Inside out – should it be our new thinking?

– A short introduction to “ego tunnel pragmatism”, an emerging candidate for a new philosophy of science

Today’s worldview in popular science is rather close to the philosophy of direct realism. It perhaps was not always the case in the history, but it is rather obvious today that popular opinion is heavily in favor of a sort of conceptual realism in the external world – i.e. professing the existence of “physical laws” that are “out there in the world”. These laws are said to govern the dynamic behavior of the universe, independent of the very minds that perceive these laws. Stephen Hawking for example, pursued a “theory of everything” passionately for several decades; a theory which once discovered would supposedly end our pursuit of theoretical physics. Astrophysicists like Martin Rees are heard saying that the fundamental constants in today’s physics seem to be “tweaked minutely” to “produce” us intelligent creatures. And then we have heard such naive metaphors as “the god particle” for the Higgs Boson, hinting that its discovery would resolve all the mystery about mass in the universe.

On the biological front lines we have Richard Dawkins, the preeminent evolutionary biologist of our time, speaking of “the algorithm of evolution” as being an empirical law that is the infallible root-explanation for the existence of life forms and all biological complexity. Evolution through natural selection is said to be a “part of reality” in the deep sense that, night or day, with or without observers, it (the law) operates steadfastly to generate new lifeforms. The law of evolution is part of the fabric of the external world, it has meaning irrespective of minds, and stands on a better ontological footing than any so-called “subjective reality” that humans speak about, like a sudden pain or an itch. It is a law “out there [in the world]”. Or so we are told.

The above type of thinking, whilst well-intentioned and vastly helpful in evangelizing the scientific method to the masses, lacks conformity with what little we know today about how our minds work. Let us humbly consider an alternate philosophical viewpoint to this popular notion of “conceptual realism”.

Scientific laws, theories and conjectures are rarely (if ever) developed within the paradigm of a coupled system of mind and world. However, the uneasy truth is that we live in such a philosophical paradigm, where all perceived phenomena are merely representations of a larger external unknown (the “real world”), representations that are of “use” to us conscious entities in a narrow Darwinian context. Modern neuroscience and philosophy of mind strongly supports the view that we conscious creatures are survival machines capable of representing a virtual world (an “ego tunnel”) that models the “external reality” in a rather parochial way – a model sufficient for these “mind machines” to navigate and reproduce within the larger external world. So, concepts arising from our subjective experiences like the solidity of materials may not be useful beyond the physical scale of our day to day human interactions with nature. Our “laws” after all are laws of the perceived world, empirically verifiable through our phenomenal experiences, or through instrumental extensions that trigger phenomenal experiences. They are laws that operate to serve us, at the level of subjective experience.

Moreover, physical laws or conceptual frameworks (such as mathematical logic, or even the central message in this very essay) are in fact merely metaphors appreciable within the scope of our bodily makeup and dynamics. Our reason is built upon our total body. Be it physics or metaphysics, mathematics or art, an appreciation of all these disciplines can be reduced to an inherited appreciation of the basic dynamics of our body interacting with its environment. The “appreciation” here is realized as a language of metaphors in relation to basic body dynamics; the structure of mathematical logic for example, can be traced back to a finite set of concepts like movement, magnitude of distance, volume etc. There exists no mathematics without a human being to appreciate it – because it all boils down to how our bodies operate in the environment. This view again is strongly supported today by many renowned philosophers of science.

We propose that an ontological paradigm of a coupled system of a mind-machine and an external unknown, where one represents the other as a crude working model, and where the “deepest truths” for us would always be truths about the phenomenal experiences generated by this coupled system, is knocking on the door of mainstream philosophy. We hope to convince the reader that there is at least one obvious utility in this “mind + unknown world” paradigm, and that it is not merely smart verbiage amounting to intellectual gobbledygook.

Let us begin by recounting the transient nature of scientific theory, by considering the scientific worldview of gravitation from a historical perspective. When Newton formalized his “universal law” of gravitational attraction, it was a smart piece of intellectual insight, inspired and amply supported by empirical evidence. One could apply his “law” that any “body” attracts any other “body” proportionate to the product of their “masses”, and inversely proportionate to the square of the “distance” between them, to resolve a multitude of “practical” problems. We could use this “law” to predict upcoming solar eclipses, for example. Newton of course was deified, and his law of gravitation woven into the fabric of reality.

All the world remained at peace, until… knock, knock – in came Einstein, 200 years later, and said: “Well, Newton was right, by and large. But there actually is a better way to conceptualize the dynamic behavior of massive bodies and how they attract each other. What if we think of reality as three spacial dimensions and time as a fourth dimension, and think of “bodies” as dents in this four-dimensional world? We could use the metaphor of a bed-sheet, which sags when there is a massive body, dragging other massive bodies towards it (or rather the two bodies roll towards each other due to the combined sag they cause). I have worked out the mathematics of this conceptual model, which I’ll call “General Relativity”. I’m certain it would predict the dynamic behavior of gravitational systems better than Newton’s laws did”. And so it did, and history was rewritten… down went Newton, up came Einstein, and the notion that space-time “bends” when there are masses (or that masses are bends in space-time) became a “reality” of the Universe. [This is actually an utterly crude treatment of General Relativity, but it is sufficient for the purposes of our argument.]

What went down here (as they say)? Clearly what happened was that we were able to conjure two alternate body metaphors that “resonated” in our ego tunnels, to help us engineer our phenomenal experiences associated with our interaction with massive bodies. We could call this phenomenon “multiple perceptibility” or better still “multiple representability” (not to be confused with multiple realizability, which is sort of the mirror complement of the same phenomenon – multiple events in the external world yielding the same phenomenal experience in our ego tunnels). The truth of this becomes more apparent when we consider simpler phenomenal interpretations to events in the external world. Let us briefly consider a few examples where alternate metaphors “resonate” in our ego tunnels, for the same “real world” experience.

  1. Multiple 3-D viewpoints can be appreciated in a 2-D Necker Cube. In this case, no one representation has superior Darwinian utility.
  2. Fluids can be appreciated as a continuum of a “flexible, malleable substance that cannot be compressed” (the continuum assumption in fluid dynamics) or as a vast collection of particles of appreciable dimensions “slipping” over each other and held together by molecular forces. We have a relatively simple mathematics developed for the flow of incompressible fluids, where a fluid is treated as a flexible substance that flows in “layers” within pipes. However, this conceptual model fails to “explain” such common phenomena like the dissolution of sugar in water. We have to move towards a particulate view of fluids for this purpose. Furthermore, this particulate view of fluids can be coupled to a more sophisticated mathematical model that could explain both its chemical properties and its flow dynamics. The particulate view of water thus could be argued to have greater Darwinian utility.
  3. The component nature of light has been in continuous flux – ray optics was around for a long time and was extremely useful for developing optical instruments. Newton professed light to be particulate (consisting of “corpuscles”) to help explain its energy potency. Huygens and later physicists like Maxwell were able to develop a robust mathematical model for predicting the behavior of light and other electromagnetic phenomena based on the concept of wave front propagation (in an “ether”). Late into the quantum mechanical revolution, we got right back to describing light as a collection of photons (particles) whose behavior is governed by yet another complex mathematical model. Arguably, the latter view of light (being comprised of photons) has greater Darwinian utility, in the sense that we can make an LED TV screen based on this model, which in turn can relax our minds! However, there is nothing unsound about geometric optics, its rules of thumb and its simple mathematical model – it is likely still used to grind the best lenses at Zeiss.

The above examples of “alternate models” describing happenings in the external world lead us to the crux of the problem – why are we able to apply these alternate models to yield useful results, at different levels of granularity? We suggest that this is possible because there is regularity and predictability in the external world, but its exact nature is not directly accessible to us via the limited set of phenomenal representations available in our ego tunnels. We can only make metaphors – models that connect together our finite set of available representations. Using our evolved language of subjective representations like solidity, space, color or weight we simply cannot picture exactly what an electron is, for example, but we can predict certain direct phenomenal experiences like the attraction between certain materials based on the assumption that there “exists” a “solid” particle, a waveform or a probability waveform called an electron. Our complex metaphorical models are useful for predicting certain aspects of the magnetism phenomena to varying degrees of accuracy. These models are always empirical, in the sense that we may conceptualize a metaphor (a hypothesis) and “test” it against observation to see if it has predictive power in our collective subjective experience.

Enough said, we believe the reader would get our philosophical drift. In summary, the conceptual model behind any scientific law can be thought of as a sophisticated metaphor in our minds, useful for predicting interactions with the environment. There is no finality in any of these metaphors, and hence there can be no “final” laws in physics. This at least is one testable conclusion of our theory – history will show us that whilst every scientific theory has varying degrees of utility, no scientific theory is final or can lay claim to revealing the “ultimate truth”. What we have left then is a sort of pragmatism in science, influenced by the new findings in neuroscience and philosophy of mind. Let us call this new outlook “ego tunnel pragmatism”. We must not confuse ego tunnel pragmatism with any old school cartesian dualism – we aught to staunchly suspect the idea that the “mind” is a special domain outside of matter. We all must merely acknowledge that whilst representations in the mind are of a physical basis, they have their limitations bound by our evolved makeup.

Lee Smolin once said, “I am convinced that quantum mechanics is not a final theory”. We propose that no present scientific theory of human construction is a “final theory”. This philosophy of “multiple representability” we believe is true for every branch of empirical investigation. Comments, anyone?



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