philosopher's stone

"Reflex Cycle"

philosopher's stone

Reflex Cycle

The Startled Reflex considered phenomenologicalY
in opposition to a core set of machine learning interpretations

Drafting in the slipstream of the gravelly sound that the pebbled surface pinched from his tires, he leaned through the turn while his shiny new mountain bike torqued up a voluminous hum. The sound compressed the carriage road ahead of him with an impending sense of urgency. As he churned through the turn swiftly, the raspy sound behind his effort diminished as rapidly as it had arisen in front. Startled by the initial receipt of the sound, I turned to peer through his clear goggles to determine if he would acknowledge the presence of another being as he passed—even if only through a reflexive glance in my direction. I did, after all, occupy the same carriage trail on the way to Lake Awosting. But I discovered no acknowledgement of me in his engaged vision. All of his consciousness was addressed to the activity and the appearance of riding, though his speed relative to the sweeping bend did not require locked in vision at the moment. Nonetheless, to him, other beings were simply obstacles on the day’s training course— for the momentary passing also revealed a self-absorbed pride seated upon the well-tuned equipment that he mounted; all of it a bit out of gamut relative to the actual challenge of the terrain.

Because I was on foot, the absence of even a reflexive glance in my direction irked me equally out of gamut to the situation. I had often been on the opposite side of the exchange and found it necessary to pay heed— in fact, to give preference to those on foot relative to riding on a mountain bike. There are many reasons for this priority treatment in the Gunks, but it really boils down to a basic level of courtesy that should be self-evident. It is the disparity of time. Normally, most of our movements conform to the baseline pace of our gait. When biker passes hiker the disparate time frames greet each other on unequal footing. On a hilly or curved portion of a carriage trail, it is not uncommon for mountain bikers to catch hikers in the overactive and clumsy contortion of a startled reflex; particularly if they approach from the rear. As the mountain bike crests a hill previously unperceived, the startled foot soldier experiences an expanding sense of alert that must keep pace not with the actual approach of the rider who suddenly appears, but with the compressed time that signals the alarmed body upon impact. In response, the body overshoots the necessary response as it seeks to gather updated information. Time is relative for the two participants. Because the disparity splits the epoch into two different flows, it should be common courtesy for the mountain biker to momentarily position themselves in the other’s shoes, so to speak. Adjustments should be incorporated to over-emphasize a sense of control in the passage so as to compensate for the exaggerated sound of alarm received on the other side. Usually, this simply involves a gesture of breaking, if not a real slowing of pace, and a friendly acknowledgement of the other, even if one’s eyes must be fully engaged in the activity of riding.

As my startled reflex transformed its left over motor activity into a gathering sense of annoyance, such thoughts buoyed this momentary agitation until they let go their moorings and seemed to stand apart from the experience that had just produced them. I began to think quite generally that, as an occasional mountain bike rider myself, I thought that it was unfortunate that self-absorbed riders gave mountain biking a bad name in this region, at least from the perspective of those on foot. As this thought occupied a few strides beyond the now-extinguished startled reflex, its trajectory began to branch into derivative agitations and an ongoing narrative. But in the midst of this transition, the heightened sound of voices in dialogue reached me well ahead of another pair of mountain bike riders approaching. The two approached at a more moderate pace so as to sustain their conversation, even though each had to speak with power enough for their forward facing voices to overcome the resistance that they cycled against. The forward trajectory of their dialogue was thus enwrapped with a rearward component for the trailing rider to remain within earshot. This all amounted to near shouting as they approached. Positioned on the trail in front of the riders, I suspected that I could hear each participant better than they could hear each other. Even though these riders were objectively louder than the solo rider, the abrupt imposition of their sound into my space did not stir the same irksome reaction as the sound that had accompanied his heroic pose. Why had he invoked an irksome response? Was it his overly exhibitionist form? Through some Sartrean version of ‘angst’, did his subjectivity supersede my subjectivity by his reluctance to acknowledge me? Did his ignoring of my presence invoke an overt consciousness of my independent existence, only to be nullified by his conscious engagement elsewhere— his own subjectivity now occupying the same space that I had previously considered mine, even if only temporarily?

No. Such mental contortions were not necessary to explain my agitation. It did not arise as a pure and isolated mental agitation whipped up in the machinations of cogitations said to constitute the independence of thought. It arose simply because I was caught in the act of a startled reflex, and that reflex matured into a subsequent phase of experience. The unpleasant physical feeling had momentum enough to seek expression beyond itself— gaining, thereby, the threshold requirement for a budding series of thoughts that were attached to that feeling in the same manner that branching tributaries are attached to the main flow of a river that overflows its banks. Attention was forcefully solicited by the rider’s abrupt sound of approach, and as such, it could not remain in the haze between non-being and being. In the end, there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ stimulus. Stimulus requires completion, and, in this case, a reason for being. The problem was that the real reason that was attached to this rapid marshalling of attention— the rider’s actual cadence— did not match the heightened bodily alarm that the sound’s abrupt seizure dislodged upon impact. The mismatch created a gap— an energetic vacuum that was filled with gathering annoyance— along with newly arisen thoughts that served to ‘finish’ the ramped up trajectory that had been set off by the reflex. The reflex did not simply set off mechanical action at the level of the body that I might observe a few milliseconds later, the action ultimately set in motion the re-marshalling of an attentive agent, namely me. In this case no urgent actions or determinations of novel reactions were required. The mechanics of alarm were simply felt and transitioned to thought. Non-urgent thoughts then took over the power of novelty that would be employed in a far more intense fashion should the situation have called for it.

Nonetheless, a ‘situation’ was solicited. Though not deemed urgent, it was still a situation— namely, a central perspective of interest or concern seated in a context of meaning that is relevant to it. That automatic central perspective from which all concern radiates we tacitly understand to be our selves, but even though our biological sciences at one time also understood those selves to comprise the whole organic reaction system that we are— including the physiological processes set in motion at the level of our body— it is currently fashionable in many technical quarters to divorce that organic whole from a set of blind instructions dispatched mechanically from either the genome directly, or indirectly, through the brain’s reactions designed to generate versions of ‘functional outputs’ that may work for that genome. In these conceptual gene-centered (selfish gene type) interpretations— which are at work not only in our biological sciences, but increasingly in many of the assumptions of artificial intelligence and its applied goals— the whole organism as an organic agent is not considered physically real. Let me explain.
Traditionally, the genome was understood to code the species-specific instructions that physically self-organized an entire living organism by means of an orchestrated coupling and reactive dialogue with a specific environment, including, in our case, a social one. The genes housed the intruction set for an open-ended set of processes that the organism could engage. At select times and for select species, this included also the capacity to act as an autonomous agent fully embedded in a physical world of causality as effectuated by the myriad unfolding of processes and reactions that cycle forth through that organism’s dialogue with their environment. For some animals even, this set of autonomous actions includes that most primary of organizing domains for the gathering and enactment of self-gathering agency: a sentient experience— the so-called “lived” experience of sense perception, feelings, and, at least for humans, flowing thought.

Today, however, these seemingly self-evident foundations have largely been dismissed simply because conceptual thought is said to be capable of coming to false conclusions and beliefs. The unreliable credibility of the content, interpretations, or judgments of thought are used to attempt to undermine its natural occurrence as a sentient physical process because sentience is put forth in these models as a ‘false belief’, or false judgment. The driving motivation for these theories is the old dualist mandate (mind and matter considered as completely separate ultimate substances, as opposed to diverse phenomenon from processes) that tacitly understood all experienced mental phenomenon to be non-physical, and therefore, non-causally embedded in the matrix of physics. Ironically, the new models seek to overcome duality simply by considering all mental experience to be ‘epi-phenomenal’ or unembedded in the real causal matrix of the only foundation that exists for them: traditional materiality. That is to say that, their own model places all emphasis on an even greater belief than the old dualism, only it places that belief entirely on the material side. This simply restates the same old dualism. We will discover the very slick ways that these models tacitly smuggle in the causal intentionality that mental phenomenon appear to exhibit. To be sure, they do not deny that mental phenomenon exist, they simply deny that their intrinsic nature within the universe of latent physical properties renders intentional behaviors and experienced feelings alike to be mere phantasms relative to the ‘real’ physical work of the blind genome. In a different version, that phantasmagorical domain of the ‘lived experience’ is indeed an intrinsic property of some set of processes, only those processes are entirely virtual, i.e., symbolic representations of information processing data, so to speak— but still non-embedded in the physical-causal workings of the world. In these models, both the genome and its products have been divorced from their organic matrix, in favor of an Idea. This kind of conceptual interpretation is possible only if the abstract machinations of thought— its so-called ‘algorithmic’ capacity to generate outputs— is somehow tacitly interpreted to harbor within the beliefs that it generates (whether true or false), the power of granting sentience. For some select set of processes, outputs are said to somehow bootstrap sentience as a virtual parallel phenomenon to the physical processes that are said to be the ‘real’ activity underway. 

A radically under-appreciated fact is that a version of these astonishing interpretations sit at the very heart of many of the assumptions that traditional neuroscience and modern information processing/machine learning disciplines tacitly profess even while the ground-breaking methodologies that they employ do not actually deploy such concepts. They remain powerful, nonetheless, as interpretive concepts that drive our value systems. In the nineteenth century, nature was to be overcome by the power of machines. In the twenty-first century, nature is not to be subdued; it is to be improved upon and multiplied. The basic assumption is that modern technology is thought to mirror the schematic contours of nature in a parallel, improved, and sometime virtual embellishment, based on some of these tacit assumptions. Perhaps it is time to ask with more discipline: what happens if those guiding schematic models for our applied technologies and sciences are radically under formed and malnourished? What kind of world will we actually build when we lose sight of the fact that the meagre little map is not the territory?

Well over a hundred years ago, during the heyday of a different kind of technical revolution, William James and John Dewey employed their massive intellects against a similar proliferation of over-exuberant models that proclaimed a final determination of nature’s contours and humankind’s strictly mechanical place in it. It made sense that the era that spawned those mechanical models was the industrial revolution, just as it makes sense that the era that spawned today’s ‘virtual reality’ models for consciousness was, more recently, the information age. John Dewey specifically addressed a portion of his work toward the notion of human agency. He used the example of a behavioral sequence set off by a nerve reflex to make the point that “the older (separation) of body and soul finds a distinct echo in the current (separation) of stimulus and response.” He stressed the nature of the seamless transformation from stimulus to response as an ongoing organic momentum rather than a disjointed separation between ‘empty data’ and a ‘mechanical response’. He pointed out that physical response could not be understood as ‘active’ without recognizing that the activity was further elaborated and incorporated into the phenomenological world of a real agent with real causal powers to act in the world. (Although the term ‘phenomenological’ was introduced and stressed by later writers). In some respects this may all sound overly self-evident, but that is hardly the case when it comes to crucial interpretive models at play in today’s science and technology. In short, for Dewey, the stimulus was not empty, but nor was the response. It was, like sensation, merely a precursor to a budding act by a real agent. Even if the reflex arc initiates only mechanical movement, and even if it did so at first unconsciously, that movement is properly “taken up” by the sentient actor in the case of humans and animals. It is, in the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “lived” and elaborated.

Like the stimulus in Dewey’s simple reflex arc, we can describe the actual richness of our perceptual lives to be only a phase in a wider organic transformation rather than an isolated copy of a relevant state in the distal world. Features of the world’s patterns are selected for maturity and completion, not like independent sound waves impacting the ear, but like the first movement of a musical score. The process takes within its temporal transition the silence between the notes, as well the anticipated transitions that have been built up like emotional tension just before release. Both aspects work to stir the motion of emotion, because like music, the perceptual organization is often feeling-based. Music is not the disparate recording of sound waves, but rather, the pooling of instruments capable of mediating emotion and feeling. For perception at large, the sound is similarly developed into music, and the music endures even while it undergoes perpetual transition. We are that music.


Riding a bicycle is a ‘cyclical’ process not only because the wheels are round and the cadence is cyclical, but because it requires a sustained momentum of activity with minute motor adjustments that are also cyclical. Balance is achieved through that ongoing momentum in the context of increasingly more refined adjustments of muscle output. In living organisms, a recurrent cyclical process isn’t just a process that incorporates preset feedback mechanisms to alter and adjust the subsequent sequential output, it is a sustained current of activity that blends or infuses changes back into an ongoing cycle of adjusted activity. Frequent iterative cycles with high volume pooling of inputs, or “inputs that matter”,  are also put to work in the brain’s cortical processing. Modern machine learning technologies attempt to emulate these recurrent type processes by harnessing on-the-fly gradients that correlate a change of pooled inputs in the ‘deep’ network through a change of error with respect to a desired goal. The upshot is that output and input are not pre-programmed in these networks, they self-learn to adjust toward a goal by reducing a measure of deviation from that goal. Downward adjustments in the error relative to the desired goal means that, in essence, what is cycling is an ongoing adjustment of pooled inputs required for success.

What is most interesting about the increasing success of artificial intelligence machine learning technologies and the vast organic networks that it tries to emulate in the brain, is that, unlike the ‘either-or’ model of binary computing and its coded rules for collapsing pools of inputs into a single assertive output that is either true or false (akin to our notion of logic), real neural networks and ‘deep’ modern machine learning architectures actually capture precisely that pooled information prior to a binary collapse without losing its analogue-like subtly of gradation before thresholding. The upshot is that, contrary to so many descriptions, these systems, like real brains, are not a strict form of ‘binary’ computer logic at all.

Remember that some of the modern models for consciousness consider it a rule-based computation system that is said to only operate on the efficacy of generated outputs (as either ‘true’ or ‘false’; like assertions and beliefs). This laid the philosophical groundwork for considering belief in one’s own awareness to be a binary-like computational output because all cogitation was thought to be a form of this rule-based computation. Moreover, the current connotation of the word ‘consciousness’ is highly intertwined and saturated with the term cognition, as opposed to the notion of a lived sentient experience.
This all seemed to make sense at the time, and it supercharged the original impetus of artificial intelligence in the nineteen fifties and sixties. The problem is that this conceptual model is a residual artifact from the past because actual neural networks and modern deep learning networks do not operate in a strictly binary fashion at all. Even the fundamental unit of a real synapse that operates between vast trees of pooled inputs and a single neuronal output has recently been revealed to retain a combination of processing at both of those ends. Recent experiments have confirmed that the vastly branched and massively pooled dendritic tree ‘input’ side of the synapse retains its subtly of gradation by cycling back some of its processed information to directly adjust the power of its own input branches even while its summed pool of signals passes through the neuron’s axon hillock so as to determine in a binary fashion whether that neuron and its dendritic tree of networks will contribute its vast input of pooled networks to a subsequent network. As a whole, then, the system is not strictly rule-based or strictly binary in the least— it adapts and self adjusts in the context of a goal. That ‘goal’ is not pre-programmed in sentient life forms, it is capable of being self-modulated, altered and organically proliferated by the organic agent. That is, the sentient agent. The whole process cycles with the behaviors impacted on the environment. It is not simply the execution of instructions. And who would those instructions benefit if they are only blind and material? How would the necessary feedback be even recognized in such a complex system?

All of this puts new emphasis on the ongoing embedded cyclical processing that everything from John Dewey’s simple reflex arc to our descriptions of the entire complex of sensation, perception, emotion and cognition fundamentally undergo. The larger lesson is that none of these components can be isolated as independent or ‘empty’ mechanical happenings without a contextual reference to a “lived” phenomenological domain to organize it, even if only at the level of motivation and self concern.

Our understanding of the latent phenomenological potentials that physical processes can harbor requires radical revision, or at least a new openness. In the meantime, hang on tight— it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

C.H.Carver from Philosopher's Stone

The links below access the online adapted version of the book and do not correspond to the order published in the physical booklet. Only a few master copies of the book remain (published 2018), so this set constitutes the original impetus of the work in a different order. In the physical book, the essay "Intimate Otherness" (below) introduced the Gunks through Mohonk Mountain House, the historical introductory anchor to the region. Don't forget to check out related Gunks landscapes (on istockphoto by Getty Images).


a phenomenological essay series

The Philosopher's Stone

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