Perception is Causation

In a previous controversial post, I attempted to bring together Zizek’s thoughts on cognitive science and on quantum physics to devise a “unified field theory” of human freedom. I failed in this attempt because I did not specify the mechanism by which the “subject” (a purely formal factor that is the “fallout” when the faculty that maps the organism’s surroundings becomes self-referential) is able to “choose its own causes.”

The answer is simple: through the negative gesture of refusing to pay attention to something, which opens up the space for paying attention to something else (i.e., “choosing” it as the relevant external factor that will determine future action). In the “normal” case, which we can for convenience call an “animal,” the inputs from the Umwelt create automatic reactions — for instance, Uexkuell’s famous tick, which can only respond to a very limited number of stimuli. In the “human” case, “consciousness” has reached a very fine-grained level that allows for responses to an indefinite number of stimuli, and “self-consciousness” provides some minimal space between perception and reaction.

I’m fine with saying that most of the time, human beings do act more or less automatically and that consciousness provides us with rationalizations in order to maintain equilibrium. Sometimes, though, at what can only be called an unconscious level, the human subject breaks with “instinctual” causality, aka the pleasure principle, by ignoring certain “causes” and attaching to others. This phenomenon is what goes by the name of “death drive” in Lacanian psychoanalysis. It loses the element of conscious deliberation that many people want from free will, but it seems to be the only way to talk about an action being self-caused as opposed to being externally caused. That is, it provides a non-reductionistic account of human agency, and you now how big I am on non-reductionism!

(By calling the two different models “animal” and “human,” I’m not meaning to reinforce the traditional boundary between the two — it seems possible to me that certain other animal species have reached the short-circuit level that I’m calling the “human,” and not even necessarily only primate species.)

22 thoughts on “Perception is Causation

  1. Why would attaching to some causes rather than others make an action self-caused as opposed to externally caused? In either case, it’s an external cause which is doing the causal work.

    I’m also not sure why the “death drive” works where the “pleasure principle” wouldn’t, here; it seems that in both cases there are a multitude of stimuli, and the human reacts to only some of them. I don’t see why it makes a difference which (non-conscious) human power causes which stimuli to be reacted to. Is it just that reactions guided by the “pleasure principle” are called “instinctual” and reactions guided by the “death drive” aren’t?

    We are agreed in thinking non-reductionism is peachy keen. (Would it be annoying if I plugged Davidson again, here? Attributing causal powers to beliefs and desires leads to a rather straightforward sense in which actions are “self-caused”, and Davidson’s philosophy of mind (and action) are non-reductionistic; the mental is anomalous.)

  2. If “death drive” is unaccountable, then why does it make sense to equate its work with actions which are “self-caused”? Why not “uncaused”? Or “caused by we-know-not-what”? Or if it’s just unaccountable as instinct, then why shouldn’t we think it’s some other external cause — same genus as instinct, different species?

    If you want a non-reductive account of agency, I’m not seeing why this appears to be an attractive route to take.

  3. The diffficulty is not only Adam’s. Freud never satisfactorily explained why such a thing as a death drive could come about, counter-intuitive as it would be if we are a pleasure-seeking organism.

    And personally I think it’s a dead-end trying to talk of instincts, organism, consciousness, self-consciousness and freedom in the same breath. Or, to put it another way, undialectically. For the reasons Husserl and later phenomenologists (and of course Schutz who brings in the all-important category of society) set out at length.

    Trying not to mention the Master-Slave dialectic here too: Begierde is an incredibly rich and nuanced category in this context which overcomes the tendency to reduce thought and desire to the physical (or the abstractly universal ‘organism’) or conversely to forget thought and self-consciousness’s appetitive, animal element (Robert Brandom picks up on this in a recent essay). And of course Schutz’s ‘society’ is already there in the patterns of recognition in which desire is always already involved.

  4. And — just in case anyone is interested in understanding the context of what I’m saying rather than just shooting off at random — the goal of Zizek’s section on cognitive science in The Parallax View is to give an account of how the death drive arises. If you haven’t read it, then maybe you’re not able to make an intelligent comment on this. Sorry to make you feel left out!

  5. where is the most nurturing environment on this blog then? i have to say that i’m getting this whole “constant argument” thing you folks seem to be into – right on, man, and/or groovy… what’s the appropriate expression these days?

  6. I just have a very low tolerance for either basic questions or responses that aren’t within the frame of what I’m writing. For instance, I already know that psychoanalysis is problematic on many levels — but if I’ve already decided to write about Zizek, questions about the validity of psychoanalysis are not at all helpful.

  7. so basically in a kind of dogmatic determination (“i’ve already decided to write about Zizek” – all the problems with Zizek/psychoanalysis are bracketed and suspended from discussion) you are only interested in hearing and responding to questions that fall within your elected dogmatic preference, i.e. questions you have, in a sense, already answered by the very selection of the preference – isn’t that the very opposite of the open-ended philosophical discussion and against der Zizekgeist, if I may put that way?

  8. but Christ is my buddy! Ok, so you think that one has to accept the validity of psychoanalysis by faith like one accepts the existence of God so that one can discuss Zizek or Augustine? If I was writing about a passage from Augustine that postulated the existence of God and its major premises were very much dependent on that postulation, I would have certainly raised at least a possiblity of discussing the existence of God in order to understand Augustine’s argument – of course, I see your point in terms of if Augustine believes that God exists then we should just leave it along, however, faith in God is not really analogous to faith in the correctness of psychoanalysis, otherwise you end up in a kind of dogmatism and your work is a simple exegesis of Zizek or psychoanalysis that would resemble the work of an Augustinian scholar indeed. but that would be boring, of course…

  9. Okay, I used a poor analogy.

    What I find unhelpful about Why Aitch’s comment (beside the fact that it comes from someone with an idiotic pseudonym) is that it is (a) simply dismissive and (b) ignorant. He says Freud failed to prove how the death drive arose — fine, I think Freud would even agree with that. Thing is, psychoanlysis did not die with Freud. And if he’d actually read any of the texts I’m referring to, he would realize that Zizek is offering an account of how the death drive (a concept that has itself undergone considerable development since Freud) could arise. I’m not asking him to accept Zizek’s argument by any means, but since I’m talking about Zizek’s argument, it is much more helpful to disagree with Zizek’s argument rather than with the unfounded nature of psychoanalysis as a whole.

    Being dismissive is always an option — intellectual life would be impossible without being able to summarily dismiss stuff. I prefer that people express their dismissal by not commenting on my fucking post. It saves everyone’s time.

  10. i see. i concur. i wouldn’t be so dismissive about the value of dismissiveness though, but i can see where you’re coming from. so what is your theme with Zizek? you can just link me to a post if this was already discussed…

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