What is it like to be a bat blind brain?


Roden, David. 2015a. “Aliens Under the Skin: Serial Killing and the Seduction of Our Common Inhumanity”, in Serial Killing: A Philosophical Anthology, Edia Connole & Gary J. Shipley (eds). Schism Press.


Phenomenology is, as I have argued elsewhere, striated with “darkness” – experiencing it only affords a partial and very fallible insight into its nature.[1]  We are not normally aware of this darkness because, as Scott Bakker writes, it “provides no information about the absence of information.”[2] However, this opacity can be exhibited from a third-person perspective in cases of “anosognosia” – conditions where patients are unable to access the fact that they have some sensorimotor deficit, such as blindness, deafness or the inability to move a limb. Sufferers from Anton’s syndrome or “blindness denial,” for example, are blind as a result of damage to visual areas in the brain. But, when questioned they deny that they are blind and attempt to act as if they were not. [3] This shows not only that the people can be radically mistaken about the contents of their conscious experience but that a standard Cartesian impossibility claim – that we cannot make a perceptual judgment without having a corresponding perception – is false. Minds assumed impossible on the basis of armchair reasoning turn out to be quite possible

The blindness of the mind to its true nature is also exhibited among unimpaired agents. We regularly assume that we are authoritative about the reasons for our choices. Yet studies into the phenomenon of “choice blindness” by Petter Johansson and Lars Hall suggest that humans can be gulled into attributing reasons to themselves that they did not have. In one case, subjects in a supermarket were asked to rate jams and teas, following which they were apparently presented with samples of the tea or jam they had chosen earlier and asked to explain their choice. In manipulated trials the samples were sneakily switched with samples of different products. Remarkably, less than a half the experimental participants noticed the switch, despite striking differences between the substituted pairs of flavours. The remainder sought retrospective justifications for choices they had not made.

Lars and Hall have been able to exhibit choice blindness in moral reasoning. In another experiment, subjects were asked to rate their agreement with controversial moral claims in a survey form. Unbeknownst to the experimental subjects, the pages with the original rated statements were switched for subtly altered sentences expressing contrary moral claims. However, when asked to review and discuss their rating, a majority of experimental subjects confabulated reasons for moral positions opposing the ones that had earlier embraced.[4]

Phenomena such as choice blindness and anosognosia suggest that our insight into subjectivity depends on a fallible process of self-interpretation that is subjectively “transparent” and immediate only because we are not aware that it is a process at all. Thomas Metzinger calls this constraint “autoepistemic closure.” By virtue of it, the vivid world “out there” and our vital, rich “inner” life appear not to be models or interpretations only because we are not aware of concocting them.[5]

Metzinger argues that phenomenology is systematically misleading about what phenomenology really is because it needs to be. A system that modeled itself and attempted to model that modeling process in turn (and so on) would require infinite representational resources. Phenomenological darkness thus prevents the self-interpreter from becoming entangled “in endless internal loops of higher-order self-modeling.”[6] It is thus reasonable to argue that the anti-reductionist intuition that subjective experience is inexplicable in terms of non-subjective physical or computational processes is an artifact of this phenomenological darkness.[7]

[1] David Roden, “Nature’s Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology.” Royal Institute Of Philosophy Supplement 72 (2013), 169-188.

[2] R. Scott Bakker. “Back to Square One: Towards a Post-Intentional Future”. http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/back-to-square-one-toward-a-post-intentional-future (accessed January 8, 2015).

[3].Thomas Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2004), 429-436.

[4] Lars Hall, Petter Johansson, and David de Léon. “Recomposing the will: Distributed motivation and computer-mediated Extrospection,” in Decomposing the Will, 298-324 (New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, 2013), 303-4.

[5] Metzinger, Being-No-One, 57.

[6] Metzinger, Being-No-One, 338.

[7] Metzinger, Being-No-One, 436.

3 thoughts on “What is it like to be a bat blind brain?

  1. But Metzinger’s position is rendered unstable by his representationalism: he can use autoepistemic closure to explain the apparent sufficiency of our phenomenal models, but he’s still stranded with all the conundrums simply because he has no way of explaining ‘phenomenal’ or ‘model’! From a blind brain perspective, he’s making the right move too late in the game. Begin with heuristic neglect, I would argue, and you can see far, far cheaper ways for nature to cobble together ‘first persons’ than PSMs.

  2. Like Tye, Metzinger’s hunch is that representation is an easier target for naturalisation than phenomenal consciousness. As he puts rhetorically it in BNO:

    Our problem is not intentional, but phenomenal content. Intentionality does exist, and there now is a whole range of promising approaches to naturalizing intentional, representational content. Conscious intentional content is the deeper problem. Could it be possible to analyze phenomenal representation as a convolved, a nested and complex variant of intentional representation? (18)

    If this Whiggish picture were so, then a representationalist account of consciousness would make progress in terms of understanding the phenomenal. As a “semantic defeatist”, however, you can’t help yourself to the impedimenta of mental representationalism or intentionalism more generally. But then you need a non-intentional reading of concepts like “heuristic” and “neglect” – which others might claim to be soggy with intentionality. Otherwise put, you need an account of informational neglect that doesn’t simply reduce the intentional to something else (otherwise we are back with intentional realism a la Fodor) or import other representationalist tropes.

  3. This is the standard line in philosophy of mind as I understand it, either turning on old computationalist commitments, or (as in Metzinger’s case) simply because representation is operationalized in so many bona fide empirical contexts. But the fact is, operationalizations are all they have. No one knows what representation is, though they know how to use the posit in ways that facilitate different forms of research. One of the great things about Hutto and Myin’s Radicalizing Enactivism is the way it brings the hard problem of content back into the limelight. The general strategy thus far has to be keep hush on the problem of intentionality in the hopes that we can use it to understand phenomenality. That consensus, I think, is presently in trouble.

    I take this as a big explanatory challenge that any successful naturalized theory of meaning must meet: to explain this peculiar situation, how and why intentional posits function in empirical discourses the strange ways they do. Heuristic neglect does so with great ontological economy, I think.

    This is where your crucial question comes in: How can heuristic neglect not be intentional in some respect? Well, ‘problem-solving’ can be rolled out in terms of behaviour and selectivity. Information need only be understood as difference-making differences. Heuristic problem solving can be understood in terms of selected (neural or environmental) behaviours. Neglect can be understood as selective insensitivity. Nary an intentional brick is required. The skull is simply another natural feature. In fact, you have most everything you need to understand what intentionality, as conceived by the tradition, amounts to. And this is the real magical trick for an eliminativism, the thing that Rosenberg or Churchland cannot do: explaining apparent intentional phenomena.

    The real challenge, I think, lies in the way the nature of the processes at issue–the fact that they are cognitive–automatically cues intentional heuristic modes of cognition. We reflexively apply intentional cognition to problems of intentional cognition (I can explain why this is so as well, I think) without the least clue we are doing so. This what dupes us into ontologizing posits like ‘representation.’ Crash spaces abound!

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