Friday, July 31, 2015

A provisional reply to David Parker

Yesterday, David sent me his reply to my ’Notes on the relevance of neurophysiology to self-knowledge’. In reply, I wrote to him: ‘I am at present absorbed in Kant and Aristotle, but I should like to reply to your comments before I go to Prague for my 'Three days' in September. You write 'that what we know about the brain now is sufficient to offer, in principle, a physiological account of consciousness.' I shall contend that what we know about the brain now is sufficient for us to realize that what we experience thanks to our brains cannot be performed by our brains; there must be a non-corporeal entity that transforms what goes on in the brain into the world in which we live.

In his reply, David asked: ‘Why do you say that consciousness has to be non-corporeal?’

I answered: ‘My reply will be all about it. The best I can do at the moment is to refer to the 4th Notes on my blog:

Aristotle may help; he notes that topos (place/space) has three dimensions, length, breadth  and depth, by which all body is defined. This might suggest that topos is a body, and so he says: ‘But the place cannot be body; for if it were, there would be two bodies in the same place’ (Physics, 209a6-7, tr. Hardie and Gaye). ’Two bodies cannot be at one and the same place’ (213b20)

Everything that neurophysiology has so far detected and can ever detect in the brain by the technology corresponds to Aristotle’s notion of body: where is neuron A, there cannot be neuron B, where is a vesicle A containing neurotransmitter ‘a’, there cannot be a vesicle B containing the same (or different) kind of neurotransmitter. Concerning action potentials, let me take recourse to Wikipedia: “The action potential generated at the axon hillock propagates as a wave along the axon … The currents flowing in due to an action potential spread out in both directions along the axon. However, only the unfired part of the axon can respond with an action potential; the part that has just fired is unresponsive until the action potential is safely out of range and cannot re-stimulate that part.”


When I look out of the window, I can see trees with their branches, a church and a few houses discernible behind the trees, Cam Peak in the distance, the blue sky-scape with the white clouds – all this is in space, all this is real. In so far as I see it, it all is composed in my brain on the basis of the neural structures inside the brain. Since what I can see in space around me – in my head – is real, in three dimensions, it cannot be corporeal, for in my brain there is no space for such corporeal structures. Does it make sense?’

Thursday, July 30, 2015

David Parker’s reply

David Parker has sent me the following reply to my ’Notes on the relevance of neurophysiology to self-knowledge’:

As I say, consciousness is not an aspect that I have thought much about, I think there are far more questions that we have to address at lower levels before we get to be able to deal with this.  Although there is the idea, Moravec’s paradox, that lower-level processes like movement and initial perceptual processes that have had a longer time to be refined by evolution are actually the most complicated aspects, with the more recent effects being simpler. Rodney Brooks claims that thinking that things like movement are simpler than cognitive effects reflects a bias of researchers, who in considering themselves intelligent consider things that they find challenging, cognition etc.. must be more sophisticated than things like movement which we can all, children and insects, do effortlessly.

I suppose I am a physicalist/materialist, which given my background is not a surprise, and this biases what I expect to the foundation for consciousness to be. I am happy to admit that our knowledge of nervous systems is still very primitive. Just as a late 19th century expert physicist or neurophysiologist would be shocked by the disciplines in their modern form, there is of course the chance that a century from now our knowledge of the brain will alter in ways that make our current attempts to understand as pointless as Descartes attempts to explain reflexes. Nevertheless, I will offer a reply that assumes that what we know about the brain now is sufficient to offer, in principle, a physiological account of consciousness.

I suppose one issue is to define what we mean by consciousness. A neurologist would have a different definition to a philosopher. Francis Crick, one of the people who worked out the structure of DNA, spent the last 30 years of his life on consciousness (obituary claims that he solved the problem of consciousness are simply hagiography). He wrote “ one should define it (consciousness). You do not win battles by debating exactly what is meant by the word battle. You need to have good troops, good weapons, a good strategy, and then hit the enemy hard. The same applies to solving a difficult scientific problem”. I think for many people this would seem trivially a very weak argument.

Could the brain be considered a control system that ensures survival given certain features of the environment? It combines direct concrete responses to the world, sensations, reflexes etc.., with an abstract representational model of the world that at least gives rise to awareness of the world and predictions of the consequences of actions etc... given the current state of the environment and the body. This abstract view is modifiable, and can exist in neural structures (the cerebellum is a prime site where these internal models are thought to form). Most of our day to day behaviour seems to be “automated”, we don’t need to be consciously aware of what we are doing, unless we force ourselves to do this or something happens that brings functions to attention. There may thus be a general control system that overseas various functions served by specific areas and keeps things running, with certain areas brought to focus as needs require. One aspect of brain damage after stroke or injury seems to be the loss of this automatic ability, things seem to be attended to by breaking it into parts rather than being generated as a smooth automated whole. Maybe this is what consciousness is, the ability to be aware of the internal (self) and external signals, to coordinate and adjust these signals in a way that preserves function in a self-organised manner; a set of structures, maybe the whole central nervous system, acting together to ensure correct function. This would differ to some higher-level command centre that sits at a peak, either corporeal or not.

Much of the neurobiological evidence focuses on the analysis of visual pathways. Cognition (and thus mind, if you consider this a fair link?) arises from anatomical and functional aspects: various people (Hubel and Wiesel, Semir Zeki, David van Essen) have shown how simple features such as lines, colours etc.. in the visual cortex arise from lower level processes in the cells and synapses in the retina (already at the retina there is a complex network with several uncertainties of how it works), and how these are used to form perceptions ultimately of the form and position/movement of objects in a visual scene. There is the idea of a “grandmother” cell (more recently the “Jennifer Aniston” cell), a hypothetical cell that is the final point  in the visual cortex processing hierarchy where all the features of dots of light, lines, edges, colour, form, movement, maybe also memory and emotional components, are integrated to give the conscious perception of a face. This is unlikely to be a single cell; we lose many neurons every day and if one cell was responsible we would randomly lose whole percepts. But it could be a network of cells, and when all the features of a grandmothers face, the memory, and the associated feelings are brought together the circuit is active and this gives rise to the thought or actual perception of that face. I realise that your question is “how” does that activity give this conscious feeling, and I have to say we don’t know – presumably we learn these associations and update them as a face changes with aging, and this learning is fairly accepted to reflect the laying down of a particular activity pattern in the cortex. So when that pattern is repeated either by a thought (a trigger from something internal or external, like Proust’s Madeleine), or by artificial stimulation of the cortex with current or a drug, that conscious image is retrieved. But again, without labouring the point too much, we are ignorant of the complete mechanistic details of how a fly flies, so we are some way off having the knowledge that we would need to address this question. So the scheme is far from complete, but maybe it shows a potential to reduce cognitive functions to physiology?

Problem of qualia, individual subjective component of perception. Schrodinger said, “The sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist's objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so”. I know that qualia, and philosophical zombies and other thought experiments etc..., are a major philosophical debate. I can’t do this justice in my ignorance, but I have never really got this. That I have a subjective impression of a “redness” of an object that is specific to me does not seem to negate physicalism, that this impression is formed from interactions between nerve cells, just as a perception of a straight line is formed that way. We maybe lack a way of explaining mental terms by references to physical properties, but this doesn’t mean we wont be able to.

The neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield reported that when he stimulated areas of the cortex the primary somatosensory areas resulted in location of a “touch” but higher areas reported more qualitative effects, being stroked by velvet/sandpaper etc.. Could this be a neural representation of a qualia, a subjective impression solely generated by neuronal activity? And we seem to learn these associations. Experimental studies and rare instances of feral/impoverished children show that without exposure to certain features within a critical period can lead to “blindness” to these aspects ( Penfield also had, albeit a small number of patients who reported that stimulation of the temporal lobes could give rise to vivid recall of memories, again suggesting a neuronal basis.

The brain does not completely determine behaviour. This reflects the interaction of the brain and body with environment. This applies to basic functions, reflexes etc…, and there seems no reason also why this may not also relate to consciousness. So maybe it is not enough to look inside a brain to explain this. The field of biosemantics views the mind as a product of an evolutionary history, and claims in this case nothing can be asked about the mind in the absence of this history. Maybe this muddies the water further, a collective consciousness of the sort that Jung proposed. Modern science in its reductionist fervour will not countenance these effects, everything is brain and everything in brain is neuron, but we clearly inhabit a world that impinges on us and alters our behaviour countless times a day. To say that behaviour, consciousness, psychiatric or psychological issues all come down to the biology of the brain seems untenable, but one that is difficult to critique in the current climate. The psychiatrist RD Laing had what I think is a good quote. He dealt with schizophrenics on a Glasgow psychiatric ward in the 1950’s. The expert view was that these patients were psychotic with no insight, and they were subjected to various “treatments”. Laing wrote of his experiences something like, “I am more troubled by the fearless power in the eyes of my colleagues than by the powerless fear in the eyes of the patients”. He later pushed the heresy further by actually talking to these patients.

The question of whether our perceptions are a reflection of the external world is a question that I suppose is impossible to answer, there is always the appeal to solipsism which seems impossible to negate in someone who argues we can never know what is out there. From the physicalist perspective, the outside world is physics, various types of electromagnetic waves and forces, chemicals etc.., that impinge on our senses. The interaction of this physical world with the physical world of our sensory receptors gives rise to physical effects in the nervous system. We know from neurobiology that what we perceive is a computed form of the exterior due to various stages of processing that filter out or emphasise various features – and sensation/perception isn’t a hierarchical ascending chain, sensory systems have at least as many descending pathways, i.e. from the cortical regions out to the sensory structure. Is it an accurate representation? I suppose here we could appeal to the fact that we can tend to agree on sensory experiences, albeit they can be idiosyncratic in terms of the quality of tastes, hues, smells, sounds, but these may be the individual learnt components I talked about above. Maybe a better appeal is that it seems to work, we all navigate our way through a sea of electromagnetic waves, forces, chemicals without accidentally banging into things, falling over, or poisoning ourselves.

Moravec (1988) had an interesting thought experiment. Imagine that a surgeon can replace a single neuron in your brain with a totally exact artificial version, and then successively did this for each neuron. At what point, if ever, do you stop being you? If everything could be replaced in total anatomical and physiological detail would you not be you? Even if the neural architecture led to some emergent non-corporeal consciousness then this would also be created by the artificial you. I find these thought experiments mostly unhelpful. For philosophical zombies I cannot get far into the discussion without thinking – but they don’t and wont exist.

From your comments on Notes on the relevance of neurophysiology to self-knowledge, I don’t know if there is a profound discrepancy between our physical brain and the world of our consciousness. I will grant that by appearance a brain may not seem capable of the effects that underlie our consciousness. Maybe the same could be said of just walking, running etc.., given the tremendous amount of processing that may be needed to control multiple joints and 100’s of muscle groups rapidly and precisely. Yet we know it does that. Whenever I see brains in anatomy classes I am struck by the thought that this structure somehow generated thoughts feelings, memories etc.. of that person, not that there must be a mismatch between this and our mental life. But that is of course looking at it through a physicalist lens. As I have said before, we are still in a primitive state of knowledge about the workings of even simpler brains, and we shouldn’t let our lack of insight eliminate the possibility that when we know more about its operations some of these issues may melt away.

You write, “…for the world we are conscious of is not interfered with by the physical processes in the brain, by the electrical currents and chemical transmitters generated by neurons”. I suppose this again comes down to our lack of knowledge, maybe all of our conscious processes will be represented by the activity of complex networks of neurons. But we do know that our consciousness can be affected by targeting the properties of neurons and synapses, anaesthetics and psychoactive drugs with opposite effects on consciousness for example. We can interfere with consciousness in various ways; detecting it, I suppose a group of doctors would agree or disagree strongly on whether someone was conscious or not, and maybe they could tell from EEG or brain scans, but I think this may be a trivial response to you as you are not referring to being awake or asleep but to more subtle aspects of consciousness. As I wrote before, we know that we can do things now that we couldn’t do 20, 50, 100 years ago, and we should be open to the idea that going forward in those periods of time we may know more. I am not saying we necessarily will make major steps forward and that we must eventually understand these effects, but we shouldn’t hold up our lack of insight now as a reflection that consciousness will forever be beyond physiological explanation? Neuroscientists do not help themselves here; they make great claims to understanding, or that this understanding will very soon be obtained, that treatments for various neurological and psychological phenomena will soon be in place, while all the time we know little that would satisfy any lay persons questions about how our brains do what they intuitively know they can do, and we can effectively intervene to do very little when the brain goes wrong. It seems that claims to understanding are inversely related to our actual understanding, which may be a reflection of a Kuhnian crisis, the field has not achieved anywhere near as much as it would like, and to hide this we cover it with ever more exaggerated claims to actual or imminent understanding.

As for emergent properties, I grant you that to some extent this is a term thrown around to “explain” complex effects, and I have done just this in my reply to you and you are right not to be impressed. I suppose the best way to define it is an effect that is not reducible to the component parts, some property that is incommensurate with its components. Maybe your example of typing of single cells and synapses in the visual and motor pathways would not be a good example, as while single cells/synapses would not explain this effect, by tracing the activity along the visual pathways, through association areas, and then to the different motor areas and ultimately out to the muscles, we could in principle provide a mechanistic account of the chain of activity from one cell to the next that explains how you can see the key you want to press, make that motor response, and check what you have typed on the screen. Maybe an emergent effect for consciousness could occur through the summed activity in neurons. This, we know, can result in a “field” around the active neuron, either through electrical effects or through changes in different ion levels as a result of activity. These are dynamic and non-linear, and depend on the anatomy of the system (so not just the activity of a cell and the resulting non-linear changes, but also the organisation of the local space around the cells, a space that can itself expand and shrink as a result of the activity, creating a highly dynamic and non-linear circular interaction, something that would be difficult to analyse experimentally or treat mathematically). These field effects, termed ephaptic to distinguish a less intimate association than a synapse – you will understand the etymology. They have received relatively little attention, but where they have been studied we know that they can influence neuronal activity. Maybe this is an effect that exists outside and beyond the basic cellular properties of the nervous system, detecting the summed activity in various areas, while not being located to any area, and in turn altering the state of the nervous system?

So, this is a list of several replies to your comments. I don’t know how useful you will find it, I reflect the possible physical basis, reflecting my background. As I have said before, what is needed is debate between different views that allow people to remove their blinkers – I find this discussion outside my day to day work useful: it makes me consider things I take for granted (e.g. throwaway references to emergent effects in a previous mail). Neuroscientists seem keen to emphasise what they know and what they can do, and hold onto current paradigms and ideas dogmatically. Claims abound: that in a decade (eight years now) the billion Euro Human Brian Project will create a simulated brain that is fully conscious and talking to us. It won’t, and while dissenters within the project are growing, sensible critique against this white elephant was already there. I don’t accept that psychiatric illness is necessarily biological, causality is difficult to show, and claims of genes or transmitters for this or that have had a troubled history and logical errors abound. I don’t see why our knowledge of the brain is so advanced that computers and robotic systems will threaten humanity, conferences seriously discuss this. If we made computing/robotic systems based on our knowledge these systems will not be a threat – the best robots look like they have Parkinson’s disease – I am sure we can agree that there are far greater threats than this to humanity that we could easily deal with. Scanning brains for employment or legal issues is suggested to detect personality and criminal intent, but is science fiction for the most part. And claims of drug-induced cognitive enhancement or application of neuroscience to schools is troubling given our current understanding– there are reasoned and useful ideas around language/math learning etc.. but taken out of control these could make previous applications of neuroscience seem reasoned (I attach a review from several years ago about neuroscience and society if you were interested in any of this things). We should do what I naively thought scientists did, present ideas for rational debate, address issues, fill gaps, and correct errors and change views when necessary. I have learnt to my cost, as you seem to have, that discussing uncertainties is not welcome (in raising issues in my field I was told “ have a family, you have children. You need a job. As things stand I will support you...” , I am lucky to still be in science, albeit funding my work myself to some extent). But when what we take as simple systems are currently beyond our understanding, claims that analyses and ideas/hypotheses are complete or beyond reproach seem bizarre, not critiques. Another quote: the 1990’s were termed the decade of the brain, on being asked to comment on this the neuroscientist Torsten Wiesel, I referred to him above, said something like “ we don’t need a decade, we need a millennium”. There seems a growing tide of people coming in who want to move away from the feudal system that we have. So I enjoy thinking about the issues you raise, although I may add little.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Aristotle’s concept and Kant’s ‘intuition’ of time

True to his usual method, Aristotle opens his discussion of time by pointing to difficulties people experience when they think about it: ‘First, does it belong to the class of things that exist (poteron tȏn ontȏn estin) or to that of things that do not exist (ê tȏn mê ontȏn)? Then, secondly, what is its nature (eita, tis hê phusis autou)? The following considerations would make one suspect (ek tȏnde tis an hupopteuseien) that it either does not exist at all (hoti men oun ê holȏs ouk estin), or barely (ê molis), and in an obscure way (kai amudrȏs). One part of it has been (to men oun autou gegone) and is not (kai ouk estin), while the other is going to be (to de mellei) and is not yet (kai oupȏ estin). Yet time – both infinite time and the time always taken – is made up of these (ek de toutȏn kai ho apeiros kai ho aei lambanomenos chronos sunkeitai). One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality (to d’ ek mê ontȏn sunkeimenon adunaton an einai doxeie metechein ousias).’ (217b31-218a3)

R. P. Hardie’s and R. K. Gaye’s translation, with one alteration. Hardie and Gaye translate kai ho aei lambanomenos chronos ‘and any time you like to take’, I write ‘and the time always taken’. I believe that Aristotle here contrasts time viewed as infinite, infinite both into the past and into the future, with time that is always taken as it passes. In support of this interpretation I go back to the 3rd book of the Physics, in which Aristotle discusses infinity (to apeiron). At the end of the book Aristotle says (in Hardie’s and Gaye’s translation): ‘Time indeed and movement are infinite (ho de chronos kai hê kinêsis apeira esti), and also thinking (kai hê noêsis), in the sense that each part that is taken passes in succession out of existence (ouch hupomenontos tou lambanomenou, 208a20-21).’

Aristotle adds: ‘Further (pros de toutois), if a divisible thing is to exist (pantos meristou, anper êi), it is necessary that (anankê), when it exists (hote estin), all or some of its parts must exist (êtoi panta ta merê einai ê enia). But of time (tou de chronou) some parts have been (ta men gegone), while others have to be (ta de mellei), and no part of it is (esti d’ ouden), though it is divisible (ontos meristou). For what is “now” is not a part (to de nun ou meros): a part is a measure of the whole (metrei te gar to meros), which must be made up of parts (kai sunkeisthai dei to holon ek tȏn merȏn). Time, on the other hand (ho de chronos), is not held to be made up of “nows” (ou dokei sunkeisthai ek tȏn nun).’ (218a3-8)

Without attempting to solve these difficulties, Aristotle goes on to discuss the nature of time (tis hê phusis tou chronou, 218a31). He notes that time is mostly supposed to be motion and a kind of change (dokei malista kinêsis einai kai metabolê tis ho chronos, 218b9-10). Against this view he raises two objections: 1. ‘The change or movement of each thing (hê men oun hekastou metabolê kai kinêsis) is only in the thing which changes (en autȏi tȏi metaballonti monon estin) or where the thing itself which moves or changes may chance to be (ê hou an tuchêi on auto to kinoumenon kai metaballon). But time is present equally and everywhere and with all things (ho de chronos homoiȏs kai pantachou kai para pasin, 218b10-13).’ 2. ‘Again (eti de), change is always faster or slower (metabolê men esti thattȏn kai bradutera), whereas time is not (chronos d’ ouk esti); for “fast” and “slow” are defined by time (to gar bradu kai tachu chronȏi hȏristai) – “fast” is what moves much in a short time (tachu men to en oligȏi polu kinoumenon)– “slow” what moves little in a long time (bradu de to en pollȏi oligon); but time is not defined by time (ho de chronos ouch hȏristai chronȏi), by being either a certain amount or a certain kind of it (oute tȏi posos tis einai oute tȏi poios).’ (218b13-18) Aristotle concludes the aporetic preliminaries with the words: ‘Clearly then it is not movement (hoti men toinun ouk estin kinêsis phaneron). We need not distinguish at present (mêden de diapheretȏ legein hêmin en tȏi paronti) between movement and change (kinêsin ê metabolên, 218b18-20).’

Aristotle opens his own account of time by stating that although time is not change, it does not exist without change (alla mên oud aneu ge metabolês); to confirm this statement, he appeals to our subjective experience:  ‘for when the state of our own minds does not change at all (hotan gar mêden autoi metaballȏmen tên dianoian), or we have not noticed it changing (ê lathȏmen metaballontes), we do not realize that time has elapsed (ou dokei hêmin gegonenai chronos, 218b21-23).

Next, Aristotle asks ‘how time appertains to movement’ (ti tês kinêseȏs estin, 219a3). He begins to answer this question by relating movement to spatial magnitude and time to movement: ‘Since what is moved is moved from something to something (epei de to kinoumenon kineitai ek tinos eis ti), and all magnitude is continuous (kai pan megethos suneches), the movement follows the magnitude (akolouthei tȏi megethei hê kinêsis); because the magnitude is continuous (dia gar to to megethos einai suneches), the movement too is continuous (kai hê kinêsis estin suneches), and because of the movement the time is continuous (dia de tên kinêsin ho chronos); for the amount of the movement that has taken place always appears to correspond to the amount of time that has passed (hosê gar hê kinêsis, tosoutos kai ho chronos aiei dokei gegonenai).’ (219a10-14; in this passage Aristotle did not allow me to keep to Hardie’s and Gaye’s translation of his text; I nevertheless acknowledge my having benefited from their effort.)

In contrast to Aristotle, Kant in his Critique of pure reason views time as primary, space as secondary.  For he views time as ‘the subjective condition (die subjektive Bedingung) under which all our intuitions take place’ (unter der alle Anschuungen in uns stattfinden  können, B49, A33), as ‘the formal condition a priori of all phenomena whatsoever (die formale Bedingung a priori aller Erscheinungen überhaupt); space (der Raum), on the other hand, as the pure form of external intuition (als die reine Form aller äusseren Anschauung), is limited as a condition a priori to external phenomena alone (ist als Bedingung a priori bloss auf äussere Erscheinungen eingeschränkt).’ Time is not subjected to any such limitation, ‘for all representations (weil alle Vorstellungen), whether they have or have not external things for their objects (sie mögen nun äussere Dinge zum Gegenstande haben, oder nicht), still in themselves (doch an sich selbst), as determinations of the mind (als Bestimmungen des Gemüts), belong to our internal state (zum inneren Zustande gehören); and because this internal state is subject to the formal condition of the internal intuition, that is, to time (dieser innere Zustand aber, unter der formalen Bedingung der inneren Anschauung, mithin der Zeit gehört) – time is (so ist die Zeit) a condition a priori of all phenomena whatsoever (eine Bedingung a priori von aller Erscheinungen überhaupt) – the immediate condition of all internal (und zwar die unmittelbare Bedingung der inneren), and thereby the mediate condition of all external phenomena (und eben dadurch mittelbar auch der äusseren Erscheinungen).’ (B50, A34, tr. Meiklejohn)

To get a clearer view of the contrast between Aristotle’ concept of time as depending on motion and motion on special magnitude, and Kant’s ‘intuition’ (Anschauung) of time as the all-embracing ‘intuition’ on which the ‘intuition’ of space is dependent, let me compare the following two passages:

Aristotle in the Physics links time to locomotion, locomotion to spatial magnitude: ‘The before and after, then (to dê proteron kai husteron), is primarily in place (en topȏi prȏton estin); and here it is by virtue of relative position (entautha men dê têi thesei). Since then the before and after is in magnitude (epei d’ en tȏi megethei esti to proteron kai husteron), the before and after must also be in movement (anankê kai en kinêsei einai to proteron kai husteron), in correspondence to those (analogon tois ekei). But the before and after is also in time (alla mên kai en chronȏi estin to proteron kai husteron), for time and movement always correspond with each other (dia to akolouthein aei thaterȏi thateron autȏn) … But we apprehend time only (alla mên kai ton chronon ge gnȏrizomen) when we have demarcated movement (hotan horisȏmen tên kinêsin), demarcating it by the before and after (tȏi proteron kai husteron horizontesˑ) … for time is just this (touto gar estin ho chronos): number of motion in respect of the before and after (arithmos kinêseȏs kata to proteron kai husteron).’ (219a14-b2, my translation)

In his ‘Transcendental Exposition of the Conception of Time’ (Transzendentale Erörterung des Begriffs der Zeit) Kant says ‘that the conception of change (dass der Begriff der Veränderung), and with it conception of motion (und, mit ihm, der Begriff der Bewegung), as change of place (als Veränderung des Orts), is possible only through and in representation of time (nur durch und in der Zeitvorstellung möglich ist); that (dass,) if this representation (wenn diese Vorstellung) were not an intuition (internal) a priori (nicht Anschauung {innere} a priori wäre), no conception (kein Begriff), of whatever kind (welcher es auch sei), could render comprehensible the possibility of change, in other words, of a conjunction of contradictory opposed predicates in one and the same object, for example, the presence of a thing in a place and the non-presence of the same thing in the same place (die Möglichkeit einer Veränderung, d. i. einer Verbindung kontradiktorisch engegengesetzter Prädikate (z. B. das Sein an einem Orte und das Nichtsein eben desselben Dinges an demselben Orte) in einem und demselben Objekte begreiflich machen könnte). It is only in time (Nur in der Zeit) that it is possible to meet with two contradictorily opposed determinations in one thing, that is, after each other (können beide kontradiktorisch-entgegengesetzte Bestimmungen in einem Dinge, nämlich nacheinander, anzutreffen sein).’ (B48-49, tr. Meiklejohn)

Kant’s concepts of ‘change’ (Veränderung) and ‘motion’ (Bewegung) correspond to Aristotle’s concepts of metabolê and kinêsis, which Aristotle introduced at the close of his aporetic preliminary (at 218b18-20), and which play central role in his own positive account of time as ‘number of motion in respect of the before and after’ (arithmos kinêseȏs kata to proteron kai husteron, 219a14-b2). The notion of ‘after each other’ (nacheinander), which Kant views as an a priori aspect of time that makes our ‘intuition’ of movement and change possible, corresponds to Aristotle’s ‘before and after’, to proteron kai husteron, which he views as dependent on movement and ultimately derived form to proteron kai husteron têi thesei en topȏi, ‘the before and after by virtue of the relative position in place’.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A dream with a prelude

The prelude

Aristotle in the Physics maintains that Time cannot be ‘without change (aneu metabolês), for when the state of our own minds does not change at all (hotan gar mêden autoi metaballȏmen tên dianoian), or we have not noticed it changing (ê lathȏmen metaballontes,), we do not realize that time has elapsed (ou dokei hêmin gegonenai chronos,), any more than those who are fabled to sleep among the heroes in Sardinia do (kathaper oude tois en Sardoi muthologoumenois katheudein para tois hêrȏsin,) when they are awakened (hotan egerthȏsiˑ); for they connect the earlier ‘now’ with the later (sunaptousi gar tȏi proteron nun to husteron nun) and make them one (kai hen poiousin,), cutting out the interval because of their failure to notice it (exairountes dia tên anaisthêsian to metaxu.).’ (218b21-27, tr. Hardie and Gaye)

Aristotle does not tell us whether the fabled heroes in Sardinia were dreaming in their sleep or slept without dreaming, but he seems to be referring to the latter possibility with the words ‘when the state of our own minds does not change at all’, to the former with the words ‘when we have not noticed it changing’. What he does not seem to have contemplated is the difference between the time that may run its course in our dreams, and the time of our waking; it was this putative difference he neglected of which his story made me think. I say putative, for I was pretty sure that in our dreams we may live for hours, while in real time the dreams may last only minutes. But how could I be sure? I always dreamt a lot, many of my dreams were very vivid, but I never wrote down any of my dreams, and I find it very difficult to recollect past dreams.

In September 4 to 6 I intend to have ‘Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy’. The first day will be devoted to self-knowledge, the second to Kant, the third to Plato and Aristotle. I intend to speak without paper. Behind each of these themes are years of hard work. To concentrate all that work into three forty five minutes talks, this is the challenge I am facing – if anybody comes. So far I have invited academics from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Heidelberg, and Berlin. So far I have not received a single positive response, and I am prepared to spend those three days alone in Stromovka, the former deer park of Prague kings, walking through the park, thinking of those three themes, and enjoying every minute of it. But what if some people come? Apart from my work on neurophysiology (contemplating its relevance for self-knowledge), on Kant, on Plato and Aristotle, I must work on my English. And so in every spare minute I listen to Stephen Fry’s reading of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.

On Friday, a day before yesterday, I listened to the last few chapters, in which J. K. Rowling audaciously displays the difference between the Time that takes its course when one is unconscious and the real time, when one is conscious. Let me give the gist of her narrative. Harry Potter had learnt that he was a Horcrux; a part of Voldemort’s (the Dark Lord’s) soul was blasted apart from the whole, and latched itself to the only living soul, the soul of the little Harry, whom Voldemort came to kill. If Voldemort was to be destroyed, Harry must die by Voldemort’s hand. And so Harry went along his lonely road to death, to meet Voldemort. Voldemort raised his wand, directing the Killing Curse at Harry: ‘a flash of green light, and everything was gone … He [Harry] lay face down, listening to the silence … A long time later, or maybe no time at all, it came to him that he must exist.’

For some time Harry was alone, naked, then he heard that something was there that made noises; he wanted to get dressed, the robes appeared a short distance away, he got dressed, then he saw the thing that made the noises: ‘It had a form of a small, naked child, curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed-looking … “You cannot help.” He spun round. Albus Dumbledore [the famous Headmaster of Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry, now dead] was walking towards him.’

They had so many things to discuss.  Dumbledore had to explain to Harry all those things he had never told him when he was alive, and which were essential for Harry to know, to help him to finally destroy Voldemort. Among many other things Harry learnt that the disgusting  ‘thing’ that made the abject noises was the Horcrux, the part of Voldemort’s soul hit by Voldemort’s Killing Curse. Their talk was marked by pauses – ‘There was a pause … Harry waited, but Dumbledore did not speak, so he prompted him … They sat in silence for a long time, and the whimperings of the creature behind them barely disturbed Harry any more … After another short pause, Harry said … “Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” – “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” … He was lying face down on the ground again … Every inch of him ached … The Death Eaters had been huddled round Voldemort, who seemed to have fallen to the ground. Something had happened when he had hit Harry with the Killing Curse. Had Voldemort, too, collapsed? It seemed like it. And both of them had fallen briefly unconscious and both of them had now returned.’

On Friday, a day before yesterday, I took Nera, my daughter, to Attwoolls, a Camping shop, which is half-way from our place to Gloucester. She needed a torch with red light for her Scouts and Explorers Jamborette. On the way to the shop she complained about our Volkswagen Passat: ‘It is too big; I hate it. When mummy comes back [Doina is sailing at the moment with our son Dan in the Pacific], she must sell this car and buy a small one.’

Nera left for the Jamborette in Haarlem in Holland that evening; I shall be on my own for ten days with our dog Tessie and Nera’s three little rats.

On Saturday I went for my usual long walk with Tessie. I kept thinking about Aristotle’s fabled heroes sleeping in Sardinia and about J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter at King’s Cross. The theme on which I am going to write next is ‘Aristotle’s concept of time’. If I am to mention Aristotle’s sleeping heroes, I cannot avoid mentioning J. K. Rowling’s relativity of Time, for it is highly relevant to the subjective aspects of time, to which Aristotle pays attention in his account of time. But how can I be sure that her narrative is anything more than an imaginative play? It sounds right to me, for when I try to recollect my past dreams … – but my recollections are too hazy. It will be better to skip both Aristotle’s Sardinian heroes and Rowling’s imaginative narrative from ‘Aristotle’s concept of time’. It will pain me, for Aristotle obviously thought that the mythical story, with which he opened his own positive account of time, pointed to something important about our perception of time.

I began to work on ‘Aristotle’s concept of time’ three weeks ago. I left it half-way through, ‘distracted’ by the website of the Department of Physiology at Cambridge University, which compelled me to write the ‘Notes on the relevance of neurophysiology to human self-knowledge’. Yesterday, when I at last decided to return to Aristotle, I began by reading Aristotle’s account of Time in the Physics all anew. I read Aristotle’s texts in short, very intensive bursts of concentrated activity. In the intervals I have been reading Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, aloud, to keep my voice in good form; what if someone comes to my ‘Three days in Prague’ and I will talk for hours?

I spent the Saturday evening listening to the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Then I had a bath, went to sleep at 1 a. m. and woke up at 5.45 a. m.; I had to go to the toilet. Rightly or wrongly, I blame for my week bladder my stay in prison. In 1957 I refused to be conscripted and was imprisoned. It was in Slovakia, shortly after the Hungarian uprising (1956); the prisons were full; in the cell design for two there were five of us. I was the youngest, my mattress the thinnest. It was a new wing, with a toilet on which you hock in the corner, a hose above it. The water switch didn’t work; the prison guards didn’t want to be bothered to switch it on whenever anyone of us wanted to drink, and so they let the water run through the day, from morning till bed time. The water splashed all around and soaked the adjacent cement floor. Being the youngest, I had to squeeze my matrass over the toilet and the wet floor. I was in that cell for some three weeks. When I got out of prison, I worked for a year and a half as a forest worker, and then I was summoned again to the military. This time I did not refuse to be conscripted. During the 15 months of my imprisonment I studied Marx’ Capital and realised that with Marx I could do more for the humane transformation of my country than with the strict adherence to non-violence in compliance with Tolstoy, passing from one imprisonment to another. Within the first three weeks in the military I got ill; I got kidney inflammation, went to the hospital, and then for the next five years I was checked every year for proteins in my blood; since proteins were always found in my blood, after those five years I was permanently discharged from the military duty. – I often think of all this when my bladder interrupts my sleep and forces me to go to the toilet. I did so this time, my thoughts about the prison and the military blended with Agatha Christie’s Murder, which entered into my dreams, which I vaguely recollected, as in a haze.

Last night was very cold. When I got back to bed, I could not get warm. I did not want to get up again, but in the end I had to get another blanket. Then I tossed and turned, I could not get back to sleep … And then I woke up.


The dream

I must have woken up not long after I fell asleep, for my bladder did not bother meI had one of those rare dreams, which are very vivid; I lay in bed and re-lived it over and over again:

I was in a bank that looked very much like the Lloyd’s Bank in the little town in which we live. I handed over to the cashier my savings book (spořitelní knížka). The cashier told me that I had won three and a half million pounds. I was slightly taken aback, for I have never plaid at any lottery, but I did not protest. The cashier wrote the amount in my savings book, and finalized the act with a rubber stamp. What should I do with the money? My wife wanted to buy a car, and so I went to look for a suitable car dealer; I thought there was a new type of car with a fuel that made virtually no pollution. I found the dealer, but he told me he stopped selling that car; it was too expensive, very few people wanted to buy it. But he told me of another dealer who was definitely still selling it. On my way to the dealer I met my wife.

I was painfully aware that we had decided to separate, after I return from Prague. It happened a few weeks ago. I intended to go to Oxford, to make my abode in front of Balliol College, and thus to protest both against the refusal of the Pension Service to investigate the basis on which it was decided that I owed the Pension Service more than £11,000, the decision in the making of which I suspect a hand of someone from Oxford University [see on my blog ‘It is all wrong’, June 15, and ‘It has nothing to do with Oxford University’, June 19], and against my exclusion from academic community [see texts on my website under the heading ‘Protests at Balliol’]. But now the three and a half millions I have received changed all this. Would my wife find it possible to live with me again?

Our marriage deteriorated sharply after my wife began to earn more money and I lost the Pension Credit. My weekly Basic State Pension of £39.95 minus Adjustment of £13.00 meant that my weekly income was £26.95. In consequence, I turned to myself and began to live only for my work; it became impossible to live with me. How shall I tell Doina, delicately, that my financial situation has changed, and that it might be possible that I might change too, that we could live together again?

The dealer showed us the car my wife would have liked.  The maximum speed was 100 miles per hour, but we were not interested in buying a fast car. We test-drove it; Doina liked it, but she thought it too expensive. And so I told her of the money. We bought the car. I began to think what we should do next: ‘Let us go to a country where summers are real summers. Now you will have the possibility to devote yourself to writing. That’ what you always wanted to do, but you never could, being the sole bread winner in the family.’

But then I corrected myself: ‘No, my place is in Oxford. We can buy a house there. Will you live with me in Oxford?’ – ‘I will, but don’t expect me to devote myself to teaching you how to pronounce English properly.’ – ‘Don’t worry. You helped me when I was recording the lecture on “Socrates, Plato, and the Laws of Athens” [for my website]. Do you remember? I was listening to the recordings of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, stopping the reader after every phrase and sentence, trying to imitate his intonation. You listened, and said: “You are doing it all wrong. Your voice goes up at the end of every phrase and every sentence. In English the voice goes down.” How could it have happened that for more than thirty years I was thinking and speaking English without noticing this capital flaw in my pronunciation? If my lecture became free of it, it’s thanks to you. But since then I must have relapsed into my old bad habits, conditioned by my native Czech. During the past few weeks I read aloud the whole of Berkeley’s Principles, all wrong.  I noticed it only a few days ago, when I began to read aloud Locke’s Essay. Now I have been imitating Fry’s Harry Potter to get the intonation right.

May I hope that we shall live together in Oxford? Hopefully, I will be allowed to teach there at last. I have on my website 12 chapters of the 1st volume of Lost Plato, and I have written two or three chapters designed for the 2nd volume. All this could form the basis of my lecture course on Plato. In the course of giving my lectures I would revise what I have written, and hopefully finish the book. What do you think, will it work? Our children will benefit, if we do not split up.’– Before Doina could answer me, I woke up.

I went to the toilet again. My alarm clock on the window sill was indicating 7.20 in the morning. My dream has corroborated J. K. Rowling’s King’s Cross narrative. The time of my dream was much longer than the real time, during which my dreaming lasted, could possibly have been.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

5. Notes on the relevance of neurophysiology to self-knowledge

Dear David,

In my letter of July 11 I wrote to you that your entry on the website of the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at Cambridge University compelled me to interrupt my work on Aristotle and Kant and respond to your comments on my ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ (I was in the middle of writing a blog entry on ‘Aristotle’s concept of time’). And so I wrote the ‘Notes on the relevance of neurophysiology to self-knowledge’, in the last of which I contrast the Aristotelian topos of the brain with the Kantian space of the mind.

I now intend to resume my work on Aristotle and Kant, but before doing so I must give vent to nostalgia that possessed me as I was reading the entries on the website of your Department. Although I came to Oxford in 1980 at the invitation of the Master of Balliol, the first seven months of my stay at Oxford University was funded by King’s College Cambridge, and so I requested that I might spend the last of those seven months at King’s College; that month lies in my memory as an exquisite treasure.

As I was writing my ‘Notes’, I could not help thinking, how great it would be, if I could spend a month at Cambridge University as a visitor at your Department. What an investigative journey that would be for me!

But back to reality. Apart from your entry, let me refer to just one of the entries that I found highly interesting. Paloma T. Gonzales-Bellido’s laboratory tries to find out what is the optimal neural strategy and performance for a certain visual task. She is particularly interested in the visual performance of small predatory flies, investigating how killer flies keep track of their target during their short and fast predatory flights and how the visual information about small moving targets is coded and transferred from the photoreceptors to the motorneurons controlling flight. Furthermore, she studies how the behaviour is driven by the underlying physiology and morphology of the neural system, employing high speed videography (in the field and in the laboratory), electrophysiology (intracellular and extracellular) and microscopy (light and electron). Her work seems to me to be analogous to your work on the lamprey, by virtue of which you want to promote our understanding how neurons interact in the networks that process sensory inputs, perform cognitive functions, and program motor outputs.

I have been particularly impressed by your criticism of Grillner and Jessell’s ‘Locomotor network of the lamprey’. The authors present the network scheme as ‘characterized’, i. e. that behaviour of the lamprey can be explained in terms of interactions between identified nerve cells and their associate molecular, cellular, and synaptic properties. In your view ‘this network is at best hypothetical, and at worse knowingly wrong; neurons are included without their network relevance being established, others are removed for personal convenience, and approximately 50% of the synaptic connections, which are claimed in print to have been verified experimentally, lack any experimental evidence at all’.

In the light of your research, Carpenter and Reddi’s claim sounds hollow: “In a nutshell, ‘brain versus mind’ is no longer a matter for much argument … So far has brain encroached on mind that it is now simply superfluous to invoke anything other than neural circuits to explain every aspect of Man’s overt behaviour.” (Neurophysiology, 5th ed., Hodder Arnold 2012, p. 294)

Friday, July 17, 2015

4. Notes on the relevance of neurophysiology to self-knowledge

In ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative with comments by David Parker’’ (on my website) I write: ‘When we become aware of the profound discrepancy between our physical brain and the world of our consciousness, we realize that there must be another entity, different from the brain, which transforms the data processed in the brain into the world of our consciousness … Since our brain with all its neurons is located in the skull, this entity must also be located in the skull, for only thus it can transform the data processed by the brain into the world of our consciousness. The nature of this entity, composed as it is of a subconscious and conscious part, must be fundamentally different from the nature of the brain, for the world we are conscious of is not interfered with by the physical processes in the brain, by the electrical currents and chemical transmitters generated by neurons.’

David replies: But how do we know that it isn’t? Again, an example. Running a marathon is not explained by the molecular events associated with the actin and myosin fibrils in a muscle, changes in calcium etc.. in a single or even 100 muscle fibres. But running a marathon is due to, amongst other things that drive you to run it, activity in large numbers of muscle cells, together with a skeleton, tendons, ligaments, joint forces that result from the musculo-skeletal system etc…

I wrongly expected that the word ‘interfere’ would prevent misunderstanding. So let me give examples of ‘interference’, which I have in mind, in contrast to ‘influence’ David speaks of. Chemical neurotransmitters, which are produced in the pre-synaptic cell, are stored in synaptic vesicle; these, are acted on by the action potentials; released into synaptic clefts, neurotransmitters act on the receptors in the post-synaptic neuron …

None of this enters my consciousness, although nothing of what I am conscious of, as I am typing these lines, takes place without all those activities that take place in my brain, and influence my consciousness through the intervention of my subconscious. Conversely, the keyboard on which my eyes are fixed as I am typing, the computer monitor on which I glance from time to time to check what I have written – none of it ‘interferes with’ the action potentials and neurotransmitters in the brain, for it has no place among those activities, although a great amount of neural activities in different nerve centres in my brain (in visual cortex, auditory cortex, somatosensory cortex, motor cortex) are influenced by my seeing the keys, their shapes and their black colour contrasted with the white colour and the shapes of the letters, by my seeing and moving my fingers, by my hearing the sound of the keys as I press them …

David continued: … Why shouldn’t there be consciousness from the integrated activity processed to a high level in the brain (and this does not need to be any specific site, it could be distributed).

I continued: ‘It follows as a matter of course that this entity cannot be interfered with, detected or manipulated by any physical instruments by means of which science detects physical phenomena in the brain.’

David remarked:  Again, why not. We cannot find the site of consciousness, despite various sites (cingulate gyrus, claustrum etc…) being given this role. This could be due to two reasons: there is no one site but it emerges from the activity of several sites; we simply lack the technology to detect it. It is not long ago that neuroscience did not know how neurons signalled within themselves (action potentials) or to other cells (synapses). These events occurred for millennia even though we have only detected them in the last 80 years or so.

Aristotle may help; he notes that topos (place/space) has three dimensions (diastêmata echei tria), length (mêkos), breadth (platos) and depth (bathos), by which all body is defined (hois horizetai sôma pan). This might suggest that topos is a body, and so he says: ‘But the place cannot be body (adunaton de sôma einai ton topon); for if it were, there would be two bodies in the same place (en t’autôi gar an eiê duo sômata)’ (Physics, 209a6-7, tr. Hardie and Gaye). ’Two bodies cannot be at one and the same place’ (duo sômata adunaton hama einai, 213b20)

Everything that neurophysiology has so far detected and can ever detect in the brain by the technology corresponds to Aristotle’s notion of body: where is neuron A, there cannot be neuron B, where is a vesicle A containing neurotransmitter ‘a’, there cannot be a vesicle B containing the same (or different) kind of neurotransmitter. Concerning action potentials, let me take recourse to Wikipedia: ‘The action potential generated at the axon hillock propagates as a wave along the axon … The currents flowing in due to an action potential spread out in both directions along the axon. However, only the unfired part of the axon can respond with an action potential; the part that has just fired is unresponsive until the action potential is safely out of range and cannot re-stimulate that part.’

I am going to type ‘I’. There must be at least one neuron that is activated by my seeing the letter ‘I’ on the keyboard, let it be neuron A. My finger presses the key ‘I’. There must be at least one neuron B in the motor section of the cortex, which is activated as I press the key. Let us presume that the axon of neuron A, outstretched to neuron B, activates neuron B. Neuron A and neuron B are located in the visual and motor cortex respectively; they interact via the axon of A without changing their places. But when I type letter ‘I’, my seeing the key and my pressing the key get united in the space of my mind, which can be viewed as the Kantian space (see ‘The Kantian subjectivity of space and time’, June 14 , and ‘Kant’s space contrasted with Aristotle’s space’, July 4). The Kantian space of mind is toto caelo different from the Aristotelian topos of the brain; only the latter can be accessed and studied by virtue of technology.