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.

Monday, January 24, 2011

One of the best 50 ideas of the century

Raymond Tallis, reviewing Meillassoux's "After Finitude" in tpm:

At the heart of Kant’s various critiques is a response to David Hume’s observation that there is nothing in experience to explain why the world is ordered – why it is intelligible or even habitable. The causal glue that seems to hold things together is not a property of things in themselves: it is merely a product of our experience of patterns of events. The sense of necessity is just the result of the habits of expectation. Consequently, there is no reason why there should be such patterns and why they should be maintained: I have no grounds for expecting that the sun will rise tomorrow. The laws of nature seem shockingly contingent.

Kant was electrified by Hume’s argument that causation was not an intrinsic property of the world in itself. He went further and said that space and time were also properties of experience, of the phenomenal world, not the realm of things in themselves. Space, time and causation were the necessary conditions or “forms” of sense experience. Any world that was experienced would be experienced as set out in space and time and causally glued together. We do not therefore experience what there is as it is in itself. Hence metaphysics – an account of being qua being, the nature of the in-itself – was impossible.

[Meillassoux] recasts Hume’s problem as being about the contingency of the laws of nature. If the laws are contingent, does that not mean that it is highly unlikely that the world will be ordered? Won’t the laws, being contingent, change at such a frequency that the world will be chaotic, uninhabitable, unable to support life? No, Meillassoux says: this follows only if we assume that the rate of change of the laws, their instability, would be such that they would have an impact on ordinary life. Such an assumption relies on a judgement of probabilities but this, since the “detotalisation” of number through the discovery of transfinite quantities, is groundless. Hence the title of his book. Having established this, he goes on to argue not only that the laws of nature are contingent but that they are necessarily so. Hence the subtitle of his book.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Thing of This World

Review Article: Chronicling the Post-Kantian Erosion of Noumena -
In the conclusion, Braver returns to Kant, presenting once again the guiding hypothesis of the book: Kant as the common ground between the analytic and continental tradition. His most interestingly speculative claim is that the two traditions emerge from an internal dichotomy within Kant’s system:

My claim is that continental thought follows the spirit of his epistemology, while analytic thought follows the practical (which is rather ironic, given analytic philosophy’s emphasis on epistemology and continental’s insistence on the ubiquity of the ethical). Continental thought embodies the spirit of Kant’s theoretical work: we are essentially finite beings conditioned by forces beyond our control, and the job of philosophy is to help us understand these, not overcome them; there is nothing beyond them. Analytic philosophy takes up the ethical ethos: although we may be conditioned by accidental features, philosophy uses reason to pierce these conditions so that we can find truth which escapes their influence. (501-502)

Ultimately, Braver presents continental philosophy as a constant struggle with human finitude and the way contingent factors therefore influence subjectivity and the practice of philosophy itself. On the other hand, the analytic tradition was begotten by the ambition of pure rational thought to escape existential finitude and grasp truth- and things- ‘in themselves’.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Probability, Necessity, and Infinity

Quentin Meillassoux, "Potentiality and Virtuality":

"We have at our disposal the means to reformulate Hume's problem without abandoning the ontological perspective in favour of the epistemic perspective largely dominant today. Beginning to resolve the problem of induction comes down to delegitimating the probabilistic reasoning at the origin of the refusal of the contingency of laws. More precisely, it is a matter of showing what is fallacious in the inference from the contingency of laws to the frequency (and thus the observability) of their changing. This amounts to refusing the application of probability to the contingency of laws, thereby producing a valuable conceptual distinction between contingency understood in this radical sense and the usual concept of contingency conceived as chance subject to the laws of probability. Given such a distinction, it is no longer legitimate to maintain that the phenomenal stability of laws compels us to suppose their necessity."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Contingency of Nature’s Laws

Jeremy Dunham on Humean Lawlessness:
For Meillassoux, time has the ability to bring forth events which have absolutely no connection to the preceding situation. Freed from the principle of sufficient reason, we can be sure that metaphysical questions such as 'why these laws?' and 'where did we come from?' can be answered: 'From nothing. For nothing'. By denying causal power in nature, Meillassoux denies that the future need have any relation to the past and in doing so privileges logic above nature. However, Meillassoux’s explanation of our laws becomes rather like recourse to a Deus ex Machina, albeit a godless one. This becomes clearer in his argument concerning the emergence of conscious perception. One of the most common vitalist arguments against the Humean idea that the universe is nothing more than a contingent multiplicity of unconnected events, is that life could not possibly come from not-life: how could consciousness come from purely lifeless matter? Meillassoux agrees that one cannot 'short of sheer fantasy' find the seeds of the birth of consciousness in matter. Conscious perception, like the laws of nature, must have come ex nihilo—from nothing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nomologicalism vs. Accidentalism

Reality is either governed by rules, or it isn’t.

If all events transpire according to some rule or law, this is nomologicalism.

If there is no reason behind why events unfold as they do, this is accidentalism.

There are two variants of nomologicalism: deterministic and probabilistic. The laws that govern the unfolding of events are either deterministic or probabilistic in nature.

Note, however, that deterministic nomologicalism could be seen as just a special case of probabilistic nomologicalism - the case where all conceivable outcomes of any particular event are assigned a probability of either 0% or 100%. This is analogous to a Turing Machine just being a special kind of Probabilistic Automaton, one with transition probabilities of 0% or 100%.

But if nomologicalism is true then the question is: why is it true? Why do these governing laws exist and how are they enforced?

If there is no reason that we have the laws that we do, or there is no reason that they continue to hold, then this itself amounts to a kind of accidentalism. If there is no reason that the laws are as they are, then they could have been and may yet be otherwise. And if there is no reason that they continue to hold, then they may very well cease to hold at any instant.

In this case, the current state of things is accidental...there’s no reason it couldn’t have been otherwise, there’s no reason it won’t become otherwise.

But, if there is a reason that nomologicalism is true, and thus a reason for why our particular governing laws exist and a reason for why they are consistently enforced, then what is the reason for that reason?

If there is no reason for the reason, then this again amounts to a kind of accidentalism.

The only way to avoid accidentalism is to posit an infinite hierarchy of reasons for reasons for reasons for reasons...and so on. An infinity of reasons.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

More on Intelligence

A definition of intelligence from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

"The ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)."

But what is an ability in a deterministic universe?

For any given input, a deterministic system can only react in one way.

If you expose a deterministic system to a set of inputs that represent a particular environment, the system will react in the one and only way it can to that set of inputs.

Knowledge is just the internal state of the deterministic system.

This is true of a human. This is true of a bacterium. This is true of a Roomba vacuum cleaner. This is true of a hurricane. This is true of a rock.

And, as I pointed out in the latter half of my earlier post, probabilistic systems are no better.

Intelligence is an arbitrary criterion based only on how things "seem" to you, and which has no other basis in how things are.

So, that is what I mean by:

"The word 'intelligence' doesn't refer to anything except the experiential requirements that the universe places on you as a consequence of its causal structure."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Intelligence and Nomologicalism

What is the significance of intelligence in a universe with deterministic laws?

Your performance on any IQ test is not due to your possessing some property called "intelligence", but rather is an inevitable outcome of the universe's initial conditions and governing causal laws.

The questions you are asked, the answers you give, the problems you are presented with, the solutions you develop - these were all implicit in the universe's first instant.

You, and the rest of the universe, are essentially "on rails". The unfolding of events and your experience of them is dictated by the deterministic causal laws.

Even if time flows (e.g. presentism), the causal structure of the universe is can only transpire one way.

So, what can be said of intelligence in such a universe? Well...only what the deterministic laws require you to say about it. What can be believed about intelligence in such a universe? Obviously only what the deterministic laws require you to believe.

Solving a problem correctly is no more impressive or significant than rain falling "correctly". You answer the question in the only way the deterministic laws allow. The rain falls in the only way that the deterministic laws allow.

The word "intelligence" doesn't refer to anything except the experiential requirements that the universe places on you as a consequence of its causal structure.


What about the significance of intelligence in a universe with probabilistic laws?

The only change from the deterministic case is that the course of events isn't precisely predictable, even in principle.

However, the flow of events is still governed by the probabilistic causal laws. Which just means that to the extent that the flow of events isn't determined, it's random.

Again, the analogy with poker comes to mind: the rules of poker are stable and unchanging, while the randomness of the shuffle adds an element of unpredictability as to which cards you are actually dealt. So, to the extent that poker isn't determined, it's random.

The questions you're going to be asked and the problems you're going to be presented with in a probabilistic universe aren't predictable...but neither are your answers or your solutions, which result from the exact same underlying rule set. Again, to the extent that any of these things aren't determined, they're random.

Adding a random component to an otherwise deterministic framework does increase the number of possible states that are reachable from a given initial condition, but it doesn't add anything qualitatively new to the content of those states or to the process as a whole. Nothing new is added to the deterministic case that would give the word "intelligence" anything extra to refer to.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Necessity of Contingency

"The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man's mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others."

-- Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Time and Possibility

Let's divide your entire life, from your first conscious experience to your last, into 1 hour slices.

And let's instantiate each slice as it's own mini-universe. Each mini-universe complete with it's own initial conditions and causal laws - but containing only what is necessary to generate a given slice of your experience.

These mini-universes are made of the same stuff (whatever it actually is) as our universe, and each mini-universe exists as a independent isolated entity within the timeless Meillassouxian space of possibilities.

So if (as an example) quarks and electrons cause consciousness, this means that a mini-universe would spring into existence for each 1 hour slice, with each mini-universe containing only the minimum complement of quarks and electrons with the necessary initial states required to cause one particular hour of your experience. And, after one hour, the mini-universe ends.

This is conceivable, right?

So now we have these 525,600 mini-universes (assuming you have ~60 years of conscious experience over the course of your life), each holding 1 hour's worth of reality, each causally disconnected from all of the the other slices and everything else. And each existing eternally in the space of possibilities.

Would this kind of existence be worse than your current existence? Would it "feel" different?

What test could you perform that would assure you that the above scenario isn't actually your present situation?

Okay, now let's say that instead of 525,600 slices that are each 1 hour long, we have 1,892,160,000 slices that are each 1 second long. How would your total experience differ?

Now let's say we go to .001 second long slices. And then .00000000001 second slices. And so on. At some point does your conscious experience become noticeably distorted, or disappear? If so at what point, and why?