Gestalt Isomorphism and the Primacy of the Subjective Conscious Experience: A Gestalt Bubble Model

Steven Lehar

Finally published by Behavioral & Brain Sciences

This is a summarized version of my long and tortuous battle with reviewers and editors to get this paper published, with hyper-links to the full text of the exchange. It is organized chronologically, with a horizontal line at each new version of the paper, followed by the author's responses to the editor and the reviewers in the previous round of review, followed by the editor's and reviewers' new comments on this new version of the paper. However hyper-links are also provided with each set of the editor's and reviewer's comments that jump ahead to the author's responses to those critiques, and "[return to originating comment]" links back again, if you wish to see the responses to the critiques immediately. This whole process was played out over four and a half years, from first submission in September 1999 to publication in March 2004.

First version as originally submitted, September 1999.

The world of visual experience appears a vivid three-dimensional structure. This provides direct evidence for a three-dimensional volumetric representation in the brain. I present a model of conscious experience as a volumetric spatial structure. This is not a neurophysiological theory, but a perceptual model, that models the experience directly, exactly as it is experienced.

BBS Responds: Semi-rejected March 2000.


The referees do see a potential target article there, but its empirical, theoretical, conceptual and scholarly scope need to be broadened and deepened first.
A "test-piloting" in BBS's online counterpart, Psycoloquy, might be a good idea too.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 1:

The author attempts to overthrow too many widely held beliefs without arguing against those positions in detail.
He does not systematically or convincingly defeat the standard counterarguments.
There is insufficient review of the actual phenomenon.
The author does not mention the different cognitive theories that have been presented.
A psycoloquy treatment of a shortened version of the paper might be at this point a good way to strengthen the author's case.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 2:

The provocativeness of the manuscript would excite a lot of comment and lead to productive interaction. I would be pleased to see it in print.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Second version after first review, Submitted April 2000.

Inserted whole new section on The Epistemological Divide to broaden and deepen the empirical, theoretical, conceptual, and scholarly scope. Inserted discussion of relevant work on the epistemological question including Chalmers (1996), Clark (1993), Harrison (1989), Hoffman (1998), Kant (1781), Köhler (1971), Nagel 1974), Price (1932), Russell (1927), Smythies (1989, 1994). Inserted discussion of relevant neural network theories including O'Brien & Opie (1999), Zucker (1998), Grossberg et al. (1975, 1988), Lesher (1995).

Author's Response to Editor

Many of the issues raised by Reviewer 1 are due to paradigmatic nature of this proposal.
Paradigms require more general handling, and this is what Reviewer 1 sees as "weak" and "idiosyncratic".
And the paradigmatic nature of the proposal is eminently suitable for BBS rather than psycholoquy. Isn't that what BBS is all about?
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Reviewer 1

A paradigm can't help but overthrow many widely held beliefs!
I do defeat standard counter-arguments!
A detailed review of phenomena is inappropriate for a paradigmatic thesis.
Citations of alternative theories are now included.
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Reviewer 2

Thank you!
[Return to originating comment]

BBS Responds: Revise & resubmit February 2001.


A good deal of highly pertinent current and classical work has been overlooked.
This draft is criticized as a "text-book" level general treatment.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 1:

The author does not discuss relevance of theories of neural synchronization to his model.
There is insufficient treatment of hemispatial neglect.
The model does not account for all of visual phenomenology.
This model explains the epistemology, but not ontology of conscious experience. (neural vehicles v.s. phenomenal contents)
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 2: (New this round)

Title: Why use the definite article in the article's title ("...the subjective conscious experience...")?
Lehar overstates the "incredible" nature of indirect realism. The pdp approach to neural computation holds out some hope of *implementing* the very perceptual model Lehar defends.
It is not appropriate to describe the objects of experience as the "product" or "output" of consciousness.
The author prematurely accepts Chalmers' pessimistic analysis of the "hard" problem of consciousness.
Lehar will have to show how talk of "spatial analogs" is consistent with his earlier insistence on functional isomorphism, as opposed to structural or topographic isomorphism.
If Lehar subscribes to a "picture-in-the-head" approach to visual perception he must do more to defend it against the numerous objections it faces. There is a voluminous psychological/philosophical literature on this problem, with which Lehar should show at least some familiarity.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 3: (New this round. This guy is really bad!)

I find the present "aggressive tone" inadequate, and to be frank, not very persuasive.
The author must provide comparison with specific perceptual theories, not general lines of investigation such as neural network models
The author must provide a more structured comparison of his proposal with other theories of space/form perception.
The set of predictions presented should concern perceptual facts. After all this is a perceptual theory, not a theory of consciousness.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 4:(formerly Reviewer 2)

I haven't changed my opinion since the first review I sent to you.
Lehar's view is iconoclastic and provocative but, in my estimation as legitimate as that of the "establishment". It is well worth publishing in a journal dedicated to discussion of varied points of view.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Third version after second review, September 2001.

Inserted a whole new section including a new Figure 1 to clarify the relation of structural to functional isomorphism for the benefit of reviewer 2. Wrote angry letter of complaint to the editor about the whole review process! (see below)

Author's Response to Editor

There is a real problem with this whole review process!
The author is treated as a humble supplicant before a panel of anonymous judges!
A paradigm cannot help but have implications across many disciplines.
There is no space to discuss all those implications exhaustively!
This paper makes several significant and revolutionary proposals that seem to have escaped the reviewers' notice!
It deserves to be published as is!

[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Reviewer 1

Theories of neural synchronization are totally irrelevant to this model!
Hello? is anybody reading this? I already answered this question last time!
A "textbook level" general description is exactly what is appropriate for a paradigmatic hypothesis!
No model can possibly account for all of visual phenomenology!
The ontology of conscious experience is totally irrelevant for a pure perceptual model!
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Reviewer 2

I like the title as it stands! Isn't this my paper?
The PDP approach is totally inadequate to model the specific phenomena addressed here!
The objects of experience ARE the "product" or "output" of consciousness!
The reviewers themselves cite Chalmers without reference to the "large literature" supposedly refuting him!
A new section has been added to address structural v.s. functional isomorphism.
All of the "numerous objections" to the "picture-in-the-head" theory reduce to the homunculus objection, which has already been dispatched many times over!
[Return to originating comment]


Aggressive tone? I'll give you aggressive tone!
The "aggressive tone" is required to wake these people up to their responsibility as scientists to justify the foundations of their theoretical stance!
The competing hypotheses challenged by this paper are not specific perceptual theories, but exactly "more general lines of investigation, such as neural network models." Its a paradigm fer Chrissake, don't you get it?
Is it not the prerogative of the author to determine whether this is a perceptual theory or a theory of consciousness?
This is the kind of review I hate most of all!
These criticisms are so vague as to be essentially meaningless!
If this paper were revised to meet with this reviewer's satisfaction, I would no longer wish to be it's author!
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Reviewer 4

Here is a man with the vision to recognize a paradigmatic proposal when he sees one!
[Return to originating comment]

BBS Responds: Revise & resubmit March 2002.


This revision was clearly not responsive to substantive referee's points.
The author is far too hasty on the vehicle/content distinction.
I suggest explicit consideration of incommensurability of physical v.s. felt properties.
You need to address Shepard's "second-order isomorphism".

[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 1: (New this round)

The introduction is too long, esp. philosophical name-dropping. Many theories are mentioned, but none are tackled in depth.
The author must discuss higher-order isomorphisms.
The author must show how other theories cannot satisfy the phenomenological constraints mentioned.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 2:

Lehar addressed many of the minor issues we raised last round, but NONE of the major ones!
Lehar's response is not really adequate, he has missed an opportunity for communication and clarification.
He must reference Wolf Singer.
There is inconsistency between structural & functional isomorphism.
The author is careless about the vehicle/content distinction.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 3: (The really bad one!)

Unfortunately Lehar is unwilling to meet the challenge to improve his manuscript and address *constructive* criticism.
This is unacceptable. I cannot recommend publication.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 4:(Formerly Reviewer 1)

Although not every point has been addressed, Lehar may be right that it is simply impossible to examine in extensive detail all of the myriad implications of his approach.
I recommend that the paper is accepted in its present form
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 5:(New this round)

There is dubious scholarship and a series of non-sequiturs on philosophical issues.
Lehar should at least acknowledge Searle's argument that "a computer isn't even a computer to a computer."
It is begging the question to assume that conscious experience corresponds to electrochemical activity, rather than merely correlating with it.
Searle is not being naive, but merely pointing out the obvious, that we see the paper itself, not just a percept of the paper.
Conscious experience need not be either in the head, nor out in the world. It can be in neither place but still exist.
Causes and correlates need to be distinguished from identities.
How can the objects of consciousness also be the product of consciousness?
Lehar creates a misleading account of alternative positions in order to bolster his contention that his own position is the only tenable one.
In the conclusion, the range of "predictions" are not predictions.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Reviewer 6:(Formerly Reviewer 2, then Reviewer 4)

Lehar has done justice to the comments of his referees. He is somewhat prickly in his responses but that is a stylistic factor and I don't think bears on the substance of the issues.
Since all of the reviewers feel that the manuscript is publishable in some form, it seems to me that it is now ready for publication.

Editor's Comments on Author's Cover Letter

There are still substantive, prima facie conceptual issues that have to be addressed.
You are not being asked to address the implications for each BBS speciality exhaustively.
The referees are not rejecting a paradigm, they are raising conceptual problems to which the target article needs to show more responsiveness.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Editor's Comments on Reviewer 2

The content/vehicle ambiguity remains.
Higher-order Shepardian isomorphism is not considered.
If you are trying to explain qualitative experience and not merely quantitative input/output performance, you have to face the problem of the incommensurability between the properties of vehicles (the representation in the brain) and what it feels like to have that representation.
This is the vehicle/content problem, and you cannot wave it away by saying that spatial experience is explained by a spatial representation in the brain.
Before calling it a "paradigm shift" you must first show that you understand the reviewers mean by a "naive" isomorphism (which is precisely what your paradigm appears to be).
It is not a solution to the mind/body problem to say: Put something in the head that is isomporphic with the feeling.
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Editor's Comments on Reviewer 3

If you want the paper to appear in BBS, aggressive tone must be removed. BBS is for constructive peer interaction.
I suggest dropping the apocalyptic talk about paradigms until we see the impact of the paper.
It is a reasonable thing to ask the proponent of a new approach to contrast it specifically with its rivals. Declaring that it is a new paradigm and hence incommensurable with its rivals does not do the trick.
This confident pre-emptive talk about paradigms certainly makes it seem as if this paper is not answerable to anyone or anything (except its future revolutionary impact).
[Jump ahead to author's response]

Fourth version after third review, June 2002.

For changes this round, see Author's Response to Editor, below.

Author's Response to Editor

I have substantially revised the paper specifically to address the points raised by yourself and by the reviewers.
A completely revamped and extensive section 2.3 to address the vehicle/content issue.
Clarification of the structural v.s. functional isomorphism issue.
Discussion of Shepard's second-order isomorphism, psychoneural complementarity, and paramorphism.
A comparison of the Gestalt Bubble model with alternative neural network models of sense data.
A new section on
the Ultimate Question of Consciousness, to address Searle's contention that "a computer is not a computer to a computer."
A discussion of emergence in relation to Davidson's Anomalous Monist thesis.
An expanded discussion of hemi-neglect
Inserted references to Singer's Temporal Correlation hypothesis.
Removed "The" from the title, which now reads "Subjective conscious experience" rather than "The Subjective Conscious Experience."
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Reviewer 1

Inserted in-depth discussion of alternative models.
Inserted discussion of higher-order isomorphisms.
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Reviewer 2

I DID address the major issues! Its just that you did not understand my explanation. I have tried to make them clearer this time.
Inserted a new paragraph on structural/functional isomorphism issue.
Wolf Singer has been referenced.
Inserted a whole new section on the vehicle/content distinction.
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Reviewer 3 (the really bad one!)

This guy must be a big mucky-muck at a prestigeous institution to be such a pompous ass! Good riddance to this guy!
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Reviewer 4

Thank you very kindly for your understanding.
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Reviewer 5

Dubious Scholarship? Oh my!
What you call "dubious scholarship" and "begging the question" are exactly the paradigmatic issues that you fail to comprehend.
It is not "begging the question" to propose that mind corresponds to our conscious experience, that is merely stating the thesis of identity theory!
Do I have to solve the whole problem of consciousness just to propose that spatial experience implicates a spatial representation in the brain?
Lest I be accused of being "not responsive to reviewers critiques" I have inserted a whole new section on the Ultimate Question of Consciousness just to address Searle's contention that "a computer isn't even a computer to a computer".
Searle is being naive when he says we see the paper itself, not merely a percept of the paper. One man's obvious is another man's absurd!
If conscious experience is neither in the head, nor out in the world, then it does not exist as a scientific entity!
According to Identity Theory, those causes and correlates are an identity! You state your paradigmatic hypothesis as if it were plain fact!
A whole new section has been added to clarify the alternative paradigmatic hypotheses, and why they are all untenable.
The word "predictions" has been removed.
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Editor's Comments on Author's Cover Letter

The remaining substantive prima facie issues are now addressed in the new section on Spirituality, Supervenience, and Other Nomological Danglers.
I AM being required to address all of the implications for each BBS specialty exhaustively! If you look at this whole review, that is exactly what I am being required to do!
Both the reviewers, and the editor, are rejecting a paradigm, wherever you see the words "begging the question" and "non-sequitur". You assume that supervenience and vehicle/content theories are established fact, while identity theory must be proven beyond a doubt. But they are both paradigmatic hypotheses and are equally valid!
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Editor's Comments on Reviewer 2

The vehicle/content distinction is now addressed in the new section on Spirituality, Supervenience, and Other Nomological Danglers.
Higher-order Shepardian, complementary, and other isomorphisms are now discussed.
A paradigm is a paradigm is a paradigm! It does not matter what I do or do not understand!
What makes a paradigm is not that it sweeps the world and achieves broad popular acclaim. What makes a proposal paradigmatic is the foundational nature of the assumptions that it challenges!
It is a solution to the mind/body problem to propose that mind and brain are not distinct, but they are one and the same thing!
You don't have to accept identity theory as your personal philosophy. I admit that is a really big one to swallow. But you must acknowledge that it is at least equally valid, prima facie, as the alternative supervenience and vehicle/content theories.
[Return to originating comment]

Author's Response to Editor's Comments on Reviewer 3

This reviewer was really bad! I can't believe you still defend him after his shameful and embarassing performance!
You seem to completely misunderstand the paradigmatic issue. A paradigmatic proposal is paradigmatic whether or not it ever has any impact on anyone!
I raise the paradigmatic issue not to get special dispensation from having to justify my theory, but because you and some of the reviewers seem to believe that your own paradigm is a statement of fact, rather than merely an unsubstantiated initial assumption.
There is now a new section discussing alternative neural network models of sense data.
[Return to originating comment]

BBS Responds: Accepted!!! for open peer commentary, September 2002.

Open Peer Commentaries received February 2003.

Response to Commentaries submitted March 2003.