Universal functionalism

In one of the final chapters of his book: Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, David Chalmers asks, have we fallen from the Garden of Eden? “Eden” in this case is a metaphor for living in a world where everything is as it seems, matching our pre-theoretical view of reality.

In Eden, everything exists in a three dimensional Euclidean space. And time flows from one moment to the next with an absolute now across all of space. In Eden, color is an intrinsic property of objects, so the apple really is red. And objects like rocks are truly solid. In Eden, we have free will in the classic contra-causal sense of that term.

Once we lived in Eden. But then there was a fall. We ate of the Tree of Science and were cast out.

We discovered that we actually live in four dimensional spacetime as described by general relativity, where space can be warped by matter and energy, and the passage of time varies by velocity and gravity. Color turns out to be complex dynamics involving how our nervous system uses the wavelength of reflected light to reach categorizing conclusions about observed phenomena. Solidity depends on how elementary particles interact. And most scientists and philosophers have written off libertarian free will.

Philosopher Wilfred Sellars referred to the Edenic view as the “manifest image”, and the post-fall one as the “scientific image”. Of course, we can take the manifest or the scientific view for just about any thing or concept, including the sun, trees, people, etc. But the views often clash, and their reconciliation often isn’t obvious. Which raises the question of what to do when they disagree.

Chalmers lists four possible strategies.

  1. Elimination: Abandon the manifest image in favor of the scientific one, as we once abandoned concepts like ghosts and witches.
  2. Identification: Establish how the manifest image relates to the scientific one, such as understanding that water is H2O.
  3. Autonomy: Keep the manifest image even when it doesn’t appear to match up with any scientific concept.
  4. Reconstruction: Alter the manifest image to make it compatible with the scientific one.

Chalmers notes that there’s no single universal answer for every concept. Sometimes our manifest image is counter-productive and just needs to be eliminated. But if it remains useful in everyday life, then an argument can be made for trying to identify it with a scientific concept. Some philosophers seem to find autonomy a good option for consciousness or free will, although I personally think we should only accept this strategy as a temporary stop-gap, until we can figure out which of the other strategies is appropriate.

But Chalmers identifies the fourth, reconstruction, as the most important. With this option, we acknowledge that the concept remains useful, but also that it isn’t what we naively thought it was.

Typically reconstruction involves a move from primitivism about the concept to functionalism.

For example, the Edenic view of solidity is as a primal intrinsic property of an object. But objects are composed of elementary particles that interact in various ways, sometimes attracting, other time repelling each other, and some particles, such as neutrinos, pass right through other matter, only rarely interacting with it. (Dark matter may not interact at all, except gravitationally.) Once we understand this, we might be tempted to eliminate the concept of solidity. But solidity is too useful in everyday life.

Instead, it’s better to reconceptualize solidity, not as something intrinsic, but as something matter in certain configurations does. Solidity is about resisting penetration, about how matter interacts with other matter, at least of certain types. In other words, solidity is a role, a function, the function of resisting penetration. Solidity is as solidity does.

Along these lines, colors moves from an intrinsic property of objects to a reaction of our nervous system that allows it to reach associational conclusions about those objects. Color is as color does.

And space becomes that which mediates motion and interaction. Space is as space does. (Chalmers notes that space remains fundamental in general relativity, but is increasingly called into question in some quantum theories, as something that may be emergent from entanglement and/or a higher dimensional reality. Understanding that emergence might be easier if we remember that the emergent phenomena only needs to provide the role of space.)

Tying this back to the subject of the book, functionalism shows how objects in a virtual reality can have color, solidity, and be in space, in the same sense of the role of these concepts in non-virtual reality. Of course, if we’re in a simulation, then that might already be what we’re dealing with, and things are not as they seem. But Chalmers’ point is that even if we’re not in a simulation, things seem like Eden, but aren’t. So we could view Eden itself as a type of simulation, just one constructed by our nervous system.

Chalmers points out that the Edenic version of reality is epistemically fragile. Clinging to it results in a model of the world that appears particularly vulnerable to Cartesian skepticism. It can lead to philosophies like those of Donald Hoffman, who sees reality as an illusion. But taking a functional view results in a more robust model, one more resilient to this type of skepticism. Reality is as reality does.

Put another way, the reality-illusionists are right to dismiss a naive realism claiming things are what they seem. But functionalism gives us options other than illusionism, resulting in a sort of “imperfect realism”. It’s worth noting that this is really just another description of structural realism, with the functionality arising from a system’s causal structure and its relations with the environment.

Of course, this is Chalmers, so he makes one exception to this universal functionalism: consciousness. Everything else can be addressed by structure and relations, but he sees consciousness as uniquely and stubbornly resistant to that move. To be fair, his views here are nuanced, in that he allows there may be some differences between the manifest and scientific image of consciousness. But I think clinging to even a semi-Edenic notion of consciousness comes with the same vulnerability noted above. Like everything else, a functional view of consciousness is more resilient. Arguably, consciousness also is as consciousness does.

What do you think? Which strategy would you favor for reconciling the manifest and scientific images? Is reconstruction, as Chalmers asserts, the best one? Does this take on functionalism make sense? If not, what are its flaws?

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26 thoughts on “Universal functionalism

  1. I am starting to believe Wittgenstein was right. We use words like “red” to describe the appearance of an apple, that is how it appears to us. we share that with our children who are then trained to identify the “color” red. But when did red become an object that defines reality? People ask questions like “Is pink real?” Surely a dragonfly, which perceives millions of colors, would say “What?” The idea of color is relative to the perceiver.

    Similarly that everything is made of atoms rarely impinges upon our daily lives. Quantum mechanics is a set of rules governing the very small and while it has some effect on our lives is in most cases irrelevant, as are black holes, and other objects of the cosmos.

    If we were to clean up our thinking and the language we use to describe it, many of these conflicts would disappear. Otherwise it seems as if we are hell-bent on racing back to Plato’s universe.

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    1. Color is definitely relative to the perceiver. It is certainly relative to the way its nervous system works. But bizarrely is may be even more relative than that. Many scientists think that members of different cultures learn different ways to categorize the incoming information, and so literally perceive different colors.

      Language definitely complicates things. I think it’s why science so often falls back on mathematics. But every theory has “baggage”, language descriptions necessary to augment the mathematical ones. And that’s where the trouble typically starts.

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  2. I don’t think a “pre-theoretical view of reality” really exists. Our naive view of reality still comes from several million years of evolution combined with real life learning, which for humans additionally involves learning a great deal of cultural knowledge. And our view has almost always involved an understanding that there is more than apparent or obvious. That’s why the supernatural was invented. There are always theories and models. There was never an Eden for us to fall from.

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    1. I agree with everything you say here, at least before the implication that we should dismiss Chalmers’ metaphor because of it. I think we should give him at least some interpretational charity. Insert “scientific” between “pre and “theoretical” if you like. Or think of “Eden” as a relative thing, a reference to our earlier simpler theories which have been replaced by more accurate, but less intuitive ones. In that sense, we’re always falling from Eden as we learn more about the world.

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      1. Maybe. But I think the difference between what is called pre-scientific and scientific isn’t really as great as people want to make it to be. The Greek knew the earth was round. The Mayans tracked the motions of Venus and built a calendar on it. Then there is the extensive knowledge of botany and wildlife that is essential to survival even among the most “primitive” societies. Today we have Big Bangs, quarks, and the information processing magic that some believe to be what consciousness is. Our techniques are more rigorous, our models better, but some wild theories still fill the gaps in our knowledge.

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  3. I think that I am not a functionalist.

    Before starting this comment, I looked up the SEP account of functionalism. But it is not precise enough for me to pin down whether I am a functionalist.

    Typically, functionalists look at input/output relations. They see everything as a function of the inputs. From my way of looking at things, there are no inputs. It is part of who we are, that we make our own choices about input. I listen to somebody talking, and my input comes from pressure waves in the air. But a deaf person may be using lip reading. So that deaf person has a completely different way of picking up what is being said. Similarly, a blind person makes use of some amount of echo-location to compensate for the lack of ordinary vision. And the blind person uses tactile information where I would use visual information.

    In some sense, we choose what to use as inputs. And I suppose that ability to choose inputs is part of what we count as free will. From my perspective, consciousness depends very much on our ability to determine our own inputs.

    So, I am inclined to say that Chalmers is a functionalist, but I am not.

    On the question if scientific image / manifest image, my approach seems to fit with #2 (identification). That is to say, I attempt to relate them where possible. Yes, there are reasons to doubt that the manifest image is real. But if that bothers us, we should also doubt whether the scientific image is real. I guess I take an instrumentalist approach for both. We use them, with fair success, to navigate our way around the world. And our use of them for such navigating does not seem to depend on whether they are real. What matters, is that they work well for us in the ways that we use them.

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    1. One of these days I need to go through that SEP article. There is always a danger when you accept a label like “functionalist” that someone will describe it in a way you find objectionable. I’m a functionalist, but like all labels, it’s one I try to wear lightly, holding it only as long as it serves as a good summation of my views.

      What you’re describing, with the focus only on input/output relations, to me sounds more like behaviorism. Functionalism as I understand it is distinct from behaviorism because it does get into the internals and considers them important. The intermediate states matter.

      Of course, the internals of one process are the input/outputs of sub-processes. And a functionalist is concerned with functional states, for which there could be alternate underlying implementations. If you’re skeptical of that idea, then you may well not be a functionalist.

      (To be fair to the behaviorists, most during its heyday were methodological behaviorists. Most of them were operating at a time before good brain scanning technologies.)

      I have to admit my initial reaction to the strategies was to choose 2. But after more thought, I ended up agreeing with Chalmers that there’s no universal answer.

      In debates about what is real, there is a danger of falling into a dispute about what to apply the label “real” to. Increasingly, my attitude is if a theory predicts the data, then at least at some level, it’s modeling something operationally real. Doesn’t mean the underlying reality may not be radically different than we expect, only that the structure itself and its relations are real. In that sense, I’m falling back to a position I once held, that the distinction between realism and instrumentalism isn’t meaningful.

      So I agree with your final point, what matters is whether they work for us.

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  4. I’ve often been confounded by the use of the term function. And that is mostly around brain/mind discussions, but here I dislike it even more.

    There is no reason to rebrand our past conceptualization of solidity as a “function” of solidity. An explanation about why fists do not go through walls, and why neutrinos easily pass through walls, is a full blown explanation of matter, bonds, quantum properties, etc. We can of course explain that in simpler and more casual ways. (By the way, the term “rare” for neutrinos colliding with other matter seems a playful understatement.) We may continue to use the term solid in an everyday sense.

    The use of the term function to describe a certain category of solidity seems unnecessary, like obvious jargon. I feel like people get away with it in brain/mind and consciousness discussions because we have not come close to clarifying the subject yet (although, honestly, I think were getting closer, at least generally speaking). More confusingly, I find function difficult to understand across different authors and subjects.

    One last thing, language blossoms and it will of course be human-centric. We will name distinctions based on our bodies, needs, and activities. That is not to say those distinctions are not real or in need of explanation, and a full blown explanation of the world also encompasses why every culture/body/alien divides the world in the manner they do. I just question why we put so much primacy on incorporating such things into our best explanations of The World.

    Just for nostalgia, I think I first wrestled with the term function and functionalism while reading Owen Flanagan 15 years ago, but he was responding to Chalmers, among others. It was my first taste of the Manifest Image as well.

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    1. I’m trying to think what else I can say about functionality to make it more relevant. I do think it’s an important insight, one where we realize we’re talking about processes rather than any kind of intrinsic essences. It doesn’t mean we stop using useful words like “solid”. As I noted in the post, it remains too essential for ordinary life. It’s just about understanding what is really involved with solidity.

      Yeah, I know “rare” didn’t really cover it for neutrino interactions, but I didn’t want to go off into a sidebar about it. It was just my way of acknowledging that it can interact through the weak force, even if it’s an inordinately rare event.

      Definitely our language and categories are all human centric. I’m not sure if we really have any other options through, at least until AIs come along, but even they will be created in our image, and so likely divide the world in similar ways. Nature will always provide edge cases to remind us that our little categories are just that, categories that make sense to us, but often aren’t any natural kind.

      I don’t think I’ve read anything from Flanagan. His Wikipedia implies he has a neuroscience centered view. I also see he writes a lot about ethics.

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      1. I was only smiling at your use of rare for neutrino interactions. Having read your blog for a long while I know you have a far better grasp on physics than me.

        We could probably get into discussions of natural kinds or something like that, but I think some science encourages us to sidestep our human centric view. When we elucidated the elements, and then realized there were isotopes of Carbon, for example, it may have been human centric, but perhaps less so than our desire to categorize colors or car parts or golf shots. Surely most alien species will find a need to describe different isotopes.

        Topically, this point was first realized by me while reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace and getting annoyed about not knowing the different kinds of sleds of the 19th century. And then asking why I really needed to know that.

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        1. Don’t assume my grasp of physics is better. Honestly, it’s pretty uneven and mostly at the interested layperson’s level.

          I think you’re right that science can encourage us to transcend our species level categories. We started out with only four elements according to what they meant for the ancient Greeks. But the data eventually forced us to make that list much larger, and to discover that what really distinguished those elements was the number of protons present, and neutrons when we get into isotopes. That definitely seems like something us and an alien species would agree on. Colors? Not so much.

          On different sled types, I’ve had similar experiences when reading just about anything written long ago. (I’m sure the language translation for Tolstoy doesn’t help.) Authors take contemporary understandings for granted. Imagine reading a story from our time that refers to different types of cars like hatchbacks, minivans, SUVs, etc. Someone 200 years from now might find those references obscure and baffling.

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          1. We enjoyably have these complaints while reading all sorts of fictional objects and concepts in sci-fi and fantasy. Though, such authors have no choice but to thoroughly explain things . . . even if they don’t.

            May the force be with you.

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  5. A great many philosophers overestimate the specificity of appearances. They overthink the world of appearances – confusing thoughts for perceptions.

    For example, everyone knows that light passes through glass. But no one doubts for a second that glass is solid at room temperature. The theory of solidity that Chalmers puts in our mouths – or should I say our senses – just doesn’t belong there!

    It seems that a lot of time has passed since I started lunch. (And it’s true, even though time never “passes” in the way some metaphysicians would have it.) So I gotta get back to work. More later.

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    1. I need to own up to the fact that I didn’t quite use Chalmers’ points for solidity. He focused on the idea that the atomic structure of a solid rock is composed of a lot of empty space, the space between the electrons and nucleus. I was a little reluctant to go there since that depends on how we think about the wave function. In one sense, there isn’t a lot of empty space if we think of the electron as spread out. In another, for a particle coming in, it will always interact with the electron at one particular location, so for that incoming particle, there is a lot of empty space. (I probably overthought it.)

      Thanks for spending your lunch break with us!

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    2. Many philosophical debates boil down to whether we want to (over)inflate the ordinary conception of things (and then sometimes, depending on the proclivity of the philosopher, stick a pin in it and explode it) or interpret it modestly. If we interpret modestly, many philosophical “problems” diminish or even go away. This is almost always the right move.

      A virtuous example: Natalia Deng, “One Thing After Another: Why the Passage of Time Is Not an Illusion.” We have experiences that portray time as having passed. You don’t need heavy-hitting metaphysics to understand time’s passage – you just need memories and perception and the ability to tell the difference. The experience of time is enriched from there if your body’s heartbeat, breathing, brainwaves, and/or other periodic events register directly or indirectly in your experience. Both philosophers and some ordinary people have, or are easily led to endorse, heavy-hitting metaphysical theories about time. But theories and perceptions are generally different things – even if the boundary can be fuzzy at times.

      Another virtuous example: Mikhail Bakunin, in God and the State, writes:

      the matter of which materialists speak, matter spontaneously and eternally mobile, active, productive, matter chemically or organically determined and manifested by the properties or forces, mechanical, physical, animal, and intelligent, which necessarily belong to it – that this matter has nothing in common with the vile matter of the idealists. The latter, a product of their false abstraction, is indeed a stupid, inanimate, immobile thing, incapable of giving birth to the smallest product, a caput mortuum, an ugly fancy in contrast to the beautiful fancy which they call God; as the opposite of this supreme being, matter, their matter, stripped by that constitutes its real nature, necessarily represents supreme nothingness.

      I love that quotation so much I put it in the first post of my blog – the one explaining where the blog’s title “No Ghost, No Machine” comes from.

      Which relates to Noam Chomsky’s deconstruction of the mind-body problem. Chomsky writes (source):

      The mind-body problem can be posed sensibly only insofar as we have a definite conception of body. If we have no such definite and fixed conception, we cannot ask whether some phenomena fall beyond its range. The Cartesians offered a fairly definite conception of body in terms of their contact mechanics, which in many respects reflects commonsense understanding. Therefore they could sensibly formulate the mind-body problem… (p. 142)

      Except for one minor problem: such “body”, or “matter”, doesn’t actually exist. Newton’s gravity undermined the Cartesian picture of causal interaction through contact alone. Einstein and Heisenberg just moved us even further away from Descartes. If thoughts had to move bodies the way billiard balls move other balls, there might be a mind-body problem. But insofar as no one knows how to calculate the expected behavior of a human being from the Schrodinger equation, no one can point to any supposed contradiction there.

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      1. I think I agree with all of this, and it fits in with Chalmers’ description of reconstruction, and the more resilient functional conceptions of these ideas. Nice quotes!

        Chomsky does make me nervous however. In his other writings, I think I detect whiffs of idealism, although he never expresses it clearly enough to be sure one way or the other. (A type of writing in an academic I’m not a fan of.)

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        1. I don’t see Deng or myself as engaged in Reconstruction, just Identification. Bakunin faced a culture where religious tradition had pretty much everyone associating mind with metaphysical Soul, so he was doing Reconstruction – but the iron grip of religion on the public’s mind is largely gone now.

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          1. It seems like if you’re going to talk about overinflated vs modest interpretations of concepts, you’re talking about different constructions of it, so reconstruction is happening to at least some extent. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that people will disagree on “the ordinary conception”. But this may depend on whether we interpret “reconstruction” in an inflated or modest manner.

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          2. On the conceptual side, maybe it’s neither identification nor REconstruction, but rather original construction. I don’t have much axe to grind on the interpretation of people’s theories.

            But I do think there’s philosophical value in understanding what perception tells us, versus what is an overlaid theoretical commitment. Not that it’s always clear, but it often is clear enough.

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  6. I’m not quite seeing how Eden is pre-theoretical. “In Eden, everything exists in a three dimensional Euclidean space.” But isn’t that a theory? An old one, to be sure, but still. Same goes for “solidity” (either as resisting penetration or intrinsic). Isn’t that a scientific concept?

    I guess I don’t know what it means to “alter the manifest image to make it compatible to the scientific one”. If it’s possible to alter the manifest image, it sounds to me like what is meant by “manifest” is really just an older scientific theory. After all, if an experience is truly ‘manifest’ in a pre-theoretical sense, how can it be altered? It can be accounted for or dismissed, but altered?

    Maybe I should put it this way: I’m not seeing how reconstruction is different from elimination.

    As for your questions, though, insofar as I can say without knowing the above, I think overall I’m in favor of identification, and if that’s not possible (at the moment), then I’m in favor of autonomy.

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    1. You’re the second person to have issues with the “pre-theoretical” phrase, which is making me see it as increasingly an unfortunate word choice. I think Chalmers meant pre-scientific-theories, meaning “scientific” in the modern sense. But really it’s the distinction between the more obvious intuitive seeming theories vs the less obvious counter-intuitive ones we develop through scientific investigation.

      On the distinctions between elimination, identification, and reconstruction, consider the concept of Thor, god of thunder. Given the traditional conception of Thor as a conscious large rowdy muscular male wielding a big hammer who throws lightning bolts, in the light of our scientific understanding of thunder, we can consider the options.

      One is to see if we can just identify Thor with something in nature. We can try to do that with thunder, but Thor seems to have a lot of attributes that thunder lacks and vice-versa. Or we can try to alter our conception of Thor to be equivalent to thunder. This isn’t unreasonable since the etymology of Thor’s name is “thunder”, indicating that he began as simply ancient people’s understanding of what thunder was. But in this case, the most common decision is elimination, deciding that Thor is simply no longer a productive concept (except as a fictional character). A few neo-pagans may opt for autonomy, just keep him as a concept unrelated to anything in nature.

      If we switch to different concepts, then the strategy might be different. People once thought disease was punishment from a deity. Later they thought it resulted from people’s humors being out of balance. Today we retain the concept of disease, but it’s identified either with viruses, bacteria, or other biological processes. There are aspects of the contemporary concept that someone from 1000 years ago would still recognize, but others based on science that would be entirely new for them. The dividing line between identification and reconstruction seems like a blurry one.

      Another might be “free will”. If we conclude that there is no will free of the laws of physics, do we eliminate it, as many urge? Do we identify it with something, like quantum indeterminacy? Or do we reconstruct it in some pragmatic compatibilist fashion, such as freedom to act on our own desires?

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      1. Your Thor example definitely makes things clearer, as does your pre-modern-scientific explanation. Just out of curiosity, did Chalmers actually use the phrase pre-theoretical? I can see saying that informally as a kind of shorthand, but it seems like a strange choice for terminology—philosophers like to agonize over such things.

        Anyway, I see what you mean about the lines being blurry. Thor and free will make a nice pair of examples to compare and contrast. Very easy to throw the Thor concept under the bus, not so easy with free will.

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        1. Thanks Tina. Chalmers did use that phrase, but I’m pretty sure it was meant informally. Here are the first two paragraphs of that chapter, in case I missed anything in my paraphrasing.

          I LIKE TO THINK OF THE GARDEN OF EDEN AS A PLACE WHERE everything was exactly as it seemed to be, in our pre-theoretical picture of reality.

          In Eden, everything was laid out in a three-dimensional Space. Space was Euclidean and was not relative to anything. Things in Eden changed with the passage of Time. Time flowed from moment to moment in one direction, with absolute simultaneity across the garden and across the universe.

          Chalmers, David J.. Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (p. 423). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

          It’s definitely always going to be a judgment call whether it’s more productive to keep, eliminate, or reform a manifest concept. It seems like a lot of philosophical debate on contentious topics, like free will, is between people who chose different strategies.

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  7. Interesting food for thought, though personally I’m not a fan of the stuff about the Garden of Eden. Learning that the world is more complicated than it seems does not feel like a biblical fall to me. I’m reminded more of Plato’s cave. That’s just my feelings about it, though. I can imagine another person being shocked and repulsed by all the weirdness of modern science. I’ve certainly met people who feel that way.

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    1. I catch your meaning in terms of the overall takeaway from Plato’s cave, that reality isn’t what it appears to be. And I doubt Eden would have been the metaphor I would have chosen.

      Chalmers does mention Plato’s cave in this chapter. (He also discusses it in a few other places in the book.) Although he sees his Eden metaphor as the opposite of the cave one, in the sense of the pure essences of Plato’s Forms being more Edenic, and modern science closer to the shadows, but obviously with the shadows and their complexity being the more primary reality.

      Definitely a lot of people are shocked and repulsed by many of the seemingly absurd conclusions of science. Although most people don’t fall cleanly into one camp or the other. Even scientists can be repulsed and resist some of the findings. Max Planck’s quip about science progressing one funeral at a time was about scientists themselves, a point I often find sobering.

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