Monday, October 14, 2013


I finished Chalmers' book - The Conscious Mind - this weekend. A funny thing was that the next-to-last chapter, basically just a set of musings on the relationship between his proto-theory and artificial intelligence arguments, didn't interest me at all. This is funny because if this was 2001, I probably would have skimmed the book up to that chapter and then read it over and over and over again.

It's an excellent, important book. I wish I'd read it back when, but now was good enough timing. As I mentioned in a previous entry, just about all of my thinking on philosophy of mind and consciousness in this book; I think some of the ideas I developed naturally, like a lot of people do, but I've also read many of Chalmers' papers over the years, and a couple I've read many times, so he's undoubtedly responsible for straightening my thoughts on the subject.

But this book, it's one of those cases where reading is like sharpening your mind. You may have a set of knives, but you've let them clatter around in a drawer for a while, used one here and another there, and so they get banged up and dulled and maybe a bit tarnished, and so finally you sit down with the whetstone and a cloth and sharpen and clean, and there, a drawer full of shining, sharp knives. That's what it was like, reading this book.

In a way, it just sort of set me up with new vocabulary, or ways to structure my thinking about perception and experience, and why they are interesting, and what the alternatives are in thinking about how they are interesting. Sometimes, this is enough to take away from a book - it helps you organize, doesn't revolutionize your thought, but it helps you straighten things out, like putting the knives into categories, with the tips and blades all facing together.

But he also inspired me, and hopefully just at the right time (though I was asking for it, looking for it, so it's silly to bring up the notion of coincidence). He talks about psychophysics - although in more basic terms than the conventional science - and he presents it as a way of using subjective experience as evidence, as a thing to be explained. This was how I felt about it for a long time, but as the years and papers and experiments wheel on, you can't help but start to see things operationally, in terms of functions and moving parts, and you operationalize your subjects too, and they become black boxes that press buttons. This is so wrong!

It's wrong, and I used to know it was wrong, and I've maintained a sense that it's wrong - I recognize that this sense is part of what sets me against the West Coast internal noise crowd in modern psychophysics, and which allies me so much to the European tradition. But I'd kind of forgotten, explicitly, how it's something of a travesty against psychophysics to operationalize your subjects, especially if you're interested in psychophysics per se, and not in using it as a means to another worthy end.

What I'm rambling about is what we all know - when you have a subject in a psychophysics experiment, and you give them instructions on how to do the task, you are asking them to take hold of a phenomenal object, and to give you responses based on that object. Often the object is so ineffable that it can only be explained by example - 'this, you see this? when you see this, press this button; or, press this button when you think you see this, here'. The central object in the entire experiment is the thing that is seen. The instructions to the subject are the closest that the experimenter comes to the phenomenon of interest. But it's too easy, I see now, to slip into the mode of giving those instructions and then thinking that the phenomenon is in the data, and that by describing the data or understanding the data, you're understanding the phenomenon.

Ultimately, maybe, it's just semantics. Ultimately, all you have to analyze in any rigorous sense is the data. But I think that many psychophysicists forget, and start talking only about performance - I've done this many times now. I've gone long enough without enough inspiration, for years now, only seeing it peek through now and then, always having trouble circling back to the real object of fascination. But this book, Chalmers' book - or probably, just a few choice passages from the book - has renewed my clarity, and as I said, just in time, because I feel that the importance of these ideas, for my research and my writing and my very career, is swinging right into center stage.

Also, I have a headache right now, officially it's been 59 days since the last, longest gap since record keeping began (May 2012). I gave it a 3.5, but I'm going to go raise that to a 4.5 now, it's getting worse.

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