Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

My morning coffee, free will and the mind-body problem

October 10, 2021

All the unknown laws of nature

It is early in the morning, and I am having my first mug of coffee today. I wonder how it arrived on the desk in front of me. Perhaps this mug of coffee today resulted unavoidably, inevitably, from the causal chain of events following a collision between two atoms 13.7 billion years ago. In a hard, deterministic world, it could not have arrived consequent to any purpose, for in such a world there can be no purpose. So, it could not possibly be that it was a conscious, abstract thought in my mind which initiated a variety of otherwise unrelated actions which led to this mug of coffee before me now. In such a world, it could not be that it was my abstract purpose alone that initiated the otherwise unrelated actions necessary to that purpose. My thoughts and perceived purpose could, in a material world, only be illusions. Perhaps if Genghis Khan had been born a day earlier, I would be having a masala chai with yak’s milk instead.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, it was in fact my free will, expressed as an abstract purpose, which, somehow, initiated and directed diverse interactions in the material world which resulted in my mug of coffee.

The “laws of nature” we acknowledge are restricted to the material world. They govern the behaviour of everything material (matter, energy, fields, waves, “dark” things, “strings” and even space). Interactions between the immaterial and the material are denied and therefore not subject to the laws of nature. This is a trifle self-contradictory since the laws themselves are abstract and immaterial. To claim that the laws emerge from the material world itself is somewhat specious since it requires the material world to be causeless and omniscient. It invokes simultaneously the God of Existence, his father the God of Random Events, and his uncle the God of Causality. Moreover it does not make the laws any less abstract. What then could be the unknown, causal, laws – also presumably laws of nature – which enable abstractions to cause actions in the material world and deliver my morning mug of coffee?

Wider than the mind-body problem

The mind-body problem has been a matter for philosophers for at least 2,500 years from pre-Aristotelian times.  It’s modern formulation can be traced to the writings of René Descartes, and especially the letters written to him by Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia between 1643 and 1650. She was a remarkable woman from a remarkable family, and it is her formulation which so clearly describes the issue recognised as the mind-body problem today.

She wrote, 370 years ago:

….. how the human soul can determine the movement of the animal spirits in the body so as to perform voluntary acts—being as it is merely a conscious substance. For the determination of movement seems always to come about from the moving body’s being propelled—to depend on the kind of impulse it gets from what sets it in motion, or again, on the nature and shape of this latter thing’s surface. Now the first two conditions involve contact, and the third involves that the impelling thing has extension; but you utterly exclude extension from your notion of soul, and contact seems to me incompatible with a thing’s being immaterial…

Nowadays the mind-body problem is seen as the unknown relationship between physical properties and mental properties. It is often broken down further into component parts: (more…)

Where and when we are – a dimensional conundrum

September 7, 2021

“In physics and mathematics, the dimension of a mathematical space (or object) is informally defined as the minimum number of coordinates needed to specify any point within it”. – Wikipedia

In the concept of spacetime one might think that (x,y,z,t) are the four dimensional coordinates which are necessary and sufficient to specify the location of any object at any time within our universe. But that would be an oversimplification. It is true only for a relative location and not for any absolute location.

In reality we have no idea – in absolute terms – of where we are or when we are.

The place where I was born on the surface of the Earth has – during my lifetime – drifted along with the continents some 2.3 m North-East across the earth’s surface. The Sun (along with the Earth) has moved 6.9 billion km around the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. Using referents outside the Milky Way Galaxy, it has, during the same time, moved some 55 billion km in space. So, I was born some 60 billion km away from wherever in space we actually are now. In the context of the Universe this is still local space, and I do not need to account for the very expansion of space. The looming collision of the Andromeda Galaxy speeding towards us is still 4.5 billion years away and irrelevant in the scale of my lifetime. Taking my present location as (0,0,0,0) and the X-axis as the straight line from where we were then to now, the coordinates of my birth location become (-60, 0, 0, -73 years) where x, y and z are measured in billions of km.

Everything is relative to here and now.

It is not even certain that time is actually a dimension of the same kind as the 3 physical dimensions we perceive. Some think it emerges together with the Universe and everything. Others think it is just a facet of existence. In any event, we only experience it as a backdrop for, but separate to, our own individual existences. On the stage of our existences, we strut and fret our hours away, but we cannot interact with or impact the relentlessly moving backdrop. Just as with nonsense rhymes using language, nonsense equations by learned physicists about the theoretical access to past times is just nonsense. As with any language, mathematics can also describe the unreal and the nonsensical. Speculative cosmologists have more in common with Edward Lear than they would like to think.

Considering time to be a dimension is no more than a convention or, at best, an analogy. It does not help either, that

  1. we have no clear definition (or understanding) of what a dimension is, and
  2. we can take a dimension to be anything that can be counted.

We can measure the oscillation of apparent motions and assume that such motion is regular and then infer the passage of time. But what time is other than a magical, necessary backdrop for everything is beyond our comprehension. We cannot be certain that a second now is the same, or longer, or shorter, than a second at some other time. (A second now must be longer than a second was then).

The world is what our perception tells us it is. But our perception is limited, and it limits the boundaries of our reality. We perceive space and everything around us as having 3 dimensions, yet we cannot truly conceive of any real thing having other than three spatial dimensions. In our 3-dimensional world we can define one- and two-dimensional things only as concepts (lines and surfaces) but we cannot identify any real-world objects which have only one or two dimensions. Moreover, real things having more than 3 dimensions are beyond our comprehension. How a fourth spatial dimension could be manifested lies outside of human reason. We have the language to describe – but only conceptually – any number of dimensions. Scientists and mathematicians speculate about 3 or 7 or 9 or infinite dimensions and claim either that 3 is the most probable or theorise that the others are hidden in the strings that make up the world, but the human brain can only perceive 3. (I note in passing that invoking the infinite is itself an admission of incomprehensibility). It is a fruitless and inevitably circular discussion to question whether it is our perception which is limited to 3 dimensions or whether the universe has only three to be perceived. Our universe is enabled, and strictly constrained, by what our cognition allows us to perceive. Every real thing in our universe has three spatial dimensions; no less, no more. Our universe has 3 spatial dimensions because that is all, and only what, we can perceive.

I probably read “Flatland” as a teenager where a sphere in Flatland can only be perceived as a circle.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is a satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott, first published in 1884 by Seeley & Co. of London. Written pseudonymously by “A Square”, the book used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to comment on the hierarchy of Victorian culture, but the novella’s more enduring contribution is its examination of dimensions. – Wikipedia

No matter how many dimensions the universe may have, three dimensions is all human cognition can ever perceive. It is that reality which constrains all our thought. It becomes a fundamental assumption for science which the scientific method cannot penetrate. If other dimensions exist, then what we perceive in three are projections. As a shadow is perceived to be two-dimensional. But to have a projection or a shadow in our 3-dimensional world we would need some kind of cognitive light from the other, higher dimensions to create what we perceive.

But human cognition is limited. We cannot perceive what we cannot perceive. And we have no clue – earthly or divine – as to where and when we are.


God or no-God? That is the wrong question

August 24, 2021

I find debates where one unprovable belief battles against other unprovable beliefs to be tiresome. Human cognition does not allow an absence of belief. A claimed non-belief is, of course, just another belief. I find statements of the kind “I do not know, but I know it isn’t that” to be self-contradictory and shallow. I find invocation of the scientific method, or of Divine Beings, without reference to boundary conditions and the limits of knowability, to be incomplete and invalid as arguments. This essay is just my attempt to marshal my own thoughts as to why I find it so.

(revised 26th August 2021)

The primal need to know

Human cognition demands that the world around us is ordered and rational and that it is capable of being understood. This is the fundamental and overriding assumption that pervades all thought and human endeavour. Science begins with this assumption of order in all parts of the universe and throughout all time. In addition, science assumes that causality, and the arrow of time, apply. The human brain is finite, and its attendant senses are limited. We do extend our sensory range with instruments but even these must convert their detected signals to be what humans can perceive directly by their senses and interpret with their brains. Even when looking at the same thing, what the eyes of a dog see as interpreted by a canine brain, is different to what a human eye sees as interpreted by a human brain. Whatever, and all, that humans observe are just their perceptions and are always subjective.

Human comprehension is “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in” by the capabilities of the brain/sense combination. That some things are unknowable to the finite human mind is inevitable. Reason tells us that knowledge is whatever a brain can comprehend to be knowledge. Epistemology is a whole branch of philosophy dedicated to understanding the nature of knowledge. And yet we can do little better than concluding from all our analyses that knowledge is what knowledge is. Whatever lies beyond human comprehension is the realm of the unknowable. Observation is limited to what exists and is observable by the human brain/sense combination. Human reason and comprehension, though finite, can contemplate the unknowable, but without any hope of comprehension. Human language (including mathematics) can encompass both the real and the unreal. Language can describe things that do not exist. But when language addresses the unknowable it only deals in labels. The brain using that language cannot wrap itself around the unknowable which it labels. What we do not know, we seek and sometimes find. What we cannot know we can never find, and yet we seek. I cannot help but conclude that it is the seeking, not the acquisition, of knowledge, which is a primal characteristic (perhaps a purpose) of the human species.

But the ego of human cognition is such that it does not allow the inexplicable to remain dangling and unaddressed. That all mysteries must have, and require, explanation is a distinguishing characteristic of the human species. Human cognition abhors a mystery without an explanation. Anything mysterious or incomprehensible is always, eventually, explained away by an appropriate invocation of unknown, unknowable, imagined states or powers. It applies as much to science (metaphysics) as to philosophy or to theology. The explanations are often just labels for speculations which harness the unknown and the supernatural. Reason tells us that everything has a cause, but the First Cause problem defeats us. Our language allows us to formulate self-contradictory impossibilities. Before the beginning, we say and after the end. When our reason and our logic make recourse to infinite regress, it is often dismissed because it is incomprehensible. When we reach the unknowable, we invent new labels for abstract concepts such as divine or supernatural or infinity or forever. Never mind that they are unknowable. An infinite space or a forever existence are inherently incomprehensible and magical. We pretend that inventing a label brings us closer to understanding.

God Theories and the invention of Gods

In human discourse, the invention of God Theories and of Gods came about as we sought answers and explanations for inexplicable relationships observed in the surrounding physical world. The invocation of Sun-gods and wind-gods and weather-gods seems both obvious and inevitable in the early history of man. The invented explanations – again inevitably – required the existence of supernatural states and the exercise of powers beyond human capability. It was entirely logical and reasonable, then, that postulating the existence of supernatural or superhuman powers or states was entirely justified by the greater need to bring a perceived order to the observed world. To have a perceived order in the physical world was primal. The emotional human need for spirituality was also partly satisfied by the inclusion of the supernatural. With this world view, which allowed incomprehensible states and supernatural powers, these Great Explanations invoking the unknowable were quite reasonable, even if they were all merely labels for what could not be comprehended. Mysteries were replaced by labels which implied, but never actually bestowed, understanding. As human knowledge and sophistication increased, the need for the supernatural also adjusted to the new mysteries uncovered. It was not necessary for these supernatural states or powers to be invested in imaginary Beings, but some mediator was necessary for the exercise of supernatural powers. What the human mind considers reasonable is dynamic and shifts as learning occurs and knowledge increases. Given the existence of unknown, extra-natural forces, it was entirely reasonable, then, to imagine a living entity, a Being, as the mediator. Doing so certainly did improve the narrative. The first Sun God had the power to make the Sun rise every day. This explanation did not necessarily have to be invested in a Being, but it was convenient. It was merely for the ease of the narrative that these Beings took on forms and shapes and behaviours that were close enough to human forms and behaviours to be recognised and identified with. And so were born the Theories of Gods, the Gods, and the various pantheons of gods.

It is my contention that

  1. Human comprehension is finite and limited, and
  2. demands that order be perceived in the world.
  3. Incomprehensibilities and mysteries need to be explained to maintain the perceived order of the world, and
  4. invoking supernatural states and powers allows unanswerable questions and infinite regressions to be closed.
  5. Supernatural states and powers need a mediator, and therefore
  6. Beings invested with such states and powers have been invented as the mediators.

Inexplicabilities and mysterious events were most conveniently explained as the work of unknowable, supernatural or superhuman things. That these imagined things, labelled gods, were then imbued with the quality of being and of having forms and shapes and behaviour and families was, and is, mere embellishment. The fundamental reason for inventing any god was to be able to answer or explain the inexplicable. Every God ever invented was, at its core, a Theory of Explanation.

Religion, of course, is something else (see Notes).

The Great Mysteries

Where once we resorted to supernatural Beings, cosmology and metaphysics now resort to equally fanciful Theories. We have not had a new God invented for over a thousand years. We have had many Theories propounded though. The theories of today are consistent with the knowledge of today. They are as astute (or as ridiculous) as the God Theories of old.  The number of theories in cosmology about the origins of the universe are as numerous today as the multitude of ancient creator gods. The common feature is that these Theories, then as now, speculate about the incomprehensible and the unknowable. I observe that atheism today is very often all about debunking these God Beings, these deities in the image of man. They often focus on the attributes of the invented Beings. But this is superficial, and atheism rarely addresses the great mysteries which led to the invention of the God Theories in the first place.

What is considered inexplicable has changed over the years though many of the inexplicabilities have only changed cosmetically and in formulation. None of the great, deep mysteries about life the universe and everything have changed much or been resolved. The ultimate questions about the physical world regarding matter and energy and motion have not vanished either; they have just become much more sophisticated. We now say we know why the earth rotates around the Sun though we still have no clue as to how gravity is mediated. We know exactly how the effects of gravity can be calculated and we can traverse the distant reaches of space. But we have no clue as to why the perceived force follows an inverse square law and not the inverse cube law or something else. We can calculate the effect of electro-magnetic fields and can generate light and electricity and heat and motion almost at will. But we still have no clue as to how the earth communicates to a raindrop that it must move towards the surface of the earth. When we throw a ball in the air, we still have no idea of how the earth tells the ball it is time to change direction and fall. Einstein’s spacetime would say that the earth’s gravity distorts the fabric of the spacetime in which the ball exists such that it has no choice but to move down the spacetime slope towards the earth. But “down” is defined by gravity. To “move down” merely invokes another form of some kind of super-gravity, for there is no reason for any motion up or down a slope unless there is an overriding force. (When in doubt we can always just invent a new fundamental particle imbued with supernatural powers as the mediator. Let us call it a graviton). Nevertheless, we believe we now know why the earth orbits the Sun and have consigned the Sun-gods to the realm of the redundant. But the stark reality is that we still do not know how gravity is mediated.  It is noteworthy that the word gravitation could be replaced by the words magical attraction in any scientific text without any loss of meaning. (See notes). Admitting to magic, however, is not politically correct or acceptable. Instead, we now invoke the Theories of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics with spooky actions shrouded in mystery, except that we no longer label these metaphysical Theories as Gods.

Quantum mechanics dreams of a single all-encompassing quantum wave function, as just one particular instance of an incomprehensible infinity of possible wave functions. This Ultimate Wave Function which happens, by chance, to collapse to give all the other wave functions which in turn give us and the universe which we inhabit. One Ultimate Wave Function to rule them all. The quantum vacuum is not quite completely empty since it has the laws of quantum mechanics embedded within it. It is another Theory of Explanation which might as well be called the God of Quantum Mechanics. Though I am not clear if the God of Random Interaction is the Son or the Father. With the God of Gravity they make up a Trinity.

All the Great Mysteries – Existence, Causality, Time, the arrow of time, Life, Identity, Consciousness, Spirituality, Ethics, and Morality – have been great mysteries for at least 10,000 years and are still great mysteries. I do not include Mathematics in my list of Great Mysteries. I take the view that Mathematics is an invented language describing relationships in our observed world. Like all languages, it can also describe things that do not exist or are ridiculous. The beauty of relationships observed in the real world are not due to Mathematics, but due to the mystery of Existence and as described by Mathematics. Beauty lies in the thing not in the language describing the thing.

Mathematics started in prehistory with counting and the study of shapes

The metaphysics of existence remain mystical and mysterious and beyond human cognition, as much today as in prehistoric times. Nevertheless, it is the cognitive capability of having the concept of a unique identity which enables the concept of one……. Numbers are not physically observable. The concept of one does not, by itself, lead automatically to a number system. That needs in addition a logic system and invention (a creation of something new which presupposes a certain cognitive capacity). It is by definition, and not by logic or reason or inevitability, that two is defined as one more than the identity represented by one, and three is defined as one more than two, and so on. Note that without the concept of identity and the uniqueness of things setting a constraint, a three does not have to be separated from a two by the same separation as from two to one. The inherent logic is not itself invented but emerges from the concept of identity and uniqueness. That 1 + 1 = 2 is a definition not a discovery. It assumes that addition is possible. It is also significant that nothingness is a much wider (and more mysterious and mystical) concept than the number zero. Zero derives, not from nothingness, but from the assumption of subtraction and then of being defined as one less than one. That in turn generalises to zero being any thing less than itself. Negative numbers emerge by extending that definition. The properties of zero are conferred by convention and by definition. Numbers and number systems are thus a matter of “invention by definition”, but constrained by the inherent logic which emerges from the concept of identity.

We have discovered and can enumerate more Laws of Nature now than we ever could. But why these particular laws exist and none other, remains a Great Mystery. The existence of the natural laws, of matter, of energy and even of space itself remain as answers to unknown questions. We do not know what compels them to be what they are. The spark of life remains elusive. If nothing else the apparent purpose of all living things to survive, grow and replicate has appeared from Chance knows where. A purposeful chance is to delve into the unknowable. 

They all boil down, in my view, to two fundamental Great Mysteries. I find that they can be grouped either under Existence or under Life. Causality, Time, and Identity all emerge from the Great Mystery of Existence. It seems logical to me that Consciousness, Spirituality, Ethics, and Morality are mysteries which follow from the Great Mystery of Life. I used to subordinate the Life Mystery to the Mystery of Existence, but I think the injection of an apparent purpose elevates Life to be as great a mystery as Existence.

The fundamental questions

What leads to life the universe and everything?

God or no-God? is, in my view, a rather shallow question. There is no great mystery in the invention of gods. Every God ever invented was, at its core, a Theory of Explanation. And even if we get to find the God of the Theory of Everything, we would still have to reach for the unknowable to comprehend Existence and make sense of Life.

The fundamental Great Mysteries have always been, and still are:

  1. Why existence? and
  2. Why life?

Note 1.

Gods need to be distinguished from religions.

My take on religions is that they came later, after beliefs in gods had caught the human fancy. They came together with, or because of, an increasing need for human societies to organise themselves. They provided a way for the exercising of political power by utilising the human need for spirituality and exploiting the established beliefs in gods. All organised religions, whether they admit to it or not, are attempts to influence the behaviour of others and are all, unavoidably, cases of exploiting belief for the exercise of political power. I find the lip-service paid to the separation of state and religion rather meaningless since all organised religions – as all states and political parties – are involved in the business of influencing the behaviour of others.

Note 2.

Take, for example, this text from the Wikipedia article on Gravity where I have replaced the words “gravity” and “gravitation” with “magical attraction”.

Gravitation Magical Attraction, is a natural phenomenon by which all things with mass or energy—including planets, stars, galaxies, and even light —are attracted to (or gravitate toward) one another. On Earth, gravity magical attraction gives weight to physical objects, and the Moon’s gravity magical attraction causes the tides of the oceans. The gravitational magical attraction of the original gaseous matter present in the Universe caused it to begin coalescing and forming stars and caused the stars to group together into galaxies, so gravity magical attraction is responsible for many of the large-scale structures in the Universe. Gravity Magical Attraction has an infinite range, although its effects become weaker as objects get further away.

Gravity Magical Attraction is most accurately described by the general theory of relativity (proposed by Albert Einstein in 1915), which describes Gravity Magical Attraction not as a force, but as a consequence of masses moving along geodesic lines in a curved spacetime caused by the uneven distribution of mass. The most extreme example of this curvature of spacetime is a black hole, from which nothing—not even light—can escape once past the black hole’s event horizon. However, for most applications, Gravity Magical Attraction is well approximated by Newton’s law of universal gravitation Magical Attraction, which describes Gravity Magical Attraction as a force causing any two bodies to be attracted toward each other, with magnitude proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them


Why don’t dogs do philosophy?

June 30, 2021

Philosophy is a product of idle minds.

First and foremost, minds are concerned with survival and the basic necessities of staying alive. Breathing, escaping predators, food and shelter – in that order. Having experienced severe asthma attacks many years ago, I put breathing unequivocally first. When struggling for breath there is no other thing, no pain, no emotion, no other higher-order need which can, or does, occupy the mind. The entire focus of the brain and the body is solely on getting the next gulp of air. It is only after the basic physiological need are satisfactorily met that the mind has the time over to be idle. It is only then, and providing that the body is not so exhausted or under physical stress such that the mind does not embrace sleep, that the mind feels free to wander down non-essential – but interesting – paths. And that leads to philosophy.

The word philosophy originates from the Greek meaning for love of wisdom. In practice, it is the formulation of fundamental, unnecessary, unanswerable questions about life, existence, reality and everything. Having formulated the unanswerable question, philosophy then spends hours of thought, circular arguments, a mountain of verbiage, a flood of circumlocution and reams of paper in proposing unsatisfactory answers. The greater the number of paradoxes that can be introduced into an argument, the deeper and more profound is the philosophy. (Metaphysics is merely a particularly obscure – but not necessarily more obtuse – part of philosophy). There is no philosophical question which can not be put off till another time; which cannot be interrupted for more important survival tasks; which cannot be abandoned for a glass of wine. However, a glass or two can aid the production of even deeper, more incomprehensible answers to the unanswerable questions. There is no answer which needs an action to be taken. There is no philosophy which cannot be replaced by another. Philosophical questions may be about the fundamental nature of life but they are not questions which need answers for day-to-day living. There is no urgency or deadline for finding answers. A professional philosopher has no deliverables – or at least none which need to make sense. Philosophy is an occupation for minds which are free from the burden of resolving the basic physiological needs of the bodies they inhabit. Philosophy is an occupation for idle minds.

But this raises another philosophical question. (Unanswerable of course).

Domesticated dogs have found a sustainable solution for their basic physiological needs. They are protected from predatory threats, have food provided at regular intervals and are well sheltered from the elements. They are not used by their human master-slaves as food (except in Korea). They are generally well respected by their master-slaves in sickeness and in health. The solution does not come free. They have to accept the curtailment of many freedoms. Their human master-slaves control their movement, their diet, their friends and their breeding partners. Nevertheless, their minds are entirely and wonderfully free from the burdens of meeting their fundamental physiological needs. Their idle minds have all the time they could possibly need for unnecessary, unanswerable questions.

So why don’t dogs do philosophy?


How do I know I know what I know?

June 28, 2021

Most of what I say I know is actually what I only believe I know. It is only what I know by my own experience or reasoning or argument or calculation that has a higher status  – in my mind – than a belief. When I say I know the Earth is an oblate spheroid, it is not from my own experience but from that of others who I believe. In reality I believe I know that the Earth is an oblate spheroid. All that I know that is within my own experience is – at least in my own mind – a higher level of knowing than all that I believe I know from the experience of others.

It has always been a little, irritating niggle at the back of my brain that I can never know that what I interpret and experience as red in my mind may be what somebody else experiences in the same way as I experience brown. What I can communicate with another person are the labels red or brown. My brain has no other means of communicating what I experience as red except by the labels that language allows. What exactly does knowing mean? 

When a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody to hear, there is no sound.

A sound is an interpretation by a brain of electrical signals generated by an organ for the detection of pressure fluctuations (vibrations) in air. When the tree falls it generates air pressure fluctuations. If there is no ear to detect the signals, there is no sound. If a deaf person is in the forest there are vibrations but there is no sound. If the vibrations are detected, but there is no brain to interpret the signals, there is no sound. A recording device detects air vibrations and converts them into something else which can be stored. The stored signals can later be used to reproduce those air vibrations through another device, which can then be interpreted as sound by a brain which has an ear to hear. But the recording device does not detect or record sound. A tape recording replayed on the moon’s surface has no atmosphere to vibrate and would create no sound, even if an intrepid astronaut with both an ear and a brain was standing next to it. Sound is in the brain and is both enabled and constrained by the physical capabilities of the hearing organ connected to that brain. The same pressure fluctuations may generate different interpretations of sound in different human brains. Cacophony to me is what is called modern music by others. The connection between the human ear and the human brain are similar to, but not the same as, the connection between a canine ear and a canine brain. My inability to fully appreciate a wolf’s howl is the same type of inability as of a wolf listening to Beethoven. Who knows what the other hears?

Sound is a cognitive thing. It is of the brain and necessarily subjective. 

And so it is with knowing. To know is a cognitive thing. It is of the brain and necessarily subjective.

My best, considered definition of knowledge goes like this: Knowledge is anything and everything, but only those things, that a brain can comprehend to be knowledge

This is a somewhat circular definition and is a little unsatisfactory because it does not say very much more than that knowledge is what knowledge is. But it is still the best that all our 10,000 years of philosophy and metaphysics has been able to come up with. Knowledge and knowing are not quite the same thing. As a noun knowledge is difficult enough but as a verb, to know is even more elusive. Knowing in philosophy is generally classified into three kinds of knowing:

  1. Knowing that – some proposition is true,
  2. Knowing how – to do something, and
  3. Knowing by acquaintance – by personal experience

I note that I cannot share my knowing. I can share a piece of knowledge (and that encompasses whatever my brain tells me I know) but another brain has to judge for itself whether it knows that piece of knowledge. How does my brain know that it knows? How do I know if what I know is true? Ultimately it seems to come down to what my brain believes that it knows and what it believes to be true.

The whole branch of epistemology is concerned mainly with the first kind of knowing where a brain knows that some proposition is true.  Knowing cannot, in itself, be conflated with being true. Many people once knew that the earth was flat. A brain may know what it knows but that knowing does not confer truth. Any such knowing is, no doubt, a piece of knowledge for that brain. Even if a certain knowing (say that the earth was flat) is shared by multitudes of people, that multiplicity of knowing is no less subjective and carries no greater truth value. Any brain may know many things which are, in fact, false. Many brains, because they are so similar, may know the same false things. The fact of knowing does not carry a truth-value, but it does carry a belief of truth for that particular brain. And that leads me to conclude that no truth can exist except as a subjective belief in a brain.

Knowing and truth are both subjective. They are both beliefs.

I had forgotten that I had written this about belief a few years ago:

Primordial Belief:

Most of what we therefore consider to be “our” knowledge is actually somebody else’s knowledge and not “known” to ourselves. However our belief in these persons leads to us claiming that knowledge as our own as being part of the body of knowledge available to humanity. The longer some statement has been within the body of knowledge, the stronger is our belief in that statement. Most of our actions are based then, not on our own personal knowledge, but on the belief that whatever lies within the body of knowledge of humanity is true.

But it strikes me that there is an assumption, a belief, which underlies every thought, every perception. This “primordial belief” is in fact implicit in every living thing. In fact it is so intrinsically intertwined with life that it may well be a part of the definition of what life is. This “primordial belief” is that the flow of time is unhindered and that a future exists. I breathe because there is future to breathe for. I cannot know when I take a breath that there will not be another one. Every living thing – a cell, a microbe, a virus, a tree or a human –  does what it does because there is a future (explicitly or implicitly) it believes it can live in. Even the very last breath I take will be taken in the belief that there will be another one to come. A belief in my future is existential.

A belief in a future is inherent in life. There can be a future without life (and there probably will be), but there is no form of life which does not have an implicit belief in its own future.

So every conscious mind (and that includes atheists, agnostics, religious fanatics, scientists and even economists) has this primordial, fundamental belief that a future exists. That, that future exists, can not be within the space of knowledge. All religions exist in the space of ignorance. But long before any of the “beliefs” they adopt comes the primordial belief that every living thing has  – that it has a future.


“To die will be an awfully big adventure” – or will it?

June 8, 2021

“To die will be an awfully big adventure.”  –  J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

I have never been quite sure if the quote from Barrie’s Peter Pan is terribly profound or utterly banal.

Not because Peter Pan is not a brilliant and captivating reflection on losing innocence and on timelessness and that Neverland – in one way or another – is not something that has been imagined, in some form, at some time, in everybody’s mind. But because I am not sure if death can actually be considered a state at all. Certainly it is not a state that can be observed by the subject. Equally, before birth is not a state that is observable by the subject in question.

The philosophical difficulty I have is in trying to equate negations; to equate different kinds of zeros. Can the not being before birth be equated to the not being after death. In fact, can not being be considered a state at all? The state of the world in 1900 will be some thing other than the state of the world in 2100. Neither of these two states of being will include me. However, in the second case an identity that once was me would be present in records or in memory. That suggests that my not being after my death is somewhat different to my not being before I was born. But they both need an observer – who is not me.

Why does the universe go from a (presumed) simple ground state to a much more complex condition? Not to be – it seems – must always be simpler (in energy and complexity) than to be. Non-existence must be more parsimonious in the scheme of things than existence. Is it time which is the great disruptor? Why existence rather than non-existence remains the greatest mystery of all. “I think therefore I am” may be an indicator of consciousness but it is silent about being. We get tangled between language and philosophy, between philosophy and metaphysics. Nothing or no thing causes problems of language and of metaphysics. A thing must first be defined for a state of no thing to be discerned. Not any thing is quite different – in language – to no thing. It is much wider and encompasses all things. But even not any thing is restricted by human cognition to just those things that can be imagined. What is beyond human comprehension cannot even be addressed. A thing presupposes existence. The state – if it is a state – of not being is equally dependent upon first having in place the concept of being. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was questioning living rather than not living, and the meaning of life. But his “To be or not to be? That is the question ..” is probably more profound than Shakespeare ever intended and is the most fundamental question of philosophy and metaphysics. Why existence at all? What could be the question that existence is the answer to?

The living are irrelevant to a person not yet born. They are equally irrelevant to the dead. But note the inherent contradictions in the use of language. A person not yet born, or a person who is dead, is not a person at all – a non-person. We cannot, logically, speak about relevance to a person who is a non-person. As we age, it is not the state of being dead that causes much concern. The state of others as a consequence may be of concern. The process of dying and the accompanying pain and indignities give concern to many. But being dead is both linguistic and metaphysical nonsense. Being dead translates logically to the self-contradictory being a not-being. Just as an after-life translates to a logically nonsensical life after the end of life. Just as before the beginning is not logically sustainable. A person being dead causes ripples and even large waves in the surrounding world and among other people, but is never of any concern to persons who do not exist.

To be born is indeed an adventure.

I am not sure that to die is any kind of anything.


A learned judge is a biased judge

June 6, 2021

O learned judge!

An upright judge. A learned judge.

What you know you know is what you take to be true.

You do not know how you know what you know.

You cannot know that what you know you know is true. 

‘(All truths are subjective).

The more you learn the more you think you know.

(All learning does not necessarily lead to more knowledge).

The more you know the more learned you are.

The more learned you are the more you don’t know how you know what you know.

A bias is a predilection in favour of what you know or against denial of what you know.

An empty mind is free of any predilections.

The more you know, the more biased you are towards what you know.

To judge is to form conclusions based on what you know.

The more learned you are, the more biased you are.

A learned judge is a biased judge.


Bias is always a consequence of little learning.

All learning is little learning

Having more learning is always having more of little learning.


What’s so bad about bias?

A learned judge is a biased judge. An unbiased music critic with no prior opinions is a useless critic. A food critic without taste preferences would be unbiased but would also be worthless as a critic. Unbiased parents would show no preference for their own children. Without bias, “good” and “bad” start with equal value. I am incurably biased against what I consider “bad” and against people I don’t like. Bias is merely the current state of a functioning brain.


Dimensions: where and when we are

May 10, 2021

“In physics and mathematics, the dimension of a mathematical space (or object) is informally defined as the minimum number of coordinates needed to specify any point within it”. – Wikipedia

In the concept of spacetime one might think that (x,y,z,t) are the four dimensional coordinates which are necessary and sufficient to specify the location of any object at any time within our universe. But that would be an oversimplification. It is true only for a relative location and not for any absolute location. In reality we have no idea – in absolute terms – of where we are or when we are.

The place where I was born on the surface of the Earth has – during my lifetime – drifted some 2.3 m North East across the earth’s surface. The Sun (along with the Earth) has moved 6.9 billion km around the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. Using referents outside the Milky Way Galaxy, it has, during the same time, moved some 55 billion km in space. So, I was born some 60 billion km away from wherever in space we actually are now. In the context of the Universe this is still local space, and I do not need to account for the very expansion of space. The looming collision of the Andromeda Galaxy speeding towards us is still 4.5 billion years away and irrelevant in the scale of my lifetime. Taking my present location as (0,0,0,0) and the X-axis as the straight line from where we were then to now, the coordinates of my birth location become (-60, 0, 0, -73 years) where x, y and z are measured in billions of km.

Everything is relative to here and now.

Considering time to be a dimension is no more than a convention or, at best, an analogy. It does not help that either

  • we have no clear definition of what a dimension is, or
  • a dimension is anything that can be counted.

We can measure the oscillation of apparent motions and assume that such motion is regular and then infer the passage of time. But what time is other than a magical, necessary backdrop for everything is beyond our comprehension. We cannot be certain that a second now is the same, or longer, or shorter, than a second at some other time. (A second now must be longer than a second was then).

The world is what our perception tells us it is. But our perception is limited, and it limits the boundaries of our reality. We perceive space and everything around us as having 3 dimensions, yet we cannot truly conceive of any real thing having other than three spatial dimensions. In our 3-dimensional world we can define one- and two-dimensional things only as concepts (lines and surfaces) but we cannot identify any real-world objects which have only one or two dimensions. Moreover, real things having more than 3 dimensions are beyond our comprehension. How a fourth spatial dimension could be manifested lies outside of human reason. We have the language to describe – but only conceptually – any number of dimensions. Scientists and mathematicians speculate about 3 or 7 or 9 or infinite dimensions and claim either that 3 is the most probable or theorise that the others are hidden in the strings that make up the world, but the human brain can only perceive 3. (I note in passing that invoking the infinite is itself an admission of incomprehensibility). It is a fruitless and inevitably circular discussion to question whether it is our perception which is limited to 3 dimensions or whether the universe has only three to be perceived. Our universe is enabled, and strictly constrained, by what our cognition allows us to perceive. Every real thing in our universe has three spatial dimensions; no less, no more. Our universe has 3 spatial dimensions because that is all, and only what, we can perceive.

I probably read “Flatland” as a teenager where a sphere in Flatland can only be perceived as a circle.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is a satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott, first published in 1884 by Seeley & Co. of London. Written pseudonymously by “A Square”, the book used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to comment on the hierarchy of Victorian culture, but the novella’s more enduring contribution is its examination of dimensions. – Wikipedia

No matter how many dimensions the universe may have, three dimensions is all human cognition can ever perceive. It is that reality which constrains all our thought. It becomes a fundamental assumption for science which the scientific method cannot penetrate. If other dimensions exist, then what we perceive in three are projections. As a shadow is perceived to be two-dimensional. But to have a projection or a shadow in our 3-dimensional world we would need some kind of cognitive light from the other, higher dimensions to create what we perceive.

But human cognition is limited. We cannot perceive what we cannot perceive. And we have no clue as to where and when we are.


Science needs its Gods and religion is just politics

April 11, 2021

This essay has grown from the notes of an after-dinner talk I gave last year. As I recall it was just a 20 minute talk but making sense of my old notes led to this somewhat expanded essay. The theme, however, is true to the talk. The surrounding world is one of magic and mystery. And no amount of Science can deny the magic.

Anybody’s true belief or non-belief is a personal peculiarity, an exercise of mind and unobjectionable. I do not believe that true beliefs can be imposed from without. Imposition requires some level of coercion and what is produced can never be true belief. My disbelief can never disprove somebody else’s belief.

Disbelieving a belief brings us to zero – a null state. Disbelieving a belief (which by definition is the acceptance of a proposition which cannot be proved or disproved) brings us back to the null state of having no belief. It does not prove the negation of a belief.

[ (+G) – (+G) = 0, not (~G) ]

Of course Pooh puts it much better.


Science needs its Gods and religion is just politics


Our actions are based more on faith than on knowledge

January 18, 2021

Surfing through my computer in these corona times, I came across this talk I gave 4 years ago. I might even have posted something about it but I can’t remember.

“My thesis tonight is that all our actions are much more dependent on faith, and less dependent on knowledge, than one superficially believes.

Of all that I claim is my knowledge, only a very small part is what I have observed or developed or proved myself. Most of my knowledge is actually the knowledge of others or part of humanity’s collective knowledge, along with my belief that it’s true.

I “know”, for example, that the earth is a flattened spheroid, not because I have personally observed this, but because I “believe” in all the people who have made such observations and have brought this truth into the knowledge of mankind. Most of our actions are then based, not on our own personal knowledge, but on the belief that everything that lies within the knowledge of the whole of humanity is true.

I would argue that faith goes even deeper. “To believe” is a necessary and integral part of “to live”. The future can never be in the field of knowledge. “Living” requires a basic belief that the future exists. Even when I take my last breath, I will do so in the belief that there will be another breath to take. This belief is deeper than thinking and comes far before knowledge. I claim that it is the deepest faith that exists. Believing in a future is existential.

Without this belief in a future, life does not exist. Every time I breathe, I do it in the belief that I have a future. And that day, when I take my last breath, that belief becomes false”.

 

Charlie Brown has faith


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