The Magical Modular Brain Plus or Minus
Two or Three or Maybe Four

Robert H. Wozniak
Bryn Mawr College

Emergence Working Group
9 February 2005

A Few Minor Preliminaries[1]


I. Experience


A. Two related meanings of the term "experience"


1. Experience = accumulated events of a lifetime (e.g., "I have a lot of experience as a teacher")


2. Experience = consciousness (e.g., I am experiencing this room = I am conscious of this room)


B. For purposes of our discussion...I will use the following three terms interchangeably:


Experience = consciousness = awareness


II. Knowledge


A. Two senses of the phrase "to know"


1. Direct contact of the mind with its own experience (i.e., to know is to experience) as in "I know this table".  Knowledge, on this account (e.g., Hume's) is simply a kind of relationship in experience (e.g., my knowledge of a table includes a flat surface and legs if my experience of a table includes a flat surface and legs)


2. Deep structure (below awareness) representation (i.e., to know is to have an internal representation of the known_ as in "I know what a table is".  Knowledge, on this account, consists of abstract, general representations (e.g., concepts) organized in some sort of system (e.g., a semantic net).  The implicit "stories" or "theories" that organisms (including cats and babies) hold about the world that guide their actions in the world are deep structure representations of this sort.


NB: There are stories and then there are stories.  It is extremely important to distinguish between these kinds of implicit stories/theories (which exist below the level of awareness) and the explicit, propositionally coded natural language stories (narratives) and linguistic, mathematical, or computational theories we generate (with vastly differing levels of precision obviously) in both everyday life (e.g., why do we all show up at this meeting at 8 a.m. once a week? Because we find it stimulating) and science (e.g., why does the earth maintain the orbit around the sun that it does? Because...)


III. Certainty


Claim: The only thing of which we can be absolutely certain is that at this moment we are experiencing whatever we are experiencing.  We cannot be certain of past experience, of future experience, or of anything (existence of a physical world, existence of God, existence of experience in other people whose behavior we experience) that transcends our own personal experience.  Not only is the greatest chasm known in nature that, as William James put it, between one person's experience and that of another, it is that between one person's experience and any and everything that may or may not exist outside of personal experience.


This point of view is sometimes labeled "subjective idealism" (in contrast to "direct or naive realism," which is the view that the world is as we perceive it.).  It is because I believe Paul holds this view that I called him an "idealist."


NB: Knowledge in the sense of direct experience is always certain; knowledge in the sense of deep structure representation (concepts, theories, stories), even when embodied in explicit propositional form is never certain.  More about that below.


IV. Truth


Depending on your theory of knowledge (experiential, representational) and whether you are an ontological idealist (experience is all there is), a subjective idealist (reality may exist but we can never know it with certainty but we may be able to construct stories about it) or a realist (reality does exist in independence of experience and we can come gradually to know it with greater and greater, even if never perfect. certainty) truth can be defined, roughly speaking, in either of two ways:


a) as a particular kind of relationship that exists in experience (whether or not there is a reality beyond experience), e.g., my idea (e.g., experienced mental image) of Nancy Vickers sitting at her desk in her office is true iff I experience myself get up, experience myself walk across campus, experience myself go to and look into NV;s office and experience her sitting at her desk).  Propositions are always and only validated by a predicted succession of experiences [NB: This was the view that William James adopted in his radical is very similar to but not quite the same as the view espoused in his earlier pragmatism].  I do not think (although I could be wrong) that Paul is a radical empiricist.


b) as a particular kind of relationship that exists between our stories (narratives, theories) and whatever reality exists beyond our experience .e.g, my abstract representation of Nancy Vickers as a person who sits at a desk in an office in Taylor Hall is true iff it bears somee verifiable relation to a real state of affairs, viz., NV really sitting at a desk in her office.  Propositions are always and only validated by engaging in a series of actions (informal or formal experiments) to assess predictions derived from the nature of the abstract representations under consideration, e.g., "NV is sitting at her desk in her office: is true iff I call her office and talk to her, walk over and check, etc.  Note that on this account our stories/theories cab be validated by any number of different actions as long as they lead to results predicted on the basis of our stories/theories.  Truth is what works.  This is, I think, Paul's view as well as that of most scientists and it is why some have called him a pragmatist.


NB: A position intermediate between idealism and naive realism has been called constructivism.  It assumes the existence of a real world, holds a representational theory of knowledge (i.e., our stories, theories represent that world), recognizes the fact that we can never transcend our experience in experience (i.e., we can be perfectly certain of our at the moment experience but not of anything that may exist outside experience), but holds that experience is a joint function of a physical world and mind/brain, that we can make inferences about both the physical world and the mind/brain from our experience, that we can assess the validity of those inferences through informal and formal experiment, and that we can, therefore (and science does) come gradually to develop stories/theories that are more and more congruent with reality as it exists...i.e., we come as a community to hold better and better theories, tell better and better stories not only because they guide more and more adaptive actions (on the whole, with regressions of course possible) but because they are, in fact, in greater and greater conformity with nature.  This is certainly the view I hold and may or may not be Paul's closet view.


The Heart of the Problem




a) On neuroanatomical and phylogenetic grounds, one can and probably should conceive of the brain as bi-modular (neocortex wrapped around a frog brain).


b) It is not unreasonable, on the evidence to assume, tentatively, that consciousness/experience/awareness is correlated with activity of neocortex of a particular kind


NB: This does not necessarily imply either: a) that any and all neocortical activity is correlated with consciousness, i.e., neocortex may be involved in all sorts of activity that is not correlated with consciousness; or b) that the activity of subcortical structures functioning in a brain system that also involves neocortical activity are not involved in (and would need to be represented in any theory of) whatever brain activity is correlated with consciousness.


Therefore (and for reasons to be identified below):


We must avoid at all costs (and Paul does...I would never accuse Paul of being simplistic) any overly simple conclusion that Module 1 activity correlates with the psychological unconscious and Module 2 activity correlates with consciousness.




Psychologically, it is all a lot more complicated than one might think and there is, therefore, no simply or direct mapping of psychological to neuroanatomical fact.


The Nature of Experience


Because experience (i.e., consciousness) is closely related to neural activity (albeit how we do not know), we tend to think of experience as "in the head" (e.g., Paul's phrase "internal experience" by which, I take it, he really just means "experience" not some particular kind of experience.


Why I don't like the phrase "internal experience"


A. But...experience considered phenomenologically (i.e., when we reflect on and experience our own experience) is neither obviously in the head nor is it out there...indeed it doesn't seem in any obvious way to be localized in space, hence the problem of Descartes.


B. There are, however, roughly speaking two types of experience, one of which is, in a sense, more internal than the other.


a) externally-referenced experience - experience that appears to be of objects that exist and events that take place outside our own bodies (e.g., experience of chairs, tables, birds flying past the window, people, external speech)


b) internally-referenced experience - experience of events that appears to take place within our own bodies (muscular movement, pain, anger, hunger, mental images, internal speech


C. There are also, roughly speaking, three levels of experience


a. peripheral experience (minimal awareness, unattended, information only briefly retained and retrievable only through a shift in attention, see b. below)  Examples: Peripheral vision, Unattended speech


b. focal awareness (the experiential result of the mind/brain process we call attention, information retained and retrievable over significant periods of time). Examples: Focal vision, Attended events of any kind.


NB: It is assumed that all organisms that have awareness of any kind (cats, monkey, newborn babies, us) have both focal and peripheral awareness.


c. reflective awareness (the experiential result of the mind/brain process we call reflection in which experience or some aspect of experience itself comes to focal awareness (i.e., is attended to).


NB: It would appear that neither animals (not even adult chimps) nor human children under the age of about 3-4 have reflective experience.  The developmental emergence of reflective experience in human ontogenesis is accompanied by (a function of?) the development of executive inhibitory processes (i.e., the child stops being "stimulus bound, can begin to regulate her own behavior" and the development of complex syntactic structures that support internal speech, planning, etc.


NB: Except as described below, experience at levels 1 and 2 is "instrumental" in that it does not involve (as part of the experience) a clear distinction between Self and Other. 


Example: Our experience of a fork while carrying on a good conversation and eating dinner at a restaurant.  We use the fork (which involves both peripheral and focal awareness of the fork) but unreflectively, as an extension of our bodies, without experiencing the fork as separate from ourselves. Ernst Cassirer called this "instrumental experience" and distinguished it from "reflective experience" in which we do make a clear distinction in experience between Self and Other. Example: Our experience of a fork that we hold up and examine noting that it is a fork and not, therefore, part of our hand. 


NB (as an aside): scientific "method" derives its attendant objectivity (i.e., separation of characteristics of the world of experienced objects from personal, subjective characteristics of experiencing itself) from our ability to make the Subject/Object differentiation in reflective experience."


D. There is also a great deal of sophisticated Mind/Brain activity that is not correlated with consciousness/experience/awareness; and this is of at least two kinds:


1. Processes that are below the level of awareness in principle, i.e., no amount of introspective activity (an activity of reflection) will ever bring them to awareness




a) the activity of Mind/Brain that allows us to calculate distance in space between hand and object so that we reach with accuracy


b) the activity of Mind/Brain (working memory) involved in retrieving phonological, syntactic, and semantic information and preprogramming a burst of meaningful speech.  We are never aware, nor can we be aware of what we are going to say until we say it.  We become aware of what we are saying at the same time as everyone else in the room becomes aware of what we are saying).  And there are thousands of other examples.


NOTE: While organisms without neocortex can do an analogue of "a" (frog's can hit flying insects with their tongues), they cannot do "b" and it seems, given the known function of frontal cortex, that neocortext is definitely implicated in complex in principle non-conscious processes of this sort.


2. Processes that are some times in awareness (processing of information needed to walk across the room, steer a vehicle, throw a curve ball, tie a shoe, etc.) but, once automatized, are generally relegated to non-conscious status.  This is also sometimes conceived to involve a 4th level of awareness, paradoxically called "unconscious awareness" that includes "experieniences" that can be brought into but generally are not in either peripheral and focal awareness (e.g., the feel of your shoe on your foot prior to my calling your attention to it, now you feel, then you did not).


Bottom Line: The Brain/Mind is, as we all know, an extraordinarily complex, sophisticated device for fine-tuning our adaptive actions in a complex and ever-changing environment.  Consciousness and the brain systems correlated with it seem to have evolved to facilitate adaptive process; but we are still left will the problem of Huxley's "conscious automata" if underlying brain activity is necessary to consciousness, what if anything does consciousness add to that it an epiphenomnon?  and if so, why in the course of evolution did first consciousness and then, presumably, reflective consciousness emerge?





[1] The ideas expressed in the first section of these notes owe a heavy debt to philosophers from Locke (through Berkeley, Hume, Reid, Kant, Mill, Bain) to William James; but they cannot, of course, be blamed for my errors of interpretation.

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