bird poops on plum branch


Buster Benson

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consciousness is all that exists
bird poops on plum branch
Here's my favorite chapter from What We Believe But Cannot Prove. The chapter is by a cognitive scientist named Donald D. Hoffman who I have never heard of before but who I want to read more about. Here is his answer for what he believes but cannot prove:

I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists. Spacetime, matter, and fields never were the fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been among the humbler contents of consciousness, dependent on it for their very being.

The world of our daily experience--the world of tables, chairs, stars, and people, with their attendant shapes, smells, feels, and sounds--is a species-specific user interface between ourselves and a realm far more complex, whose essential character is consciousness.

It is unlikely that the contents of our interface in any way resemble that realm; indeed, the usefulness of an interface requires, in general, that they do not. The point of an interface (such as the Windows interface on a computer) is simplification and ease of use. We click on icons because it's quicker and less error-prone than editing megabytes of software or toggling voltages in circuits. Evolutionary pressures dictate that our species-specific interface--this world of our daily experience--should itself be a radical simplification, selected not for the exhaustive depiction of truth but for the mutable pragmatics of survival.

If this is right--if consciousness is fundamental--then we should not be surprised that despite centuries of effort by the most brilliant minds there is as yet no physicalist theory of consciousness--no theory that explains how mindless matter or energy or fields could be, or cause, conscious experience. There are many proposals for where to find such a theory--perhaps in information theory, complexity, neurobiology, neural Darwinism, discriminative mechanisms, quantum effects, or functional organization. But no proposal remotely approaches the minimal standards for a scientific theory: quantitative precision and novel prediction. If matter is one of the humbler products of consciousness, then we should not expect consciousness to be theoretically derived from matter.

The mind-body problem will be to physicalist ontology what blackbody radiation was to classical mechanics: first a goad to its heroic defense, later the provenance of its final supersession. The heroic defense of physicalist ontology will, I suspect, not soon be abandoned, for the defenders doubt that a replacement grounded in consciousness could attain the mathematical precision or impressive scope of physicalist science. It remains to be seen to what extent and how effectively mathematics can model consciousness. But there are fascinating hints: According to some of its interpretations, the mathematics of quantum theory is already a major advance in this project, and perhaps much of the mathematical progress in the perceptual and cognitive sciences can also be so interpreted. We shall see.

The mind-body problem may not fall within the scope of physicalist science, since this problem has as yet no bona-fide physicalist theory. Its defenders can argue that this means only that we have not been clever enough--or that until the right mutation comes along, we cannot be clever enough--to devise a physicalist theory. They may be right. But if we assume that consciousness is fundamental, then the mind-body problem changes from an attempt to bootstrap consciousness from matter into an attempt to bootstrap matter from consciousness. The latter bootstrap is, in principle, elementary: Matter, fields, and spacetime are among the contents of consciousness.

The rules by which, for instance, human vision constructs colors, shapes, depths, motions, textures, and objects--rules now emerging from psychophysical and computational studies in the cognitive sciences--can be read as a description, partial but mathematically precise, of this bootstrap. What we lose in this process are physical objects that exist independent of any observer. There is no sun or moon, unless a conscious mind perceives them; both are constructs of consciousness, icons in a species-specific user interface. To some this seems a reductio ad absurdum readily contradicted by experience and our best science. But our best science, which is our theory of the quantum, gives no such assurance, and experience once led us to believe that the earth was flat and the stars were near. Perhaps mind-independent objects will one day go the way of the flat earth.

This view obviates no methods or results of science but integrates and reinterprets them in its framework. Consider for instance the quest for the neural correlates of consciousness. This holy grail of physicalism can and should proceed, if consciousness is fundamental, for it constitutes a central investigation of our user interface. To the physicalist, such neural correlates are potentially a causal source of consciousness. But if consciousness is fundamental, then its neural correlates are a feature of our interface, corresponding to, but never causally responsible for, alterations of consciousness. Damage the brain, destroy the neural correlates, and consciousness is, no doubt, impared. Yet neither the brain nor the neural correlates cause consciousness; instead, consciousness constructs the brain. This is no mystery. Drag a file's icon to the recycle bin and the file is, no doubt, deleted. Yet neither the icon nor the recycle bin, each a mere pattern of pixels on a screen, causes its deletion. The icon is a simplification, a graphical correlate of the file's contents, intended to hide, not to instantiate, the complex web of causal relations.

I have read this maybe a dozen times and keep noticing different things about what it's saying. Well, it has taken me a while to understand all the different jargon he uses (like neural correlates and physicalist ontology), but I put in bold the sentences that keep making me think he might be on to something. If everything is just features of an interface into a much more complicated universe, it would make me feel better about a lot of my superstitions around manifesting intent, luck, randomness, the subconscious, emotions, and nonsense. Well, the philosophy, at least, seems to fit my current wacky philosophy aesthetic, and so I'm going to stick with it.

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Emily Dickinson was a bit more succinct.

The Brain -- is wider than the Sky --
For -- put them side by side --
The one the other will contain
With ease -- and You -- beside --

The Brain is deeper than the sea --
For -- hold them -- Blue to Blue --
The one the other will absorb --
As Sponges -- Buckets -- do --

The Brain is just the weight of God --
For -- Heft them -- Pound for Pound --
And they will differ -- if they do --
As Syllable from Sound --

Re: Emily Dickinson was a bit more succinct.

true. i haven't heard that poem in years... it's pretty great.

i guess there's emily dickinson for literary types and donald hoffman for nerds.

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