Monday, February 02, 2009

The epistemology of everything

I thought this essay was so striking that I want to pass it on in its entirety (I started to excerpt chunks, but found every sentence worthwhile, and so stopped). It is completely consonant with the ideas in my "I-Illusion" lecture and podcast.
Understanding that the outside world is really inside us and the inside world is really outside us will change everything. Both inside and outside. Why?.."There is no out there out there", physicist John Wheeler said in his attempt to explain quantum physics. All we know is how we correlate with the world. We do not really know what the world is really like, uncorrelated with us. When we seem to experience an external world that is out there, independent of us, it is something we dream up...Modern neurobiology has reached the exact same conclusion. The visual world, what we see, is an illusion, but then a very sophisticated one. There are no colours, no tones, no constancy in the "real" world, it is all something we make up. We do so for good reasons and with great survival value. Because colors, tones and constancy are expressions of how we correlate with the world...The merging of the epistemological lesson from quantum mechanics with the epistemological lesson from neurobiology attest to a very simple fact: What we percieve as being outside of us is indeed a fancy and elegant projection of what we have inside. We do make this projection as as result of interacting with something not inside, but everything we experience is inside...Is it not real? It embodies a correlation that is very real. As physicist N. David Mermin has argued, we do have correlations, but we do not know what it is that correlates, or if any correlata exists at all. It is a modern formulation of quantum pioneer Niels Bohr's view: "Physics is not about nature, it is about what we can say about nature."

So what is real, then? Inside us humans a lot of relational emotions exists. We feel affection, awe, warmth, glow, mania, belonging and refusal towards other humans and to the world as a whole. We relate and it provokes deep inner emotional states. These are real and true, inside our bodies and percieved not as "real states" of the outside world, but more like a kind of weather phenomena inside us...That raises the simple question: Where do these internal states come from? Are they an effect of us? Did we make them or did they make us? Love exists before us (most of us were conceived in an act of love). Friendship, family bonds, hate, anger, trust, distrust, all of these entities exist before the individual. They are primary. The illusion of the ego denies the fact that they are there before the ego consciously decided to love or hate or care or not. But the inner states predate the conscious ego. And they predate the bodily individual...The emotional states inside us are very, very real and the product of biological evolution. They are helpful to us in our attempt to survive. Experimental economics and behavioral sciences have recently shown us how important they are to us as social creatures: To cooperate you have to trust the other party, even though a rational analysis will tell you that both the likelihood and the cost of being cheated is very high. When you trust, you experience a physiologically detectable inner glow of pleasure. So the inner emotional state says yes. However, if you rationally consider the objects in the outside world, the other parties, and consider their trade-offs and motives, you ought to choose not to cooperate. Analyzing the outside world makes you say no. Human cooperation is dependent on our giving weight to what we experience as the inner world compared to what we experience as the outer world.

Traditionally, the culture of science has denied the relevance of the inner states. Now, they become increasingly important to understanding humans. And highly relevant when we want to build artefacts that mimic us...Soon we will be building not only Artificial Intelligence. We will be building Artificial Will. Systems with an ability to convert internal decisions and values into external change. They will be able to decide that they want to change the world. A plan inside becomes an action on the outside. So they will have to know what is inside and outside...In building these machines we ourselves will learn something that will change everything: The trick of perception is the trick of mistaking an inner world for the outside world. The emotions inside are the evolutionary reality. The things we see and hear outside are just elegant ways of imagining correlata that can explain our emotions, our correlations. We don't hear the croak, we hear the frog.

When we understand that the inner emotional states are more real than what we experience as the outside world, cooperation becomes easier. The epoch of insane mania for rational control will be over...What really changes is they way we see things, the way we experience everything. For anything to change out there you have to change everything in here. That is the epistemological situation. All spiritual traditions have been talking about it. But now it grows from the epistemology of quantum physics, neurobiology and the building of robots...We will be sitting there, building those Artificial Will-robots. Suddenly we will start laughing. There is no out there out there. It is in here. There is no in here in here. It is out there. The outside is in here. Who is there?

That laughter will change everything.


  1. I'm glad you posted the whole essay. I think about this from a wide background that includes theology, science and literature. I'm trying to start up my blog that engages in the ideas that you are. Anyway- even after we labor so hard to figure how we work and map out all our mechanics, we're left with a uniquely human irony- we still have to ask, 'what do we do now?' Knowing our mechanics can inform us in answering this question but can't provide its solution.

    It seems to me that the characteristic that marks human animal from non-human animal is this ability to be subjective, (that is, having the capacity that the subject in an english sentence has.) that is pointed to in this essay

  2. The essay here is of Dr. Tor Norretranders and the whole thing sounds like Non-Dualism (Advaita of ancient India). Dr. Norretranders tends to make very stunning comments sometimes based on data sources for which are hard to come by. In an earlier book, he claimed that conscious processing of info by brain is 40 bits per second whereas the unconscious rate is 11 million bits / sec. I am still trying to find out how these figures could be arrived at. Unfortunately, his blog address does not work not his e-mail id is given!

    The Non-Dualistic comments on what is 'out there' are also similar. What one can say is that our brain creates a 'map' of what is out there based on the way our perceptions function. Our perceptions are NOT so fool-proof and are, oftener than not, quite inadequate to the task. Consequently there is a perception - reality disconnect. There is no way strictly speaking to say what is out there when we have a defective or inadequate detection apparatus (see the works of Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde).

    It is quite a big leap to say what remains at the end is laughter!

  3. i don't know that our mapping capacity itself is at fault here, ramesam. if i held a map that correlated 1 for 1 to the terrain before me, i would be holding a poor map, as the whole reason for my using a map is that i cant discern the significant information from the field that looks only like noise to me. a good map publishes the signals apart from the noise.

    our capacity to be truly subjective shows up here in that, not only do we have to make maps of reality to orient ourselves, we have to learn 'map making' itself.

    before all of us are the billions upon billions of bits of information, but only the bits that are significant to the situation need to be seen; and not seeing the rest doesn't imply an inadequacy in the mechanism itself; that if we could only see 'everything' at once all problems would be solved.

    ideas are to the mind as eyes are to the brain. in the most real way, we see with our ideas don't we?

    however it happens mechanically, we are left with a real experience of being subjective, which means, we live through ideas that we have to 'manufacture' - a word by the way, that share the same roots as 'fact'.

  4. Responding to gottschalk's comment:

    I am not sure that we are using some of the key words to connote the same thing.

    "Map" by definition should have a 1 to 1 correlation, may be a scaled down model. In the absence of such a high fidelity, it would become a sketch and unreliable for drawing accurate inferences. gottchalk gives the impression that (s)he uses the word 'map' to mean 'useful extract' of info. after filtering 'noise'. What is 'noise' for one may be useful info for other and then subjectivity creeps in selecting the filters, their function etc. etc. In such a case, the world 'out there' is much more of a 'your subjective construct' rather than reality - the real final Truth, Brahman, in the Advaitic (Non-Dualistic) sense. Tor was talking about a congruency of what is in here and what is out there, hence a map and not a selective extract or a summary of info.

    Secondly, when gottschalk compares ideas and eyes (ideas to mind are like eyes to brain), I am unable to go with it. Eyes are the input channels of signals to the brain. Ideas are net outputs and constitute the mind! There is no mind apart from ideas!!

    Thirdly, I was not talking about a defective map making mechanism. What I wanted to highlight was the 'inadequate apparatus' of perception or detection. What we see out there is only a mental 'construct' rather than reality. My laughter or happiness depends then on the 'coincidence' factor of my construct and what is out there!

    The last para of gottschalk's post is not fully intelligible to me. Can he expand on it please?

    Anyways, the MAIN point I want to make was that Tor throws statistics and data which I wish he supports with proper referencing.

  5. Thanks for the dialogue ramesam I'm enjoying your thinking. ( I'm a he btw)

    I think overall, I'm captivated by our unique capacity to be subjective. I choose the word, subjective, to capture all the 'non-mechanical' qualities that we experience such as, experiencing experience, conceptualizing, seeing worlds that transcend my biology, volition etc. In an english sentence, it is the subjects that act on objects. Besides, 'subjective' allows me to point out an irony: in the quest to be objective, we marginalize all things subjective- which is the very capacity that enables us to think such away!

    I'm not out to prove something as much as I'm out to engender another kind of exploring that gets at our human experience- one that is truly ambiguous. A true ambiguity ( I owe this dilineation to William Byers and his book "How Mathematicians Think.) consists of a contradiction wherein each side is true and each side of the contradiction has it's own complete logic. What turns this contradiction into an ambiguity is a higher level of order that exists by combining the two in itself.

    I can't think of a better ambiguity than human being. On the one hand we're the result of biochemical mechanisms that fully determine our living, while on the other hand, I live as one who conceives life- born of a mind that I can expand or not; the quality of our minds determine our worlds.

    Because of our ambiguous nature, our brains affect minds, while minds affect brains. Consider this: If we were able to isolate the exact, 'all our problems are solved' 'lever' to pull in the machinery side of ourselves, who would pull the lever?

    I see the human part of our being, one of being based on ideas. Bohm, in his book on the implicate order argues that a thought isn't like some inert object on a shelf. Rather, they are connected throughout our bodies and are very active in our considering reality - both inner and outer. I would offer Ramesam that your ideas about ideas are constituted from your current ideas through which you see the concept of idea.

    And what's cool about being subjective, is that we have the ability to consider such things together, poking and prodding at an idea while watching what happens to it. If we're fortunate, we'll be treated to an insight and fashion an apt metaphor to guide others. Our minds are expanded; not just in terms of neural connections, but in this part of us that has the capacity to be subjective. And this is the place from which our world gets made. And if this is so, an implication seems to arise, that as subjective beings, we need to know our worlds beyond that of knowing how it works.

    As to the map, the 1to1 correlation only pertains to the salient (read, SIGnal. SIGnificant) features like roads and landmarks. Gone are the trees, sidewalks and squirrels; which for the task of finding a destination would not be significant and therefor noise; but for the painter might be significant.

    I'm interested in how you've been seeing your experience.

  6. Sir,
    Your response is very thought provoking and touches on the deeply philosophical issue that has vexed mankind for millennia of years – the very question of ‘I-ness’ or ‘I-consciousness’, the engendering of ‘subjectivity’ in an individual giving him / her the feel of separateness or individuation. The ability of having subjective experience has led to the philosophical self-inquiry starting with the classical question of “Who am I?” (subject) and then proceeding on to “What is this world?” (experience or object).
    I am sure you must well be aware of the huge amount of literature touching on the above issues from various angles – philosophical, epistemological, mythological etc. etc.
    From a biological viewpoint, ‘self’ seems to be a fictitious artifact acquired in evolution as a survival tool to help in self-preservation and self-perpetuation. If what is experienced is not distinguishable into ‘me’ vs. ‘the other’, the body of an organism would not know if it is feeding its own body or a dog out there when its body feels hungry (needs an energy input for its own metabolic activity). So the sense of a ‘self’ (as defined by an ensemble of one’s own characteristics) helps in providing a continuity in time, coherence of experience, ownership for possessions and doership for actions. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran deals with some of this stuff in his 2003 Reith memorial lecture. The fact of ‘I’ being an illusion is well demonstrated by Deric (the present blog owner) too. Having acquired it, man had identified with the ‘self’ so much that he/she forgot its illusoriness and began to believe in its existence. He/she practically reified it. The import of Advaita has been to show that the sense of ‘individuation’ arising out of the triad of experiencer-experienced-experiencing is an illusion (maya) and all that actually exists is a ‘Oneness’ without the separation of an experiencer (subject) who experiences an object ‘out there’!
    Coming to the question of ‘map’ – a representation of what is in our brain as neuronal connections: I agree when you say that ‘salience’ does play a role. A map is not a photograph. Perhaps Deric can tell us if a truly eidetic record in the brain does occur at all. The moment we bring in the issue of ‘salience’, the I-consciousness (self) becomes operational. Here the relevance of the statistic quoted by Tor assumes a large significance. Maybe, the record in the brain does accurately store the info re: squirrels and the cracks in the pavement but not available to the ‘conscious’. It comes back as a ghost in a dream or a hazy déjà vu when not looking for it!
    I hope I haven’t led the discussion too far astray from what you intended.

  7. Just a very brief comment, since these are very complex issues. The sorts of 'maps' and 'representations' that we can observe in physical measurements on the brain (that correspond to physical quantities in the work such as sound, light, pressure) are seen in the brains of animals who clearly do not possess the sort of "I" that we have. I think the actual neural correlates of our intuitive sense of self and "I" will probably seem quite counter-intuitive and alien if and when we find them.

  8. Responding to Deric’s comment:

    First a big “thank you” to Deric for his time and thought as an expert in the field. As he observed, the issues are unarguably ‘very complex’. As Geoff Carr (2006) expressed, neuroscience may be awaiting its own Einstein and one day it maybe established that “the actual neural correlates of our intuitive sense of self and “I” probably [are] counter-intuitive and alien” as stated by Deric.

    But the other points made by Deric baffled me. He makes two significant points that beg a bit more clarification. He seems to imply:
    (a) studies carried out on the neural correlates on ‘maps’ or representations in the brain are done so far only on animals (non-human); and
    (b) animals do not have the sort of “I” or self that humans claim to possess.

    The plethora of recent publications appears not to fully support the above contentions.
    In addition to the studies on animal brains, I am sure that Deric is aware of the studies of ‘self’ using fMRI, SPECT., Diffusion tomography etc done on humans. Work at Washington University by Prof. B. Schlaggar and his colleagues showed that the sense of self develops more after the age of 12 or so. Dr. Heatherton and many others tend to place self in the mPFC and also the precuneus. And we have Jill B. Taylor and her well-known case of left hemisphere clot that seemed to have caused the ‘loss of a separate self’ in her. The latest work of Brick Johnstone talks about lessening of a sense of self with lower activity in the right parietal lobe. So there are any number of reports on human brain studies re: self. Have I misunderstood Deric’s statement?

    The second contention also appears to emerge from a sort of anthropocentric view. A number of lower (?) animals, other than primates and humans, are being now shown to possess a sense of self (e.g. parrots etc.). There is a recent work demonstrating ‘consciousness’ even in fruit flies (Drosophilia melanogaster). If flies can have ‘consciousness’, is it far from postulating a sense of self in them?

    Or am I confused in making out what exactly Deric is telling us? Is it wrong in trying to tease out the issues, though admittedly complicated, based on whatever knowledgebase we have today pending some future discoveries?

  9. My comment does not imply that studies on maps or representations have been done only in animal, of course they have done in humans. The gold standard of 'self' identity has been the mirror recognition test, passed until recently by humans, chimps, and dolphins. Now it turns out the magpie does it.
    And yes, there are many fMRI experiments correlating self, agency, etc. with brain activity.

  10. Rebecca1:48 PM

    I understand this essay from the epiricist approach but how do you think a rationalist would react? I am writing a paper on this article and am stuck. I chose Locke as my empiricist and Leibniz as my rationalist. How do you think Leibniz would respond?