Positivism V. Nothing There, the Mind of a Frog

Wheeler.  Jump!  Clear.  Jump, jump, jump – wheeler!  Jump, splash.  Jaws!  Kick!  Kick, kick.… Jump, jump, whee- Splat!

If you can understand that, then you and I have something in common. It’s all your misfortune and none of my own, because I have learned to live with it.

Among the best positivist thinkers today, Daniel Dennett stands out for clarity in his writing and for his willingness to follow the credo to its logical destination. I had been attracted to his work through a book titled The Mind’s I, which he edited with Douglas Hofstadter. It is a collection of essays, dialogues, and stories by various writers on consciousness and free will. Jorge Luis Borges splits his consciousness to write about himself in third person. Hofstadter tells how Achilles once spoke to a colony of ants – not to the individual ants, but rather to a colony of hundreds who spell out their answers by forming letter patterns on the ground. Richard Dawkins brings genes and memes to the feast. The editors made their selections well; the short, varied pieces are surprising, clever, thought-provoking, and entertaining. I’m sure you can find a used copy cheap. Later on I explored Dennett’s own focused presentation of the same topic in his book Consciousness Explained.

In the 1980s when I was working at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, an upcoming visit and evening seminar by Dennett was announced, open to the public courtesy of the University of Houston’s philosophy department. Neither my busy schedule as junior faculty nor the needs of a young family would deter me from going to the seminar.

I had never attended a lecture by an actual philosopher. There were courses in philosophy at Ole Miss, but the subject had seemed too outdated and quaint, hardly necessary as preparation for a scientific career. My plans barely changed even after a sophomore honors seminar in the classics taught, or rather led, by Ms. Anita Hutcherson, the most influential class I ever took. I did decide to minor in English and jumped into a creative writing course, not a small endeavor at Ole Miss.[1]

With a high sense of anticipation I drove across the city. The lecture itself provided more than I could have asked for, moving well beyond expectations and crystallizing a challenge that continues to provoke me today. Starting with a familiar foundation of biology and chemistry, Dennett built the case step by step for a philosophical proposal that the first- and second-person pronouns I, me, you, we, us will eventually fade out of human speech.

C elegans neurons cropped square
Green fluorescent protein in neurons of C. elegans

Dennett’s slides began with the simple, genetically mapped nervous system of the famous roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans, and proceeded upwards phylogenetically. He showed the dissection of a frog brain and, as best I recall, said something like this: “Nobody knows what it’s like to be a frog. And do you know why that is so? The more we learn about the frog brain – the more we understand its centers for perception, integration, and response, we become persuaded of this conclusion: There is nothing there that explains ‘what it’s like to be a frog.’”

Dennett asked us to apply the same reasoning to human biology. The human brain is wondrously evolved to handle abstract ideas and complex reasoning, but fundamentally the neurologic substrate is the same as that of C. elegans or a frog. Science finds nothing in the brain to resemble a center of consciousness, nothing there to suggest a mechanism for free will, nothing there to evoke the sense of specialness that you may feel as a rational and emotional subject. After the last “nothing there,” Dennett pulled out his surprising prediction that the words I, me, you, we, us will gradually become meaningless and disappear from human speech…. if not in 75 years, then certainly in 1000 years.

I had been playing Frogger, a popular video game then. At the end of Dennett’s talk, I raised my hand and told him and everyone else what it is like to be a frog. Your consciousness while playing Frogger shrinks incredibly. You become completely attuned to avoiding the wheels of trucks on the road that can smash you flat or alligators in the stream whose huge jaws can pop you like a cherry tomato. You jump and think of nothing but wheels and jaws and the next jump, or your game will end.

Wheeler, jump! Clear. Jump, jump – river, splash.
Kick, kick, kick. Jaws! Squish. (Game over.)

That is how a frog thinks. Of course I figured it would be funny, but also intended to make a serious point. Everyone laughed and took it only as a joke. I had entered the brain of a frog in a video game, but they counted my experience as nothing.

When we as humans completely adopt the scientific viewpoint, according to Dennett, there will be no need for self-reference or reference to a particular other person. The words I, me, you, we, us testify to particularity and have no place in science. He can reasonably predict, therefore, that the personal pronouns eventually will pass from human speech, except in historical perspective.

Do you think that will come true? Or will the pronouns out-survive the prediction, which may fade away as a worn-out kind of selective nihilism typical of 20th century modernity?

Dennett’s best-selling book, “Consciousness Explained,” published in 1991, argues for a materialistic explanation of consciousness. Amid a voluminous display of psychological surprises and mind experiments, one finds this brief question with Dennett’s own answer:

Am I saying that we have absolutely no privileged access to our own conscious experience? No.[2]

Thus Dennett admits the experience of particularity.

Martin Heidegger called it dasein, which may translated roughly to be there. It testifies to my or your particular locus in the world. One might suggest that it means every person lives in his or her own skin, but it is not valid to say that “every person lives in his or her own skin.” Dasein means that I live in my own skin. I do not possess godlike oversight that informs me what everyone’s experience is.

Dennett was right! I do not know what it is like to be a frog. Neither do I know what it is like to be you. Unless you want to tell me.


Next post: Positivism VI. Less Than All

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[1] Dr. Evans Harrington taught the creative writing course. Kind but firm in his criticism, he represented to me a crucial link between Faulkner and other Mississippi writers of the early 20th century and the current thriving literary community in the Oxford-Jackson-Memphis region.

[2] Dennett, D.C.  Consciousness Explained.  Little Brown, Boston, 1991, p.68.


9 thoughts on “Positivism V. Nothing There, the Mind of a Frog

  1. Dear John,

    Lets begin with Descarte’s – “I think therefore I am”. Is thinking the proof of my existence? My thoughts prove my existence – only because your thoughts prove my separateness, unless I do not exit and am only an illusion? However, neither of us could experience our thoughts as our own, or any other action ( volitional or non volitional) if we were alone without knowledge of another – separate from ourselves. This universal experience of the development of the sense of the self from the non-self ( or other) has been masterfully articulated by D.W. Winnicott. It is “The Other” that separates us, gives us forms and names, yet it is the “We” (as two persons or a community) that have come to experience a shared perception, namely, that we come from the same beginning, even if we don’t know where the self or the journey ends.

    We do seem to share the idea we have end points (the somewhat arbitrary concept of zero) with an infinite number of shared points. I AM and You Are, because You ARE and I AM. You ARE and I AM NOT, I AM and YOU ARE NOT! This unthematic, raw experience, shared by every human being, gave rise to the thematic ideas we project onto our precepts of reality. Because of our gifts of language, WE can name and share our various sense of realities – same and/or different so we can communicate. Right?

    Will – “I, YOU, THEY, OTHER”- cease some day to be divided as distinct realities? That is a million dollar question! In Genesis 1,6, G-D ( or perhaps people depending on your teleologic perspective) said – “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water….and G-D called the expanse “Sky”, and then G-D called the dry land “Earth”. As Genesis continues, G-D says..let there be lights in the expanse..thus G-D’s volition separates these forms into separate entities, day/night/ water/ sky/ land, beings we call plants/ birds/ animals/ creatures/ objects/ people, as well as the things we see or don’t see, understand or deal with as unknowns, or as mysteries.

    All things separate from their creator, have their own volition, unless you believe in absolute determinism. But then why the need for separation; the need for “I think therefore I am”? However, just because this is how it has been, does not mean it has always been, nor does it imply things to come! Just as with the understanding of Quantum Theory, we know there are other un yet conceived or realized paradigms, which have new constructs, that will reach mass consensus ..not necessarily by the scientific method, but rather by collective reasoning or logic, which we at times call intuition. Not that intuition and science are separate.

    But light and logic are ambiguous…changing properties when observed or intersecting with “The Other.” Does this mean we may expand along with new knowledge? Or as some cosmetologists suggest, might we contract and disappear – if the universe chooses to swallow itself forever?

    What is “expanse”? Is it the death of one thing and the birth of another, or maybe just more and more and more? Will it extend beyond all comprehension, defy the laws of physics, the theories of nature, the universe, our abilities to comprehend it? What is volition, what is comprehension, what is forever? Will we ever be able to answer these questions?

    I believe it is a gift to ask these questions – the very nature and possibly the purpose for and meaning of our existence- at least for now.

    I look forward to reading your next blog! More fun now than when I was in college!!!

    Leap frogs, LOL

  2. Hi John, I tried to add some reflections just regarding the blog on The Structure of Play. I don’t see it so I can’t comment on it now. It might have seemed not to have addressed your deeper question, not sure what it was exactly, but I was attempting to guess anyway, for fun! What stands out for me now, as I reflect back on what you had written in 2016, was the lecture you went to on Creative Writing I think, where this philosopher or writer was speculating that the words I, Me, We, You, They would disappear in 70 or with certitude in 1000 years. I found this disturbing, and was challenged by it. So my first comments were to address what I took as an underlying teleologic question — such as are we “all one consciousness” or will we become one divine reality so that no differentiation is needed? Or, was the author speaking only about writing to an audience that keeps it free of references to persons, as if the speaker is not separate from the hearer or receiver, and vise versa? So, I am confused why the writer even said this, and maybe you can clarify for “me” what it was she or he said that made you ponder if this would happen?

    Wouldn’t language disappear if we no longer used the pronouns? We would have to be of one mind to communicate, literally, one unitive mind with no separation? That I would see only in certain very advance states of being or dasein? Than the question that would be begged: Is there a G-D or GOD or Ultimate Being, etc, that we would be re-united with so there no more need to communicate in this Earthly Dimension? Or, if you want to leave God out of the picture, what would create conditions for no reference to another, except some alien other way of communicating? Before I go on, maybe you could pontificate!

    1. Hi Denise, I think you have communicated a sense of how provoked I felt in reaction to Daniel Dennett’s prediction that the first-person and second-person pronouns – I, me, you, we, us – will eventually disappear from human speech. Dennett is a thorough materialist; he meant no reference to God or Ultimate Being. Instead like every good positivist he views science as the only way to form meaningful statements. Scientific descriptions of reality have no place for first- or second-person pronouns. Science casts everything in third-person terms from the viewpoint of a neutral observer. Therefore sometime in the future when people are sufficiently scientific, all speech will be scientific and third-person. To me it’s a horrific prophecy.

      It’s better, I think, to view science as the domain of a very large, quasi-universal we-group that is especially effective in forming consensus. But it’s only one of a multitude of we-groups. Even Dennett often begins a sentence with words like “We usually think….” which tends to undermine his point. Incidentally I have never seen this prophecy (disappearance of the pronouns) in Dennett’s writing. Perhaps he was just giving it a trial run in the talk which I heard him give at the University of Houston. Just trying to stir the pot, which he certainly did!

      I like your further speculation!

  3. Yes, we also enjoyed talking with you as well!

    For now “I” will have to think a bit about what you are saying. All I can offer at the present is the fact I agree the Scientific Method, as we have always known it, speaks in the third person. However, the results, conclusions, and generalizations are spoken in the “group-think” or “we-group” style, even if only implied. For example, the “research found” implies researchers who counted up the numbers, “the conclusion” implies the researchers thought about the results and what the results mean, may mean, or meant, etc. Science is not science without first postulating a question, and a question can only be postulated or generated by a person or persons!

    I also agree that there are many “we-groups” that come to consensus, that can be as valid as the consensus that is arrived by the purely objective scientific method. Along the same lines, purely objective scientific thinking proves nothing except that which it operationally defines. That operational definition is constructed by the rules of a paradigm, and that paradigm is only as good or valid as the temporal meaning or context in which it is thought out. It can’t point to any “real” objective truth, and we have some insight into this when we observe paradigm shifts. However, those shifts are still not objective in the true sense, since the true sense of a paradigm, hah.. well can’t be true anymore than the concept of “zero” is true! That is just a construct!

    We could get into a discussion of morality, which is often based in personal observation and logic, and I suppose you could debate if that is also a form of scientific method, although nothing is manipulated or observed from a neutral perspective. Yet, it does have a methodology that allows certain groups to come to a consensus, and some generalizations that lead to mass consensus, even though some would say it is only speculative. Speculative because what is the reference point? This is where a “grander scheme of things” might come into to play, but not everyone will buy into that in the same way. I am speaking that a “we-group” with a religious faith will have a different primal thought or first principle than another “we-group” that are agnostic, or atheistic, etc…well are their more than these perspectives?

    I also am not saying science does not have any meaning, since without it we can not communicate or build systems based in logic, which give order to our every day life, and our technology, and ways we think of “progress”. We would have absolute chaos without some way to articulate what we think we observe, and give it meaning, even if it is conjecture, as some would argue (maybe the deconstructionist’s).

    Both the scientific and personal perspective point to or generate consensus, which for better or worse define the meaning of things, or the purpose of our lives.

    I am not sure how to conclude, so I won’t for now.

    Thanks for the opportunity to join in this delightful conversation. I look forward to reading further, or to pondering your follow along ~

    1. Great summary! I especially like –
      “Both the scientific and personal perspective point to or generate consensus, which for better or worse define the meaning of things, or the purpose of our lives.”
      And I’m glad you did not conclude, because that could signal the end of the story. Much better if the story moves onward.

  4. I would like to be notified of new comments via email. I forgot to check the box the last time I replied. I also wanted to give you my husband Gary’s e-mail or his twitter which is Gary M Durak @GaryDurakPhD

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