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What is it like to be a bug?

September 14th, 2013

According to Calvin, at least, the same as to be a bat. But for the rest of us, it seems obvious that there is likely to be a qualitative difference between the subjective experience (if any) of a bug, and that of a bat. And, if true bugs don’t work for you in this example, there’s always the colloquial “bugs” such as bacteria and viruses, which presumably don’t have any experience at all.

The reason I make this point is that it’s long seemed to me that there’s a sorites problem with the ordinary person’s intuitive understanding of consciousness (at least for mine). In that understanding, either an entity is conscious or it’s not, but when you look at the “Great Chain of Being” from viruses to humans, there’s no obvious point at which to draw the line. I thought that Thomas Nagel’s famous paper on “What is it like to be a bat?” might address this problem, but as far as I can see he skates straight over it. Nagel takes it for granted that bats “have experience”, different from ours mainly in the consequences of having different senses and living in a different environment.

His closest approach to the sorites problem is to say that “I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travelstoo fardown the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. ” But the gradation here is in people’s beliefs. As I read Nagel, animals either have experience or they don’t, it’s just that, while we’re sure about bats, and presumably, in the other direction about viruses, we don’t know about wasps. But does Nagel really believe that at some point in evolutionary history, a light flicked on in a brain somewhere, and the first experience was had? He doesn’t say, and a (not very competent) search on my part failed to find much in the way of answers.

I guess this wouldn’t be a problem for someone like Dennett, whose account of consciousness seems to me to be consistent with a gradual expansion in complexity, analogous to the standard story about the evolution of vision. But I honestly don’t know whether that’s right and whether Dennett’s critics (who seem to be fairly numerous) have a better answer to this problem.

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  1. Ikonoclast
    September 14th, 2013 at 21:48 | #1

    What is consciousness? That is the first question. We humans tend to seat consciousness in congnitive or self-reflective consciousness (when we are thinking about it) but it is much more than that. Pain and pleasure are clearly fundamental aspects of consciousness. Many people have experienced episodes involving so much pain or sometimes so much pleasure that they were for a time conscious of nothing else. I suspect that lower down the evolutionary chain (well below primates, dolphins or even dogs but where there is still a nervous system) there is at least a mode of consciousness aware of pleasure and pain though not reflective about it. It would be more like living in a kind of pin-point present of pure sensation without memory or cognition. A bug (insect) might be in that zone.

    I would not nominate “experience” (meaning memory I assume) as a necessary condition of consciousness though it certainly qualitatively expands consciousness. Bees certainly have a form of memory as navigational memory. However, consciouness without complex experience and reflection would mean as I said a “present of pure sensation”. Various forms of short term and /or long term memory loss (alzheimers, transient global amnesia) in people I have observed have convinced me that they are still experiencing the world and feeling it in the moment even though the trace is soon lost.

    One analogy I use for myself is that consciousness is like a bullet travelling through time. If the bullet is potentially self-observing then if it is a tracer bullet it can look back and observe its own path. However, the trace always fades and follows the bullet so all eventually lost memories qualitatively reduce the experience of consciouness. Memory is probably necessary for the conscious feeling of existing through time; i.e. over a span of time.

    Not sure if this ruminantion will provide any illumination.

  2. Jim Rose
    September 15th, 2013 at 00:20 | #2

    Tullock wrote on the economics of non-HUMAN societies with a focus on ants and insects

  3. BilB
    September 15th, 2013 at 03:33 | #3

    For a little diversion from some wonderfully clever people

    http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/09/11/is-work-necessary/

    If you go a little way back to SC’s thread on the Mind towards the end (comments) I explore the notion that your cell phone could very well have a consciousness. For perspective, sts.

  4. A H
    September 15th, 2013 at 03:36 | #4

    If you are having philosophical questions about consciousness, you really need to go to Wittgenstein. Read Philosophical Investigations and then read it again. It’s a major failure of modern philosophy that they keep making arguments that Wittgenstein showed were flawed over 50 years ago.

    By asserting that subjective experience is a special type of thing, Nagel is essentially making a private language argument. But private language arguments are always flawed because one can never formulate the rules by which they are used, and therefore a private language can never be meaningful. It’s a subtle argument and it’s really best just to read the original Wittgenstein to see all the nuances.

    Personally, I feel like a lot of mistaken philosophizing about consciousness comes from taking the fact that we are subjective beings to be somehow strange. How could we not be subjective beings? The fact that we don’t have access to other people’s or being’s subjective states is simply because we are finite material entities, with limited intellectual capacities. This is all rather mundane, but philosophers ignore the mundaness of it and mistakenly attach all sort of weird properties to subjective experience. Just look at the widespread nonsense they spew about “beliefs”, which philosophers seem to believe are some sort of abstract objects that float around in the vicinity of our brains.

  5. BilB
    September 15th, 2013 at 04:12 | #5

    afterthought (based on experience)

    If bugs were humans they would all be psychopaths. When you burn out the empathy part of the brain you get beings with that singularity of purpose that is a primary feature of bug life.

  6. September 15th, 2013 at 04:29 | #6

    Yes, Wittgenstein has a lot to offer on this issue. You might also look M.E. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Or, if you’re too busy and like to stay close to economics, you might try my paper, “Some Wittgensteinian Reservations About Neuroeconomics,” which can be downloaded here:

    http://works.bepress.com/greg_hill/2/

  7. Ikonoclast
    September 15th, 2013 at 06:59 | #7

    @BilB

    Interesting thought. But we are all “psyhcopaths” to other species. Do we not wage chemical warfare against bugs? Do plants not wage chemical warfare against bugs? And so on and so on.

  8. BilB
    September 15th, 2013 at 07:30 | #8

    Indeed Ike, but mostly due to our plague proportions. Humans can and do in small part live in harmony with other species and nature generally. The thread substance is at what level does consciousness occur. To my thinking consciousness is an automatic feature of a brain capable of perceiving and reacting with the environment and storing experience, so this goes right to the most basic of insects and creatures.

    Broad empathy is a specific feature of humans and the highest level of creatures. Take that away and we are little more than high achiever bugs.

  9. Robert
    September 15th, 2013 at 08:15 | #9

    JQ, consciousness isn’t really my area, but I would venture that the consciousness sorites series you posit might be one that’s particularly suitable for a qualified epistemicist solution. i.e. somewhere along the line there’s a sharp, well-defined cut off point, but we don’t yet know where it is. Consciousness seems particularly likely to be a natural kind. If we find out more about the mental processes that define consciousness, we might become more aware of the “joints of nature” that distinguish consciousness from non-consciousness.

  10. Michael
    September 15th, 2013 at 09:02 | #10

    If I might chime in (and possibly this point has been already been addressed, but if so I haven’t seen the answer), the validity of reason is crucial here (as JBS Haldane noted in 1931). If everything is just observable atoms and energy, then reason cannot give an independent account of anything (let alone everything), being a feature of the observable universe.

    Reason must therefore originate independently of the observable universe, although being manifest in varying degrees in various organs of reason as possessed by living things, ranging from bugs up to humans (and increasingly, robots).

    If Reason (yes, it’s reified) originates independently of the organs of reason through which it occurs, then this could address Nagel’s point. Independent, pre-existing Reason occurs where microscopic and macroscopic bugs are, yet its effects are negligible there because such creatures lack the mental faculties to manifest it. Likewise, humans have a much greater capacity to manifest Reason (through their much greater brains), yet after four glasses of Shiraz that capacity would be substantially impaired. The thing Reason is still there, but even Einstein would not be able to reason.

    Frankly I don’t understand how Dennett (having read only summaries of him, rather than his work in detail) gets around the need for Reason to be independent of that which it describes, even with his “sky-hooks” (A great rock band, IMHO).

    As for Wittgenstein (without having read him), the idea of disparaging subjectivism has great appeal to me. Either something accords with reason or it does not, regardless of whether that truth is held as a subjective belief.

    The alternative, that reason is just a (very useful) accident that happens in our heads (and just happens to explain both events that occurred before human reason came to exist and events occurring 40 billion light-years away where our reason cannot reach), must be very comforting to governments seeking to control intellectuals (and particularly to torturers who are thus only torturing sacks of atoms and energy, not immortal human beings).

    IMHO.

  11. September 15th, 2013 at 09:37 | #11

    Dennett “gets around the need for Reason to be independent of that which it describes” by endorsing Quine’s “naturalized epistemology” wherein the set of reasons for holding a belief is replaced by a causal account of how we come to hold a belief. Not very satisfying for anyone who thinks we rightly distinguish the causes of a belief from the reasons offered in favor of it, and where the validity of these reasons is independent of whatever causal account may explain how we came to hold this belief.

    @Michael

  12. Ikonoclast
    September 15th, 2013 at 10:17 | #12

    Whatever the motivation of the topic, micro-economics is a fundamentally flawed field. It is too reductionist and ignores the reality of emergent phenomena.

  13. Neil
    September 15th, 2013 at 10:27 | #13

    Probably the canonical way to capture degrees of consciousness is by distinguishing between degrees of awareness and consciousness. Consciousness is held to be binary: you are either conscious or not. But awareness is continuous; we all experiences it gradations on awakening. Awareness might be cashed out in our access to the contents of our conscious states.

    Chalmers, who shares with John the honor of having been awarded a federation fellowship, is sympathetic to the view that consciousness is a primitive property. Everything – and not only bugs – has some glimmering of consciousness.

  14. Donald Oats
    September 15th, 2013 at 11:00 | #14

    Consciousness is in evolutionary terms, no different to an eye and the visual system, for example: the Intelligent Design people and the Creationism crowd love to crow that an eye is subject to irreducible complexity, meaning that if you remove any one bit of it, the rest won’t perform the “intended” function. It has been amply demonstrated that organs and their associated processes (e.g. the ongoing function of the visual system, in the case of an eye) have evolved from simpler things to more complex things, and often by co-opting a pre-existing body part for a different function. Furthermore, eyes have independently evolved in different species, and there are many different types of eye (insect eyes and human eyes, for two examples) throughout the kingdom of life. Why should consciousness, as we generally understand it, be any different?

    The octopus has an interlinking ring of ganglia (neural clusters) with nerves serving as the conduits connecting the ganglia into some organ that serves the same purpose as the mammalian blob of a brain does. The octopus, as experimentally verified, has an amazing propensity to problem solve, and is behaviourally driven by something that resembles curiosity. They certainly seem to communicate with one another through a very rapid and complex series of shape, texture, and colour changes of their bodies; obviously, to what extent this is communication remains to be resolved by future experiment.

    The point of mentioning the octopus is to demonstrate that intelligence has manifested in more than one kind of brain, i.e. a blob attached to a nervous system, or a ring of interlinking ganglia, with no obvious “brain-part.” So, from an abductive argument perspective, is it reasonable to think that consciousness is reserved for humans? Is it reasonable to think that consciousness is set apart from eyes and the visual process, in an evolutionary development sense? I’d answer no to both questions.

  15. Michael
    September 15th, 2013 at 11:41 | #15

    @Donald Oats
    Hi Donald. In addition to animals such as the octopus we also now have robots, clearly showing that consciousness is not exclusive to humans.

    My concern is simply that reason cannot purport to offer an independent perspective upon the observable universe, unless we hold that reason originates independently of the organs through which it acts. Reason itself is thus outside or above-Nature, or “supernatural”, although acting through Nature (the observable universe) and hence through observable processes.

    The conclusion that reason is not exclusive to humans is frequently used to then assert that it lacks an independent, supernatural quality. Instead the sorites problem (or problem of vagueness) that John related at the start, can be addressed by drawing an analogy from Einstein’s observations of relativity.

    He held (so far as I understand him) that the person on a train has a perspective that is as equally true as that of the person on the platform. Each can truly claim to be at rest, and that the other is moving. Likewise in reason generally, each observer can purport to be independent of the particular circumstances in which s/he is making observations, so far as s/he participates in Reason which originates independently of those circumstances in which the person reasons.

    Likewise, in the sorites problem, each appearance of the heap (of two or more particles) is real. Each is a heap.

    Again, the observation that a bug appears to reason does not undermine human reason, because humans are similarly articulating a pre-existing, independent, transcendent Reason that is embodied in bugs, bats and us.

    Creationists are just nuts. Not sure about Intelligent Design folks.

  16. Michael
    September 15th, 2013 at 11:47 | #16

    @Greg Hill
    Thanks Greg. Much to think about there.

  17. Ikonoclast
    September 15th, 2013 at 12:23 | #17

    @Donald Oats

    I essentially agree with your reasoning. It seems a worthwhile hypothesis and one supported (abductively) in its derivation.

  18. Ikonoclast
    September 15th, 2013 at 12:31 | #18

    @Michael

    To “hold that reason originates independently of the organs through which it acts” is a metaphysical or even religious thesis. It relies entirely on faith rather than empirical evidence. It is acceptable if you want to have this faith but as an article of faith is it is never amenable to standard objective or material analysis or the seeking of evidence for proof or disproof. What I am saying is that someone wanting to work from the basis of empiricism can have no fruitful discussion with another wanting to work from the basis of faith. The a priori assumptions of each are so incompatible that any meaningful dialogue is impossible.

  19. J-D
    September 15th, 2013 at 18:38 | #19

    @Michael
    There is no perspective on the observable universe independent of the observable universe. There are no observers who are independent of the particular circumstances in which they are making observations.

  20. Michael
    September 15th, 2013 at 19:11 | #20

    @J-D
    Hi J-D,

    Your proposition is a statement of objective truth, as if you believe you have a perspective that is not wholly determined by the biological, chemical, physical, economic, social and other circumstances in which you write. You are asserting a truth as if that truth was true (in some objective sense) even before you made it, before the human race existed. As if it’s true on the other side of the Andromeda Galaxy. You are, in short, using objective Reason to deny the objective truth of what it is that you see. No?

    A tough gig, I think.

  21. Michael
    September 15th, 2013 at 19:16 | #21

    @Ikonoclast
    Hi Ikonoclast

    I suggest that your faith in “evidence” is itself a belief that there is objective reality, as if things and even truth exists independently of whether I recognise the existence of that reality. I agree with you. Whole-heartedly.

    But your purported differentiation of faith from empiricism seems at odds with the origins of empiricism, articulated by Philoponus for example:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philoponus

    “standard objective or material analysis or the seeking of evidence for proof or disproof.

  22. sunshine
    September 15th, 2013 at 22:18 | #22

    @Jim Rose

    Tullock wrote on the economics of non-HUMAN societies with a focus on ants and insects

    Richard Dawkins thinks there is barley any type of basic human social organisation that cant be found in the ant world .
    There is a very attractive (Wittgenstein might just say ‘useful’) idea of a hierarchy of consciousness with us at the top giving the chain below us definition .I think he(W) would say it is much easier to answer why questions like these get asked, than it is to find the answers to them .They used to think no animal could reach for a spot that had been placed on its head after seeing itself in a mirror like we would ,but they are testing some animals and dolphins and magpies do it .
    Are we looking for something we alone have or just something we do much more than other beings ? Animals certainly reason.
    Wittgenstein only wrote 2 books ,both philosophy of language , the first a much different take on it than the last. It is now increasingly recognised the second book, Philosophical Investigations, is an idea of language from the (almost universally considered less well developed) Anglo-American tradition that has much in common with the modern Continental tradition (Post Structuralism) that it mostly predates . The first, The Tractatus, had a traditional idea of language as a tool we stand apart from and learn to use , the second developed a view that in important ways we dont stand apart from language ever ,we are born of it (not even just into it). Its a fast widening definition of language -not just spoken, written ,or thought words (in English ,French or whatever ) .Post-Structuralism has it including literally anything that can be any kind of sign -and in that way that is everything there is. Subjectivity/consciousness starts to look a lot language like. From this sentiment came Derridas controversial ‘there is nothing outside the text ‘statement.
    Very interestingly (to me anyway) the key Post-Structural thinkers with only a few small exceptions dont deal with the question of animal subjectivity. I would have thought with a normal very wide Post-Structural philosophy of language/subjectivity the question of animals jumps out at you ? -strange .*IMO their answer should be that there is no substantive difference of the kind people usually are looking for* .For his part Wittgenstein doesnt give it much thought either and ,though I cant remember why, I didnt really like it when he did. He was gay and came from a very very wealthy Austrian steel industry family and had several brothers who committed suicide . He said ‘meaning is language idling’.
    It may be a bit of a faux pas to say so but I reckon it is usually better to read about these folk than read the originals.
    I hope my memory serves my correctly above.

  23. J-D
    September 16th, 2013 at 10:44 | #23

    @Michael
    No, you’re wrong. I did not assert that my perspective is or was independent of the circumstances in which I write. Obviously it isn’t and couldn’t be. But so what? Are you suggesting that the fact that I made my assertion from a particular standpoint within particular circumstances is a reason to think it’s false? From your particular perspective within your particular circumstances, do you disagree with what I wrote?

  24. Michael
    September 16th, 2013 at 10:58 | #24

    Hi J-D.

    Yes I do disagree with what you wrote, from my particular circumstance, because I purport to do so using “Reason”, which I hold originates independently of my particular circumstances although operating in it and accessible to me as the practice of “reasoning”.

    For that reason I think that I can state a truth that is not completely constrained and determined by the particular circumstances in which I reason, but rather reflects a truth that is also accessible to others in other circumstances.

    For that reason I think others (such as yourself) capable of stating objective truth (with respect), rather than others’ truth being utterly contained by and determined by their circumstances.

    Therefore your statement “No, you’re wrong” is capable of being an objectively true statement. However, given that you appear to be asserting that reason and hence truth does not originate independently of the observable universe and hence our particular biological, economic etc circumstances, but rather that reason and truth are contained by and determined by circumstance, your statement that I am wrong is flawed.

    Put another way, when you say that I am wrong, aren’t you asserting some objective standard that is independent of circumstance, and hence independent of whether you or I agree with that statement?

    If so, aren’t you yourself presuming and even asserting that reason is ultimately not completely determined by circumstance, precisely when you are stating that I am wrong in holding that that is in fact the case?

    Thanks for engaging.

  25. JamesH
    September 16th, 2013 at 11:09 | #25

    If I understood Dennett et al’s argument correctly, the ability to have something resembling consciousness would be tied to the “bandwidth” of internal feedback loops within the brain, particularly those mediated by the senses, which allow one to subjectively experience something internally generated. Degree of consciousness would be governed by the number of hidden layers and interconnections between layers in one’s neural network.

  26. J-D
    September 16th, 2013 at 11:18 | #26

    @Michael
    When I observed that you were wrong, I meant specifically that you were wrong in attributing to me a position I have not taken. Now you’re doing it again. Earlier, you wrote ‘Your proposition is a statement of objective truth, as if you believe you have a perspective that is not wholly determined by the biological, chemical, physical, economic, social and other circumstances in which you write’. But I did not express such a belief. Now you write ‘you appear to be asserting that reason and hence truth does not originate independently of the observable universe and hence our particular biological, economic etc circumstances’. But I have asserted no such thing.

    The only conclusions I have ever reached have been reached in the circumstances in which I found myself, and the only conclusions you have ever reached have been reached in the circumstances in which you found yourself–by definition: that’s what ‘circumstances’ means; it’s impossible to be out of one’s circumstances, because if one is out of them they are no longer one’s circumstances. However, just because we reach our conclusions in particular circumstances does not guarantee error, and just because we reach our conclusions in different circumstances does not preclude agreement.

  27. Michael
    September 16th, 2013 at 12:12 | #27

    Thanks J-D.

    But you’re using terms like “I” and “you”. Aren’t “we” just bags of atoms and energy, whose physical definitions melt away the closer “you” or “I” look at them?

    Aren’t you really presuming that each of us is in fact “out of one’s circumstances”? We can transcend the circumstances in which we reason, by accessing the universal Reason. In this manner our reasoning is not completely determined by our particular biological, economic, etc circumstances.

    You say that it is impossible to be out of one’s circumstances, because you equate thought and hence your conclusions with “the circumstances in which I found myself”.

    You seem to be presuming that thought and reason is just the process of reasoning that happens in your skull and can be observed in terms of certain parts of the brain illuminating when stimulated etc.

    Yet if Reason is just our internal, “head-based” process of reasoning, that means Reason did not exist before humans arrived.

    If so, the only scientific laws are the ones that we invent and write down.

    And yet scientific laws clearly operated well before humans arrived to write them down.

    In what form did they exist, so as to operate on physical entities and yet not cease if particular physical entities disintegrated?

    I suggest that the pre-existence of scientific laws addresses your last point about conclusions in particular circumstances not guaranteeing error – You appear to presume that there is some independent standard against which one conclusion can be described as more accurate and another can be described as less accurate or even as an “error”. And how are any circumstances really “different” if the universe is ultimately just a soup of atoms and energy? Isn’t the appearance of things really secondary to the “process” view of the universe?

    As Heraclitus and Teenage Fan Club said, “everything flows”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Qmwre-FeEg (at 3:43)

    Cheers, M.

  28. sunshine
    September 16th, 2013 at 18:33 | #28

    @Ikonoclast
    Ike -a similar metaphor to your bullet one is of a ship traveling across an ocean of time .As it goes parts of it wear out and get replaced , or just fall off or get added. The ship that is you now may not have a single original part intact .This differs from your metaphor in that the bullet could be thought of as an enduring essence .

    @Michael

    @J-D
    I dont know if it will help or be relevant to you two, but it is said by Post-Structural philosophers of language that all the signs within any language/sign system/reason/logic/number system/consciousness etc are only defined with reference to each other ,like if you look up the meaning of a word in a dictionary what you find is a bunch of other words that are in the dictionary. The signs only have definition /meaning when compared and contrasted with each other internal to the system. Whether or not they say anything about a real world independent of that we cannot really know, but we act like they do and get on with daily life anyway.

  29. Martink
    September 16th, 2013 at 18:38 | #29

    John, the issue here is definitions, the sororities only applies to concepts without a very vague definition, as stated in the link, and as such doesn’t really matter much. And for that matter I don’t think you have worked out for yourself why you care about which organisms have experience. I would also say that there is a big difference between consciousness and experience, depending on what you mean by experience. The meaning, though not definition, of consciousness is much clearer.
    I don’t think any of this matters and I don’t think you have any reason to think it matters. And if you have a reason why it matters then the experience issue will not really be the issue, that will just be a matter of definition.

  30. Martink
    September 16th, 2013 at 18:39 | #30

    That should read ” the sororities problem only applies to concepts with a very vague definition”

  31. Jordan
    September 16th, 2013 at 19:01 | #31

    Mathematicaly define words: some, few, too (much, few), numbers of wheat in a heap.
    It is all about giving the meaning of words as they became.
    First you have to define all words to have no vaguenessnes, isn’t dictionary supposed to provide for that, isn’t standardized schooling supposed to standardize use of words so that communication is reduced of misscommunicaton problems?
    All of this discussion involves trust (or as some call it faith) in other human beings. Trust that opposing debater is using words in their own comprehension. Isnt’t schooling supposed to make word comprehension standardised?
    How many people use same words with different meaning then yours? If you have spend some time learning other languages you would have encountered such problems with misscomunication.

  32. Martink
    September 16th, 2013 at 19:38 | #32

    Jordan, you have completely misunderstood me. I am not asking for John to provide a meaning of various terms, I am suggesting that the issues John has raised are nothing more than the definition of some terms, and nothing more substantional.
    To explain further, I don’t think the sororities problem matters at all in any form (unless someone is stupid enough to sign a contract in terms like “many”) and I am confident you will be unable to find a single case where it would matter. I am suggesting that that the same applies to John’s problem.
    And I don’t think John was referring to any kind of faith, though his initial reference to consciousness might just indicate otherwise. That only came up in the comments.

  33. Jordan
    September 16th, 2013 at 21:25 | #33

    @Martink
    I am acctually saying the same as you, i just went past that after initial sentence. I went further following logic from initial question with problem of defining meaning of words.

    It is obvious that such question arise in computer programing; mathematicaly defining words. But also in political division where groups develop meaning of words independently and keep talking past each other.

  34. J-D
    September 16th, 2013 at 21:33 | #34

    @Michael
    It is one thing to say that I am a collection of atoms, and another thing to say that I am just a collection of atoms. If your introduction of the word ‘just’ is supposed to modify the meaning, in what way? And if it is not supposed to modify the meaning, what’s it for?

    Yes, I am a collection of atoms, and so are you. What of it?

    Apart from that, you are once again attributing positions to me that I have never asserted. I asserted explicitly, on the basis of the meaning of the words, that I can never be out of my circumstances, and yet you for some reason suggest that I am presuming that I am out of my circumstances, the exact opposite of what I said. I am presuming no such thing: you are plainly and simply wrong about that.

    You go on to attribute to me positions I have not taken when you write ‘you equate thought and hence your conclusions with “the circumstances in which I found myself”’ (that’s not what I wrote) and ‘You seem to be presuming that thought and reason is just the process of reasoning that happens in your skull and can be observed in terms of certain parts of the brain illuminating when stimulated etc.’ (that’s not what I wrote either).

    It is misleading to describe scientific laws as ‘operating’ on physical entities (or anything else), and also to describe them as having ‘forms’; scientific laws are descriptions of how things are, and scientific laws also describe how things were before there were any human beings to know that that’s how they were.

    Your concluding questions I am unable to decipher; I have failed in my attempts to extract meaning from them. Is there any chance you could rephrase them? I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to answer them if I can’t understand them.

  35. Ernestine Gross
    September 16th, 2013 at 22:57 | #35

    sorites: Heap of grain (paradox?)

    The chain argument uses integers to show that the word ‘heap’ does not correspond to a unique aggregate (instead of counting the elements in a particular ‘heap’). Hm.

    Words like ‘heap’ are useful to those who don’t want to measure something that is amenable to quantification (eg wheat grains), or list all items (eg heap of rubbish) or each individual’s income in a particular group of people, say a society.

    JQ, are you searching for a unifying idea for your planned critique of macro-economics?

  36. Sad Sam
    September 17th, 2013 at 08:19 | #36

    @Martink
    Thanks Sunshine, that’s where I wanted to get to – the point that if we don’t hold that Reason originates independently of the universe and hence the circumstances in which we reason, then all our definitions are really arbitrary – just a meaningless momentary blip in this huge universe.

    But that doesn’t account for things like scientific laws in our heads actually explaining (so far as we can observe) the observable universe even before humans existed. It is as if our laws and our reasoning reflects a pre-existing Reason of which pre-existing scientific laws are a feature or creation.

    To say that “we cannot really know” whether our reasoning, laws and “signifiers” (to which you refer) “say anything about a real world independent of that”, and that “we act like they do and get on with daily life anyway” is to unnecessarily limit the extent and grasp of human reason.

    Again, I would ask “What form did scientific laws (eg gravity) exist in before humans arrived to conceptualise them and write them down?”

    Don’t we have to concede that they existed (and hence the universe obeyed scientific laws, for billions of years before we showed up, rather than the universe acting in a way that we would now find irrational)?

    And if so, don’t we have to concede that rather than those laws occurring in an observable form, they were features of an unobservable, pre-existing and yes, above-Nature or “supernatural” Reason, which we were able to later articulate when we showed up and began participating in that Reason, through our process of “reasoning” in our heads?

  37. Michael
    September 17th, 2013 at 08:44 | #37

    Hi J-D

    (Hey, how did Sad Sam steal the credit for my post to Sunshine? Freaky.)

    It is one thing to say that I am a collection of atoms, and another thing to say that I am just a collection of atoms. If your introduction of the word ‘just’ is supposed to modify the meaning, in what way? And if it is not supposed to modify the meaning, what’s it for?

    Yes, I am a collection of atoms, and so are you. What of it?

    [If we are just collections of atoms and energy, then our reasoning is just that of a collection of atoms. It doesn’t mean anything other than in some passing trivial sense comprehensible to other such collections. If instead (as I believe is the case), there is a pre-existing Reason that originates independently of the observable universe and is the source of our ability to reason in a manner that is not totally determined by our biological, economic etc circumstances, so far as we participate in that independent Reason, then our conclusions are not just momentary accidents. Instead they are capable of reflecting reality as it was even before humans existed, billions of years before in fact. And human reason can also confidently make assertions about the nature of reality billions of light-years away, given that that pre-existing Reason operates over the whole universe, rather than humans having to presume that reality all the way over there will be the same as it is in our immediate environment.]

    Apart from that, you are once again attributing positions to me that I have never asserted. I asserted explicitly, on the basis of the meaning of the words, that I can never be out of my circumstances, and yet you for some reason suggest that I am presuming that I am out of my circumstances, the exact opposite of what I said. I am presuming no such thing: you are plainly and simply wrong about that.

    [So when you say “plainly and simply wrong”, you are saying “plainly and simply wrong” in the context of our agreed language and signifiers which are just a biological accident of circumstances, rather than there being any standard of “wrongness” that originates independently of our circumstances. Hokey dokey. Or not?]

    You go on to attribute to me positions I have not taken when you write ‘you equate thought and hence your conclusions with “the circumstances in which I found myself”’ (that’s not what I wrote) and ‘You seem to be presuming that thought and reason is just the process of reasoning that happens in your skull and can be observed in terms of certain parts of the brain illuminating when stimulated etc.’ (that’s not what I wrote either).

    [Whoops. Apologies for any word-stuffing-into-mouths. But then, what is the basis for the objectivity or accuracy of human reason, if reason is just a process that happens in our heads (and just happens to repeatedly, endlessly, make sense of the external universe, even before human reason could have existed)?]

    It is misleading to describe scientific laws as ‘operating’ on physical entities (or anything else), and also to describe them as having ‘forms’; scientific laws are descriptions of how things are, and scientific laws also describe how things were before there were any human beings to know that that’s how they were.

    [I appreciate that scientific laws are things we have made up. But I’m suggesting that their wonderful accuracy derives from their reflecting (however imperfectly) pre-existing, independent laws that operate out in the universe.

    If such pre-existing, independent laws did not exist and operate on physical entities even before humans showed up, then doesn’t that imply that there was chaos? Surely you’re not suggesting that there no scientific laws before humans arrived on the scene?

    If there were such scientific laws, in what form did they exist? Obviously they weren’t written down on a large asteroid or something.]

    Your concluding questions I am unable to decipher; I have failed in my attempts to extract meaning from them. Is there any chance you could rephrase them? I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to answer them if I can’t understand them.

    [My concluding comments were just emphasising that without pre-existing, independent, objective Reason (which we can participate in through our process of reasoning), there are no “things” in the universe – everything is just an unfolding process, it seems to me, a process that we can’t explain and in fact there is really not even any “me” or “we” to explain it.

    They were also an excuse to gratuitously link to a fabulous song which I hope you enjoyed even if my comments are not enjoyable.

    Cheers [and thanks v much to the indulgent moderator for allowing this branching conversation],

    M.

  38. Martink
    September 17th, 2013 at 10:14 | #38

    @Sad Sam

    Thanks Sunshine, that’s where I wanted to get to – the point

    I assume you were replying to Sunshine, certainly looks like it. Our posts came up the same time so I guess this could even be a software error.

  39. Martink
    September 17th, 2013 at 10:27 | #39

    @Jordan
    Thanks for your short reply, esp on a topic which seems to illicit long posts. Wish I could keep mine as short.
    But:

    It is obvious that such question arise in computer programing; mathematicaly defining words.

    No I am not suggesting the problem is that John hasn’t properly defined what he means. I am saying that whatever his real interest in the matter I don’t think it is at what evolutionary point do animals have experience. I don’t think that really matters to him and so the issue of definition is simply not relevant.
    Anyway I am not going to keep arguing on this as I think nearly all posts are well off topic. I’ll keep looking at replies of course, even in the sandpit if someone advises me. And of course I would be interested in what John has to say.

  40. J-D
    September 17th, 2013 at 10:39 | #40

    @Michael
    I began by expressing my dubiety about your introduction of the word ‘just’, and instead of clarifying the point you have responded by making further use of it. That does not assist clarity. If you continue to use the word ‘just’ without explaining why you’re using it, you will only confuse me further.

    I am a collection of atoms. You are a collection of atoms. Do you dispute this?

    If I am a collection of atoms, then it follows that my reasoning is the reasoning of a collection of atoms. I don’t see how there’s a problem with that. In particular, I don’t see how it follows that it doesn’t have any meaning, or that it is less meaningful than it would be if it were not the reasoning of a collection of atoms, or that it’s only trivially meaningful. If you don’t trust reasoning that is the reasoning of a collection of atoms, or if you regard the reasoning of a collection of atoms as less reliable than some other kind of reasoning, I don’t understand why.

    Each cosmologist of the last hundred years has also been a collection of atoms, and I don’t see how that’s a reason to place less reliance on their reasoning about events billions of years ago or billions of light-years away. Do you?

    I did not and do not assert that human language is an accident. I am reasonably confident that you understand what I mean by ‘wrong’. If you don’t, please say so. Do you never use the word ‘wrong’? Are you not clear on what you mean by it?

    You ask about the basis for the accuracy of human reason, but I am not sure I have fully understood what you mean in this particular context by ‘basis’. I am also a little uncertain about your reference to the accuracy of human reason, since human reasoning is not invariably perfectly accurate. Personally I think the causes of occasional (or more than occasional) inaccuracy in human reasoning are a more interesting subject, but in any case no account of human reasoning that does not deal with its inaccuracies as well as its accuracies can be adequate.

    I did not and do not say that ‘scientific laws are things we have made up’, and if that’s what you think then you have erred. What I did say is that scientific laws are descriptions of how things are. I think this this subject would be much easier to discuss with reference to a specific example (or perhaps more than one). Would it be possible for you to nominate an example of a scientific law that would suit you for illustrative purposes?

    I contemplate the possibility that the notion of an enduring self is a delusion shared by a succession of different people all of whom use the same name that I do. Maybe that is so. If so, it doesn’t bother me. If there’s a succession of different people who have shared this continuing delusion, they do have a significant amount in common but maybe, despite the similarities, J-D of 2013 is not the same person as J-D of 2012, and J-D of September is not the same person as J-D of August, and J-D of Tuesday is not the same person as J-D of Monday. Does this possibility bother you? Here are references to two different takes on the idea from a cartoonist and a webcomic creator:
    www dot thepaincomics dot com slash weekly090218 dot htm
    www dot irregularwebcomic dot net slash 1635 dot html

  41. Donald Oats
    September 17th, 2013 at 12:07 | #41

    Although it is currently difficult to reach a general agreement as to what constitutes consciousness, I am confident that scientists will succeed in nailing some basic properties which are features of consciousness in humans, at least. Consciousness, as I’ve claimed before, is likely to be range of conditions/states, rather than a particular state. In other words, consciousness is not atomic (i.e. is not some indivisible entity, but rather it is a category, containing different elements that represent different types/degree of consciousness).

    For humans at least, consciousness resolves into properties such as the ability to organise and plan (a task, for example), an awareness—that can be demonstrated—of self and the self’s context within its environment, and perhaps the ability to recount past events in time sequence. A capacity to map out future course(s) of interaction with the environment (eg how another person will respond to a given statement, and to adapt accordingly) might also be considered a property of consciousness.

    The interesting thing about the awareness of self property is that it can be disrupted in some people, resulting in a person who is by other measures conscious, but none the less has an incorrect perception of their bodily self’s location within the environment. A classic example of this is when people feel that they are floating above their bodies, looking down at what is happening to them—as has occurred during surgery, in some instances. In these cases, anaesthesia has only had a partial effect upon their brains, knocking out the region responsible for incorporating the bodily self within the context of environment. Other strange effects like this have occurred through neural disruption, such as with brain tumours, or anti-epileptic electrode implants. Again, this is evidence that consciousness should be considered as a category containing many different notions of consciousness, sensitive to context.

    As for animals, I’d say from personal experience that both cats and dogs can act in ways which in a human would be cause to believe that they have first planned what they intend to do, understanding and appreciating some chain of cause and effect, and then following through. Animals at play can exhibit levels of cunning and deception that are evocative of creative acts of the imagination. Whether that is really so, and/or to what degree is mere humanising of what we see, may well be decided through more detailed dynamic scans of regions of brain activity in these animals—and humans. Personally, I see no particular reason at the moment to consider consciousness as different in kind to other natural features which have evolved in animals.

  42. Michael
    September 17th, 2013 at 13:07 | #42

    @Martink
    Yes, sorry ’bout that Martink

    @J-D
    Sorry J-D.

    In terms of observable material, yes we are a collection of atoms. I don’t dispute this.

    However, I would assert that pre-existing, independent Reason acts through collections of atoms.

    Your proposition that a collection of atoms alone can reason is problematic for me.

    Why should I trust the reasoning of one collection of atoms such as a human, to inform me any more than I would another collection of atoms such as a bag of lawn clippings? You wouldn’t trust the “reasoning” of a bag of lawn clippings would you? If not, why trust the reasoning of another collection of atoms such as a human?

    Each cosmologist of the last hundred years has also been a collection of atoms, and I don’t see how that’s a reason to place less reliance on their reasoning about events billions of years ago or billions of light-years away. Do you?

    The validity of the reasoning of cosmologists (and ourselves) is more than that of a bag of lawn clippings (which you surely would not trust – I have ceased to do so!), because we presume that humans are able to articulate an independent standard for observing and describing the universe. That independent standard (Reason) tells us that such brilliant minds see as much as a child or ourselves but can also see more. Their reasoning is not just a feature of their particular social, physical or economic circumstances, but offers more universal truths which we can apply centuries later in quite different circumstances.

    It’s like having being able to use a ruler. The ruler is useless unless we suppose it is independent of that which it measures. No?

    Likewise, were reason ultimately just a feature of the observable universe, it would not offer a ruler or an independent measuring stick for describing the universe. It would be merely part of that which it was measuring, like a virus-checker that supplied by the manufacturer of the computer virus.

    As to human language, if humans are collections of atoms and nothing more (including the reason we express), then everything about us and in us is an accident, like the universe, I would have thought. According to what independent standard (independent and hence not an accident itself) would you suggest otherwise? Our agreement as to the meaning of “wrong” and language generally is just a feature of a pretty small civilisation of one particular solar system of the Milky Way, one of 170 billion galaxies in this universe. By what standard do you say that it means anything to the universe at large, and hence is not just a passing blip in the life of the universe?

    Further, I find human reason incredibly accurate. We can calculate that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, and then correct that to 13.8 billion years when we receive more info. There is much more to learn, obviously, but the fact that we can perceive the shortfalls of human accuracy is an indication that human reason is pretty darned amazing. I just find it astonishing that many people insist that the fact whereby we are collections of atoms (and energy) can itself be reconciled with that capacity to reason, as if our reason is merely that of a collection of atoms like a bag of lawn clippings. Human inaccuracy of reason is also fun of course:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Heroic_Failures

    As to scientific laws, how about the law of gravity? It clearly existed before humans existed, conceived of it, wrote it down, and then over time (not necessarily gradually) improved its accuracy so as to better reflect the real, operating, pre-existing “out there” law of gravity.

    In what form did it exist (and operate, so as that physical objects acted in a routine way) before humans even existed?

    My whole argument can be largely reduced to this question.

    As to the “delusion” of an enduring self, I do think that governments of the nastier sort and torturers worldwide would be glad for us to voluntarily believe that we don’t really exist – it would make their job less guilt-ridden. And advertisers – they weren’t manipulating immortal souls deciding their eternal fate – no – they were just differentiating products – us.

    Thanks for the links to the comics – so much fascinating stuff out on the web (and hope I performed the courtesy of addressing your points this time).

    Cheers,

    M.

  43. Michael
    September 17th, 2013 at 13:12 | #43

    @Donald Oats

    Hi Donald

    If I may respond to your thoughtful and extensive post briefly, I would suggest that when scientists can explain consciousness, they will have proved something else instead – the existence of transcendent Reason.

    As set out elsewhere here, to give an independent account of the human faculty of reasoning itself, would seem to require an source of reason that originates independently of human reasoning, and yet is articulated through that process.

    No?

    M

  44. J-D
    September 17th, 2013 at 14:48 | #44

    @Michael To answer your question (No?): No.

  45. Michael
    September 17th, 2013 at 23:24 | #45

    @J-D
    Brief is good J-D (and the moderator has been indulgent), but would you care to respond to the question “In what form did scientific laws operate before humans existed to write them down?”

  46. J-D
    September 18th, 2013 at 11:30 | #46

    @Michael
    I think I already did, but I don’t mind repeating myself in more detail.

    I think it’s misleading to refer to scientific laws as ‘operating’. That could create the impression that, for example, the laws of quantum electrodynamics are things that exist independently of matter and electromagnetic fields and that cause matter and electromagnetic fields to behave the way they do, which is not the case. I think it can sometimes be misleading to use the word ‘laws’, for that matter, and I think you’ll find that scientists often don’t.

    Scientists investigating the interactions of matter and electromagnetic fields detected regular patterns. The mathematical formalisms of quantum electrodynamics are statements, in the most precise form, of what those patterns are.

    There is no reason to think those patterns were different before humans existed and every reason to think they were the same. The mathematical formalisms of quantum electrodynamics state the patterns in which matter and electromagnetic fields interacted before humans existed just as much as since; if you want to call them ‘laws’ (although I doubt anything is gained by doing so), then the only thing it can mean to say that the laws of quantum electrodynamics ‘operate’ is that matter and electromagnetic fields interact in the patterns stated by those laws (and not otherwise), and they ‘operated’ before humans existed in just the same way they do now.

  47. J-D
    September 18th, 2013 at 11:59 | #47

    @Michael
    First point:

    A human being is a collection of atoms. A pot plant is also a collection of atoms. The pot plant is a collection of atoms that is capable of photosynthesis. The human being is a different kind of collection of atoms that is not. The human being is, however, capable of reasoning. The pot plant is a different kind of collection of atoms that is not capable of reasoning.

    If I encounter a collection of atoms that is capable of reasoning but is not a human, then I would decide how much trust to put in its reasoning by judging in the same way as I do with humans (some of whom, after all, reason better than others). The reason I put no trust in the reasoning of pot plants is because there is no such thing: pot plants do not reason at all, just as humans do not photosynthesise.

    Being a collection of atoms is not enough by itself to make something capable of reasoning, just as it is not enough by itself to make something capable of photosynthesis. But that doesn’t mean that no collection of atoms is capable of reasoning. I think you have committed the fallacy of illicit process of the minor term.

    Second point:

    For an act of measurement to take place, there must be interaction between the instrument of measurement and whatever is being measured. Therefore it is not possible for something to function as an instrument of measurement and yet remain completely independent of whatever is being measured.

    Third point:

    Words mean what people use them to mean. To say that the word ‘wrong’ means the same to you and me, or very nearly the same, is to say that you and I use it in the same way, or very nearly the same way. I have never observed or had reported to me any instances of the universe as a whole using the word ‘wrong’, so I see no basis for drawing any conclusion that the word has any meaning to the universe as a whole. But I don’t see how that interferes with our communications using that word, so long as we keep using it in the same way, or nearly enough so.

  48. September 18th, 2013 at 12:09 | #48

    J-D, you write, “Scientists investigating the interactions of matter and electromagnetic fields detected regular patterns. The mathematical formalisms of quantum electrodynamics are statements, in the most precise form, of what those patterns are.”

    Questions for you: are these the patterns of a mind-independent reality or do they reflect conceptual choices on the part of scientists? What do you make of Richard Feynman’s demonstration that quantum mechanics can be described in two different ways, as a superposition of infinite number of different particle configurations or as in the Feynman diagrams? And, finally, are you convinced that quantum theory can be articulated without reference to an observer?

  49. Michael
    September 18th, 2013 at 15:10 | #49

    @J-D
    @ Greg Hill

    Thanks to both of you for engaging, but could we continue this elsewhere?

    There’s this beaut new Sandpit that has opened up, and I think that this discussion qualifies as a long side-discussion.

    I’ll reply to there J-D.

  50. Nick
    September 18th, 2013 at 19:09 | #50

    We may be subjectively limited in our awareness of other animals’ consciousness, but that lack of awareness isn’t at all fixed. Every day via science and a million shared Youtube videos and photos, we discover new things about bugs and bats and other creatures. We learn more about they’re ability to socialise, and co-operate, and compete, and plan, and organise, and flirt, and emote, and dance, and ritualise, and grieve, and react and evolve to their changing environments.

    What grows with this understanding of other creatures’ consciousness is our consciousness. Our own subjective understanding of the world we live in, and the life we share it with. The more we understand, or can better approximate an understanding, of another’s subjectivity, the better and more richly we experience our own.

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