Viewer as Homunculus

Posted: February 7, 2012 at 2:48 pm

One of the major (circa 1988) theories of consciousness coming out of cognitive science is Baars “Global Workspace Theory”, which can be explained using the metaphor that the mind is like a stage. There are many actors, only some of which are on the stage and many audience members that watch the performance of the actors on stage. Consciousness is like a spotlight that shines on the stage, allowing the actors to be seen. These actors are unconscious cognitive processors, that do much of their work automatically. It is only when they are shown upon by the spotlight that they are available to consciousness. In short, consciousness is an attention mechanism. The spotlight has a very restricted causal role in the system, it can be impacted upon by unconscious processes, but it is unclear if it can impact those processes in any way.

One point of discussion with the neurophilosophers was that it is problematic that the viewer looking of the “Dreaming Machine” serves as a homunculus in relation to the unconscious cognitive processes (perception, memory, dreaming) of the artwork. This is because the notion of a homunculus is problematic in itself, as it begs the question, if the homunculus is the consciousness of the greater system, where is the consciousness of the homunculus? This leads to an infinite regression. This is a notion of a causally linked (both impacting those processes and being impacted upon by them) homunculus. Is the homunculus problematic if it cannot causally impact the unconscious processes?

Short of abusing the hardware, the viewer has no direct causal impact on the system, although they can passively effect its memory by being present in its visual field. Since the viewer-as-homunculus has no impact on the unconscious processes, need it be conscious? This seems to solve the homunculus problem, because consciousness is not required. The regress is only solved if we consider the person as not having a homunculus, which means that some cognitive conception is required: Consciousness is an illusion. At this point the two systems as reflections of one and other, two mechanistic collections of unconscious processes. Part of the purpose of this work is to engage in discussion of the implications of these radical cognitive conceptions of mind.

The possibility has been raised that consciousness, although an illusion, may still be required for survival. Something like the virtual world of the “matrix” which is required for the survival of the body.