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.


  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

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).


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).


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

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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