What I’m worried about; the relegation of mind in science

Most of us know, that we don’t know how exactly we know something1, 2, 3. Yet, when we know something, we reflexively think that it exists independently of how we know it, and, furthermore, that it exists even if we don’t. Rocks, bricks, atoms, electrons, superstrings, the idea of space-time bent by mass, the algorithm of evolution through the natural selection of mutations and even such notions as “free will” are all entities in subjective consciousness; and yet are often referred to in such absolute, external and eternal terms during public scientific discourse.

One has only to listen to Dan Dennett speak of the algorithm of evolution4, or Ed Witten speak about vibrations in superstrings5, to get an idea of how absolute and literal these concepts are to their inventors or advocates. There is no hint in their discourse of the metaphorical nature of the concepts they speak about; no room allowed for highlighting the limitations or abstractions imposed by the minds that envision these ideas.

The possibility that many scientific theories and laws are in fact models or metaphors (chosen out of countless ill-suited ones) in our consciousness is daren’t spoken. When we do care to, we seem to consider consciousness and “how the mind works” in a vacuum, outside of physics, biology, engineering and even outside of such “sciences” that are deeply rooted in human psychology like management. The role of the mind-machine is ignored, it seems to me. Mind or rather consciousness is relegated to neuroscience, philosophy and certain sections of “Computer Science” such as AI. I worry that this might be a huge mistake.

Perhaps this literal certainty (or even “intellectual arrogance”) with which we put forward our working models in physics in particular, and science in general, springs about from what philosophers call the “transparency of mind”6. That is to say, an evolved brain generates the world that we experience, and one of the Darwinian adaptations of this “world” we experience is blindness of how we experience it. Therefore, possible shortcomings in our picturing of the external world (or to be more accurate, the external unknown or noumena as Immanuel Kant put it) seem unlikely. In fact, it probably doesn’t occur to us at all to be cautious about the completeness of our subjective “world” in comparison with the external world, since our scientific theories yield good practical results.

Furthermore, the “objectification” of any sophisticated mental construct comes naturally, like “equating” the subjective experience of (say) rocks with that of (say) superstrings. After all, our ancestors from their unicellular days evolved banging into entities such as rocks. The more sophisticated and convoluted impressions that are formed in our minds today, like superstrings, are also erroneously processed in our mind-machines as being similar to rocks. So both rocks and superstrings become entities that are absolute and external, once we accept them as “true” after experimental verification. There is no instinctive gradation of “quality” placed upon perceived reality, no matter how far we have extended our reach through instrumentation and imagination.

So what is the evidence for this sort of absolutism in current science as being damaging to our intellectual development? “Big Physics” for one is stagnant and compartmentalized. Everyone has a theory, some of which contradict the others. The age old Big Bang, the Multiverse, the Universe From Nothing, The Cycles of Time, The Holographic Universe etc. they all stumble on each other’s toes. You cant have a cyclic universe that came from nothing, but which came from the halo of the evaporation of a previous universe, which then collapsed and is stored as information on the event horizon of a Black Hole, which is just one probabilistic copy of another universe that didn’t collapse, etc. This may seem a hideous dismissal of some profound mathematical musings; yet they remain profound musings in a state of contradiction.

Perhaps we need to throw in a profound functional model of our brains, the nature of consciousness and perception into this game, in order to proceed forward and untangle this mess? I worry that we haven’t done so as yet. And I don’t believe it’s impossible. After all, we already have some (albeit limited) knowledge of how our brains work, and of the philosophical implications of it7, 8, 9. It’s about time we incorporate these implications into physics, cosmology and suchlike.

Of course, I’d worry a whole lot more if we chose to abandon the scientific method. The last thing on my mind is a suggestion to herd us back to irrationality and superstition, citing the intellectual relegation of mind. I’m assuming that we have past this primitive era, at least in the scientific community. In such an enlightened environment, it worries me that we are clinging to theories too literally and absolutely, utterly ignoring the nature and paradoxes of our subjective consciousness’ itself.

PS: This essay is in response to the excellent collection of ideas titled “What should we be worried about” published in 2014 by Edge.org, under John Brockman’s editorship. I saw no essay address this particular issue head-on, hence this.

I for one am not an absolutist or naïve realist; I see the world through mental models, some more efficient than others. For example, I think space-time warping due to massive objects is a better mental model for dealing with the external world, than to think that every object attracts every other object according to an inverse-square law.

I know the very worry I expressed above, even if it has pragmatic value in eliminating silos of thinking within science, is in itself a crude psychological instrument, which would likely be superseded by another once we understand more about our brains and minds.

References:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consciousness
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology
  3. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/
  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efEjo2bLuHY
  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLZKqGbNfck
  6. The Ego Tunnel, page 7 and elsewhere: http://www.amazon.com/The-Ego-Tunnel-Science-Mind/dp/0465020690
  7. http://www.amazon.com/The-Tell-Tale-Brain-Neuroscientists-Quest/dp/0393340627
  8. http://www.amazon.com/The-Ego-Tunnel-Science-Mind/dp/0465020690
  9. http://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-Explained-Daniel-C-Dennett/dp/0316180661
  10. http://www.amazon.com/What-Should-Worried-About-Scientists-ebook/dp/B00DB3D9PQ
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