In Pt1 I explained that many lies of omission and many more half-truths are successfully launched into the public domain by removing the fourth dimension from statements about the brain. Thus, “you only use 10% of your brain” could be rendered more credible by qualifying it with, “at any given time.” There are so many of these half-truths that I have run across in the literature that I was tempted to merge this post series with that entitled “Fashionable Nonsense,” but alas, it isn’t exactly nonsense much of the time, just an omission of the whole truth. The single most pervasive of these omissions, which I have found in Sam Harris, David Brooks, and a host of others, is the following: every conscious thought is both surrounded and preceded by innumerable unconscious thoughts. This is true, of course, but the implication that all of these writers want to draw is patently false. They are trying to imply that the unconscious thoughts produced the conscious thought, without conscious thought having any effect on future thoughts, conscious or unconscious. The claim that every conscious thought is preceded by innumerable unconscious thoughts omits the fact that other conscious thoughts also precede each conscious thought! Leaving the statement unqualified like this is tantamount to my claiming the following: “you don’t have to pay for a single ride that you take at Disneyland.” This is true, of course; you only pay for entrance into the park, with the turnstile and long line you wait in hardly counting as a “ride.” But then again to claim that the rides at Disneyland are free is patently false if left unqualified like this! So why do we let neuroscientists and writers get away with this? Even Lakoff and Johnson make this mistake in “Philosophy In The Flesh” (p 3 & 463) when they claim that “most of our thought is unconscious.” Most of our thought is unconscious at any given time! Thankfully the human being is capable of time-binding, “chunking” complex tasks or behaviors into routine, automatic habits, and even reprogramming those automatic habits. We can have thoughts that are, in themselves, a pocket-map or guide to what our next thoughts will likely be, such that the sliver of conscious thought in any moment might be a map of the whole “unconscious” sliver of the next moment’s thought, just as it might similarly be a pocket-map of the entire “unconscious” sliver of the last moment’s thought.
The truth is that a conscious thought is like paying the entrance fee at Disneyland. The instantiated content of such a thought is likely to pop up again and again seemingly “unbidden,” because to consciously think something is to bid its return! Thus, we might be riding our thoughts “for free,” seemingly, only because we have paid the tuition of conscious effort in the past! This is precisely the case with the much discussed experiments of Benjamin Libet: he asks his subjects to make a conscious decision before the experiment begins, paying the tuition for a future act of volition that comes on as a predictable surprise. It is predictable because that is what you asked your brain to do: surprise you! If you ask your brain to think of a random city, for example, the “surprise” element is part of the damned request! Similarly, if you ask yourself to do some weird gesture that you have never done before, you will predictably have an experience of novelty or unpredictability! However, we can also ask our unconscious minds to do something unsurprising, like, for instance, wake up at a certain time. I can make a conscious decision to wake up at 6AM only to find that I awake at 6AM having made no conscious choice just prior to waking. Libet would find no volitional antecedent to my waking because he is not looking far enough into the past! This can come off because our thoughts are time-bound; that is, we can have a thought now that is really about the future. This completely invalidates one of Harris’ central arguments, which he gives in his book as well as in this hour long lecture:
For you to author a thought, you would have to think the thought before you think it.
Precisely! We do this all the time. When we ask the question, “what could account for this fact about stellar formation,” we are thinking about the answer that we have not yet thought of. Case closed. We can’t control what actually accounts for that phenomenon, but we can direct our thoughts to whatever that may be. So we don’t choose every content of the thought, as thankfully reality intervenes here and limits the repertoire of possible answers, but we do choose the structure and outline of the thought, as it were, before we think it! In this case, the thought must be an answer to the question posed about stellar formation. That is all the freedom we could ask for! Playfully, Harris admits that we do think our thoughts before we think them, but claims that this is done by our unconscious mind: “we are only conscious of a tiny fraction of the information that our brains process in each moment.” This seems to keep the fourth dimension in mind, right? Wrong. He is implying first that the unconscious slice of the pie is determining the tiny conscious sliver, and second, that the majority of our thought, being unconscious, is impenetrable by consciousness. Both implications are patently false. Regarding the first, many of the constituents of the unconscious portion of the pie were at one time conscious! Nearly all of our automatic, unconscious habits were learned and programmed consciously, just as they can be reprogrammed consciously. Therefore, it is dishonest to claim that the unconscious is precisely determining the conscious. Regarding the second implication, each little piece of that original unconscious pie can be examined by the conscious sliver of the next pie! To be a thinking being is to have a constant stream of new pies, which leaves open the possibility that the pie at t-1 could become entirely conscious if built up piece by piece by the next series of pies. Thus, Harris’ claim is exactly analogous to the following claims: 1) you cannot figure out while blindfolded what any given object is if that object has more surface area than your two hands, or 2) you cannot unload the dishwasher because you only have two hands. Well, our hands only have so much free surface area at any given time! Thus, when David Brookes or anyone else wants to tell us that we only have 40 bits/s of conscious bandwidth, or some other nonsense, please keep in mind that each second builds on its predecessor such that you can, in fact, think about something larger than 40bits. You can think about Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” without holding every word of text before your conscious mind. How does Harris explain this fact, given that we only have these meager 40bits/s? Would he claim that I cannot actually think about “War and Peace”? You see, as you are reading Tolstoy, or this post, each group of phrases that form the conscious sliver of the pie for that second get dumped into the “unconscious” majority of slivers of the successive pie. Yet, these aren’t really “unconscious,” they are “previously conscious,” and as such, there is a dim awareness of their accessibility. You, my dear reader, can, for instance, recall my analogy involving Disneyland from those dark recesses of the unconscious pie you are presently experiencing. The conscious sliver of your new pie that holds my Disneyland analogy is now buttressed on all sides not only by unconscious thoughts, but also those thoughts that made up each previously conscious sliver, though now only dimly conscious or flat-out unconscious!
Further along in his talk Harris asks the audience to pick a city at random in their heads and examine this experience, in which case we should all find that we are not free. Can he not see that the “randomness” that he is after is built into the god damned experiment? He wants us to experience the randomness of our volition by asking us to make a decidedly random choice! He claims that we are not free to pick that which does not occur to us, and asks us defiantly “where is the freedom in that!”. Well, I’ll tell you: in your ability to pick a city! You are free to pick a city, any city that you have heard before–how amazing! Furthermore, if you keep “picking,” you will exhaust that list. Where is the freedom in that? In our ability to keep “picking”! Furthermore, if I exhaust that list, I can always pick up a book and be inundated with things that “didn’t yet occur to me.” Therefore, I can have thoughts that didn’t occur to me. I can find ways around all of Harris’ apparent obstacles, which proves that I have freedom from these obstacles. Case closed.
I must backtrack for a moment, however, because Harris characteristically managed to undermine the entire thrust of his lecture with a little joke at the very beginning. Its so beautiful, Harris tells us that he has a bad cold and has more cold medicine in his system than “is advised.” “So,” he continues, “if I do anything strange, like convert to Christianity, you will know why.” Well, this tells us that he knows what thoughts are likely to come next! This tells us that Sam Harris knows what his soul knows, and predicts what his soul will do next very, very successfully. He predicts this so successfully that it is a joke, it is humorous and absurd, to think that he might swing 180 degrees in any of these stable, predictable views of his souls. This completely demolishes his claim that we no more choose the next thought we think than we choose the next thought he says or writes, which was a blasted absurdity even before my little critique.
Harris’ lies of omission do not stop here. He claims that “to say that I would have done otherwise had I wanted to is simply to say that I would have lived in a different universe had I been in a different universe.” This statement is true, if we can see that each successive instant of the universe is such a different universe! No two instants of the universe are identical, meaning that each successive instant really is different than its predecessors. This takes the wind right out of Harris sails, for this fact grounds our assertion before-hand, that we could actually do otherwise; that the laws of physics do not bar the options in view. The illusion arrives after the action when we look back and say “I could have done otherwise,” which though true then, is of course no longer true now. Think about it this way: if I build a patriot missile system that will knock anything out of the sky that is larger than a gnat, but nothing happens to fly by for the first ten hours, it is nonetheless intelligible for me to say that the missile system would have done otherwise had something flown past its sensors. We are assured of this by Determinism! Its true that I am appealing to a nonexistent universe, but that is only because I know that each successive moment of this universe was a nonexistent universe with respect to the moment before it! Right ‘Now’ didn’t exist five minutes ago and neither did the sentence being produced right now. My statement about the missile system (that it would have fired had the universe been different) is grounded in the fact that I can make this different universe come to pass in an instant! I can jump in front of the missile system, thereby creating that “different universe” that proves the truth of my conditional statement. Or, I can just wait around for a rogue sparrow. That is, I can wait for that “different universe” that includes a rogue sparrow to come into existence, also proving the truth of my conditional statement. Let’s take another example: a fire alarm. Currently, the fire alarm in my apartment is not going off. However, if the parallel universe in which smoke pours into my apartment somehow manifests itself, then my alarm will go off. Thus, I claim that my alarm could have acted differently than it is acting right now, given this or that change in input. Is this really so controversial? Are human beings not capable of changing the inputs more fluidly than any other system on earth, thus grounding their sense of contingency and choice? Harris is going to ultimately bring his argument not to physical causation, but instead, psychological causation and imply that our desires are the bottom line. What he misses is that one of our desires is to be free. We are determined or forced to be free by a desire for freedom!
Let’s examine another issue, that of the “confabulator” or “interpreter module” of Michael Gazzaniga. I was very surprised to find that someone I deeply, deeply admire, Steven Pinker, has made the same blatant error as Tor Norretranders and Sam Harris on this issue. After explaining the basics of the split-brain studies, Pinker concludes the following (pg 43 of “The Blank Slate”):
The spooky part is that we have no reason to think that the baloney-generator in the patient’s left hemisphere is behaving any differently from ours as we make sense of the inclinations emanating from the rest of our brains. The conscious mind–the self or soul–is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.
No reason? Really? What about that whole bit about the largest tract of interhemispheric axons being surgically severed? No? That doesn’t ring a bell as to why the left hemisphere is confabulating? This is tantamount to unplugging a TV news-anchor’s teleprompter, watching him squirm and confabulate for a minute or two, and then concluding that he must have been confabulating the whole time! Pinker’s statement leaves out the curial temporal element. You see, as children, our left hemispheres are great confabulators. However, give them some time, and the interpreter module, having done more interpretations, gets better at its job! This is even true of commissurotomy patients, who will spontaneously recover from most features of their “disconnection syndrome,” wanton confabulation included. How could Pinker have left out this crucial piece of information and stripped the phenomenon of all context and sense of timing or progression? Very dishonest.
This same dishonestly runs throughout Harris’ book on Free Will and any lecture he gives on the topic. He will claim that the scientific literature is replete with examples of subjects in experiments making false inferences or forming false conclusions about what actually caused them to do something. However, leave those same subjects in that same experiment for a little more time, and they will likely recognize what is going on and self-correct. That is, these experiments, which are extraordinarily hard to setup by the way, purposefully trick their subjects by priming them unconsciously and so forth, but given enough time, these subjects will spot the deception and be able to make better judgements about their own decision making process. This whole line of reasoning is so vapid. Its like going to a magic show where the weak-spots in our perceptual system are ingeniously exploited, and then concluding that we are all subject to just as much illusion all of the time! Before concluding with a little metaphor or picture, I want to encourage my readers to take the claims of neuroscientists and writers not with a grain of salt, but an entire hourglass of it!
Imagine a fisherman out on the ocean at night. He pulls his line up only to find that he is staring at one small section of what he thinks is a massive sea serpent. It is so massive that he can’t pull it on-board without sinking his ship. He nonetheless wants to know for sure what it is. He wants to see the whole thing. The water is too dark and murky to do this already, so the fisherman slowly submerges the section of the serpent that is above water so that he may look at the next section in turn, hoping to find either the head or tail to confirm his guess. He does this until, to his astonishment, he finds both: the snake’s head is biting its own tail. The fisherman, shocked, drops the creature back into the depths, having never actually laid eyes on a good half of the serpent. What I want to suggest is that consciousness is much like this: we can only look at one piece at a time, but we can do so in such an order that the whole picture is revealed, even without looking at half of the pieces!