On the Apparent Lack of Control Phenomenology

In the previous post on control consciousness, I presented a case in favor of non-sensory control phenomenology. Despite these considerations in favor of thinking that control infects large portions of our phenomenology, there is something tempting about the claim that there is no non-sensory control phenomenology. If a theory does not credit such a temptation as leading to the truth, then it would be a virtue of the theory if it could explain why such a temptation exists any way. I will here briefly sketch two main ways in which the temptation may be accounted for. The first concerns the differential bandwidth between prototypical instances of sensory inputs and motor outputs. The second concerns the degree to which introspection is itself an act.

Differential bandwidth.
Sensory inputs may be compared with each other and with motor outputs in terms of bandwidth. Estimates of the bandwidth of the human eye for color vision range from 4.32 x 10^7 bits/sec (Jacobson, 1950, 1951) to a more recent estimate of 10^6 bits/sec (Koch et al., 2006) aka a megabyte per second (1MB/sec). It is perhaps not surprising that hearing has a significantly lower bandwidth than vision (a picture being worth a thousand words, and all). Jacobson (1950, 1951) gives an estimate of 9,900 bits/sec for the bandwidth of the human ear. He also gives a bandwidth estimate of 4.32 x 10^6 bits/sec for the eye for black and white vision. These differences in bandwidth perhaps account for widespread intuitions such as the intuition that visual “qualia” are ineffable, the intuition that a person blind from birth can never be told what its like to see (Hume, Locke), and the intuition that a person reared in a black and white environment wouldn’t know what its like to see red (Jackson, 1982). The auditory channel is relatively impoverished compared to the visual channel, and the black and white visual channel relatively impoverished compared to the color channel.

So what happens when we turn our attention to motor systems? Bandwidth estimates for motor output systems are far lower than either vision or hearing. Fitts (1992) estimates motor output bandwidth at 10 to 12 bits/sec. I offer that bandwidth differences between various sensory systems and output systems can serve as a basis for explaining why many may have the intuition that there is no distinctive phenomenology for control consciousness.

Introspection as Mental Action.
Another explanation of why some may have supposed that there is no control phenomenology, an explanation that may work together with the bandwidth-based explanation, hinges on the fact that introspecting is itself an act. As such, it is reasonable to suppose that a greater load is presented in introspecting control consciousness than in introspecting sensory consciousness. To spell this out further, let us assume, for purposes of illustration, that motor systems and sensory systems have the same bandwidth. If so, bandwidth alone would not serve to account for an apparent difference in phenomenological richness. If, however, there were some additional factor present that inhibited the ability to introspectively attend to motor systems but not sensory systems, then that factor would serve to explain a difference in apparent richness.
What could such a factor be? It is a relatively well known that attempting simultaneous multiple control tasks diminishes the capacity one would otherwise have to do them singly. If introspection is itself an act, then introspecting motor control is a doubling of tasks in a way that introspecting otherwise passive sensory input is not. The doubling introduced in introspecting control consciousness thus serves as the sought-after factor that can explain a comparative lack of richness between control and sensory systems.

Previous Posts
1. Control Consciousness
2. The Pure Perceptual Model
3. The Motor Theory
4. The Imagery Theory
5. Introducing AEI
6. Control Consciousness Explained
7. Libet’s Puzzle of Will
8. Control Phenomenology

11 Responses to “On the Apparent Lack of Control Phenomenology”

  1. Eric Thomson says:

    Interesting but I’m not convinced. Fleshing out the bandwidth argument, it would look something like:
    1. If neural process X has a higher capacity (in the Shannon sense) than Y, then the phenomenology associated with process Y will be Z.
    2. Sensory processes have a higher capacity than motor processes.
    3. Therefore, The phenomenology associated with motor processes will be Z.

    My question is, what is Z? Unless it is “nonexistent” I’m not sure what this argument buys you. I could have an extremely low bandwidth sensory system (e.g., it has a capacity of 1 bit/second) and I could imagine it still having a phenomenology. Plus, of course I don’t think you want to say that Z=’nonexistent.’

    Perhaps you could say then let Z=’less noticeable or distinct.’ That would be more reasonable, but also less well defined. Also I’m not sure it is true. Say the pathway for certain classes of visceral pains is low capacity. That pain in my left arm when I have a heart attack is pretty damned compelling.

    I’m not sure of your second argument; it seems it could be used to justify the claim that there is no special control phenomenology. But I thought your point was that there is some kind of experience of control.

    OTOH stepping back a bit, what of the phenomenology of the experience that you caused something? When I blow my nose and the dog barks, I experience some kind of phenomenology of causality that is more than just the linear sum of the experience of blowing my nose + dog barking. Could that be a foot in the door with a more palpable example? It doesn’t seem to be sensory at any rate.

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Eric,

    I guess I’m not quite seeing the problem with the arguments. I’d summarize them in very condensed form like this. Some people haven’t noticed that there’s control phenomenology because (1) informationally speaking, there’s very little to it in the first place making it difficult (though not impossible) to notice and (2) given that introspection itself puts a load on control processes, control phenomenology is even more difficult to notice (though not impossible). Why is more precision called for?

    Re low bandwith pain, well things can nonetheless be noticed and with pains, they are frequently practically yoked to attention. You can barely do anything but attend to your heart attack. This highjacking of your ability to *control* what’s attended *is* the compellingness of the heart attack. But this is pretty much just to repeat my points about vividness again.

    re noseblow dogbarks, I don’t know about the phenomenology of causing distal events (though I tend not to be a Humean about it) but how about causing your own bodily motions? Do you buy the proposal that there’s a phenomenological difference between having your arm be raised by your own volition and having it be raised through no volition of your own, even though both arm-raisings may result in exactly the same *sensory* inputs concerning what’s happening in skin, muscle, and tendon? If so, then you are more than half the way to becoming a full-blown Mandikian about control consciousness.

  3. Eric Thomson says:

    Pete: I guess I don’t see why we should think there is a connection between being low bandwidth and being difficult to notice (in my locutions, Z=”difficult (though not impossible) to notice”). I think there are likely perfectly noticeable phenomena that correspond to low-bandwidth (sensory) channels.

    The problem is even it is low bandwidth sensory cases I can still point to a case of the phenomenology in question. Isn’t that what phenomenology is all about? The paper needs more of that. At least one really clear-cut case.

    That would make the arguments in this section more compelling cuz you could be like “So we’ve seen a clear-cut case of motor phenomenology X. Why do such things tend to be hard to notice?”

    On the last example, I’m not so sure. The eye-movement (me versus someone else pushing against my eye) case is good but the muscular contractions are different in the two cases. So I’m not sure it is possible to have a case with the same motor when you are doing it versus someone else doing it. I guess if you have a prosthetic limb it would be possible, we could switch it between you controlling your prosthetic limb and us controlling it remotely. As long as the limb did what you wanted, you probably wouldn’t notice any difference.

    I like the sneeze/dog example as there is no need to worry about such differences in your body state when it is you versus someone else controlling your body. But if you were to give up the body control aspect I guess that would defeat the purpose of your theory.

    I do experience a vague sense of agency I guess. But I’m not sure it isn’t just imagined exertion of muscles and such, and emotional preparation from adrenaline (e.g., if I am about to do a bench press of a large weight there is a whole phenomenology of that preparation and exertion).

  4. Pete Mandik says:

    Here’s another try on the bandwidth thing.

    First, it’s phenomenologically obvious that vision is phenomenologically richer than hearing, and color vision richer than black+white vision. It’s a very natural explanation of this differential richness to cite the bandwidth differences. And the very low bandwidth of motor putput predicts that control phenomenology is comparatively impoverished. So impoverished that it’s no surprise that some people come to the mistaken conclusion that it is totally impoverished.

    Second, the response that something can be relatively impoverished and still noticeable seems to me to be besides the point. Compare: Suppose you didn’t believe that you have flies in your house even though, as a matter of fact, you do. One possible explanation is that you have very few flies in your house. If you had several million flies in your house, you’d be highly likely to come immediately to believe that you have flies in your house. But, I offer, the reason you believe you have no flies in your house is that you have very few. Too few to have yet come to your notice. It doesn’t defeat that explanation to point out that a single fly can, under certain conditions, be perfectly noticeable. By analogy, it doesn’t seem to me to defeat the bandwidth explanation of why so few people notice their control phenomenology to point out that sometimes they can.

    Re: clear cut case of control phenomenology. Well, there was that thing I mentioned early on: someone with dental anaesthesia can still tell without looking that they are trying to open their mouth.

  5. Eric Thomson says:

    The bandwidth bit isn’t working for me as it just seems orthogonal to noticeability.

    I missed the dentist example earlier. Sorry about that. I guess it is hard to have an example that a skeptic couldn’t just say “Fine, that’s sensory.” On the other hand, if you want to say emotions are not sensory, then you’d be in the clear. My hunch is that much of these feelings of control you are talking about are emotional impressions spawned by neuromodulatory systems. Are such things sensory? Probably freaking not!

  6. Eric Thomson says:

    Another more specific problem I have with the bandwidth argument is that it implicitly assumes that it is the amount of information that could be sent through a system that determines the richness of the phenomenology, rather than the amount of information that is being sent (occurrent versus maximum possible information flow).

    For instance, say we have a green wall with a large yellow circle pasted on it. This is fairly low occurrent information flow.

    Compare that to the information flow when flying a Jumbo Jet without autopilot, or even driving a car. The occurrent information being sent out to carry out such control is likely much more than in the visual system case.

    Bandwidth tells you how much you could send, but it should be trivial to construct cases where there is less visual information than motor information travelling through the lower-level sensory/motor regions of the brain.

    Your other ‘dual act’ theory seems more interesting, perhaps something worth fleshing out more. The bandwidth argument just seems either wrong or fishy.

  7. Pete Mandik says:

    I’m not implicitly assuming what you say I am. In order for it to be true that vision is *generally* phenomenologically richer than hearing, it doesn’t need to be true that *every* visual experience has a richer phenomenology than every auditory experience. Just that they usually or typically do. That you could cook up cases where there’s more heard than seen is irrelevant to the truth of the rough generalization concerning each modality as a whole. (So what if some pictures aren’t worth a thousand words?)

    The huge discrepancies of what the upper bounds of two modalities are is pretty indicative concerning what is usually coming through the pipes.

  8. Eric Thomson says:

    That is fine, but then how would you explain why we don’t have a rich motor phenomenology when we are performing an information-rich motor task like driving a car? That seems the canonical example of unconscious behavior (not that I actually buy that it is unconscious).

    Unless you do assume what I thought you were assuming, it seems hard to see why it is so hard to come up with kick-ass instances of nonsensory phenomenology.

  9. Pete Mandik says:

    Unconscious behavior gets explained in the same way as unconscious perception, in classic AEI style: the relevant representations are either not intermediate-level or are but lack recurrence.

  10. Eric Thomson says:

    Fair enough. Were the bandwidth calculations you cited were for conscious processes? My hunch is they were done for fairly “low level” (i.e., close to the periphery) processes.

  11. Pete Mandik says:

    I’m not sure, but I think your hunch is probably correct.