Building Consciousness Back Up To Size – Norretranders, Libet and Free Will

In my last post I discussed how the term “illusion” is often haphazardly applied to concepts like consciousness or Free Will. This is most easily done by defining these terms such that they easily lead to illusion or error. If you hold that Free Will grants people unlimited power to do anything, or somehow unhinges people from the world of causality, then of course an individual’s sense of personal freedom is going to be an illusion. But who is so deluded? If you claim that consciousness always purports to be the cause of all actions and thoughts, or that it mediates reality directly, unfiltered by any interpretation or innate categories, then of course consciousness is an illusion. But who is fooled like this? If you define the GUI of a computer system as a perfectly accurate, one-to-one description of every operation going on in the systems’ hardware, then the GUI is an illusion. But who ever made that mistake? A photograph is only an illusion if you mistake it for the object photographed, which perhaps someone in human history has done, but we don’t then conclude that all photos are illusions!

Tor Norretranders was obviously heavily influenced by Julian Jaynes, but he ever so subtly twists Jaynes’ notion of the analog “I” so that it appears to overstep its bounds and claim responsibility where it is not due. Consequently, Tor’s “I” is surely an illusion, but not Jaynes’ nor mine. Normally, I would just shrug this off, as “The User Illusion” is a fantastic book with much to offer and more importantly because according to Tor, all is illusion and thus the word looses its pejorative meaning. However, I am impelled to write this critique because Tor uses Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments as a springboard to launch an attack on certain concepts as being especially illusory, notably Free Will, the self as “user” or “actor,” and the causal power of consciousness. This attack goes beyond its mandate of correcting various common misconceptions about consciousness and in doing so produces many misconceptions of its own, not to mention the fact that this mandate has already been fulfilled more faithfully and honestly by many thinkers in the last seventy years (J. Jaynes, for example).

Tor’s Theory of Mind

Tor’s overall project is nicely summarized on the page before his table of contents, where you will find the following quote from James Clark Maxwell: “What is done by what is called myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.” Consequently, the last line of Tor’s book asserts that Maxwell “did not suffer from the user illusion.” Tor aims to show that this “something greater” is doing all of the heavy lifting and it is this claim that I wish to cut down to size. In the preface, Tor writes that “the control of actions that consciousness feels it exercises is an illusion.” If he were only to add “some of the time” he would be exactly correct. Instead, he holds that it is not “the conscious I that exercises our free will,” ever! He doesn’t even present an argument for this, but merely proclaims that the “something greater” always makes the decision of “which of the two is to make a decision….and the I has only its wretched veto to work with.” Thus, if the “I” appears to have made a decision, it is just because the unconscious mind let it. It is clear that Tor is flirting with epiphenomenalism regarding the self and consciousness, but his position is not nearly this consistent. He attempts to use the brilliant theory of Julian Jaynes, but ends up subtly distorting it.

Julian Jaynes shows that our subjective interiority consists of an analogue (or map) of the external world (in that it displays spatialization that can “contain” objects just as seen in the external world), which is seen from a perspective or “analog ‘I'” that is comparable to the perspective we have during perception. The more complicated fact is that, as Jaynes’ puts it, “The analog ‘I’ is, however, not simply that. It is also a metaphor ‘me.’ As we imagine ourselves strolling down the longer path we indeed catch ‘glimpses’ of ‘ourselves,’ as we did in…Chapter 1, where we called them autoscopic images. We can both look out from within the imagined self at the imagined vistas, or we can step back a bit and see ourselves perhaps kneeling down for a drink of water at a particular brook.” This is critical because most of our thoughts utilize the self-concept just as an analog ‘I’ without the need to model that self-concept as a metaphor ‘me,’ which would require one further act of abstraction. If you imagine walking down a path, it takes another movement of consciousness to turn the picture 90 degrees and thus re-establish a perspective (analog ‘I’) that is perpendicular to the first scene, allowing you to see a metaphor ‘me’ walking around where the analog ‘I’ was the previous instant. This is simply the difference between a thought and a meta-thought, which is something that Tor hopelessly confuses by erroneously conflating the analog ‘I’ and the metaphor ‘me.’ By removing this distinction Tor gets to smuggle in conclusions that are valid for the ‘I’ and normal thought as if they were valid also for the metaphor ‘me’ and meta-thought. In fact, most of his conclusions are true for the case he is discussing, but false for the case that he extends it to.

Tor explains his theory of mind as follows: “The term Me embraces the subject of all the bodily actions and mental processes that are not initiated or carried out by the I, the conscious I. The term I embraces all the bodily actions and mental processes that are conscious.”

Right away we have a problem: that the I often becomes conscious of the Me, which is contrary to the latter’s definition. Thus, some content (an idea, feeling, etc) is at one point both the I and the Me, as something that was unconscious moves into consciousness. Since everything that we are conscious of was, just a second before we were conscious of it, technically unconscious, Tor gets to his conclusion that the I is an allusion in one fell swoop! But, I suppose he did this in his very title, as a computer by itself has no user, and thus if consciousness is just like the GUI or “user illusion,” consciousness too has no user! This smacks of “Thought without a thinker,” which is a traditional Buddhist line that Tor implicitly flirts with quite unfaithfully and sporadically. This can be seen in his definitions, where the Me “embraces the subject” of all unconscious content, while the I just embraces all the processes that are consciousness with no reference to a subject. Clever move Mr. Norretranders; very subtle!

“Our consciousness is our user illusion for ourselves and the world,” Tor tells us. I used to think that this analogy of a GUI was clever, but it has become obvious how shallow it really is. A GUI or “user illusion” is designed because every computer needs a user. But why would the human organism need one if there is no user? It is superfluous on this view. Note, he is not claiming that the I and consciousness are two separate illusions, but the same illusion.

The I experiences that it is the I that acts; that it is the I that senses; that it is the I that thinks. But it is the Me that does so. I am my user illusion of myself,” Tor writes. How could it be that it is the Me who consciously thinks, senses, and acts, if the Me is by definition everything that is unconscious, everything that is not “initiated or carried out by the I“? This last quote precludes the I from carrying out or initiating anything! So all is Me, which would mean than it is the Me who propagates any illusions given that it initiates everything. Tor’s definitions produce pure obfuscation. Moreover, he is putting words in the I’s mouth in order to arrive at the conclusion that the I is a fraud and a liar. The I for Jaynes and myself is the representative for the whole organism, including itself, and thus it “experiences that it is the I that acts…senses…thinks” without being dishonest or delusional, as the I represents the whole organism, who does in fact (on anybody’s definition) do the acting, sensing, and thinking. When I think to myself, “I just consciously made that decision,” the “I” refers to my whole being, including (but not limited to) the act of consciousness, which was anything but irrelevant to the decision! If Tor is indeed right that consciousness is an illusion where the Me is not, then why do we even have consciousness to begin with? Our unconscious seems more than up to the task of acting, sensing, and thinking, so why would it even require an I? Thus, Tor ends up pulling an old philosophers trick that I have discussed in a previous rant: explaining something difficult and mysterious with something even more difficult and mysterious and then claiming to have given us clarity and knowledge! Explaining consciousness as just an illusion controlled by the unconscious actually impoverishes our knowledge, as we know less about the unconscious than we do about the conscious.

But things get even more muddled as Tor explains the following: “The body cannot lie. Its bandwidth is too high for that. But the I can. In fact, the I can do nothing else. The I refers to itself as if it were the Me. But it is not. The I simulates being the Me, having control of the Me. But the I is just a map of Me. A map can lie. A terrain cannot.” But he just claimed that the I doesn’t do anything at all; it is all the Me, which orchestrates (for some inconceivable reason) the illusion of an I! So if the Me is responsible for acting, sensing, and thinking, then it is also responsible for lying! He tries to hide this inconsistency by using “the body” instead of “Me” so that we wouldn’t notice that the Me would have to initiate the lie, or at least decide to give the decision over to the I. He says that a map can lie, but must it? After all, according to Tor’s theory, the Me is also a map (with the terrain of the body and the objective world); the I being a map of that map, a pocket map, if you will, to the Me’s atlas. So why is the I map less reliable? He relies entirely on split-brain patients and their confabulations to substantiate this claim, as I pointed out in my last post. I have never seen a more dishonest interpretation of this data. To be sure, the stories we tell to other people often contain lies. But we base these lies on the story that we tell ourselves, which must be highly accurate if our slightly altered version is going to fool anybody! Liars tell more truth than the rest of us, as this is the only way to smuggle the lie in without people noticing. Tor’s claim that our conscious narratization can do nothing but confabulate, or lie, that our “I can do nothing else” but lie, is patently absurd. Clearly the I can do more than just lie. Moreover, the I is not passing itself off for the Me, but in Jaynes’ and my view, is speaking for “the body,” the true terrain of which the I is an analog or map

How does all of this relate to Free Will? Tor explains that “The experience of free will is linked to situations where the Me dares to allow the I to make the decision. When more speed is required, the I and its free will are suspended. The Me simply reacts. The I experiences free will when the Me lets it.” Again, wouldn’t the Me then be responsible for any lying that the I did? In fact, Tor admits this when he claims that “Our consciousness is not the initiator–unconscious processes are!” Furthermore, he just explained that the I doesn’t actually act, sense, or think, that it is all the Me, so how can the I have free will or make any decision? Moreover, this all conflicts with his claim that it is really the Me that has Free Will as well as the claim that the I nonetheless has a veto, which is meaningless if it was given this veto by the Me! Lastly, the sense of personal responsibility or freedom also accompanies many situations where “more speed is required,” thought is suspended and “the Me simply reacts,” as this feeling only fails to be produced when there is some discrepancy between the instinctive reaction of the Me and the thoughtful reaction of the I; that is, very rarely!

“How can consciousness be in charge if it is not the initiator?” Tor asks, without bothering to prove that consciousness is not the initiator. He doesn’t bother because he believes Benjamin Libet has already done the leg work for him. Tor goes along with “Libet’s own salvation for free will: the veto,” without noticing that this contradicts the rest of his essay. Tor continues summarizing Libet’s findings as follows: “Consciousness cannot initiate an action, but it can decide that it should not be carried out.” “Free will operates through selection, not design.” How can consciousness decide this if the Me decides who does the deciding? Remember, according to Tor, the Me has to let the I decide. So is Tor really claiming that the Me decided to do something, at which time it decided to let the I decide to veto the action? Clearly Tor has to decide between his diverse claims about the power of consciousness.

If I can veto every action that my Me offers up from the depths (as in Mindfulness meditation), how can Tor claim that it is the Me who wields free will, acts, senses, and thinks? Did the Me just decide to arbitrarily thwart its own commands, indefinitely? How would the Me ever “snap out of it” and decide to start deciding again if it had decided to trust the I to all of its deciding? Tor goes on to write that “Consciousness is not a superior unit that directs messages down to its subordinates in the brain. Consciousness is the instance of selection that picks and chooses among the many options nonconsciousness offers up.” So the I does have some powers, some ability to select, pick, and choose after all. But if this is all it can do, why is subjective experience necessary? Why couldn’t this all just go on unconsciously? Why couldn’t the nonconsciousness discard its own possibilities? How could an illusion do any discarding? In fact, Tor explains that the stuff that makes its way into consciousness already went through this selection and discarding process: “Consciousness is ingenious because it knows what is important. But the sorting and interpretation required for it to know what is important is not conscious.” How then did consciousness find out and how could it possibly be “the instance of selection that picks and chooses among the many options,” and so forth, if that instance of selection, picking, and choosing was all unconscious? According to this new and contradictory formulation, consciousness looks like a static picture of the “winners circle” at the end of a race, just displaying whatever nonconscious options worked hard enough to win the subliminal race. It is this aspect of Dennett’s “cerebral celebrity” theory that I find redundant and problematic. But then Tor claims that “the I does not want to accept this. The thinking, conscious I insists on being the true player, the active operator, the one in charge.” I thought that the I learns what is important from the Me? How can it “want” or desire to be the only one in charge if it simply receives its wants and desires from the unconscious? Did the Me decide that it is important that the I be the only one in charge and then send this up to the winners circle? If it did, then it is perpetrating a lie, something the Me is incapable of according to Tor.

According to Tor’s description, the conscious I clearly can’t just get fed its values or its decisions about what options should be discarded. Tor explains that  “A conscious veto is necessary only because there are differences between what the conscious will and the nonconscious urge are after. A veto applied to something nonconscious reflects that there are differences between what the consciousness and the nonconsciousness would like.” What? How could the consciousness know to veto something that was unconscious? It couldn’t see any target to cut down! If Libet is right then all decisions are made before we are conscious of them, so how could there be a conflict between the conscious will and the nonconscious urge? “In other words,” Tor explains, “we notice the nonconscious only when it goes against the conscious.” But the conscious takes all of its cues from the nonconscious, so how could there be a conflict? Moreover, the unconscious is home to a roiling sea of competing options and desires, so why wouldn’t we constantly be aware of those that conflict with our conscious motives?

As if there weren’t enough contradictions already, Tor explains near the end of his book that “The role of the I in learning is precisely to force the nonconscious, the Me, to practice, rehearse, or just attend. The I is a kind of boss who tells the Me what it must practice. The I is the Me’s secretary.” Bosses and secretaries are very different positions in terms of power and control, but this is the least of the problems that Tor has gotten himself into. At this point I don’t need to belabor the point that clearly Tor has a highly fragmented picture of the human mind and can’t keep it straight from chapter to chapter. Perhaps the reader is objecting that I am just nitpicking his definitions while avoiding the meat of his argument, so lets look at the meat.

The Bandwidth of Consciousness Clarified

Much is made of the (apparent) fact that the bandwidth of consciousness appears to be less than 50 bits/s (some even claim it is lower than 4). Tor straight up claims that this is too little bandwidth to control behavior in a top-down manner, but he doesn’t bother justifying the claim. He just thinks its obvious that 40 bits/s couldn’t possibly control 40 million. I think it can. If the unconscious sorts through a bunch of options and presents consciousness with a choice between two, why isn’t 40 bits/s enough bandwidth to make a decision given that the unconscious did most of the hard work? Couldn’t I just as easily claim that a court judge couldn’t possibly control a verdict in a top-down manner because the hard work of organizing the evidence into two coherent but contradictory positions was already done by a slew of lawyers? The point is that the judge is able to make his decision because of the hard work of the slew of lawyers, and detectives, and witnesses, etc. Tor is willing to admit that when it comes to the genome its not so important how many genes you have, but which ones and how they are organized. So why is consciousness just a numbers game then? The unproven assumption in his thinking is that bandwidth=causal power such that the thing with the most bandwidth is the “leader” or most causally relevant factor. This reasoning would say that the team of lawyers has more bandwidth than the judge, so it must have more influence over the verdict than the judge. But the law grants the judge his power and it is “law” or “conscious pre-authorization” that is the real secret to consciousness and the vital piece missing in Tor’s 417-page essay. A decisive movement of consciousness can be erected in the mind as law, which will be unconsciously carried out for the rest of one’s life. The I doesn’t just have a “wretched veto” that it can enact just before an action transpires, it has a superior veto that is preemptive! I can enact a principle or maxim, such as “I will never strike a woman,” and this forever stops all potential worlds where I strike a woman from coming into existence, with no further requirement of conscious veto when such situations arise. Regardless of bandwidth, our 40 bits/s is a judge by physical law, a law written in the physical structure of our brains.

Are we really so sure that consciousness has so little bandwidth? Tor has cleverly allied consciousness with language processing, as if this is the only thing that is done in consciousness. He shows a chart of “Conscious Processing of Information” that shows the bits/s of various activities: silent reading=45, reading aloud=30, proofreading=18, typewriting=16, piano playing=23, multiplying and adding two numbers=12, and counting objects=3. Notice anything missing in this list? Karl Kupfmuller sums up the findings that Tor agrees with: “All instances in the human organism that take part in processing messages seem to be designed to the upper limit of 50 bits/sec.” Processing messages! Is that really all we do in consciousness? Tor reinforces this by writing that “whether we are reading or writing, the bandwidth of language is about the same.” Bandwidth of language! How is he so certain that the bandwidth of language is equal to the bandwidth in consciousness? Hasn’t he ever fantasized about having sex with his dream girl? I assure you that if you try this, you will see a wonderful movie playing in your head–a movie that you will be quite conscious of but that is quite lacking in dialogue! I fail to see how such a high fidelity simulation could be easily performed in the full light of consciousness if the bandwidth is only 50 bits/s. Tor would just suggest that we are enlisting the Me in this simulation, but his definition of the Me belies this option: if it is in consciousness, it is not the Me!

Perhaps Tor doesn’t have a very active fantasy life, for he misses this point and concludes the opposite: “there are good grounds for believing that many assessments of the capacity of consciousness actually put the figure too high: Skills are measured that process information, but not in a conscious fashion. A typesetter can set a passage of text flawlessly, even if he had no idea what it is about. One can play the piano without being aware of what one is doing. Indeed, there are many skills that we best exercise when we do not think about what we are doing.” First of all, a piano player cannot play the piano without being aware of what he is doing. This again conflates thought with meta-thought, consciousness with morbid self-reflection. The piano player is not focusing on every minute feeling in his fingers, true, but he is absolutely conscious of what he is doing. It feels like hard work for him! If he stops being conscious of what he is doing the feeling of hard work subsides, along with his playing! Similarly, when I imagine walking down a familiar road, I am conscious of this (thought) alone and it takes a further act of consciousness to be aware of running the simulation (meta-thought). Later in his book, when discussing the sports star Michael Laundrup and his ability to innovate in real time, Tor admits as much: “He does actually think while he plays. He just does not know it” (thought, but not meta-thought).

Secondly, Tor is here displaying the central and most important flaw in his thinking: he assumes that if a task does not require consciousness presently, then it never did! A typesetter can set a passage of text flawlessly and quickly because he spent many countless hours of painful consciousness learning how to do it automatically. The pianist has done the same, and has “chunked” huge swaths of music theory, chord structures and the like, into long term memory where they can be accessed and manipulated by consciousness using a few-bit symbol, which the pianist must have in consciousness in order to play “automatically.” Tor even admits this: “Training creates a quantity of automatic skills that can be applied without the need for awareness that they are being so used. The I’s beady eye is there during training but not during the performance proper.” But then he double-backs again by saying that: “The I may say, ‘I can ride a bike.’ But it cannot. It is the Me that can.” But this skill required the presence and effort of the I for the Me to be able to do it in the first place! How dishonest to imply that consciousness isn’t required to ride a bike! Of course its not required after it has worked diligently enough to offload the task to muscle memory! For a martial artist, it might take a lifetime of diligent, concerted, conscious effort to arrive at a result where he doesn’t need to decide to punch, but instead the punch happens all by itself. It is preposterous to looks at this master and conclude, “aha, I guess consciousness isn’t even required for fighting!” It is required; a lifetime of conscious pre-authorization is required! Consciousness must oversee the chunking of memory and the creation of symbols in order to allow the Me do take over completely. But Tor will try and rob us of this as well by claiming that it is the symbols that are smart, not consciousness, again failing to realize that consciousness was what imbued the symbols with smarts! But before we get to that, a brief digression…

We should be careful which metaphors we use to describe something, as the associations attached to the “metaphier” will invariably color the “metaphrand,” to use Julian Jaynes terminology. If, for example, we say that “Consciousness is just the tip of the cognitive ice-berg,” this is true in one sense, but deeply misleading in another. The iceberg is directed by ocean currents, which apply force to the submerged ice only. So in the above metaphor, it seems like consciousness (the tip) is pushed to and fro by the unconscious (the rest of the iceberg), which is in turn pushed to and fro by the currents of fate or determinism. Similarly, the metaphor of consciousness as a GUI is partly instructive, but then deeply, deeply misleading. A computer’s GUI, for example, has no “user!” Thus, if consciousness is just a GUI, but we all feel as if it is the active agent, then the active agent must be an illusion. The choice of metaphor is very important and it is clear that Tor was very careful to pick the metaphors that serve his thesis.

“Symbols are smart” Tor explains. “They help us remember masses of information, even though we can keep only seven things in our minds at once. Symbols are the trojan horses by which we smuggle bits into our consciousness.” Woh, woh horsey, I think you have that metaphor backwards! You see, the Trojans were deceived, whereas consciousness is not. When I use the name “War and Peace” in conversation I am never deceived into believing that I just held the whole book in my consciousness! When I create symbols or names to help me remember masses of information I am conscious of doing so and conscious of the fact that the symbol doesn’t contain as much as what it symbolizes. But the most important thing to remember here is that you can’t create symbols or chunk memories while unconscious, for they wouldn’t be accessible in episodic memory!  Before anyone objects that they came by a powerful symbol for something in a dream, please remember that you only realized this after you were awake and replaying the dream! No, symbols are nothing like Trojan horses and consciousness is nothing like the deceived Trojans. Consciousness is like the Greeks hiding in the horse: they are technically in the dark, but aware both of this fact and the fact of where they are heading! Or, if you like, symbols are like the hidden Greek commandos who are few in number, but have enough strength to open the gates for the rest of the Greek army! Tor would like us to conclude that consciousness cheats its way into apparently huge simulations by leaving the referents of its symbols out of conscious awareness but deluding itself into believing that it holds both symbol and referent in mind. But this is unnecessary! Consciousness was around when the symbol was formed, knows what its referent is, and knows that this referent isn’t being held in consciousness during the manipulation of symbols. There is no self-deception going on here. There is some deception going on in the following paragraph from Norretranders, however:

“Movements and tones are ‘illusions’ that arise when we integrate sensory data we cannot separate because they take place within the same subjective time quantum…Our concepts reflect the fact that the bandwidth of consciousness is about sixteen bits per second.” What? Maybe the concept of “single musical tone” reflects such a narrow window of bandwidth, but to generalize to all concepts is preposterous. Does Heidegger’s concept “Dasein” reflect a 16 bit/s conscious bandwidth? How about the concept “transcendental idealism“? There wiki entries seem to contain much more than 16 bits of info, so perhaps Tor shouldn’t be so quick to make such sweeping generalizations. Furthermore, this proves that the Me is also a map or interpretation of reality, which undermines Tor’s implicit argument that the Me never lies (which he hides by saying that “the body” never lies).

Though my conscious simulations juggle only low fidelity “thumbnail” pictures, with their high resolution referents being pulled along (yes, this is very top-down!) in parallel outside of the conscious spotlight, I am aware of this, consciously. I trust that the Me is moving along the high resolution referents just outside of awareness, and my trust is never misplaced. I still arrive at an answer or conclusion that took advantage of all my unconscious bandwidth, with a nice neat result sitting in view that is small enough to fit into consciousness. Why would I ever assume, as Tor does, that this was all along a bottom-up process, instead of exactly what it seems to be: a top-down process that is reliable, replicable, and accurate? The Greek commandos have every reason to believe that the rest of the Greek army is paralleling their movements on the other side of the Trojan wall; heading for the same gate that they both conspired to sabotage and fling open. Having been stripped of all of his slick moves, Tor would have to fall back on the backbone of his case: the experiments of Benjamin Libet.

The Timing of Consciousness and Benjamin Libet’s Folly

I have scarcely come across a scientific study that has had more of an impact out of proportion to its plausibility and accuracy and in such a huge diversity of fields than Libet’s experiments on the timing of volition and consciousness. Tor articulates six possible objections to the study, which he easily dispatches. However, please allow me to provide a few more objections which should level Libet’s conclusions rather easily. One of the main problems with the study can be found in Libet’s assumption that “If a conscious intention or decision to act actually initiates a voluntary event, then the subjective experience of this intention should precede or at least coincide with the onset of the specific cerebral processes that mediate the act.” The key words are “coincide” and “precede” and the key error is to limit the time interval to a couple seconds when in fact our conscious intentions or commands can precede the execution by hours, days, or even years! Libet assumes that they must precede the action by fractions of a second! I disprove this assumption every night when I tell myself, “self, wake me up at 8 A.M. damn it, and don’t be late!” Strangely, I wake up two minutes before 8:00 with this nagging feeling that I have to get up, which if not headed, sounds much like the command I gave myself the previous night; I actually hear “wake up damn it.” Now, of course this feeling and even this voice are coming from unconscious “cerebral processes that mediate the act,” but that doesn’t mean that my unconscious initiated the command! I pre-authorized this wake-up call, proving that a conscious intention or decision to act need not coincide with the onset of the cerebral processes that mediate the act. This is the same thing we just finished exploring regarding learned skills. The martial artist has pre-authorized his Me to sprawl every time he sees someone dive for a double-leg take-down; a voluntary act that could be reinforced for a decade before the martial artist finds himself in a situation where low and behold his body automatically sprawls to defend an unanticipated take-down. It is downright philosophical fraud to claim that consciousness was unnecessary during the fight, or that the Me grabs control and doesn’t let the I exercise its freedom. The I already gave the Me the go-ahead; it pre-authorized an action with specific instructions to not think or deliberate but simply to execute the command whenever a certain situation arises.

Tor’s attempt to gloss over these facts is quite obvious. He claims that “Actions can be initiated and implemented without involving consciousness. Indeed, it can be argued that many of our everyday actions happen that way.” This is rubbish! They can be initiated and implemented without involving consciousness at the time of action, but consciousness simply had to be involved way before the action! Sneaky, sneaky, Mr. Norretranders. I can brush my teeth unconsciously while consciously thinking about a movie I just watched because my consciousness was on the scene for countless hours of brushing in my past. Anyway, getting back to Libet, this very same pre-authorization is built into his experiment.

Tor informs us that before the experiment commenced “Subjects were urged to wait until they felt like acting: an urge, a decision, an intention. They should wait until they actually felt such an urge, and then follow it. At the same time, they were to note where the spot was on the clock face when they felt the urge to make their movement.” Presumably the subjects were conscious for this little pow-wow and this destroys Libet’s findings, full stop. The subjects already made a conscious decision well before sitting down for the experiment! Just like the alarm call example above, they told themselves something like “ok, in a few minutes, please randomly feel like moving your finger.” We never just feel like moving our finger under normal circumstances without giving ourselves such a command, and if we do feel like moving it, we aren’t aware of this because its not important and can take place subliminally. Low and beyond, their unconscious received the message and answered right on time, which Libet recorded as a readiness potential. “The result was very clear,” Tor tells us, “The readiness potential starts 0.55 second before the act, while consciousness starts 0.20 second before the act. The conscious decision thus takes place .35 second after the readiness potential commences. That is, 0.35 second passes between brain start-up and the conscious experience of making a decision.” No, the conscious decision happened well before this. In fact, it likely happened well before the pow-wow. When the undergraduate psych student decided to do the experiment, he likely told himself (consciously) “do anything that the experimenter asks you to do.” Once the student arrives, the experimenter asks him to feel like moving his finger in a few minutes, which the student consciously agrees to do, again pre-authorizing an unnatural body impulse for a specific time-window. Of course the impulse feels like it is initiated in the unconscious, that is what the experimenter asked the subjects to consciously orchestrate! Similarly, I could give myself an instruction to hold my breath the next time I feel a yawn coming on, and sure enough, the next time I feel like yawning I unconsciously find myself holding my breath. Libet would likely find that the readiness potential of the yawn preceded my awareness of a decision to hold my breath by some fraction of a second, but that is besides the point. I already consciously decided well beforehand! This is not the only flaw that needs addressing though.

Look at the wording carefully: Tor says that subjects were to wait until they felt an urge and then follow it. There are two steps here! This is one source of delay. But there is a far more critical flaw in the design of the experiment. Again, look carefully at the wording: Tor says that they should feel an urge and then follow it, but “at the same time, they were to note where the spot was on the clock face when they felt the urge to make their movement.” At the same time? Impossible! This third action is a massive source of delay. There are three steps to this instruction, all of which are supposed to be done simultaneously. The big fat assumption here is that they possibly could be done simultaneously! When you notice an internal urge, this is thought. When you report this urge to someone, that is a meta-thought. These can’t happen at the same time! Again, Tor is aware of this: “It takes time to formulate a ‘Now!'” Even more importantly, however, is the fact that it takes some time to swivel from introspection to perception, though it happens fast enough that we usually don’t notice it. If you are talking with someone and get distracted by a daydream or passing thought, the other person can keep on speaking and you won’t catch a word of it so long as you are indulging your thought. When you sink back into subjective interiority, you cannot simultaneously perceive the objective world. Tor again admits as much: “When we are aware of an object outside ourselves, we use all our senses at once and combine information from them all, without being aware of the individual sensory modalities. But if we have to listen for a moment, we shut our other senses out of our consciousness. We close our eyes in order to listen hard. We can direct our attention and consciousness at an object or at a sensory modality: all our senses at one thing, or one sense at everything.” Tell me then, Tor, how do you expect a person to attend or “listen” to their vague, inner, subjective feelings, keenly anticipating an impulse to move their finger, and at the same time consciously perceive the exact position of a hand on the clock in front of them? They will have to switch from attending to internal sensations to an awareness of external perception, and quickly too, because Libet thinks that people with Free Will must be able to do it instantly! This is likely the biggest source of the delay Libet reports.

If you don’t believe me, try a few experiments of your own. Think of the exact shape and color of the toothbrush you used before the current one you are using, but at the same time make sure you are consciously recording all of the visual stimuli in front of you. If you didn’t notice the delay between apperception and perception, then try a more obscure memory task. While you are searching your memory, it is quite impossible to pay attention to the stimuli in your visual field. Or, try eating a piece of candy and fully enjoying it at the same time you fully enjoy Mahler’s 5th symphony: you will find that you can only switch very rapidly between enjoying one at a time, but never both simultaneously.

I really cannot believe that other scientists have not noticed the conscious decision inherent in the very framing of Libet’s experiment. For example, Risto Naatanen and T. Jarvilehto tried to “‘fool’ the cerebral RP generator by concentrating on reading a book and suddenly acting on movement decisions occurring ‘out of nowhere’ by pressing a response switch,” Tor informs us. Of course they fail, as an RP of quite a long duration still preceded the action. But take a look at the instructions they give themselves before the experiment: 1) read a book until you feel any excuse, any impulse to make some random movement, 2) press a lever when this happens. They pre-authorized a “random” impulse, which disqualifies it as “coming from nowhere,” and stayed attuned or sensitive to the possibility of its appearance and then when it appeared, re-presented this appearance with an action. The re-presentation takes time, but that is hardly the most important point: the conscious decision to move in response to an impulse was made before they sat down for the experiment! So was the choice to produce such an impulse! They hoped to find this conscious decision preceding the impulse by a fraction of a second when they should have been looking a few minutes or hours into the past!

The chapter in which this discussion can be found is titled “The Half-Second Delay,” in which Tor aims to show that consciousness lags behind what we call “reality” by half a second. This allows him to say things like “Consciousness is a fraud, which requires considerable cooking of the temporal books” or “Our consciousness lags behind and does what it can to hide the fact–from itself. Consciousness deceives. Consciousness is self-delusion.” However, Libet’s experiment also showed that a person could veto the action initiated by the RP before the act, which is impossible if consciousness lags so far behind. The person only has 0.2 seconds to consciously veto an impulse before it is turned into action, but apparently it takes .5 seconds for consciousness to become aware of reality (in this case the reality of a conscious wish to follow the unconscious urge). There is simply not enough time for consciousness to formulate a veto if it indeed takes as much time as Libet and Tor claim. The veto would be impossible, and yet the experiment clearly shows that people can do it. Is there some parallel RP running alongside the one preparing for action, a RP that prepares for the veto of the action? The problem with Tor and Libet’s experiment is really just their interpretation. They put words in consciousness’ mouth in an attempt to show that it is deceptive, but they are really just misinterpreting its message. Tor writes that “what matters is that the subjects perceive that they are performing a conscious act–and that we can then relate this conscious experience to other measurements,” but they relate it to the wrong measurements! The “conscious wish” that happens 0.3 seconds after the readiness potential is not saying “I feel an urge right NOW!” It is saying “having just felt an urge, I am acting right NOW!” It is this act, it is step 2 that is experienced as a conscious act; the impulse (step 1) was not a conscious act and was not reported as such by consciousness! There is no deception going on here. Tor again confuses thought (awareness of the impulse) with meta-thought (a reaction of “Okay” or “act NOW!”). In other parts of the book Tor seems aware that this distinction will produce a delay, as he notes that “The important thing is that it took you much longer to explain to yourself what you thought than it did to think it.” Exactly! Meta-thought takes time.

More or less the same flaws can be found in Libet’s other experiments, which Tor thinks establish this 0.5 second delay of consciousness: they distort the meaning of the message that is conveyed by consciousness in order to conclude that it is deceptive. The experiment shows that it takes about .5 seconds of stimulation for conscious awareness of the stimulation to arise, but that conscious awareness back-dates its message .5 seconds. Thus, Tor writes that “What we experience is a lie, for we experience it as if we experienced it before we experienced it. But there is a good point in this fraud, because what we need to know is when our skin was pricked, not when we became conscious of it.” But the conscious message of “ouch, skin was pricked” is only lying if it also states “and I was aware of this 0.5 seconds ago,” which of course it doesn’t: that would be a meta-thought, a second movement of consciousness. The conscious message was announcing an awareness of a skin prick, it is announcing “what we need to know,” not a meta-thought announcing awareness of this awareness. Had Tor read Jaynes more carefully he would be able to tell the difference between a thought and a meta-thought, between the analog “I” and the metaphor “me.”

Priming , Structions and Concluding Remarks

Now, of course there are plenty of unconscious, subliminal motives influencing our actions without our awareness. Before we reach a certain age these are probably the only motives in action period! However, we grow up and we can become aware of these and throughout a lifetime can pretty much eliminate them by following Solon’s dictum: “know thyself.” Writers like Sam Harris have to perpetrate a slight of hand to get away with their interpretations: they have to pretend they don’t know themselves. When Sam sat down to write the chapter that I discuss in the Narcoleptic Sailor he was unconsciously primed by the motive “destroy this foolish notion of Free Will,” which influenced him to enact the conscious ‘struction’ “write this chapter,” which delimited the scope of his free-association to those words and trains of thought which answer both to this ‘struction,’ and the unconscious priming motives that underlie it. When Sam claims that words and ideas just come to him, “out of nowhere,” he is being quite disingenuous. Of course he knew that whatever came out of his head that day it would be a vicious attack on Free Will! This fact didn’t actually surprise him as he claims. Similarly, the people in Libet’s experiment have to pretend that they don’t know themselves in order to be surprised by an impulse that they consciously agreed to produce during a certain time interval. It was part of the damned instructions to forget themselves! Without this intentional deception Libet’s conclusions won’t come off! Furthermore, the description “out of nowhere,” the amount of surprise accompanying epiphanies and so forth is quite relative. We don’t actually believe that ideas come out of nowhere or that they bear no relation to the conscious thoughts that occupy much of our waking life. If we did, we would think it equally likely that Einstein and some random anthropology professor could come across the theory of relativity. Why not if epiphanies come out of nowhere and were not the result of conscious thought? If this were so, why is it that it is usually psychologists that have epiphanies about psychology, physicists about physics, and so forth? Obviously our conscious thoughts have a deep affect on the activities of our unconscious and thoughts from “out of the blue” are just those that were less anticipated than others. But this is a far cry from Einstein suddenly jumping from his seat at dinner yelling “Eurika! I just came up with the field of behavioral economics, out of the blue!”

We “forget ourselves” quite often and mistakenly think that consciousness is not on the scene because its not saying anything. However, one of Tor’s examples comes in handy to illustrate that it can be on the scene without us noticing; that even silence can transmit a message. The example is taken from Ben Schumacher’s lecture “How Much Does Information Weigh,” in 1990, and the scenario he paints goes as follows: an impoverished student doesn’t want to pay for phone calls back to his folks every week so he agrees with them before returning to school that he will only call if something is wrong; that the absence of a phone call means the message “all is well!” Thus, Tor writes that “he thus transfers a message to his parents every Sunday without having to spend a cent–assuming, that is, that the phone system is working. You can transmit a message without spending money and without any physical representation at all.” Thus, Tor concludes that “it does not require any information at all to transmit exformation.” What a perfect example to illustrate my thesis about conscious pre-authorization!

Setting a principle or maxim to live by is like the student meeting with his parents, exchanging some information, but more importantly sparing them both the need for further communication unless a problem arises. The martial artist tells his unconscious “unless you get a further message from me on this topic, you should sprawl without hesitation or deliberation whenever you see someone dive for a take-down on you.” Let’s say that he gets in a fight two decades later where he follows his own command unconsciously and without thought. Now, that “wretched veto” and that measly 40 bits/s of conscious bandwidth were not required to do anything regarding sprawling or take-downs for two decades, but yet their silence was still transmitting exformation the whole time! The “lines are still up,” to use Tor’s words, meaning that consciousness could easily spend a few cents and transmit a new message at any time, but its failing to do so also transmits a message: the message “still giving you authorization to do this in my absence.” Our veto works both preemptively and in absentia! 

Again and again we run into the misunderstanding where Tor thinks that consciousness must always be on the scene for it to be initiating or influencing anything. He explains that other than the shallow bandwidth of language, “we do most of our communicating…by means of kinesis [movement] and paralinguistic signals, such as bodily movements, involuntary tensions of voluntary muscles, changes of facial expression, hesitations, shifts in tempo of speech or movement, overtones of the voice, and irregularities of expression.” So most of our communication is unconscious, Tor concludes. This is certainly true of small children, but adults pass through puberty and get to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of oppressively neurotic and morbid self-consciousness! In sixth grade someone criticized the way I walked, which I had never noticed before, but then couldn’t put out of mind for at least a couple years, until I finally banished such morbid preoccupation with the message: “as you were soldier…I have analyzed and attended to this locomotion nonsense for long enough and have concluded that you (my Me) knows what it is doing. So carry on as you were. You have my implicit authorization to do this in my absence (unless x, y, or z obtain).” Nearly all of the stuff that was once unconsciously done passes through this faze of obsessive scrutiny. Some things might get changed here and there, but for the most part everything returns to unconscious “auto-pilot.” However, consciousness leaves a trace wherever it has gone and continues to transmit exformation even when apparently absent (for example the above qualification “unless x, y, or z obtain” means that consciousness is still on the scene scanning for these exceptions to its command). While I’m typing this, consciousness is transmitting the message: “keep doing this typing stuff for me (unless you see spelling errors, at which time I’ll come online and send you a specific correction).” This message isn’t “on the scene” or “in view,” but consciousness most certainly is. As we pass through our daily routine, we are literally surrounded by the traces of past moments of consciousness, surrounded by vast amounts of exformation, but none of it will show up on Libet’s EEG as a readiness potential so he concludes that consciousness is irrelevant. Consciousness is still there and in more than a metaphorical way too: if I see spelling errors it arrives in a heartbeat, “automatically,” but unlike Norretranders and Harris, this never surprises me! That is, some unnoticeable amount of consciousness can be dedicated to, for example, eavesdropping on conversations adjacent to the one which absorbs most of your conscious awareness, but can immediately facilitate a shift to the other conversations if your name is mentioned, or some juicy gossip is being expressed (this is called the “cocktail party effect” from Keele 1973).

Our conscious I sets the rules for when the conscious I should show up to work. If it is getting in the way, such as during a musical performance, it can tell itself to buzz off or attend a part of the task at hand where it could be useful. I am not saying that consciousness does everything. Clearly it delegates most of the work to unconscious processing. What I am saying is that 1) like Congress it has oversight, 2) like the Judiciary it can write binding laws, and 3) once it has parsed through a problem or unified two concepts it doesn’t need to stick around and hold these improvements in place. Thus, most of the “unconscious” processes or programs that are running in the background were at one time built, edited, or refined in consciousness. Norretranders wants us to believe that the unconscious delegates some small fraction of work to consciousness, with its pathetic 40 bits/s, like a boss asking his secretary to type out a speech he will dictate to her. Anybody with a shred of intellectual integrity knows from experience that this is the reverse of the truth. Of course I am often struck by ideas that seem to “come out of the blue,” but I recognize that these ideas are tied to the stuff that I have been consciously thinking about for the last month or year and furthermore that they are simply obeying a command that I gave my unconscious a decade ago. The command says “whenever you (unconscious mind) have an idea that feels novel or pertains to my interests go ahead and interrupt whatever I was doing. I authorize this intrusion, in fact welcome it, and I promise I will always listen.” Every time I take such a random epiphany or thought seriously enough to hold it in consciousness I am reinforcing this message and building trust with my Me, who knows from experience that its I is a man of his word. Thus, I have come to expect the unexpected and am rarely surprised by surprises. As a brief aside, this is one reason that Mindfulness meditation or TM scares me: I feel that it may be seriously damaging my relationship with my Me; it might be expressing the message “I don’t care about Me and refuse to indulge any of its illusions.” I fear that this will preemptively veto feelings, intuitions, and epiphanies as it constantly reinforces the dismissive message “nope, don’t care…irrelevant…illusion!”

I stated earlier that I think that Tor has erroneously limited consciousness to logical/mathematical operations and those of language. He seems to think that consciousness is a purely left-hemisphere function or something. This seems clear when he writes that “the straight line is the medium of planning, will, and decision. The crooked line is the medium of sensory perception, improvisation, and abandon. The I is linear; the Me is nonlinear…Art seeks out the nonlinear; science the linear.” He makes this mistake because feelings, intuitions and epiphanies seem to come out of nowhere, seem to come from the unconscious, and thus are not easily assimilated by Tor’s theory of mind as properly “conscious.” They are right on the border between the conscious and nonconscious. However, given Tor’s definitions of the I and the Me, I must point out again that feelings, intuitions, and epiphanies move over into consciousness at some point; they become part of the I. Thinking more often than not does not involve the manipulation of numbers or the reciting of words at all. As usual, Tor is partly aware of this, as he acknowledges that “As you read this sentence it is actually very difficult to describe just what you are conscious of, although you are clearly conscious of something.” He then quotes the mathematician Jacques Hadamard: “I insist that words are totally absent from my mind when I really think;” a sentiment that Einstein also expresses.

Personally, whenever I “think,” I perceive a gestalt, a picture, or some stream of sensory information before words spring up to describe these experiences. For this reason I tend to side with Schopenhauer when he asserts that “Thoughts die the moment they are embodied by words,” as well as with Nietzsche who proclaims that “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier and simpler.” However, I must point out that both thoughts and feelings are conscious, though really only one at a time; they pass each other in consciousness. A feeling enters consciousness and if I veto the urge to describe the feeling in words, it can grow and blossom into its full potential. As soon as I unleash the urge to describe in language, the feeling fades away and I am left working with the shadow of that feeling. However, the important point is that both can enter consciousness; that consciousness is not limited to language and math. The mistake Tor makes is to think that consciousness is irrelevant or harmful to the process of ‘abduction,’ a term used to describe the processes in which one ‘draws on unconscious powers,’ instead of realizing that consciousness had to veto its normal verbal/descriptive mode and carry the feeling or intuition across the abyss into the full light of consciousness. Charles Sanders Pierce, who developed the term “abduction” once had a valuable chronometer stolen from him and was able to identify the thief without knowing how he had done it. Tor relates the following comments from a Danish expert on Pierce:

“Pierce was able to identify the thief with certainty…due not primarily to logical reason but to an ability to stop the inner semantic dialogue and put himself into a state of passive receptivity to the non-semantic signs that normally drown in noise from the cortex.” This “passive receptivity” is hard work for consciousness, as any student of mindfulness meditation can attest! Consciousness was thus hardly irrelevant. A careful look at the above quote will lay bare most of Tor’s fallacious assumptions. The “logical reason” and its “inner semantic dialogue,” which Tor equates with consciousness, with the I, is derogated as simple “noise” which usually drowns out the “non-semantic signs,” which Tor associates with unconscious feelings and intuitions. This is of course very often true, as I have been arguing, but consciousness can hold these non-semantic signs in its spotlight! By Tor’s definition these signs are part of the I. That is, not all of consciousness is logical reason or semantic dialogue. When I play a song in my head, fantasize some elaborate scene into existence, replay a scene from a movie or a memory, I am exercising consciousness without much logical reason or semantic dialogue at all. Tor’s failure to see that it is not just the Me which affects the I, but also vice verca, leads to a great deal of his bad interpretations and edgy indictments of consciousness. It stops him, apparently, from really understanding existentialism. He asserts that “we could translate the central problem in existentialism as being the I’s choice of the Me. The problem for the I is that there is no alternative to accepting the Me.” First of all, according to Tor’s theory, the I can only makes choices when the Me lets it. So there should be no choice, according to Tor. He then becomes more consistent and claims that there really is no choice, no alternative to accepting the Me. Existentialism actually tells us that in deed the I does have a choice of the Me. One can choose not to make a choice, which is one choice: to stay in conflict, doubt and limbo. One can choose to accept ones self as is, unconditionally and with no reservations (which is the option Tor is gunning for). Or, one can demand that the Me shape up and become one of the more noble of its possible future versions. This is the real problem in existentialism: not whether to accept the self or not, but which self to bring about. The Me is not some definite, unchangeable entity, but has a range of possible existences. The burden of consciousness, of self-consciousness, is placed on our shoulders by the awareness of these possibilities along with the awareness that the Me isn’t equipped to see them or pull the trigger on one of them; only I can!

Tor is attacking the I because he actually thinks that it is doing considerable damage with its incessant fibbing and grandiose self-evaluation. I think he is right. Many mental illnesses, in fact, are characterized by people sinking into the I and never making contact with the Me. Iain McGilchrist makes this same point very persuasively. However, the important thing to point out is that if the I is doing such damage, it is powerful and autonomous to a certain extent. Tor simply can’t have it both ways, with the I being a mere illusory display of the “winners circle,” and then being the cause of human suffering. In his last couple pages Tor writes that “The more power consciousness has over existence, the greater the problem of its paucity of information becomes. Civilization fills people with a lack of otherness and contradiction, which leads to the same kind of insanity we find in dictators surrounded by yes-men.” I thought consciousness was an illusion and that it is the Me that possesses Free Will. I though the I only has some insignificant few bits/s of bandwidth to work with. I thought that only the unconscious initiates things. How does the I wield so much power if it is so powerless? In order to rescue his conclusions about the dangers of consciousness Tor will need to admit that the I has power and autonomy and that its Free Will is more than a wretched veto; he will have to recognize that it’s veto is preemptive, binding, and works in absentia. In fact, my project here of “building consciousness up to size” is completed once the following remark from Norretranders is seen in the context of my last remarks: “It is everything that we cannot figure out that we think about. After all, we have no reason to puzzle over what we are really good at. We just do it. Without consciousness.” All that is required is to honestly look at your life and ask “how much of this required figuring out?” If everything that we hadn’t figured out required consciousness in order to understand, but once understood  required consciousness no more, then we can see what a profound disservice Tor has done consciousness by so hastily “cutting it down to size” and so dishonestly emphasizing its “paucity of information.”

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3 Responses to Building Consciousness Back Up To Size – Norretranders, Libet and Free Will

  1. An aside regarding Buddhism: Buddhism often characterizes the conscious “I” as something that is very causally powerful. The mind is like a flywheel and the “I” is like a hand constantly revving the flywheel up, faster and faster, whereas Mindfullness meditation slows the flywheel down, perhaps to a complete stop. This flywheel picture is the exact opposite of Tor’s “bottom-up” picture of consciousness as the result of unconscious processes. In Tor’s view, the flywheel is already spinning like crazy and sometimes, if it gets going fast enough, it puts off sparks that we call “consciousness.” Thus, Tor cannot hold his theory and be a very honest Buddhist and a Buddhist cannot hold its view and Tor’s at the same time. The Buddhist view of consciousness is very “top-down,” in fact pathologically so, they would claim; like the evil dictator and his yes-men. Perhaps Tor’s “Me” should let his “I” make a decision here, because at present his “Me” doesn’t look like something “greater than” his “I,” as Maxwell’s was. In fact, if you don’t have a genius or Muse, its probably more responsible to defer to your conscious “I” when you are writing a book, unless you want to absolve yourself of responsibility for its errors and blasphemies that is.

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