Reconstructing the Tower of Babel: Mind and World, Consciousness and Experience


  • Sean O Nuallain stanford


Sensorimotor, Cognitive and noetic, Noumenal, Coupled, Intentional and "determinative”


This paper seeks an exit from the miasma enveloping science of the subjective. First, it unpacks the various meanings of the word "consciousness".  It agrees with contemporary literature that attention admits of two modes; involuntary attention  and voluntary attention. It goes on to argue that the former is best modeled by "interrupts" in computer operating systems and often reflect "chunked" learned skill behaviour.  Voluntary attention, on the other hand,  always  reflects a processing thread globally broadcast through the nervous system and is  thus inevitably conscious.

It is this process  of selecting something to observe and moving back and forth from superposition (see my 2013 paper)   that AI systems cannot yet come close to mastering; from it emerge not only humans' trans-Turing computational capacities but very possibly the furthest reaches of human creativity, exemplified by the reveries of geniuses like Mozart and Einstein. In particular, it is arguable that the strong AI positions gained traction only because of the attenuation of psychology's domain from the mid 19th century.

To clear the ground, several distinctions should be made. In terms of epistemological domain, humans function at sensorimotor, cognitive and noetic levels. The last, a distinction we adapt from Aristotle,  occurs  when "the unreasonable effectiveness of math" gives us insight into a level of reality that our evolutionary heritage should not allow.

Secondly, the term "noumenal" is adapted to refer to instances in which the subject, trying to get a veridical purchase on a situation, considers itself as an object. So we can move from egocentric/coupled sensorimotion to allocentric/decoupled such. The Roomba vacuum needs only coupled knowledge; if I'm here, I do this. Allocentric knowledge  is a representation of the room.  In a final wrinkle, we term "relativistic" the attested phenomenon of egocentric sensorimotion in an allocentric context. This is an artifact of intentionality.

That analysis extends also to cognition and noesis. The former was best characterized by Piaget as the result of internalization of processes that originally occurred midway between subject and world. For him, the royal road to epistemology was study of the development of children's minds - another sense of the "foundations of mind".

Normative ie necessary facts about knowledge could be elicited from the contingent facts of its development. Moreover, the necessity of logic itself derived from universal restrictions on physical interaction with the world. The project reached its limits not just empirically, with many results being unreplicated, but epistemologically as we seem to know a lot more than Piaget's  "Naí¯ve physics" warrants (see my 2003 book).

 "Naí¯ve physics" which does not use pi, i, e and other "Platonic" entities is a cognitive undertaking. And so Archimedes in his bath has a noumenal moment   of subject/object differentiation. Rather famously, Einstein extended this analysis, using only cognitive concepts/naí¯ve physics, to argue that physics required that space and time had to be "relative" to the observer - paradoxically  in order to maintain the universality of physical law.

Quantum mechanics (QM) is a fortiori noetic; indeed, it is a moot point whether reality at this level is cognitively penetrable. What is not controversial is Von Neumann's  attested proof that the boundary of subject and object in QM is moveable. Much work was done by researchers like Stapp  to ensure Von Neumann's breakthrough is compatible with special relativity.

Yet that is not the full story. Quantum observation seems to change the external world; indeed, Stapp follows Dirac in arguing that the wave function of the universe changes during observation. Moreover, unless one (like Milne and Stapp) argues for two kinds of time, the observer can also change the past. The act of observation seems to be more akin to incantation/invocation in ancient religions.

That is clearly disturbing. Yet "the unreasonable effectiveness of math" has led to  this conclusion. Math is capable of  the most elliptical and veridical description of reality that can reliably be communicated. In short, we are doing something in QM that possibly is part of humanity's heritage, even for the 99.9999..% of humanity which never knew QM.

This type of capacity has famously been claimed by Shamans and often has been rolled into a totalizing theocratic ordering of society that should be resisted by every rational person. The response from fundamentalists is twofold. For their base, they insist on incessant repetitions of  prayers of incantation and invocation. These often remind God that he is omnipotent and should do something about the situation. If it doesn't work, the prayer has been insincere and should....well, it should be repeated more sincerely.

The fundamentalists take a different strategy in their debate with the forces of "reason". They argue that, on an individual level, "reason" has led only to moral and epistemological relativism. On a social level, the extension of "rights" can only go so far until the facts of biology create the kind of backlash that allowed an opportunist like Trump become President.

It is at this point that we will introduce "consciousness". Obviously, if everything is relative to "consciousness", the only reality, it contains the only value. However, if we grain our epistemology more finely, we find that there indeed are processes that are relative to individual "consciousness" which has a sampling speed of about 0.1 sec, and others that are biological, occurring indeed in the picoseconds,  or transcendent to "consciousness" in that they exemplify forces that in exigent fashion integrate us into the social group,

The history of psychology, and of the public university, constrains the response to this in interesting ways. Arguably, academic psychologists are the people least qualified to tackle the issue of exigent forces as their entire career has been based on a notion of mind which accepts only externals that are relative to consciousness. Conversely, to accept the social forces - which today includes a surveillance state fully as pervasive as a theocracy - into the mix is to take a perhaps unwelcome step into the real world.

This final point will delineate that step. The activists who today take part in rallies knowing that their texts to each other are being swept up by the police are themselves involved in delineating the  boundary of subject and object. For example, "Occupy" activists recently had perhaps a rather Lakoff/maternal view of the state shaken by the knowledge that a la Cointelpro, the state was bugging them. Of course, their erstwhile pre-FBI state was described by Marx as false "Bewusstsein", false consciousness. Their  passage into the real world no doubt has birthed many support groups who know that something sacred needs to be preserved,

As indeed, in the individual case, is the sensorimotor passage from being blocked to flow, and the individual's passage from intersubjective to authentic. None of these processes is  the focus of academic psychology. They may, however, form the basis for religious practices that yearn for the betterment of humanity, rather than the retrenchment of a Neolithic worldview. Ironically, the facts of QM are on the side of the activists, self-authenticators, artists, and dancers. What we so far lack are authentic spiritual leaders, and we discuss below what they might do if extant.




How to Cite

O Nuallain, S. (2018). Reconstructing the Tower of Babel: Mind and World, Consciousness and Experience. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 14(1), 276–300. Retrieved from