Sense, Essence, and Existence

A ManifesT.O.E. of the Over-Examined Life

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Consciousness or awareness or sense is the concrete and direct aesthetic encounter which defines all possible phenomena. Data or information is an accumulation and communication of signs, which intellectually represent the facade of experiences that relate to the function of their significance to the experiencer.

When Kant wrote:

'Being' is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves.

he brings up a point of distinction which I think can be resolved when we consider consciousness to absolutely primitive in the universe. When we say that something exists or that it simply is, we are invoking an unacknowledged sense of omnipotence. When we say for example that a circle exists, we are really exporting our own experiences of seeing circular patterns, or of participating in circular motions, repeating processes, etc into a hypothetical experience which hypothetically does not belong to us.

To say that the circle exists does not add anything to the description of a circle. We cannot imagine that there is a ‘circle which does not exist’ and expect it to be meaningful, since there is nothing that it means not to exist other than to be absent from consideration in the first place. It is upon this minor slip of epistemology into pseudo-ontology that the entire criticism of idealism hinges. George Berkeley’s phrase Esse est percipi (“To be is to be perceived”) encapsulates this recognition that the notion of being is a fallacy when it is separated from perception. Unfortunately, Berkeley was in my opinion too far ahead of his time to escape being misunderstood, and he himself had a conception of human psychology which was too simplistic to recover the principle without appeal to religion. He did not consider separating out perception from a perceiver or distinguishing human perception from non-human perception. The famous garbling of Berkeley’s ideas which we know as ‘If a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody around to here it, does it make a sound?’.

This of course was not very close to the philosophy that Berkeley had in mind since it opens a huge loophole that we find to be silly on the face of it. Of course a tree falling in a forest makes a sound - animals hear it, the ground shakes, etc. To say that none of that exists just because no human being is around would be insane. When we consider, however, that the nature of hearing is such that the event of the tree falling is part of a chain reaction that includes compression waves in the air, and our ears, and isomorphic waves of biochemical activity in the nervous system and brain, it is difficult to say what it is that is a ‘sound’ and how much a sound can really be separated from the experience of hearing.

Even if we can’t hear, the vibration of a tree falling is something that we can feel throughout our body. Informally we might say that we felt the vibration, or that we could feel the that the tree fell, but ultimately it is our own feeling of our body which is vibrating. We feel the world through our body, but the body, world, feeling, and vibration are different levels of description of the same thing. There is no vibration, tree, or body which exists independently of a sensory experience in which those things are presented. It is my suspicion that our conception of electromagnetism as a sort of vibration in a vacuum is mistaken because of the failure to consider the kinds of ideas that Kant and Berkeley were talking about.

In a previous post on autism, I made the connection between poor theory of mind skills and the denial of the hard problem of consciousness. This cartoon which has been used to study theory of mind in autistic kids can give some important insight as to fundamental differences in how people understand perception and reality. In the autism cases, children tend not to be able to understand that Sally will not know that Ann has put the ball in the box since they, the reader of the cartoon, knows that Ann put it there. This ‘mindblindness’ is exactly what Berkeley and Kant were each trying to overcome in their own way. Kant pointed out that the concept of existence or being without perceptual essences is purely conceptual, while Berkeley saw that perceptual essences are in fact identical with being. Our seeing Ann put the ball in the box does not give Sally access to that experience. Writing a program which displays the cartoon does not give the computer an experience of seeing it. 

The interesting thing about awareness is that it is a real predicate. Unlike the idea of ‘being’ or existence, awareness isn’t merely the idea that X is a “thing” but that X is a concrete perceptual encounter. It has aesthetic qualities like hot or cold, loud or quiet, etc. Even the feeling of being a perceiver of X can be understood as a kind of feeling, so that we need not think of the entire universe as miniature souls as Leibniz thought (monads), but a vast exchange and development of perceptions. Beginning from there, we can see how quantitative structures could emerge from variations in aesthetic qualities and how those structures could be used as mechanical shortcuts for prediction and control, yet without ever developing additional qualities of experience on the machine level.

Searle’s Chinese Room and the other Symbol Grounding arguments are attempts to bring Kant and Berkeley’s insights into artificial intelligence. They show how a computer can function on a syntactic level, passing recorded relations of data back and forth, without having any higher level understanding. There doesn’t appear to be any special level of sophistication at which a machine that is built to imitate functions of the mind becomes a genuine experience of its own. As long as we look for a magic formula to create a ‘being’, we are making the mistake of confusing a ‘dozen’ with a thing that can be built out of eggs.

Gödel of the Gaps

So much of our attention in logic and math is focused on using processes to turn specific inputs into even more specific binary outputs. Very little attention is paid to what inputs and outputs are or to the understanding of what truth is in theoretical terms. The possibility of inputs is assumed from the start, since no program can exist without being ‘input’ into some kind of material substrate which has been selected or engineered for that purpose. You can’t program a device to be programmable if it isn’t already. Overlooking this is part of the gap between mathematics and reality which is overlooked by all forms of simulation theory and emergentism. Without some initial connection between sensitive agents which are concretely real and non-theoretical, there can be no storage or processing of information. Before we can input any definitions of logical functions, we have to find something which behaves logically and responds reliably to our manipulations of it.

The implications of binary logic, of making distinctions between true/go and false/stop are more far reaching than we might assume. I suggest that if a machine’s operations can be boiled down to true and false bits, then it can have no capacity to exercise intentionality. It has no freedom of action because freedom is a creative act, and creativity in turn entails questioning what is true and what is not. The creative impulse can drive us to attack the truth until it cracks and reveals how it is also false. Creativity also entails redeeming what has been seen as false so that it reveals a new truth. These capabilities and appreciation of them are well beyond the functional description of what a machine would do. Machine logic is, by contrast, the death of choice. To compute is to automate and reduce sense into an abstract sense-of-motion. Leibniz called his early computer a “Stepped Reckoner”, and that it very apt. The word reckon derives from etymological roots that are shared with ‘reg’, as in regal, ruler, and moving straight ahead. It is a straightener or comb of physically embodied rules. A computer functionalizes and conditions reality into rules, step by step, in a mindless imitation of mind. A program or a script is a frozen record of sense-making in retrospect. It is built of propositions defined in isolation rather than sensations which share the common history of all sensation.

The computing machine itself does not exist in the natural world, but rather is distilled from the world’s most mechanistic tendencies. All that does not fit into true or false is discarded. Although Gödel is famous for discovering the incompleteness of formal systems, that discovery itself exists within a formal context. The ideal machine, for example, which cannot prove anything that is false, subscribes to the view that truth and falsehood are categories which are true rather than truth and falsehood being possible qualities within a continuum of sense making. There is a Platonic metaphysics at work here, which conjures a block universe of forms which are eternally true and good. In fact, a casual inspection of our own experience reveals no such clear-cut categories, and the goodness and truth of the situations we encounter are often inseparable from their opposite. We seek sensory experiences for the sake of appreciating them directly, rather than only for their truth or functional benefits. Truth is only one of the qualities of sense which matters.

The way that a computer processes information is fundamentally different than the way that conscious thought works. Where a consistent machine cannot give a formal proof of its own consistency, a person can be certain of their own certainty without proof. That doesn’t always mean that the person’s feeling turns out to match what they or others will understand to be true later on, but unlike a computer, we have available to us an experience of a sense of certainty (especially a ‘common sense’) that is an informal feeling rather than a formal logical proof. A computer has neither certainty nor uncertainty, so it makes no difference to it whether a proof exists or not. The calculation procedure is run and the output is generated. It can be compared against the results of other calculators or to employ more calculations itself to assess a probability, but it has no sense of whether the results are certain or not. Our common sense is a feeling which can be proved wrong, but can also be proved right informally by other people. We can come to a consensus beyond rationality with trust and intuition, which is grounded the possibility of the real rather than the realization of the hypothetical. When we use computation and logic, we are extending our sense of certainty by consulting a neutral third party, but what Gödel shows is that there is a problem with measurement itself. It is not just the ruler that is incomplete, or the book of rules, but the expectation of regularity which is intrinsically unexpected.

One of the trickiest problems with the gap between the theoretical and the concrete us that the gap itself is real rather than theoretical. There can be no theory of why reality is not just information, since theory itself cannot access reality directly. Reality is not only formal. Formality is not real. There is a bias within formal logic which favors certainty. This is at the heart of the utility of logic. In mathematician Bruno Marchal’s book “The Amoeba’s Secret”, his view on dreams hints at what is beneath the surface of the psychology of mathematics. He writes

“What struck me was the asymmetry existing between the states of dreaming and of being awake: when you are awake, you can never be truly sure that you are. By contrast, when dreaming, you can sometimes perceive it as such.”

Surely most of us have no meaningful doubt that we are awake when we are awake. The addition of the qualification of being “truly sure” that we are awake seems to assume that there is a deeper epistemology which is possible – as if being awake required a true certainty on top of the mere fact of being awake. To set the feeling of certainty above the content of experience itself is an inversion; a mistake of privileging the expectations of the intellect over the very ground of being from which those expectations arise.

Likewise, to say that we can sometimes perceive our dreaming in a lucid dream is to hold the dream state to a different epistemological standard than we do of being awake. If we could be awake and not really be sure that we are, then certainly we could think that we are having a lucid dream, but could be similarly misinformed. We could be dead and living in an afterlife from which we will never return or some such goofy possibility. Mathematical views of reality seem to welcome a kind of escapist sophism which gives too much credence to rabbit holes and not enough to the whole rabbit.

That we sometimes tell when we are dreaming means only that we are more awake within our dream than usual – not that our usual awareness is any more true or sure than it ever is. If we are uncertain in waking life and certain in dreams, it is because our capacity to tell the difference is real and not a dream or theory. There is no way to prove that we are awake, but neither is there any need to prove it since it is self-evident. Any proof that we could have could theoretically be duplicated in a dream also, but that does not mean that there is no difference between dream and reality. The difference is more than can be learned by ‘proof’ alone.

sharkman-land said: Hi! In your "debating the concept of God" post, I have trouble understanding the logic of the first person you quoted at all. I can conceive of lots of things that may not exist or be possible. I suppose we could define God as the greatest extant being, but that says nothing about the actual properties of this being and I certainly don't see why it would be beholden to or even comprehensible by human minds. The logic comes up meaningless for me.

Hi, yeah, I was compelled to comment on what he was saying in the first place, just because it seemed so thoughtless and adamant.

Debating the Concept of God

"God is the Greatest Being conceivable. The greatest being conceivable cannot be conceived in the mind alone, therefore there would be another greater. Therefore, God exists."

What if I can conceive of a greater context than Beings though? Beings require certain sensible expectations - centrality, continuity, singularity vs multiplicity or foreground vs background. Can a being create being itself? God and Being have to make sense before they can exist, and if sense can create God and Being, then the existence of God becomes optional rather than a logical necessity. God may exist, but it would not be for a logical reason. As far as I can see it could only be an empirical fact about sense that it must ultimately be identical with “a” Being, which I don’t agree with unless someone shows me why I have to agree.

Personally, I think that the idea of teleological absolute that is in superposition with non-teleology* makes a nicer kind of faith than a positive assertion of a teleological supreme. It would be a faith that matters since it would actually contribute to the bringing about of God. Rather than asserting that God must exist, we are called upon to ask ourselves how we can help God or God-ish virtues become more fully realized.

"What if I conceive of a round square? Oh yea, I can’t! I can only say the words. The conception is pure nonsense…and this is the same for conceiving of a greater context than ‘Beings.’

Yes! That is exactly my point. I certainly cannot conceive of a round square, and I certainly cannot conceive of a new primary color. I can however conceive of experience without a body or a brain. I can conceive of experience without a self or a being. In fact, we can say with certainty that the concept of God is intrinsically tied to the epistemology of faith rather than the kind of incontrovertible epistemology which tells us about color and shapes.

To me, this supports the idea that the cosmos of experience is greater than the concept of God can contain, and that Being or God (or the concept of God) are types of experience. This does not, however mean that God or the concept of God cannot be more significant than the rest of the cosmos for human beings, or some human beings. I still think that it is more attractive, even in that case, to consider the choice of one’s faith to be a largely private matter. It actually diminishes the concept of God, in my view, to put it in the same category as colors and shapes - nearly meaningless facts of nature which require almost nothing of us to consider. For most people, God is glimpsed on rare occasions or not at all. If I were explaining the universe to someone who was somehow a stranger to it, I would talk about the beauty and horror of the world, and all of our senses of it. I would include the love of God and the power of the God concept throughout recent human history. I would not, however, think that anything would be missing by leaving out a positive guarantee that God exists independently of human experience. I would not even give God a definite maybe, but a possible maybe - which is better in my book, lighter, more open. A quiet question rather than a loud answer.
*I call that ambitheism.

Race is not a biologically meaningful category. It is folk zoology misapplied to anthropology.

Sun Appreciation Moment

Power Output tex2html_wrap_inline99 watts (the Sun’s energy output is equivalent to about 4 trillion trillion 100 watt light bulbs)

90 billion H-bombs* every second.

    • Photosphere—light-emitting surface (5780K**). Just above it the temperature drops to 4000 K.
    • Chromosphere—color-layer; layer of small, intense red flames (50,000 K; 2500 km thick).
    • The total volume of the sun is 1.4 x 1027cubic meters. About 1.3 million Earths could fit inside the sun. The mass of the sun is 1.989 x 1030 kilograms, about 333,000 times the mass of the Earth.

The sun is classified as a G-type main-sequence star, or G dwarf star, or more imprecisely, a yellow dwarf. Actually, the sun — like other G-type stars — is white, but appears yellow through Earth’s atmosphere.


*Typical 1 megaton H-bombs”

**10106.33 degrees F°

1027=1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 = 1 octillion