First posted 20 Nov 2003. It's interesting that my view has shifted significantly at the foundational level but that much at the 'so what' level remains consistent with what is discussed here. The differences?
We persons are special, at least on Earth, in that we have subjective experiences and are also able to step 'outside' those experiences to consider the world, including ourselves and the subjective experiences we have, more objectively. My assumption is that while many other animals are sentient they cannot take this external, objective step.
This ability has contributed greatly to our success, but it has also saddled us (or those of us with nothing better to do than consider it from time to time) with a seemingly insoluble problem: how do we reconcile our subjective feeling of an 'I' inside each of our bodies that serves as the agent of our actions, with our objective understanding of ourselves as parts of the natural world - parts made of 'standard' materials, parts operating subject to well-understood physical forces, parts constructed of reasonably well-identified sub-components with specific functions, parts whose actions are ultimately explained in natural terms without need of or room for this agent 'I'?
As I've said before in Destiny, I think that the answer to the riddle is that our subjective perspective is real but is not based in any agent of free will. Instead, subjective mental states correspond to (and I believe are caused by) specific but complex brain states, which influence and are influenced by body states. There is no free will. Yet our day-to-day, minute-to-minute belief in it cannot and should not be eradicated. I actually encourage a naturalistic expansion rather than an elimination of our concept of the 'I' behind our actions, but I won't repeat my thinking on that point now.
For now, I wanted to look at what I think is an interesting relationship between the objective and subjective, a relationship that, as far as we know, only exists through us as persons. As viewed from the furthest objective reaches, our brains and bodies (not to mention our minds) virtually disappear from the explanation of anything that is going on. The ultimate objective explanation of the dynamics around us would likely appeal to much smaller - and perhaps occasionally much larger - physical structures. Cells, genes, proteins, molecules, atoms, quarks collide, interact. Supernovae explode, singularities evolve. It seems 'we' matter not at all.
Yet without us and our fellow sentient creatures, there would be no screen for this great film to play on. The universe has created its own sets of eyes, ears and fingers to check itself out. I don't mean this in a teleological way. I don't think this was an end toward which the universe evolved - it's just one of the outcomes of the evolution. Light is seen; crashing waves are heard; slippery ice and warming sun are felt. Our animal cousins join us in this feast.
But our feast (we presume) has an additional course, for we have stumbled upon the ability to reason about the contents of our own minds. This self-consciousness opens the door to objectifying our view, not just about our own mental states, but about their place within the world around us. If I tie this back to the big picture, it means that the universe has created not just a set of video recorders but also a set of computers (who in turn have created computers, but I won't get into the role of technological evolution), capable of examining the rest of the world, describing (if not explaining) its past and predicting its future. Within very limited bounds, we recorder/computers also alter its future, but once again, from the ultimate objective standpoint, this is not so special.
The thing that is special is the existence of recursive subjective states, even if you believe, as I do, that they are epiphenomena of physical states. Their existence is uniquely confined to sentient beings, and a subset of them exist only in persons. They are only ever effects, never causes, yet they are remarkable. Although the history and future of the universe can be explained without reference to them, although they are in one sense redundant, although they never outlive the physical body that causes them, the universe would not be the same without them.
And let's unbundle them to individual minds. Consciousness, coupled with memory and intention, constitutes an individual window on the world in each of us. Once again, this is not teleological. We don't exist to provide this window. Yet each of us provides one none the less. Although the 'self' derives from wholly physical causes, it takes flight in the emergent magic of sentience and self-consciousness. Your subjective experience of the world is what makes you special among the rocks and trees.
Only you enjoy that unique show. There is no objective observer, but if there were, he would be able to explain your every action in physical terms. He could trace every atom of your existence backward to the Big Bang and forward indefinitely. He could pinpoint the arrival, manipulation and transfer of every idea by neurochemical, mechanical and electromagnetic means. But he would not be able to comment at all on what it was like to be you. That is what makes our living moments special among all the moments in which our constituent particles and their interactions have existed and will exist.
We are objects, with pasts much greater than our age and futures more enduring than our life expectancy. But we are special objects, each with a unique subjective window on the world. And within your window is yourself, both as subject and as object. A frame in a frame in a temporary frame.
First posted 21 January 2005. Questions of consciousness. Questions of the role of subjectivity. Questions of time. Questions of a Platonic reality. All still central to what keeps my curious mind busy... Penrose was the adviser of another of my scientific heroes: Julian Barbour.
Roger Penrose, the Oxford Physicist, is not convinced: quantum theory, he believes, is incomplete. In The Road to Reality he argues that a further revolution is required in quantum mechanics, as indicated by its inability to address the reduction process for the wave function (and thereby its inability to 'join up' with classical physics) as well as troubling incompatibilities with general relativity.
The time asymmetry associated with the wave function reduction (or collapse) upon measurement of a quantum system contrasts sharply with the symmetry associated with the propagation of the wave function itself. The latter can be made sense of moving either backwards or forwards in time; the former works only moving forward.
A more familiar time asymmetry, the one we experience every minute of every day, is grounded in the extraordinary nature of the Big Bang itself - its strikingly low entropy. The Big Bang was so ordered that the ever-decreasing order of the universe is a probabilistic near-certainty. This is what lies behind the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the 'arrow of time'. It points to the peculiar behaviour of gravity at cosmological singularities - not only the Big Bang but (less spectacularly) black holes.
The presence of this time asymmetry in both the reduction of the wave function and in the Big Bang suggests that gravity might play an important role in wave function reduction. Discovering this role would amount to a revolution that could well resolve the 'measurement paradox' and render quantum mechanics consistent with general relativity and contiguous with classical physics.
According to this idea, it is the gravitational effects of the classical measuring apparatus (and other macroscopic entities in our everyday world) rather than the perceptions of any observer that bring about the collapse of the wave function. As such, the reduction is an objective rather than a subjective one. This takes the conscious observer from the limelight of quantum theory. How does this happen? As the wave function propagates through time, non-uniformities develop in the distribution of energy and matter among its superposed states, and at some point become gravitationally significant. The gravitational interaction with the measuring apparatus (or other macroscopic entity) then brings a collapse into a measurable single state.
Although Penrose takes the consciousness out of quantum reduction, in The Emperor's New Mind he puts quantum reduction centre stage in consciousness, thereby turning the world (as seen by conventional quantum theory) on its head. These same quantum gravitational effects account for the difference between consciousness and artificial (computer) 'intelligence', and Penrose calls upon them in his rejection of the computational theory of mind. There are things - including non-algorithmic, non-computable ones - that the human mind can comprehend while no computer (Turing machine) possibly could. This is in keeping with Godel's theorem, which states that no formal mathematical system (or at least none of the richness required to handle even common arithmetic) can be complete. There must always be truths that cannot be expressed without recourse to 'meta-mathematical' language that is not part of the formal system.
Penrose suggests that our access to such truths is due to quantum fluctuations, gravitationally induced, within the brain (he suggests maybe in the microtubules of the neurons' cytoskeletans). Multiple states may exist in superposition in our brains until gravity triggers a collapse to a specific state, with resulting (possibly non-local) effects on our neural states. This is something that is not possible (at least for now) with computers.
There is a deep connection among the time-asymmetry of the wave function reduction, the behaviour of gravity at singularities and the presence of non-algorithmic (non-computable) elements - including consciousness - in the world. This helps to explain the relationship among Penrose's "Three Mysteries":
There is also an "Escher element" to the relationships among the three mysteries. Escher was an artist (and obviously a mathematician) whose works included paradoxical staircases and streams that seemed to always lead in one direction (up or down) yet returned to their own source.
In Penrose's three world / three mystery model, a small portion of the mental world is all that is needed to capture the mathematical one (since we obviously spend lots of time considering other things). Similarly, a small portion of the mathematical world is applied to the collected (total) formalism of physics, with much else being dedicated to other questions. And finally, only a small portion of the physical world (that part that makes up our cells) is drawn on to explain the mental one. Each part is able to 'swallow' its neighbour in an illogical, unending cycle.
Penrose believes that the secret to this mystery of the mysteries is that all these worlds are in fact one. Perhaps in a holographic, holistic, non-local sense like that evoked by David Bohm, another of my creative scientific heroes?
First posted 15 April 2006. These days, I tend to think of the brain a lot less when I'm thinking of the mind, but my sense of wonder for whatever it is that is behind our mental experience is undiminished.
Michael O'Shea's The Brain: A Very Short Introduction has shown me that my longstanding wonder with the brain has been understated. You see, I have marvelled at the complexity inherent in a collection of 100 billion neurons - each with a thousand synapses, connections with other neurons - and the effectively uncountable number of possible brain states implied by the permutations of these on-off switches.
O'Shea is also impressed by this, but he adds several other elements of our current understanding that demonstrate that the metaphor of a network of binary electrical switches is far too simple:
All of this suggests that the challenges of 'porting' human intelligence to computer hardware ( a la Ray Kurtzweil) are vastly greater than I had thought. The challenges are similarly greater for efforts such as Dan Lloyd's to eventually map mental states to brain states: the state space, already mind-bogglingly large, is vastly larger still.
It even makes me slightly more sceptical about Julian Barbour's timeless theory of time, because the asynchronous nature of the brain's neuronal (and glial?) interactions doesn't seem to fit well with the notion that particular brain states are but tiny subsets of instantaneous universe states (or Nows) that happily happen to contain records that act as bridges to other Nows. How instantaneous is a Now? If mental states are tied not to instantaneous brain states but are affected by the frequency of repeated neuronal firing, then can a mental state reside within a single Now, given that such a Now, by definition, can contain no change (i.e. no repeated firing)?
But there is a way out. I guess if the brain encodes in each instant information about its state in previous instants (as in discussion of the specious now in Dan Lloyd), then there is no necessary inconsistency between the unquestionable existence of subjective experience and Barbour's theory of time.
First posted 28 June 2006. My view of time and consciousness is surprisingly close in this 11-year old post to what it is today, even though I had not been exposed at that time to the main elements that now underpin my reasoning.
Several pairs of unreconciled truths (as in best operating guesses) interest me deeply: Quantum mechanics & General relativity, Determinism & Free Will, Materialism & Consciousness. These pairs are not unrelated, could indeed be different manifestations of the same chasm. The paradox that may interest me most of all captures aspects of all three and is almost certainly inextricably entwined with each, and that is: Space-time & Temporal becoming.
The paradox has two elements. The first, in a nutshell, is that our best understanding of space-time tells us that it is a complete, unchanging, four-dimensional (perhaps with seven further dimensions wrapped tightly around themselves, unextended) whole, but our direct experience is of a temporal flow with each moment different from the last. All is constant, yet the only constant is change itself.
The second is that while space-time itself has no privileged set of parallel planes that can be called Nows (each inertial frame parses out space and time in a different way, with the Nows as planes at different angles to one another) , we each indisputably experience a clear distinction among past, present and future. The flow from the latter to the former hearkens back to the first element of the paradox.
In an interesting paper, entitled "The Physics of 'Now'", James Hartle takes us some of the way towards a reconciliation.
Space-time is a four-dimensional grid, with each point being an event. If we label one axis as the the speed of light multiplied by time and the others as the space dimensions, then one can imagine two cones, extending in opposite directions parallel to the 'time' axis and meeting at a designated point, or event. The one pointing back toward the Big Bang is the past light cone for that event, and the one opposite it is the event's future light cone.
There is a reason these are called light cones: given the chosen units of the time axis and the fact that nothing can travel at speeds exceeding the speed of light, all points (events) within the 'backward' light cone can be said to be in the given event's past, they could have played some part in the evolution that led to the given event's occurring. Similarly, all points in the future light cone can possibly be affected by this given event. Points outside these cones cannot be said to be in the given event's past or future. They are what is called 'space-like' separated from it.
If we imagine that event or point as being one of many that make up the history, or world line, for a person as that person travels through life (and space and time!), then, within that person's frame of reference, the plane that runs through that event and is perpendicular to the time axis might be defined as a Now or instant for that person.
But the thing is that that person's frame of reference is not privileged, is nothing special. So although it might be called a Now for him, it is not a Now for the universe. Other people could be travelling at very great speeds relative to him, and their Nows would be askew with respect to his.
As it happens, all we humans exist very close to one another (on a cosmological scale), and we move only at very low velocities relative to one another (as compared to the speed of light). So our Nows are for all intents and purposes not only parallel but even simultaneous. Still, this is just a local accident.
Why do we distill the time dimension from the space ones and experience it as a flow from future to past? Hartle believes it is a function of the way that we collect and process information. Placing humans within a broader set of entities he calls Information Gathering and Utilising Systems (IGUSes), he models a simple IGUS to demonstrate his thinking.
In essence, we have 'registers' for current input and for memories of past input. These registers contribute directly to conscious thought both directly and indirectly, the latter through subconscious updating of our 'schema' or underlying operational models for dealing with the world around us.
In any moment, or more to the point, at any event along our world-lines, the 'current input' register is populated by what we are experiencing, the remaining registers are populated by what we experienced in each of several immediately preceding moments. The direct 'feed' from the 'current input' register to conscious thought gives the sense of Now. The fact that any brain state enfolds information from previous brain states ( in the other registers), gives a sense of both a past and of a flow to time. The future is not represented in any register but is rather the object of calculation in both conscious and subconscious processing.
But why does this flow move in one direction rather than the other, or rather than in both? Hartle appeals to two old dears of physics, the 2nd law of thermodynamics (which states that entropy must always increase), and the nature of electromagnetic radiation. I've talked about the first elsewhere. The second is worth mentioning a bit more about. Anything we see has radiated from some source. Electromagnetic radiation only ever travels in that one 'direction' - from source outwards.
In a sense, then, the past can simply be defined as the direction in time from when radiation strikes our retina to when it is (was) emitted. Information only travels that way. Since gathering and processing information is what we do, we naturally take on or assign this direction a prominent place, simply through our interactions with the world.
As ever, I'm sure that I've been less than perfectly true to Hartle's original argument, so do read his paper.
I will say, though, that I think he leaves two questions unanswered. They may well fall outside the scope of his work, but they are related and interesting. First, Hartle mentions repeatedly that we EVOLVED into the IGUSes we are, to process information as we do, because that is what worked. He is doing nothing more than making one specific reference to the accepted truth of Darwin's thesis. But when one thinks of space-time as a four-dimensional, unchanging and complete totality (as I believe it is), one can't help but think differently about evolution.
We no longer say, things are this way because they evolved to be so, and they evolved to be so because being so conveyed survival and reproductive benefits. That is all true WITHIN the time dimension, but within the eternal space-time picture, that we are this way is just that we are this way. Both our present state of evolution and every other step in its past and future exist eternally. So one then asks, why is THAT so? Why is it that this relationship within four-dimensional space-time exists? I don't have an answer. It is just SO.
Second, it is simple enough to refer to a given event on my world-line, look into the 'current input' register and say, "That is my Now". But the interesting point is that EVERY ONE of the points on the 'conscious' segment of my world line is a conscious now, and every one exists eternally, side-by-side, as it were, in space-time. Why do I not experience them all at once. Why do I only experience THIS one and now THIS one?
I do have my own answer to this question, and it is that we ARE experiencing ALL of our Nows eternally, although somehow only ever in one channel at a time. Every instance from our first sentient experience through to our last is experienced by us eternally. Each exists at some event in space-time, but all are there in the eternal 4-D block that is existence. So we don't get life-after-death as such (because the 'after' shows that we are talking within the time dimension with that phrase), but we do get eternal life! And that eternal life is no better or worse than each instant that you live. Moments of suffering are eternal, as are moments of elation, despair and euphoria. Drink deep. Live it up!
First posted 17 Feb 2004 - This film covered a lot of ground. It may have lacked rigour. It may have made insinuations that outreached any fact base. But you can't deny it prompted questions and presented interesting material in relatively digestible form. My own views have shifted significantly from those I held at the time of this review. Some are now closer to the film's, some still not.
Having seen 'I Heart Huckabees' on Sunday, I saw a preview screening of 'What the Bleep Do We Know' this evening - quite a philosophical week. 'Bleep' will probably launch properly in London in March or April.
Well, Bleep certainly covers a lot of ground. I am on board with the need for a paradigm shift - from one dominated by the residue of our longstanding and recently ended infatuation with major western religions to something that retains the connection with the numinous while using what modern science has to offer.
I have to say that the paradigm I envisage differs in a fundamental way from that suggested by the film, but it also shares much ground. Irrespective of whether I or anyone else actually subscribes to the film's specific direction, it is a must see - simply because it is so thought-provoking.
Particular items that caught my attention or stirred a reaction were:
Quantum mechanics (QM)
The film starts with a strong version of the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM, which says that sub-atomic particles cannot be said to exist independent of observation. Unobserved, 'they' exist only as potentials, the probabilistic evolution of which is well defined by a mathematical construct called a wave function. In this wave form, the 'particle' exists as a weighted superposition of all its possible selves (with different positions and momentums for each potential self). Only upon measurement by an observer does the wave function 'collapse' to a unique particle with definite characteristics (not all of which can be known to arbitrary accuracy at the same time). This interpretation obviously gives a special role to the 'observer' in nature.
This is combined with a specific view of the self, one in which Mind stands outside the laws of material nature and in a position of primacy relative to the material world - literally Mind over Matter. I guess you could say the film was espousing an Idealist as opposed to a Realist (read materialist) view of the world: thoughts, ideas, intentions and emotions are the primary building blocks of the world, not atoms, molecules and cells.
The film intertwines these two propositions and draws the conclusion that we each create reality everyday. Further, by adopting more positive attitudes and engaging in more positive thought patterns, we can impact the material world around us to make our world a better place.
As you'll know if you've read my articles on QM (If you think you understand this, then you don't, Quantum Determinacy, Problems with Quantum Orthodoxy, and Revisiting the Quantum - information please) and the Self (Who Am I?, Destiny, Subjective Objects), I disagree fundamentally with each of the two propositions above. I am a causal realist at heart, believing that there is an objective material world that exists independent of us and that subsumes us. And although I think that the Mind is awe-inspiring, I think that it is wholly resident in and reliant on the body.
So without going into any refutations of the film's positions (because I've discussed that in the articles I've mentioned), I'll just say that the film's position on those dimensions does not resonate with me. I don't view either of them as absurd in their own right. However, I do think that the leap to the overall conclusion about our ability to literally impact matter and space with our minds is a bit far. QM's interpretation is still a mystery, with many holding views close to the interpretation cited in the film and some holding views closer to mine. Consciousness is also a puzzle, with clear-thinking people on each side of the Idealist - Realist debate. However, just because QM and consciousness are both unexplained doesn't mean that they are related to one another in any way, let alone a causal tie as blunt and direct as the film proposes.
The Arrow of Time
One of the contributors pointed out the peculiar asymmetry of time. Most (I don't know whether we call say 'all') of the mathematical formulae that so accurately describe the world around us are indifferent to the direction of time, working just as well backwards as forward. Yet we can only experience time in one direction. We can (if we can trust our memories) have knowledge of the past but not of the future. We are troubled by the thought of our not living into the unending future, but we have no problem with the fact that we were not alive for the many thousands of years before our birth.
Some (but not this contributor) have suggested that time's arrow is tied to the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system, entropy increases over time. Entropy MUST increase as time moves forward, so perhaps this irreversibility drives the same irreversibility in time. But upon closer inspection, entropy's increase is not absolutely necessary: it is only probabilistic. It just so happens that the universe began in a relatively ordered state. Since there are many more (uncountably so) disordered states than there are ordered ones, entropy's march is staggeringly probable - NEARLY assured. Yet that is not the same as being necessary, absolute. So... if we are to tie time to entropy, we would also have to accept that time's direction is not irreversible in theory, but is only practically guaranteed by the high probabilities discussed above.
The Brain and learning, habituation and addiction
Several contributors discussed the role of neural pathways or networks in our behaviour. We reinforce the formation of certain sets of connections through our habits. The reinforced sets 'wire' themselves to respond to the frequent call for their combined performance. Other possible combinations, if not called upon, do not wire themselves up. We can, through conscious habituation, re-wire some of these networks (e.g. the ones associated with more positive outlooks, more pleasant moods, more confident postures and more successful behaviours).
And this electrical component is accompanied by a chemical one, with parts of the brain creating (or causing to be created) different chemicals for different needs. Just like we can become addicted to external drugs, we can become addicted to some of these internal, home-made concoctions. We then engage in the behaviours and nurture the states of mind that give us our fix.
The important point is that a bit of us can stand outside the fray, perhaps up on the mental balcony, observing and intervening to break the vicious cycle. But we have to recognise and support that bit, exercise it and have confidence in it.
I don't know the science well enough to comment on the accuracy of this 'folk' version of it, but it doesn't seem outlandish; in fact, it jibes quite well with the rough understanding I have from some previous reading.
I'll see it when I believe it
One scene is built around the story that the natives in the Caribbean did not see Columbus's ships as they sailed in, because they had no visual or mental construct for a ship. The more general point is that we cannot see or accept things that do not already exist in our mental model or paradigm.
To be honest, I don't buy the foundational story at all. I can accept that the natives would not know that the ships WERE ships. I can understand that they would be confused as to what these dark patches on the horizon were, confused by the shapes they became as they grew closer. But I cannot believe that they literally did not SEE them.
Like everything else in the film, though, it is thought provoking. It recalls to mind a vague picture I have of how we deal with sensory input and with anomalies in particular. We are bombarded with sensory input, with much more than we can process, in every waking moment. Our brains are partially hard-wired through evolution (i.e. natural selection) to help discern the useful info from the 'white noise', and our particular experiences further shape the more plastic aspects of that filter.
From our earliest days, we begin to assemble our working model of the world. What matters? What does not? What framework allows us to maintain internal consistency across the broadest range of our experience - to make sense of the world? When new input arrives that is labeled as irrelevant, we do not attend to it (unless perhaps we pay the price for ignoring it and our brains pick up on that fact and adjust the framework). When new input fits the paradigm and is labeled as important, we attend to it.
But what happens if new information is so far outside our accumulated experience and reasonable extrapolation from it that we can make no sense of it at all? We tuck it away into a certain bit of the brain where it sits in a cache; at night, while we sleep and dream, among the routine brain maintenance that takes place is a re-assessment of the framework (or paradigm) in the light of any new anomalous information. What is the smallest adjustment that can be made to the overall model in order to accommodate, make sense of, this new input? Do we need to scrap the whole model and start anew (when rocks begin to talk or we find out that we are just carnival entertainment for some other, alien and invisible race!)? If the accommodation necessary is too large, we may well end up just disregarding the anomaly (the Red Sox didn't REALLY win the World Series) and just continue with the paradigm intact.
So you can see that I identify more than a grain of truth in the film's underlying point here.
Back to the addiction theme, another segment looked at it from the somatic cell perspective. Every cell has loads of receptors for receiving information from its environment, including the chemical drinks discussed above. If the receptors are incessantly bombarded by some protein 'hit' they shrink and become less responsive to it, meaning it takes more of it to give the same 'fix'. Cells can then become so engrossed in getting their next 'high' that they neglect other important functions like communication with neighbouring cells and even elimination of their own waste products. Keep in mind that I'm talking about 'internal', not 'external' drugs here (although I wouldn't be surprised if the story were much the same for external ones).
You can tell by my over-use of analogy that I'm not up to speed with the proper science here, so I can't judge the accuracy of the scientific claims. It does, though, appeal to common sense. (Yeah, yeah, I know, common sense often leads us astray when we venture away from the normal life scales and conditions in which it developed.)
One contributor spoke (a bit too loosely, I think) about cells being not only alive - an assertion with which I wholly agree - but also conscious. She said a cell was conscious because it interacted with its environment and processed chemical information. This doesn't, for me, suggest consciousness. Or, to put it another way, if it DID qualify as consciousness, then we would have to admit that computers and computer networks are conscious. Perhaps we should...
No good, no bad
Several contributors pointed out that there is no objective good or bad 'out there' in the world. A belief with which I am in agreement, as you can read in my articles: Right and Wrong, Sources of Morality, Ethical Notes, Disobedience, Pragmatic Ethics and Nietzsche's Call to Creativity.
No Personal God
All contributors who discussed religion found the creation of a person-like personal God harmful to mankind and in many instances antithetical to what they saw spirituality as.
I tend to agree that, however powerful, insightful and well-intended the original spiritual messages are, when organised religion accretes around them, the foibles of man dilute, pollute and hijack them.
This isn't at all to say that all clergy are guilty or that all followers are silly. I just think that the more organised a belief structure is, the more likely it is to lose sight of the wood for the trees.
As I said, there were a number of things with which I agreed and a number of things - including the major thesis - with which I didn't. Still I can heartily recommend 'What the Bleep Do We Know' as an interesting, challenging, thought-provoking film that may well make you want to sit down and put your thoughts to paper.
First posted 24 Oct 2005. I used to be a 'the mind reduces to the brain' guy, whereas now, I'm more of a 'the brain (and everything else) reduces to the mind' guy. The book that this post refers to was my introduction to phenomenology - the study of experience. Thinking of the world in terms of experience has ended up being the biggest shift in how I see things. That shift has taken more than 10 years, from the time of the post below, though.
The Internal World
All we ever have direct access to is our mental states. Those states could be the result of our interaction, via our sense, with the external world; they could be part of a dream; they could come from wires and electrodes stimulating our brains, which sit in vats of syrupy liquid in a world run by computers. Both philosophy and science fiction have wrestled with questions of whether those mental states correspond to or represent an external world. The question is no less interesting (and no closer to being answered) than it has ever been.
But those mental states, that internal world itself, is rich ground for investigation as well. Phenomenology is the study of experience, and a recent book I read was my introduction to it. The book, an atypical mix of novel, philosophical introduction and scientific primer, is called Radiant Cool, and here is what I have taken from it:
I've always taken objectivity to mean the view 'from outside' and subjectivity to be the view 'from inside' a person. But, using a specific visual perception example, even in our internal 'views' we are aware of the difference between some relatively stable mental object, say the image of a chair, and any number of particular angles (or points of view) from which that chair can be seen.
Think about it. As we walk around a chair, looking at it, our mental states do not feel like we're seeing a constantly changing stream of things, but rather that there is a single thing there, which we are viewing from a constantly changing angle. All of this is equally true if we simply imagine walking around a chair, which shows that the physical presence of a material chair isn't necessary. The point, which had never occurred to me before, is that even within our subjective experiences, there is a stability and assumed objectivity of entities rather than just a constant flux. This is despite the fact that the sensory input we receive is literally nothing but an ever-flowing flux. So... there are non-sensory elements to our experiences, even to those experiences that - on the face of it - seem to be purely sensory.
Affordance / superposition
When we think about it a bit more, it becomes obvious that the in-built assumption or experience of objectivity / permanence is not the only non-sensory element to our perceptual consciousness. Everything we see presents itself not just in its bare form but always with a collection of non-sensory baggage - inseparable emotions, associations, anticipations, etc. This property of immediate perceptual objects to 'carry' these other properties has been called affordance or superposition.
The possible bits of baggage that can accompany perception are virtually innumerable. We can model a theoretical mental-state-space of consciousness, with each possibility constituting a binary (either experienced or not) dimension in that space. If each conscious moment were represented by a time 'slice' of this space, then putting them all back to front temporally would create a squiggly line tracking through state-space moment by moment.
In fact, the most important of these non-sensory elements - perhaps even THE defining one for explaining consciousness - is temporality itself. Our mental worlds are built upon it. And I'm not speaking here of memory and anticipation - casting back or forward from the present moment. Temporality is embedded even WITHIN each moment. Each immediate experience can be thought of as having three components: retention, presence and protention. The middle one is the instantaneous snapshot of the flux of sensory input. Retention is the context in which that snapshot sits, grounded in what the previous instant contained. Protention is the immediate projection or extrapolation of what the retained and present elements imply for the next moment.
A simple but insightful example brought this home to me. Think of a musical melody. In any instant, the only SENSORY element of the experience is a single note, yet your experience of that note is inseparable from the pitch, volume, duration and other qualities of the notes immediately before and after it.
Lloyd used diagrams and explanations of simple, synchronous neural networks to show how temporality can be embedded within a cognitive system. If some of the nodes (neurons) in the system encode the previous values of the neurons that receive and 'process' the sensory inputs, and if those time-lagged neurons feed back into the sensory processing ones, the feedback loop ensures that each instant recursively captures all previous instants. Then the 'output' from the sensory-processing neurons constitutes the system's best guess for what the next moment (immediate future) will be. A number of examples showed that this model world works very well at keeping time and tracking the future. But do brains work this way?
Lloyd then moved from toy brains to real ones, using the tools currently at science's disposal to look at the evolution of brain states over time while subjects performed different mental tasks. The results suggested that we can track these states quite well, and Lloyd showed how further empirical testing can pull much of the discussion from the world of the philosopher to that of the scientist. But it was also obvious that further technological advance was necessary to make findings more exact and more robust.
Mental state = Brain state?
Where is this all going? Well, Lloyd and others think that the ideal objective is a deepening of our understanding of both brain states and mental states, an understanding that may well include a one-for-one matching between the two that reduces the mental to the physical, firmly placing the mental world within the natural world. I say 'ideal' objective because we may never be able to reach a neuron-by-neuron level mapping of brain states. If that degree of specificity is required for perfect mental state matching, then we may be stuck with some degree of averaging and clumping of brain and experience states. Still, this could provide the empirical basis for finally dumping Cartesian dualism, the Cartesian theatre, and all the misunderstanding they create.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.