The biggest picture

The chief philosophical questions that do grow up are those that leave home1 – Lawrence Krauss

If we were to ask ourselves what the most interesting big-picture problems in science are today, one could think of several fascinating ones such as:

  1. Understanding the big bang, or rather knowing the nature of the multiverse and its origins.
  2. Understanding the nature of empty space and its potential for creating complexity, guided by physical laws.
  3. Understanding the origin of life and its evolution, to a level where we can artificially facilitate the creation of living creatures.
  4. Understanding the nature of subjective thought, and the requisite machinery and physical laws behind the creation of minds.
  5. Understanding the nature of morality and collective wellbeing in a society, and giving it a firm scientific footing.

There could possibly be many more such fundamental problem-domains challenging science today; the above list is just a broad sweep of affairs as they stand. We would, however, like to introduce one more item to this list of obvious biggies. Its an old problem in philosophy that folks ranging from Kant to Dennett have touched upon at some point in their philosophical discourse, and which we believe would soon deserve a place in science:

    6. Understanding the nature of reality, or rather, developing a sound root-metaphor that resonates in human minds, for dealing with all empirical knowledge.

What we have to say below about this latter item (#6) is not a developed scientific theory… it is merely a conversation starter to get us thinking about how what we observe, relates to what is, in the context of what we know about the human mind today.

The intuitive “biggest-picture” of the universe is one of an external world of objects and behaviors, which could be precisely experienced by us in a strange, private space that we call consciousness2. The nature of consciousness in itself is a mystery, but we see the world as a carbon copy of the world itself. In other words, there are two spaces in our base-ontology called mind and world, where we could inspect the world (i.e. everything outside of our private consciousness) in our mind (i.e. our private consciousnesses).

reality1

Figure 1

Irrespective of whether we believe in Cartesian Dualism (mind and matter being made of separate “stuff”3) or not, we certainly peruse the world in this egocentric, two-space fashion. This bottom-line intuition (Figure 1) of seeing exactly what is “out there” has served us well thus far; nearly all of science (excluding certain perplexities in quantum mechanics4 – we shan’t dwell on these here) and certainly all of engineering has flourished under this intuition. So let us state this intuition in a pseudo-mathematical form:

Experience = External Reality + Imagination

I’d like to interject a quick note about imagination at this point. Whether dreams, hallucinations and other “imaginary artifacts” in our minds are based entirely upon prior memories of objects and happenings in the world has been debated… but it is generally accepted that certain fundamental components of our imagination (“the language of thought”5) are based on memories of the world. Congenitally blind people are, for example, are said to only experience auditory dreams6. Imagination is thus simply a remix of reality, and could be stated as:

Imagination = (External Reality), where the function ¦ is some sort of random aggregation function of real world objects and behaviors, operating at a currently undetermined level of perceptual granularity.

Thus our bottom-line intuition becomes:

Experience = External Reality + (External Reality)

Or simply:

e = r + (r)

Now we come to an important conundrum; our picturing of the world is shaped by our evolution7,8,9. Doesn’t this pertinent fact impinge upon our intuitive worldview, rendering it limited in some fundamental sense?

Lets us for a moment consider this alternate “big-picture” metaphor of the universe, where everything outside of our private consciousnesses remain unknown and without form or behavior, until we have some form or behavior represented in our minds. These representations would correspond to some sub-complexity in the vast unknown complexity outside of our mind. However they (the subjective representations) won’t be equal to a complete metaphor of reality. Moreover, let us also propose that the intuition of the self is in itself a representation10 (see diagram below).

reality2

Figure 2

The world would now be our subjective thoughts, experienced in a coherent way so that an ego emerges. All representations in the ego tunnel11 (whether influenced by the external unknown or not) are painted in a finite language of markers that have evolved through natural selection. So for example, a red light is a marker in this ego tunnel, and whilst it may have a causal correspondence to an interaction with an external complexity, the redness and the lightness are both an internal language12.

Let us now reorganize the “equation” of experience based on the latter metaphor.

Experience = f(Reality, Evolved Ego Tunnel Markers) + f(Evolved Ego Tunnel Markers)

e = f(r,m) + f(m)

In other words, our scientific worldview must give due place to the conjured nature of our thoughts, observations and even our mental model building (a.k.a. metaphors). The recursive nature of the problem of external reality (“oh, you are trying to make a metaphor about how we relate to reality, when we can only relate to reality through a language of evolved metaphors anyway! What’s the use of that super-metaphor?”) doesn’t permit us to escape this inequality between it and our picturing of it.

To conclude, we conjecture that we don’t experience reality as is, we experience reality through the lens of an ego tunnel that has evolved a finite internal “language” to represent certain aspects of it. Therefore the question of whether we are directly privy to reality (as God would have us) or if we can only “feel our way about it” will one day surely grow up and move away from metaphysics and into mainstream science.

  1. Baggini interviews Krauss: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/sep/09/science-philosophy-debate-julian-baggini-lawrence-krauss
  2. The objects of experience: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/#2.1.1
  3. Cartesian dualism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dualism_(philosophy_of_mind)
  4. Quantum perception: http://quantumperception.net/html/the_senses.htm
  5. The language of thought: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/language-thought/
  6. The nature of the dreams of the blind: http://www2.ucsc.edu/dreams/Library/kerr_2004.html
  7. The evolutionary origin of consciousness and qualia: http://www.origin-life.gr.jp/3801/3801001/3801001.pdf
  8. If qualia evolved: http://cognet.mit.edu/posters/TUCSON3/Cairns-Smith.html
  9. Epiphenomenal qualia: http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/epiphenomenal_qualia.html
  10. The illusion of the self: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-illusion-of-the-self2
  11. The Ego Tunnel model of the mind: http://www.amazon.com/Ego-Tunnel-Science-Mind-Myth/dp/0465020690
  12. Colors are internal markers: http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/479563-sky-blue-pink-a-colour-never-before-seen
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2 Responses to The biggest picture

  1. dmcmahon2019 says:

    Reblogged this on Dustin McMahon and commented:
    This post is breathtaking.

  2. Jack Games says:

    I am not sure that I follow completely, forgive me. We don’t know what is really out there. We have our own internal representation of what is out there. The thing that we represent it with, is also ‘out there’ and it is doing the representing for us, it has evolved to see what it needs to see what it needs to see and thus is not a completely accurate or impartial lens. close?

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