“The Denial” of Consciousness

I’ve been referring to those that insist that our subjective conscious mind cannot be real, because – by definition – their objective science is unable to explain it, as deniers since I first wrote on Searle, back here in 2005. Since then I’ve been like a cracked record on consciousness denial.

This week Galen Strawson has an essay extracted from his “Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc.” (2018) published in the New York Review of Books.

The title of the extracted essay is:

The Consciousness Deniers

Many people already tweeting assorted quotes from his opening para:

“What is the silliest claim ever made?

Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-it-is-like” of experience.

Next to this denial—I’ll call it “the Denial”—every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green.”

He’s right. It’s actually a long and worthwhile read – I’m guessing it’s practically a whole chapter from the book. Of particular interest to me is that amongst his list of those who are explicit in their denial of the reality of consciousness is “the generally admirable” Dan Dennett!

Certainly at times in his long quest to explain consciousness Dennett may have seemed to deny the subjectivity – he certainly refuses to entertain qualia as separate dualist subjective stuff. But along with a number of enlightened physicists he has homed in on explaining consciousness as just as much a part of physical reality as any fundamental physics. The way we experience it may be “kinda” illusory – making us seek the qualia – but the fact it and our experience are real is beyond doubt. His explanation is deflationary. And Dennett has spent much effort putting many a behaviorist-psychologist and naturalistic-philosopher right on the topic.

Strawson is right to point out that a mechanical functionalist take on the rise of Information Technology – computing – may itself have contributed to the hardening of The Denial in the 21st Century, but Dennett shows how computation independent of its physical embodiment is what real consciousness is in fact made of and just as physical (as some physicists would agree).

Not been a fan of Strawson, but it’s good to see him taking sides against the deniers. It may take a bit more reading to find where he fits in constructive dialogue with Dennett.

Taking Down Jordan Peterson

It’s become a industrial strength polarising meme in its own right, to cast Jordan Peterson and anyone who finds sense in his thinking as naive boys or unreconstructed misogynist lads or indeed something altogether more sinister.

Where the use of the mcm (Man Crush Monday) meme is

Peterson is the kind of guy guys have a crush on – oh how we laughed. [I personally addressed this meme directly in this previous postMocking? See Court-Jester]

He’s insistent on using that metaphor, exactly to make the point about sexism. PoPoMo is very slow to catch on it seems. Some people still prefer to attack PoMo when many of us have moved on.

“Jordan Peterson may be an advocate of free speech but he is also something far more sinister by Sam Jacobsen of SOAS.

Interesting piece. Sure, he does say things that can be interpreted as sinister – on the intellectual dark web – in dialogue with other “conservative” commentators, even though Jacobsen agrees his position in the content of the Newman interview – non-sexist freedom and equality – was valid and straightforward. However this piece stinks with disingenuous rhetoric – the reason to support free-speech-platforming of Peterson is apparently to  to take him down by providing opportunities for him to damn himself in front of critics who know better, rather than play the victim of censorship. Talk about Machiavellian.

And from a year ago, by way of contrast, before the Newman meme:

The Abstraction of Jordan Peterson – Mapping Meaning in the Land of Identity Politics by Brent Cooper

Which is an excellent piece on an important topic Peterson understands well, yet Cooper already felt obliged to include a follow-post last year, before Newman.

“I have written a follow-up post to this article, titled “The Detraction of Jordan Peterson“, which discusses his overstepping and the critical reaction to him. I argue that although Peterson is an expert in abstraction, he commits vicious abstraction with some concepts.”

Exactly – polarising reaction is not what constructive criticism is about. And by way of an aside, whilst we’re on about “abstraction” today, let’s contrast Natural Inclusion with Abstract Rationality:

Back to the dissing-Peterson meme: Also properly analysing the polarising reactions that destroy any nuance in Peterson’s position (and using the same Eric Weinstein – intellectual dark web – reference):

Eric Weinstein’s Four Quadrant Model
by Rosa Laura Junco of The Knife Media

“… illustrating how the media stigmatizes certain nuanced views that challenge the status quo by portraying people who hold those views as prejudiced or intolerant.”

Absolutely! The polarisation means anyone on the “bad” pole of it is stigmatised and the nuance in relation to the “good” pole is lost. I’m not defending Peterson’s position on everything – but everything I’ve seen or heard him say makes sense as (small c) conservatism in a memetic evolutionary context. Fidelity and fecundity in footnote here.

Dialogue beats #takedown anyway.

So Much Disingenuity

Could comment on any number of links on the Tillerson story, but I’m exasperated at partisan news channels making their story out of it.

Obviously, Trump previously communicated with Tillerson – even in “my people speaking to your people” mode – about wanting him to “step aside” at least the week before – clearly Tillerson conflicted with Trump’s line for some time and resignation beats sacking any day.

Obviously, Tillerson didn’t know – as Goldstein said – he was actually being fired until the public tweet, which is seriously naff, but then we already knew Trump is an effing valueless moron.

The two are not mutually exclusive.
There is no news, no secret, no mystery.

Fan Base vs Actually Listening to Content

Fascinating responses to this Grauniad CiF piece on Jordan Peterson – introducing him to new people who’ve maybe heard he has a fan base as well as vocal detractors. The kind of controversy that sells tickets.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do do obsessive fandom of humans I love from afar, but I’m no “fan” of Peterson. I scarcely know him. It’s barely a month since I clicked on any link to listen to or read anything by or about him – I’m a “post Cathy Newman” interested party and I like what I hear. I’m over-60 – male obvs (!) – and he’s talking about stuff I’ve been researching for 20 years. I’m not some snotty teanager looking for a psychological crutch.

The comments of interest are below the line in the CiF piece as well as on social media, like this thread for example:

It’s actually quite a balanced piece, properly sceptical but fair. Yet ironically, Peterson can’t even accept the possibility of error. I guess when you feel besieged even tiny attacks must be repelled:

Maybe some of his generalisation are “kooky” – his anecdotal examples are a bit off the wall, that’s part of his attraction for sure – but generally he seems to talk sense (content) and more importantly seems to talk sensibly in proper dialogue (process) avoiding gratuitous attack and defence straw-men and resisting gratuitous reactions to those that wield them against him. But nobody’s perfect I guess.

Being “based on scientific research” is a ubiquitous claim but only as good – and as relevant – as the science itself and, further, “as solid as it gets in social science” tells its own story. [Invoking the scientific defence is unnecessary and unhelpfully scientistic in my book.] As defence against (enemy) attack, maybe fair enough, but it’s not the proper (mutual) dialogue I’ve already come to expect. It’s what set the Cathy Newman exchange apart.

Still, I should worry! The slings and arrows in the threads are classic examples of the genre, and I realise many people from science of the humanities see being smart-ass as part of the game (see court-jester). But if people believed 1% of the reactions to Peterson – and to Gareth Hutchens and the Grauniad for daring to give him a fair hearing – then we are in trouble.

Is there any tiny chance anyone might actually -memetically, naturally, unintentionally – believe Peterson believes anything remotely like:

“that lobsters prove
that women should be
subservient to men” ?!?

Self-selecting fan-base and rubber-necking audiences pay the bills, but no wonder we have the intellectual dark web for proper constructive discourse. Talk about fake-news in mainstream social-media.

The “Guardian Pick” of the positive comments restores your faith (but even that draws the mean-spirited smart-ass crap responses):

“Whether or not everything Peterson says is “defensible” (You would need to establish by whose criteria it was to be so considered), at the very least it is always arguable. The reason is that, unlike so many of those who are prone to mindlessly parroting their own received memes, and which Peterson so rightly excoriates, he virtually never puts forward any argument which he has not thought through from first principles. That is the mark of a genuine intellectual.”
by Tim Cape.

As I say, even when content is imperfect, as it always must be, the process of aiming to talk sense, with mutual respect and good faith is the true mark of quality.

STFU and listen, I say. Talk is cheap and comment is free.

Evolved Inhumanity

I’ve said it before, Artificial-I will only be reality when it is Real-I, ie long after human extinction I’d estimate.

Inhuman evolution evolves inhumanity until the evolved (machine) inhumanity evolves to be (living) humanity itself. Same same.

Evolution – genetic or memetic – is a real process happening everywhere right now. An evolved species is only a matter of hindsight. Careful what we wish for.

Meta-Meme – The “Overton” Meme Meme

Saw a reference to “The Overton Window” this morning – a meme so embedded in 21st C political commentary that you can simply tweet it in cynical fashion and assume your audience knows what you mean.

The “Overton Window” and its accompanying “Treviño Values” are a meme about memetics. About how ideas shift (ie literally memetics) and, more to the point, how the cynical can exploit the natural effect for ideological ends. As old as Machiavelli’s Prince, ’twas ever thus. Any idea follows a natural trajectory from its first thought. That is:

Freedom evolves:
Conservative and liberal, interests and values, are
Unthinkable > Radical > Acceptable > Sensible > Popular > Policy

Overton was coined in a public policy context, balancing these competing values, so the end-game is “policy”. But, in a more general sense, that end-game is simply “accepted reality”. Pretty much the same as  Arthur C Clarke’s science and new technology trajectory “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  The understanding of things moves from:

“That can’t be for real!”
(Inconceivably Magic)


“How did our world exist without it?”
( Everyday Technology)

…. by copying expression and sharing experience.

It’s so natural that the word meme is rejected by many as having any remaining use, because what it means is so embedded in accepted reality. It’s political by political choice and ripe for the adversarial game but an entirely natural process nonetheless.

What we really need to understand is that the stack of interacting memes (or memeplex) we inhabit are evolving ever faster and inexorably in the direction supporting and supported by that environment in a self-reinforcing positive feedback or mechanistic “first cybernetics” loop.

The more we value simplicity, clarity, objectivity, transparency, (ac)countability, the more the popularity contest delivers populism. A free-for-all for the memes – including the unthinkable – rather than cultivating human freedoms and values. Perversely, we need the conservatism of active moderation on all of those inhuman values:

Simplicity and clarity – in so far as  necessary “but not more so”.
Transparency and sharing –  in so far as “need to know” in context.
Objectivity and (ac)countability – in so far as “you get what measure”.
Careful what you wish  for in “best laid plans”.
Careful what you throw out with the memetic bathwater.

Doubly perversely, the greater the stakes, the greater the need for conservation and … yes … mystification. So tough for liberal humanists (like me!) to get this. We need to make space for the humanistic “second cybernetics”.

In order to value freedom of expression we need less of it.


[Note: The use of the first and second cybernetics is counterintuitive here. I did say “perverse”. When it comes to positive and negative feedback, the point is which processes are reinforced, not necessarily which definable states and outcomes. It’s about the freedom (process) to evolve being distinct from the freedom (state) evolved. A free state is about freedom, the process of free evolution is about conservatism – hi-fidelity and hi-fecundity – many good copies of what already exists.]

In Good Faith – Memes Never Were Objective

I have a kinda love-hate relationship with memes and often find myself writing either about them or at least using the term “meme” and the idea of “memetics”. Most recently here in “Don’t mention the memes“.

As I say, although Dawkins is credited with coining the term to represent an “object”, mimesis has been around forever, and others like Dennett have done most to establish how memetic processes work, and how they are central to “mental” evolution.

My relationship with memes is summed-up in this tweet (retweeted by Elizabeth Oldfield) and my response:

Obviously the seeming objectification implicit in coining the term is the red-rag to anyone wanting to emphasise the non-objective – even transcendent – human aspects of life and the nature of culture. Me too, let’s be clear.

(1) tiny brain: lol memes

(2) normal brain: that’s not what “meme” means

(3) giant brain: the spread of the internet’s definition of “meme” is itself a good example of meme theory

(4) galaxy brain: lol the only useful idea Dawkins ever had was corrupted into a term for vapid derivative jokes

By any definition of truth, that’s all true. So, assuming I’m not stupid, why use a vapid term?

One reason is because, like it or not, (4) simply further confirms the truth of (3). Memetics is so “true” it is not even immune from it itself and, being a game, there is an inevitable end-game. Memetics is true on its own level and any number of meta-levels.

(1) to (2) is the start of the basic language game. Whether as disingenuous straw-men or as flattery by accidental imitation, all words that achieve circulation take on a life beyond any subtle (defined) intent of the originator. That’s not even fake-news. The word that achieves most meaninglessness is likely to be the most significant word in the lexicon on several levels. The more significant, the more it becomes a battleground of competing ideas … if we let it.

By “defending” the term meme – reinforcing the importance of memetics – the classic “critical debate” style of argument practically demands others attack or undermine my defence. Reinforcing the critical debate – logical attack and defence – meme. But that’s a meme that destroys knowledge in the wild, even if it refines knowledge in a controlled discourse. Beyond that environment what is needed is proper dialogue that seeks to evolve understanding. Unfortunately “critical thinking” is winning that game, because we refuse to recognise the degeneracy of that meme.

Secondly, the main aim of my agenda is not to defend meme from accusations of “too objective” or “too inhuman”. Quite the opposite. Not only am I saying memes are largely subjective (See 2), I’m using the fact to say that all other seeming objects – genes say – have an enormous subjective element, definitions which hold only in a human controlled environment. Sadly the winning meme here is scientism – that reductive objective determinsism can never be too greedy.

Even if we coined a new term for more definitive use of ideas involved in memetics in a knowledge context – simply “idea” or “mimidea” say – that term would follow a similar (1) to (4) trajectory.

I really do not care whether the term meme be accepted as valid for its intended meaning. What I really care about is that what evolves to be accepted as a valid and meaningful understanding of what it takes to be valid and meaningful …. is a memetic process. Accepting that meta-reality, we can better design rules for public discourse. One thing’s for sure, that unfettered free-for-all, the fetish of totally transparent freedom of expression, without mutual good-faith in the progress of human knowledge, leads inexorably to meaninglessness. Recent history tells us that good faith is a pretty fragile meme.


[Post Notes: refine / distill and “starve upon the residue”.]