Evan Thompson on the “Stream” of Consciousness

August 10, 2015 § 19 Comments

Evan Thompson takes up the question of the stream of consciousness HERE. It’s a topic he discusses at some length in his newest book Waking, Dreaming, Beingwhich I heartily recommend to all my readers interested in phenomenology, neuroscience, and buddhism. The post also got picked up by Conscious Entities HERE, but what I really want to draw people’s attention to is the comments section of Thompson’s post, where we find none other than R. Scott Bakker weighing in on the issues. (I also had quite a productive debate with Bakker several months ago.) There’s a free crash-course in those comments on some of the major issues in neurophenomenology that I think people will be interested in reading. Go check it out.

What Concepts and Emotions Are (and Aren’t)

August 1, 2015 § 28 Comments

Lisa Feldman Barrett has an interesting piece up in yesterday’s New York Times that I think is worth some attention here. Barrett is the director of the The Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, where she studies the nature of emotional experience. Here is the key part of the article, describing her latest findings:

The Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory (which I direct) collectively analyzed brain-imaging studies published from 1990 to 2011 that examined fear, sadness, anger, disgust and happiness. We divided the human brain virtually into tiny cubes, like 3-D pixels, and computed the probability that studies of each emotion found an increase in activation in each cube.

Overall, we found that no brain region was dedicated to any single emotion. We also found that every alleged “emotion” region of the brain increased its activity during nonemotional thoughts and perceptions as well . . .

Emotion words like “anger,” “happiness” and “fear” each name a population of diverse biological states that vary depending on the context. When you’re angry with your co-worker, sometimes your heart rate will increase, other times it will decrease and still other times it will stay the same. You might scowl, or you might smile as you plot your revenge. You might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.

This highly distributed, variable, and contextual description of emotions matches up quite well with what scientists have found to be true of conceptualization—namely, that it is a situated process drawn from a plurality of bodily forces. For instance, compare Barrett’s findings above to what I wrote about concepts in my paper on concepts and capacities from June (footnote references are in the paper):

In short, concepts are flexible and distributed modes of bodily organization grounded in modality-specific regions of the brain;[1] they comprise semantic knowledge embodied in perception and action;[2] and they underwrite the organization of sensory experience and guide action within an environment.[3] Concepts are tools for constructing in the mind new pathways of relationship and discrimination, for shaping the body, and for attuning it to contrast. Such pathways are recruited in an ecologically specific way as part of the dynamic bringing-to-apprehension of phenomena.

I think the parallel is clear enough, and we would do well to adopt this more ecological view of emotions and concepts into our thinking. The empirical data is giving us a strong argument for talking about the ecological basis of emotion and conceptuality, a basis that continues to grow stronger by the day.

Stuart Elden on Writing. And then Writing More.

July 17, 2015 § 2 Comments

He sums up the stakes (and the pace) of writing books HERE. The opener really sets the right tone, too:

When I finished my first book, Mapping the Present, I remember asking a much more senior academic friend ‘what do I do now?’ His response was clear: ‘Write another one!’

This came back to me this week as I’ve been contemplating the next work after the completion of the Foucault’s Last Decade revised manuscript (more on that here). It’s of course possible that the press will ask me to do a bit more work, and then there is the copy-editing, proofs, index, promotional material, etc. But the intellectual work is done, and it’s a strange feeling of absence. I’ve lived with this book, as an ever-growing and transforming manuscript, for two years, with over fifteen years of working on this material. Really the idea has been growing since 1997, when Foucault’s first lecture course,«Il faut défendre la société» came out, and especially since Les anormaux in 1999, which was the first course I wrote about.

If you want to be a writer I think this is the right frame of reference. I think it’s true that many people get too caught up in *the* project without realizing that the life of the writer is a continuous and ongoing drama filled with multiple projects coming and going in parallel (always being executed under less than ideal circumstances). As an editor by trade, I encounter more than a few people getting caught in the perfect project trap. This will only hinder you. In some cases it will outright cripple you. Do your best, get it done, and then move on to the next project. That seems to be the throughline among every good writer I know.

More on the Microbiome–Cognition Axis

June 23, 2015 § 5 Comments

Alberto-Ghizzi-Panizza-07[Image: Alberto Ghizzi Panizza]

This one is from The New York Time’s Magazine. A notable excerpt:

Biologists now believe that much of what makes us human depends on microbial activity. The two million unique bacterial genes found in each human microbiome can make the 23,000 genes in our cells seem paltry, almost negligible, by comparison. ‘‘It has enormous implications for the sense of self,’’ Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told me. ‘‘We are, at least from the standpoint of DNA, more microbial than human. That’s a phenomenal insight and one that we have to take seriously when we think about human development.’’

And another one on some problems of identifying mechanisms of action across disciplinary boundaries:

‘‘There are certain fields that just don’t seem to interact well,’’ he said. ‘‘Microbiology and neuroscience, as whole disciplines, don’t tend to have had much interaction, largely because the brain is somewhat protected.’’ He was referring to the fact that the brain is anatomically isolated, guarded by a blood-brain barrier that allows nutrients in but keeps out pathogens and inflammation, the immune system’s typical response to germs. Cryan’s study added to the growing evidence that signals from beneficial bacteria nonetheless find a way through the barrier. Somehow — though his 2011 paper could not pinpoint exactly how — micro-organisms in the gut tickle a sensory nerve ending in the fingerlike protrusion lining the intestine and carry that electrical impulse up the vagus nerve and into the deep-brain structures thought to be responsible for elemental emotions like anxiety.

My own stake in this research has far less reach than some of the medicinal applications this kind of knowledge may have, but I think it’s important nonetheless that we continue to think about the links between first-person awareness and the microbiome. As I’m fond of pointing out whenever possible, your first-person experience is always a multi-species event. And it’s interesting to consider how this fact changes our approaches to phenomenology and epistemology. The full article is HERE.

Cosmology and Critique

June 10, 2015 § 12 Comments

bees-1[Image: Ren Ri]

As if I haven’t posted about Whitehead enough recently, I need to link to Craig Hickman’s introductory post on Process and Reality. It’s one of the clearest and shortest takes on what’s at stake in Whitehead’s philosophy I’ve read and I recommend it to anyone struggling to find a way into the notoriously difficult account given in that workOne comment in particular stands out to me. Craig writes:

Simply put Whitehead is saying that the Kantian tradition of critique, the critical project, is at an end, and needs to be supplemented by a constructive project rather than more critique; secondly, there is a need to model or enframe an adequate philosophical scheme or cosmological perspective that will entail making explicit its own constructive engendering processes and include the work of present day sciences; thirdly, the need to base this scheme on the condition of science, yet unlike science to make explicit what is only formulated at the factual level in the sciences themselves; and, finally, to realize that this is an open-ended incomplete task, one that will never be closed off or finalized because the universe itself is not completed but is like the sciences and philosophy itself an ongoing project-in-process. There can no longer be a static system of the universe or knowledge, rather reality is in process and becoming.

The key concept to think about here is critique. What did Whitehead mean by this? What did Kant mean by this? If the critical project is at an end, does that mean we stop being critical in a colloquial sense? The short answer is no. I take the word critique here to mean something very technical. It doesn’t mean a return to dogmatism or to the construction of what Kant called transcendental illusions (more on that below). It doesn’t mean we stop doing what’s sometimes called ideology critique or that we stop eviscerating the ethical, political, and moral injustices wrought by this or that sociopolitical order.

Rather, the critical project here refers simply to the transition philosophers enacted in their post-Kantian mode through emphasizing the transcendental project of epistemology rather than the cosmological project of metaphysics. That is, Whitehead pursues a cosmological understanding of world over and beyond the Kantian notion of world as regulative ideal used to clarify and systematize the ideas of reason. The critical project is in some sense a reduction of the World to a merely regulative world.

On this point, I recommend Sean Gaston’s The Concept of World from Kant to Derrida. Gaston gives us a helpful and compelling discussion of the shift from cosmological accounts of world, as found for example in Plato and Aristotle, to the accounts of world as a regulative ideal we find in Kant. The details are too numerous to outline here (and note that Gaston may be too hasty in his account of the of the cosmological world). However, suffice to say that any speculative philosophy worth its salt must acknowledge the difference between the cosmological and the regulative and overcome it, lest we slip back into the dogmatism of pre-critical (i.e., pre-Kantian) metaphysics. (Metaphysics and epistemology should always be conducted in tandem for just this reason.)

The risk is that instead of producing a new realist metaphysics, as is Whitehead’s aim, we instead produce another in a long line of what Kant called transcendental illusions, which Gaston helpfully describes as any “subjective view that takes itself as an objective summation of things as they really are” (10). Gaston continues to describe the challenge before us: “Before critical philosophy it was easier to speak of the world as something ontologically given. It was also easier to speak of a concept of world in general on this basis. Kant implies that there can be no concept of world in these terms and that we must use the idea of the world in general within the epistemological limitations and possibilities of reasoning” (17).

Whitehead’s challenge, which I share, is to reconsider the possibility of a cosmological account of world beyond human reason. (Note here that for Kant the issue was never a question about the existence of a reality independent from or external to human thought but whether or not we could ever give an adequate account of such a reality.) This I take it is also the aim of those of us interested Speculative Realism, New Materialism, and so on. Anyway, go read Craig’s post. It’s really quite helpful.

The Ecological Microbiome of Cognition

June 10, 2015 § 9 Comments

tumblr_npmldn2vjh1qd0i7oo1_1280Somatosphere reports on a recent meeting of The Neuroscience and Society Network symposium HERE. A noteworthy quotation readers may be interested in:

In the workshop’s keynote, titled ‘A Microbial Unconscious’, Allan Young presented one such possibility – a view of neurosocial science in which we envisage the microbial world in social, political, and economic terms. This serves as a critical response to the growing brain-centered literature, with the argument that “once we extend our conception of the brain to include the brain-gut axis, we have an additional reason to call the social brain ‘social’, since its functional elements now include an interactive microbial society.” Using the lexicon of microbiologists and other scientists studying the immune system and infectious diseases, Young’s talk described the complex interactions and communication between bacteria using words like ‘communities’, with some bacteria ‘cheating’ by benefiting from the ‘social life’ but not contributing, some conducting ‘exploitation’, and some bacteria acting as ‘suicide bombers’ if sacrificing themselves means saving more bacteria. This begs the question, as Young asks, “Do bacteria have a ‘rich social life’, as microbiologists claim, or does this claim anthropomorphize a truly asocial nature?”

Cognition is always collective, ecological, and historical. Makes me wish I could get a degree in microbiology.

Three Ecologies Reading Group

June 8, 2015 § 5 Comments


The fine folks over at Synthetic Zero have organized a reading group on Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies. See the first few posts HERE, HEREHERE, and HERE.

I committed to participating in the group several weeks ago but work and preparing for the Whitehead conference took up most of my time. Now that things have slowed down a bit I plan on catching up with the discussion and hopefully make some of my own contributions.

The Three Ecologies was a huge influence on my MA thesis, and I still think of it as a touchstone of sorts. The other work that had a huge influence on me during the same period is Alf Hornborg’s less-known but no less important work The Power of the MachineHighly recommended reading.


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