I came across this tweet by Amanda Gefter:
William James, the founder of American psychology was an illusionist? I only read the opening portions of the essay, but it appears so. However, even in 1904, illusionism, the belief that consciousness isn’t what it seems, was a very nuanced thing:
To deny plumply that ‘consciousness’ exists seems so absurd on the face of it — for undeniably ‘thoughts’ do exist — that I fear some readers will follow me no farther. Let me then immediately explain that I mean only to deny that the word stands for an entity, but to insist most emphatically that it does stand for a function. There is, I mean, no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing.
So the assertion is not that consciousness doesn’t exist at all, but that it doesn’t exist as an entity, a corporeal thing. It is best thought of as a function, a process. There is no ghost in the machine, not even a 100% naturalistic version, just the machine itself and what it does.
This view seems to rest on a distinction between things and processes, between entities and functions. But is this a coherent distinction? It often is for various purposes, but when we’re talking about the ultimate ontology of something, it seems like we have to be a bit more careful. And that care requires acknowledging that every thing ultimately reduces to a process.
In this case, the machine itself, the nervous system, the neurons, synapses, glia, are themselves processes in action. They can be reduced to the activity of proteins and other biological mechanisms. Constructs like proteins are actually molecular chemistry in motion. Molecules are atoms exchanging electrons. Atoms are subatomic particles exchanging photons, gluons, and other bosons.
Even elementary particles like quarks and electrons are basically excitations of quantum fields, in other words, processes. I guess we could stop at space, time, and quantum fields and say those are the things, but some physicists even wonder whether time itself might not be an emergent thing. Ultimately, all things may be emergent from underlying processes. Reality may be structure and relations all the way down.
Now, my own view of consciousness is relentlessly functional, so my ontology is similar to James’. However, I’m uneasy with simply saying “consciousness doesn’t exist”. Consider that the operating system of the device you’re using to read this, whether it be MS Windows, Linux, iOS, or whatever, is inherently what your device does. It’s a function.
Yet despite this, we still often talk about software as a thing in and of itself. It is a construction, one requiring armies of programmers to build. Technology companies view it as a costly asset, an investment. At the end of the day, it remains a function, what our machines do, but we find it productive to discuss it as a thing.
There is no scientific evidence for any ghost in the machine. Neuroscience finds only the process, the function. It’s important to understand that. (Granted many people haven’t come around to that point yet.) But once that’s understood and acknowledged, there is validity in discussing it as a thing in and of itself, since all things emerge from processes.
Unless of course I’m missing something?
92 thoughts on “Is consciousness a thing or a process? Yes.”
No, I think you are missing nothing. I think we think we are too clever by half.
I recently read a comment about physics that stated that fundamental particles aren’t hard little bits of stuff, but quite fuzzy inside, to which someone asked “Well, then why do we still call them particles?” Obviously physicists are trying to clarify what it means to be a particle and what exists fundamentally. The questioner is trapped in his definition of particles being hard little things, but at the same time probably doesn’t have a problem with the phrase “a particle of lint.”
When we start paring away at the accepted common idea of consciousness and then “refining it” we need to be sure we don’t define it out of existence to make our words be accurate. Some things, like lint, will always be fuzzy and we cannot will them to be hard.
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Good point. I saw a physicist the other day make a comment that what physicists really do is make sure the math is consistent and predicts observations. The narrative beyond that, such as the “real” nature of a particle, amounts to untestable speculation, at least until it becomes something that can make a difference in what we see.
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I’m not sure that analogy really parallels the discussion of consciousness.
We might call them particles or waves but we still are talking about a clearly defined entity with attributes that can be measured. The argument I am understanding here is that consciousness is not really like an entity but rather many processes working in different ways with different measurements.
I am not at all uncomfortable with this view. I think our perception of unified consciousness comes from the fact that many of these processes have deep origins in the control of the physical organism and mediating its relationship with external world. Since we have one body, we are easily led to believe we have one mind.
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Hi Mr Mike Smith,
I enjoy reading your post. Would you consider “process philosophy” to be in any way relevant to your discussion here?
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Thanks! I suppose it would. It’s interesting that the Wikipedia page for process philosophy lists William James as a notable adherent.
Of course, it could be added that this is a matter of perspective. A lot of people say that the entire universe, from the big bang to heat death, is a static unchanging structure with time as one of its dimensions. Things just appear to change for us patterns who are subsumed into the overall structure.
So whether Heraclitus (change is primary) or Parmenides (change is an illusion) is ultimately right seems like it’s still an open question.
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Thank you, Mike, for your reply and clarification. I have touched on many issues in my multipronged discussions on process philosophy (also known as processism, philosophy of organism, or ontology of becoming) in relation to change, causality, (in)determinism, metaphysical reality, stoic philosophy as well as the philosophy of space and time, in the concluding section of an extensive post called “Conclusion: Change Rules and Moment Matters” at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/soundeagle-in-best-moment-award-from-moment-matters/#Conclusion
Near the end of the very long and detailed discussion, I concluded that “The ontological shift from substance (being) to process (becoming) brings the Western conception of metaphysical reality much closer to the Eastern counterparts, particularly those of Zen and Mahayana philosophy as well as various schools of Hinduism and Jainism with respect to their acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux and impermanence of all things…”
You are welcome to join the discussion at the said post and offer your insight, doubt, opinion or the like.
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Re “A lot of people say that the entire universe, from the big bang to heat death, is a static unchanging structure with time as one of its dimensions” …
In fact, rather than “a lot of people” believing, almost all physicists believe ours is a Block Universe (BU), your “static unchanging structure,” because not believing in the BU is a rejection of Relativity Theory without evidence or a suitable replacement. Philosopher Karl Popper reportedly told Einstein, “You are Parmenides.”
That our universe is a BU, aka 4-dimensional spacetime, is an implication of Relativity physics, specifically the Special Theory of Relativity, STR. In our BU, per STR, everything exists, including all the events we consider “past” and “future.” Nothing can change in spacetime. Neither a flowing present time nor a “now” exist in the universe, so that our experience of a moving, changing world and our feeling of a “now” can only be artifacts of consciousness. The flow/stream of consciousness is, after all, a fact of consciousness and we incorrectly attribute our feeling of that flow to a non-existent flowing present time. That attribution is an illusion.
That’s what Einstein was referring to in his famous Besso quotation:
“Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
That our universe is a BU is not really an open question unless you reject physics. If you don’t like the BU, you can a) prove experimentally that a flowing time exists, b) demonstrate that lightspeed in a vacuum isn’t a constant maximum or, c) invalidate the repeatedly confirmed Relativity physics in some other way. Good luck with that and let us know how it goes. Check on physicist Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn for an excellent treatment of the BU. He’s very unhappy about it though because, like many of you I expect, he wants his free will back.
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Hmm, Stephen, the block universe model does not invalidate the concept of flowing time. Nor does it make change a function of consciousness. All physical objects move through spacetime at a well-defined rate, as per Special Relativity. They follow a path with (x, y, z, t) forming a continuous curve in spacetime.
Hi Steve. Don’t take my word for it. I’m not a physicist. Consider the statements of these specialists:
Physicist Robert Geroch (General Relativity from A to B):
“There is no dynamics within space-time itself: nothing ever moves therein; nothing happens; nothing changes. […] In particular, one does not think of particles as ‘moving through’ space-time, or as ‘following along’ their world-lines. Rather, particles are just ‘in’ space-time, once and for all, and the world-line represents, all at once the complete life history of the particle.”
(Note: The worldline of a particle is the particle’s path in 4-dimensional spacetime, tracing the history of its location in the three dimensions of space at each instant in time. A collection of particles, an object with extended volume such as ourselves, traces out not a worldline but, rather, a worldtube. Your entire lifetime in the BU is called a worldtube. Max Tegmark, in his book Our Mathematical Universe, refers to a worldtube as a “braid in spacetime” in order to capture the worldtube’s complexity).
Dr. Paul Davies (“That Mysterious Flow”):
“Physicists prefer to think of time as laid out in its entirety—a timescape, analogous to a landscape—with all past and future events located there together.”
“Nothing in known physics corresponds to the passage of time. Indeed, physicists insist that time doesn’t flow at all; it merely is.”
Dr. Brain Greene (The Fabric of the Universe):
“In this way of thinking, events, regardless of when they happen from any particular perspective, just are. They all exist. They eternally occupy their particular point in spacetime. There is no flow. If you were having a great time at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, you still are, since that is just one immutable location in spacetime. It is tough to accept this description, since our worldview so forcefully distinguishes between past, present, and future. But if we stare intently at this familiar temporal scheme and confront it with the cold hard facts of modern physics, its only place of refuge seems to lie within the human mind.”
Dr. Hermann Weyl ( Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science):
“The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling upward along the life line of my body, does a section of this world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continuously changes in time.”
Stephen, you appear to have been reading selectively to bolster a particular world view. While the idea that all of spacetime exists in a 4D mathematical abstract space is perfectly consistent with relativity theory, it would be quite wrong to say that there are no dynamics in spacetime. Einstein’s equations are all about dynamics.
We are not worldlines, stretched out across the past and future. We exist at specific coordinates within spacetime, and we move continuously through spacetime at rates that are determined by Einstein’s equations. Relativity theory is first and foremost about movement – movement in spacetime.
Analogy. Suppose you are making a 2D map of a town. You walk around the town, systematically plotting the position of every object you find there. Then you return home and carefully construct a 2D map of the town. Every point on the map exists, all at once. You can look and see everything all at once. You can reconstruct the path you took to make the map. But you are not in all those places at once. You moved. You existed at one point only at any given time.
It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about an Einsteinian or a Newtonian space-time. You move.
My view is closer to Steve than Stephen. In a tensed language like English, “is” refers only to a slice across spacetime. Similarly with other verbs. So we can’t say “events, regardless of when they happen from any particular perspective, just are” – for example. Also, as a general philosophical point, one should speak from the particular perspective one occupies (or in some cases, the perspective the audience occupies: “After you merge onto Maple Road, take the first left.”)
On the other hand. Some philosophers are clearly not happy with the mere passage of time, understood as the time interval between two events in spacetime as judged from within a particular reference frame. They want the Passage of Time, with Capital Letters. It’s entirely fair to point out that relativity theory contradicts that view.
Paul, are you saying that existence (“is”-ness) pertains only to those things in a “slice across spacetime”? If so, that’s classic Presentism, the flowing Passage of Time. It’s what nearly everybody believes … it’s a naïve realism. Per Newton, “Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external,” although he left it to others to identify exactly what flowing time is and was himself as clueless as everyone in human history.
Presentism is a curious belief that proposes a continuous coming into existence in its entirety of a previously non-existent future universe which in its entirety immediately disappears into the past. And everything that “is” exists in a moving Now which is necessarily of zero duration. If Now, your “slice across spacetime,” had a finite duration of any size we could divide it in half and the trailing half would be in the past while the leading half would be in the future. How could Presentism and its “moving” zero duration Now possibly work?
It’s not surprising that no one has ever been able to say what flowing time actually is, let alone demonstrate its reality.
Eternalism doesn’t say that “… events, regardless of when they happen from any particular perspective, just are”. Nothing happens. Events don’t happen. Eternalism says that the block universe contains all events—at once. All events exist, those “behind us” and those “ahead of us” on spacetime’s temporal axis.
And, a small clarification for the always unstated: “… as judged from within a particular reference frame” should always be understood as “… as judged by a conscious organism from within a particular reference frame. Time doesn’t pass or flow except in the minds of conscious beings. That illusory characteristic is wholly subjective.
Not just an open question, but diametrically opposed ideas, and that diametric opposition is itself a ‘process’ (“not”, i.e. an involutory function).
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I humbly suggest that denying the existence of all “things” isn’t a useful way forward, even if true. More often that not, treating “things” as “things” is helpful. I don’t think of a glass of water as a process, usually. But consciousness? It seems obvious to me that it’s a process. Does anyone actually think that it is a “thing”? I know that some people talk about the “soul” as a “thing”, but they are not talking about consciousness.
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There are a lot of people who, intentionally or not, associate consciousness with the thing James is arguing against. David Chalmers, for instance, sees consciousness as something distinct from the workings of the brain. He describes himself as a naturalistic dualist. I would say a substantial portion of the philosophy of mind field is in that category.
Many of those who aren’t, take aggressive stands against anything that could conceivably be in that camp. I’ve been told that any talk about mind copying is a slippery slope into substance dualism, which I think is silly.
As you point out, everything can be considered a “process” and a “process” is definitely a thing, and definitely real, so… ¯_(ツ)_/¯
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I was actually kind of surprised the consciousness-doesn’t-exist meme goes all the way back to William James. (I wonder if he started it.) It makes a point, but as James himself admitted, many, once they hear it, will follow no further to hear the nuanced reasoning.
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Yeah, some may fully accept Descartes take on it, and view it as nuanced reasoning for why elephants don’t really exist. 🙂
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Amen to what you said about the skin-deep distinction between processes and things. But, I think it’s wrong to describe the time-is-just-another-dimension account as “a static unchanging structure”. That is to take an improper, unnatural concept of “time” as legitimate and then use it to belittle the real physical time that we live in.
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Could you elaborate of what you mean about time? From outside of spacetime, what about it is belittled if it looks static and unchanging? (I don’t necessarily hold to this view. Our taking that perspective is a flight of fancy since if there is an outside of spacetime, it’s not a perspective we could ever actually take. A perspective in the way we take it requires time. But maybe some kind of supertime being could.)
Mike, our perspective doesn’t require the existence of a flowing time, whose existence cannot be demonstrated by the way. Our perspective is simply an artifact of consciousness, whose flowing/streaming nature is a fact of consciousness. See my previous comments …
Stephen, if the flowing/streaming nature of time is a fact of consciousness, and our perspective is an artifact of consciousness, how would you say we can have a perspective without time?
And perhaps the same or a related question. Do you agree that consciousness and a perspective, at least in humans, requires a functioning brain? If so, how can the sequence of brain states, the function or process referred to in the post, happen without time?
Or am I hopelessly misunderstanding your point. (A very solid possibility 🙂 )
Mike, I’m writing my response … perhaps tomorrow. See my comments for Steve Morris below for some relevant info …
Paul, time is not “just another dimension,” it’s the “timelike” dimension of spacetime and the calculations involving two different 4-dimensional locations include the lightspeed constant c, in contrast to calculations involving only 3-dimensional locations. You can find the equations in About Time by Paul Davies.
Mike, you may have misread my remarks, so let me restate: I’m not talking about “the flowing/streaming nature of time” as you wrote. I’m talking about the flowing/streaming nature of consciousness, a fact of consciousness known as the Stream of Consciousness, initially named and discussed by William James, whose neutral monism has appeared as another interesting subtopic in this post of yours.
You ask, “how can the sequence of brain states, the function or process referred to in the post, happen without time?”. While again noting that nothing happens in spacetime, I think you’re asking how a fixed sequence of brain states ordered in spacetime can be experienced as a flow without a flowing time. Let me take a shot at the explanation, with the assumption that we agree that our physical consciousness is produced by the brain. I think we also agree that we don’t yet know how the brain does that but, not being body-mind dualists, we believe that consciousness is wholly physical.
I refer to my current hypothesis as Neural Tissue Configuration (NTC) and it’s conformant with both Relativity physics and the fact of the flow of consciousness. NTC proposes that some specific configuration of some tissue somewhere in the brain not only engenders a conscious feeling, but that tissue configuration IS the feeling. They’re one and the same—when you feel a touch, it’s because a particular collection of brain cells is configured as the feeling of a body-mapped touch.
Given that perspective, let’s imagine three hearing (feeling) “brain states” (or NTC’s) laid out consecutively on the timeline. The NTC’s—let’s say they’re the audio/sound configurations of a drum, a bell, and a trumpet note—exist consecutively along the temporal dimension in your worldtube, such that drum occupies clock times t0-t1, bell is located at t1-t2, and trumpet note at t2-t3. Each NTC and the temporal ordering of the NTC’s are fixed and unchanging features of spacetime.
But the NTC’s—the configurations—are the feelings, so that you hear (feel) the sound of drum, followed by the sound of bell, and then trumpet note. Owing to the stream/flow of consciousness, the three sound feelings are experienced as a continuous “movie-like” flow that is a concatenation of drum-bell-trumpet note, as a continuous flowing sound that spans the clock times t0-t3.
So, without invoking a flowing time (which Relativity physics informs us doesn’t exist), the contiguous and unchanging NTC’s explain our flowing experience of the sounds, which we perceive as a continuous sequence that changes from one sound to the next.
If my explanation is unclear, Mike, please let me know specifically where and why because others’ understanding is important to me and I’d like to add a quality explanation to “Einstein’s Breadcrumbs”.
Thanks for the explanation. I think I understand it, and I agree, to an extent. That is, I think if we take the imaginary perspective from outside of space and time, it is a valid model.
But even in this model, a conscious thought is going to span across a series of points along the time dimension (t1, t2, etc). So for a thought to exist, it must occupy part of that time dimension. Which brings us back to the point that a real perspective, rather than an imaginary one, must take up time.
We talked about this on another thread, but when you say “nothing happens in spacetime”, I think you’re taking that imaginary perspective. From our actual perspective, inside of spacetime as a part of the overall structure, things very much do happen. I know you disagree with the previous sentence, but I’d ask you to consider, from a purely pragmatic perspective, how productive that stance is.
Our actual perspectives are always limited. We never get a God’s eye view of the universe. We have to work from our limited scope. And within that scope, time exists and things very much do happen, even when we don’t want them to.
I think in terms of the physics, Stephen is right, and the imaginary perspective as you term it is probably the experiential one we hold dear, generated by our personal engines of consciousness, whatever that is. The “real” one, if by real you mean the one implied by the best available scientific theorems, is not obvious or as intuitive perhaps, and is clearly not the same as the intuitive sense of time that we have.
I read a great book a decade or so ago by Julian Barbour called The End of Time. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it was really interesting and speaks to the point Stephen is making here. Just because the physical states associated with a thought or feeling are sequential doesn’t mean they don’t all already exist. We watch movies all the time and they are nothing but a sequential scan of static, unchanging images. All of the slides exist now. There is no way we can prove to ourselves that our daily lives are not like that, except that they don’t feel like that. But our intuitions, as you know, are quite often wrong. To think that our daily experience of the world is likely the most correct version of how the universe is constructed or behaving is sentimental in a sense, isn’t it?
The idea in Barbour’s work, and others, is that nothing is actually happening except that we are scanning a path through a landscape of unchanging states. What feels to us like change is just the fact that our awareness is able to retain a memory of a past instant and compare it to the present one in our scanning. Relativity theory is deterministic (I think) so there is no great difficulty with this, but Barbour and others have tried (I believe) to develop concepts of “Least Action” that describe physical/mathematical reasons why transitions from a given “instant” to some other “instants” are allowed, and others precluded. This recovers, or forces, trajectories through a timeless eternity that return our experience of time, because it selects for transitions from one instant to the next according to rules, or laws. But it doesn’t require that anything is actually happening other than as we perceive relationships between two, or three, or four, or however many static and unchanging moments.
I don’t have a firm conclusion on this, but I greatly enjoyed Barbour’s book, and in my way of thinking there may be mechanisms by which the entire universe transforms at once, beginning to end, which could be happening concurrently with our navigation of various trajectories through it. I really don’t have a good basis for that other than I enjoy thinking about it, and something about the idea that what we do “now” has implications for both the “past” and “future” is intriguing to me. In an Interstellar (the movie) kind of way. 😊
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I actually agree, to an extent. That is, at a certain level of abstraction, the God’s eye view of reality, it could be true that nothing ever happens. But we have to be honest about what this type of view entails. In it, nothing happens, including consciousness. Everything we care about doesn’t exist, except perhaps as a type of ornament, viewable only by a supertime being.
Where I do disagree is that the other account where we are in time and events are happening, where we can be conscious, remember our past, try to predict the future, and make the best decisions we can, is somehow less real. To me, saying this isn’t real is similar to saying that nothing solid exists because everything we take to be “solid” actually is composed of mostly empty space. In both cases, it strikes me as a category error, an erroneous mixing of levels of abstraction.
I haven’t read Barbour’s book, but I did read Max Tegmark’s book, ‘Our Mathematical Universe’, which covers the same topic. Tegmark concludes that everything is emergent, that reality is structure all the way down, that a theory of everything will be a purely mathematical one. If there is a brute facts layer of reality, it’s probably hopelessly strange to us, perhaps incomprehensible. I don’t think we have any choice but to work with various emergent models, because ultimately it may all be emergent.
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Hi Michael and thanks for your supportive remarks. I’ve been researching and thinking about the surprisingly ignored subject I call “Consciousness in the Block Universe” for a few years now, initially motivated by Einstein’s enigmatic Besso quote which I posted earlier. The most significant two sentences of that quote are:
“That [Michele Besso’s death] means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
I’ve written a paper titled “Einstein’s Breadcrumbs” (EB) to present the results to date of my efforts. As I say in EB, “The Besso quotation is one of a handful of Einstein quotations that I refer to as “Einstein’s Breadcrumbs” which, taken together, quietly direct us to a striking implication of the persistence of consciousness in the BU.” Mike has read EB, pronounced it well written, and I’ve had feedback that it’s an entertaining read as well. You can download the PDF from my Google Drive account at:
Let me know if you experience an access problem and feel free to redistribute the PDF.
In the Besso quote, written at the close of a consolation letter to Besso’s family, the short sentence “That means nothing” is a most surprising assertion by Einstein that death means nothing. The third and most famous sentence says that our perception of past, present and future is an illusion. The easy initial part of my quest was determining that Einstein’s “illusion” was referring to the timeless block universe and the non-existence of flowing time. But why did he believe that death means nothing? In my view, as I wrote in EB:
“The major conundrum and most significant challenge posed by the BU of Eternalism is this:
How do we explain our own experience of our lives, our feeling of “now” and a flowing present time and our perceptions of dynamic and ongoing change wherever we look in a universe where nothing happens, indeed, where nothing has ever happened?”
My “eureka” moment came after reading “In the River of Consciousness” by the wonderful neurologist Oliver Sacks, when I realized that the stream of consciousness is experientially indistinguishable from a flowing time in the external world. In my research into Einstein’s thinking, I located this “breadcrumb” quotation:
“It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.”
Combined with Einstein’s other references to what he called “the eternity of life” I formalized what I am sure was Einstein’s thinking in a hypothesis I call the “Eternal Re-experiencing of Life” (ERL):
In the block universe in which our lives are embedded, each of us re-experiences our lifetime repeatedly and endlessly.
That ERL hypothesis maintains that, because our consciousness is a permanent and unchanging feature of the BU, we eternally experience our lifetimes over and over as an endless series of streams of consciousness. I’ll leave it at that for now in hopes that you’ll download and read EB. Be assured that I’m very interested in learning of your thoughts about ERL and Consciousness in the Block Universe.
I’m now writing a hopefully clarifying response to Mike latest posts, so please stay tuned for that as well.
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Thanks for further clarifying your thinking Mike. I think I now understand where you’re coming from.
To say “nothing happens in spacetime” is simply stating the adynamical characteristic of spacetime—nothing moves, nothing changes—and that is not an imaginary perspective. And our experience of a moving changing dynamical universe is not imaginary either. The unchanging BU is real and our experience is equally real. The “God’s-eye view” and the “ant’s-eye view” are equally real. There is no “more real” or “less real” or “not real” involved.
You wrote, “… for a thought to exist, it must occupy part of that time dimension” and “a real perspective … must take up time.”
But in my post explaining my Neural Tissue Configuration (NTC) proposal, I showed that consciousness needn’t “happen” either—that we can experience as a flow the sounds encoded in unchanging “brain states,” as you put it, that are fixed sequentially along the temporal dimension of our worldtubes. Those brain states do take up time in that sense, from t0-t3. Nothing happens to or with those brain states, yet we decidedly experience the flowing “bell-drum-trumpet note” sound, as if those sounds “happened” one after another in a flowing time.
Rather than discarding the “view” that you’re uncomfortable with as imaginary, I believe the challenge is to understand the co-reality of the God’s-eye and the ant’s-eye views. The implications are enormous and astonishing and ERL merely scratches the surface. How should we adapt our understanding to encompass that co-reality? How does it work? What does it mean to us—what are the implications for our world views and institutional dogmas, for our philosophies and religions? And certainly et cetera.
Mike, my fervent hope is to get some Help (!) thinking about these ideas. So far, I’ve been going it alone and that means the ideas are suffering from the lack of cross-pollination and the give-and-take that are required for developing a fuller understanding.
So, here’s a modest proposal: we both monitor and contribute to Eric Schwitzgebel’s Philosophy blog, “The Splintered Mind” and we know he occasionally posts “guest articles” from other authors for discussion. Rather than continuing to discuss the Consciousness in the Block Universe here and there in your blog when a component of the subject gets mentioned, perhaps I can provide you with a guest article for your blog and you might host the “Einstein’s Breadcrumbs” PDF for download to get folks up to speed and promote the discussion. To avoid exposing our email addresses, I could post the article draft in both PDF and plain text formats on my Google Drive account for your retrieval and review prior to publication. I’d be delighted to cover any additional bandwidth cost you might incur from the undoubtedly torrential EB download … 😉
What do you think of that proposal Mike? And perhaps your blog’s lurkers and contributors might register their thoughts as well.
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I appreciate the offer, but I’ve never gone in for the guest post thing. The closest I’ve ever come is the rare reblogging of someone else’s post, and then only if it was something I felt comfortable endorsing.
Have you ever considered starting your own blog? I think I mentioned to you some time ago that I would read it if you did. I started this blog several years ago after being frustrated by the limitations of just commenting on news stories and other people’s blogs. A personal blog gives you the space and freedom to write about whatever you want. I highly recommend it for anyone who has ideas they want to put out there.
Bummer that, Mike, although I completely understand. I don’t blog myself because I’m primarily consumed with understanding Consciousness in the Block Universe and the topics in consciousness studies and cosmology related to that, so I’d post one or two articles to my own blog and then, lacking an audience, abandon the project.
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Mike, I can’t for the life of me reconcile “perspective” with “outside of spacetime”. So I have no idea what anything could “look like” from that “outside”.
Stephen, fair enough that time is a peculiar dimension, the odd man out next to height width and depth.
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Paul, see my just submitted post above about the Block Universe … if by “real physical time we live in” you mean Newtonian flowing time, it doesn’t exist. Time is the temporal dimension of spacetime … it’s what clocks measure. There is no “now” in the universe or in the laws of physics.
And, Mike, there is no “outside of spacetime” … the block universe IS spacetime.
To Steve Morris … we ran out of a “Reply” link again with WordPress’ indentation problem, so I’ll reply here to your comment that begins, “… you appear to have been reading selectively to bolster a particular world view.” If you think I’ve been “cherry picking” physicist sources (with Einstein being one of the more notable cherries), my rather extensive research indicates that almost all physicists believe in the BU.
Dr. Paul Davies (About Time):
“In their professional lives, most physicists accept without question the concept of the timescape, but away from work they act like everybody else, basing their thoughts and actions on the assumption of a moving present moment.”
In that regard, most physicists are just like the rest of us. Although no one has taken a survey, my research indicates that “most physicists” is well upwards of 90% of physicists, such that those few physicists not subscribing to Relativity physics occupy a small niche akin to the 3% or so climate scientists that deny human induced climate change. If you believe my reading has been selective, then I invite you to select physicists who have published views in opposition and let us know about their take (and apparently yours) on the Relativity of Simultaneity, the direct implication of Relativity that leads us to conclude that our universe is a BU. As physicist Lee Smolin writes in Time Reborn, “… Einstein’s theories of relativity are the strongest arguments we have for time being an illusion masking a truer, timeless universe.”
Here’s more Paul Davies:
“After all, we do not really observe the passage of time. What we actually observe is that later states of the world differ from earlier states that we still remember. … Nothing other than a conscious observer registers the flow of time. A clock measures durations between events much as a measuring tape measures distances between places; it does not measure the “speed” with which one moment succeeds another. Therefore, it appears that the flow of time is subjective, not objective.”
When you say “Relativity theory is first and foremost about movement …,” you (and Mike and perhaps most people) are focusing on our science’s dynamical explanations for the regularities we perceive in the universe. Dr. Frank Wilczek (a Nobel laureate if that matters), referring to dynamical explanations as the “ant’s-eye view” of human consciousness and adynamical explanations of the BU as the “God’s-eye” view (no religious reference intended) wrote, “… ascending from the ant’s-eye view to the God’s-eye View of physical reality is the most profound challenge for fundamental physics in the next 100 years.”
Dr. W. M. Stuckey and his collaborators in the recent book Beyond the Dynamical Universe commented:
“In Wilczek’s quotation, the God’s-eye view is contrasted with the ‘ant’s-eye view of human consciousness, which senses a succession of events in time.’ Explanation associated with this ant’s-eye view is what we refer to as ‘dynamical explanation in the mechanical universe.’ Since our perceptions are formed in time-evolved fashion, we are predisposed to think dynamically and, therefore, we want to understand/explain what we experience dynamically.”
Stephen, one of the axioms of relativity theory is that there is no privileged frame of reference. All inertial frames are the same (ignoring gravity.) Your present may not be the same as my present, if we are moving relative to one another. That rules out the existence of any universal past, present or future. It categorically does not rule out the existence of my (or your) past, present and future, the existence of which are empirically observable, and a necessary outcome of Einstein’s equations.
You talk about a “God’s eye view” – the whole point of relativity theory is that there is no God’s eye view. The laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference. Einstein says that we are all ants, in contrast to Newton, who says we are all gods.
Well, I don’t believe James knew much about proteins or quarks. Even photons were not really proven until 1905. If you want an ontological account of processes, of any kind, you probably require an ontological account of time as a framework. Physics does not yet conclusively explain what time is, or why we experience it as flowing.
Even so, James was no mere essayist, he was pretty much one of the founding fathers of psychology, in case you and Amanda didn’t know. That site also has the full text of his 1890 Principles of Psychology ( https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/index.htm ) “The famous long course complete and unabridged”, where he goes in greater depth about mind-stuff and the stream of consciousness (a concept he introduced), among many other things, like memory, plasticity, and the perception of time. It is a big read, but well organized and written.
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Thanks. I knew James was an important figure in the history of psychology, but didn’t know about the whole Principles book being there.
I have to admit that I rarely read historical science writing. I’m too interested in what’s currently known and usually don’t want my understanding clouded by old theories and speculation. As a result, I’m often to read things from 20 years ago, much less from the 19th century.
But I can definitely understand the historical interest. Maybe once I’ve retired and have the time, I’ll go back and read people like Newton, Darwin, and James.
Yes, I understand the sentiment. Especially when it comes to physical science and experiments, newer is usually better. But when discussing the human experience, not that much has really changed. James’ two-part book was used as a textbook long after his death, up until the 1950s. Although not so important to contemporary psychology any longer, it might even still be recommended reading for some Philosophy of Mind courses, because of the concepts and ideas introduced in it, and James’ association with pragmatism.
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I have to admit I am a fan of pragmatism.
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Re: “Physics does not yet conclusively explain what time is, or why we experience it as flowing.”
Relativity physics conclusively says that time is a dimension of spacetime … the time that clocks measure. There is no flowing time in the universe. No one has ever proposed and experiment to demonstrate the existence of a flowing time.
As Einstein explained to French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson, “The time of the philosophers does not exist.”
Physics is not the appropriate discipline for explaining our illusion that a flowing time exists. Psychology/neuroscience are the relevant disciplines, since the illusion of flowing time is rooted in the familiar stream of consciousness, the “movie-like” experience initially named and discussed by William James.
And, Mike, regarding your remarks below, I also recommend James’ classic and still relevant Principles of Psychology … that and the abbreviated version, “Talks To Teachers” are both available on gutenberg.org and Wikipedia has a decent summary article about Principles …
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Stephen, this will be my last reply on the subject of the block universe, as my own personal time is valuable to me.
“Relativity physics conclusively says that time is a dimension of spacetime.” – This statement is a tautology, nothing more.
“No one has ever proposed and (sic) experiment to demonstrate the existence of a flowing time.” – Try this experiment. Look at a clock, note down the time. Now look at it again, and note the new time. Are they the same? if not, then time flowed.
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Steve, like you, I highly value my personal time as well and happily use some of it to read and contribute to a couple of interesting blogs. By the way, as long as Mike maintains his most commendable SelfAwarePatterns blog, you can return at any time and add a comment to this posting. Those of us who’ve selected “notify me” will learn of your new contribution.
Interestingly enough, you seem to state the core premise of the Relativity of Simultaneity (RoS) with your statement in your comments of of 3:44AM (italics added): “Your present may not be the same as my present, if we are moving relative to one another.”
Strictly speaking of you and me, we’re too close together to notice any measurable difference in our present times, but we can call on the seriously overworked Bob and Alice, whose busy lives are used to illustrate so many physics examples. RoS says that over tremendous distances, the present, the perceived “nows” of the accelerating Bob and Alice may differ, as you say. Brian Greene uses a “spacetime bread loaf” composed of “Now slices” as an explanatory metaphor and he would say that Bob’s Now slice intersects Alice’s worldtube at a point that is not Alice’s Now but one that she considers to be in her past or future.
Consequently, a line drawn through Bob’s worldtube at his perceived “now” will intersect Alice’s worldtube’s temporal line somewhere other than Alice’s perceived “now”, either ahead of or behind that “now” on her timeline. That means that Bob’s present time is co-real with a time that is in Alice’s past or future and, of course, vice-versa. RoS is telling us just that—Bob and Alice’s past, present and future times are all co-real—they all exist simultaneously. Ergo the block universe conclusion.
Your experiment to test for flowing time by watching a clock advance fails to prove the existence of a flowing time. Note that the two alternatives, the flowing/streaming nature of our consciousness and moving through a flowing time in the external world, would both feel exactly the same, so that both possibilities could be used to explain the results of your experiment. We must look elsewhere to determine which is the case: because the flow of consciousness is decidedly real and physics denies the existence of a flowing time, we are compelled to choose the former. You might find that emotionally disagreeable but the only acceptable scientific approach is to replace Relativity physics with an alternate physics that makes all the same predictions as Relativity Theory but lacks the RoS, as Lee Smolin is attempting.
I’m all for inter-disciplinary efforts, I don’t mean that this problem is just for physicists to solve. Even solving just one part of it, like how asymmetry arises from symmetry to produce time’s arrow, might help better understand the differences between the manifest and scientific views of the world.
Miles, if indeed consciousness “animates” the unchanging block universe, then the mysterious arrow of time is simply the temporal direction of consciousness. That direction is not reversible, by the way, since all of our narratives, including those in memory, are time directional. The same is true of the brain’s “motor programs”—they don’t work in reverse.
Consciousness is not a process nor an illusion. Consciousness is a feature of the “thing-in-itself”, and as a feature of Reality, consciousness is the continuous, linear platform that the discrete systems of appearances run on. This model, with its intrinsic interactive dynamics of correspondence, a correspondence that is not restrained by either space or time transcends the archaic architecture of law.
Furthermore, every discrete system without exception is a self-contained, solipsistic self-model. Therefore, every discrete system is nothing more than a “condition” on the possibility of other discrete systems. These emergent discrete systems make up the fundamental building blocks of our phenomenal world, the same emergent, discrete systems which coalesce into the diversity and novelty of the expression.
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As I recall, you’re a monist who rejects the distinction between the subjective and objective. But are you a physicalist monist or an idealist? Your comment about consciousness not being restrained by space and time seems to imply idealism?
Or am I hopelessly off track?
No, I am not an idealist, I am a strict monist , an ontology which is grounded “firmly” in the reality-appearance distinction. Idealism asserts that consciousness is the ontological primitive. My models make a definitive ontological distinction between the underlying qualitative properties of a “thing” contrasted against its features. Therefore, a distinction needs to be drawn between qualitative properties and features. For example: The qualitative properties of a house may consist of sand, gravel, cement, brick, mortar and lumber, etc. In contrast, the features of the house would include but not limited to the foundation, the walls, the roof, doors and windows, the rooms, etc., etc. According to this model, the features of the house are intrinsic to the house but the features are not the qualitative properties as such. There is a clear and succinct ontological distinction between features and qualitative properties.
(without divulging my theorems, I’ve included the following excerpts from my book to illustrate my point)
“Since Roetcisoender’s universal theory of (R) underwrites Roetcisoender’s universal theory of (A), the same ontological distinction must be made when it comes the qualitative properties of (R) in contrast to its features. There are no qualitative properties that can be inferred or assigned to (R) other that what has been outlined, and those qualitative properties are “radically indeterminate”. In spite of that insurmountable obstacle, there are features that can be isolated and subsequently identified. Those features would be intrinsic to (R) and would have to correspond to the universal theory of (R) and not contradict in any way. To be explicit and succinct, the only features that correspond to the universal theory of (R) would be features that are “indeterminate”. The linear manifold of consciousness is the only model that will satisfy that criteria.”
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Why isn’t processing a corporeal thing?
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For me, it comes down to there not being any observations that require it. Read neuroscience and all you’ll see is discussion of neurons, synapses, glia, and biological functions. There is just the system in action, no indication of anything in addition to that.
Of course, someone may stumble over data tomorrow that changes that. But until then, it seems like an extra entity not in the data.
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Not sure about that. In hard computer science you’ll read about transistors, connections, voltages and power supply – but they’re not saying processing doesn’t exist by speaking in those terms. It’s more like talking about processing in far more highly detailed terms instead of a general notion. Talking about individual trees one at a time instead of the forest.
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Actually I agree with that. In computer science, it’s called levels of abstraction, which just refers to the fact that it’s often productive to look at a system in higher level terms than in lower level ones. The higher level patterns exist. This is true even though it’s known exactly how the higher level constructs emerge from the lower level ones.
But that doesn’t mean that software has any corporeal existence apart from what the hardware is doing or what states it is in.
Then why refer to software at all? That naming convention almost seems related to the hard problem of philosophy. Dividing things into hardware and software, instead of just hardware. I guess it’s hard to go from subject (the thinking put into programming) to object – thus ‘software’ gets a name.
But then again we refer to things like a flock of birds. We don’t just look at each bird individually. Is a flock of birds not a real thing? Does a flock of birds not actually have any corporeal existence? It’s only individual birds who happen to be near other birds? A lot?
It reminds me of Ferris Beulers day off, when his friend is looking at art uncomprehendingly – and the camera just zooms in on the art from his perspective, zooming again and again. Getting into finer and finer detail. To presumably show how the character doesn’t get it – he looks, he doesn’t get it, he looks closer at individual fragments, he doesn’t get it, so he looks at fragments of fragments…
If processing doesn’t exist, then what are we? Maybe a flock of molecules? But do flocks exist? Are we not even a pattern/a flock, let alone a self aware one?
Though certainly only certain flocks of molecules continue to repeat – the others fall as part of Darwinism. There’s a certain sieve in the world in that regard. Masses of molecules must adhere to the sieves pattern or not be life anymore.
So I don’t know why one would say processing isn’t corporeal, unless we’re going to go deep into the muck of the matter. Say processing doesn’t exist without going into the nitty gritty seems worse than saying it does exist without any nitty gritty. It doesn’t go anywhere to do so and seems a poor option in facing the sieve.
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I think it comes down to what I meant by “corporeal’. I was just trying to say that consciousness is not a ghost in the machine, not even a fully naturalistic one such as an electromagnetic field or something, that it is the processing happening in the nervous system, and nothing else. Of course, someone could ask why the word “ghost” isn’t appropriate for the processing and then we’d have to discuss definitions of “ghost”.
The limitations of language.
I read the essay to which you linked in its entirety, and my sense is that you may have taken the first few paragraphs from James and leaped into an interesting discussion that bears only limited resemblance to James’ assertions. It appears to me that what James is suggesting is that experience is all there is, and that what we call consciousness is the illusion of subject and object that occurs when we look back upon a pure experience. I think he is also saying that the concurrent awareness of our physiology–e.g. our breathing–with the diversified collection of thoughts that comprise our thinking gives rise to the illusion of a here and a there. I think he is trying to say that the pure reality of experience, when processed in different contexts or orientations, gives rise to such illusory notions as self and other, subject and object, etc.
Honestly it was hard for me to follow, but I didn’t get the sense that he was trying to suggest that what we call consciousness is the result of a process in the way you describe. This statement may help to explain his view, My thesis is that if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff ‘pure experience,’ the knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter.
I think when you conclude that it makes sense to accept consciousness as “real”, despite the fact that what you are speaking about is something either emergent, or produced by, or correlated to underlying physiological processes, you are still speaking about the illusory notion of consciousness, the existence of which James was arguing against.
I think I would need to read a lot more James to follow his line of thinking in its entirety, but it seems obvious he thinks very differently about these topics than just about any of the other writers you’ve mentioned or reviewed here. It may seem like he is some sort of pan-psychist from what I’ve said, but I don’t think that is the case either. I think the universe or reality he is speaking about is fundamentally different in its structure, function and composition than the one we typically discuss here. For lack of a better analogy, and at the risk of offending folks who have read more James, his conception sounds more like a block universe of pure knowing, through which subject and object emerge as the product of taking a path through it…
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I’m impressed you read the whole thing. In general I find James’ writing, like many 19th century philosophers, to be maddeningly difficult to follow, which is why I didn’t really attempt the whole essay. Scanning further into it, I can see where you’re coming from. James’ language tends to be pretty artistic and filled with allusions that the well educated in his day understood. I suspect it clouds his meaning for us today.
James himself has a pretty solid reputation for being scientifically grounded. A lot of neuroscientists speak well of him. I’m pretty sure his overall view is more materialistic, but getting that out of this essay seems difficult. It makes a little more sense if we take his discussion as epistemic instead of ontological, a variation of the radical empiricism he’s somewhat known for. But that may be me bending over too far in interpretational charity.
I know a couple of readers have read James a bit more widely. Maybe one of them will have some insights into what he was proposing.
For those who understand William James, James was a strict monist. His rendering of the term “pure experience” is the experience that is prior to the division into subject and object. And yes, James philosophy is a bit beyond the scope of this particular blog, as are my comments also…
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Maybe it’s a pragmatist thing, the using of a singular noun to include a whole bunch of concepts. Charles Peirce did the same thing with “sign” that James does with (pure)
“experience”. Actually, I kinda think they were even referring to the same thing.
For Peirce, a “sign” included the object (the thing referred to), the vehicle (the physical thing referring to the object), and the interpretant (the result of interpreting the vehicle as referring to the object). So a sign is a process, with those parts. He abstracted out the thing doing the interpreting, which is convenient, as that is the thing that can’t be known “in itself”, Kant’s Neumenon.
But what James, and maybe Peirce, are referring to as “object”, is what I refer to as pattern. It’s an abstract thing. For an object in the world, like a table, there is a pattern of possible interactions with the environment. So that pattern is there in the table as the affordance of those interactions. A sign vehicle can have those interactions in its causal history, so that pattern is there in the sign vehicle. But a lot of other such patterns are also in the causal history of a sign vehicle. In order to interpret that sign vehicle to be referring to the pattern in question, i.e., the table, the thing doing the interpreting (what I might call the mechanism) has to be pre-configured to respond to the sign vehicle as meaning the table pattern. You could call this pre-configuration knowledge. You could say that the pattern is there in the knowledge in the mechanism.
So when James refers to consciousness not as an entity but as a function, and specifically as the function of knowing, I read him as referring to the function of knowledge in a mechanism which allows interpretation of a sign vehicle as referring to an object (pattern) and generating an interpretant (response) appropriate to that pattern.
[sign = experience = psychule]
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Another good catch James…. One more note worthy comment.. James ontology is grounded in realism which is unfortunate. Because he does not make a clear definitive distinction between the Reality and the appearance of reality we are again left with an ontology of dualism. Kant is the only contemporary Western philosopher to make that distinction and as a result of his ontology, Kant has been the focus of fierce criticism ever since. That’s unfortunate because an ontology firmly grounded in the reality-appearance distinction is the only model that does not fall prey to dualism.
Dr. Michael Silberstein is the Philosopher in the trio of authors of Beyond the Dynamical Universe, whose subject is adynamical explanation in the block universe. I was quite surprised, to say the least, to discover that in his consideration of consciousness in the block universe he supports the neutral monism of Wm. James. Also, again surprisingly, Silberstein completely ignores all the really interesting questions on that topic. Nevertheless (and I don’t at all consider myself A Philosopher), I made the attempt to understand his and James’ neutral flavor of monism.
Leaping straight to my conclusions, it seems unavoidable to say that James was, at heart, a Body-Mind dualist. The proposal that some primal stuff at a more fundamental level from which both matter and mind emanate is simply a dodge to escape the Dualist label. But, clearly, dualism is the problem that neutral monism is supposed to solve. I find it most problematic that the unitary primal “stuff” he proposed can never be observed or verified, and might as well be God by another name—what the hell else is Pure Experience?
The more direct approach to avoiding Body-Mind dualism would be to believe that Body and Mind are both wholly physical—but that makes for a distressingly short scientifically-oriented book, boring Philosophy expressed in ordinary language … and a thin royalty revenue stream … 😉 I read Robert Richardson’s biography of James a couple of years ago, unsurprisingly titled William James, and I suspect James’ neutral monism might have been emotionally rooted in his father’s obsessive spirituality, which was an ongoing, ever-present and nearly smothering fact of life growing up in the James household. A reading of William’s brother Henry’s biography (Henry James by Fred Kaplan) lends some support to that perspective.
As usual, an excellent and thought-provoking post. For me, it was a kind of déjà vu; however, I approached it from another direction. Although I am somewhere along the spectrum between agnosticism and atheism, I often butt my head against the question “does God exist”. Of course, our language predisposes us to think about existence as possessing the attribute of substantiality. So, trying to find a middle ground between existence and non-existence, I came up with the idea that perhaps God exists as a process, like love. Few people would deny that love exists, especially those who have experienced it. Love is a verb, a process, that only exists when you are loving someone or something; otherwise, it doesn’t exist. So maybe God was a verb, a process, who only exists when … Anyway, it seems a good fit for consciousness that it would be a verb, process, or function. Your assertion, “… that care requires acknowledging that everything ultimately reduces to a process”, spun me around a bit on my heels. It makes sense in a “string-theoretical” way that all matter or substance is an artifact of a process. It’s just kind of hard to wrap one’s brain around processes run not by substances, but by other processes, ad infinitum. Well, this process is certainly not an algorithm, in a Donald Knuth sense, since there’s nothing to terminate it (no initial or end condition).
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Thanks Mike. For God, like many other concepts, it depends on how broad or narrow a conception we want to take, whether entity or process. We could consider God to be the laws of physics, so hardly anyone would be an atheist because it’s crazy to deny gravity.
For me, I think it comes down to whether any of the emotionally comforting versions exist. In that sense, the further we get away from the traditional all-father figure, the less sense it makes to use the traditional term “God” to refer to it. So aliens running a simulation experiment that we happen to be a part of wouldn’t count, at least unless they’re kindly disposed towards us. In my mind, that also rules out Spinoza’s and Einstein’s version (similar to the God=natural laws one above).
The question is always whether the term retains some value, or whether we’ve morphed the original meaning so much that we should really just use another term. I occasionally wonder if “consciousness” really retains that value, or whether it’s continued usage adds more confusion than it clears.
And my single on-topic contribution: is photosynthesis a thing or a process?
Einstein was a self described agnostic, but he often obfuscated his actual outlook in public, likely to preserve his public image. His statements about it are laid out in this Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_and_philosophical_views_of_Albert_Einstein#Pantheism_and_Spinoza's_God
At the level of biological systems, photosynthesis is a process. But note that the word “photosynthesis” is a noun.
I’m out of indents and reply opportunities, but wanted to you know Stephen that I have downloaded your paper and very much look forward to reading it. It may not be until the weekend but I’ll pop up again sometime soon here in this space Mike has graciously provided us to reply.
Just a note to let you know I read and enjoyed your article. The truth is that I don’t think the case is closed, even though special relativity suggests a particular construction for our universe. I think there are enough loose ends in physics that we can’t say for certain whether or not this view will hold up indefinitely. I think it’s a fascinating perspective, and what is clear is that the “now” we experience consciously is not an accurate or complete picture of what is really going on!
Michael, thanks for reading “Einstein’s Breadcrumbs” (EB) and I’m glad to learn that you enjoyed it. I agree with you that the case isn’t closed but, then again, what scientific case is? Being true to our methodology means that we must always commit to examining new evidence and arguments.
Why do we hold the beliefs we do? Unfortunately, it’s been the case throughout human history that each of us is more-or-less stuck with the science of our time. I suppose we can choose to suspend belief about almost everything because no science is “case closed,” but that’s not at all satisfying and not what we do. Instead, knowing full well that our lifetime of formulating our understanding and beliefs is finite, we tend to make the best of the current state of humanity’s scientific understanding and draw conclusions about what to believe, knowing full well that all such beliefs are somewhat provisional because science marches on.
However, note that the newer developments in science don’t necessarily replace older versions, particularly in this case—the Newtonian view continues to be valid and the maths are still in use, but Relativity has shown us the constraints within which that prior view continues to be correct and useful. The point is that Relativity physics is very unlikely to be replaced outright.
Consequently, the question here is about what to believe. Like most of this blog’s readers I suspect, I’m greatly influenced by evidence, in this case, the evidence Relativity provides. It’s our best science perhaps, repeatedly confirmed for over a century now and solid enough in that regard for its implications, like the timeless block universe, to be taken very seriously. Physics specialists take it seriously, as evidenced by the copious supportive statements I’ve included in EB. On the other hand, our “stubbornly persistent” support of Presentism seems altogether subjective and completely unsupportable scientifically—no one, absolutely no one (!) has ever devised an experiment to test for and verify the existence of a flowing time and moving Now and, as far as I can tell, no one has ever proposed a mechanism describing how that flowing time would actually work. The most scientific statement we have is Newton’s ungrounded assumption that “absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.” Presentism is, in fact, an incoherent proposition, as I indicated in a recent response to Mike.
The evidence case is then Relativity and its the Relativity of Simultaneity vs. Nothing else at all. Regarding belief, I believe Einstein’s quotations indicate he believed in ERL and Brian Greene, in The Fabric of the Universe comes very close to stating it outright but, as I wrote, “stays safely in the metaphor.” Belief in ERL requires only two antecedent beliefs, as Einstein said: belief in physics (from the Besso letter) and belief that the brain creates the mind (consciousness), as he wrote, “I believe the mind is immortal in the same sense as the body for it is difficult to doubt that the capacity to build living bodies and consciousness is connected with matter.”
It’s easy to understand the reputational hazards that would keep the Einstein’s and the Greene’s and other physicists from outright statements of support for the reality of ERL. They’d be appearing to be as nuts as I am … 😉 What I’ve done is make and publicize the case and await falsification, which might beneficially lead to refinements in the hypothesis. To date, no one has proposed evidence in opposition and ERL remains unfalsified. Everyone’s welcome to their emotional reactions to ERL, but, scientifically speaking, they don’t count.
So Michael … now what?
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I’m responding to your note above to me about a static universe. And I wanted to respond because I was surprised by your response. I was careful to say that what I meant by “real” was what was real in a scientific sense. You’ve elected to state that what the best available science suggests is imaginary, while what your consciousness affords you experientially is real. I have no trouble understanding the motives for your preference; it just surprised me.
What in your mind is the difference between well-intentioned thinkers of antiquity who thought the sun orbited the earth, based on their obvious experience of it, and the clarification of a heliocentric view–and this discussion now? I’m not trying to be flip. If I lived in ancient Greece and someone said, “Don’t you think it’s important to know the sun is at the center of the universe and not the Earth, if that really is the case?” I could have relied with the notion that it makes no difference to how I grow my olives. I grow my olives based on what I understand about the sun, and that’s what works for me. In truth, the practical applications of a heliocentric worldview probably didn’t come into play until a good many years after the change in perspective, but once they arrived they were immense.
Likewise, I suspect that the mysteries to which we are introduced by the best of our scientific explorations probably have little obvious value to the status quo tomorrow, but as our questions evolve and our understanding matures, who knows where these ideas could lead?
Lastly, I don’t see why the notion of a static, physical universe being scanned by a dynamic, physical brain denies the existence of anything we care about. It can still seem as though something is happening, and isn’t that all that matters? If you’ve come to the conclusion the Universe is just math and structure all the way down with no bottom, and that we’ll never understand anymore than emergent effects of the incomprehensible–which could certainly be the case–then so long as you’re having experience why not follow the math where it takes you and see what it means? What is the alternative?
I guess that’s why I was surprised. I don’t understand from your perspective how this picture of reality entails a loss, and I don’t understand why such a view would preclude the existence of consciousness, or road trips, or births and deaths, or anything else that matters to us. Isn’t it simply the view given to us by the best available scientific understanding of the universe? As to what is real or not, I think that’s probably a separate post or something, but if by real we mean what is scientifically valid with current understanding, I think these ideas are in the running.
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I may not have made my point well above. Let me try again. I think the static universe is real. (Well, assuming quantum weirdness doesn’t eventually spoil the idea.) I also think the dynamic changing universe is real. How can they both be real? Because both models work depending on the scope of our inquiry.
On your question about ancient geocentric models, let’s consider the old Ptolemaic model of the universe. There were many aspects of this model that worked. It did an excellent job of predicting naked eye observations, to the extent that some of its concepts, such as epicycles, are still used in observational astronomy. The problem, of course, is that the model also made predictions that couldn’t be tested until the age of the telescope. Once those predictions could be tested, the model quickly fell from favor (on historical time scales).
But suppose Ptolemy had been less ambitious with his model. Suppose he had taken a Copenhagen like attitude and insisted that no one should make ontological assumptions about what a planet or a star actually is. If he had insisted that it was only an observational model and avoided what, in his day, was metaphysical baggage, his theory would still be correct in a lot of ways.
Now, consider a biologist studying a certain type of bacteria. The biologist builds a model of the bacteria’s growth over time. They carefully test their model with observations. Is that model real? Most of us would say yes. (With normal caution about all scientific theories being provisional.) But it’s a model where things happen across time. Of course, it’s possible to reformulate the biologist’s theory in the new language of the static universe, but at a cost of making that theory too painful and awkward to discuss.
“Lastly, I don’t see why the notion of a static, physical universe being scanned by a dynamic, physical brain denies the existence of anything we care about.”
This gets to the imaginary part. We can’t scan the static universe. As a subset of that static structure, we can’t actually take that perspective. It’s a flight of fancy that we can. It would be like a movie character looking at the movie reel of the movie that is their universe. We can only scan reality as a dynamic system experiencing the dynamic changing universe, even while theorizing that it’s all frames in a unchanging cosmic film.
Hope that helps, although I have an uneasy feeling I just swirled the mud around.
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Thanks, Mike. Believe it or not that helps. I interpret your meaning to be this: no matter how we slice it we are only dealing in models, some of which are more relevant to certain levels of phenomena than others, and as such, it is not meaningful to suggest that one model is more or less accurate in terms of describing what is hypothetically “real.” So there is no “real”, only what works effectively for the level or state of aggregation of the system in question. In this framework, there is little use in trying to understand what is “real” because we just may not (and likely won’t, as things stand), ever be able to comprehend it. We just have varying models for varying situations, and we continue to refine them based on data.
I think that I think something similar, actually, at least in outcomes, but I think that I come at it from the opposite direction. I think there is definitely that which is “real”, and that while it is so profound it may never be fully understood, our efforts to do so always reveal more about it. It is only because there actually is something “real” at the center of it, that all of our efforts, no matter how limited, always at least touch an aspect of that “reality.”
As to your assertion about what can or cannot be done in a static universe, only time will tell…
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That’s a good summation. I do have the same intuition as you that there is an objective reality out there that our theories are getting ever closer to. But I also periodically remind myself that that is itself another theory, another predictive model, but it seems to be one with lots of predictive reliability.
This might actually get us back to William James’ pure experience outlook. If you think about it, we have experiences. We then formulate theories about what “out there” is causing those experiences. These theories could be as primal as what happens if we touch a hot stove. If those theories successfully predict future experiences, then we think of them as real. But in the end, all we ever have are the experiences.
From a pure epistemic standpoint, James may have had a point. (Assuming I’m not still misunderstanding his views.)
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Yeah, I’m getting that swirling muddy feeling a bit myself too … 😉
I have always thought that the goal of science, physics in particular, was to explain the external world—the real world. The biologist creates and tests a model (which is a real model) based on observations of the real bacteria in the real world that we really live in. At least, that’s what a scientific realist believes. If you’re not such a realist you believe the model is simply maths and we have no way to understand the reality underlying our perceptions. I’m not emotional about it one way or the other, but I’d prefer that those positions are consistently applied by those who hold them. If you’re not a scientific realist, then nothing is real. In that case what our predictive models are predictive of wouldn’t seem to be a valid consideration and I’m quite confused about what the models are based upon and the why we’d be discussing the whole business.
I still fail to understand why you believe our dynamical explanations lack validity or would be “imaginary” in a block universe or that the block universe can’t be observed directly so it’s imaginary. Our “story-engine” brains have always noticed that the universe is chock full of consistent dynamic stories, a repetitive day-night cycle for instance, and our science is an attempt to fully understand those stories, for predictive and other reasons. Einstein tried to imagine what the universe would “look like” if one was riding a lightspeed particle. That’s surely a dynamic perspective. But the repeatedly confirmed model he created surprisingly revealed the adynamic block universe underlying our dynamic conscious perceptions.
You needn’t choose one over the other. Einstein obviously embraced both. You needn’t believe one is real and the other is imaginary. The challenge is to understand what it means that the adynamical “God’s-eye view” and the dynamical “ant’s-eye” view perceived by a flowing consciousness are both valid perspectives.
And, rest easy Mike: quantum weirdness will not invalidate the Relativity of Simultaneity. Stuckey et al, the authors of “Beyond the Dynamical Universe”, discuss their insights about quantum behavior from the adynamical perspective.
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Yeah, we might be reaching the limits of what we can do with this mud, but I’ll stir a little more 🙂
I would describe myself emotionally as a scientific realist. What interests me about science is understanding what is true. I think science is the best approach we have for pursuing truth. But part of that is accepting what science can and cannot determine about that truth.
So intellectually, I’m an instrumentalist. We only ever have the theories of what is out there and our observations. And we can only judge the theories by how well they predict future observations.
“If you’re not a scientific realist, then nothing is real.”
I don’t think that’s fair to the instrumentalist position. Instrumentalism only requires acknowledging that we can’t know that the untestable predictions of a theory are accurate. It’s an epistemic position, not an ontological one.
I don’t call the block universe imaginary. (Above, I said I thought both the static and dynamic universe were real.) I call the perspective of viewing it as a block, a static unchanging structure, imaginary, just as Einstein’s taking the perspective of a photon was imaginary. Neither perspective is actually possible, although imagining them can be instructive.
And a bit more mud stirring perhaps … 😉 I confess to being even more confused than ever about your thinking.
As I recall, as of 1916, black holes were considered merely a prediction of relativity (and quite unlikely some thought) and have surprisingly not only been convincingly detected (1971) but the supermassive variety now appears to be critical to the formation and evolution of galaxies. So are you waiting to reclassify viewing the BU as other than imaginary until someone devises an experiment that repeatedly and provably retrieves data from one-millionth of a second futureward?
If I understand instrumentalism correctly, you evaluate scientific theories not as true or false but by their effectiveness in explaining and predicting phenomena, and in that way as effective or ineffective only. Does that hold for your thinking about Relativity Theory? That it’s useful in keeping our car’s GPS accurate but we are unable to truly believe in everything (presumably imaginary?) it says about the shape of spacetime, mass bending spacetime (… and all the rest)?
You find both the dynamic and static universes “real” but regarding the block universe perspective, you believe the BU is wholly ineffective in an explanatory/predictive role? You claim that considering the universe as a block is considering the impossible? Certainly Einstein imagining the perspective of a photon poses an impossible reality—you can’t hitch a ride on a photon—but viewing the universe as a BU is an imaginary perspective? You wrote about those two that “Neither perspective is actually possible …”? I truly don’t understand.
You might revise your thinking by reading Stuckey’s Beyond the Dynamical Universe:
… but that’s 642 pages and $75 worth of Physics (and maths) with three chapters of (rather questionable) Philosophy. So instead, please take a look at the 24 page Stuckey, Silberstein and Cifone paper, “Reversing the Arrow of Explanation in the Relational Blockworld” from my Google Drive link:
As regards explanation (to appeal to instrumentalists), note this from the Abstract:
“We introduce the Relational Blockworld (RBW) as a paradigm for deflating the mysteries associated with quantum non-separability/non-locality and the measurement problem. We begin by describing how the relativity of simultaneity implies the blockworld, which has an explanatory potential subsuming both dynamical and relational explanations. It is then shown how the canonical commutation relations fundamental to non-relativistic quantum mechanics follow from the relativity of simultaneity. Therefore, quantum mechanics has at its disposal the full explanatory power of the blockworld.”
In a section titled,”RBW Deflates “Quantum Mysteries”, we read:
“RBW is a blockworld in which spatiotemporal relations are fundamental. A blockworld is a spacetime in which the future, past and present are equally real. Thus, presentism does not obtain in a BW and there is no uniquely “evolving universe” or “unfolding now.” Every event that will happen or has happened just ‘is’ in a BW. In this sense, nothing about a BW can change, so the collapse (qua dynamical process) of the wave function must be a fundamentally epistemological fact about the state-space formalism that does not directly capture the ontological facts of a relational blockworld. That is, the wave-function qua state- space representation of QM is a calculational device, whereas the relational spacetime symmetries of an experimental arrangement, that give rise to quantum statistics, is the deeper ontological story of QM. Geometry is fundamental to Hilbert space, to use a slogan. Thus, BW eliminates the measurement problem trivially. Quantum non-locality and non-separability are likewise handled trivially since RBW assumes spatiotemporal relations are fundamental in a BW.”
“According to RBW, reality is fundamentally relational and non-dynamical, but representable dynamically. From the point of view of RBW, then, novel quantum phenomena such as non-separability are conceptually problematic only in the attempt to formulate a dynamical explanation for something that is irreducibly relational and non-dynamical.”
Ten pages into the paper you’ll find the final section, “4. Implications of RBW for the Experience of Time, Change and the Status of Consciousness” … and you’ll find “… a short list of the phenomenological features of temporal experience (the various “psychological arrows of time”) that must be explained in order to explain our experience of time and change …”.
I believe Michael would be interested as well … Barbour’s ideas are discussed.
I’m writing another post to introduce the Silberstein/Cifone ideas about consciousness in a BW and their inexplicable slide into neutral monism. Keep in mind as you read that section that the well-known fact of the stream of consciousness and its impressive BU explanatory power completely escapes them.
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Mike, before I post as I had planned about the consciousness discussion in Stuckey’s “Reversing the Arrow of Explanation in the Relational Blockworld,” here’s another question about your characterizing something-or-other about the block universe as “imaginary”.
You seem to accept that the Relativity of Simultaneity (RoS) leads us to conclude that our universe is a BU. Beyond that, you believe “… the perspective of viewing it as a block, a static unchanging structure [is] imaginary.” I still don’t understand what you mean by that “imaginary perspective? Could you explain that in more depth?
Secondly, in regards to Time, do you consider yourself a Presentist or an Eternalist?
If you chose Presentist, I’d like to read your explanation of how Presentism works. As I posted above, Presentism implies the existence of a moving Now which must be a zero-sized (and therefore non-existent) “moving” 3D plane of time spanning the entire universe, a non-existent time interval containing everything that exists, the past and future being completely non-existent. Stated that way, Presentism actually seems incoherent and the “perspective” of viewing it that way might be characterized as unsupportable, non-scientific and imaginary as the Now plane itself.
If you chose Eternalist, which you apparently must be since you’ve written that the static universe is real, you must be inclined to accept that consciousness, per my NTC proposal, animates the dynamic stories in the BU without violating the BU’s “nothing happens” constraint. Unlike Presentism, the BU of Eternalism is rooted in our best science and has significant explanatory value, as Stuckey wrote: “[It] has an explanatory potential subsuming both dynamical and relational explanations.” That explanatory value is further explored in my “Einstein’s Breadcrumbs” (EB) paper supporting the ERL hypothesis (Einstein’s “eternity of life”) as the foremost implication of the existence of consciousness in the BU.
Mike, is it possible that your difficult-to-characterize “imaginary perspective” thinking is disguising an emotional rejection of ERL and its implications? What are your thoughts when you consider the ERL hypothesis that we all eternally re-experience our static and unchanging lives? To date, no one has falsified ERL—your sole objection that consciousness necessarily “takes time”, i.e., that consciousness requires a Presentist flowing time to exist in the Eternalist universe (is that it?), not only inexplicably contradicts Eternalism but is shown to be untrue via my NTC proposal that explains how a flowing conscious experience can exist without anything “happening”.
Is it possible that you are emotionally, rather that rationally or scientifically, rejecting some or all of the implications of consciousness in the BU? For instance, like these:
1. Free will is impossible … I think that aligns with your thinking.
2. ERL invalidates all of the world’s religious and philosophical views of the nature, purpose and meaning of human existence.
3. All suffering is eternally re-experienced.
4. You are immortal.
And … of course:
5. Your life was instantiated in its entirety, you didn’t choose or create any of it.
Like Roger Rabbit’s wife Jessica said about her over-the-top sexual/sensual appearance and mannerisms, “I was drawn that way.” That goes for all of us … we have all been “drawn this way” … 😉
I appreciate your passion on this topic. Just so you know, my reply here is going to be relatively brief, not out of anything against you, but I’ve learned that repeating points in a thread generally isn’t productive and often is a precursor to heated arguments. These days I typically just move on from the conversation when points are being repeated. But I also don’t want to ignore your questions.
On your questions about instrumentalism, it doesn’t necessarily entail anti-realism, a definite judgment that the reality envisioned by scientific theories don’t exist, so much as non-realism, an agnosticism about the existence of that reality. As I noted above, it’s simply an attitude of caution about the untested predictions of a scientific theory, typically its more metaphysical aspects, no matter how successful that theory has been in other predictions. I’m sure you know that every scientific conclusion is provisional, subject to change on new evidence.
And it’s worth noting that our understanding of even our day to day reality depends on predictive models built in our brain. “Reality” is itself just another model. A scientific theory is just a model worked out under best practices. But all models must be subject to revision if new observations warrant it.
“I still don’t understand what you mean by that “imaginary perspective?”
Final attempt for this thread: A conscious perception is inherently a process, a sequence of events in time, so any perception of a reality outside of time is by necessity a flight of fancy, since consciousness cannot exist *as* subjective experience outside of time.
“Secondly, in regards to Time, do you consider yourself a Presentist or an Eternalist?”
Neither. I question the validity of the exclusive dichotomy. Both models work in certain domains.
“What are your thoughts when you consider the ERL hypothesis that we all eternally re-experience our static and unchanging lives?”
Actually, given what I said above, I consider that aspect of the hypothesis as an emotional appeal, a desire to have the benefits of the static view without its drawbacks. It seems to inherently imagine consciousness as something that exists outside of time (or the time outside of time conception we’ve previously discussed). I don’t think consciousness can exist at that level, at least subjectively. By necessity it’s something that only exists at a smaller scope of reality.
I very much value you as a conversation partner, but I hope you’ll understand why I won’t keep looping on these points. That said, if there are aspects of this we haven’t already discussed, I’m totally good with discussing them.
Mike, I hadn’t read your latest post before my reply to Michael this morning, which I’m sure you’ve read by now. Surprisingly, I seem to have responded as well to several statements in your post. I would stress that support for ERL is strictly an evidence case, but I understand your latest post as repeating your seemingly evidence-free opinions about consciousness and the block universe and your essentially emotional reasons for wanting to avoid the issue. Your newest statement, that “… any perception of a reality outside of time is by necessity a flight of fancy” seems to be, once again, preferring your perceptions to evidence. I still don’t know what you mean by “outside of time” or “time outside of time” either, as if there were an “inside of time”. Neither of those phrases seems meaningful. Eternalism and Presentism are propositions about the nature of time and the only domain in which Presentism “works” is wholly subjective. As you suggest, Eternalism can be seen as a “model” involving the BU but what is Presentism’s model? There doesn’t seem to be one that’s coherent or comprehensible.
Addressing the ERL hypothesis, you just said that it’s emotional in nature, mistaking the hypothesis itself for an “aspect of the hypothesis”. The striking benefit, if you will, of the static view is its conformance with Relativity physics. I admit to being completely boggled by your remark that, to paraphrase a bit and add italics, “Consciousness cannot exist ‘outside of time’ because, by necessity, consciousness can only exist at a smaller scope of reality.”
I’m not interested either in an endless back-and-forth. I believe the evidence case for ERL—which is, after all, Einstein’s hypothesis, not mine—is profoundly convincing. My interest is to disseminate the hypothesis and the support case and hopefully interest some folks somewhere in joining in further consideration of its implications for our understanding of the human condition. It’s an open invitation.
Discussions on consciousness are more and more dissatisfying. To me it seems everyone is labouring to stress their point of view across to another interested person who is likely doing the same. Perhaps it’s a useful thing or perhaps one of these views becomes more popular until the next one does.
I’ve tried to simplify things for myself, ‘we don’t know what consciousness is’. We do know it exists.
But being curios creatures and having a few tools at hand we never the less hammer away at it anyway (myself included).
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I can see that perspective. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is getting everyone to agree on a definition other than something trivially true like “subjective experience.”
Truth be told, I often wonder if consciousness, from an objective perspective, is even a useful concept. There is steady progress happening in cognitive neuroscience, most of which simply ignores the concept of consciousness. Maybe we should just ride that as far as it goes and see if consciousness is even needed as part of the objective understanding.
The problem with getting everyone to agree on consciousness is that it’s not going to happen. For myself, I’ve developed a framework for talking about processes in general, and then take any given person’s definition of consciousness and try to explain that within the framework.
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I actually think our inability to agree is a data point leading to the view I gave you on the unpopular positions thread. A lot of times it’s just more productive to talk about more focused and definable concepts like memory, perception, attention, affects, or metacognition.
Truth be told, homo sapiens are incapable of thinking outside the box and that box is rationality. Rationality is a closed loop, discrete binary system wherein our sensibilities and perceptions constitute those binaries which are then contrasted against each other to form meaning. The problem lies within the “indeterminate-ness” of those binaries, binaries which appear to be infinite…
Rationality itself then comes into question and therefore, the underlying form of rationality has to be challenged. Unless or until rationality itself is questioned, nothing will change. Good, bad or indifferent, based upon my forty years of research on this topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that homo sapiens are better off believing the lies and myths perpetuated by our cultures.
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Lee are you recommending irrationality? As in discounting the scientific evidence for climate change? Wouldn’t that be an obstacle to any scientific understanding?
As an architecture, rationality is well suited for our primary experience and works great for the “things” which make up the landscape of our sensibilities. Science is a clear demonstration of that paradigm. Nevertheless, when it comes to the “thing-in-itself”, rationality is a bankrupt, useless paradigm. Why? Because rationality is a closed loop, discrete binary system, and the phenomenon of consciousness, which is a feature of the “thing-in-itself is a continuous, linear system.
I am recommending the linear, continuous system of reasoning… Linear systems are more than capable of accommodating discrete systems, but discrete systems will not and cannot accommodate linear systems. I know that will not make any sense to anyone who is addicted to rationality but there is nothing I can do about that condition…
All the best…
There’s a certain irony in this thing called rationality. When I state: “that rationality is a closed loop, discrete binary system”, the majority of human beings, let alone scientists don’t even know what that statement “means”. That’s how primitive our understanding actually is. Is it any wonder that we are at a loss to explain causality let alone this thing called consciousness?
Lee, one of my glaring intellectual shortcomings is an inability to comprehend much of what is written in what I call High Philosophese, which is, for the majority of human beings, an obscure language for specialists. I believe I understand the “thing-in-itself” concept although, frankly, without consciousness there is only the block universe, which is unmoving, unchanging and timeless, and completely lacking in causality. I confess that I belong to that majority class of human beings that has trouble extracting a clear meaning from statements like, “… rationality is a closed loop, discrete binary system,” certainly without at least a background education in the underlying concepts.
I view consciousness as a feature of biological systems. As Damasio wrote, core consciousness is “the feeling of being embodied and centered in a world.” As such, it can be understood as a biological phenomenon lacking any spooky, ghostly imponderables and, like photosynthesis and respiration, it’s appropriate for rational scientific investigation. I believe it’s important to recognize that the contents of consciousness are a simulation of things-in-themselves and are not themselves the things-in-themselves. Golly!—Maybe I’m getting the hang of it! … 🙂
All that being said, only dualists believe that consciousness poses a Hard Problem, but there remains the Really Hard Problem, which is comprehending the evidence-free propositions of many consciousness philosophers.
Stephen, you said “without consciousness there is only the block universe, which is unmoving, unchanging and timeless, and completely lacking in causality.”
Don’t you think causality is a pattern within the block universe? Even if the block universe does not move or change, movement and change and time are descriptions of patterns we see within the block universe, no?
As I’ve said, although nothing happens in the block universe (BU) and consequently there’s no causation from that “God’s-eye view”, consciousness “animates” the block universe by seeing it as dynamic, moving and constantly changing. Our “story-engine” brains have always noticed that the universe is chock full of consistent dynamic stories.
When we notice repetitive patterns that connect the dynamic events we perceive, we take those connections to be cause-and-effect if they recur with a very high probability. If we always see a running rabbit followed by a pursuing dog, we might think the dog is, in some sense, the cause of the fleeing rabbit, but if the pattern is in any way inconsistent, we don’t. In that sense, I see causality as a dynamic relationship pattern that we notice in the consciousness-animated BU.
Why the BU is chock full of dynamic stories that are seen only by conscious beings is interesting to contemplate. It can seem as though one was made for the other—I’ve referred to that as the Anthropic Principle on Steroids.
I agree Fizan. I too find much of consciousness discussion unsatisfying, fundamentally because of the overabundance of evidence-free theorizing. Philosophical views of consciousness tend to be about something other than animal consciousness, something usually not well defined and sometimes a ghostly and ethereal something indistinguishable from a religious soul. I prefer clear definitions and views that adhere to the biological and neuroscientific understandings we’ve achieved, but even there one must be wary of smoke reflected in mirrors.
For meaningful ideas and discussions that actually advance understanding, I prefer and recommend Searle’s Biological Naturalism, Damasio’s “The Feeling of What Happens” and Merker’s brainstem consciousness thesis that’s supported by a spectrum of observational, experimental and evolutionary evidence, supplemented by Panksepp’s ideas about Affective Neuroscience. I adhere to Damasio’s definition of consciousness as a feeling, consisting of multiple feeling subtracks for each sensory capability. His definition of “core consciousness,” aka animal consciousness, is “the feeling of being embodied and centered in a world.” All modes of consciousness are feelings, including seeing and thinking. Consciousness is a strictly biological, embodied animal phenomenon.
But drift into most Consciousness Philosophese and you’ll find very little of that but, rather, strikingly evidence-free and untestable propositions like Integrated Information Theory (IIT), Multiple Drafts, Panpsychism, Neutral Monism and on and on. Consider the robustly discussed “philosophical zombie,” an imaginary creature whose behavior is identical to that of an identical conscious person, but the zombie is seen as trivially different, lacking only consciousness. No one I’ve read has pointed out that the philosophical zombie is completely impossible if the creation and operation of consciousness changes but a single molecule in the zombie’s body, which, considering the enormous difference we observe in the life of a normally conscious individual who’s bereft of consciousness, seems very likely indeed. In fact, we all know that a normally conscious person lacking consciousness and without extraordinary life support measures will die if consciousness cannot be restored.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I would just add that to me it is not self-evident that evidence-free theorizing is the problem. It’s not clear to me (in fact seems unlikely) that we will eventually solve consciousness through evidence.
To me the problem seems fundamental. There is a primary difference between knowing something and feeling something.
In fMRI experiments researchers can with increasing certainty know about what a subject is feeling. Is that it then, puzzle solved?
Perhaps for some that is all that needs to be solved, or more progress in that direction is needed. I agree with that group because knowledge is useful and more knowledge is even more useful.
But some may wonder how is that fMRI pattern giving rise to that feeling. Now we start running in to a hurdle, what do we mean by ‘feeling’? And we enter the rabbit hole from there on.
Meaning is needed for knowing but feeling is something separate to it.
When we try to describe a certain feeling we end up describing in terms of other feelings.
This is where people diverge in their opinions and further pursuits.
The popular view (at least in science circles) these days seems to be to get rid of the feelings to describe feelings circle by attempting to ground them in a physical process. So that one may be able to say something like ‘that nerve communication’ is an ‘instinct’ and there is nothing more to it. But we’ve run into the same problem again which is what do we mean by ‘instinct’ ? We may describe it as an unconscious reflex in which case it is a behaviour and not a feeling, or we may describe it as a conscious feeling in which case we are back to square one.
And, as Gregory Benford wrote, always remember that you can’t eff the ineffable.