A thought experiment on consciousness

by Neil Rickert

Here’s a thought experiment.  I would appreciate reader comments on their reactions.

Let’s use the expression “real universe” for the one where we live.  Let’s imagine that there is another universe, which we will call the “alternative universe”.  In many ways, this alternative universe is like the real universe.  In fact, the alternative universe is such that all of the molecules, quarks, etc, are in the same relative place as are the molecules, quarks, etc on earth.  And there is some “force” which has the effect that when any physical event occurs in the real universe, then the corresponding physical event occurs in the alternative universe.

In the real universe, we know that there are people.  So there must be equivalent configurations of particles in the alternate universe.  Let’s call those “alternate people” to distinguish them from the “real people” in our own universe.  It should be evident that the alternate people would appear to behave just like real people if we were able to observe them.

One thing obvious about the alternate universe, is that it is completely deterministic.  What happens there is completely determined by what happens in the real universe.

So here are the questions:

  1. Are the alternate people conscious?  Or are they just zombies?
  2. Do the alternate people have free will?
  3. When the alternate people perceive something (assuming that they do perceive), are they perceiving events in the real universe or are they perceiving events in the alternate universe?  Or are they failing to perceive anything at all?
  4. When they act in ways that we would see as speaking, does that “speech” have meaning that is about the alternate universe, or does it have meaning that is about the real universe, or is it just effectively meaningless vibrations (meaningless to the alternate people)?

Of course the whole thought experiment is absurd, so there’s no need to point that out to me in comments.  And this is not some sort of test.  It’s a matter of curiosity about people’s intuitions on the situation.  If you do comment, say something about the reasons for the view that you express.

I would guess that a computationalist would say that the alternate people are conscious in the same sense that we are.  They might hold that consciousness is just an illusion for us, but I would guess that they would say that the alternate people would have the same illusions.  Similarly, I would guess that compatibilists would say that the alternative people have free will.

Of course, I might be completely wrong in my guess as to how people will see this.  I will probably be the first to comment, as I present my own intuition on this.

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31 Responses to “A thought experiment on consciousness”

  1. The situation in the though experiment is really outside of our normal intuitions. And that makes it hard to answer. So my answers are tentative, and perhaps I will change my mind at some future time.

    So here are my tentative answers:

    1. The alternate people are just zombies.
    2. The alternate people do not have free will. I suppose that already follows from their being zombies.
    3. The alternate people are not perceiving anything at all.
    4. The “speech” is effectively meaningless vibrations, as in meaningless to the zombie alternate people

    Here’s my reasoning. I see consciousness, free will, meaning, perception, as all involving the causal structure of the universe and our participation in that causal structure. And it seems to me that the causal structure of the alternate universe is all wrong. That is to say, everything is caused by events in the real universe, and not by what is happening in the alternate universe. Hume suggested that causation is just constant conjunction, but I disagree with that account of causation.

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  2. The people in the alternate universe are actually reacting to the same sensory inputs as the real universe people.

    What we have then is two sets of “people” reacting to one set of “sensory inputs”.

    However, since the sensory inputs in both universes also track, it’s as if the alternate “people” are reacting to their “local” inputs.

    Since they behave “as if” they do react to their own local inputs, they might as well “be reacting” to their own inputs.

    The only difference is that they are out of phase with the real universe by the amount of delay involved in making the alternate particles track with their corresponding particles in the real universe.

    What has happened is that you have made an implicit “time machine”.

    If multiple alternate universes were involved, the particle tracking would have a much larger delay from the cascading effects of the nested particles and their equivalents, such that there could be a very large delay from universe (x) to universe (x+n).

    The odd thing is that the “real” universe people, if they could see into an alternate universe, would have to wait to see the effects of current time on “alternate universe n”, which echoes the “real universe’s” past.

    The bottom line however, would be that there is free will, but it applies to all universes equally, only at different times due the effects of the phase delay on the linked particles.

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  3. Since by construction there is no way to distinguish between the real and alternate universes, they are, in fact, the same.

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  4. What is the definition of “free will” you are using here? It seems to me the answer depends crucially on that.

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    • I haven’t tried to define either “free will” or “consciousness” here. I’m just trying to get a sense of how people think about the questions. It’s pretty obvious, at least to me, that my own views about human cognition are very different from those of most folk.

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  5. Neil,

    Here’s a different viewpoint.

    What if “we” are the zombies?

    Could we tell?

    If we are the zombies, then we are simply echoing the consciousness of the “real” people, which seems just as real to us as if we were them.

    So from your definition, free will does exist, but we don’t know who actually has it! 🙂

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    • What if “we” are the zombies?

      Could we tell?

      Maybe you should take that up with David Chalmers.

      We are talking philosophic zombies here, not movieland zombies. And, by definition, a zombie and a non-zombie are objectively indistinguishable. The only distinctions are those observed at the subjective level.

      If we cannot tell whether we are zombies, then the whole idea of zombies is absurd (meaningless). Maybe the idea absurd anyway, but that’s a different topic.

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  6. Jeffrey Shallit,

    I think “free will” is simply a case of what level of hierarchy any individual operates from as in who gets the final say in a decision making process, regardless of what external pressures one may feel mandates a certain outcome.

    “Free will” in other conversations, tends to become a definition of the capacity to “implement” your will which is completely outside the decision-making process itself but may well affect it.

    As an example, if there is a Christian god who can render accurate prophecies, then Jesus would not have been able to be saved by the free will of any humans, since that would have resulted in an unfulfilled prophecy.

    Therefore, mankind did not have the “free will” to do the “right thing” this case.

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  7. First, let me say I’m not a fan of thought experiments. There’s a tendency to set things up to prove one’s point. And that seems to happen here.

    Up to one point your universes are identical – you define them as such. Then you add that the second universe is deterministically dependent on the real universe. But you don’t say how it is so determined. Does it follow it identically? Does the alternative universe diverge from the real universe following your set-up of identity?

    If you want the alternative universe to be deterministic you need to sepecify what type of determinism you’re talking about, what type on non-deterministic uiverse our is, and what the significant effects are on the two universes.

    You’re introducing a significant difference without sufficient detail to be able to apply to the problems you are then posing about consciousness. I’m not sure your thought experiment has any real relevance for consciousness in either universe.

    On top of that, we already have trouble figuring out what consciousness is in ours, so we know we don’t know enough to talk about the states of consciousness in some attached hypothetical universe.

    Toronto made the most valid point about the zombie problem generally: “Could we tell?”

    Neil, your response was “Maybe you should take that up with David Chalmers.” – Exactly. He has a lot of nonsense top answer for.

    “If we cannot tell whether we are zombies, then the whole idea of zombies is absurd (meaningless).” – Spot on!

    The same applies, incidentally, with solipsism. If I’m this independent mind that has mentally constructed this universe as I witness it, with you in it as an imaginary being on the end of an imaginary internet conection, …., and if all this solipsism is so convincing, then how do I tell the difference between the imagined world of my solipsist mind, and any real physical worl that might exist? I can’t. My choice is arbitrary.

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    • First, let me say I’m not a fan of thought experiments. There’s a tendency to set things up to prove one’s point. And that seems to happen here.

      In this case, I was just interested in reactions (and thanks for yours). I was not attempting to prove any point.

      Then you add that the second universe is deterministically dependent on the real universe. But you don’t say how it is so determined. Does it follow it identically? Does the alternative universe diverge from the real universe following your set-up of identity?

      My intention was the the alternative universe follows the real universe identically, with no divergence. Sorry if that was not clear.

      One implication is that an alternative person cannot cause anything, while if a real person can cause things, then the real person in effect causes events in both the real universe and the alternative universe.

      The dominant view, both in philosophy and AI, seems to be that perception is passive. We receive inputs from the world, and we build our knowledge based on statistical analysis of what is received. My own view is that we are far more active in our interactions. We are forever testing things, taking actions to see the effect of the actions that we take. And I see our knowledge as being based on the results of that kind of experimentation.

      The thought experiment was supposed to be such that for those who see perception as passive, there would be no difference between the two worlds. For those who think of perception as more active, there would be a difference in that the alternative people would have no ability to act in their world, for what they do is merely a copy of what happens in the real universe.

      Thus far, the responders appear to be taking the “passive perceiver” view, with you as a possible exception.

      Incidentally (or perhaps not so incidentally), I have taken a peek at your site. You seem to have some interesting stuff there, though it will take me some time to read it. In particular, you seem to think that philosophy is harmed by its being too dependent on tradition, and that’s a view a very much agree with.

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  8. OK, but take an individual in each universe. How does he know whether he’s the passive one or the active one.

    Still putting to one side quantum issues and working with simple classical determinism, try this thought experiment.

    Suppose you’re in a determined universe. You have a brain that can’t see the detail of biological activity in the brain. What you are aware of are the percolations of brain events coming into your conscious awareness. You’re aware ‘self’ has developed in your brain along with other features, so that this situation seems quite natural. It might seem so natural that you never wonder about it, where this ‘consciouss thoughts’, and these ‘willed intentions’ come from – you just accept them. This is your natural ‘theory of mind’. If you’re curious you read some science and philosophy and maby acquire some additional information, which, depending on influences might lead you to think there is a dualist mind, or a religious soul, or just a physical brain. Remember that by definition of the though experiment this is a determinist universe, and these are the characteristics of brains in that universe. How different would such people feel about their free will and consciousness than we do?

    If there’s no difference in how they feel compared to us, and if we are not in a determinist universe, and we do have free will, then it seems the difference doesn’t matter. A dterminist universe is indistinguishable from a non-determinist one.

    If our universe is a determined universe too, then they would naturally feel as we do, and free-will is an illusion after all.

    I think only if you could provide a convincing argument as to why they would correctly feel they are in a determined world and we correctly feel we are in a free-will universe would there be any grounds for relying on feelings of ‘making choices’ or ‘I could have done otherwise’, or any other supposed claim to support free-will.

    But the added complication is that even in this one universe there are those of us who ‘feel’ we have free-will and those of us who don’t. So, we in this one iniverse can’t consitently feel we have free will. This should tell us (as if we didn’t know already) that ‘feeling’ that something is the case isn’t reliable.

    You could argue that, well, the illusory-free-will proponents ‘feel’ that they don’t have free-will, so their case is just as flaky. I would disagree with this since the illusory-free-will proponents also recognise that this position is counter intuitive – we all ‘feel’ we have free-will. Our position is one of reason based on evidence. The evidence is overwhelming that there is a natural non-living inanimate physical universe. There is also evidence that we, as biological systems are made of the same stuff and obey the same physical laws. Evolution is evidence for a continuity in degrees of complexity that show that we are no different in principle from any other living creature, or indeed from any other inanimate matter. There is no evidence whatsoever that there any substance or mechanism that can account for anything that remotely resembles what has been traditionally called free-will.

    There is plenty of evidence, though as yet inconclusive, that inanimate matter could be made into automata of a complexity similar to ours and that it would eventually lead to ‘intelligence’ and ‘consciousness’. This evidence is very slim at the moment; and if anything it’s no better than a hypothesis. But when compared with the alternative, that there is ‘something’ that causes ‘free-will’ to come into being in beings like us, the former materialist hypothesis doesn’t sound so crazy.

    This is so much the case that I’d say that the materialist case, being based on everything else we know from science, is the null hypothesis, and that any form of ‘free-will’ that is worth the name is the alternative hypothesis that must be demonstrated. And ‘feeling’ we have free-will is no more evidence than ‘feeling’ a Necker cube is actually flipping its orientation.

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    • OK, but take an individual in each universe. How does he know whether he’s the passive one or the active one.

      As I see it, the alternative person would have no ability to learn. The real person could learn, and the alternative person would finish up with the same brain structure. I’m not sure what to conclude from that.

      Still putting to one side quantum issues and working with simple classical determinism, try this thought experiment.

      Okay. But I’ll note that I was never convinced that classical physics implied determinism. I remember having thought about it, but it left too many unknowns.

      What you are aware of are the percolations of brain events coming into your conscious awareness.

      If all you are aware of are those brain events, then your theory of the “world” should be no more than a theory of a brain having events. That’s the problem with the idea of a passive receiver of inputs. It a “poverty of stimulus” problem for perception.

      Remember that by definition of the though experiment this is a determinist universe, and these are the characteristics of brains in that universe. How different would such people feel about their free will and consciousness than we do?

      As I see it, learning is impossible if we are only passive receivers of input. Galileo taught us that we cannot trust what we try to induce from observations. We must actively experiment in order to be able to learn. How is that even possible in a determined universe? And if we cannot learn, then I doubt that we would be conscious.

      I think we have very different ideas about what knowledge is and about how we learn. And, as I see it, your determined world precludes any possibility of learning or of having knowledge.

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  9. “As I see it, the alternative person would have no ability to learn.” – Maybe, but how does he know that? How is the person in the ‘real’ universe sure that he is the one that’s learning, or that he is in fact the one in the real universe? How would an external observer of both universes tell which was which and reach conclusions about those universes specified in your set-up of those universes? Aren’t they indistinguishable?

    “The real person could learn, and the alternative person would finish up with the same brain structure. I’m not sure what to conclude from that.”

    Precisely. I don’t think you can conclude anything from that. Imagine yourself as the external observer of these two universe, and when your back was turned some other external demon swapped them round a few times. How would you now know which was which?

    “But I’ll note that I was never convinced that classical physics implied determinism.”

    I agree it doesn’t have to. But since we find a very compelling link between classical physics and causality, and causality and determinism, what else would you propose? What is classical non-determinism? For my part I think that a classical deterministic universe can have parts that are indeterminate to each other. But in principle, to a outside observer, a classical physics universe should be determinate. Only adding non-classical phsyics (in our particular universe quantum physics seems to fit this bill) do you add inherent non-determinism right within the universe. But does that just mean that if we extend the definition of what the universe encompasses that even quantum events can be seen to be determinate?

    A non-deterministic universe by definition leaves more unknowns, since at least some aspects of it are inherently indeterminate, that is, unknowably caused.

    The poverty of inputs problem seems to miss something crucial. If we stick to the language problem as an example the claim is that (environmental) inputs aren’t enough to learn a language and there must be some inate capacity associated with language learning. Well, yes. But this is trivial splitiing of hairs in the wider scheme of things. All our evolutionary history has contributed in some way as inputs to our current genetics, which itself is then one more ‘input’, all be it an internal one.

    “If all you are aware of are those brain events, then your theory of the “world” should be no more than a theory of a brain having events.” – Yes. All our theories are brain events, though we may encode them into external representations – e.g. equations. But of course the cumulative theory of the world, our total communal body of knowledge that we can each individually tap into as more inputs, then consists of a greater amount of data than is contained in any one brain. So, though your reductionist statement just quoted is corrrect in this some respect it doesn’t, of course, mean you can use that theory alone to construct a wider or higher level theory.

    “As I see it, learning is impossible if we are only passive receivers of input.”

    I agree it does depend on definitions of learning and knowledge. But if you want to limit those definitions only to those that already imply human active agency, intention, (free) will, then you are already rolling up what you seek to explain in your definition. You are claiming that passive learning cannot occur because learning is not passive – a tautology that is begging the question of what knowledge and learning are. The whole point of expressing (possible) determinism is to challenge that very notion; to say that no, passive learning consists of nothing more than one system, the learning system, responding to some other system, the instructing system. In parctive, with equitable passive systems that ‘collide’ they are both instructor and learner, giver of mementum and taker of momentum, giver of information and absorber of information. This is the whole point of the deterministic hypothesis; not that determinism is actually and necessarily the case in this universe, but that if it is the case then these are the implications.

    We are all physical automata, passive and active only by virtue of the point of view one takes. This even applies in complex human cases – what teacher wouldn’t say that they learn something themselves when they teach? I remember that during my post-grad teaching I learned far more in the lab preparing for and guiding lab work, and responding to student challenges, than I ever did as an undergrad myself.

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    • Maybe, but how does he know that?

      If he can’t learn, then I suppose he does not know anything.

      How would an external observer of both universes tell which was which and reach conclusions about those universes specified in your set-up of those universes?

      When I thought about that, I concluded that there could not be an external observer for the alternative universe. For an observer would cause effects, but effects can only be caused in the real universe and then mirrored in the alternative one.

      Maybe we shouldn’t take thought experiments that seriously.

      But since we find a very compelling link between classical physics and causality, and causality and determinism, what else would you propose?

      I reach a different conclusion. Looking at the science, and how we make decisions on causation, it seems to me that our notion of causation comes from what we can cause, either directly or indirectly. And that we can cause anything would seem to to be contrary to determinism.

      But in principle, to a outside observer, a classical physics universe should be determinate.

      What principle are you invoking there?

      Many people seem to be persuaded that the determinism of scientific laws implies determinism. But I don’t see that at all. As I see it, scientific laws are human constructs that we use to help us better describe and cope with the universe. And we construct them to be deterministic because deterministic laws work better for that purpose.

      You are claiming that passive learning cannot occur because learning is not passive – a tautology that is begging the question of what knowledge and learning are.

      No, that’s not what I am saying at all.

      I am saying that the firing of sensory neurons is a “bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion”, as William James put it. There are no facts to be found in that, other than internal facts (which neuron is firing).

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  10. “I suppose he does not know anything.”

    But you’ve set the universes up so they are identical. On what basis do you suppose this?

    Maybe your conception of knowledge is wrong? What is actually happening in a brain when it ‘knows’ something?

    Knowledge consists of the formation and use of memory, which so far seems to be mainly about the construction of synapses between neurons. Try this from Eric Kandel. It starts with the higher level of understanding of knowledge, from a historical perspective, but eventually gets down the the biological basis of knowledge. I urge you to watch this and see how learning, knowledge has a real biological existence and isn’t something non-phyisical and magical. Note also at various points (and I can give more detail if you like) that there is logic processing going on in there.

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    • But you’ve set the universes up so they are identical.

      Identical in terms of physical components. But I think it clear that they are not causally equivalent. Actions in the real universe cause events in both universe. But that does not work the other way around, unless Hume was correct in asserting that causation is just constant conjunction.

      What is actually happening in a brain when it ‘knows’ something?

      To me, that just means that we can infer that “something”, using our knowledge which is in the form of behavioral capabilities.

      Knowledge consists of the formation and use of memory, …

      I don’t actually agree with that. I see “memory” as an abstraction that does not actually refer to anything physical. It comes from attempts to explain how we remember things. The idea of memory fits in well with what you called “the primacy of thought.” But if one is doubtful about the primacy of thought, one should also be doubtful that memory exists in other than a metaphoric sense.

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  11. You’re specifying complete identity between the universes. But then you add an arificial link of causal determinism between them. As far as I can tell the causal link would be ineffective, because at the level of physics the alternative universe would change states just as the real universe does, of its own accord because it is identical. The additional causal determinist link between the universe wouldn’t actually be doing anything.

    For example, take an event in the real universe that changes the location of a molecule in a neuron in the brain of person A-real. Because they are identical universes this same change is going to happen in person A-alt. What now is the causal link doing that is supposed to make the change in A-alt mirror the change in A-real? It’s already happened.

    “When I thought about that, I concluded that there could not be an external observer for the alternative universe.”

    So now you’ve got your specification of a system defining what is and isn’t possible, not through any real sense of experimentation, but through whthere or not your idea fits your initial definition of your system. This sounds like Creationism: “These are my religious beliefs therefore evolution can’t be true.”

    “For an observer would cause effects”

    What effects would an observer of the alternative universe have that wouldn’t apply to an observer of the real universe?

    Or, an observer of the real universe would see the drterministic link to the alternative universe, because it is leaving the real universe, and yet the same observer can’t see the alternative universe? Whyever not?

    Or, since it’s a thought experiment, and you can magically assert that there is a deterministic connection between universes then why not define an observer that doesn’t have any deterministic effect on the alternative universe?

    “Maybe we shouldn’t take thought experiments that seriously.”

    OK.

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  12. “…it seems to me that our notion of causation comes from what we can cause, either directly or indirectly. And that we can cause anything would seem to to be contrary to determinism.”

    The ‘we’ here is anthropomorphic in that it is presupposing a ‘free-will’ in us, which is the point in question. You are begging the question. The point is that if we are indeed mechanistic automatons then the very causes that ‘we’ cause are already part of the determinsitic universe. That we feel that we are independent in some way is irrelevant.

    “What principle are you invoking there?”

    Causation. Cause and effect. Cause determines effect. Sure it gets complicated, so that if there are multiple causes the effect will be a combination. But in a purely classical universe with a well defined origin than all those causes can be traced back to some common point.

    Note that the only contribution of real ontological non-determinism, for example if quantum effects are turly ‘random’ (another tricky conscept), is to prevent predictability in principle. But, once a random event has occurred its effects from then on are causal.

    So, you can have a deterministic causal universe, for which an external observer with sufficient capacity could predict any future state, or a non-deterministic causal universe, where the same observer could observer and record every state, but couldn’t predict future states because these random (e.g. quantum) events keep introducing new causal effects.

    The real challenge for non-dterministic effects (e.g. quantum effects in our universe, as science sees it so far) is to explain a mechanism by which something can be truly random. because otherwose it sounds like magic.

    the other problem of course is to account for causility itself. But this problems applies to all of us. There is no current science or philosophy that does not rely on cuasality.

    “Many people seem to be persuaded that the determinism of scientific laws implies determinism.”

    I wonder here if you’re conflating ontological determinism with epistemological determinism. Note at no point am I claiming that we humans can account for and predict the state of the universe determinsitically.

    “As I see it, scientific laws are human constructs that we use to help us better describe and cope with the universe.”

    Yes, I agree. This is one of my points elsewhere. They are constructs in the heads of humans. Patterns in a discipline we call mathematics which we associated with patterns of behaviour we observe in nature. But laws, matsh, are not magical existant things in some real of platonic forms. This relates to another point elsewhere about brain patterns being similar among humans – we have come to construct in our brains, and represented on paper and various other media, patterns, similarities and differences, distinctions, information through the formation of matter.

    “And we construct them to be deterministic because deterministic laws work better for that purpose.”

    Yes, because we can’t do otherwise. Because our brains are part of this reacting universe. We are so entrenched in our acceptance of causality that we look for it, from the very basic animal instincs of hunting to the lofty heights of particle physics. We are caused systems. We might feel we have free-will in this matter, but if you dig deep enough looking for the elusive free-will all you find is psychology, then neuroscience, then biology, then chemistry, then physics. We never find the elusive stuff of free-will, or platonic forms, except as vague notions in our heads, which notions themselves are yet more brain activity.

    “because deterministic laws work better for that purpose”

    Yes. And that’s why quantum physics is the biggest challenge to our capacity to continue with cause and effect and the determined outcome of it. So, through our fixation on causality, we want to know, what does ‘random’ truly mean? Does a ‘chance’ event really have no prior cause? Or is this indeterminism just a limitation caused by the epistemological indeterminism of trying to measure it from within the universe, since we too are constrained by the laws of the universe, being in it.

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    • The ‘we’ here is anthropomorphic in that it is presupposing a ‘free-will’ in us, which is the point in question. You are begging the question.

      I am not begging any question. I am not trying to prove that we have free will, nor that we don’t have free will. I’m just going by the ordinary way people (including scientists) talk about causation.

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  13. “(1) Identical in terms of physical components. (2) But I think it clear that they are not causally equivalent. (3) Actions in the real universe cause events in both universe.”

    (3) ensures (2), but negates (1). They are not identical in terms of physical components, because physical components exist because of the fundamental nature of those components, which includes how they interact according to the laws of the universe.

    If you want to say that the alternative universe has no laws of its own, then I’d say the universes are not physically identical, their components are not identical, and the laternative universe is nothing but a mirror of the real universe. In our universe, does your image in a mirror learn?

    Your definition, by (3) removes the alternative from being a universe in any meaningful sense, and seems to remove the point of the question.

    “To me, that just means that we can infer that “something”, using our knowledge which is in the form of behavioral capabilities.”

    Too high a level. I’m asking what the brain is actually doing, not some high level abstraction. What physical processes are going on when we ‘infer’ something?

    “I don’t actually agree with that. I see “memory” as an abstraction that does not actually refer to anything physical.”

    Considering your other blog is on computing I find this astonishing. You really do need to watch the Kandel video. Try his book: http://www.amazon.com/Search-Memory-Emergence-Science-Mind/dp/0393058638. Try Jeff Hawkins too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hY041Z4kuE.

    “The idea of memory fits in well with what you called “the primacy of thought.” But if one is doubtful about the primacy of thought, one should also be doubtful that memory exists in other than a metaphoric sense.”

    Definitely not. The rejection of primacy of thought is all about thinking we can rely on thought as the main method of acquiring data. We acquire data through experiences (external sensory ones, and accumulated internal ones, including memory. My rejection of the primacy of thought isn’t throwing out thought, analysis, reason, at all. The empirical basis of science is all about experiencing the world and reasoning about those experiences.

    I’m not sure how you can doubt memory exists physically. It’s a very well understood system and the basis of how the brain maintains knowledge. What’s not yet well understood is the how the organisation of memory in the brain relates to specific conceptual ideas that we entertain, because it’s all happening in parallel at high speed and is distributed throughout various regions of the brain. Our thoughts seem so transient to us, when we look at them only with personal introspection. Our own introspective thinking about our own personal brain isn’t the right instrument for looking at brain activity any more than our eyes are the right instrument for looking at cells.

    “I’m just going by the ordinary way people (including scientists) talk about causation.”

    Scientists know that when they talk using anthropomorphic terms that there’s no teleology implied. When Richard Dawkins spoke of the selfish gene he not only didn’t mean the gene was selfish in any conscious knowing way, he also didn’t mean that the gene had any planned purpose whatsoever. The gene is just one bit of an inanimate molecule. It turns out we are just inanimate collections of chemicals made animate by the unthinking biological processes going on inside us, and that includes inside our brains.

    But, the problem with using anthropomorphic language when discussing the brain is it becomes indistiguishable from the language of the dualist.

    If I say, “The brain, as a physical system, does X”, and you say, “No, we do X”, then I ask, “What is this ‘We’ that is not the brain?” If you still reply, “It is ‘we’, ‘you’ or ‘I’, the person, …” then you are begging the question because it’s that very ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘I’, that is being challenged. I’m asking what you think that ‘I’ consists of, what are it’s component parts and how does it do the stuff like thinking.

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    • “To me, that just means that we can infer that “something”, using our knowledge which is in the form of behavioral capabilities.”

      Too high a level. I’m asking what the brain is actually doing, not some high level abstraction. What physical processes are going on when we ‘infer’ something?

      You put the question in terms of “know something” which seems to be asking about knowing facts (the “justified true belief” view of knowledge). I’ve already been clear that I disagree with that account of knowledge. Still, at times we do use the verb “to know” that way, so I was trying to indicate how that relates to what I consider knowledge. We are terrible at knowing facts. It is far better to make written notes, using an external memory to make up for our lack of an internal memory.

      If you don’t like the way that I answered that question, try asking something different.

      Try Jeff Hawkins too

      I did just watch that video. Sorry, but it is a pile of nonsense. Yes, it is the view most cognitive scientists have. But that’s why cognitive science is going nowhere. It won’t make any progress until it breaks from that sterile approach.

      If I thought that there Hawkins was correct, I would be a creationist. He is working on a model that comes straight from the kind intelligent design thinking that infests philosophy. There’s no way that what Hawkins describes would have evolved.

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  14. “the “justified true belief””

    This is a known flawed definition of knowledge. The Gettier problem disposed of it. There is no good philosophical account of knowledge because they all become circular.

    The philosophical term ‘knowledge’, about how humans ‘know’ things, is focused getting at certain knowledge. Philosophers have sought a water tight definition, but they can’t get at one. This is the primacy of thought problem. Any argument that tries to rely on deductive argument alone will fail because it always relies on premises; and then those premises have to be accounted for, and so on.

    Take JTB itself. We ‘know’ something if we have a justified, true belief. Your stuck already, because how would you ‘know’ its a true belief? If you ‘knew’ it was a true belief, you wouldn’t be worried about justifying it.

    Knowledge doesn’t have a satisfactory water tight definition that gets us anywhere. Far simpler to accept the information theory use of knowledge which is more about the correspondence between what we have in our heads and the material experience it represents. The problem is that we are inundated with continuous experiences from being our first conception, though cognitive experiences await some rudimentary brain development in the fetus. By the time we’re old enough to think consciously about ideas like ‘concept’, ‘knowledge’ and other ‘abstract’ ideas, our brains are already full of them. This leaves us with the impression that they have some sort of abstract life of their own, but they don’t. They exist as brain behaviour.

    Knowledge is information in the brain, data, brain activity. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.

    “We are terrible at knowing facts. It is far better to make written notes, using an external memory to make up for our lack of an internal memory.”

    We agree on something. Why are we terrible at knowing facts? What is it about our brains that makes that so?

    “I did just watch that video. Sorry, but it is a pile of nonsense. Yes, it is the view most cognitive scientists have. But that’s why cognitive science is going nowhere. It won’t make any progress until it breaks from that sterile approach.”

    Wow! OK, perhaps I do need to try to understand your views of cognition. Where do I start? Personally I thought that cognitive science had been making great progress over the last 30 years, and the last 10 particularly.

    “If I thought that there Hawkins was correct, I would be a creationist.”

    Well, that seems right out of the blue. Why a creationist?

    “He is working on a model that comes straight from the kind intelligent design thinking that infests philosophy.”

    I don’t think so. I don’t know anyone who has interpreted his work that way, and I don’t. Perhaps the clip was too short and you’ve misunderstood.

    “There’s no way that what Hawkins describes would have evolved.”

    I wonder if your conception of all this is still anthropomorphizing the ideas to give you the sense that they are guided or intelligently designed, or that the process of evolution is unguided.

    So that I can better understand what your position is could you point to specific posts of yours that explain your view of human cognition?

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    • This is a known flawed definition of knowledge. The Gettier problem disposed of it.

      Philosophers still cling to it. If you look at philosophy publications made at around the time Gettier published his critique, there was usually an acknowledgment of the problem and of the need for some additional requirement so supplement “justified”. But if you look at more recent publications, Gettier is rarely mentioned. It seems that philosophers just want to ignore him and go back to their traditions.

      The philosophical term ‘knowledge’, about how humans ‘know’ things, is focused getting at certain knowledge.

      I sometimes think that philosophy is a religion. It is the worship of logic as a god. They define “knowledge” in such a way that they can connect it with logic (their deity).

      Philosophers have sought a water tight definition, but they can’t get at one.

      They perhaps think they are doing that. But they have no good account of truth, of belief or of justification. But I guess their definition allows them to indulge in their traditions.

      We agree on something. Why are we terrible at knowing facts? What is it about our brains that makes that so?

      The dominant feature of cognition, and thus the most important task for the brain, is perception. Western culture is atypical. For most human cultures and for most animals, long range planning was of minor importance. Dealing with the here and now was of primary importance. And for that, you mostly need perception, rather than memory. So most learning should be perceptual learning (enhancing perceptual abilities). And most knowledge should be connected with perceptual ability.

      So that I can better understand what your position is could you point to specific posts of yours that explain your view of human cognition?

      What I have posted is disjointed. I have not tried to post a complete picture, because experience has already shown that it is very difficult to communicate. Look through the epistemology category. Maybe start with What’s a fact, anyway?, and then look at the series of posts on the camera analogy.

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  15. The thing is, I actually agree very strongly with some of your posts I’ve read. I really feel our disagreement may be minor in scope, but perhaps major in commitment – that is commitment as in the strength of being persuaded so far, not dogmatic position.

    I’m going to take some time on your older posts to try to catch up on your position.

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    • Many psychologists say that memories are reconstructions, rather than retrievals.

      My view is that our experiences do affect us, and cause some restructuring in the brain. I think there’s agreement on that part. But then you can have a kind of resonance. A suitable trigger could cause something to resonate, from which a memory emerges. But it isn’t a retrieved memory. It is just something that fits well enough with the structure that we see it as remembering. However, what resonates will depend on what stimulated that resonance, which I see as why memory is influenced by context and suggestion.

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  16. Yes. I don’t see the correspondence between ‘brute facts’, say some actual event that occurred, and one’s specific brain memory states, as being a one-to-one correspondence.

    Even within the same person, brain states are changing over time, so the ‘recalled’ memory, as an expressed reconstructed concept (“You lost a glove.”, “I lost a comb.”, “Ah yes, I remember it well”, Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold), may actually change its correspondence to the ‘brute fact’ that we think we are recalling.

    On the other hand we can recall, reconstruct, some memories with reasonable fidelity, such as ‘f = ma’ (and here the brute fact I’m referring to is the remembered expression itself, not it’s relation to the world through physics). Now whether there is a greater degree of correspondence between this expression and actual synapses on specific neurons is something that neuroscience is still working on. But that the expression is represented to some extent in physical memory isn’t in dispute, I don’t think.

    There’s no dispute about the detail of memory implementation for inhibition and habituation, for example, in simpler organisms such as Kandel found with the Aplysia.

    From another angle, when we construct a concept for the first time, maybe from sense experience, and remember it, that very same brain is doing that, and so the ‘conceptual memory’ may already be vague and incorrect as the information makes its way through the various brain structures, from short term memory to longe term memory. We can’t be sure of our thinking fidelity from the outset.

    But the fidelity of the physical brain memory’s correspondence to brute facts is a separate issue; one of the quality of memory not the physical actuality of it.

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    • On the other hand we can recall, reconstruct, some memories with reasonable fidelity, such as ‘f = ma’ (and here the brute fact I’m referring to is the remembered expression itself, not it’s relation to the world through physics).

      I see “f = ma” as different from ordinary facts. In my view of science, f=ma is an analytic truth. That is to say, it is true by virtue of the meaning of its terms. So knowledge of the concepts is sufficient to directly imply f=ma.

      Many people disagree with me on the nature of f=ma. They seem to think that there’s something wrong with the idea of scientific laws as necessary truths. For me, the analyticity of such laws is part of why science works.

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