Earthworms, Google servers, and an important kind of freedom

Yesterday, I sketched the priority structure framework: attention consists in the activity of regulating priority structures, which order the parts of the subject’s on-going mental life by their relative priority. Why would we organize our mind in this way? In other words, what is the function of attention?  The answer, I believe, has to do with the need for a capacity to adjust our behavior flexibly, by integrating information about changes in the world and changes in us.

I will get to this answer by first talking about an aspect of attention I largely ignored in my last post. That is the way attention itself involves agency.

On the one hand, some instances of attention seem to be paradigmatic voluntary actions. Many thinkers have noted this feature. Malebranche, for example, thought that we are free and “in a position to be worthy” only because we are masters of our attention.[1] And David Foster Wallace locates in attention “an important kind of freedom”. Attention differs from belief and desire in this regard. I cannot, just like that and without considering reasons for and against, will myself to believe that the world has been finely arranged by a powerful and loving being, or simply will myself to want to eat a lump of mud (or the salad, when the chocolate cake looks much more appealing). But I can, just like that and without considering reasons for and against, change the focus of my attention, whether visually from one word on the page to the next (or back), or intellectually and emotionally by – maybe with a bit of effort – bringing all that is good and fair to the forefront of my mind (or focus attention on the reasons why I should, actually, eat that lump of mud, or on the appealing features of the salad or the strange and unappealing shape of that cake). Indeed, such changes in the focus of attention serve as powerful ways of instilling beliefs and desires we may prefer over those we actually have.

Sebastian Watzl, Structuring Mind: The Nature of Attention and How it Shapes Consciousness (OUP, 2017)

On the other hand, attention clearly isn’t simply a type of mental action. We often attend to things against our will. Distractions are everywhere. I did not decide to shift my attention to the beeping phone in the movie theater. My intellectual attention gets drawn to the news about Trump’s latest tweet, even if I believe that it would be best to ignore it. When our minds start to wander, our attention moves on its own accord from one idea or mental image to the next: even if it makes us unhappy our attention is still occupied by what is unrelated to what we are overtly doing almost half of the time. And we know that through the right framing – or the right advertisement – something can be made so salient that it will be hard for anyone to take their attention off of it.

How could attention be both so active and so passive? It is, I argue in Structuring Mind, because attention is not a mental state like belief or desire that we are in for certain periods of time or a mental event like the forming of a decision that happens at a particular moment. The regulating of our priority structures is a process – always going on – that is shaped by different forces. Attention is something we are doing, an activity, but not something we are always controlling. When our attention is caught, captured, drifts or wanders, the performance of the activity is mostly shaped by a passive force. It is like swimming in a strong current. We are doing something, but we may not end up where we want to be. The passive force tells us about the world: what is salient in our environment or our body automatically commands our attention (in chapter 6, I argue that salience indeed consists in the perception of attention commands).  The active force interacts with this passive force and shapes our prioritizing to the degree to which we exercise executive control: how deliberation, evaluative judgment, intention, desire and choice influence our prioritizing activity. The active force springs from changes within the subject – our motivational states, in the broadest sense. In the regulating of our priority structures the passive and the active forces integrate, and together they shape how we organize our life, right now.

Some people think that the function of attention is to protect us from information overflow. Our brain powers are limited, they think, and an organism needs to protect those limited capacities. There is too much information hitting our sensory organs, and attention cuts down that information so that our brains can deal with it.

But this idea is misguided. It implies that attention would be most significant for organisms with very limited brain resources. As Gary Lupyan puts it:

If humans with their relatively large memories and sensory processing capacities are in need of attention to cope with all that information out there, then consider how much attention an earthworm would need to make sense of all that information!

But earthworms don’t have the capacity for attention. The simplest form of attention probably arises only in insects. The earthworm pays for its lack of attention with behavioral rigidity: it is bound to react in the same way to the same stimulus. Come what may, it lacks the important kind of freedom we have. By contrast, a bumble bee, because it has attention, is already more flexible: it will discriminate the color of a flower more finely if it can expect a large reward of nectar by getting it right (its motivational state), and less finely if a lurking spider is watching (a danger that is salient in its world).

Consider also what would happen if our brain powers were much larger. Suppose, for example, that not only 10 percent but 90 percent of the cortex of our brains could be active at a given time; that working memory could hold 400 instead of around four “chunks” of information. Or, to make things more extreme, suppose our minds were super-sized with access to the processing powers of all the Google servers (some think that our minds have been super-sized already). Would we then not need attention? Quite the opposite! Access to Google servers makes attention more important, not less. Information is useless, unless it is organized. If someone has large mental capacities, they need to set priorities, distinguish what is of current relevance from what can be temporarily put on the back burner. What is pushed to the side, though, often shouldn’t be closed off from the mind completely: the situation might change quickly (the spider, for example, may suddenly crawl up to the bee), and what is de-prioritized may, as in the case of Gurwitsch’s thematic fields I mentioned yesterday, be what creates and sustains the significance of what is in the focus of attention. Instead of thinking of the limited capacities of working memory (and other aspects of the mind) as a defect that we need attention to remedy, we should think of it as a feature: it is an architectural cap on how much can be of top priority in order to prevent interference effects (if you prioritize everything at once, prioritizing becomes useless).

Attention thus functions to make behavior flexible. It decouples it from the sensory situation by integrating information about the world and changes in internal needs and motivation. It does so online, at the moment, without changes to the organism’s setup or to its beliefs and desires. The fact that attention is a process shaped by both active and passive forces thus is essential to it. It is also essential that attention relates, integrates, and coordinates aspects of the mind without changing their internal character, as well as that it organizes only our current mental life and not our standing dispositions. The fact that priority structures can be used in many different ways, and that they can remain unused when we are, say, quietly meditating on an object, is part of the point of having them. Those structure organize the mind so that it can be more useful – if need be.

[1] Malebranche, Dialogues on Metaphysics and Religion, Dialogue XII, X.


  1. Hi Sebastian, thanks so much for these posts.

    You say that attention is a process. One thing that philosophers sometimes mean by “process”-talk is that something unfolds or progresses over time, such that it’s possible for it to be stopped without finishing (cf. the “imperfective paradox”). But I assume that’s not what you have in mind here. Rather you want to say that attention — that is, the regulation of our priority structures — is something that is always *ongoing*, rather than something we do just at specific instants. Is that right? If it is, then I wonder what you’d say of an analogy with breathing — not, that is, breathing *in* or *out* on a specific occasion (these will be processes in the narrower sense) — but rather breathing as the thing we are always doing, sometimes voluntarily but usually not. Is this also a good example of “something we are doing, an activity, but not something we are always controlling”?

  2. Sebastian Watzl

    I do mean something of a temporal category that can be stopped without finishing, relating to the sort of distinctions philosophers make, going back to Zeno Vendler, between states, activities, accomplishments, and achievements. Attention is an activity in the Vendler categorization (I actually think that this is something that Wayne Wu’s selection for action view gets wrong. Selecting something is an achievement or accomplishment, but attention is an activity). I think of “process” as a generalization of “activity”. A child’s growing is a process, but not an activity. Activities, in my view, are processes (identified roughly in the Vendler kind of way) that involve subject level guidance (in what I think is Harry Frankfurt’s sense): even the passive force I mentioned involves a **perception** of salience, so it is a force that goes through the subject’s perceptual state. Breathing, I think, is a bit borderline between a process and an activity. Insofar as even passive breathing is responsive to whole person needs (like for survival) it is also an activity. But arguably the way your breathing unfolds over time, when it isn’t controlled, is largely guided also by subpersonal mechanisms. In that sense it is also borderline an activity. I have found figuring out the whole metaphysics of processes, activities, states and so on pretty important to get the metaphysics of attention right (and also really interesting on its own). The whole chapter 2 of the books is devoted to it, where I draw on and relate a lot to philosophy of action people, like Helen Steward, Jennifer Hornsby, Douglas Lavin, but also Fred Dretske. Maybe that helps to situate my notion?

  3. Oh, that’s interesting. I assumed you would say otherwise just because ‘attends (to X)’ doesn’t seem to be subject to the imperfective paradox — that is, if I was attending to X it follows that I attended to it. Would you challenge this? Or do you think that this grammatical test doesn’t give a criterion for distinguishing processes? (Please tell me if I just need to read the book …)

  4. Sebastian Watzl

    Sorry, I was confused about what you meant. Yes, ‘S was attending to X’ implies ‘S attended to X’ (same for ‘was focusing attention on X’). I take that to be an indication that ‘attends to X’ is an activity verb, and not an accomplishment verb. I am using the term ‘process’ as Mourelatos does in ‘Events, Processes, and States’, as the “topic-neutral counterpart of activity” (he mentions, for example, ‘It’s snowing’ as an example of a process). When I said that I agree that one can stop attending without finishing, I meant that attending is not of the kind of category that one can finish. In that sense it is different from, say, building a house, or walking to the store (‘attending to something’ is like ‘walking’, and not like ‘walking to the store’).

    Note that ‘selecting something’ is not an activity/process in the Mourelatos sense. The fact that I was selecting a new pair of jeans in the store does not imply that I selected a new pair of jeans (since I may have been interrupted before I managed to select one). It was in that sense that I think there is a mismatch in temporal category between ‘attending to X’ and ‘selecting X’. One can be finished with selecting something (once one has selected it), but one can’t be finished with attended to something in that sense (attending isn’t telic).

  5. Tom McClelland

    Diffuse attention looks like it might be important here too. Consider a case in which a subject performs the act of distributing their attention in a completely diffuse way. (Perhaps this is psychologically impossible for us, but there doesn’t seem anything wrong with it in principle). In such a case it seems there would be no centre/periphery structure, but if there’s no such structure then wouldn’t the subject’s experience have no attentional phenomenology on your account?

  6. Sebastian Watzl

    Tom: I count the flat phenomenal structure as one type of centrality structure (where everything is equally central), so there is attentional phenomenology in the case you describe. One might object that this trivializes the view. But compare someone whose preferences are flat, i.e. who has no preference of anything over anything else (everything seems equal to them; just like the diffuse attention case maybe psychologically impossible for us, but not problematic in principle) to a creature doesn’t doesn’t have any preferences because they have no psychological states at all (maybe like the earthworm) or only simpler states (like perception, needs, but no beliefs and desires, maybe insects are examples). I think there is a difference between flat preferences and no preferences. Same for priorities. Phenomenologically, one way diffuse attention may still manifest as attention is also in some awareness of the fact that something could have been more central in experience.

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