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A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

John Milton


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Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Free Will and Consciousness

Nørretranders spends quite a bit of space in Chapter 9, "The Half-Second Delay", dealing with the experiments of Kornhuber and Deecke and of Benjamin Libet and with their indications that the consciousness of a decision to act is epiphenomenal -- that the volition to act arises out of unconscious processes, the conscious decision is a back-formation, a way for consciousness to explain the volition to itself. The result seems pretty clear from the experiments as they are described;* according to Nørretranders it causes a big problem for believers in free will. If volition is pre-conscious/unconscious/non-conscious, the argument goes, then the notion of our acting out of our free wills is illusory.

It is not completely clear; but I don't think that Nørretranders is expounding his own belief here, but rather explaining a debate that is going on. It's difficult to tell because he does not attribute to anybody the argument that Libet's results negate free will; he just states it as a common-sense difficulty with the results. But it doesn't seem so clear-cut to me, and I'm interested to see where he goes with it. My gut sense is that free choice can be exercised without necessarily being a conscious act; that innate urges and instinctual volitions are not necessarily mechanical or deterministic. If consciousness is an epiphenomenon of one's brain state, why shouldn't the conscious decision process -- the back-formed story of a conscious decision process -- be epiphenomenal to processes in the brain state which are indeed deciding to act?

*Though note, these results from Trevena and Miller call Libet's results into question.

posted evening of August 18th, 2011: Respond
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Monday, August 15th, 2011

Information and forgetting

So when we say "information" in everyday life, we spontaneously think of information-as-the-result-of-a-discarding-of-information. We do not consider the fact that there is more information in an experience than in an account of it. It is the account that we consider to be information. But the whole basis of such an account is information that is discarded. Only after information has been discarded can a situation become an event that people can talk about.

The User Illusion
Chapter 5, "The Tree of Talking"

I'm kind of taken with Nørretranders' description of information, in these early chapters, as that which is not communicated -- as what has to be discarded in order for communication to occur. The state of being that one wishes to impart to one's interlocutor contains, necessarily, orders of magnitude too many bits of information for it to be expressed across any available channel of communication; so before one speaks one must create meaning by throwing away information. This also applies, in a different way, to memory -- in order to remember a moment of being one must forget vast reams of context.

posted evening of August 15th, 2011: Respond

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

Disorder and confusion

In the first chapter of Tor Nørretranders' User Illusion (an engrossing and highly interesting read which I am starting on the recommendation of the Julian Jaynes Society) I find a quotation from James Clerk Maxwell which I think will serve very nicely as an epigraph for READIN (and for the phenomenon of blogging in general):

A memorandum-book does not, provided it is neatly written, appear confused to an illiterate person, or to the owner who understands it thoroughly, but to any other person able to read it appears to be inextricably confused.

I don't really see yet how Nørretranders is planning to move from thermodynamics and information systems to consciousness and perception; but his enlightening summary of the history of physics in the 19th and 20th Centuries is delicious reading even without the frisson provided by wondering where he is headed with it.

posted afternoon of August 14th, 2011: Respond
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