What is real?
The truth about the brain, reality & fictuality of human understanding
I boldly claim here, that ultimately, there is no brain, there is no reality, no truth, no continuity other than convenient and inconvenient fiction we live by. Only stories – fiction which moves us and which moves things, resulting in consequences which we again interpret in stories.
Truth as a seducer´s fiction
The story of the ugly, new world of fictuality begins with an omission: for some derivative fascists and some journalists, there are only facts and emotionalised truth – secretly concocted or openly – but an ever spinning show of fiction gets denied. As if the job is to stick to the truth? But we do not talk about the story somebody writes. Or what I write here as a story, undermining an authority which gets undermined anyways be the leading class who spits often on experts and experience.
Looking at what stories do to truth – while writing and reading – would not just mean looking behind the curtain as in the Wizard of Oz, but being the Wizard yourself. Having unmasked truth as fiction does not count anymore. The tale sounds now different and that may not be funny: Dorothy is not allowed to go home to Kansas, she has to lead a youth movement in Oz under the banner of the wizard. Blechmann gets enlisted in the military and from there to the foreign assignment of lead SpecOps missions somewhere far far away. The cowardly lion is imprisoned for agitation and the scarecrow is put into the Ministry of Propaganda to evaluate the fears of the population and help the Wizard with calculations … but that’s another story.
Let’s stay with the current political realities. What do we know? What can we predict? Even against election forecasts, US presidential or Brexit – what do the predictions of yesterday indicate? Does that mean that the reactionary, conservative fear of no longer being able to reach the goal because of Nietzsche´s “Umwertung aller Werte” the “reevaluation of all values” finally comes to light? Being a loser because you did NOT lie in an all too obvious way? That’s certainly the fault of the press. Lies make the better stories. As a multiplier of narratives a weighty factor, the press has has to be pointed to, but the press is under pressure like we all are. All citizens. Unfortunately attacking the press not only coincides with burgeoning rights, but also often with anti-intellectualism and expert anxiety.
Who supports those who want to do a good job in the end? Who affirms reality as a crutch and reality show, is conscious of his/her own fictional and opinion-forming character, blames him/herself of the emergence of a feel-good fascism, and still would stay on the “right” side? The main thing is we are strong and loud and against something – but we feel fine, no matter what or who goes down the drain somewhere else. We do not want to know that either, not without having edited the facts or packing them into another digestible narrative. Congo, 4 million deaths or more, a short paragraph on page 5.
A story of ignorance opens like a mouth of hell – but we should not be afraid, all cook with the water of the narrative. No, they do not want a fiction nor a fact check, neither journalists nor right or left populism. Some philosophers and Germanists, spin doctors and presidential candidates do not want to get involved in such crooked things facing TV duels. Populists have their own well-founded assumptions – journalists the circulation, click rates or advertising revenue. Long after that may come the professional ethos. All actors in the game insist on the primacy “I’m right, no matter what you say”. The truth arriving on Sunday, for all of us, as we know now, spreads lies that feel like the truth. For journalists and politicians today, fictions are like old furniture: when they get in the way, they come into the cellar or simply buy new ones at the Vanity Flea Market. Fiction makes a bad mood. Fictions are partisan. You cannot have an educated opinion or founded extrapolation. Facts are challenged and abused, distorted and exploited, so that the new term “post-factual” is born from the rubble like Shelley’s monster. Fiction as truth is effective in the public eye – at best shortened and moulded from the tone of opinion. In a post-factual world the benefits of not saying the truth are far too legion. We send golems into battle and want readers to accept them as full-fledged, compassionate people. Also this text is such a golem. A post-facto golem looking for truth, because many respectable journalists, Germanists, dishwashers, millionaires and philosophers negate and underestimate fiction. The seducer knows it#s power but also denies to use it – using as the strongest weapon truth itself.
In desperate search for “the fact” the fact gets denied and covered up that all our facts are transfigured as stories, metaphors to point out what relevance something (usually numbers) “ought to have” for us. We are not analysing speech and the appearance of truth through rhetorics and psychology, we are happy when finally somebody is not openly deceiving and does back his or her arguments with proper researched references and solid repeatable experimentation. We tend to get confused easily with honest, complicated accounts and are satisfied with opinions. The battleground for finding final solace is opened up for everybody – and nobody seems to find it in a world where trust became a commodity. But trust is no sold, it is given, freely.
Fact is, and it does not mean to pour “the baby out with the bathing water” – there is no baby. The baby is the story. There is the emotional imperative to preserve the health of a baby, deriving from memory. You have been a baby yourself once. There is the warmth or cold of water to check. There is the shape of water in a bathtub to fathom. But the part why this baby got extracted from the hot water in time, so that the crying infant is prevented from further hyper caloric harm, may be left a story untold.
It is also a tale who the culprit is and hw to deal with guilt. Like in a murder case, there are in the end a lot of stories, but death itself seems to be not easy to fool. Either somebody is dead or not. Schrödinger´s cat has not the luxury to remain suspended in between death and life with a story. So do we not have the luxury to muse if climate change will develop into a veritable crisis or not – it is already on the way, when we talked it away for 30 years.
But before I lay out the pros/cons and the arguments, let me make an:
Since the “Brexit Day” I felt that this account lacks to deal with the dire consequences of “fake news”, micro targeting and spinning the tale for political gain, influencing people´s emotions on a mass scale. Therefore I rewrote and edited the article from June 19th, 2016 making some important amendments.
The clarification or declaration was lacking if I am supporting the use of “fiction” and “story” as a legitimate force or “weapon” in forming opinion in a democratic system. The answer is: well, yes. I am convinced that we have nothing else.
So the first (and maybe a bit scary thing) might be that in the absence of “absolute truth” I plead guilty of the notion that “objectivity is an illusion” and using that notion consciously will also give rise to deception. We cannot escape that. We can only fortify our defences, dig deeper stay vigilant and clear in the head and our hearts.
Second, I do not omit a coherent story about evidence and “facts” which we can “check”. Its like believing a promise as an audience: there will be Christmas celebrated on the 24th of December (most likely), the sun will come up tomorrow morning (she seems there every day and night, as our world turns around her, at least for the next 5 billion years), there will be three comic books for download, for free. In the last case there was only one – the other promised perks were still missing when the movie “Iron Sky 1” hit the cinemas. Liars. Not happy. Christmas is celebrated on the 25th in the anglo-american Christian world, though Hindus and Muslims do not celebrate it, but we still may circle the sun for a while, Christmas or not.
What is it with rational fact-checking and reasonable arguments – do they count? Is a world based on fiction not opening the gates at Castle Black for the White Walkers of bullshit? Well, yes. In fact, the louder, more shocking, less consistent and less coherent stories find always a way in, somehow. Storytelling based on fear is usually based on things people believe in distress and panic – these states will pass. Lies conjured up in confusion, emotional distress can go a long way, but do not last forever. If the White Walkers really breach into London, sorry, Kings Landing at the end of the day, I will be very sorry and will dearly apologise. My conviction is: on the long run, given our experience, the better story, with which I meant the more HONEST story will win. Why? Because the fiction better fitting with our perceived circumstances will win, not just the one which resonates with the people – I mean coherence will be resonating with the MAJORITY in the end. The problem lies in the “perceived circumstances”, the timing and checking. Like the scandal around Cambridge Analytica and micro-targeting a partly indecisive audiences to nudge a certain political outcome showed: we are vulnerable to “fake news” and paid advertisement. But in well-informed democracies not on constant emergency, equipped with free speech, the people will follow the story with more integrity, as much as they become fed up with lies that confuse them.
Welcome the world of fictuality as I call it, an unholy blend of reality and fiction. The more we get governed by algorithms, this means also to analyse the framework and nudges of interfaces, database design and available “information”, meaning reliable stories to extrapolate from. Politics and the climate crisis is deeply entrenched in this struggle and right wing populism gained power because they realised how potent stories are, if the public has no time or willingness to discuss them or prove them wrong.
Even though the “5 stelle” movement in Italy succeeding in getting a 37 year old female lawyer to get elected as mayor of Rome may be proof for a better story, the leftist movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo has also different stories to tell – some might qualify as rather right wing (anti-immigration, anti-EU) other then being “left” (more social justice, less corruption, against neoliberalism). Salvini ruled the discourse in a right wing way nevertheless, taking over grounds deriving from that indecisiveness and political inexperience. Then he got ousted by a strong Europan left changing also the balance in Italy and shuffling the cards anew. The corrective forces I suggest may be already at play…specially through the upcoming rebellion against climate change.
It may also point to un uncomfortable truth: that good storytelling is capable to guide and stir a democracy, to the left or right – and votes might not mean much nowadays anymore, as people tend rather to be misinformed by simple “truths” than by a deeper conversation. Democracy might have gotten rigged and designed, so that it may appear that nodding towards a party or “direction” may count. But it is all based on the expectancy towards a temporarily elected government to do what they say – and deliver their promises. Neither the EU nor the local governments seem to be reliable in this regard anymore. A sad story.
The solution: ask for better ones. In a world based on the competitive forces of fictuality, the tools at hand are the same as 50.000 years ago. Language. Pictures, words, any means to convey a tale, true or not.
It that a good thing? Are people responsible in what they tell? Will they tell the true stories? Here is the catch: no. Not all people in this business of communication hold themselves accountable for keeping any standards. The good thing is, there are now a lot more people watching. The hive mind will take care of this, over time. The most important assumption which feeds this belief of mine is “people are good at their core”. Point. Maybe not all of them, not all of the time, but most of them. Here I am have a different conviction than Sigmund Freud, who seemed to have been pessimistic about the Human race seeing what the first world war did to people. I am refusing the doubt and the general distrust in humans that they only want chaos and havoc no matter what. We are flawed, true, but not essentially evil. Whatever Genesis or a Christian tale in paradise or two World Wars might tell you… – to convince you that you are bad, from the start may be a deception followed by the tools for control. Additionally claiming that therefore there is no hope anyways (of course, maybe god´s mercy?). I also do not buy the story of the snake Adam, Eve and the apple, committing the original or ancestral sin. Fun, when you eat an apple, or work on one, but not coherent.
We KNOW that is why we CAN be good. If you do not KNOW, there is no way to tell what is good and what is evil and can only hope that trustfully, the god you follow is “good” and makes you do good things, naturally.
You can choose. That is our power.
You will find out and will see, know deep inside of you, if it was good or not. That is in essence conscience. You will be responsible for your choices and the story you tell, as you offer choices, you are weighing decisions – ultimately creating reality for others. No, there might be no claim justifying a final truth, but one you want to live by and in and want others to live with you…in this utopia – or dystopia. It´s our choice.
What is real?
Twisting and spinning on the notion of truth and reality is a classic problem in philosophy and basic to the understanding of the world and people in it. The challenge of understanding something in that regard haunts me for more than two decades. In this form it is an attempt to discuss “The Case Against Reality”, an article about the work of Computational Cognitive Scientist Donald D. Hoffmann from April 2016 as a crystallizing point for sending in my own musings. The cybernetician Heinz von Förster and the physicist Lee Smolin I summon as an aid in the Colosseum of thoughts fighting the gladiators of careless blather and opportunistic deception. [http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/04/the-illusion-of-reality/479559/]
DISCLAIMER: I first have to admit that I deeply believe in fiction – that it comes first and that it toggles, gives rise and creates reality. So, this attempt of an “explanation” may be heavily subjectively biased. But second, my scientific training as a Cognitive Neuroscientist conditioned me otherwise, therefore I can only ask you gently to trust me and my tale. Of course, you may object: the sharpness of the scientific blade is only as useful if it is not called to cut itself. But when I applied a certain theories of the mind to the mind, more than once a “second order dynamic” got unfolded, and a lot of my thoughts about reality changed BECAUSE I knew about the body and the brain. I began to trust the tales of other scientists, because they spent way more time on that problem than I did and took the time to tell coherent tales. Still, be warned that my tool for dissecting truth and reality got itself dissected beforehand – the blade is cut, but may still be useful.
The concept of second order cybernetics (cybernetics stems from κυβερνήτης [kybernētēs] “steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder”) are found in positions of Heinz von Förster or Ernst von Glasersfeld and early computer scientists Warren McCulloch who were paying tribute to self-referentiality in models of the mind raising interesting implications and applications with their approach:
… a brain is required to write a theory of a brain. From this follows that a theory of the brain, that has any aspirations for completeness, has to account for the writing of this theory. And even more fascinating, the writer of this theory has to account for her or himself. Translated into the domain of cybernetics; the cybernetician, by entering his own domain, has to account for his or her own activity. Cybernetics then becomes cybernetics of cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics.Heinz von Foerster (2003), Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition, New York
So if you think about thinking, that is an activity of the second order. The dynamics of reality, of a body, of a mind come also into play if one tries to muse about “reality”. Therefore you cannot get rid of the observer – you. I would moderately call myself a pragmatist radical constructivist believing that “a theory of behaviour of living organisms and machines and control and communication in the animal and the machine is based on the mind of the participant observer not on the actual intentions or the will of the observed organism”. Yes, this rather complicated rhetoric construction deems necessary to rule out other points of view which might have influenced me and limits the interpretation option of the kind reader. It is therefore claimed that I believe in recursiveness, fiction and storytelling – extending neuroscience and cybernetics into media applications and political science. Recursiveness indicates that this observation goes both ways, that an organism is also a participant observer, creating its own theories about the behaviour of other organisms.
That is my lens, filter or bias in reading Hoffman’s account and I am adding to the warning and disclaimer: I think he is basically on the right track – a very important track if we want to succeed to understand ourselves and our actions better. All critique may still only underline my “well-founded conviction” or story that our lives are much more based on fiction than on “reality”, and this may prove to be a cornerstone to act in this world and understand human struggles and challenges.
Hoffmann: “I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.“
In my view the notion of conscious fiction would be much more useful and telling, as it already rightfully undermines the “objective truth” of the tale. Hoffman’s position sounds what I would call with Nietzsche “perspectivism”. It means to give a philosopher who works with concepts a primary voice over a scientist´s attempt to form a general philosophy based on observation…you may call this more of a political statement than who is more “right”. It also sounds like a constructivist word-view of the 60ies and 70ies, radical or not. Constructive epistemology states roughly, that he world is independent of human minds, but knowledge of the world is always a human and social construction, opposing the philosophy of objectivism, embracing the belief that a human can come to know the truth about the natural world not mediated by scientific approximations with different degrees of validity and accuracy. (see e.g. Crotty, M. (1998). The Foundations of Social Science Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process, Sage.) The radical constructivists represented by von Foerster, von Glasersfeld or the neurobiologist Humberto Maturana would push the limit further:
Knowledge is not a commodity which is transported from one mind into another. Rather, it is up to the individual to “link up” specific interpretations of experiences and ideas with their own reference of what is possible and viable. That is, the process of constructing knowledge, of understanding, is dependent on the individual’s subjective interpretation of their active experience, not what “actually” occurs. Understanding and acting are seen by radical constructivists not as dualistic processes, but “circularly conjoined”.see http://www.radicalconstructivism.com/
The “consciousness” part in Hoffman’s argument feels also not so convincing for me, as he seems to put observation in co-extension with “consciousness”. Defining and working with what “consciousness” might be a hard problem of philosophy and not just “a given”. Those two phenomena may be separate, separable – maybe overlapping, but not the “same”. There might be “realities” we are unconscious of. There might be large conscious parts of our our lives which are not objectively real but feel real. That a mathematical description, a point of view of observation, does tell us something about consciousness might be a big assumption.
Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you.
Even though I do understand standpoints which send “truth to hell” very well, this seems for me a tad too general or black&white. The middle ground may hit “something”: You run against the palm tree (ouch!) even though you were afraid of a tiger painted on a bark 20m away. It does not matter if there is no “palm tree” or “painting” on the quantum level, as we changed the observer´s position to the macro worlds of human size “things”. And those things cut like a knife, may they be a safe foam weapon or not. Soft, but realistically looking weaponry in live action roleplaying (larp) still have impact. The real knife and the fake one induce almost the same reactions emotionally, until you get calmed down for real that the ne being used by your opponent in a game is not hurting you. 😉
The argument is that symbols are as real as the the thing they symbolise and sometimes even more “real”, more true, growing to be bigger than the thing they stand for. See flags and kings and brands. Evolution has shaped us to believe enough in our environment to hunt and gather, but we do not need to go beyond adaptive behaviour. We are not optimised, we mostly work on common denominators where successful procreation and feeding is enough, even if its not “optimal”. The old argument of (cognitive) biologists, that fitness does not equal optimisation only “good enough FOR” (mating, finding food, shelter, etc.) is not entirely killing the argument of “food, I taste it now, it will nourish me enough or not – or kill me if it is too poisonous”. You will bodily find out of you try to eat the coconut, the curry or the tiger…
This links to Hoffman´s own argument, that “now” is the subjective, momentary “truth”. You flee because somebody has put up a sign “Biohazard”. True in a larp, too, where you perceive things as “true”. My argument would be that they have impact BECAUSE of that, even though they are designed and “fake”…fiction helped us to survive, we believe in signs which intend to show us “something”. But of course, being nosy may kill you. In our media-ruled contemporary world that might have been turned into the contrary for a long time now…nosy pays off.
Evolution shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones.” So I wondered, could I provide a similarly simple formal foundation for the science of observation? Gefter: A mathematical model of consciousness. Hoffman: That’s right.
No, not so right, as I deem the process of observation and the notion of consciousness as coextensive, overlapping, but not the “same”. Lets try it with quantum physicist Lee Smolin telling about the origin of mathematics:
“But isn´t it a bit unsettling, that there are concepts existing in our minds whose properties are as objective and immune to our will as things in nature? We invent curves and numbers and mathematics, but once we have invented them we cannot alter them.” and further into his investigation what “time” might be, a concept which evades us as skilfully as “consciousness” does for millennia:”There´s a lesson here, which is neither mathematical beauty nor agreement with experiment can guarantee that the ideas a theory is based on bear the slightest relation to reality. Sometimes a decoding of patterns in nature takes us in the wrong direction. Sometimes we fool ourselves badly, as individuals and as a society. Ptolemy and Aristotle were no less scientific than today´s scientists.”in Lee Smolin (2013) Time Reborn: From Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe
Understanding grows “consciousness” and this is not a mathematical description but a figure of speech. Understanding changes, “proving” the point – in this case the point of view. That we put this in the formal language of mathematics does not make it more true, it aides only in the game of comparing variables and calculating outcomes. A description shall not be confused with a proof. But that is what Hoffman may suggest:
That’s the basic idea of the whole thing. I have a space X of experiences, a space G of actions, and an algorithm D that lets me choose a new action given my experiences. Then I posited a W for a world, which is also a probability space. Somehow the world affects my perceptions, so there’s a perception map P from the world to my experiences, and when I act, I change the world, so there’s a map A from the space of actions to the world. That’s the entire structure. Six elements. The claim is: This is the structure of consciousness. I put that out there so people have something to shoot at.
Let’s think this through: P the perception map. How do you model the functions accurately if you do not have access to a point of reference other than “yourself”? The problem and the bull´s blind black eye lies in between P and A the space of actions to the world. The PoV spares us from looking inwards. It becomes a problem of accessibility, of memory and communication. And there are no normative questions solved or touched, maybe on purpose.
Kant´s old questions “What should I do?” and “What do I know?” do not get answered in a formal way with 6 variables and within a paragraph. Claiming this reduced formula to be “consciousness” can be really taken as a bit of a provocation, but not necessarily an interesting solution to the problem. It might not be adding something or deepening understanding about it. Conscious and sub-conscious activities and mechanisms still remain in the black box, maybe only accessible by introspection.
All sounds rather like the re-introduction of a part of psychology´s history of the first half of the 20th century: Behaviourism (see e.g. Pavlov and conditioning experiments, for a radical viewpoint B. F. Skinner). Behaviourists treated the brain and internal states as “unknown” as a sort of black box and tried to work only with the observable behaviour of organisms. Behaviourism does nevertheless state that the behaviour of a human or an animal is a consequence of that individual’s history, including especially reinforcement and punishment, together with the individual’s current motivational state and controlling stimuli. But, although behaviourists generally accept the important role of inheritance in determining behaviour, they focus primarily on environmental factors, leaving out the gap between “micro-macro”, input – output, e.g. a light impulse and an observable reaction. They mostly ignore what the nervous system does in between. My shot goes into that gap. Mind, the gap. My benchmark of a useful theory of the mind would be, if we understand better how the senses and the interpretations of sensory stimuli are connected and maintained, memory – and how this translates into action, thus behaviour. Consciousness is in my view part of the gap between sensory “input”, recurrent internal activity and choices, decisions and actions demonstrating beliefs, not a single or 6 variable in a descriptive equation. We may find formulas for our most wild guesses, but that does not imply that these formulas ARE the guesses.
Now the fitness function doesn’t match the structure in the real world. And that’s enough to send truth to extinction.
To call in the fitness function of evolution is a strong argument in the discussions in between the cognitive sciences – it underlines that there must be a kind of approximation of our senses to the reality and truth of our environment. Reality may be pointed to in an deictic act, but it obviously does not match the structure inside our heads: you do not find cows and chairs if you cut up a brain – no – and despite some attempts, neuroscientist never pinpointed a single nerve cell only coding for a “grandmother”, the legendary “grandmother neuron” or “grandmother cell” so far. That is enough in my view to put truth asleep and wake up the art of storytelling as our strongest tool to negotiate how to interpret reality. Our stories might hit “reality” enough so that behaviour and communication proves to be useful – for us humans. Ask animals, and they would tell a different tale, I am sure. They would not praise the human reasons why they need to get eaten by us, or why we destroy their habitats.
There is more to it than a lack if structural “identity” – the fitness function itself, should it have any real use, is recursive. We feed back our action to the world and change it. We are working to make a match happen. We use our hands and tools to form the world so that it matches our internal wishes, images, beliefs and convictions. Truth is not erased by the this, it gets created. We do create a self-fulfilling system of truth – only to forget who tells these stories so that they appear more true, more divine, more “natural”. I guess as a scientist or laymen immersed in sociopolitical dynamics we shall not fall into the trap of crossing ourselves out from the equation… Let me comment this along with Lee Smolin, which really comes in handy for some of the questions asked in Cognitive Science as well:
All the major theories of physics are about parts of the universe – a radio, a ball in flight, a biological cell, the Earth, a galaxy. When we describe a part of the universe, we leave ourselves and our measuring tools outside the system. We leave out our role in selecting or preparing the system we study. We leave out the references that serve to establish where the system is. Most crucially for our concern with the nature of time, we leave out the clocks by which we measure change in the system.
For the sake of the argument I´ll rephrase this quote to fit the discussion about reality: All major theories about reality are about parts of reality – mostly our reality of senses, radio programs we listen to, TV series we watch, books we read, people we follow on facebook, balls we play with, biology we learn about, mating (which either comes naturally or is educated behaviour), interaction with the Earth in the age of the Anthropocene, pollution, garbage in orbit next to satellites of communication, the search for extraterrestrials through radio telescopes, a Live-Action-Roleplaying game. When we describe parts of our reality, we leave ourselves and our measuring tool outside the system – our mind and body. We look away from the roles we play and consciously or subconsciously selecting and preparing the system we study. We do participate, we are not neutral observers, our filtering systems are not neutral. We leave out our conscious and subconscious references, our senses, our preformed filters and concepts acting as filters that serve to establish where the system (the body, the mind) is and what it means. We still call it science. Or poetry. Most crucially for our concern with the nature of reality: we leave out consciousness AND the non-conscious parts of our mind by which we measure change in the system. Usually this is done by post-stabilised and -stabilising storytelling, creating a past which was never exactly “like this”.
When I’m having an experience, based on that experience I may want to change what I’m doing. So I need to have a collection of possible actions I can take and a decision strategy that, given my experiences, allows me to change how I’m acting.
Here I think the case is made that reality is based on whats affects us in the now, what we make sense of, and how we integrate that in our “good enough” filters of remembered experiences. It is putting perception into concepts we live by – so that these “things” (mum, pan, wheel, hand, sun, x-ray, hope, love, writing) become real.
There is the weak point, the soft-spot where we can start to do something. We can change THIS reality, we can work on our concepts, but we will have difficulties to change HOW we we perceive them (or technically make them perceptible). Ignorance comes in for help, because we need to block out those stimuli which are irrelevant to us and our goals (normally food, mating, social contact, entertainment, shelter). So the bottom line is that we can change our interpretation of WHAT we perceive…that is our power!
We are nowadays called to be even more ignorant through a rise in anti-intellectualism falsely paraphrasing that our own concepts, our knowledge is not to be trusted, as expert´s knowledge and years of experience are not useful. Making money is, knowing what safety is and how it´s the fault of the others, the foreigners that we do not earn enough money. Substituting a coherent tale with a lesser one, just repeating it and shouting it out in shock politics. Money, profit is real. The impact of this creates the problem, because it speaks to the reality of our goals – we gain position in the food chain. It changes behaviour, it radicalises people, because it plays on their innermost fears and selfish hopes. The case against reality is a double edged sword. We may call the concept of “engineered access to ultra-violet light” useful storytelling as it is with mathematic equations, but it may render it possible to put any concept, any story one tells at the firing line. If this is the battleground the social engineering we should focus at is the science which underlies all human activity, and the science of communication. Otherwise we will never inoculate ourselves from propaganda. We CHOOSE what part of our world/reality we want to consider worthy to access and ponder about, we choose which parts and dynamics of our environment inner and outer we let change our behaviour. At least I dare to hope that it is most of the time a conscious choice. If it is not, make it one.
I can talk to you about my headache and believe that I am communicating effectively with you, because you’ve had your own headaches. The same thing is true as apples and the moon and the sun and the universe. Just like you have your own headache, you have your own moon. But I assume it’s relevantly similar to mine. That’s an assumption that could be false, but that’s the source of my communication, and that’s the best we can do in terms of public physical objects and objective science.
Exactly. Even though the notion of “exactly” is deceiving because I can only guess what he meant by that and the interpreted overlap of my concepts makes me write “exactly”. We can call for empathy and overlap of referential systems to explain understanding. which both may come through genetic predisposition and education, nature and nurture. Less education, less (scientific) overlap. Basic physiological similarities may spawn the possibility of marriage and hospitality all over the human zones of influence on this planet. Human understanding might easily share shelter, food and social needs, based on cultural backgrounds and connected ethic beliefs. Not to KNOW about another culture means sharing LESS understanding, thus raising the possibility of exclusion, hate and racism, diminishing the probability of hospitality, empathy and caring.
Successful communication is built on effectively assuming that a certain experience might have happened to ourselves too, or possibly can happen. Populist politics are homing in on that “soft” spot telling people the story that the others, the foreigners do not want to understand them, do not care, and therefore they shall not care. It abuses the argument, that only people in a distinct local area do understand each other well. After thousands of years of European and worldwide exchange, marriage and co-existence proves this tale wrong – and only focusses on the bad parts of “forced understanding” and obedience through war. Gunboat politics of exporting certain economic intentions and power relations. What populists understand is the fear of their own people, leaving out that we share more with each other than with our beloved house-pets. From head-ache to apples and the moon, this is the best we can do in terms of public opinion about human differences. We can assume that they are very similar.
The formal theory of conscious agents I’ve been developing is computationally universal—in that sense, it’s a machine theory. And it’s because the theory is computationally universal that I can get all of cognitive science and neural networks back out of it.
Really? How does he get to form these words, how did he manifest them, based on what exactly? Observation? Mathematics? Computations? Our words are like our perceptions, they act as filters – excluding this, including that. They help you filter the noise to extract something meaningful for you. If you change your view, your words change, your filters change, so your world changes recursively. You create different technologies, write different programs and create different interfaces, interact differently with people. Possibility A) Mathematics. The clean realm of ideal form, where 1 is 1 and a circle is a perfect circle, in perfect form nowhere to be found in nature. With Lee Somlin:
”Thus the basic paradox of mathematics: The things it studies are unreal, yet they somehow illuminate reality. But how? The relationship between reality and mathematics is far from evident, even in this simple case.”
Possibility B) Observation. Our senses tell us, we see and seeing is truth like with Thomas the Apostle from the New Testament. But what they did not have as filters 2000 years ago was the distinction between digital and analog, between mind and science of what the “mind” is capable of and how the body translates stimuli into thoughts and beliefs. It seems based on a simple 1:1 paradigm of WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get. But despite its usefulness in web- and interface design, this is not how our body, our neural system works and it seems to be already wrong on the sensory level. Sensors do code only for “so and so much at this specific site of the body” but not the “what” (see e.g. Heinz von Foerster). They roughly translate an analogue change in the sensor cell into an “ON/OFF” binary change in excitement of a neuron – exciting the next neuron to a certain threshhold or not. Thet means the next nerve cell electrochemically coupled with the one who got excited (or blocked) by a sensor does “fire” through the electrochemical stimulation or not. Somehow we can imagine it acting as an Analogue/Digital converter (sorry for the technical metaphor, it is not meant to describe the process in detail or give it full justice). The sensor does not tell the truth, it says yes or no in a certain frequency, but does no tell an elaborate tale about the what, e.g. a cow. We compute the differences and the meaning later on, we construct it out of incomplete and sometimes contradictory stimuli. It is essential, that our interface with the world is “soft” and not just a hardwired 1:1 truth input/output interface. Actually, it seems to be sort of a lot worse that an A/D converter. A lot worse…but good enough for our purpose.
Nevertheless, for now I don’t think we are machines—in part because I distinguish between the mathematical representation and the thing being represented. As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world.
Well, interesting, finally somebody dares to come forward from the elite side of ivy league Cognitive Science and postulates a fundamental shift in world-view – and reasoning in arguments why dismissing reality might make sense. If it wouldn´t be for the Radical Constructivists (Heinz von Foerster, Ernst von Glasersfeld etc.) relativist positions in Postmodernism (Deleuze, Derrida etc.) and the Evolutionary Epistemology extending the path of Nobel prize winner Konrad Lorenz, I would cheer its bold novelty.
It´s a rare position now, as we all seem to be bound by economic pressure to worship the “real” (profit) and the “measurable” more than ever, but putting some basic assumptions of human experience into question is not a novel thing and dates back to ancient Greek philosophers, yes, and also Chinese ones…e.g. by Laozi, Confucius, Mencius and Mozi, who all lived during the second half of the Zhou dynasty (8th to 3rd century BCE), specially in their tendency to be in general suggestive than strongly articulated. Political concerns seem have been favoured over metaphysical speculation in contrast to our notion of “philosophy” but exactly this focus on worldly affairs and what is real for humans in a society make Constructivist and Chinese philosophy´s positions so fruitful in a discourse about reality. A very blunt denominator here could be the ontological primitive of “experience”…
I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.
E like experience. That reads like a paradox to me as this reality as an objective reality is put into question by him, but we obviously we can perceive SOMETHING right here, right now – and those are the things we may compare in communication. To postulate the truth of pain and hunger is cute, but does not push our understanding further. That truth is embodied, that we have experiences may be called “embodied cognition” a school of thought in cognitive science or “situated cognition”. Expanding on that notion: the ultimate nature of reality is then my real feeling of reading this is, that it’s not some undecipherable gibberish to me… that my experience of reading is successful enough. qed
I’m emphasising the larger lesson of quantum mechanics: Neurons, brains, space … these are just symbols we use, they’re not real. It’s not that there’s a classical brain that does some quantum magic. It’s that there’s no brain!
True. 😉 Only metaphors we live by. That is the chance, this is how we evolve in using these fake distinctions and creating observers after observers to find out more of this subjective fiction we can still so joyfully and successfully communicate with each other. I am all game for the hypothesis of Prof. Hoffman, I find even his computational approach aesthetically pleasing, but even if it sounds radical, it may not be radical enough. I think it is even worse when we combine the problem of impact and the problem of ignorance.
How does the pulsating radio waves of a distant Quasar change your behaviour? You may read a scientific article about it (thus storytelling, backed up by reasons of the author of course) but you may never go so far as to visit a large radio telescope to see the apparatus itself or the people working with it. No, they are even hyperreal as a direct translation of the waves into audible soundwaves from an ongoing recording may cause you to panic as one interprets it as the message of aliens.
And closer to the body? Even if you do not believe in the concept of a “brain” – it might still be observable by a participant in a car accident seeing it on the ground next to you, head smashed in. Reaction of empathy: feeling sick. You cannot even start to fathom how tha may feel like, so the attempt overloads the system.
I have to stress again that I interpret Hoffmanns “proof” through mathematics that our access (so also mine or his) to this phenomenon is utterly based on fiction and imagination, as coherent fiction. It does not mean that extending our senses into space, the cyborg widening his senses as an individual by large radio telescopes, infra-red or ultra-violet sensitive cameras are meaningless or “an illusion”. We just widen our options in storytelling.
The blind spot may be that scientific extensions of our senses most likely do not affect us in our everyday decisions, other than you being part of a night mission as a Special Ops mercenary aided by infra-red targeting or a radio-astronomer with enormous metal dishes. They do not guide your life in what is “relevant” for you every day – “relevant” does vary a lot and gets instrumentalised by those who have interest in designing what is “relevance”. Usually it is connected to consumerism, buying and selling. Unless you are one of the scientists, a dwindling community of people concerned with the fringes of what we know and what we perceive, you may not care. But, stories do guide your life. The gadgets which connect us to stories. This computer, this screen, the act of reading does. In our experience, reality is based on fiction, not on science.
“To some degree, the more true to reality fiction is these days, the more avant-garde it will seem. “Ning Ken in ‘Modern China is so crazy it needs a new literary genre’
Most of the people may have the opinion now that science is useless and a good laugh and a cynical joke may save the country. But to have a good estimate of what we know and what we should and could believe, we need to get educated. That is impossible for a lot of people in this “Age Under Pressure” where the stories they get told make them afraid of the future, afraid to unfold their actual capabilities, because the time they can spend thinking about their personal reality space are diminished to practically zero. The problem is not:”There is no brain!” – it is the perception:”There is no time!”. But we have to get convinced to make time. As for the the existence of time (read Lee Smolin), there exists a beautiful filter we form and sculpture every day: our memory – a memory of moments. And if we access that, we may learn something about the future, as we see ur filters at work.
Conclusion: What is real then? What is reality?
Well, we experience reality in the moment. Now. Now….and now. It is to be found NOWHERE and now here. Roughly in between a succession of conscious bundled “moments” of 250ms-3sek giving space to action and reaction. Forming a recursive loop with our environment, plants, animals, machines, society. Reality is more than a figurative speech which I cannot evade in a text anyways. It analyses what is less real than the NOW: past and future. The important conclusion for me is not the areality of our lives, but that reality is CHANGING. That we, every moment are the agents of change, being mostly stuck in the past or the future, creating our “persistent” reality. We are building, changing and rebuilding our fictual world together. It is time and memory which gives rise to a feeling of continuity. I agree again with the physicist, who gives that sort of attitude a different wording:
”The fact that it is always some moment in our perception, and that we experience that moment as one of a flow of moments, is not an illusion. It is the best clue we have to fundamental reality.”Lee Smolin
This is what I will also try to discuss in depth in a book project, which still takes take shape and draws on experiences, resources and discussions of the last 20 years. I am grateful for any exchange about the topic and happy to cross blades with any argument. Welcome to the arena of fiction, the Colosseum of fictuality, the fighting pit of words and pictures dealing with the “true nature of reality”…
Lets continue the games, lets have a conversation!