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The two insights of materialism

18 Post author: Academian 24 March 2010 02:47PM

Preceded by:  There just has to be something more, you know?  Followed by:  Physicalism: consciousness as the last sense.

Contents:  1. An epistemic difficulty  2. How and why to be a materialist

An epistemic difficulty

Like many readers of this blog, I am a materialist.  Like many still, I was not always.  Long ago, the now-rhetorical ponderings in the preceding post in fact delivered the fatal blow to my nagging suspicion that somehow, materialism just isn't enough.

By materialism, I mean the belief that the world and people are composed entirely of something called matter (a.k.a.  energy), which physics currently best understands as consisting of particles (a.k.a.  waves).  If physics reformulates these notions, materialism can adjust with it, leading some to prefer the term "physicalism".

Now, I encounter people all the time who, because of education or disillusionment, have abandoned most aspects of religion, yet still believe in more than one than one kind of reality.  It's often called "being spiritual".  People often think it feels better than the alternative (see Joy in the merely real), but it also persists for what people experience as an epistemic concern:

The inability to reconcile the "experiencing self" concept with one's notion of physical reality.

This is among the the most common epistemic discomforts with materialism (I only say "discomfort", because a blank spot on your map does not correspond to a blank territory).  The inside view — introspection — shows us something people call a "mind" or "spirit", and the outside view — our eyes — shows us something we call a "brain", which looks nothing at all the same.  But the perceived distance between these concepts signals that connecting them would be extremely meaningful, the way superficially unrelated hypotheses and conclusions make for a very powerful theorem.  For the connection to start making sense, one must realize that "you are made of matter" is as much a statement about matter as a statment about you…

The two insights of materialism: That the reconciliation of mind and matter –

  1. is not misinformation about mind, but extra information about matter, and
  2. is not misinformation about matter, but extra information about mind.

These are really two insights, and underusing one of them leaves a sense of "doesn't quite capture it" in the psyche.  See, the way most people think or learn about physics, a particle is a tiny dot, with some attributes like charge specified by numbers, obeying certain laws of motion.  But in fact, this is a model of a particle.  As a conviction, physics need not claim that "dots and waves are all there is", but rather, that all there is can be described on analogy with dots and waves.  Science is about modelling — a map that matches the territory — and "truth" is just how well it matches up.

And given modern science, there is something more you can say about a particle besides the geometry and equations that describe it, something which connects it to the direct, cogito-ergo-sum style knowledge we all enjoy: whatever it is, a particle is a one thousand-trillion-trillionth of a you.  Yes, you, in your entirety.  If part of that includes something you call a "soul", then yes, science can now model the quantitative aspects, in more or less complete detail, of a one thousand-trillion-trillionth of a "soul".  Is that too much?  Too incredible?  A song by The Books that I like almost says it perfectly:

You are something that the whole world is made of.

This moots the debate.  The first step is not to "reduce" the introspective view to the extrospective view, but to realize that they're looking at the same object.  The assertion is not that "mind is just particles", but rather that "a tiny fraction of a mind" and "a tiny fraction of matter" happen to refer to the same object, and we should agree to call that object "particle".  Depending on how you use the word "conscious", this does not necessarily say that a particle is conscious in the way that you are; an octant of a sphere is not a sphere.  But assembled correctly, it is certainly one-eighth of a sphere!

I've learned that some people call this view "neutral monism", but I prefer to still call it materialism as an emphasis that the extrospective view "science" really has a larger quantity of information at this point in human history.  This is different information about reality than provided by introspection, and to ignore it is detrimental to one's world view! 

So, to help non-materialists in attaining this reconciliation of mind and matter, I've written the following rough path of ideas that one can follow:

How and why to be a materialist

  1. Accepting materialism is saying "the rest of the world is made of whatever I am", not just "I am made of whatever the rest of the world is".  And why not?  In the eyes of science, these are both the same, true statement.  Semantically, the first one tells you something qualitative about matter, and the second one tells you something extremely quantitative about your mind!  It means modern neuroscience and biology can be used to help you understand yourself.  Awesome!

  2. Accepting physics is accepting that your "spirit" might consist of parts which, sufficiently divided and removed from context, might behave in a regular fashion. Then you might as well call the parts "particles" and call your spirit "brain", and look at all the amazing data we have about them that help describe how you work.

  3. Beware of the works-how-it-feels bias, the fallacious additional assumption that the world works the way you feel about it.  (See How an algorithm feels from the inside.) These pieces of your mind/spirit called particles are extremely tiny; in order of magnitude, they are more than twice as small as your deepest introspection, so you can't judge them very well based on instinct (a neuron is about a 1011th of your mind, and an atom is about a 1014th of a neuron).  And because they're so tiny and numerous, they can be put together to form things vastly different from yourself in form and function, like plants and stars.

  4. Your instinct that the laws of physics don't fully describe you is correct! You are the way you are because of two things:
    • the laws that describe your soul-pieces or particles, whatever those laws may be, and
    • the way they're put together,

    and the latter is almost unimaginably more significant!  One way to see this is to look around at all the things that are not you.  Saying how the tiny bits of your soul behave independently does not describe how to put them together, just like describing an octant of a sphere doesn't explain say how to turn eight of them into a whole sphere.  Plus, even after your initial construction as a baby, a whole lot of growth and experience has configured what you are today.

    Only to put this into perspective, consider that the all the most fundamental laws of physics know can certainly be written down, without evidence or much explanation, in a text file of less than 1 megabyte.  The information content of the human genome, which so far seems necessary to construct a sustainable brain, is about 640 MB (efficiently encoded, that's 1.7 bits per nucleotide pair).  Don't be fooled at how "small" 640 is: it means the number of possible states of that data is at least 8640 times larger than the number of the states of our text file describing all of physics!  Next, the brain itself stores information as you develop, with a capacity of at least 1 terrabyte by the most conservative estimates, which means it has at least around 81500 times the number of possible states of the DNA sequence that first built it.

    So being a desk is different from being a human, not because it's made of different stuff, but because the stuff is put together extremely differently, more differently than we can fully imagine.  When people say form determines function, they should say FORM in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS.  No wonder you thought particle physics "just doesn't seem to capture it"!

  5. Your perceived distance between the concepts of "mind" and "particles" is also correct! As JanetK says, "There is no shortcut from electrons to thoughts".  Continuing the connection/theorem analogy, a theorem with superficially unrelated hypotheses and conclusions is not only liable to be very useful, but to have a difficult proof as well.  The analogue of the difficult proof is that, distinct from the discovery of particles themselves, massive amounts of technological progress and research have been required to establish the connection between:
    • how particles work and how you look from the outside (neurochemistry/neurobiology), and
    • how you look from the outside and how you look from the inside (neuropsychology).
    Indeed, the perceptual distance between the second pair is why people use the concepts "brain" and "mind" separately: "brain" is a model for the outside view, and "mind" is a model for the inside view.  The analogue of the theorem's usefulness is how much neurology can say and do about our minds:
    • treat mental illness,
    • restore lost memories,
    • design brain surgery,
    • explain cognitive biases,
    • physically relate our emotions to each other…
  6. Adjusting emotionally is extremely important as you bring materialism under consideration, not only to accomodate changing your beliefs, but to cope with them when they do change.  You may need to redescribe morality, what makes you happy, and why you want to be alive, but none of these things needs to be revoked, and LessWrong is by far the best community I've ever seen to help with this transition.  For example, Eliezer has written a chronological account of his Coming of Age as a rationalist, and he has certainly maintained a sense of morality and life-worth.  I recommend building an appropriate emotional safety net while you consider materialism, not just to combat the bias of fear, but so you're ready when one day you realize oh my gosh I'm a materialist!

I have a friend who says that instead of classifying people as believing in the material or the supernatural, he classifies them by whether they think more than one of those things exists and are different.  Roughly speaking, dualists and non-dualists.  I think he's got the right idea.  Why bother believing in more than one kind of thing?  Why believe in separate "soul" and "material" if the world can just as well be made of tiny specks of regularly-behaved "spirit"?  It's the same theory, and watching out for works-how-it-feels bias, you gain a lot of tangible insight about yourself if you realize they're the same.

So do what's right.  Right for you, right for your loved ones, and right for rightness itself if that matters to you.  You probably already know what it means to be a good person, and your good intentions just won't work if you use poor judgement.  Start thinking about materialism so you can know more, and make better, well-informed decisions. 

Who believes in the supernatural is simply underestimating the natural.

There is no something more, because there is no something less… but there certainly and most definitely is you

 


 

Follow up to comments:

One can only get so far from dualism in a single sitting, and what this article includes is a much a function of my time as of its validity.  For now I'll leave it up to others to argue stronger positions than those presented here, but to acknowledge, some important issues I did not address include:

Whatever stuff or process the world comprises, is it merely accessible to physics, or can physics describe its nature entirely?  And supposing it can, is consciousness an entirely mathematical phenomenon that is unaffected by how it is physically implemented?  That is, if we made a neural network computationally isomorphic to the human brain, but in a different physical arrangement (e.g.  a silicon based computer), should you be as certain of its consciousness as of the consciousness of other humans?  And more questions...

A rough outline of some stances on the questions above is as follows: (to avoid debate I'll omit the term naturalism, though I do approve of its normative use)

Monism: the world comprises just one genre of stuff or process (no natural/supernatural distinction).

This article: this stuff or process is physically accessible, and is therefore amenable to study by the natural sciences.

Physicalism: the stuff or process is no more extensive than its description in terms of physics.

Computationalism: consciousness is a mathematical phenomenon, unaffected by how it is physically represented or implemented.

And of course it is also important to question whether these distinctions are practical, meaningful, or merely illusory.  It all needs to be cleaned and carefully disected.  Have at it, LessWrong!

Comments (132)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 25 March 2010 12:33:36AM *  9 points [-]

I think we need a new term to distinguish materialists who believe that consciousness arises from physical interactions, from materialists who believe that consciousness arises from formal mathematical interactions. The latter would believe that you can't fully simulate a person without the simulation being conscious. This is a much more interesting and important (and debatable) distinction to me.

Comment author: mattnewport 25 March 2010 12:47:05AM 2 points [-]

The latter would believe that you can't fully simulate a person without the simulation being conscious.

I don't see why the former wouldn't also believe that - any simulation must ultimately be grounded in physical interactions (the computer is still made of matter).

Comment author: Nisan 25 March 2010 03:59:13PM 2 points [-]

The former might believe that consciousness arises from particular physical interactions — interactions that might exist in the brain but not in a computer.

Comment author: mattnewport 25 March 2010 04:02:12PM 1 point [-]

Wouldn't such a person believe that you can't fully simulate a person at all with a conventional computer though?

Comment author: Nisan 25 March 2010 04:10:38PM *  2 points [-]

I think Phil Goetz is using the term "simulate" in its computational or mathematical sense: The materialist of the first kind would agree that if you had a pretty good algorithmic model of a brain, you could simulate that model in a computer and it would behave just like the brain. But they would not agree that the simulation had consciousness.

ETA: Correct me if I'm wrong, but a materialist of the first kind would be one who is open to the possibility of p-zombies.

Comment author: bogus 25 March 2010 04:21:10PM *  3 points [-]

ETA: Correct me if I'm wrong, but a materialist of the first kind would be one who is open to the possibility of p-zombies.

No, p-zombies are supposed to be indistinguishable from the real thing. You can tell apart a simulation of consciousness from an actual conscious being, because the simulation is running on a different substrate.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 25 March 2010 05:07:58PM *  4 points [-]

Basically, yes. But I think it's worthwhile to distinguish between physically (the original definition), functionally, and behaviorally identical p-zombies, where materialists reject the possibility of the first, and functionalists reject the first and second (each is obviously a superset of the former).

NB: "Functionally identical" is handwaving, absent some canonical method of figuring out what computation a physical system implements (the conscious-rocks argument).

Comment author: mattnewport 25 March 2010 04:19:29PM 2 points [-]

Do people holding this view who call themselves materialists actually exist? It seems an incoherent position to hold and I can't recall seeing anyone express that belief. It seems very similar to the dualist position that consciousness has some magic property that can't be captured outside of a human brain.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 25 March 2010 05:01:11PM *  1 point [-]
Comment author: mattnewport 25 March 2010 05:42:31PM 0 points [-]

As far as I can tell from looking at those links both Searle and Pearce would deny the possibility of simulating a person with a conventional computer. I understand that position and while I think it is probably wrong it is not obviously wrong and it could turn out to be true. It seems that this is also Penrose's position.

From the Chinese Room Wikipedia entry for example:

Searle accuses strong AI of dualism, the idea that the mind and the body are made up of different "substances". He writes that "strong AI only makes sense given the dualistic assumption that, where the mind is concerned, the brain doesn't matter." He rejects any form of dualism, writing that "brains cause minds" and that "actual human mental phenomena [are] dependent on actual physical-chemical properties of actual human brains", a position called "biological naturalism" (as opposed to alternatives like behaviourism, functionalism, identity theory and dualism).

From the Pearce link you gave:

Secondly, why is it that, say, an ant colony or the population of China or (I'd argue) a digital computer - with its classical serial architecture and "von Neumann bottleneck" - don't support a unitary consciousness beyond the aggregate consciousness of its individual constituents, whereas a hundred billion (apparently) discrete but functionally interconnected nerve cells of a waking/dreaming vertebrate CNS can generate a unitary experiential field? I'd argue that it's the functionally unique valence properties of the carbon atom that generate the macromolecular structures needed for unitary conscious mind from the primordial quantum minddust.

So I still wonder whether anyone actually believes that you could simulate a human mind with a computer but that it would not be conscious.

Comment author: bogus 25 March 2010 05:54:24PM 2 points [-]

both Searle and Pearce would deny the possibility of simulating a person with a conventional computer.

They would deny that a conventional computer simulation can create subjective experience. However, the Church-Turing thesis implies that if physicalism is true then conscious beings can be simulated. AFAICT, it is only Penrose who would deny this.

Comment author: mattnewport 25 March 2010 06:25:59PM 0 points [-]

Do you mean the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle? It appears to me that Pearce at least in the linked article is making a claim which effectively denies that principle - his claim implies that physics is not computable.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 25 March 2010 06:08:20PM *  1 point [-]

Basically, what bogus said.

I'm confused about what you mean by "simulating a person". Presumably you don't mean simulating in a way that is conscious/has mental states (since that would make the claim under discussion trivially, uninterestingly inconsistent), so presumably you do mean just simulating the physics/neurology and producing the same behavior. While AFAIK neither explicitly says so in the links, Searle and Pearce both seem to me to believe the latter is possible. (Searle in particular has never, AFAIK, denied that an unconscious Chinese Room would be possible in principle; and by "strong AI" Searle means the possibility of AI with an 'actual mind'/mental states/consciousness, not just generally intelligent behavior.)

Comment author: mattnewport 25 March 2010 06:19:12PM 1 point [-]

so presumably you do mean just simulating the physics/neurology and producing the same behavior.

Yes. Equivalently, is uploading possible with conventional computers?

It seems to me that both Searle and Pearce would answer no to both questions. Pearce in particular seems to be saying that consciousness depends on quantum properties of brains that cannot be simulated by a conventional computer. It appears to me that this is equivalent to a claim that physics is not computable but I'm not totally confident of that equivalence. I have trouble reading any other conclusion from anything in those links. Can you point to a quote that makes you think otherwise?

Comment author: bogus 25 March 2010 04:30:28PM 0 points [-]

I don't know about consciousness, but the position that subjective experience has some magic property is common sense. Materialism is just a reasonable attempt to ground that magic property in the physical world.

Comment author: bogus 25 March 2010 04:08:59PM 0 points [-]

You could fully simulate the person's consciousness. The simulation won't have any subjective experience, and it might also be very inefficient from a computational perspective. Compare running an executable program on a computer vs. running the same program in an interpreted VM.

Comment author: Academian 25 March 2010 12:17:23PM 0 points [-]

Agreed. I think the appropriate term is "computationalism", so I added mention of it in the follow up.

Comment author: Mallah 24 March 2010 04:11:07PM *  7 points [-]

Academician, what you are explicitly not saying is that the aspects of reality that give rise to consciousness can be described mathematically. Well, parts of your post seem to imply that the mathematically describable functions are what matter, but other parts deny it. So it's confusing, rather than enlightening. But I'll take you at your word that you are not just a reductionist.

So you are a "monist" but, as David Chalmers has described such positions, in the spirit of dualism. As far as I am concerned, you are a dualist, because the only interesting distinction I see is between mathematically describable reality vs. non-MD reality - and your "monism" has aspects of both.

Your argument seems to be that monism is simpler than dualism, so Occam's Razor prefers it, so we should believe it. Hence, you define the stuff the world is made of as "whatever I am" and call it one kind of stuff.

I don't see that as a useful approach, because what I want to know is whether MD stuff is enough, or whether we need something more, where 'something more' is explicitly mental-related. Remember, we want the simplest explanation that fits the evidence. So the question reduces to "Does an MD-only world fit the evidence from subjective experience?" That's a hard question.

I am planning to write a post on the hard problem at some point, which I'll post on my blog and here.

Comment author: Academian 25 March 2010 12:23:17PM *  1 point [-]

Academician, what you are explicitly not saying is that the aspects of reality that give rise to consciousness can be described mathematically.

Correct. I just wrote a follow up to acknowledge this. In short, I can only defend so much at one time :)

Comment author: Morendil 24 March 2010 03:39:52PM *  9 points [-]

By materialism, I mean the belief that the world and people are composed entirely of something called matter

Ick. If the universe can be adequately explained by thinking of as arising from graph operations, then I desire to believe that the universe arises from graph operations.

In other words, being a "materialist" does not commit me to thinking of matter as fundamental. Being a materialist commits me to believing that all of my experiences can be adequately explained in the same terms that explain what the ordinary stuff around me consists of - whatever the bottom levels of the explanation turn out to be.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 March 2010 11:25:30PM 8 points [-]

I'd further specify that the bottom levels should not be fundamentally mental (or living). In other words, the bottom levels should resemble bowling balls or water more than it resembles fish or human beings; to look at it another way, we should end up explaining how human-like things are made out of water-like things since all is water, rather than how water-like things are made out of human-like things since all is mind.

Comment author: bogus 25 March 2010 03:40:54AM *  1 point [-]

This 'specification' seems quite vague and unhelpful. It should be noted that the bottom level could have some mind-like quality without actually being fundamentally mental itself--for instance, a panprotoexperiential reality is one where all entities share some precursors of qualia, but need not have any subjective experience or cognition.

Comment author: JanetK 25 March 2010 10:21:07AM 4 points [-]

Surely something like Occam's razor comes in here. If we can explain consciousness in terms of our current science then why would we try to change our current science to include a mind-like quality as a fundamental property of matter? Make not sense to me.

Comment author: bogus 25 March 2010 01:23:46PM 0 points [-]

If we can explain consciousness in terms of our current science

First of all, panexperientialism and its variations seek to explain subjective experience, not consciousness. Moreover, we in fact can't explain consciousness. "Consciousness is an emergent property" is hardly a satisfactory explanation.

Comment author: RobinZ 25 March 2010 01:45:41PM 0 points [-]

Do you have a specific comment or series of comments in mind, here?

Comment author: RobinZ 24 March 2010 08:59:45PM 3 points [-]

Ick. If the universe can be adequately explained by thinking of as arising from graph operations, then I desire to believe that the universe arises from graph operations.

That's why I prefer the term "philosophical naturalist".

Comment author: Jack 25 March 2010 12:37:12PM 4 points [-]

"Physicalist" is the term used in philosophy now for precisely this reason. It just means that you believe the world is composed of whatever our best theory of physics says it is composed of.

Comment author: Academian 25 March 2010 12:20:46PM 0 points [-]

Me too. I wanted to address "fear of matter" head on with the term "materialism".

Comment author: wnoise 24 March 2010 05:30:22PM 3 points [-]

In other words, being a "materialist" does not commit me to thinking of matter as fundamental. Being a materialist commits me to believing that all of my experiences can be adequately explained in the same terms that explain what the ordinary stuff around me consists of - whatever the bottom levels of the explanation turn out to be.

Don't we call whatever is at the bottom matter? It all adds up to normality...

Comment author: Morendil 24 March 2010 05:46:58PM 4 points [-]

Not in everyday language, for instance we don't think of vacuum as being matter; so the fact that "matter turns out to be vacuum fluctuations" strikes us as surprising.

If we refine our definitions of "materialism" and "matter" appropriately, then sure. But that seems like turning a blind eye to the connotations of the word "matter", and perhaps these connotations will be lurking in the background of our thinking about materialism, and give us a nasty mistake at some inopportune moment.

(And at the everyday scale, we get useful cognitive work out of the matter-vacuum distinction.)

Comment author: wnoise 24 March 2010 06:05:24PM 3 points [-]

(And at the everyday scale, we get useful cognitive work out of the matter-vacuum distinction.)

Fair enough. I suppose it'd be more accurate to say that whatever matter is fundamentally, so is everything, which is not at all the same thing as matter is fundamental.

Comment author: Academian 25 March 2010 12:18:33PM *  0 points [-]

As I suggested in the post, I'm with you. The rest of the sentence you truncated was

, which physics currently best understands as consisting of particles (a.k.a. waves).

Reformulations of the phenomenon "matter" are fine by me.

Comment author: Morendil 24 March 2010 03:44:16PM 7 points [-]

a particle is a one thousand-trillion-trillionth of a you

To the extent that "self" is a relational concept, the above strikes me as a fallacy of reification. "Self" is a fact about where some particles stand in relationship with each other, it isn't a fact about any given particle.

Comment author: Nisan 24 March 2010 07:33:44PM *  1 point [-]

Agreed. In fact, this is even stated in the post:

You are the way you are because of two things:

  • the laws that describe your soul-pieces or particles, whatever those laws may be, and
  • the way they're put together,

ETA: Perhaps you are even saying that the first item should be struck from that list. I'd agree with you.

Comment author: LauraABJ 25 March 2010 12:29:53AM 3 points [-]

Good post, but I think what people are often seeking in the non-material is not so much an explanation of what they are, but a further connection with other people, deities, spirits, etc. In a crude sense, judeo-christian god gives people an ever-present friend that understands everything about them and always loves them. Materialism would tell them, 'There is no God. You have found that talking to yourself makes you feel that you are unconditionally loved, but it's all in your head.'

On a non-religious note, two lovers may feel that they have bonded such that they are communicating on another level. Which explanation seems more aesthetically pleasing: 1) Your 'souls' are entwined, your 'minds' are one, he/she really does deeply understand you such that words are no longer necessary, you are sharing the same experience. 2) You have found a trigger to an evolutionarily developed emotion that makes you feel as if you are communing. Your lover may or may not have found the same switch. You are each experiencing this in your own way in your own head. You will need to discuss to compare.

And yes, I do think that verbal and physical communication is still pretty great (I mean, that's what we got), but there is a large attraction to believe one's transcendent feelings really do, well, transcend, and that we are not as alone in our minds as we really are.

Comment author: bogus 25 March 2010 01:59:23AM *  2 points [-]

Which explanation seems more aesthetically pleasing?

It depends. To those wise enough to take joy in the merely real, the materialistic explanation could be a challenge to actually become more empathetic and communicative towards their lovers. An alief of communion and transcendence can also enhance trustworthiness and cooperation, which are generally sought in any love relationship.

By contrast, if the 'spritual' explanation were real, it would probably lose its charm and even be resented by some as a loss in autonomy, just as fire-breathing dragons and lightning spells might become boring and unexciting in a world where magic actually worked.

Comment author: JGWeissman 25 March 2010 05:50:18PM 8 points [-]

Voted down for preemptive use of Let Me Google That For You. I would actually like to vote this down first for signaling that you are providing a resource explaining a technical term you used by providing a link, but instead providing a much less helpful Google search, where the reader is not sure which, if any, of the search results will be helpful, and vote it down again for using LMGTFY instead of Google directly, which includes obnoxious animations and requires javascript.

I would have left it alone if you had just used the word "alief" without any link at all.

Comment author: LauraABJ 25 March 2010 05:06:39PM 2 points [-]

Sure, one can always look at the positive aspects of reality, and many materialists have even tried to put a positive spin on the inevitability of death without an afterlife. But it should not be surprising that what is real is not always what is most beautiful. There are a panoply of reasons not to believe things that are not true, but greater aesthetic value does not seem to be one of them. There is an aesthetic value in the idea of 'The Truth,' but I would not say that this outweighs all of the ways in which fantasy can be appealing for most people. And the 'fantasies' of which I am speaking are not completely random untruths, like "Hey, I'm gonna believe in Hobbits, because that would be cool!', but rather ideas that spring from the natural emotional experiences of humanity. They feel correct. Even if they are not.

Comment author: JanetK 25 March 2010 10:37:03AM 2 points [-]

'cogito-ergo-sum style knowledge we all enjoy' I think you have to speak for yourself. I do not find cogito-ego-sum convincing and I hope I am not alone. That is a very slippery slope to dualism. I am and therefore I think is more in keeping that how brains evolved. Animals move, therefore they have to know where they are going, therefore they must model reality, therefore they become conscious.

Comment author: Jack 25 March 2010 12:03:27PM *  4 points [-]

That is a very slippery slope to dualism. I am and therefore I think is more in keeping that how brains evolved. Animals move, therefore they have to know where they are going, therefore they must model reality, therefore they become conscious.

I would like to disagree but I'm so confused by this part of the comment that I don't know how to write a reply. But for social mores and legal precedence slippery slope arguments are fallacious. After that I lose track of what you're saying.

It seems to me true that one cannot be mistaken about one's existence because things that are mistaken are things that exist. The concepts deployed here aren't necessarily concepts I'm prepared to let Descartes use after he decides to disbelieve everything he is uncertain of, so I don't think the argument does what Descartes wants it to do. But I'm not obligated to give up these concepts so I can make the argument without qualms. You cannot be mistaken about your existence.

Comment author: JanetK 25 March 2010 12:35:25PM 2 points [-]

Jack - I seems to me that 'slippery slope' may have been a sloppy use on my part. What I meant was that 'I think therefore I am' so implies dualism that it would be difficult to avoid it once you accepted the statement. It is a statement that starts with ideas and goes on from there. On the other hand 'I exist therefore I think', starts with materialism. The question is not whether we exist or not but whether we know of our existence because of mental thoughts or because of physical reality. I agree that we cannot be mistaken about our existence. Descartes' method also implies that in introspection we gain direct knowledge of something. I believe that this is an untenable idea in light of neuroscience. When we see a tree, there is no actual tree inside our skulls, there is a model of a tree. When we experience our thoughts we are likewise experiencing a model of our thoughts. Consciousness is highly processed and in no sense that I know of is it direct knowledge.

Comment author: bogus 25 March 2010 12:47:59PM *  0 points [-]

The question is not whether we exist or not but whether we know of our existence because of mental thoughts or because of physical reality.

I'm confused: do you intend your category of 'mental thoughts' to encompass the whole of subjective experience or just introspection?

If the former, then yes, subjective experience is what any theory of physical reality ultimately has to explain. There's no reason why your theory could not include a lot of distortion, but you still have to be parsimonious and justify that distortion in some way.

Comment author: bogus 25 March 2010 11:32:06AM 1 point [-]

I think you have to speak for yourself. I do not find cogito-ego-sum convincing and I hope I am not alone.

You think that subjective experience doesn't exist, thus there's no need to explain why consciousness would ever feel like anything? That's a respectable position, but it definitely needed to be clarified.

Comment author: JanetK 25 March 2010 02:21:24PM 1 point [-]

Academian, I have re-read your epistemology a couple of times and finally have taken a chunk of it and posted it on my blog. Thank you. You can find it at thoughts on thoughts. I do not seem to be able to create a link here but the site is http://charbonniers.org

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 24 March 2010 02:52:55PM 0 points [-]

Typo in the first header, "An epistemic dificulty".