A highlight from BI 153 Carolyn Jennings: Attention and the Self
Popular view of philosophy to seek consciousness as the thing and self as nonexistent in an illusion and what I'm doing is I'm saying the self is a thing and then consciousness is just the way that the self is related to its world. I think that one of the reasons that people will be uncomfortable with it who have been in consciousness research for a long time is just because it's become so popular to think about consciousness as a thing. So popular that people say things like. This is brain inspired. This is brain inspired. Everyone, I'm Paul. William James, the super influential psychologist and philosopher, famously in 1890, wrote, everyone knows what attention is. That turned out not to be true, instead, like other cognitive functions we give names to, like memory, or consciousness, the more that we study attention, the more subdivided the concept becomes, leading to a taxonomy to describe the varieties of what we collectively call attention, like top down versus bottom up attention, feature based versus spatial, attention, overt versus covert, attention, and so on, and some people even argue that the word attention isn't even useful anymore. And we should abandon it. Carolyn dicey Jennings is a philosopher and a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Merced, and in her book the attending mind, she lays out an attempt to unify the concept of attention. Carolyn defines attention roughly as the prioritization of some stuff over other stuff. Based on our collective interests. And one of our main claims is that attention is evidence of a real emergent self or subject that can't be reduced to microscopic brain activity. She does connect attention to more macroscopic brain activity, suggesting that slow, longer range oscillations in our brains can alter or entrain the more local neural activity. And this is a candidate for mental causation. So we unpack that more in our discussion and how Carolyn situates attention among other cognitive functions, like consciousness, action, and perception. I link to her book and some other relevant articles, and you can learn more about Carolyn in the show notes at Brandon's dot co slash podcast slash 153. On the website you can also sign up to support brain inspired via Patreon for various bells and whistles, like full episodes and joining our Discord community. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters and thank you for listening, or watching. All right, here's Carolyn. Carolyn, the book is the attending mind, and a right before we were talking here, I was frantically looking it up because of course it has a subtitle, but it has no subtitle. Why no subtitle? Yeah, no, sometimes. I like things to be short and sweet, I guess. They didn't ask you for all books, all science books or philosophy books have subtitles, right? This is important hard hitting interview questions. Yeah. I guess they do often have long subtitles, I'm really inspired by philosophers like Susan Wolfe, who tried to connect more with the public or federici who try to be really clear with their writing and that's a goal of mine and I feel sometimes like the really long subtitles are at odds with that. Okay, well, so the title is very short. And by the way, I like that it has no subtitle, by the way. It's not a criticism. But the book and the book is not long either, but it is dense and thick and has lots of goes down lots of paths, lots of details and stuff. Maybe I'll just start off with a very easy quote here from the book. And then we can unpack it, right? Consciousness, because consciousness is the interface between a subject and its world, action is the subject's contribution to that interface. And attention is but one way to get there. So we have a lot to unpack here, perhaps. So like I was saying, the book covers a lot of ground in philosophy and neuroscience and psychology. And there's no way that we're going to get to all the topics discussed in the book. And this book was two years old now, so it's probably old hat for you, and it was based on over a decade of your previous works and thinking. Yeah. Maybe we can start with, you know, we're going to have to unpack the ideas in the book, many of them. But maybe what I want to start with is just asking you what you feel most sure about in your work. And I don't know how your mind has developed and changed since publishing this work. In terms of the ideas that we'll get to, but what do you feel most sure about in the book? I feel the most sure about the existence of a self, which is I would say the strongest claim of the book as well. So yeah, that's probably where I bet there is something responsible for attention that could be seen as a one possible solution to problem of free will, for example. With agency, I feel confident about that. And in keeping with that, I feel pretty confident about rejection of a reductionist perspective of the universe. That all causation occurs at one level that all science occurs at one level and should be that we should think of science as ultimately coming back to one level, whatever that is. I feel confident about that that it's actually really useful to think in terms of multiple levels and that agency is one of the cases where you can really see that. So that's where I feel confident. I would say places where a part of the book that I feel less confident about and I haven't continued to work on would be the stuff about legal theory all the way at the end, which kind of makes sense because sort of starts with the stuff that I'm the most excited about in the book and kind of ends with the stuff that I feel the least confident about, but going out into a new direction that I may continue later. But there are also things that I just didn't complete in the book. And so in a way, I feel less confident about those things too, but I'm hoping to complete them eventually and those are things like what is where is the boundary between self and world?