The debate on Free Will continues

The-Negative-Effects-of-JudgmentalismWatching the recent sparring between Dan Dennett and Sam Harris over the nature of “free will”1, 2 – the idea that human beings have conscious volition over their physical actions – has helped me immensely to refine my own opinion3 about this ancient and fascinating human intuition.

Sam’s view falls squarely in line with what neuroscience tells us. We know today that our subjective thoughts about a given physical action (like “lets turn on the light”) are preceded by unconscious neural activity that, if detected by the appropriate gadgetry, predicts the decision we “make consciously”. For example, if we were hooked up to the right kind EEG or FMRI scanners to measure our neuronal activity, we’d be able to first detect the neural processes that would make us “turn on the light switch”, and thereafter we’d have the subjective thought “lets on the light”. Finally, we’d physically turn the light on. Benjamin Libet first demonstrated this rather spooky phenomenon back in the early 1980s, through his famous “experiments”4.

It seems that Sam’s argument against free will emerges from this foundational scientific discovery, and is strengthened by his own, unique intuition based on introspection, that we don’t know where our thoughts come from, before they actually occur to us5. We don’t rationalize why we want to throw the light switch on, until the thought comes into our minds. Of course there would be physical causes for our actions, such as the ambient lighting in the room being low. It seems we make contact with the external world unconsciously, and a path of action falls into place unconsciously, and thereafter a thought bubbles into consciousness like “lets turn on the light”. Similarly, a myriad other thoughts may bubble into consciousness retrospectively, such as “its dark, that’s why I put the light on”. We are able to connect the dots – i.e. attach semantics to our actions in our consciousness – but only so far as our sensory inputs and other unconscious cognitive processes allow.

Therefore, a close study of the nature of our subjective thoughts and their relationship to our physical actions seems to nullify the long-held notion that we are in some sense absolutely free to “consciously preside and decide” over a multiplicity of options, when faced with a physical situation. Moreover, it seems that we usually don’t “think first and act later”. Rather, it seems on deeper analysis that we actually act deterministically, and rationalize or attach meaning to our actions later.

Sam has contrasted this important learning from neuroscience with the widespread advocacy for punishment, and the keenness for judgment in today’s society. Everyone wants to judge and punish others, because they falsely believe that wrongdoers “consciously decide” there actions and therefore are accountable for them in some absolute sense. In contrast, the concept of accountability it seems has no scientific grounding in an ontology of determinism, however complex and convoluted the deterministic processes that generate a given wayward action may be. We are never ultimately accountable for our actions in some puritanical sense, where if time were reversed magically, we’d have been able to “not switch the light on” (or more appropriately, “not plunge the knife in”). Therefore, according to Sam, we are better off sans the concept of punishment, and its allied judicial proceedings that focus on inflicting suffering on the wrongdoer, for making his “bad decision”. The practical implication of Sam’s central theme is not new, and in fact many countries practice a restorative system of justice (as opposed to a punitive system, that was instinctively rejected even by ancient sages like Christ) that, in theory at least, aligns well with the absence of free will.

It seems we aught to live in a world where wrongdoers are re-branded as errant human beings, or beings who are misguided, poorly trained or otherwise psychologically or physiologically maladapted to harmonious living. It is a well-known hypothesis that some people are by nature unempathetic towards others, due to physical abnormalities in their brains such as deficiencies in their mirror neuron systems6. It would seem less useful to understand such persons as “evil”. So we better off coming to terms with the fact that we live in a society burdened by weirdos, but not by “morally depraved persons” who must be punished or purified of their transgressions.

Therefore, systems of justice must focus on protection, prevention, restoration, and behavioral modification via training, if the latter were possible. The lives of such grossly harmful persons may still require termination, but merely as an act of self-defense by larger society. We don’t require a death sentence, nor do we judge people to be “evil” – instead we either sequester or (if absolutely necessary) kill extremely dangerous people as painlessly as possible, when we have concrete evidence of their impending transgressions.

Dan Dennett brings in an entirely different, but equally important dimension to the debate on free will. In summary, he believes that free will is a useful practical intuition (although perhaps an illusion in a theoretical sense) because it’s an effective way of minimizing and marginalizing errant behavior when living in an interconnected society. It’s socially advantageous to be “offended” and slap back, when someone slaps you, rather than contemplate about the inevitability of the first slap and the lack of volition on the part of the slapper. By placing the mantle of accountability on others, and punishing the wrongdoer, society jockeys towards a harmonious balance-position, where errant behavior is minimal.

The instinct to assume the capacity for an absolute freedom of choice in our neighbours, must have evolved for the above reason. To dwell on this point – how does the attribution of free agency to others become ubiquitous in a society?

The sense of pain (or discomfort) is the ultimate learning tool of evolution. Pain is useful because we have memories of us undergoing painful experiences. So when one has experienced a nasty slap for a particular action one has taken, the pertinent neural network associates that discomfort with the action. The next time that an opportunity presents itself for a similar physical action, an extra parameter comes into play during the early, unconscious part of the neural processing. The slap is not carried out, because its painful consequence is also fed into the neural network. When the subjective thought surfaces, the meaning of one’s action is expressed: “Lets not slap this guy, he may slap back”. So in a world where we punish people because they are “accountable” for their actions, we find society conditioned reflexively to expect a reprisal, and hence become more guarded. In the early days of human evolution, this would have amounted to an avoidance of death, and hence genes that predisposed a person towards retributive action, if they indeed exist, would have been selected.

There seems to be merits to both Sam and Dan’s points of view. I personally have developed weariness towards adopting Dan’s “social” or “3rd person hypothesis” of free will (which I used to empathize with some years ago).

The reason is this. Unlike in our evolutionary past, where person-to-person violence (strike and counterstrike) played an active, mediating role in behavior, we live today in a world where person-to-person violence appears to be on the decline7. Society has been trained to avoid person-to-person violence. Instead, large-scale violence organized via memes or catchy intellectual instruments of a punitive nature seems to be the order of the day. “Assad is an evil dictator” or “the west is greedy for Middle Eastern oil and is destroying the Islamic world trying to grab it, so we must defend ourselves” or “Corrupt Dictators are running some countries, lets punish them and do their countries a favor” or “Russia is an evil empire” are the sort of intellectual instruments behind global violence and suffering today. And, at some corner of these catchy thought patterns, lies the potent core idea of punishing leaders of countries, or even entire nations or communities, for what is perceived (and oversimplified) as their willful wrongdoing. The consequences of these crude attempts at justice often leave the world worse off then before.

 

References:

  1. Free will, a debate between Sam Harris and Dan Dennett in a bar: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/free-will-revisited
  2. Emails exchanged between Sam Harris and Dan Dennett on Free Will: https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/reflections-on-free-will
  3. Ruwan’s early thoughts on Free Will: https://izombi.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/an-ode-to-the-emotion-behind-free-will-though-it-may-be-imprisoned-by-causality/
  4. Libet’s experiments: http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/libet_experiments.html
  5. The determined nature of thinking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g
  6. Empathy and mirror neurons: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/do_mirror_neurons_give_empathy
  7. The decline of violence in the world: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature

Image acknowledgement: taken from: http://markdejesus.com/negative-effects-judgmentalism/

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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

An ode to the emotion behind free will, though it may be imprisoned by causality

[An open comment to Sam Harris]

Free will?Dear Sam,

As a layman with a keen interest in modern ethics and its development as a serious science, I am deeply grateful for what I think is the main political thrust of your recent discourse about Free Will1, 2, 3. Your supreme achievement through this discourse is, in my humble opinion, a powerful attempt to provide a scientific underpinning for morality in general, and a rational appeal for the eradication of judgmentalism from society in particular. A brief scrutiny of the evening news on CNN will show us that judgmentalism in some form or another is still a strong force in the world4, 5, in spite of the fact that sages throughout history have cautioned us against its efficacy, and suggested its replacement with equanimity6. Moreover, in some backward regions of the world like Saudi Arabia, a form of tribal judgmentalism exists7 that is a direct result of the mistaken belief in an absolute freedom of thought outside of one’s environmental backdrop, and hence outside of the metaphysical principal of causality. I think all rational thinkers aught to applaud your efforts toward guiding the masses away from these ideologies.

However, as your esteemed colleague and friend Dan Dennett was quick to point out, there are problems with completely dismissing the colloquial idea behind “freedom of will”. I will not comment on Prof. Dennett’s views on the matter, but instead respectfully introduce another line of thinking for your kind consideration. I apologize upfront if the way I present my idea is somewhat dogmatic and amateurish, it still merits your reading in my humble opinion.

Whether you admit it or not, you had intuitive expectations of Dan being a free agent, in every colloquial sense of the phrase, when you published your rebuttal8. This goes against the logic of your argument. That very paradox brings us quickly to the heart of my conjecture – we all instinctively posit a “theory of mind” on other human beings9, whose principal characteristic is the assumption that the other being can act in the world, and does so outside of our influence. Furthermore, a punitive reaction is commonplace – not against Dan perhaps, but for example striking out at a petty burglar you have just collared, accompanied by that reflexive feeling of outrage (“why did you do that???”). This behavioral reaction is akin to what folks like Antonio Damasio might phrase as an emotion accompanied by a feeling10, 11.

Neuroscience tells us that we humans (and perhaps apes, monkey and other mammals) seem to be having the necessary “firmware” (mirror neurons and other complex functions of brain centers like the Amygdala for example) to attribute a “theory of mind” to other creatures12, and posit on others the benefit of  “these are thinkers like us”. I conjecture that, if one were observant of society and intellectually honest, one would conclude that this precisely is the origin of the folk psychological idea of “free will”. It shows every sign of being an inherited emotion, universal amongst humans and possibly other animals (apes or monkeys for example). I conjecture that free will comes into play when we interact with another physical entity that we have posited a “theory of mind” to. I propose that it is not a concept built up through logical deduction based on intense self-reflection (a meditation “we don’t seem to have a clear causal link to our thoughts, therefore we are free” etc.) Rather, it is an emotion (and its accompanying feeling) about another physical entity that we have attributed as being like ourselves – machines of agency beyond our definite influence.

The sense of outrage (“why are you robbing me, you rascal?”), accompanied by retributive action (throwing a punch, for e.g.), is one of the commonest emotional reflexes we see in humans. It matters not if we are educated that volition is causal or not – i.e. if the inputs categorically predetermine the outputs, and if the thoughts itself are a mere post hoc epiphenomenal play. The judgment still comes reflexively into our thoughts. It appears to be a Darwinian crutch for dealing with other humans in a society.

And, I propose we are able to have this emotion about our own phenomenal selves, due to the complex and functionally hierarchical nature of cognition. Which is why we feel “free from others influence”, “in control”, “angry” etc. at ourselves. Whatever the exact nature of this process, I conjecture that its basis is an underlying emotion for dealing with other persons.

The key question is, is the thought of “freedom” that we reflexively posit on others (and ourselves) indeed a Darwinian adaptation? If it is, then one must necessarily admit that in a society of humans, the public concept of free will has sound empirical grounding – i.e. it mediates the physical evolution of human beings.

You might argue, so what? There is no independence of subjective thoughts from prior unconscious events (as “proven” by Libet’s experiment) and ultimately our entire cognitive capacity and behavior is based on prior environmental conditions. My point is, free will is another playing field – we are not worried about causality when we instinctively feel that others (or ourselves) are free, accountable, in control etc. Rather it is an emotion that is empirically effective (in a raw Darwinian sense) to thrive with other complex, unpredictable creatures in a society.

“Free will” after all is a language construct, and I propose is an approximate way of communicating a complex evolved emotion. It’s a language construct that has efficacy nonetheless, except when it’s given more credence than it deserves (e.g. introduce a cause-less Cartesian-type “soul” that must be punished etc.) That type of free will, which you propose is the instinctive meaning of free will, and which I think is not, is plainly beyond rationality. It arises from a confusion of ideas at best, and is the bathwater that must be thrown out. The baby, the instinctive treatment of others (and oneself) as independent persons, must remain.

References:

  1. http://www.samharris.org/free-will
  2. http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/reflections-on-free-will
  3. http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-marionettes-lament
  4. http://edition.cnn.com/2014/02/20/world/europe/ukraine-protests/index.html?hpt=hp_t1
  5. http://edition.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/world/2014/02/20/thailand-bangkok-protest-backstory-mohsin-pkg.cnn.html
  6. http://www.relevantbibleteaching.com/site/cpage.asp?cpage_id=140029094&sec_id=140001239
  7. https://izombi.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/an-eye-for-an-eye/
  8. “I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running”. – You are hurt Sam, ‘cause you instinctively feel Dan’s an unconstrained thinker. See more at: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-marionettes-lament#sthash.CFqtjqDn.dpuf
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_mind
  10. A recurring topic throughout this excellent book: http://www.amazon.com/Self-Comes-Mind-Constructing-Conscious/dp/030747495X
  11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aw2yaozi0Gg
  12. http://www.unipr.it/arpa/mirror/pubs/pdffiles/Gallese/Gallese-Goldman%201998.pdf

Insights from the search a pragmatic theory of consciousness

A short talk within the sphere of Analytical Philosophy of Mind, that presents an integrated view of our current understanding of consciousness:

Hard Problem, easy problem or No Problem?

A verbal response to Prof. Dan Dennett’s opening comment on the Hard Problem, in this interview:

Here is my response: 

Thomas Metzinger’s No-Self Model and the Doctrine of Anatta

A guest essay by R. Chandrasoma

no-selfBuddhism is unique among religions in that it denies the existence of a soul or spirit as the foundation of being. While beings – human and animal – possess individuality and display expressions of the mental in varying degrees, these attributes are believed to arise from dynamical processes in a collective called the Five Aggregates. The latter acts holistically and mimics the essential features of an organism battling for survival in a world that in mosts respects supports an alluring carnality – one that is inimical to the true interests of transcendence and absorption in the Ultimate (Nirvana). There is a deep religious aspect (involving ‘karma’ and the trans-generational catenation of lives) in such a Buddhist view of being which we shall not discuss because our explanatoty compass is strictly secular. Let us note first that a mind arises within a interactive dynamic assembly of elementary conscious states called ‘citta’ that are epiphenomenal manifestations of the Five Aggregates mentioned above. Their interplay constitutes personhood. Buddhism has much in common with Indian religions (such as Jainism) but stands out in human intellectual history as the first to advocate a modular-functional approach to personhood that, among other things, makes the notion of a soul meaningless .  This remarkable metaphysical stance has its epistemic rationale in the fundamental notion that ‘all is flux’ (anatta) and ‘being’ in a rigid ontological sense has no reality. Thus, ‘persons’ or ‘beings’ exist in a practical sense but the underlying truly dynamical collectives merely parade a specious individuality.

While modern neurophysiogical research has made the traditional concept of the soul a myth in the same class as ghosts and extracorporeal spirits, it cannot be doubted that selfhood and moral agency are difficult to explain in plain scientific terms. The great revolution in recent years is the resurrection of of an insight well known to Buddhist thinkers – the notion of ‘two truths’ – the apparent and the deep. The leading author of this two-sided approach to the contemporary study of the mind is a philosopher of great renown – Thomas Metzinger. Dr Metzinger  has been hailed as the New Immanuel Kant for his revolutionary thoughts on matters relating to philosophy of mind and its neuro-scientific underpinnings. His ‘ No Self Model of Subjectivity’ is a philosophical landmark that must, surely, be of great interest to Buddhist philosophers. While his arguments are based on psychology. neuroscience and analytical philosophy – there is no hint of the religious in his argumentation – he arrives at conclusions that resonate wonderfully well with fundamental concepts in Buddhism. In his early work entitled ‘The No-Self model of Subjectivity’ he amasses evidence to show that the ‘self’ (or ‘soul’ in more relgiously oriented accounts) is a functional artifact created through the dynamical complexity of material processes in the brain. Such ‘virtual machines’ are well known to computer scientists – they arise when great external complexity must be ‘represented’ as a virtual world that must be assessed and acted upon within set time-frames for some goal or purpose. In the case of a human self, this goal is that of manoeuvering in a simulated world so as to achieve survival and reproductive success in the actual world. Very abstractly, the ‘self’is like a pointer-device in a computer user-interface.

In his ground-breaking book called The Ego Tunnel he amplifies the no-self model to take into account the relentless flow of time in the universe of phenomenal things. He advocates views that ought to have a warm response from learned Buddhists. The leading concept is that of a specious being tunnellng through an unknown reality by the ceaseless operation of an ‘Ego Machine’. Buddhists call this dynamic ‘existence through thanha’. The ceaseless drive to move on in an unreal or misinterpreted world is the leitmotiv of this relentless motion of survival machines that are seen internally as persons with angst and purpose. The high abstraction of this model ought not to deter the earnest seeker of the truth from exploring its aptness in a Buddhist context.

A final comment of a different nature seems warranted. Buddhist scholarship in Sri Lanka ignores science – indeed, ignores the great world of learning beyond its shores in the tenaciously-held belief that the eternal and inviolable truth was ‘revealed’ by its revered founder at the commencement of his mission as the Compassionate Teacher of the Truth. The reality is that we have texts and recensions purported to be the authentic word of the Buddha. That many schools of Buddhism arose shortly after the demise of the Buddha is strong evidence that the Truth he revealed is deeply veiled and has the nature of a ‘hologram’ that needs continuous re-interpretation. This means that there are layers of meaning in his doctrine that need rephrasing in terms of the most advanced science of the day. It is a matter of great regret that this task is beyond the competence of those who are supposed to be the Buddhaputra in our ancient land.

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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