I look at the relations among the current mainstream disciplines, and their mutual relations and differences, and I then project slightly forward into the future, say 50 years or so, and imagine how they might look then.
On many views, physics holds the foundation place in the structure of knowledge. It is closely related to the absolutism and rationality of mathematics, and it also grounds our consensus view of reality. Chemistry is mostly applied physics, with a few structural constraints thrown in, that are visible in the periodic table. But organic chemistry is different, by virtue of two things: on the one hand, the chemicals play a role in the alchemy of life – a process for which we have no fundamental understanding. Life arises, but that is a novelty of an unparalleled sort. Identity irrespective of materiality. Exchange all the atoms, but keep the processes, and you retain identity. On the other hand, the exchanges and processes in which the molecules partake are geometrically extended in three dimensions. The 3-D shape of the molecule determines its fit to another element, say as neurotransmitter to receptor, or body to antibody. Full Story »
When I first heard cognitive scientists talk about thermodynamics, I was perplexed. I did not see what this arcane belief in physics had to do with cognition. It has taken a while to dawn on me. The second law is the one that says that entropy, or disorder, must increase in a closed system, such as, for example, the whole frigging universe. And it’s a peculiar law. There is no experiment you can do to test it, as the only closed system is, many believe, that which we call the whole universe. It is more of a belief. And it is a peculiar belief too. Scientists cling to it dearly, and it underwrites the distinction between far-from-equilibrium systems, like life forms, from the dead stuff, which has a tendency to fall apart. Believe me, I know. Most scientists, I fear, have no idea why they subscribe to this belief. It’s just taken to be the thing we know absolutely. But, if we hold our knowledge of it as true or false in abeyance for a moment, what exactly hangs on this issue? What does the question mean?
My own understanding of the relevance of the question came about thus: As I studied movement, and coordination, I came to see that we must understand time if we are to understand that which we are. Because the arrow of time–which is our favorite story about the eternal present–is the fabric upon which intentional behavior is woven. Things that are meaningfully coordinated provide scintillating, alternative operationalizations of the notion of time. Define lawful change, or a dynamic, so, and you see one kind of regularity. Define it another way, and different things come into focus. The locus of agency shifts as you redefine time, and questions of the locus of agency and our belief in ourselves as subjective agents, are two sides of the same coin.
The second law of thermodynamics is the belief that there is one way to measure the arrow of time. It is the only foundation stone of physics where time is necessarily directional, and the direction is given by the concept of order or structure. Here, too, we see a belief that that which deserves the appellation ”real” is that which is revealed if we get our notion of time right.
Heinz von Foerster seems to have a nice illustration that if we subscribe to the arrow of time, as defined by the Second Law, to be a description of the universe, then there can be no self-organizing system, no entity that is worthy of the name “real”. Here a link remains to be made to the experiential domain. The subject. For von Foerster, like I, does not buy into the notion of Mind, that is distinct from an outside world. As he says in his introduction to the book Understanding Understanding,
I am unhappy with this discrimination between objective and subjective: How do I know the objects? Where are they? Of course, I can reconfirm or establish a rich connection with an object by touching or by smelling it or talking about it, and so I had the idea to make the object a representation of the activity or behavior of the observer, instead of the passive being looked or just sitting there.
He speaks here of the impossibility of finding the subjective if you insist on one definition of time, or, equivalently, of objectivity. Of course self-organizing systems can be identified, but each requires a different definition of time. This relativizes their claims to be the origin of agentive cause.
Wei Wu Wei, as ever, is very clear about this:
As long as anyone tacitly accepts Time either as really existing, or even as the basis of consideration, he is only concerning himself with objectivity. (source)
If you believe in something called “motor control”, then the non-volitional action underlying the concept of Wu Wei will appear odd.
Imagine a busy road in which many cars manage to drive at high speed, without crashing. If now, one driver makes a very serious error, his car goes places it should not go, maybe turning over, and crashing. In a conventional account, we say he “lost control”. In the account suggested here, you might better say he “regained control”. For all those cars that do not crash, clearly they are not being controlled. Rather, they are integrated as components within a larger system, the trafic flow. The conditions that allow optimal traffic flow include clear road markings, good visibility, road-worthy cars, non-drunken drivers, etc. When one driver crashes, that system has collapsed, and the car is now acting independently. So the car+driver system has, in a slightly odd sense, reasserted its autonomy, made itself independent, and regained control. But with that, there is clumsiness, ineffectiveness, and a crash.
Wu wei is action without the clumsiness of a locus of control.
Postscript: This distinction parallel’s Terrence Deacon’s account of orthograde and contragrade processes. The cars that act as components within a superordinate domain of autonomy illustrate the former. The car that makes itself independent, and then collides with and threatens the domain of ordered driving, illustrates the contragrade.
The buddhists have a fairly well worked out description of 6 senses, which are (oddly) the 5 familiar in the West: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, and a sixth, which is thought.
First off, note that the familiar five provide a bad description of the sensory component of our being. Smell and taste are not separate. Touch is not one, but a whole host, of senses, including heat, vibration, pain and gentle touch, and then there’s all the proprioceptive and vestibular stuff. OK. But to Western eyes, the notion of thought as a sense is a bit peculiar. We actually don’t have a good account of what thought is, so this is interesting. How do we make sense of thought as a sixth sense?
Most notions of sense are predicated upon a split between organism and world. But everything we know about consciousness assures us that the domain of present phenomenal experience arises from the embeddedness of an organism in a world, without a dualistic, causal split between these two co-defining things.
In psychophysics, there is an old distinction between prothetic and metathetic features of a stimulus, or a sensory channel. Consider sound. Some features of sound are of the “how much” variety. Loudness, for example. Sound can be overly loud. But frequency of a pitched sound is not of this kind. There, the discriminations we make are of the “what kind and where” type. A note cannot be unbearably high pitched in the same way that it can be unbearably loud. The “too much” features are prothetic (brightness is another such), the “what kind” features are metathetic (color or hue belongs here).
If we reject the inner/outer distinction, and acknowledge the difficulty in trying to force a divide between subject and world, then much of thought appears as a primarily metathetic modality specific way of bringing forth a world, not really different from many aspects of vision or audition. Perhaps we should talk to the Buddhists.
When bandying the word ‘causal’ in light-hearted conversation, most folk mean cause-and-effect, or efficient cause, in which one cause precedes a subsequent effect. They are distributed in time. Our best science does not provide this kind of account. It instead provides a formal causal account, as exemplified in the association of a vector field, or dynamic, over some set of observables. Feynman points this out nicely:
This little quote from Thomas Fuchs makes an important point:
The brain does not generate a mind. It mediates a relationship between organism and environment. This gives rise to the P-world. Phenomenologists call this being-in-the-world. But that domain is not co-extensive with the person. Those elements of meaning that contribute to the disparate facets of the person arise in many such relations, not only those of organism and environment, but among organisms, and in complex interactions among individuals and collectives at many scales.
Just as the cells in a liver lead very free lives modulo the constraint that they act in a manner suitable for maintaining the liver, so we too see ourselves as free, while we simultaneously constitute a dynamic reality at many scales, each with its own limited form of lawfulness.
How fast does time unfold? Silly question. It unfolds at one second per second. The tautology makes it clear that time, itself, does not have a rate. Rather, it is a coordinate system that allows us to label, order, and sequence events. This way of viewing time is called the B-series, and can be contrasted with the experience of time, the A-series, which is perpetually of a present moment, separating an established past from an indefinite future. These are radically different ways of conceptualizing time.
It might help if the Pharisee put his cards on the table, and said, once, if not for all, what he believes:
There are necessary epistemological limits to any finite being
There are no distinct inner and outer realms of existence
Most attempts to understand minds/consciousness/experience (MCE) start with the world and try to derive MCE from it. This is perverse.
The CSP starts with experience and seeks to derive the world
Language is intersubjectively constituted. Being linguistic, we interpret the world we meet using linguistic concepts. The world is thus largely collectively constituted. We are also collectively constituted.
Autonomy lies in the eye of (some other) beholder
The passage of time is a curious feature of human experience. It is not objectively real in any sense.
In experience, subject and object are not separable entities.
Any useful or satisfying notion of self is not co-extensive with a singular locus of temporally unfolding experience.
Agency is a descriptive trick, that can never lead to a closed model.
There is no “hard problem”. The language used to set up the hard problem repeats all the known and fatal errors that arise when dealing with experience.
The supposed qualia are experiential, not observable. As used in standard discussion within the field of cognitive science and its philosophy, they are an attempt to take the domain of experience and treat it as a thing – as something to be found in the world. Worse, they partition experience, until all that is left is the poverty of the notion of “redness” or “sweetness”. Experience does not reduce in this fashion. This is the persistent problem: treating of mind, or consciousness, or qualia, as something to be found in the world.
My preferred term, because it helps to get things straight, is experience. Mind, consciousness and qualia are all just confused ways of acknowledging the reality of experience in the first person. And experience is not to be found in the world. Experience is what gives us a world in the first place.
Let us digress, before this becomes bitter, and go back to a fictional Isaac Newton, sitting under an apple tree in rural England, looking at apples, perhaps picking one or two up, feeling them, hefting them, throwing one up in the air and catching it, then biting into one.
“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.
How might we demur? My suggestion is to question the simplistic use of the personal pronoun, “you”, to refer to the antics of a bag of meat. If you (jake) believe that this word (you) refers to the carry on of your body, then Crick is probably right. However, if, as seems clear to me, the use of the personal pronoun is anything but simple, and refers to stuff that is both individual and collective, then it unravels.