Saturday, January 24, 2015

Evolution, Consciousness, and Existence

It is self-evident that there are conscious experiences.  However, what consciousness *is* - it’s ultimate nature - is not self-evident.  Further, what any particular conscious experience “means” is also not self-evident.

For example:  The experience of color is directly known and incontrovertible.  But what the experience of color *means* is not directly known - any proposed explanation is inferential and controvertible.

We do not have direct access to meaning.

We only have direct access to bare uninterpreted conscious experience.

So - any attempted explanation of consciousness from the outside (i.e., objectively) must be constructed from inside consciousness, by conscious processes, on a foundation of conscious experience.

Not a promising situation - because any explanation must be based entirely on conscious experiences which have no intrinsic meaning, and arrived at via conscious processes which are equally lacking in intrinsic meaning.

It “seems” like we could just stop here and accept that things are what they are.  And what else do we have other than the way things “seem”?  I experience what I experience - nothing further can be known.

HOWEVER - while we could just stop there - most of us don’t.  

For most of us, it seems that non-accepting, questioning, doubting, believing, disbelieving, desiring, grasping, wanting, unsatisfied conscious experiences just keep piling up.

Why is this?

Well - it seems like there is either an explanation for this - or it just a brute fact that has no explanation.

If there is no explanation, then we should just accept our non-acceptance, our non-stoppingness, and let it go.  Or not.  Doesn’t matter.

Alternatively, if there is an explanation - then there are two options:

  1. The explanation is not accessible to us because our conscious experiences do not “point” towards the truth of the way things are.
  2. The explanation is accessible to us, because our conscious experiences *do* point towards the truth of the way things are.

Again, if we believe that option 1 is correct, we can just stop.  Or not.  It doesn’t matter.

So - let’s *provisionally* assume that option 2 is correct.

I say “provisionally” instead of “axiomatically” because we will revisit this assumption.  Once we’ve gone as far as we can in working out the implications of it being true - we will return to this assumption and see if it still makes sense in light of where we ended up.

At this point I am willing to grant that modern science provides the best methodology for translating (extrapolating?) from our truth-pointing conscious experiences to models that represent the accessible parts of how things “really” are.  

To the extent that anything can be said about how things really are “outside of” conscious experience - science says it.

But we never have direct access to the truth - all we have are our models of the truth, which (hopefully) improve over time as we distill out the valid parts of our truth-pointing conscious experiences.

Okay - now, having said all of that - what models has modern science developed?  Apparently there are two fundamental theories:  General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory.

From Wikipedia:

GR is a theoretical framework that only focuses on the force of gravity for understanding the universe in regions of both large-scale and high-mass: stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, etc. On the other hand, QFT is a theoretical framework that only focuses on three non-gravitational forces for understanding the universe in regions of both small scale and low mass: sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, etc. QFT successfully implemented the Standard Model and unified the interactions between the three non-gravitational forces: weak, strong, and electromagnetic force.

Through years of research, physicists have experimentally confirmed with tremendous accuracy virtually every prediction made by these two theories when in their appropriate domains of applicability. In accordance with their findings, scientists also learned that GR and QFT, as they are currently formulated, are mutually incompatible - they cannot both be right. Since the usual domains of applicability of GR and QFT are so different, most situations require that only one of the two theories be used.  As it turns out, this incompatibility between GR and QFT is only an apparent issue in regions of extremely small-scale and high-mass, such as those that exist within a black hole or during the beginning stages of the universe (i.e., the moment immediately following the Big Bang).

Now - in addition to those two fundamental theories, we have other higher level theories, which are in principle reducible to GR+QFT.  Chief among these is the Theory of Evolution.  Wikipedia again:

Evolution – change in heritable traits of biological organisms over generations due to natural selection, mutation, gene flow, and genetic drift. Also known as descent with modification.

So - ultimately evolution reduces to GR+QFT as applied to some set of initial conditions (IC) that existed approximately 14 billion years ago.

I introduce evolution here because it explains how relatively complex “entities” such as human beings can “arise” from relatively simple initial conditions.  All that is required is for GR+QFT to support the existence of patterns in matter such that:

(1) The patterns vary in structure, in function, or in behaviour.

(2) The likelihood of continuance (i.e. survival of the original or the production of copies) of a pattern depends upon the variations in (1).

(3) A pattern’s characteristics are transmitted during reproduction so that there is some correlation between the nature of original patterns and their copies.

Given that GR+QFT satisfy these requirements, it is possible to picture how the right set of initial conditions (IC) can lead to simple replicators gradually evolving into more complex replicators like humans.

In this picture, human ability and behavior doesn’t arise suddenly out of a vacuum - rather it gradually develops from simpler behaviors.  

So there is a continuum from the simple to the complex.  From prions, viruses, and bacteria to tetrabaena socialis and caenorhabditis elegans to insects, fish, reptiles, mammals, apes, chimpanzees, and (most complex of all) humans.

Note that “evolution” doesn’t do any real work here.  GR+QFT+IC do all of the work.  Every aspect of evolution “reduces” to some aspect of GR+QFT+IC.

Any state of matter or change in the state of matter, including “living” matter, is explicable in terms of GR+QFT+IC.

Evolution just provides a conceptual bridge between the fundamental laws and entities of physics and the abstract higher level “patterns” that we more immediately perceive in our conscious experience - like plants, animals, etc.

Further note that computers are also complex patterns of matter - and their behaviors and abilities are reducible to and based in GR+QFT+IC, just like everything else.  It is only the patterns that are different, not the underlying principles.  Computers are a moderately complex by-product of human evolution and human selection - and not directly acted on by evolution and natural selection.  But their patterns may yet become complex enough to survive and evolve without further human involvement.

Now - given all that:  why do humans have the behaviors and abilities that they have?   Why are we “this way” instead of “some other way”?

Evolution says that we behave the way we do and have the abilities that we have because those behaviors and abilities are part of the patterns that have most successfully survived and reproduced inside the system described by GR+QFT+IC.

We have our behaviors and abilities because they “work” (or at least have worked in the past) to enable survival and reproduction.  However - they do no actual work because any change in any state of matter is ultimately due to GR+QFT+IC - which do all of the real work.  Talk of “behaviors” and “abilities” is another type of bridge between what exists - GR+QFT+IC - and what we perceive - behavior.

Why do we engage in philosophy, mathematics, and science?  Why do we concern ourselves with ethics and political theory?  These activities are all just aspects of the set of evolved patterns that constitute the human species.  We do these things because the are the inevitable manifestations of the survival and replication of patterns of matter whose state changes are governed by GR+QFT+IC.

Note that the question of free will is ultimately about the causes of behavior.  GR+QFT+IC+Evo fully address the question of why we behave as we do, without the need for anything like free will.

So - why punish or reward people if they are not “free” of GR+QFT+IC+Evo?  

Because if you “want” to change their behavior, this is what works.  Most animals, including humans, will change their behavior in response to circumstances that either threaten or improve their ability to survive and reproduce.  

Why?  Because the evolution of the patterns that these animals consist of has resulted in flexible and adaptable (though still reductionistically mechanistic) behaviors under a wide variety of circumstances.

And that’s all there is to it.  It is useless to punish or reward animals whose patterns are not sufficiently flexible to change behaviors in response.  The punishment or reward should be selected to match the animal’s inventory of adaptive responses.  

The point is not the reward or the punishment.  These are just means to an end.  The point is the desired change in behavior (in either the animal being administered to, or other animals who may be encouraged or deterred by what they observe).

Further note that why you “want” to change another animals behavior is also explicable within the framework of GR+QFT+IC+Evo.

Next we will consider how conscious experience fits into GR+QFT+IC.

It is certainly true that my experience of consciousness and my conception of GR+QFT+IC do not overlap.  For example - my experience of seeing the color yellow does not overlap with my mental conception of the photons, quarks, electrons, retinas, neurons, and visual cortices that are described by the GR+QFT+IC framework.

However - GR+QFT+IC *does* seem to provide a satisfying explanation of the *mechanics* of how I detect, process, and represent color, and evolution explains why I have the “ability” to see color.

Even so - there is still an unsatisfying “conceptual gap” between my experience of color and my understanding of the physics of color.

How can we explain this gap?

One possibility is to claim that “future science” will close the gap for us.  However - I doubt that this is true because GR+QFT is already so successful in explaining all observed behaviors of matter.  There is no promising theoretical gap in our understanding of the behavior of matter that matches up with the conceptual gap we feel exists between consciousness and matter.

So - I think a more promising approach is to show that the conceptual gap is more apparent than real.  The gap isn’t because we are missing the existence of some force or particle.  Rather the gap is due to us not looking at the existing facts in the right way.

In the GR+QFT+IC framework, our abilities and behaviors (including beliefs) have evolved because they “work” - not because they are necessarily truth-pointing.  

So our belief in an explanatory gap between our conscious experience and our conceptual model of reality *is* necessarily a result of our evolution.

We have evolved to cognitively conceptualize reality in one way (GR+QFT+IC) and we have evolved to represent our direct *experience* of reality in another way (colors, feelings, sensations) - and because there has been no evolutionary pressure to synchronize these two views, we haven’t - and so the perceived mismatch is a kind of cognitive illusion.

Perhaps, as it turns out, that conscious experience just *does* accompany certain kinds of patterns in matter and that’s all that there is to it.  The fact that this seems odd to us is just a quirk of our cognitive evolution.  Maybe it would seem otherwise with minor changes to our evolved matter patterns - but there is no evolutionary pressure pushing in this direction, so we have not gone in that direction.

In this view - conscious experience is an aspect of patterns of matter - and thus just an aspect of matter - and our intuition that it is something *other* than matter is just an accident of evolutionary history.

  1. Belief is a state of mind.
  2. States of mind are just brain states.
  3. Brain states are just patterns of matter.
  4. Patterns of matter are just matter.
  5. Matter is just GR+QFT+IC.
  6. The fact that there *seems* to be a unsatisfying epistemic gap in step 2) is just an accident of history stemming from GR+QFT+IC.  In fact, the step in #2 is no less valid than the steps in #3 or #4, both of which seem pretty unobjectionable.

When I wear my physicalist hat, this is basically the position that I take.  

SO - we have come full circle.  

  1. We started with the assumption that our conscious experience was “truth-pointing”.  
  2. We granted that modern science is the best way to distill out the truthful aspect of conscious experience.  
  3. We summarized how modern science explains human behavior and ability.
  4. We discussed how that explanation of human behavior and ability could result in an apparent conceptual gap between GR+QFT+IC and our conscious experience.
  5. We proposed a solution to this conceptual gap.

Now - given all of this - given where we ended up - let’s revisit our assumption in #1.  

Does the model of the world that modern science has constructed give us more or less confidence that our conscious experience is, in fact, “truth-pointing”?

And the answer is:  less.  In this framework, consciousness is a product of evolution - and evolution only concerns itself with what promotes survivability and reproductive success - not with what is true.  So GR+QFT+IC+Evo supports the belief that our conscious experience is *useful* in that sense - but not that it is truth-pointing.

However - if we change our starting assumption from:

  1. Conscious experience is truth-pointing


  1. Conscious experience is survival/reproduction-enabling.

Then we are on more consistent ground.  Then we can assert that modern science is the best way to distill out the survival-enabling aspects of our conscious experience, and that the most useful model of reality for enabling survival is GR+QFT+IC+Evo.

Which actually makes some sense...

I initially claimed that conscious experience had no directly accessible intrinsic meaning.  A conscious experience just is what it is.  Only by fitting it into a larger narrative framework does any particular conscious experience acquire meaning.

However - the narrative framework of GR+QFT+IC also lacks any ultimate meaning.

My experience of seeing yellow “means” that there are particular patterns of photons, quarks, and electrons - but what do these patterns mean?  Nothing!  They don’t mean anything beyond themselves - they just are what they are.  

So - assuming that there is something beyond conscious experience which we can know “through” conscious experience, still  leaves us with an ultimately meaningless reality.

Reversing the order of our earlier list:

  1. There is no larger meaning or purpose behind GR+QFT+IC+Evo.
  2. Matter is just GR+QFT+IC.
  3. Patterns of matter are just matter.
  4. Brain states are just patterns of matter.
  5. States of mind are just brain states.
  6. Consciousness is just states of mind.
  7. There is no larger meaning or purpose behind Consciousness.


  1. Consciousness is the fundamental fact.
  2. The fact of consciousness is directly known.
  3. The fact of consciousness is the only directly known fact.
  4. The contents of consciousness are experienced but are without intrinsic meaning.
  5. It is reasonable to stop here.
  6. Most of us do not stop there.
  7. Either there is a reason that we do not stop there, or there is not.
  8. If we believe there is not, we can stop here.
  9. If we believe that there is a reason, this reason is either accessible or it is not.
  10. For it to be accessible, conscious experience must be “truth-pointing”
  11. If conscious experience is not “truth-pointing” then we might as well stop here.
  12. If we assume that it is truth pointing, modern science provides the best way to distill out the truthful aspects of experience.
  13. Science ultimately leads us to GR+QFT+IC+Evo.
  14. GR+QFT+IC+Evo does not concern itself with truth - only with survival and reproduction.
  15. Our assumption that consciousness is truth-pointing must be weakened to “consciousness is survival-enabling”.
  16. GR+QFT+IC+Evo is ultimately as without intrinsic meaning as bare conscious experience.
  17. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter whether we stop at #5, #8, #11, or #16.


pmath325 said...

"Not a promising situation - because any explanation must be based entirely on conscious experiences which have no intrinsic meaning, and arrived at via conscious processes which are equally lacking in intrinsic meaning."

I think this is where the world of art and general human connection lies - we attempt to translate the purity of our conscious states, as artists, by whittling ourselves down to our essences, and putting that into some form/medium. I also think this is a truth available to us when we consume psychedelics.

"Well - it seems like there is either an explanation for this - or it just a brute fact that has no explanation.

If there is no explanation, then we should just accept our non-acceptance, our non-stoppingness, and let it go. Or not. Doesn’t matter."

I love this. It sounds right out of the Pali Cannon. But I don't know... It is unfulfilling, which I think is an aspect of the nature of things itself. I do think that there are patterns within our conscious experience that are worth understanding. I think certain states lead to certain states when consciously observed and I think there are ways to influence our personal experiences but I don't know what that says about consciousness.

Bren + Lucy said...
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