Empiricism, Materialism, Physicalism avoiding Solipsism

Great post on Reductionism over at Emil’s blog.

I wanted to respond to comments there by Peter and Brendan, and give my perspective on their points about solipsism, materialism, science, and how it all fits together for me. Turned out to be a long comment, so I thought I’d better post it here rather than intrude too much and go too far off-topic on Emil’s post. I’ve covered most of this before – links included below.

Peter asks, “How can anyone be sure that what they are experiencing, … In other words, what reason is there for me to refrain from becoming a committed solipsist?”

I’d say nothing is stopping you. I agree with Emil’s take on solipsism and other rationalist philosophies. But my personal perspective is that it boils down to a rational choice. Considering just solipsism v materialism, to some extent the choice is arbitrary. You could ask what the consequences would be in each case, comparing what is the case with what you think is the case:

1) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in solipsism. I’m not sure what I learn from this. It seems that I imagine the world, including you and this conversation. I acknowledge that it might be you that’s imagining me as part of your solipsistic experience, so that I’m a figment of your imagination. What I feel is me thinking is actually you thinking the thoughts in some subset of your solipsist consciousness. How do we tell which is which? Do we have any control over this? Instead of being a mind that imagines being a material life form on an imagined material earth, can I choose to switch arbitrarily to become a life form on the surface of the sun? I seem to be limited to imagine only the earthly being I appear to be. What if I walk in front of a bus. It’s only imagined, so will I simply continue as if I hadn’t? Our (mine or yours) solipsist experience seems to be limited by what seems like a material reality.

2) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in materialism. I can’t distinguish what actually happens here from (1), except perhaps I suffer less anguish over whether I am a constrained mind. Though I am a solipsist mind, I go along with the material illusion. Consequences?

3) Materialism holds, I believe in solipsism. Again, I’m not sure what the outcome might be. I could conceivably die trying to test my solipsist existence by attempting to defy gravity; or maybe I pick a fight in a dark alley somewhere. I’m not sure how I’d distinguish my mental experience here from being absorbed in a gaming system as some avatar. The physical reality might soon make itself known to my mental experience.

4) Materialism holds, I believe in materialism. No problem. Business as usual trying to figure out how all this works.

In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if you choose solipsism. You have to do an awful lot of work to get anywhere it seems with solipsism other rationalisms, idealism, transcendence or theism. Lots of inner contemplation, meditation and maybe praying. But it seems you still need to eat. It is sometimes claimed by theists that there are no atheists in foxholes. This is clearly untrue. I’m much more convinced that there are no solipsists at lunch time.

I don’t know any committed solipsists. If I did it might be worth a charge of assault to punch one on the nose. Dr Johnson’s “I refute it thus”, while not an actual logical refutation, I do find his kicking a rock is still pretty convincing. Peter, if you’re visiting this post, do you actually know any committed solipsists yourself? Are you personally persuaded? Your answers might in part answer your own original question.

My route from Cartesian doubt to empiricism, avoiding solipsism, is here and here. The material world is so persistently in-your-face. It seems more productive to try to understand it rather than persist too much with deep scepticism about it. If it turns out that I’m wrong and that I am a solipsist mind then I just hope it comes out in the wash. In the meantime I’ll enjoy that lunch.

Once you choose to accept materialism a lot of consequences follow.

Science (evolution, biology, etc.) tells us we are physical systems no different from the rest of the material world. We are just made up of stuff in some complex way, as Emil describes well as reductionism. From evolution and biology we learn we evolved from animals with much less capable brains, and even from animals with no brain at all.

Our ancestors were very clearly interacting with the rest of the world, of which they were simply components. This interaction was physical, chemical, electromagnetic: when microbes touch there is a greater or lesser degree of chemical interaction as their outer cells come into contact, with electromagnetic interaction of the individual atoms and molecules (the machinary of chemistry). This in turn caused physical and chemical reactions within the bodies, to greater or lesser extent: the touching body is an obstacle, food, or predator.

Neurons and simple nervous systems that don’t fit our loose definition of consciousness are owned by animals that interact with the environment with a greater degree of autonomous control. Memory becomes possible. See Kandel on Aplesia and other sources. More complex brains do more complex stuff, have more complex memories, can predict more about the environment, even if not consciously: a cheetah tracking prey that is trying to evade it.

Sadly we don’t have access to our ancestors in the process of becoming conscious as we are. But it’s not too much of a stretch to infer the following.

The lighting up of human consciousness may have been quick or slow, in terms of evolution, and in terms of generations – we don’t have the details. The species distinction doesn’t really matter here: in the trail back through our ancestors there is no point, we think, where a daughter is not of the same species as the mother; and yet, if these various ancestors could be brought together, they would be classed as one or more species different from us and each other.

As an analogy for the onset of human consciousness and self-awareness take an infant. It’s not clear that a new born has much of a conscious cognitive life. It can certainly respond with basic consciousness, as much as some animals can, but less than some adult animals. Do you remember your early infancy, your birth? Conscious self-awareness seems to creep up on us; and more advanced cognition comes from the physical experiencing development of the brain: learning. It’s hard to look back as an individual, and as a species, to see and acknowledge how conscious self-awareness emerged. There is a gap, and we have had the tendency to fill it with a soul of one sort or another. I feel this gap contributes to our special respect for our conscious mind, and our deification of it – at least to the extent that we think it a spark provided by a deity.

Then there is the physical sensibility of the brain, or lack of it. Though the brain can sense the outside world and something of the inner body, through sight, hearing, touch and the other senses, the brain can’t actually feel itself in the same way. There is no sense in which the brain ‘feels’ its neurons working away, as it can feel an arm moving or touching something. Introspection seems to stop at the mushy level of concepts, thoughts, internal images and sounds – but it can’t locate them. Do you feel neurons flashing in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s as you form and interpret speech? Can you feel in your brain where the concept, the thought, the conjured image of your grandmother is located? No, but neuroscientists can detect at least some of the neurons that are associated with that sort of perception (a summary article, a particular article, recent paper from Quiroga himself).

Our working brain, our conscious selves that are self-aware are only remotely self-aware. Our introspective brains build a vague concept of self the way they build vague concepts of anything else. Our brains even build a concept of mind. And it’s a detached mind, it appears, because of these limitations on our introspective capabilities. This is the nature of the illusion of consciousness. Yes we have consciousness, we experience it. The illusion is that the conscious self is a mind detached from the physical brain: dualism.

Emil said, “Dualism may represent the majority of the population, but certainly not the majority among scientists or philosophers.” I would be more inclined to say the among scientists or philosophers most are non-dualists, intellectually, but, as with visual illusions, none of us can overcome the mental illusion as we go about our daily lives – we feel like free-thinking minds somehow embodied yet not quite part of the furniture. We feel like dualists.

On top of this there is a massive cultural history from philosophy and theology that has constructed quite a different story; one in which the mind does exist as a separate special non-material entity, a soul in some stories. These are excusable stories from an excusably ignorant past. The excuse is wearing thin.

This ancient perspective, which still exists, mainly with theologians, but also with philosophers, particularly those that don’t follow neuroscience, biology generally, or evolution, is what I refer to as the problem of The Primacy of Thought – where they feel that our primary source of knowledge is our conscious mind. I agree that we perceive the world through our minds, but the evolutionary evidence is that we are primarily experiential animals with a brain upgrade that enables us to reason (an interesting process in itself). We and our world are physical, and even though our mental experience of that world goes on in the mind, that mind itself is actually the busy active dynamic brain.

We can infer all this empirically from what we know from science. We can’t prove it logically to the satisfaction of pernickety philosophers, but it’s a more fitting explanation that any fanciful philosophical ideas. All the evidence is not in yet. The hard problem of consciousness remains in the mind (brains) of many philosophers, and particularly theologians who desperately want there to be a soul. It’s not a complete story by any means.

It’s even a bit of a just-so story, though one that is consistent with all existing evidence. I’m sure philosophers that don’t like it would be quick to point that out. But it’s a damned site better than any other on offer, better than any theology or any of the non-materialist philosophies.

And of course, being an empirical perspective on materialism it not only all holds together, it is also open to adaptation in the face of new evidence. Even while waiting for more concrete evidence of physicalist accounts of consciousness all we would need to drop the idea would be some counter evidence. I don’t see any. Not a bit.

Personally I think the evidence is overwhelming already. As Emil puts it, “If you pay attention to the history of neuroscience, you would understand why physicalism has conclusively won the argument … “. Really, start looking at the evidence. Look at all the examples of how changes to the brain, drug induced or physical, including intercranial (open skull) probe sensing, and stimulation, show a direct cause and effect relationship between the physical brain and conscious experience.

16,000 Out of Ten Billion Processors Prefer Cats

Wired reports on cat recognition. Two wins here: cats are the best; and evolution beats ID.

Google’s mysterious X lab built a neural network of 16,000 computer processors with one billion connections and let it browse YouTube, it did what many web users might do — it began to look for cats.

The “brain” simulation was exposed to 10 million randomly selected YouTube video thumbnails over the course of three days and, after being presented with a list of 20,000 different items, it began to recognize pictures of cats using a “deep learning” algorithm.

Take that ID suckers! If a few thousand processors can do this, then a few billion years for evolution to result in systems that recognise and operate in their environment (i.e. life) is a snip. The BBC reports:

The work of the team stands at odds with many image-recognition techniques, which depend on telling a computer to look for specific features of a target object before any are presented to it.

Damn! I’ve been using the Godly method of divinely commanding my software to work, when all the time I should have used evolutionary techniques. Note to self on next sales pitch:

Here’s a computer. Here’s some random code I threw together. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes. It should figure itself out eventually. Disclaimer: being evolutionary, when it does eventually work there’s no telling what it will work at.

On second thoughts, that does sound a little like how I work.

The Primacy of Thought

A few recent blog posts have raised the issue of the primacy of thought, particularly these two:

John Loftus at Debunking Christianity quotes James East in this post.

Mike D at The A-Unicornist on this post.

The problem for me with theism, and some philosophy, is the primacy given to the mind and a failure to appreciate how humans, and all animals, are inherently constrained by our senses: Thought v Experience.

The trouble with ‘thinking’ is that by the time we humans started to do it reasonably well a lot of evolutionary water had passed under the bridge, but we had no clue about our sensory non-thinking heritage, so our point of view was skewed. It’s as if we came into the world as a fully formed thinking entities or souls, that just happened to reside in a corporeal body. The mental awakening of an individual human as they grow from childhood to adulthood is also a metaphor for the awakening of the species. So, quite naturally I think, we discover we can think and presume this is our greatest capacity, and not knowing its limitations we come to think the mind has some powerful ability to discover knowledge all on its own. Our very familiar relationship with our own minds, our subjective experience, is so overwhelming that it clouds our view so that we see it as the be-all and end-all of knowledge acquisition. This is the source of our conviction to the primacy of thought.

Here’s James East expressing this very experience (as quoted by John Loftus. My emphasis):

I was a Christian for nearly 20 years – starting as a young teenager, after being raised in a “very Christian” family. By the time I was able to think for myself, I basically believed everything already, so it was only natural to accept the salvation that was on offer when it finally clicked.

And here’s Articulet’s reply (my emphasis again):

Yes – boy can I relate! And don’t feel ashamed for falling for Christianity – probably most of your favorite people have – and most of the smartest people you know. But these are the memes that have survived through time.

In the extreme we have characters like Alvin Plantinga who suppose, for no good reason I can see beyond the persistence of ‘memes’, that we have mental capacities that are reliable routes to truth, when really we have no idea what ‘truth’ is.

Science has a limited practical interpretation of ‘truth’, which basically is the degree of correspondence between our various methods of discovery – so even in that sense ‘truth’ is not the all-or-nothing truth of logic. Epistemology is a mess because it is supposed that there is some real achievable certain ‘truth’ to be found, some absolute certainty out there waiting for us to discover, perhaps in the mind of God, that imaginary essence of truth itself, by virtue, maybe, of our sensus divinitatis.

I remain surprised that some otherwise bright people cannot grasp the link between our acknowledged fictions, and cannot recognise religious thinking for what it is: imagination allowed to run free and unconstrained by the senses.

Our thinking ability is more limited than we tend to think. Some of our recent ancestors will have had an even more limited capacity to think (and we see that in many of our existent cousins); and distant ancestors would have had no nervous system at all. But all of them, right back to the simplest celled organisms, have had a sensory interface with the world, even if it’s a simple chemical boundary. We are still, biologically and evolutionarily, sensory beings. Our evolutionary upgrade, a thinking brain, is an enhancement I’m sure; but a recent one that we are still learning to use. But it is useless in its own right, when acting alone. Try growing a brain in a child deprived entirely of senses and see what happens. Empiricism rules: we are sensory beings with an added capacity to analyse what we sense, to recognise patterns, to plan, to predict, to test again.

Common sense experience alone should be sufficient to tell us our senses and our reasoning are flawed. Our naturally developed faculty, our human knowledge acquisition system, our empirical nature, is only improved by the rigour of science. Even where science is still justifiably criticised as flawed, it’s still the best we can do. Science is, after all, practised by a flawed empirical system – the human being. All claims to ‘other ways of knowing’ have no foundation beyond wishful thinking. There’s only this one way of knowing, succinctly described as empiricism, but more rigorously practised as science. We can do it poorly or we can do it well, but that’s all we can do. We have no other faculties available to us that we know of.

We all acknowledge the human faculties of intuition and insight, but those that would put such faculties above science still don’t really get where these faculties fit in. Science uses them – that is scientists use them. They are part of the whole human knowledge acquisition system. But these faculties are also known to be suspect. The point being that science, the rigour of science, is the application of methodologies that weed out the useless intuitions and explore and expand on the good ones. In contrast to this approach the religious in particular, and some philosophers, are content to accept their intuitions without question, or at best only with questioning that also lies within the framework of their dogmas and schemas. They insist on this primacy of thought.

I feel that the failure to recognise this is why many theists and philosophers have been historically, and still are, so committed to the mind and the imagined capabilities attributed to it: reliable logical reasoning, freedom from bias and emotional drives to believe what we want to believe, a capacity to transcend the skull through thought alone, the ability to communicate with an imagined super being, the reliance on notions like faith. Until they grasp this view of what we are, our empirical nature, they will remain stuck thinking they have some pure, and possibly divine, route to knowledge through the mind alone.

Of course we could deny this empirical nature of ours, but to start down that road we would have to deny first the evolutionary theory that tells us this is how we got here from pre-thinking ancestors, and how this is the type of being we are. And once on that path, eventually, any significant contribution of the senses can be ditched. If the mind is really the route to knowledge, then the end of the line is solipsism. I can’t refute the solipsism hypothesis, but I’m content with not needing to.

Thought v Experience

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

So, where are we, and how did we get this far. This is a short history as I see it, laid out in the order of discovery rather than the chronology of events.

The Dawn (The Preparation)…

Man acquires self awareness and reasoning capacity through evolution. Maybe other members of the 2.4 million year old Homo genus had it too. Details unimportant.

Man’s Journey…

1) Man sees himself think for the first time. At this point he figures: I think therefore I am – thinking starts to dominate. Even though we did have to wait for Descartes to spell that out. Man isn’t aware of The Dawn at this time, and remains ignorant for most of his existence so far. But he soon begins to ponder origins, truth, reality.

2) Millennia of philosophical and theological musings emphasise the primacy of this purist thinking over the rough and gruesome experienced life, to the point that some speculate on the possibility of solipsism and many variations on the theme of idealism, pure spiritual existence. Philosophical logical thought develops and searches for absolute truths. Plato proposes his forms, as perfections distinct from the messiness of bodily earthly life. The simple, the pure, the perfect, become the object of our investigations, whether divine or natural. The divine thoughts invent many origin myths over time – all in the heads of the believers. These myths are expanded upon to produce complete narratives up to some important point, and ideas are refined into a monotheism, the variations of which dominate thinking. A simple but effective story that not only explains origins but is also recruited to the unexplainable of one’s personal life and times.

3) Natural philosophy bumbles along trying to figure out what’s happening in the practical world. Some progress and much nonsense. The difference here is that nonsense becomes evident as such when it turns out not to work. The still primary thinking process doesn’t suffer this setback, since, if you can think it, it must be true, or at least possible. Some start to question the balance of pure reason against a material empiricism, but without any clear headway on the empirical front we find thinking still dominates.

4) Big jump forward. Evolution discovered. It appears we evolved, not only from creatures that have less thinking capacity and self awareness than ourselves, but also from life forms that didn’t have any nervous system as we know it at all. We came from truly experience-only, non-thinking beginnings, which existed long before The Dawn. Experience is our primary means of discovery and had precedence after all – though this was hidden from our enquiring minds. And the supposed superior thinking, it turns out, is an add-on, an upgrade – a new and valuable tool when it appeared, but not the primary route to knowledge acquisition. It’s early use, as fine as that appeared to be, to the brains doing the thinking, was no better than the wobbly child on a bike for the first time, making some progress, but with little control.

5) The Enlightenment starts to show the benefits of empiricism. But there is over confidence. Dogmatic science emerges. Science has a short affair with modernist dogmatism in the 20th century, where it is believed by some that science is infallible. But this is because they too misunderstand what science is and how it is limited in the hands of humans – they are still not thinking straight. Despite the principles that are being developed many scientists and science proponents fall into the same pattern of behaviour that has plagued religion – the truth of authority, the certainty of knowledge. Our child has become a teenager, a boy racer, overconfident for lack of drastic failure, impervious to the effect on others.

6) Roll on the later 20th and the 21st centuries. The science wars break out and expose the fallibility of science, as a very human enterprise. We’re seeing more and more how flawed our individual thinking and experiential capabilities are. But they are all we have. Further revolutions in communication spread dissension against the dogmatic authority of science; with no small help from the feminist backlash to the male domination (and not just in science).

7) Science grows up, recognises its fallibility and the fallibility of it’s methods and the fallibility of its scientists. There’s a real democracy of science: open to all comers, no matter what gender, race, culture, religion; but at the same time the science itself is a democracy of data, not of people – the data speaks, not the people (in theory). Despite all the problems, this is the best route to take to knowledge. It’s not perfect. It will make mistakes. Some philosophers are listening to science, and some scientists are taking on philosophy. Science has to think about how it does science. Sadly, not everyone sees it this way. There are still philosophers in their ivory towers ridiculing science because of its flaws; and theists are still locked into ways of thinking that are being dictated by myths from the pre-scientific times. They mistake ‘ways of thinking’ for ‘ways of knowing’. They don’t see the failures of their own ‘ways of thinking’ (e.g. that faith is a good idea). They are not different ‘ways of knowing’ – since humans have only one way of knowing: experiencing the world and thinking about the experiences. Many point to the emotions, and feelings. But these are no more than internal experiences, to be experienced and reasoned about – they form part of the same one ‘way of knowing’.


So, here we are. This scientific view might not seem as perfect and as pure an outcome as it was anticipated ‘pure thought’ would produce – but the primacy of pure thought was always an illusion anyway. We only thought our thinking was our primary means of discovery. It was not, is not. It is an add-on, an upgrade that we can use to make sense of our senses. But without our senses it’s just a mental machine running on nothing but internal feedback from its own noise, destined to wonder everywhere and anywhere and to take sense and nonsense as indistinguishable justified beliefs.

In fact we can say more than that. Thinking is sensing. The neurons of the senses and the brain are pretty much the same thing. They are ion driven pulse carriers, with internal chemical systems and chemical interfaces to other cells. Brain cells ‘sense’ and ‘activate’ each other much as sense neurons sense and motor neurons activate. It’s a far more complex and incestuous relationship within the brain, but we have no evidence that our experience of thinking consists of anything other than this neuron interaction. We feel thinking is something special, and even feel we have the experience of a free thinking mind in some other realm, the mind realm. But if we consider how inefficient it would be for a thinking system to have to sense its own thinking process in great detail – an infinite regress avoidance system, a filter of internal unnecessary experience – then it seems quite reasonable that a thinking brain cannot detect the actual mechanism by which it thinks. The result is we feel we have minds free of this physical home.

But as far as we can tell we are entirely evolved empirical systems, in which thinking is just one more complex physical component process.

So, is this it? Is this the end of the line. Has science reached its pinnacle?

No, only the start…

Understanding and prediction of nature are still some of the main businesses of science and philosophy – to know how things are and to predict how things will behave. This includes all the mysteries of human nature – though the prospect of demystifying some of this seems to frighten some people – they cry ‘Scientism!’

It’s hard to say where this will lead. We have no more reliable a conception of what science, human knowledge acquisition, will be like a millennium from now, than did those living a millennium ago have of what today’s science would become.

Perhaps we need another mental add-on or upgrade. What’s the next model up from our current emotional but rational feeling mind? What extra mental tricks will we be able to perform? Given our current pace of technological change it looks most likely that it will be an artificial upgrade rather than a biological evolutionary one.

Given our remaining commitment to the primacy of thinking it seems to me like we’ll need an upgrade to progress through this bottleneck of a brain that still sees thought as the primary means of acquiring knowledge. Science seems the best, the only route to success in moving forward. The track record for religion is stagnation in past millennia; and philosophy is hard to shift out of an obsession with long discredited or unevidenced ideas.

The Mystery of Consciousness

Sam Harris has another post on consciousness: The Mystery of Consciousness II.

While we know many things about ourselves in anatomical, physiological, and evolutionary terms, we do not know why it is “like something” to be what we are.

Well, this is my stab at it.

Here’s an analogy. Take a long loose spring and connect it rigidly at both ends, and then impart a wave motion on the spring. What is the wave? In one sense it is only the motion of individual parts of the spring that together, because of the physical laws governing that motion, describe a wave in space. Though we can describe the wave – precisely, mathematically – we cannot capture that actual ‘wave’. We can record it on camera; we could copy it in another spring, or the same spring over time. But what we can’t do is capture the actual wave. Take away the spring, or simply stop its motion, and the wave magically vanishes.

This is how I see consciousness. Not, trivially, ‘brain waves’, though they are one aspect of consciousness – it’s output, maybe its ‘waste’, as heat is from an engine.

The one significant difference is that in consciousness the device (brain) in which this ‘wave’ is occurring is able to monitor itself – at least in terms of some vague abstracted representation of its inner operation. Just as the pressure in a balloon is the vague representation of the motion of the particles it contains, so consciousness is a representation of what’s going on in the brain.

The brain (like the entity it controls) is complex, so it’s no surprise that a representation of it would be complex too – at least one would expect complexity if that representation is to prove useful, but not so complex in use that it becomes so cumbersome it proves use-less.

An over-simplified analogy (for this would not(?) count as consciousness) would be if the spring was made of a network of microchips (retaining the connected elasticity of the spring) that could monitor accelerations and produce an overall vague representation of the action of the spring, as represented by some higher abstract level system (as an IQ figure summarises related but different task performances). What does it feel like to be a micro-chip spring? Would different waveforms emerge as different ‘thoughts’ or mental experiences?

In a sense the wave in the spring is an illusion – there is no ‘wave’ that is independent of the spring’s motion; it has no physical actuality itself, unlike the moving particles of the spring (avoiding any deeper physics and philosophy regarding the particles that make up the spring). Even if a micro-chip spring is monitoring its own (brain) wave activity, there is no actual wave.

Perhaps there is no real consciousness in actuality. As materialists we already accept there is nothing else but the ‘matter’ we are made of (whatever form it takes). Perhaps consciousness is only the residual analysis of the activity of (only part of) the brain, by (only a part of) the brain. So complex, yes, that it fools the entity that is ‘experiencing’ it into feeling it is something else, something additional.

This feeling of something additional seems crucial, and is possibly the cause of the feeling of consciousness, the feeling of what it is like to be something. Where does this feeling of something being additional come from? I think the clue is in the ‘only part’ aspects of what is being perceived and what is doing the perceiving. And I think it is related to the evolutionary process that got us to where we are today; and, significantly, to where we were, whenever we first realised we were conscious.

This ‘awakening’ is one that happens to us as individuals, during development, but it is so far back into our infancy, and maybe back to the early stages of brain emergence and development, in the womb, that at the time we don’t have the language, or the other experiences of self or others, that are required to register it – and certainly not enough to remember it in any senss that is meaningful to an adult. The awakening may happen gradually, or it may be a pretty sharp event, a spark – we simply don’t know.

And this awakening has a parallel in the wider sense of human culture. We have no cultural memory of when we humans (or our non-human ancestors), as individuals, and as communicated among ourselves culturally, became conscious and culturally self-aware.

So, what would it feel like to an entity (trying to avoid anthropomorphic sentiments) that had recently started to monitor its own behaviour, and then realised that, wow!, it can ‘see’ itself monitoring itself!? Wouldn’t it ‘feel’ just like this? Wouldn’t it feel like (given the unity of that feeling) that there is something that it is like to be that entity, to identify with it, to call itself, ‘I’?

Now, think of the micro-chip spring being able to have some autonomous control over its behaviour. Wouldn’t it have to develop strategies for controlling its wider entity that accounted for the fact that it didn’t have, couldn’t have, full and instantaneous control of every aspect of itself. At the limit this is a measurement problem: to monitor itself ‘completely’ it needs to monitor the monitoring system too, which would require more capacity to monitor, which in turn would require monitoring, and so on. Like all biological systems there’s a balance – and we seem to have reached ours, for now. We have limited ‘consciousness’: limited awareness and control of the wider entity that is represented by ‘I’.

A related question: What would it have felt like if our two brain hemisphere’s had been more independent, so that ‘I’ became ‘we-two’? What would that consciousness feel like? And what if we-two shared some of our self-awareness, say, but less of our motor capabilities? Or if our motor capabilities were unified, but our planning systems (our intent) were independent? Maybe evolution would have ditched these latter oddities and settled on a unified consciousness (how would a push-me-pull-you escape from threats?)

The split brain patients give us some clues, but if you ask them they don’t reveal two independent ‘consciousnesses’ – one half of the brain may be independent to some extent, but appears to be sub-consciously independent (i.e active, so not ‘un-conscious’ as in brain dead) – at least that’s how it appears from the outside. I wonder (haven’t quizzed those experienced in this area) if the other brain half is a locked in but otherwise self-aware identity.

As with the wave in the micro-chip spring I think that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, and as such can be explained (eventually) by processes in the brain. The hard problem, what then remains of it, is like trying to capture the wave that the spring’s motion describes – or trying to attribute the higher level representation (in the micro-chip spring’s central control/nervous system) of the wave, as if the wave itself actually exists.

Finally I’d like to consider this higher level representation that I think we have, which we call consciousness. I don’t think its anything like as precise and as acute as we often like to think it is. When we talk of memories, when we recall them all the indications are that they consist of nothing more than states in the brain, probably distributed over parts of the brain. Any one memory (e.g. a face) seems to require memory ‘bits’ from many neurons, and many of those neurons may be used in forming other higher level conceptual memories too. We often get confused about memories – someone mentions the name of a person we met once, and we have a vague recollection of their face – but that recollection may be incomplete, or may even contain elements of one or more other people, so that when we meet the person again they are not quite as we remember them. We mis-remember incidents too.

We know to some extent that the act of recollection is itself somewhat an act of re-building, re-remembering, re-enforcing – and in the mush and complexity and chaotic activity of the brain we should know that our thoughts are bound to be pretty random in their content. The amazing thing is that they are precise and accurate enough (over time, shared and compared, recorded and repeatedly re-analysed) to build long standing concepts, ideas, philosophies, sciences, religions.

An additional thought that comes to me here is that this is why Plato conceived his Forms concept – the many actual and messy and very real shapes with, on the whole, three sort of sides, eventually distills out into the pure form of the triangle. It is the pure triangle and the mathematical model of it that is the approximation to messy reality of real near-triangles, rather than real triangles being approximations to pure forms, as if those pure forms exist in any objective reality. All the precise mathematical theory of our science, the assumed infinite precision of the pure maths, is never experienced in actuality. We can hold vague conceptual notions like ‘infinity’ in our heads, but do they represent anything real? We struggle too with zero, nothingness – just ask a physicist about the nothingness of space.

All this gives me the impression (and being a thought in my brain is also fairly vague at this moment, needing further development) that consciousness and its virtual particles, it’s thoughts, are just illusory phenomena. That they are patterns described by actual physical particles in the brain is where the real physical material objectivity lies. Consciousness, as we perceive it, is a representation of that activity, and nothing more.

Kant could critique ‘pure reason’ so easily because it is so insubstantial – there is nothing there in and of itself. All there is is experience. What we think we know about evolution tells us that our ancestors were experiential creatures – experience comes before and is prior to consciousness, and as such is more real in every sense: in the sense above, that consciousness is at most a pattern of behaviour, or a higher level model of that behaviour; and in the sense that evolutionarily our experiential heredity is far more engrained and powerful than our mental heredity. Mentally, on cosmic scales, we are novices. Our parochial view makes it look a big deal. When we consider our genius we have only ourselves to compare. No wonder our view is skewed.

The predominance we have given to reason, thoughts, consciousness, I feel has come about because when we first became aware, that consciousness is what we were most acutely aware of. Our thoughts about our physical experiences seem to show us that those physical experiences are fleeting passing phenomena: they change, moment to moment, and as we age. But our self-awareness unity seems to be the thing that persists, and as such adds to the illusion that it is a thing in itself, rather than a representation of the overall, average, statistically consistent patterns, in a material brain.

A Biblical Story

The religious like their stories. Postmodern relativist theists love them. It allows everyone to have their own cuddly warm snug safety blanket in which to wrap themselves, without fear of someone nasty coming along and snatching it away – a gift from their father, God. There’s nothing nicer than being wrapped up, nice and warm, being told lovely stories about their heroic father protecting them from evil.

But there’s another part of their story that’s not so nice, but just as necessary, because we all like scary stories. One day a bully arrives in the class, and his name is Atheist. His favourite wicked pass-time is to snatch their faith blankets away and make them cry. His second favourite is to tell a frightful story, of how his own father, Nietzsche, is killing their father God.

But I’ve got a better story, a predominantly western story (for their are similar stories elsewhere). And it goes like this.

Nietzsche is blamed for killing God. How can that be? There never was a God to be killed. Let’s start at the beginning, or as near to it as matters for this story.

Long ago humans evolved along with other animals from some common anscestor with similar characteristics. Humans have many featues in common with all vertabrates. Even more in common with mammals. Even more with primates. Most with the remaining other apes.

They have a mix of traits, that include complex combinations of being able to love and hate, help and kill. Their social evolution has caused them to be mostly loving to those close, and fairly neutral and even co-operative with other groups, suppressing their baser inclinations. However, conflicting interests, fear, misunderstanding, jelousy, etc., all the nasty bits, are just below the surface.

It’s difficult to know for sure what real evolutionary mechanism caused religion to come about, whether it confered some direct benefit, or whether it’s a by-product of the evolution of the degree of self-awareness. It remains a mystery, but many facts fit one particular idea.

All mammals have a sense of ‘other’, as in other external creatures: to be eaten by, to eat, to fight, to mate. Few animals are self-aware, so when self-awareness evolved to a certain degree there becomes both ‘other’ and ‘self’. The brain sciences have shown quite clearly that these are in different parts of the brain, but are linked; that the confusion of ‘self’ and ‘other’ can give a feeling of internal ‘other’. This is very striking in various forms of brain damage – the type and location of the damage can determine loss of this internal ‘other’ or its acquisition. It can also be induced or inhibited in healthy brains at will, in a laboratory. Many humans have a ‘self-self’ and an ‘other-self’.

There were no brain scientists around in ancient times, but there were a multitude of unexplained awful events. With a familiarity of the powerful capabilities of humans compared to other animals, it might have seemed obvious that there must be some more powerful external hiddden ‘others’ at work, directing nature, inlfuencing lives.

Put these internal and external ‘others’ together, and you have gods that are doing things for and to humans, and even invade their minds.

But, some humans aren’t quite as dumb as they first appear. Over the millenia, as the population increases, and populations merge and compare ideas, as they record their ideas and they spread them, it seems obvious that there are some inconsistencies, competing gods, silly notions of what it is to be a god.

From the recordings of the Greeks onward philosophy and rudementary science bring some critical thinking to the table, which begins the whole process of rationalising and economising on gods and their capabilities. There emerges the most concise God, the Jewish God, with many of his awkward inconvenient inconsistencies explained away into the sky, or heaven or wherever – depending on how critical the analysis has to be to avoid arguments from those that tend not to believe or who have competing gods. God goes into hiding, and leaves the material world behind, and his interactions with us and our world have to be explained by miracles.

The religions provide great social cohesion in times that are still barbaric and brutal. They provide an authority that can’t be matched by individual rulers. They help keep the peace mostly, but can still just as easily be invoked for war. Religions are used control the uneducated supersticious masses, for reasons of good for the theologians, for reasons of convenience for the godless powerful.

Despite the reconciling role of great religions there are still independent theological thinkers who challenge the various orthodoxies, causing many schisms in what had been the start of a grand religious project. Other religions emerged on the boundaries of western thinking, the most prominat being Islam which separated much of western thinking from its Greek routes.

Come the enlightnement even more events and wonders of the world, like the rainbow, become explainable as natural phenomena. The Greeks are rediscovered, and Islamic ideas on science filter through. Western Europe becomes the focul point for many revolutions in thinking, and discovering, of ideas, places, animals and peoples. God and his works recede into the distance.

From Darwin and others a unifying explanation develops that shows not only that humans are not special, but that evolution can remove the need for a God, or at least push him back to the moment of creation. Sophisticated theology is required all the more to hide God somewhere safe. The struggle between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other mirrors the internal dichotomy of the rational internal ‘self-self’ and the feeling internal ‘other-self’.

This vanishing act needn’t be the intentional and aware response it sounds to be. It can be a genuine shift in the detail of belief in thologians that have as much access to the enlightenment ideas as any atheist. They have to reconcile what they know with what they feel, but what they feel has a strong hold and won’t let go.

So, God remains the primary presupposition that in their cognitive dissonance must override all other ideas. They may even have a sneaky suspision that their beliefs are nonsense, but what can you do if the internal ‘other-self’ is so convincing? They even see the folly in other beliefs that are similar, or in those of their own religion that have a less sophisticated view of what God is. They know they can’t explain their God really, but they can have faith.

Some become so close to atheism in their intellectual disposal of God’s inconveniences, that they even confuse what atheism means – Peter Rollins, with his really odd twisting of words is so confused, hence and confusing. No doubt Rollins is sincere. I’m not accusing these theists of being charlatons, though some of the money making TV evangelists may be, I don’t know. But many theists clearly have an eye for this world as much as the next.

And so here we are. Nieztshce didn’t kill God. There never was a God, just an idea of a God accompanied by a feeling. Nieztshce and many others have been dripping slow acting poisons into the challace, causing a lingering and painful death for the idea that is yet incomplete. Though the feeling remains you can see the agony of self-realisation of the inevitable dawning on the likes of the Arch Bishop of Cantebury, as they struggle to reconcile their faith with the ultimate demise of the God that never was.

Rather than let the atheist kill their God they would rather do it themselves. They suffocate him in an act of kindness, they bury him in the safest place they can find, in the depths of their souls where he’ll be accessible to them. He becomes a fully personal God. No longer the need to explain him away, he’ll still be close by, feeding ideas through the inner ‘other-self’.

They see the problems, yet they still feel God, see God, or see the need for God, or fear the lack of God. What must it be like to have this inner self, the ‘other-self’, ripped from their hearts?

Those that don’t have it can only sympathise. Atheists who see a grand picture of the universe and beyond as a natural unfolding process have no need for God. There’s a freedom to think the unthinkable without fear, to find what we find without judgement, to see what the science tells us without thinking it has a moral dimension, that the creation of moral codes are anyway just one more human trait. We can take what evolution has given us and build our moral codes on top of that, and make those moral codes do the best they can for everyone, because the predominant evolved characteristics are to love, to help, not to hate and to kill.

This is just a story. Many different stories can be told, and are told. This one is as close to the observed facts that I know of. Think of it as a docu-drama – a story made to fit the facts; or as a working hypothesis that has evidence to support it. This is a story told by humans, about humans using evidence accumulated by humans.

The predominant alternative story is one written by humans too, but where the main unobserved fictional character is supposed to have written the story himself. And as such, the authors can have the character explain away any inconsistencies by the magic of miracles, or by claiming not to know the mind of the unfathomable character the human authors have created. Now that’s some serious imaginative just-so fiction. An incredible story. Really, it just isn’t credible.