The brain-in-itself: Kant, Schopenhauer, cybernetics and neuroscience

Artem Kaznatcheev pointed me to this article on Kant, Schopenhauer, and cybernetics (emphasis added):

Kant introduced the concept of the thing-in-itself for that which will be left of a thing if we take away everything that we can learn about it through our sensations. Thus the thing-in- itself has only one property: to exist independently of the cognizant subject. This concept is essentially negative; Kant did not relate it to any kind or any part of human experience. This was done by Schopenhauer. To the question `what is the thing-in- itself?’ he gave a clear and precise answer: it is will. The more you think about this answer, the more it looks like a revelation. My will is something I know from within. It is part of my experience. Yet it is absolutely inaccessible to anybody except myself. Any external observer will know about myself whatever he can know through his sense organs. Even if he can read my thoughts and intentions — literally, by deciphering brain signals — he will not perceive my will. He can conclude about the existence of my will by analogy with his own. He can bend and crush my will through my body, he can kill it by killing me, but he cannot in any way perceive my will. And still my will exists. It is a thing-in- itself.

Let us examine the way in which we come to know anything about the world. It starts with sensations. Sensations are not things. They do not have reality as things. Their reality is that of an event, an action. Sensation is an interaction between the subject and the object, a physical phenomenon. Then the signals resulting from that interaction start their long path through the nervous system and the brain. The brain is tremendously complex system, created for a very narrow goal: to survive, to sustain the life of the individual creature, and to reproduce the species. It is for this purpose and from this angle that the brain processes information from sense organs and forms its representation of the world.

In neuroscience, what is the thing-in-itself when it comes to the brain? What is ‘the will’? Perhaps this is straining the analogy, but What do you have when you take away the sensory input and look at what directs movement and action? The rumbling, churning activity of the brain: the dynamics which are scaffolded by transcription of genes and experience with the environment. That which makes organisms more than a simple f(sensation) = action.

Then as neuroscience advances and we learn more about how the dynamics evolve, how genetic variation reacts to the environment – does the brain-in-itself become more constrained, more knowable? In a certain sense, ‘will’ is qualia; but in another it is that which feels uncaused but is in reality a consequence of our physical life. Will is not diminished by its predictability.

Just some thoughts from a snowy day before Thanksgiving. But Kant and Schopenhauer are worth thinking about…


One thought on “The brain-in-itself: Kant, Schopenhauer, cybernetics and neuroscience

  1. Schopenhauer should be thought about with great caution, especially if one cannot be with family on thanksgiving.

    Minor technical points now. I am not sure if Schopenhauer would agree that qualia is Will. Here I think that Turchin is misreading. Schopenhauer is perfectly fine with having will-less sensation — which would be pure qualia — in fact, he builds his aesthetics on this: the beautiful and sublime are sensations of certain types from which you were able to strip the will.

    I’ve discussed prediction again recently, and if you look at the last paragraph, I stretch some connections that Seth Lloyd pointed to between free will and the uncomputable. You might enjoy this. Note that for Schopenhauer, there is not tension with Will not being free, he was very much a compatibilist by modern readings.

    Finally, on the cybernetic will, maybe we should look at pre-sensory self-organization in the fetus for inspiration? However, for me this points less to will or thing-in-itself (which I still want to be deep ‘objective’ metaphysical statements) and more at the transcendental structure of our ways of organizing perception: in other words, what was ‘space’ and ‘time’ for Kant — not thing outside in the world, not things given by our senses, but a ‘logic’ imposed by our perceptive abilities on all of our sense data.

    I love doing this kind of play, but we have to always be careful when we feel like we found the “scientific basis” for great philosophical concepts… often we’ve just misunderstood or redefined them in a way that would not appeal to the original authors.

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