information, that is all; let's call it, bio-mechanical activity. There are many actions that can take place solely on the basis of this unconscious information. Step two: but then you have consciousness, that is, you have perceptions and unconscious information that have been transformed or translated into conscious states — that is, into concepts.

So just like some information is lost or distorted when you perceive (e.g., like in the case of the colorblind man who can't tell the difference between red and green objects), information is also lost and distorted when you conceptualize.

However, this loss isn't necessarily bad. Actually, it helps make things more precise (to a certain degree); it makes things in the world stand out — this is some form of salience. When Katsafanas is discussing the influence of drives, he gives this familiar scenario: when you are hungry your perceptions of food stand out. Also, I take it that by conceptualization (though I will have to reread his articles and think about this further), he could mean that these saliences can also fall into particular linguistic categories — or something of that sort. Thus, this conceptualization makes our navigating of the world more effective because conceptualization organizes our perception of the world into simple categories whose salience can be determined by the commanding drive.

The concept of salience is illustrated nicely in this painting by Edouard Manet. As you can see, the people and the food seem to stand out while everything else seems to lack some detail. So for the perceiver, the people and food stand out because the perceiver's drives influence the value of his perceptions—and which ones should stand out (to enlarge, click on the image).

Frédéric Bazille has a similar effect in this painting. Except in this case swimming trunks seem to stand out, along with the boys wrestling in the background (to enlarge, click on the image).

To carry these thoughts into a further example, let's add that concepts can be handed down from one person to another. You could be eating food A, and your friend says, "hey, this object B is actually food B"; you recognize, by what he says, that it is also something edible, and you start to eat and enjoy eating object B. Now, whenever you are hungry, object B starts to stand out as well.

So, if consciousness is conceptualization, and consciousness is passive, then the sort of causal impact consciousness has is in making our world sharper, simpler, and easier to navigate and manage. Conceptualization helps guide our inner drives to faster and more effective satisfaction—just like the hammer made us more effective in destroying the vase. Thus, though consciousness may be passive, conceptualization has a causal impact in that it focuses (and organizes) the strength of drives—just like a hammer focuses each of our blows. (Note: certainly, not all drives must pass through consciousness. Also, many skills become unconscious when they have been trained extensively—when the conceptual connections have been trained extensively and assimilated into the body's 'muscular memory'.)

There is also another way that consciousness as conceptualization can have a causal impact — and that is through diverting the strength of drives. A good example is a case of deception. Let's say that someone tells you that object C is actually food C, but it is actually poison C. Your drives then guide you, hungrily, toward object C, only to kill you. This is the sort of deception that takes place, I think, when Nietzsche talks pejoratively about the religio-moral interpretation of sensation. Perception/sensation is translated into concepts in order to facilitate the effectiveness of drives, but sometimes this translation/interpretation is a misdirection of some negative sort.

Nietzsche says, In Christianity neither morality nor religion has even a single point of contact with reality. Nothing but imaginary causes (“God,” “soul,” “ego,” “spirit,” “free will”—for that matter, “unfree will”), nothing but imaginary effects (“sin,” “redemption,” “grace,” “punishment,” “forgiveness of sins”). Intercourse between imaginary beings (“God,” “spirits,” “souls”); an imaginary natural science (anthropocentric; no trace of any concept of natural causes); an imaginary psychology (nothing but self-misunderstandings, interpretations of agreeable or disagreeable general feelings—for example, of the states of the nervus sympathicus—with the aid of the sign language of the religio-moral idiosyncrasy: “repentance,” “pangs of conscience,” “temptation by the devil,” “the presence of God”); an imaginary teleology (“the kingdom of God,” “the Last Judgment,” “eternal life”) A 15; emphasis added.

This "sign language of the religio-moral idiosyncrasy" reinterprets sensations into particular concepts and manipulates our actions as such. This is why (in the same spirit) Katsafanas ties interpretation and valuation together when talking about drives—because with interpretation some sort of evaluation is taking place, something is being wired to a particular end and not to some other.

On the one hand, Nietzsche does criticize unnatural conceptions of consciousness (e.g., transcendent agency); he criticizes those who place the origins of intention in the conscious mind, and I also think that he believes that that people (when we identify people by their conscious mind) lack any sense of freedom of will.

On the other hand, Nietzsche sees embodied freedom of will as a result of a perfectionism in which the origins of the majority of an individual's actions can be traced to their body and not to the environment (as described in Rutherford's article "Freedom as a Philosophical Ideal: Nietzsche and His Antecedents").

Katsafanas has a very nice line, in his article "Nietzsche's Philosophical Psychology", where he says, [W]e can deny that drives, considered in isolation, can reason, evaluate, and interpret, while maintaining that embodied drives — drives considered as part of a whole organism — can reason, evaluate, and interpret 27.

In a different sense (but carrying the notion of unified embodiment), freedom of will cannot make sense when we consider the will in isolation (because agency is trapped in a natural landscape of causes), but we can measure some degree of freedom of will if we attribute that will to a body and trace the origins of action to either drives within that body or external causes. Nevertheless, as a point of elaboration, a higher man functions most effectively in a higher culture, and there can certainly be external causes that are friendly to the affirmative, internal drives of the individual. I'm going to continue thinking about the interactions between drives and external values—a point of obvious importance to Nietzsche in his undertaking of the revaluation.

Leiter discusses Katsafanas on Nietzsche on Consciousness in his blog—here—with some interesting commentary from both of them.

As a post-script, I want to reiterate, however, that even if some part of consciousness seems fabricated, that doesn't mean that it doesn't have causal relevance. Maybe I can say it this way: if some part of consciousness seems epiphenomenal because it doesn't really exist (the content of the belief cannot be found in the world), it doesn't mean that the 'non-existent part of consciousness' doesn't have causal relevance because the delusion itself might influence the way we act. For example, the thought that our consciousness is a unified atom of some sort might be due to some epiphenomenal delusion acquired from our first-person experience of the world (e.g., consciousness seems like a unified atom although it really isn't), but that doesn't mean that the epiphenomenal delusion literally exists in some magical realm where it is kept from having a causal impact. Certainly, for this delusion to shape the way we act and philosophize, our confidence in the delusion and the delusion itself must reside somewhere in material reality, or at least, we must be able to explain the delusion as part of the functioning of some bio-mechanical mechanism. However, I don't think it would be correct to say that 'the deluded part of consciousness' literally exists, as it is described, as an entity in some magical realm (e.g., it would be wrong to say that the "unity" of consciousness does not exist in the world but does exist as a magical thing in a magical realm—epiphenomenalism is also called Type-E Dualism). Rather, I would say that some inference is being developed and believed based on an incomplete picture (e.g., I may think that my conscious perception is continuous because I am not aware of my blindspot or the gaps in my visual framerate), but it would be unnatural to say that the false belief (the continuity of conscious perception) exists as a true belief in some immaterial realm.

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