Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 20 June 2009

Subjectivity: The Mind’s I (Part I)

The title of this post is a direct steal from Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett. The Mind’s I is the title of a book they published in 1981, a collection of essays by various authors with the subtitle: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul. I’ve added the prefix because subjectivity is a recurring theme, at least in Part I.

After each essay they give a little commentary, but it’s the essays themselves that stimulated me. I’ve already written a post on one: Is God a Taoist? by Raymond M. Smullyan (refer Socrates, Russell, Sartre, God and Taoism in May 09).

So I will provide here my most significant impressions, or resultant thoughts, that just 3 of these essays have provoked. These are just from Part I of the book (there are 6 Parts) so I may well continue this discussion in a later post.

Borges and I by Jorge Luis Borges is an essay where Borges attempts to discriminate between his subjective and objective self in an accessible and entertaining way. It highlights the point made by John Searle in his book, MiND, that what distinguishes consciousness from other phenomena, that we try to investigate and understand, is that it has a distinctly subjective element that can neither be ignored nor isolated - it defies objectification by its nature.

The Dalai Lama makes a similar point in his book on science and religion, The Universe in a Single Atom, where he contends that neurological investigations into consciousness, whilst extremely edifying and illuminating, are really not the whole story without taking subjective experience into account.

The essay also explores, in an indirect way, the difference between the way we perceive ourselves and the way others do. I've always maintained that the most psychologically healthy relationships (work, family or friendship) are where these 2 perceptions closely align.

In the next essay, extracts from D. E. Harding's On Having No Head, Harding starts with an epiphany he had whilst looking at the Himalayas:

‘Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, my manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it.’

This, in itself, is an interesting revelation, coming from a man who makes no claim to mysticism. This epitomises subjective experience in as much as it cannot be shared with another. It's like someone, who viewed the world in colour, trying to explain it to a population of people who only saw shades of grey.

Harding then goes on to describe a world in which his head doesn’t exist for him, though he acknowledges they exist for other people – a form of solipsism. What I find significant is that he is highlighting what I call the inner and outer world that we all have, which is central to my own philosophy. The metaphor of ‘having no head’ which he talks about ‘literally’ (even a mirror image is a hallucination) is the void that exists in one’s mind except one’s thoughts. We have senses, yes, of which sight is the most dominating, but, as he points out, there is no screen that we view, it is simply ‘I’ looking out – the inner world’s most tangible connection to the outer world.

In other posts (specifically, Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness, Feb. 09) I argue that AI will never have this subjective sense that we have. So whilst machines can, and will be built to, ‘sense’ their environments, they won’t ‘experience’ it the way we do, is my contention. Most philosophers and scientists (including Dennett and Hofstadter) disagree with me, but both Borge’s and Harding’s essays merely underline this distinction for me.

Rediscovering the Mind by Harold J. Morowitz takes a different tack altogether. Morowitz, I assume, is a psychologist, and he tackles both the biologist and the physicist, who take a reductionist view of the world, whereby they presume they can explain macro-phenomena via investigation of micro-phenomena. Central to Morowitz’s thesis is an epistemological loop created by the accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics that it requires macro intervention by a conscious mind to produce a measurable result. He quotes Nobel laureate, Eugene Wigner: “It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.” Because the biological reductionist reduces mind to neurons, thus molecules, thus quantum phenomena, Morowitz argues that we have a quantum mechanical epistemological loop from mind to quantum phenomena to mind.

The best analogy for superposition of states is one of those pictures that have 2 images intertwined, like the famous duck and rabbit combination that Wittgenstein once referred to, and there is even a Dali painting that uses it. The most effective ones are those utilising 2 contrasting tones where the shadow reveals one image and the light reveals another. The point is that your mind can only perceive one image or the other but not both at the same time, and you can even ‘switch’ between them. Well, quantum superposition is a bit like that (especially the famous Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment) but once you make the ‘measurement’ or the ‘observation’ you can’t switch back.

Hofstadter tackles this conundrum in his ‘Reflections’ of Morowitz’s essay by pointing out that the mysteries of consciousness and the mysteries of quantum physics are not the same. On this I would agree, but he hasn’t eliminated the conundrum or the epistemological loop. Hofstadter then explains quantum superposition of states, culminating in a description of Schrodinger’s (simultaneously live and dead cat) thought experiment, and a discussion on Hugh Everett III’s ‘many worlds interpretation’, which he describes as ‘this very bizarre theory’.

In fact, Hofstadter gives the best dismantling of Everett’s hypothesis that I’ve read, pointing out that there is a specific ‘subjective’ world that is the one you continue on in, that effectively eliminates all the other worlds. To quote Hofstadter: ‘The problem of how it feels subjectively is not treated; it is just swept under the rug.’ (Hofstadter’s italics)

I find it interesting that Hofstadter evokes ‘subjectivity’ to eliminate, in one stroke, Everett’s contentious interpretation. Having said that, Hofstadter expands on his theme, revealing, in prose I won’t attempt to replicate, how personal identity becomes meaningless in an ever bifurcating universe for each individual occupant.

But getting back to Morowitz, one of the salient points he makes is that the evolution of the universe is a series of discontinuities, starting with the Big Bang itself. A major jump in time, and the emergence of life is another discontinuity, followed by the emergence of consciousness. Morowitz even argues that humanity’s ability for inner reflection is another discontinuity again, though I’m sure many would contest this last hypothesis without necessarily contesting the previous ones.

But, also, one wonders if there is not a discontinuity between the quantum world and the so-called classical world, the organic and the inorganic, the sentient and the non-sentient. I think he has a point, when one looks at it from that perspective, ignoring the context of evolutionary time, that our reductionist philosophy, so prized by science in general, tends to ignore or brush aside.

I expect I will return to this subject in a later post.

11 comments:

Peter Kent said...

Hi Paul,
Pandora's box is now a gaping maw, demanding that I retrieve and reproduce the many, varied and probsbly inconsistent (inasmuch as it would be provably impossible for me to be consistent and complete at one and the same moment, or perhaps even over a lifetime) views I've had on the subjects of consciousness, sentience, Heisenbergian uncertainty, solipsism, the Copenhagen Interpretation, the Many Worlds Interpretation, the relationship of metatheory to theory, the wholly inexplicable yet apparent inability of spectacularly brilliant scientists to distinguish between functioning model-theoretic constructs and the things they ostensibly model, the meaning of "reality," and why life sucks. (It's the latter that occupies most of my attention these days, but I haven't altogether forgotten my febrile ratiocinations and state of transcendental exasperation induced by contemplation of most of the former.) But I didn't want you to think I was ignoring you. :) Tell you what: I think I'll sleep on it, except perhaps to express my eternal annoyance with Bohr for his admonition to Einstein that he (Einstein) had no business telling God what to do, when quite obviously, Einstein was doing nothing of the kind, and none of this has much, if anything, to do with theology, and I am, myself, wholly sympathetic to Einstein's views about dice and the general dicey-ness of having things two ways (or all ways, or no ways) at once, and not only probabilistically: those are views I actually do hold, and not as the result of a collapsed wave function, whereas somewhere there's an ancient cat that strongly resembles me (in my current decrepitude) and yet holds entirely disparate views, except at those times when it's dead, so I can tell you that I, for one, am not about to go opening any boxes filled with Rube Goldberg contraptions that release poison gas, and what kind of mind would come up with such a thing, anyway? Yes, yes, I know: there's a problem in reconciling two different models that both reliably satisfy the criterion of predictive accuracy with respect to physical phenomena insofar as we can observe them and choose to observe them and believe that we're observing them (or ignore the issue entirely) at what might plausibly be construed to be the relevant descriptive level, but then, models aren't reality and isomorphisms of isomorphisms of isomorphisms aren't the thing itself, either, and I'm just getting exasperated again, and Hofstadter's said it all at least as well as James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, so I'm going to sleep now, all aleph-zero versions of me, and riverrun past multiverses of bad poetry and worse science, past Eve's and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius(and probably Moebius) vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. Cheers!
Regards, Peter

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Peter,

This is not a well-written essay, in that it doesn't have a well-structured argument with a definitive conclusion. More a collection of ideas with a core theme.

I'm trying to provoke thought. Often, my writing is just a means of self-edification, resulting from what I've read. Subjectivity kept rising to the surface, so that's what I wrote about.

Regards, Paul.

Peter Kent said...

Hi Paul,

1) Your essay was exquisitely well-written -- better, even, than most of your work, which is a high bar to clear. That it wasn't an argument but rather a constellation of reflections organized around the central theme of subjectivity was something I took for granted, and emphatically not something I meant in any way to criticize. You just succeeded too well in "provoking thought(s)," and I found myself inundated in such a cascade of them that I felt overwhelmed, and could respond only (initially) by means of a run-on, stream-of-consciousness screed, promising myself that I'd supply a more organized and cogent essay when I'd had an opportunity to sort things out. The rest was just meant to be a whimsical and semi-teasing act of logorrhetic procrastination.

2) Your reply seemed to suggest that you thought I might have intended my frivolous divagations in some way that was remotely captious or critical, which I promise you could not have been further from the truth. I'm always impressed by the range of your erudition and the depth of your insight into subjects that present enormous difficulty, even for professional academics. Truth is, as someone whose knowledge of quantum physics is only fairly rudimentary and peripheral to the erstwhile professional pursuit of AI and cognitive science, I'm not sure that I feel at all competent to tackle some of these issues without further thought (and perhaps some consultation with the resident Ph.D. physicist :)). But I'll give it a shot. Anon. :)

Regards,
Peter

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Peter,

I don't take offence at anything you say. I think that we are both a bit sensitive.

I was just conscious when writing this piece, that I hadn't reached a conclusion, whereas I usually do.

Thought-provocation is always the aim.

I'm always happy to hear from a professional physicist or anyone who is more knowledgeable than me.

Regards, Paul.

mmfiore said...

We are a group that is challenging the current paradigm in physics which is Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. There is a new Theory of Everything Breakthrough. It exposes the flaws in both Quantum Theory and String Theory. Please Help us set the physics community back on the right course and prove that Einstein was right! Visit our site The Theory of Super Relativity: http://www.superrelativity.org

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Mmfiore,

I've had a quick look, but will have a closer examination when I have more time.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

By the way, Mmfiore, have you read this post that I wrote last month?

Regards, Paul.

Peter Kent said...

Hi Paul,

I felt that, in order to give your post serious attention, I really
needed to do so interlinearly, and in multiple parts, just because of the amount of psychological, physical and metaphysical territory you managed to cover, so herewith part 1 of my promised belated, more considered analysis. (I should mention that I've also consulted my spouse, who is a qualified physicist, anywhere I felt myself to be on less-than-secure ground, but primarily in regard to part 2, which I haven't yet finished.) Truth is, though, she and I generally agree on the metaphysics of physics, so nothing much new emerged from the consultation except affirmation that I wasn't making a complete idiot of myself (which, viz. Goedel, would not preclude my being a consistent one, though). Disliking angle-bracket notation, I'll use our names to introduce paragraphs.

Paul: The title of this post is a direct steal...

Peter: I'm sure they wouldn't mind the theft, since you do them ample
justice, at least in the part you critique. Having actually taught a course on recursion and consciousness based on Hofstadter's Goedel, Escher, Bach, I'm profoundly embarrassed to confess that, whereas I did once possess a copy of The Mind's I (long story involving "diluvian" events), I hadn't actually read all of it, so in part, you were evoking distant memories for me, and in part, describing material I hadn't previously assimilated. The overall themes of sentience and subjectivity, though, were ones on which I'd focussed for most of my
academic career, so the evocation involved some pretty convoluted
associations.

Paul: ...Is God a Taoist?...

Peter: I think I commented on Smullyan's essay in connection with your earlier post, so I'll forbear to repeat myself here.

"Your HTML cannot be accepted: Must be at most 4,096 characters"

end, part 1

Peter Kent said...

part 1a
Paul: Borges and I by Jorge Luis Borges...

Peter: I am constrained to confess, and for reasons that I can't exactly explicate, that Borges has always annoyed me prodigiously. It's certainly not the person, Borges, whom I find objectionable; on the contrary, his early and courageous stands against fascism and anti-
Semitism invite my admiration, though his subsequent descent into the immitigable evil of conservatism is one I have to lament. In this instance, though, it is, frankly, his more metaphysical and literary
compositions, which I find at once vaporous, self-indulgent and
paradoxically narcissistic in their ostensible attempt to suppress subjectivity and avoid narrative appeal. But that's just an aesthetic and a literary reaction, not an analytical one, and it's not confined to "Borges y Yo." Even "Bestiario" annoyed me, and I could find no reason for its existence even as a whimsical encyclopedic compilation, so devoid is it of the least vestige of wit, humor or interest-sustaining content. Howsoever, Borges y Yo does make a point, and it's one that I think relates to the central paradox of existence: its "non-isotropicity," for want of a better description, or lack of symmetry in that the only position relative to ontology and awareness that can be affirmed tautologously is that of solipsism, which, for practical purposes revulses most people, and has, probably, no appeal as an operational lifestyle except for the clinically autistic. This has always bothered me, since I like my truths to be tautologous (or, at
least, which is equivalent, mathematically valid once the proffered axioms have been accepted). Borges often said that the one subject in which he was emphatically not interested was "Borges," (which I don't for
a minute believe, since a desire to have someone respect his preference for biographies that deemphasize his personality -- or anything else -- has paradoxically to imply a measure of egotism), so perhaps he was, from some (different) perspective troubled by the same problem. Which I can
understand. And perhaps I ought to refrain from disparaging conservative writers, on principle, because of my inability to exercise objectivity relative to an ideology I find so deeply
and repugnantly anti-human. Shutting up now.

(4096 char limit forces me to post multi-part)

continued...
Regards,
Peter

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Peter,

I didn't know there was a character limit on comments.

Not that I mind getting comments by installments.

Regards, Paul.

Peter Kent said...

Hi Paul,

I didn't know it either, and hadn't encountered the problem before. Possibly it's a new limitation introduced by blogspot -- if so, certainly not a welcome one. You'd think they'd be inundated with complaints. Oh, well...

Regards,
Peter