The Scandal of Qualia: Bergson and Dennett on Interiority
The problem of consciousness is one of interiority. This is as much a problem for idealists as it is for materialists. The materialist version of the problem is the “Hard Problem of Consciousness”: the intuition that even after the entire brain has been mapped and understood, and that accurate predictions could be made about the causal activity within it, we would still be missing something from our picture. Mary the color scientist still learns something new when she leaves her gray-scale room, and future androids, it seems, will be mere Philosophical Zombies.
However, idealism, which begins with consciousness, has the same problem but from a different direction. For example, how are we to square Kant’s claims that space is a mere form of our representation, not a feature of the world, yet that there is only one space? Intersubjectivity (we’re all human, so we all individually experience ‘space in general’ in more or less the same way) can get us pretty far, but that kind of ad hoc synchronicity seems a bit unsuited to explain how we can land robots on Mars, where it’s a question of meters that spell success or failure. Interiority here becomes a curse, rather than a blind-spot.
The problem of interiority is the problem of consciousness for materialists, and the problem of a posteriori fact for idealists.
Two thinkers to tackle this problem directly are Henri Bergson and Daniel Dennett. Despite being separated by a century Dennett’s arguments in the 1991 Consciousness Explained cover the same ground (and make the same turns) as Bergson’s 1896 Matter and Memory in dealing with this materialist-idealist deadlock. In this essay I’ll trace their solutions, which I hold to be virtually identical, focusing more on Bergson so the piece can serve as a much needed introduction.
The fact that a century separates such a radically similar set of arguments is a true embarrassment of the “analytic/continental” divide, and its deleterious effect on philosophy. Bergson isn’t mentioned once in Dennett’s book, and understandably so: despite being the biggest philosopher of his generation in France, Bergson has barely made an impact across the Atlantic. Not to say Dennett is “Bergsonian”, they differ on as much as they agree. However, on this critique of the problem of interiority, and their proposed solutions, they are eerily similar.
Is Perception a Kind of Knowledge?
Bergson expertly diagnoses the origin of the deadlock between materialism and idealism in the assumption of both that perception is a kind of knowledge. That is, a particular perception, in its being a perception, is already an epistemic entity for an intellect. We see this in the empirical idealist’s “Sense Data”; information we receive via the senses giving us the epistemological atoms to form into propositional knowledge. We also see this in the Hard Problem of Consciousness: the scandal of qualia as a kind of ephemeral, epiphenomenal knowledge. Basically, everybody has assumed that sensory representation is informative in the speculative sense: whether that is in communicating facts about the environment to the organism, or whether it is a raw data for a phenomenological, Kantian science.
To problematize this view, Dennett, in Consciousness Explained, discusses a robot built at Stanford in the late 60’s called “Shakey”. Shakey could guide itself around a room, push objects up ramps, and so on. It orientated itself using a video camera. But how did Shakey “understand” what it was seeing? It processed the input from a video camera, simplifying the signal. It was programmed to “recognize” certain geometrical forms. For example, a “Y” indicated it was “looking” at a corner of a box. An upside down “Y” indicated a corner of a room. The researchers could observe the processing at each stage of refinement on a TV monitor:
However, as Dennett quickly points out (1991, p.89), the monitor was for the researchers. It could be unplugged and Shakey would continue to go about its business (pushing objects up ramps, finding its way around rooms), because it didn’t need to represent a visual “field” to itself. The visual processing (the “understanding”) was not happening via the medium of the “image” on the screen. Shakey merely needed to respond to patterns occurring in a one dimensional string of 1’s and 0’s (based on the refresh rate or pixel by pixel draw speed of the camera sensor). The “representation” on the monitor showing the wire-frame world, truncated into rows of a thousand or so pixels, was superfluous to its activity.
So, the question becomes, why, in addition to the chain of events occurring in the central nervous system and brain, are we also treated to a kind of superfluous cinematic treat of pure empirical knowledge, that we then have to use complex procedures, the scientific method for example, to “convert” into propositional knowledge? Why, in order to recognize a horizontal or vertical line, is it necessary that it be “projected” into a visual field so we thus “see it twice”; first with the eyes and optic nerves, and electrical brain goo, and then in the phenomenological, representational, visual field? The issue in thinking of perception as a kind of knowledge is that it raises the question of what this knowledge is for. Or as Dennett puts it:
“If qualia are epiphenomenal in the standard philosophical sense, their occurrence can’t explain the way things happen (in the material world) since, by definition, things would happen exactly the same without them.” (Dennett, 1991, p.403)
However, if we drop the assumption that perception is a kind of knowledge, that it is about something more or less accurately, we change the terms of the mystery.
Taking Perception Directly
Even in Bergson’s time the neurology was advanced enough to see that perception “plugged into” action more or less directly. Bergson, no less than Dennett, avoids all kinds of “black boxing” — input goes in, squirrels around in observable patterns, then comes out as action. Nothing magical occurs on its path. He’d perfectly agree with Dennett’s observation that “the trouble with brains, it seems, is that when you look in them, you discover that there’s nobody home.” (Dennet, 1991, p.29)
“As soon as we compare the structure of the spinal cord with that of the brain, we are bound to infer that there is merely a difference of complication, and not a difference in kind, between the functions of the brain and the reflex activity of the medullary system.” (Bergson, 1990, p.29)
Bergson asks us to imagine, theoretically, a pure perception, one not laden with memory. It’s his conviction that such a thing (a pure perception) is impossible in practice. There is a reason why his book is called Matter and Memory, not “Matter and Consciousness”, which hopefully indicates the complex position memory plays in his eventual ontology. However, the treatment of memory is beyond the scope of this essay, so we will, as Bergson initially does, entertain the possibility of a pure perception and perform a thought experiment:
Imagine a light source P is focused into a point and directed onto your retina, where it refracts into the eye at points Pa, Pb, and Pc. This causes the optic nerve to do what it’s best at, and a then a bunch of activity is caused by this activity of the nerve — electrical signals shuffling around the brain. You report that you “see a point of light shining into your eye”.
However, you then correct yourself philosophically and say “I am having the phenomenological experience of regarding a representation of a bright light being projected onto the anatomical schema in the position called ‘my eye’ that gives me reason to believe that beyond my eye is a source of photons being directed into it.”
Now in what way was your self-censure, of “being aware of a phenomenological representation of a light” more accurate than your initial response of just “seeing a light”? The photons are hitting the cells of your eye, necessarily causing electrical and chemical reactions there, which trigger more chemical and electrical reactions, and so on. The “information block” that is the cluster of photons ‘plugs-in’ seamlessly to the information block of the eye, the optic nerve, the brain, trading effects. The photons themselves don’t appear ex nihilo, they themselves are the effect of a filament in a LED drawing energy from a battery, so on and so forth. Right now, at this particular region of the interconnected “blocks” of the universe there’s a “thing going on” with causes and effects, tumbling around, connecting into each other. An event. And what do we call this event? “The phenomenological experience of regarding a representation of a bright light being projected onto the anatomical schema in the position called ‘my eye’”. Or, vastly more simply, “Seeing a light”.
If we were to step into this heterogeneous assemblage of an event at any point and severe a connection, the event (seeing a light/having a representation) would cease. This is as true of disconnecting the battery that powers the LED as it is for severing the optic nerve.
Where we get confused is the analytical instinct that has us discuss the physical world, as a complete system, at one time, and then discuss the nervous system as another closed system, sufficient in itself. We wave, as Bergson says, “A magician’s wand” (1990, pg.39) separating the two when obviously they sit within a single closed system of material causes and effects. This initial theoretical division then duplicates in the division of neural activity being mysteriously translated into a further, isolated, phenomenological system. But if we drop all of these divisions we can just say that clusters of photons at this magnitude just are bright lights, as is this vibration of the optic nerve. They do not need “translation” into representation any more than oxygen is “translated” into carbon dioxide in my lungs, or a glass is “translated” into fragments by being knocked off the table.
“[I]n the one case [materialism], as in the other [idealism], our perception is supposed to translate or to picture the states of our nervous system. But is it possible to conceive the nervous system as living apart from the organism which nourishes it, from the atmosphere in which the organism breathes, from the earth which that atmosphere envelopes, from the sun round which the earth revolves?” (Bergson, 1990, p.24)
All that occurs is that in perception, a body receives from an object a narrow set of effects — those ways in which bodies can be effected by objects in line with the laws of neurobiology and nature, light refraction, ear pressure modulation, touch, etc. We don’t project “fabricated” representations out into a model of a space, we see things exactly where they are, exactly at the site of the contortion of light that is pummeling our retina. The blind man does not “project” a representation of the sensation in his hand from the cane onto the ground, he simply feels the ground through the cane, exactly where it is. The sensation in the hand is not knowledge, it’s the ground and cane colliding.
“The truth is that the point P, the rays which it emits, the retina and the nervous elements affected, form a singe whole; that the luminous point P is a part of this whole; and that it is really in P, and not elsewhere, that the image of P is formed and perceived.” (Bergson, 1990, p.43)
For Bergson the universe is an assemblage of “images” (a term he uses in a technical way, meaning, roughly, ‘object-event’), or information blocks, or matter, what ever we would like to call it, and it is merely assumed that in the mind these are “developed” into qualia, representations, “figment”, pictures in the head. But in Bergson’s metaphysical picture, these “images” are developed right where they are. There isn’t a “real event” translated, or developed, into a “mental event”, there is merely an event, which may or may not entangle a central nervous system, or two, as part of its interconnected images. Does a tree falling in the woods with no one around make a sound? Define “sound”; if you mean the vibration of air pressure and particles, then it does, if you mean the vibration of air pressure and particles and an ear drum, then it doesn’t, ex hypothesi.
Perception as Indeterminacy in Action
If we let go of the ‘pictures in the head’ metaphor, like pushing away from a boat as swimmers, and dispense with the redoubled mental image, thereby dissolving the enmity between materialism and idealism, we encounter a strange problem. If the eye, the optic nerve, the brain, the shaft of light, the atmosphere, the sun and the earth, are all connected together, then why do we only “see” what is in front of us? This may seem a bizarre question (asking why I can’t see the center of the sun when I look at a pen) but needs answering. If we are to dispense with the localized “photographic theater” and instead claim that perception takes part directly in the universal play of matter/images, then we need to explain why it is that the world appears to be so, well, theatrical. Why is there, for each body, a localized collection of events surrounding it seemingly divorced from (though no doubt nestled within) a wider universe?
Bergson’s formula for the Subject within the world of matter is as a “center of indetermination”, with this indetermination being measured by “the number and rank of their [an organism’s] functions” (1990, p.36). The connections between ‘bits’ of matter spread spatially out, through the exertion of forces, but also temporally, through the compulsion of causality, as well up and down through the layers of emergence and reduction. Natural laws describe these movements (expressible in elegant formulas). At certain points of this homogenous and centerless universe of matter, there a centers of indetermination. That is to say, regions where the formulas get messy.
Simple, single cell life is barely indistinguishable from the chemical processes that it shblurps out of, at least in regard to its range of action. If it can do anything at all, this merely involves a predictable expanding and contracting based on the contact of the cell wall with (delicious or dangerous) objects beyond it. That is, we are dealing with virtually no indeterminacy, or at least as much indeterminacy as is befitting relatively well understood bio-chemical reactions. However, mammals, in being mobile, and possessing sensory systems that make use of the speed and distance of light refraction, expand out in their possibility for affecting and being affected by other objects, in a “cone” proportionate to their possible activity and reactivity. This now increases the indeterminacy involved in any environment they’re placed in; both because mammalian behavior is more varied and complex, and because that which can influence and motivate it is expanded out further and further, and into higher and higher registers and levels of discernment.
The eagle swooping down from the sky to grasp a tiny mouse in a field involves a level of discernment and distance in action far, far beyond the single cell expanding when it chemically reacts with a nutrient medium. It also involves a greater level of indeterminacy; will she or won’t she glimpse that tell tale shimmer in the grass below, and which muscles in which sequence will spring into gear against which air currents and which wind directions, before snatching which part of the mouse, which will flee in which direction?
For Bergson, as for Dennett, the mystery of perception comes back to action, or more specifically virtual or nascent action (Bergson), or dispositions to act (Dennett). Both are incrementalists, seeing in the human being’s rich perceptions of the world merely a more complex degree of thing compared to the single celled organism’s reflexive contractions and expansions, tied to our rich complexity of possible action. In that simple organism, perception and action are indistinguishable — the cell wall encounters some chemical composition and is compelled to withdraw or expand through a series of chemical reactions. But how does the human nervous system encounter things? By what is it affected? And then, what action results from such an encounter? As we rarely encounter things through touch, instead greeting them well in advance by being affected by the perturbations they cause in refracting light rays, a simple action-reaction formula is insufficient. As our sensory experience expands out, on the back of light propagation, so does the range of actions that our body can reasonably employ in response to objects, further and further away. Our interest in things goes further afield.
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I throw a ball to you. You see it move through the air as your raise your hands. The world “tunnels” around the ball, and your hand grasps at just the right moment to catch it. There’s a thwack in the palm of your hand that slowly fades. Now the ball is in your hand. The ball has traveled from one hand to another across a space. That happened. One of those hands was yours, and it was connected to a set of eyes that were being jiggled by the light waves being refracted from the surface of the ball as it moved through the air. Your body was brought into relation with the ball, was affected by it, before it even left my hand, such is the wonder of vision. Once the ball was flying towards you, it became incumbent upon your body to do something in response to the moving object that it was already in relation to: the ball became a problem for your action. However, that action is not a simple cellular contraction or expansion, but a complex host of timed responses, each one variable; in their sum they become indeterminate.
The ball is now following its fixed aerial course, in line with the elegant laws of nature, but it is hurtling towards (and affecting via the medium of light) a massively complex system of nerves and muscles and neurotransmitters; it is entering a zone of indeterminacy. Most indeterminate of all is the position and movement of that hand that answers to the ball. The precise level of indetermination before the ball lands, while the outcome “collapses”, corresponds to the perception of the ball in flight, that “tunneling”. The question placed upon the hand by the ball causes your body to sever its ties, via a focusing of sensitivity, from all of the other objects around it. In fact, this indetermination, of which precise movement will be carried out in response to the path of the ball, simply is the perception of the ball.
“our perception of an object distinct from our body, separated from our body by an interval, never expresses anything but a virtual action.” (Bergson, 1990, p.57)
Or, as Dennett puts it:
“When you say “This is my quale [pure perception]” what you are singling out, or referring to, whether you realize it or not, is your idiosyncratic complex of dispositions. You seem to be referring to a private, ineffable something-or-other in your mind’s eye, a private shade of homogeneous pink … but what it turns out to be in the real world in your brain is just a complex of dispositions” (1991, p.389)
So, why does the world appear so theatrically constituted? Because the nervous system, and its action-response work, is given problems in line with its possibilities of being affected, for example, by light. This light is turned into action — sometimes automatically, and thus without perception (i.e. walking), sometimes down indeterminate paths (i.e. threading a needle), perception being this indetermination.
“As many threads as pass from the periphery to the center, so many points of space are there able to make an appeal to my will and to put, so to speak, an elementary question to my motor activity. Every such question is what is termed a perception.” (Bergson, 1990, p.45)
Conclusion — Bergson’s Indeterminacy and Dennett’s Multiple Drafts
To tie the two threads together, Bergson first collapses the distinction between matter and representation, between subject and object, only to find it again in the indeterminacy of action. In the indeterminacy of action matter elaborates itself (as a perception) until it is “reclosed” through the action being carried out. In the moments when objects present themselves to a body as a question concerning the action of that body, that body, in its being affected by that object extends the effects of that object in its nervous system before kicking an action into gear, before the possibilities become resolved in action. The extension of effects roughly amounts to a greater proportion of effects, over a longer time (at a micro scale) than the object normally elicits from its neighboring objects.
The flash of a gun in the darkness (an effect of a chemical reaction) travels at the speed of light out into the universe. However, when it impacts upon a nervous system, its effects linger, are extended, are delayed, before becoming the effect of an action, however slight, 0.5 seconds later.
That delay is perception. We might ask, why is that delay a picture? This is entirely back to front, it should be: why do we make pictures of delays?
This notion, of perceptions being the states of delay in a nervous system that is yet to resolve upon an action, is more or less Dennett’s “Multiple Drafts” model of consciousness:
“There is no line that can be drawn across the causal “chain” from eyeball through consciousness to subsequent behavior such that all reactions to x happen after it and consciousness of x happens before it. This is because it is not a simple causal chain, but a causal network, with multiple paths on which Multiple Drafts are being edited simultaneously and semi-independently.” (Dennett, 1991, p.393)
In Bergson-ese, Dennett’s picture of consciousness is that within the brain, causal chains, the interconnections between images/matter, bifurcate on their way to action, both because of the complexity of possible action, and because of the multitude of influences upon the human nervous system. This bifurcation into multiple paths creates the zones of indetermination that our bodies sit at the center of (that our bodies are).
It’s only mysterious that a delay, or a bifurcation of causal chains, should be presented as a picture of the world if we assume the world ‘looks like’ our pictures of it. This is reintroducing the cleft between the nervous system and the world. Rather, everything we know about “pictures”, in their colorful, formful depiction, we take from delays and extensions of actions. Looking right at something gives you no means of how to draw it “accurately”, just as pointing your phone at something and pressing the camera button is not going to necessarily “capture” accurately what you see. Both drawing and photography are complex skills that need to be learnt, finely tuned behaviors, based as they are on trying to capture the effervescent delay of neural functioning, the indeterminacy in the multiple neural process, just before they collapse into action. Perhaps there is some truth in how we speak of well rendered pictures looking like they are about to “leap out of the frame”. That is, they present a possible problem for our action (being suddenly leaped at), soliciting greater activity.
That is to say, consciousness, and the problem of interiority, is only as mysterious as we make it. If we assume from the outset that somehow consciousness is antithetical to matter, that having a perception of something is more than just being a body affecting and being affected by things (i.e. ‘a picture in the head’), we then have to tie ourselves in knots trying to “undo” this originary division. However, if we dispense with the mysterious stuff of representation, and put perception to work, no longer epiphenomena but integral to the indeterminacy of action, the network of causal chains occurring in the nervous system, the deadlock is undone. It then makes no difference whether we call ourselves materialists or idealists. The difference between them becomes purely stylistic…
Bergson, H. (1990). Matter and memory. New York: Zone Books.
Dennett, D., & Weiner, P. (1991). Consciousness explained. New York [etc.]: Little, Brown and Company.