Daniel Dennett on why phenomenal consciousness is access consciousness

This old talk by Daniel Dennett touches on a lot of topics we’ve discussed recently.  Dennett explains why it’s wrong to regard phenomenal consciousness (the “what it’s likeness” or “raw experience” version) as separate from access consciousness (the cognitive access of information for decision making, memory, report, etc).

Note that Dennett doesn’t deny the existence of phenomenal consciousness here, just the idea that it’s something separate and apart from access.  He even passes up opportunities to dismiss qualia, although he does provide a reduction of them.

This video is about 66 minutes long.  Unfortunately the video and sound quality aren’t great, and the camera operation is annoying, but the talk is worth powering through.

I agree with just about everything in this talk, but I do feel a little compelled to defend Victor Lamme since I read his stuff recently and it’s still relatively fresh in my mind.  Dennett says that there’s no rational provided for why recurrent neural processing leads to phenomenality.  Lamme, to his credit, actually does take a stab at it, citing the enhanced synaptic plasticity associated with recurrent processing, leading to the formation of memories, albeit very brief ones in the cases he’s considering.  But as I noted in my post on that theory, it’s arguably more about the preconscious, pre-access sensory processing, than consciousness itself.

The main thrust of Dennett’s remarks are that phenomenal content isn’t something that access consciousness makes use of, phenomenal experience is a result of access processing.  Therefore, studying access consciousness is studying phenomenal consciousness.  They are one and the same, just seen from the outside or the inside respectively.

Dennett also talks about the element people often feel is missing from strictly information processing accounts, referring to it as “the juice” or “the sauce” (a cute acronym for “subjective aspect unique to conscious experience”) before, in politeness to his host, settling on “feeling”, but pointing out that feelings must be felt, and felt is a form of access.

There have also been some conversations recently about the hard problem of consciousness, particularly at James Cross’ blog.  It’s worth noting that phenomenal consciousness is the version typically associated with the Chalmers’ hard problem, while access consciousness is associated with his “easy problems” (discrimination, attention, reportability, etc).  But if phenomenal and access consciousness are one and the same, then the hard problem is simply an agglomeration of the easy problems.  Meaning that as the easy problems are solved, the hard problem will gradually be solved.

So, a lot of good information in this talk, which I’m sure won’t be controversial at all.  🙂

(via Richard Brown)

49 thoughts on “Daniel Dennett on why phenomenal consciousness is access consciousness

  1. I’ve personally been aware of Dennett’s position for awhile now and believe he does propose an interesting hypothesis for how consciousness could arise through purely physical means, everything stated and summarized could very well be the absolute truth of the matter. But there’s still this one question lurking above all of it that’s always been an issue in theories involving consciousness, where’s the proof?

    I ask that in the bluntest way possible. How do we know any of what he’s saying is actually true and not just a creative fiction spun out of his own imagination? For example, Dennett says that feeling must be felt and feeling is a form of access, but how could he know feeling the coldness of cold or seeing the blueness of blue is a form of neurological access? The physical act of seeing or feeling definitely are, but the associated Qualia can’t be measured and therefore can’t be objectively known to function or emerge in the same way. If you have no way to measure personal subjective experience it’s near impossible to get a robust satisfying answer to questions like this. You can go into pretty much every one of his points and keep asking for observable proof and you’ll hit this same road block eventually for every single one.

    To be fair though, this issue effects practically every single theory attempting to solve the Mind-Body problem so I’m not trying to act as though this is exclusively an issue with Physicalism. Panpsychists for instance have no way to prove Qualia in objects like rocks, atoms, etc, and I’m sure you’re also very familiar with the unfalsifiability issues in Cartesian Dualism. But nonetheless it is still a challenging hurdle in Dennet’s theories that will need to be overcome in order to truly make waves in establishing a widely agreed upon model of consciousness.

    Great find though, Mike. Always cool to see well thought out approaches and theories to classic mind problems.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Zoom!

      Physicalism, the proposition is that the physical is all there is, can’t be proven, ever. It can only be disproven by evidence for the non-physical. But it is subject to falsification at any time from such an observation (assuming it’s reliably repeatable or otherwise verifiable), which I think gives it a stronger parsimonious and epistemic status than the alternatives.

      But science could conceivably go another thousand years and then suddenly make a non-physical observation. Of course, the interesting question would be, if that happened, would we consider it non-physical, or expand our view of the physical to accommodate it? In the end, defining “physical” turns out be be more difficult than it might first appear.

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      1. Good reply and I do agree that Physicalism as a default does have a parsimonious advantage. What I meant more is that how can we be sure Dennett’s hypothesis of Qualia being an emergent property of brain activity ever be proven? Wouldn’t that make it unfalsifiable? Unless of course this is where the aforementioned Parsimony comes in that Dennett’s ideas are the most in line with our proven laws of neurobiology and therefore the one Science should default towards.

        “Of course, the interesting question would be, if that happened, would we consider it non-physical, or expand our view of the physical to accommodate it? In the end, defining “physical” turns out be be more difficult than it might first appear.”

        That’s one of the reasons why I think labeling non-Dualist theories to be “physicalist” is a misnomer. If Dualism does turn out to be true (which is a big if) then the substance or property that is responsible for Qualia would by all accounts be considered physical and a part of the natural world. “Monist” would be a better term to describe Dennett and the illusionist position than Physicalism.

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        1. You may be attributing more qualia realism to Dennett than he would accept. I suspect he’d tell you that there are no qualia, that it’s our judgments and impressions about qualia that are emergent from the brain. Again, like physicalism overall, I don’t think that position can ever be proven, but it can be disproven by any discovery that proves qualia is separate and apart from the brain.

          I actually think of physicalism as a type of monism. The other major type of monism is idealism. While both physicalism and idealism are monistic, I think most people see them as very different. Although there are the neutral monists, who actually don’t see them as different.

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          1. “… no qualia, that it’s our judgments and impressions about qualia that are emergent from the brain.”

            Isn’t this a slippery slope? What about our judgments and impressions about other aspects of consciousness? Why would qualia be emergent and but not everything else? Are you then at the point where consciousness doesn’t actually exist at all? That we just have judgments and impressions about something that doesn’t exist. But then what are the judgments and impressions? And why would our judgments and impressions about the physical world be different?

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          2. Just a reminder, I don’t agree with Dennett on saying qualia don’t exist. But I only think they exist subjectively, so I agree with him on all the rest.

            On emergence, what makes you think just about everything isn’t emergent? Everything above quantum fields and their interactions appear to be emergent, and it’s possible that even those might be emergent from something else.

            On the physical world, it’s worth remembering that we only have theories, models, of what’s “out there”. The only measure we have of their truth, at least the only one I know of, is the accuracy of the predictions they enable.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. I’m not really taking a position. I’m just asking.

            When you say qualia exist subjectively, isn’t that almost definitional? So it doesn’t reveal anything useful.

            BTW, I’ve been dying to find a non-paywalled version of Unexpected Symmetries in the “World Knot” by Gordon Globus.

            Here’s the first page.
            https://science.sciencemag.org/content/180/4091/1129.long

            I just came upon Globus recently, having never heard of him before a day or two ago. He’s been around a long time and has written a bunch of stuff but all of it is paywalled or costs over a $100 on Amazon. The stuff looks really interesting.

            Ever seen anything by him or heard of him?

            Liked by 1 person

          4. “When you say qualia exist subjectively, isn’t that almost definitional? So it doesn’t reveal anything useful.”

            It’s definitely terminological. Do the differences reveal anything useful? I think my language does a better job of describing it. Obviously not everyone agrees.

            Can’t say I’m familiar with Globus. You’re not kidding on those prices! Usually that indicates primarily academic, dense writing. He has a short essay in How Consciousness Became the Universe, a book that looks like a pseudoscience fest, but the essay appears to be online: http://journalofcosmology.com/Consciousness116.html

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          5. Globus must be in his nineties or so now I would guess. I think he got his degrees in the fifties and a lot of the writing I thought interesting was in the seventies. Yeah, that does look a little pseudosciencey. That he is still writing at all is amazing.

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          6. From my perspective, that one page from Globus looks quite promising.

            Mike, when you say qualia exist subjectively, what relation does that qualia have to objective physical stuff? Can you say anything about the qualia without being the subject?

            *

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          7. On Globus, it’s hard to say. The beginning of the essay I linked to started out okay, but seemed to gradually descend into apparently pseudoscientific gobbledygook (or at least science I haven’t seen anywhere else).

            I think the objective side of a quale is a set of sensory processing and dispositional (affective) reactions. All the information of the quale can be accounted for. But that accounting can’t amount to having the experience itself, which doesn’t imply anything spooky, just that they’re too different things, sort of like accounting for pregnancy is not being pregnant.

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          8. On Globus, I was referring to the link from James Cross. The paper in question purports to look at events both objectively and subjectively.

            Re: qualia only existing subjectively, to use your example, it sounded a lot like you were saying pregnancy only exists subjectively. I get tetchy with the term “exists”.

            *

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          9. Don’t get tetchy on word use, get clarity. 🙂

            Another way of describing this is that there is an objective reality to qualia, it’s just that the objective versions are not obvious from the subjective aspects.

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  2. Maybe I’m dense, but I find it hard to distinguish between phenomenal and access consciousness; or more precisely, I find it hard to understand why the distinction matters. I figure if the problem is “easy” then it’s not consciousness, but behavior. Maybe I’m a closet Mysterian? 🙂

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    1. There are a lot of people who define “consciousness” as only the phenomenal part, and regard all the access stuff as just cognition. They usually mean that it’s something separate from that cognition.

      But if we take that view and they’re actually the same, then consciousness only exists subjectively. Or we could use the i-word: illusion. From the objective perspective, there is only cognition, information processing, a zombie that computes that it’s got something called consciousness.

      Is access consciousness…consciousness, or just the cognition that makes us think we’re conscious? Personally, I don’t think there’s a fact of the matter answer.

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      1. That’s the other thing that confused me. Saying consciousness was an illusion never answered anything, and seemed like sophistry. After all, for something to be an illusion, one had to be conscious of it, so it was kind of like trying to define X using X in the definition.

        My head hurts 🙂

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        1. Yeah, the characterization of consciousness in and of itself seems like an overreach. I think the illusionists would be stronger if they said that consciousness contains illusions. But saying the thing which allows you to experience the illusion…is an illusion, requires a lot of follow up explanation, which usually involves the illusionist retreating to the position I just noted.

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  3. I’m kind of at the point where all this differentiation between one kind or another kind of processing may be missing the forest for the trees.

    As you have already gathered from my interest in EM field theories that I would tend to want to look at holistic brain theories. I would see these as encompassing many different varieties of processing according to its internal dynamics. Obviously I don’t have the details. I want to think of consciousness as a system itself, possibly mostly an EM field, that arises from neurons (and maybe other brain “stuff”) but that has a boundary of a sort and an internal dynamic. It works in feedback with the neural circuits it arises from and possible others which might be unrelated directly to consciousness.

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      1. I think McFadden’s Seven Clues to the Nature of Consciousness provides some challenges to the idea that neural processing by itself accounts for this.

        . https://philpapers.org/archive/MCFTCF-3.pdf

        Neural processing by itself has problems explaining:

        1- why some neural processing is conscious but other processing isn’t.
        2- how processing in widely distributed neurons is integrated
        3- why awareness/consciousness is associated with neurons firing in sync, not just firing

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        1. James,
          Skimming the clues he lists, I don’t see anything that requires what he’s proposing. Mainstream neuroscience can address all of those phenomena, including the synchronization. (There are plenty of long range connections between the regions.) If you’re having trouble envisioning how it can, I recommend reading more theory neutral neuroscience material. I wouldn’t take the assessment of people trying to sell a radical theory on faith.

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          1. Maybe it would good for you to do a post to address McFadden’s “clues” and explain how simple neural circuits could do what seems to be required.

            I know the neurons in the brain are incredibly connected. But that doesn’t solve synchronization or why synchronization would be associated with consciousness. Synchronization would have to done, I would think, by controller neural circuits or some sort of controller ability embedded in the circuits unless you think it just emerges in some way. It would need to be a capability that spanned a good part of the brain or a least the cortex.

            I’m not saying McFadden has a comprehensive theory but at least I can see the his CEM could potentially solve it. I can’t see how complex circuits (actually the more complex the harder wouldn’t it be?) by themselves coordinate themselves. I haven’t even seen a proposal.

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          2. On the post, it’d require me sinking a lot more time into it, and I’m currently having a hard time just keeping up with what I’m interested in right now.

            On synchronization, I’m not clear why anything more than recurrent circuits are required. If region A starts firing, say at 40 hz, it will excite region B, with 40 hz pulses causing it to fire at 40 hz,, which it in turn re-excites region A, and the looping stimuli cause them to synchronize at 40 hz, maybe bringing additional regions in the process. Or am I missing something?

            The closest thing to controller circuits would be the brokering done by subcortical regions such as the thalamus, basal ganglia, hippocampus, amygdala, etc. That’s a big part of the thalamic loop theory you were interested in.

            On complex circuits coordinating themselves, how does adding in EM fields help? At some point, things have to reduce to non-conscious interacting components.

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  4. This nut and shell game that everyone keeps playing with the term consciousness is beginning to dull the senses. To rejuvenate this important discussion and add the necessity of clarity, the phrase phenomenon of consciousness should be discarded completely and replaced with the phrase, “the phenomenon of mind”. Most can agree on what mind means, but there is absolutely no consensus whatsoever as to the meaning of consciousness therefore, it becomes a useless term and only contributes to the confusion. Nevertheless, I seriously doubt that contributors on this particular blog-site would favor such a move.

    Peace

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lee,
      I’ve been saying for years that the definition of consciousness is far from straightforward, that there is in fact no universally accepted definition, at least aside from vague near-synonymous ones like “subjective experience” or “like something”. There is something to be said for eschewing consciousness language. Most of cognitive neuroscience gets along quite well without it, instead researching things like attention, discrimination, memory, learning, and other capabilities. A lot of that research is consciousness research, but with a tight focus on the science rather than philosophy.

      But if I just blogged on that stuff, I’m not sure very many people would be interested.

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    2. Most can agree on what mind means.

      Ch … sppt … grggg … excuse me a sec.

      [Hah hah ha hah ha hah ha ha Ha! Ha hah Hah hah ha hah ha hah ha ha Ha! Ha hahHah hah ha hah ha hah ha ha Ha! Ha hahHah hah ha hah ha hah ha ha Ha! Ha hah … ha. …whew]

      Sorry. Honestly, no offense. I just had an extended twitter discussion essentially proving exactly the opposite. I’m pretty sure mentality is in exactly the same boat as Consciousness.

      The bottom line is you have to start any such discussion with exactly what you mean by either term.

      *

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      1. MIND, n.
        A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.

        That’s what I thought it meant.

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  5. Right on Cross; an explicit definition of mind that is required to form a circle of mutual definition and agreement.

    Utilizing the architecture of relational quantum mechanics (RQM), it could be posited that mind is a feature of the quantum world, a feature that crosses an imaginary boundary separating the quantum world of mind and classical world of brain. That is the same intersection found at the other end of the spectrum where we see our classical universe emerge from the quantum universe. What the quantum world and the classical world each share at the end of this spectrum is a common intersection. There’s nothing spooky or supernatural about that rendition. It corresponds concisely and succinctly with both materialism and RAM.

    Peace

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  6. Round and round we go. One’s intuition combating another’s. Neuroscience allegedly adjudicating the matter. The cause is lost. There’s no new explanatory paradigm on the horizon. Paltry human understanding has its evolved limits—still no cause to despond.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeff,
      I wouldn’t say things are that bleak. Cognitive neuroscience is making steady progress into things like memory, learning, attention, perception, emotions, and various report and no-report paradigms. The hard problem, the psychologically hard problem, is to recognize all this as also progress on consciousness.

      If there is bleakness, it’s in the fact that we’re probably still several decades (possibly centuries) from a complete understanding of the brain. But just as Galileo’s view of the solar system was far less accurate than ours today, he could be confident that new discoveries wouldn’t resurrect Ptolemy’s view. Likewise, our view today has many holes, but what we do know constrains what will be found in the future.

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  7. “The hard problem, the psychologically hard problem, is to recognize all this”, (advances in cognitive neuroscience), ” as also progress on consciousness.” That’s good. Call it, “The new Hard Problem”. I agree, But it “seems” no less intractable than the original.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I still haven’t watched Dennett’s video, but I just have to comment on your summary:
    “The main thrust of Dennett’s remarks are that phenomenal content isn’t something that access consciousness makes use of, phenomenal experience is a result of access processing.”

    Here’s my parody of that:
    “Gasoline vapor isn’t something that an engine makes use of, gasoline vapor is a result of the engine’s processing.” Um, no. It’s both. But not only that, there’s a fuel-air-CO2-H2O mixture in the engine, and both the way the engine processes its working fluids, and the particular properties of the fluids, matter a lot. There are useful distinctions to be made, at various times and places in the cycle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know. The vapor and heat analogies seem somewhat arbitrary to me. And the final effect described is nonfunctional.

      A more, well, analogous analogy might be travel. A car produces travel rather than makes use of it. Of course, travel is a type of movement. So you could say the car produces movement but also makes use of it (the movement of pistons, gas, etc). But travel seems like a particular kind of value-added movement. (And yes, you could get persnickety and say that a piston “travels” the length of its cylinder, or that gasoline “travels” from the tank to the engine, but that’s not what most of us mean by “travel.”)

      In that sense, access mechanics produce phenomenal experience. You could say that phenomenal experience is information processing, and of course the access mechanics make use of information processing. But phenomenal experience is a particular kind of value-added processing. I don’t think that value has been added yet prior to access, that in fact access (and utilization) is what provides it.

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      1. What prompted my interest here was the use of “phenomenal content” in the original quote. I’m not sure what “phenomenal experience” is. I think, like I think you, Mike, think, that the experience is the whole process, so I’m guessing that phenomenal experience is a reference to the subjective aspect of that whole process. My analogy (heat) was meant to be a reference to an aspect (heat production) of a process (combustion for locomotion), which aspect is not causal but is necessarily concurrent. Not sure that counts as epiphenomenal or not.

        *
        [I think that’s what I think I think.]

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        1. James, definitional issues abound. I think many people in the philosophy of mind regard the word “experience” and “phenomenal experience”, as well as “subjective experience”, as all being synonymous. When we stick “phenomenal” in front, I think we’re just emphasizing it’s apparent nature, and when we put “subjective” in front, it’s personal and private nature.

          That said, I was a little loose with “content” and “experience” above. They’re not necessarily the same thing, since the experience includes the consumption, utilization, and assimilation of the content. In that sense, I think you’e right to make the distinction.

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      2. Well, I think you and Dennett are on the same page. The problem is that there’s a page missing. Phenomenal experience serves to promote further information processing. It’s not like the heated air/exhaust mixture trailing in the distant wake of the car. It’s not a throwaway waste product. Neither is phenomenal experience the be-all and end-all, like “travel”. Phenomenal experience makes us better thinkers (but it’s not the only thing that does). It’s not *just* a product, it’s *also* an input to cognition.

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        1. Paul, you keep referring to it as a physical thing. When I talk about heat, I’m not talking about the heated exhaust. I’m talking about the heat, the relation of the kinetic motion before to the kinetic motion after, some of which also goes into the engine.

          Also, and again (sorta), what is a phenomenal experience, as opposed to an experience with a subjective (phenomenal) aspect? For me, the “further information processing” is a necessary part of the experience. That’s Dennett’s “and then what happens”. Without the further processing, there is no experience. The phenomenal/subjective aspect is just reference to the intentional object of the information which gets further processed. But yet again, without the “further processed” there is nothing to talk about. (Unless you want to talk about affordances.)

          *

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          1. “what is a phenomenal experience, as opposed to an experience with a subjective (phenomenal) aspect?” – I don’t see any difference; those are minor wording variations for the same thing.

            One should always consider “and then what happens” where available, including any affordances that happen. But I consider it an open scientific question whether “what then happens” always, or only sometimes, colors the subjective aspects of what happened previously.

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  9. James, so, “The phenomenal/subjective aspect is just reference to the intentional object of the information which gets further processed”? One often wonders what a felt sensation of pain adds to its underlying informational content. Why the burden of a felt sensation when the informational content alone would seem to suffice—avoidance of or aversion to a caused or correlated stimulus?

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    1. I’m not absolutely sure what you’re asking, but I suspect your “felt sensation of pain” involves not only the experience we call pain but also experience of the sequellae of that experience. In most people, the initial experience amounts to [approx.] information of tissue damage. For some people, that’s where it stops. It doesn’t seem to bother them much. For others, the further processing seems to include systemic effects, presumably due to release of hormones. What most people call “feeling of pain” includes not only the damage information, but also the interoceptive experience of these systemic effects. Additional further processing (besides the systemic effects) might include association of the damage information with normative information (“this is bad, avoid in the future”).

      You ask “Why the burden of a felt sensation when the informational content alone would seem to suffice?” The informational content alone does nothing. Using that content to generate an association of that event with “bad” *is* the felt experience. Generating a memory of that event *is* the felt experience. My point is: the “felt experience” is the necessary consequence of doing something with the information.

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  10. Kind of grasp your point, yet the intuitive niceties remain. Let’s turn from pain to pleasure—always a good turn. Here, your’e on firmer ground. I suspect that the “felt experience” of an orgasm, for example, is indeed “a necessary consequence” of doing something with one’s information.

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  11. The intuitive niceties are the major problem. Specifically, when we give intuitive conclusions authority without question, we are failing to understand how intuitive conclusions are determined, and that parts of those intuitive conclusions may be mistaken.

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