More on hallucination

Brain Decoder has a good short piece on the hallucinations which come with sleep paralysis, and the cultural priming thereof. As a narcoleptic who experiences sleep paralysis multiple times a week, I feel I can speak with some authority on this matter. There are, in my experience, four levels of sleep paralysis:

  1. Fuck it, I can’t move.
  2. I can’t move, and ordinary but inconvenient things are happening.
  3. I can’t move, and WTF is going on?
  4. The Terror.

Level one is simply the paralysis, which is annoying and frustrating enough in itself, but lacks any hallucinatory content. Level Four—which you really, really do not want to experience—also lacks detailed hallucinatory content: it is simply the paralysis accompanied by a sensation of blind terror, lacking cause or meaning.

But the interesting levels with respect to hallucination are two and three; and whilst level three certainly manifests culturally-ingrained concepts, level two is equally interesting because of the incredible specificity of the hallucinations: specific not only to what I consider plausible, but actually to the particular circumstances of the attack.

It’s worth pointing out here that the hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis are almost always discomfort-inducing to some level. This annoys me, partly because it’s frightening, and partly because the one thing really, really good at getting under my own skin and playing on my particular fears is my own brain, which is exactly the organ doing the hallucination. As posted many times here, I don’t believe in free will, souls, non-material sources of consciousness, or any of that bull. The brain is simply a thought-crunching machine and in my case one with a structural fault in it; but it does irritate me that this fault seems to make it determined to put the willies up itself. Dumb brain.

The level three hallucinations, in which my brain seems set to deliberately induce full-blown fear, not only track cultural norms, but my credence thereof. When I was younger, and a more credulous individual, they were frequently supernaturalist, as described in Brain Decoder’s post. Nowadays, they very rarely are; indeed the fact that I still have any demons sitting on me (or worse) rather vexes the sternly intransigent atheist in me, as it would seem to be evidence that somewhere deep down I still can give a level of acceptance to these nonsenses. However they are, by and large, outside the paranormal but implausible for the actual circumstances.

Physical attack, alas, crops up regularly, rather horribly occasionally extending to rape. It’s worth noting that the one muscle which contracts rather than relaxes as you sleep is your anal sphincter, for reasons which it does not take a genius to work out. Occasionally, in the oddly prolonged process of falling asleep that is one of my many parasomnias, I feel this happening (you don’t want to experience this, either). Given the presumptions that the hallucinations of sleep paralysis are in part your brain’s attempt to explain to itself the peculiarity of its current experiences, it is worth noting that a common explanation for alien abduction experiences is sleep paralysis (again, a regrettably prevalent cultural trope; but one I have never experienced because I quite simply have never been close to believing that They Are Here). A much joked-about feature of the alien abduction experience is their great fondness for anal probes; and in this I see a direct corollary with my hallucinated rapes: in both cases I think it is the brain trying to explain to itself the really unwelcome sensation currently going on in the butt area.

Level two hallucinations, however, are equally astonishing: not for their linkage to cultural tropes, but to the dull and prosaic, to the ordinary detail of life around me. They seem carefully and precisely calibrated by my rebelling brain into fooling itself into irritation and worry, but highly short of heart-pumping fear. Because, at this level, my brain is working for maximum credibility, they are almost always auditory or tactile. I can’t move, my eyes are usually shut, and if I happen to be able to force them open (the paralysis is not always total) I often do not have my glasses on and, when I do, the control does not seem to extend to being able to focus. But it is incredible what my brain can achieve with this.

I’ve posted before on related matters, notably the sheer ordinariness of the level two hallucinations, and how perfectly they fit my circumstances. I’ve woken up paralysed in an airport to hear the last call for my plane only to find when I finally break out of it that they’re not yet even boarding. I’ve heard delivery men come and go from my house, only to find them turning up half an hour later. And, in the most icky but (in retrospect, at least) amusing instance, I’ve had an over-affectionate but somewhat incontinent cat fart noisily on me (possibly genuinely), and follow through. I lay there, immobile feeling in detail the discontents of Bear’s accident oozing into my jeans; as always, to come round and find a clean and perfectly happy feline curled up on me purring innocently away.

One particularly interesting feature is when I try to speak. As stated, I have some minimal control sometimes, and I often try to speak to get those around me to shake me out of it. This rarely succeeds, because the resultant vocalisation is incoherent: I lack the fine control needed to produce understandable speech. Yet to my ears, the speech sounds a bit slurry, but basically fine. It has taken me many years of people insisting to me that I was merely making inarticulate grunts indistinguishable from ordinary sleep sounds to accept how inaccurate my perception of my own voice in this circumstance is: my brain is hallucinating comprehensiblity where there is none.

As I said in my previous post, all this gives me great doubt when considering the naive realist idea that, in normal functioning, the brain simply manifests perception data directly as percepts pre-cognitively. That is, the idea that our experience of the world is a simple trajectory of sense data to full and accurate mental representation thereof to cognitive processes thereupon does not seem to match my experience. I believe that our brains are somewhat lazy: they do not process all and every sense datum and produce a perfectly representative percept before getting to work on thinking about that percept. They make up a great deal of the percept, using rules of thumb but also existing cognitive categories, even fairly high-level ones such as cultural tropes and knowledge of current circumstance. They start thinking about the content of the mental representation as they are constructing it and their specific credences and beliefs are input to our perception, not simply posterior to it.

Interesting stuff, having a malfunctioning brain. Though now I have the benefit of these insights, it’s quite welcome to start functioning properly any time it likes.

On freedom, responsibility, and obligation

Three somewhat unrelated news items in the last few days have got me thinking a little about freedom, and how one asserts it through individual or institutional action: a couple of days ago it was, apparently, Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, and a number of the rationalist and atheist blogs I frequent exhorted their readers to draw and post images of the Prophet as a protest against the Charlie Hebdo massacre in particular, and against religiously-inspired restrictions on our freedom in general; the University of Western Australia, following protests from its own staff, returned a four million dollar grant to establish a “consensus centre” under the climate-change controvertialist Bjørn Lomborg; and a baker in Northern Ireland was found to have discriminated against a gay couple by refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.

Let’s first clarify the concept of “freedom” a little, and distinguish between freedom-to and freedom-from. Freedom-to is the freedom to do something without legal or cultural restriction, whereas freedom-from is the freedom to not have something done to you. Freedom-from and freedom-to can interact: for instance, in the general liberal understanding, I have freedom to wave my fists as I please, but that freedom ends at the start of your nose, because you have freedom from being assaulted.

We can also sometimes paraphrase one type as another, for instance, the freedom to draw the Prophet being exercised in Everybody Draw Mohammed Day could also be seen as asserting freedom from censorship by a religion of which one is not an adherent or freedom from religiously-motivated violence. It is not clear to me, however, that there is exact equivalence in these rephrasings; this is not a simple logistic operation.

The distinction and convertability between freedom-to and freedom-from is relevant because, in terms of individual action, it is easy to see how freedom-to can be promoted and exercised, whereas it is harder to see how freedom-from may be. If I feel that a freedom-to is being denied me, and wish to protest or counter this, I simply do (and encourage others to do) the thing prohibited, hoping that mass action will negate or neuter the restriction. It is harder to see how, in terms of individual action, I can do something that exercises a freedom-from right. When a freedom-from right has been violated, there may be institutional processes which can be used to rectify the situation, but individual action seems substantially harder: if the government of the UK, for instance, violate my right to freedom from intrusive surveillance, there is little I can do as an individual to stop them; I must pursue systemic solutions such as the European Court of Human Rights that they are so keen to remove themselves from the purview of.

As such, one way to handle freedom-from restrictions in the light of individual action is to recast them, as above, in terms of freedom-to. Thus, for instance, Rosa Parks protested the restriction on her freedom from being subject to systematic racism by asserting a freedom to sit where she bloody well liked on a bus. No-one thinks that having a nice seat is what what primarily motivated her: it was a deliberate anti-segregational act; but as institutionally challenging the segregational laws of the USA were beyond her individual capacities she found an individual freedom-to action to assert. In this case, the recasting of freedom-from as freedom-to seems wholly reasonable.

Thus far I’ve been talking about freedom as a kind of right and, without going into detailed analyses that are beyond me, and not particularly relevant to the broad brush of my argument, of the actual nature of a right, I think we can at least loosely distinguish between moral rights: those that a moral system, culture, or even simply an individual assert exist, and legal rights: those that are enshrined in law, giving a form of redress when the right has been violated. Rights are also often associated with responsibilities: the idea being that—setting aside certain specific universal or inalienable items—rights are due to a person conditionally upon certain behaviours. Again, to draw a terminological distinction, I would align responsibilities with moral rights; where the law enshrines as legal rights conditional upon certain behaviours it seems more accurate to describe these as obligations.

In the case of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day with the exception of those participating simply because they enjoy insulting others it is a freedom-from that concerns people taking part: in the light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we should all be concerned with finding ways to assert our freedom from religiously-motivated violence; this is particularly difficult as the system which attempts to restrict our freedom-from on this front‎—‎a particular strain of extremist Islam‎—‎is not a formal institution such as segregational laws in the USA: it is a cultural phenomena rather than a legal one, and it is seeking to control the behaviour of those outside of its cultural “jurisdiction,” so the problem of individual actions against freedom-from restrictions is compounded by the fact that there is no institutional action available. As such, finding freedom-to equivalencies to assert are important, and this seems to be the motivation behind Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.

However, I think it misfires, and badly. The majority of ordinary Muslims who do not support the actions of the extremists are likely to be equally offended by this. Putting aside the fact that, frankly, that it’s just not nice (whether one is entitled to or not) to deliberately set out to offend a large number of people, the pertinent question is: in order to counter a relatively small minority of extremists, is it wise to alienate precisely the constituency from which they garner their supporters? Most extremist Muslims, it seems safe to presume, are ordinary Muslims who have been radicalized. I fully support any action to assert freedom from the extremists, but to do so in a manner that is likely to increase radicalization within their potential supporters seems, in purely pragmatic terms, wholly counterproductive. The moral right to freedom of speech, I would argue, does come with responsibilities—not obligations, and ultimately I would defend the gathered prophetic portaiteurs in their enterprise—but I think they are neglecting their responsibility to, when exerting one’s freedom of speech, at least give thought to the consequences of doing so.

The Everybody Draw Mohammed Day issue is clearly an issue around moral rights, but the gay cake issue touches upon the nature of legal rights and consequently obligations rather than responsibilities. Once we have a right enshrined in law then individual action to correct a freedom-from violation becomes possible through legal action; however we should note that it is still an institutional solution, not a simple case of individual assertion. In the case of the baker I think the judgment was wrong and I think it derived from conflict of freedoms, rather than the erroneous recasting of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. I say this despite being vigorously in favour of gay equality, and legislation to promote this. It is clear that the ruling of the judge oriented around a freedom-from: that the couple should have been entitled to freedom from discrimination based upon their sexuality. I don’t think it is coincidental that, having pursued an institutional rather than individual action, the couple had placed themselves in the domain where freedom-from restrictions are corrected, and that judges correspondingly tend to view matters in these terms. However, in doing so, the judge (in my view) overlooked the freedom-to of the business to refuse to enter into contract with anyone without necessarily having a reason, or without having a good one. A purchase is a business contract, and as such should be willingly and voluntarily entered into by both parties; to find otherwise seems to me to totally undermine the concept of private enterprise: the idea that I can oblige a private business to enter into contract with me seems ludicrous, yet it is the necessary corollary of this judgment. As I said, the law deals in obligations rather than responsibilities, and in this case the judge seems to have interpreted one person’s freedom-from in terms of another person’s obligation-to; and the restrictions on personal freedom that would be consequent should this principle be extrapolated out to all private or business dealings seems to me a far greater curtailment of freedom than the original offending (non-)action.

Let me make it clear that as far as I am concerned this freedom to refuse service for any or no reason is strictly limited to privately operating business providing private services: public institutions or private businesses running public services (whether or not I approve of that, but that’s a very different post) should not have this freedom to select their customers and, and such, I approve of the sacking of the registrar who refused to marry gay couples and would wholly support actions against, for instance, a private bus company that sought to reintroduce segregationist policies in the USA. But cake-baking does not seem to me a public concern, and though I may think that Ashers are a bunch of bigoted shites and would wholly support the couple’s freedom to publicly condemn them and encourage others to assert their freedom to shop elsewhere, in the balance of freedoms, I find myself having to support their freedom to serve who they please. The alternative is obligations-to upon private behaviour, which is one of the greatest anti-liberal positions possible.

Finally, I find myself wondering whether any reasonable concept of freedom and obligation is in any way being invoked by the right-wing, Murdoch-empire-led outcry against the University of Western Australia for having, belatedly, refused to work with Bjørn Lomborg. If you are not up to scratch on this furore: the management of the University of Western Australia accepted—with minimal consultation of its academic staff—a four million dollar grant from the Australian government (specifically pushed by the openly climate-change denialist Tony Abbott) to establish a policy research centre headed by Bjørn Lomborg. Following protests from UWA’s staff, the university decided to return the grant and not set up the centre, leading to vilification in the Australian, the Wall Street Journal, and other right-wing organs, claiming curtailment of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a right which does come with responsibilities: to be as transparent as possible, both in terms of sources of funding that may cause conflicts of interest, and in providing honest representations of the data. Yet Lomborg’s current Copenhagen Consensus Centre is startlingly opaque about the sources of the many millions of dollars that it spends—how UWA authorities managed to square this with their own research guidelines which, as for all reputable universities, require published research to disclose sources of funding (5.6) and potential conflicts of interest (8.1–8.7) is a bit of a mystery to me. And as my brother’s painstaking analyses exemplify, Lomborg flies somewhat fast and loose—to put it mildly—with data.

Lomborg considers the decision not to proceed with the centre to be a form of censorship akin to “being mugged.” Yet as a figure with a worldwide reputation and with a syndicated newspaper column that, according to Lomborg himself, reaches 30 million readers across more than 30 newspapers in 19 languages, Lomborg is hardly struggling to make his views known. Lomborg would appear to wish to convert his freedom of speech—the freedom to have and state views on any topic—into a responsibility or even an obligation to publish them on the part of UWA, or presumably wherever he next seeks to locate his woebegone centre. Thus once again one person’s freedom is interpreted as another’s obligation; this time in a manner that is ludicrous in the extreme. Even were we to look at the more rarefied concept of “academic freedom” rather than the wider “freedom of speech,” if UWA have any obligations or responsibilities in this direction, they are to ensure that the individuals and institutions they partner with meet the basic obligations of academic honesty, which Lomborg manifestly fails to do. The UWA’s freedom—no, responsibility—to deny its imprimatur to anyone found to be falling short of academic standards seems to have been lost on the cavalcade of outraged right-wing commentators.

As the UK government progresses with its deeply problematic commitment to rewrite our association with or withdraw completely from the EHCR, it is becoming increasingly important to me that we find ways to assert our freedoms. Citizen action—individual assertions of freedom-to—seems to me to be the most viable route to achieve this, but freedom does not come without responsibilities. Ill-thought-out pro-freedom actions or the interpretation of your freedom as an obligation on the part of another both run the risk of having the entirely contrary effect to that desired.

  1. If you do not know who Lomborg is then, although academic neutrality is of importance here, I am not bound by it, and so will happily exert my freedom to call Lomborg a dangerous fool or a charlatan (I care not which) who cherry-picks and distorts data to provide a veneer of academic credibility to the most perilous narrative of our times: that climate change is either not man-made, or that it is not a serious threat to the well-being of people—and, indeed all life. Lomborg is nowadays of the latter type—he does not deny anthropogenic climate change; he simply claims that it’s not a big deal, or that money spent to address it is inefficient and better spent elsewhere.

On identity

As I’m playing catch-up, I’m afraid that for I you’re just going to get a quotation. It’s not even a particularly abstruse one, but it’s as close to being a credo as I get, and it’s pertinent to the previous two posts. I still remember when I first read it, and found that it exactly expressed what I had fumblingly and incoherently been reaching towards, and, though some of the phrasing may be a bit antiquated and it may need some fine-tuning of the concepts, I still love it.

It’s Hume, of course. All stand and uncover.

There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our SELF; that we feel its existence and its continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity. The strongest sensation, the most violent passion, say they, instead of distracting us from this view, only fix it the more intensely, and make us consider their influence on self either by their pain or pleasure. To attempt a further proof of this were to weaken its evidence; since no proof can be derived from any fact, of which we are so intimately conscious; nor is there any thing, of which we can be certain, if we doubt of this.

Unluckily all these positive assertions are contrary to that very experience, which is pleaded for them, nor have we any idea of self, after the manner it is here explained. For from what impression could this idea be derived? This question it is impossible to answer without a manifest contradiction and absurdity; and yet it is a question, which must necessarily be answered, if we would have the idea of self pass for clear and intelligible, it must be some one impression, that gives rise to every real idea. But self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea.

But further, what must become of all our particular perceptions upon this hypothesis? All these are different, and distinguishable, and separable from each other, and may be separately considered, and may exist separately, and have no deed of tiny thing to support their existence. After what manner, therefore, do they belong to self; and how are they connected with it? For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions removed by death, and could I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I call reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself; though I am certain there is no such principle in me.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. Book 1, chapter 4, section 6. (Some minor edits for modern readability.)