The magical black box

by Neil Rickert

In a discussion in comments to “The Primacy of Thought” at Ron Murphy’s blog, I suggested that I might do a full post here on the title topic.  A link in Ron’s blog took me to “The importance of evidence” which is a post by Mike D.  There, Mike D discusses what he sees as the foundations of knowledge, where he says:

Empiricism requires us to make to two foundational assumptions:

  1. I exist
  2. My senses generally provide me with reliable information

For myself, I am not making those assumptions, and I want to discuss why and to indicate where I do begin.

The first of those assumptions seems to imply that we want only a subjective account of our own personal knowledge.  For if my concern is with an objective account of how a biological organism other than myself can have knowledge, then my own existence would seem to have little relevance to that.  Presumably, if I could give a satisfactory objective account, that would be just as valid after my death, so my existence is not a required assumption.

The second of those assumptions, that the senses provide reliable information, is the one that I find most troubling.  For it seems to say that my head contains a magical black box that delivers facts, and that my knowledge is limited to the output from that magical black box.  I see this as leading to solipsism or to Berkeley’s idealism.  It depicts me as being separated from reality by that magical black box, with the implication that I cannot have any actual knowledge of reality.

Throughout my life, whenever I have been confronted with a magical black box, whether it be a clock, a radio, a television set or some other kind of black box, I have wanted to know what was inside the box, and have sought out what I could find about it, even if that required disassembling the black box.

When I consider the literature on empiricism, it seems to me Locke thought knowledge was conceptual, so he identified knowledge with part of the content and workings of that “magical black box.”  From the time of Hume, this seems to have changed to considering only the output of that magical black box, and what can be inferred from that output.

This Humean shift to the output of a magical black box strikes me as perverse.  For if there is such a magical black box, and assuming that it on on the up and up (i.e. it delivers facts about reality, rather than about a solipsistic or idealistic world), then there has to be a huge amount of knowledge that is implicit in the workings of that magical black box.  In that case we ought to be rationalists, not empiricists.  That is to say, we ought to be openly assuming innate knowledge.  Empiricism, since Hume, appears to be rationalism in denial.  That is, it is based on rationalist assumptions, but the practitioners of empiricism won’t admit to those assumptions.

My own starting assumptions

As I look around, I see biological organisms whose survival depends on them finding ways of sustaining themselves in the world.  They seem to have some cells that are sensitive to ambient conditions — call those sensory cells.  And they seem to have some abilities to move around, to change their own orientation toward the world.  It seems to me that, for such organisms, the problem that they face is one of using their abilities to move in ways that will allow them to wield their sensory cells so that they will deliver useful information.  That is to say, they need to discover ways to gather information that will aid them in sustaining themselves in the world.  In effect, the organism has to build and operate its own magical black box.  But it won’t really be magical, for the organism itself will be operating that black box to support its continued survival.

The problem for epistemology, it seems to me, is to understand the underlying principles that can be used by the organism to build its own magical black box.

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16 Comments to “The magical black box”

  1. https://nwrickert.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/the-magical-black-box/

    “For myself, I am not making those assumptions [(a) I exist, (b) My senses generally provide me with reliable information]”

    Then, later, “As I look around, I see biological organisms whose survival depends on them finding ways of sustaining themselves in the world.” – There you go, you’ve just made those very assumptions.

    “The second of those assumptions, that the senses provide reliable information, is the one that I find most troubling.” – You’ve changed the meaning by missing out “generally”. Again, “As I look around, I see…” assumes some general reliability in the empirical method you are using.

    “For it seems to say that my head contains a magical black box that delivers facts, and that my knowledge is limited to the output from that magical black box.” – If it seems to say that then I’m not sure how you come to read that into it.

    Stanford: The dispute between rationalism and empiricism concerns the extent to which we are dependent upon sense experience in our effort to gain knowledge. Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

    i.e. black box rationalism: “concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience”

    “When I consider the literature on empiricism…This Humean shift to the output of a magical black box strikes me as perverse…” – I’m not sure how you read your version of empiricism into the literature, or why you would stop with Locke or Hume anyway. Modern empiricism is the interaction of our sensory experience with our rational minds, along with the idea that our rational minds come about through sensory experience in the first place.

    It’s rationalism’s insistence on the ‘innate’, the a priori, that has more of the character of the black box claim of some magical source of knowledge. It’s this Primacy of Thought I’m criticising in my post. The problem with the ‘innate’, for rationalism, is that the rationalists of the past didn’t know anything about evolution, and so didn’t know that what they think of as ‘innate’, that is the apparently innate capacities of a developing human, come about through evolutionary experiences of the genetics of the species and the developmental processes in each individual. It’s as if the rationalists, as individuals, and seeing humans as an existent species, suddenly awoke, aware of their rational capacities without understanding where those capacities came from. That’s why in this post I put that into some historical perspective.

    “That is, it is based on rationalist assumptions, but the practitioners of empiricism won’t admit to those assumptions.” – Our brains hold our cognitive system that receives sensory inputs, performs motor actions, and so empirically interacts with the world. But from a conscious perspective it is true that we are in some sense rationalists about our empiricism. The dichotomy of rationalism v empiricisms is a problem, but choosing empiricism is less problematic than choosing rationalism, because with rationalism anything goes – whatever you can imagine might be, which is what religion relies on. At least with empiricism there is an attempt to match our reasoning with our experiences.

    “They seem to have some cells that are sensitive to ambient conditions – call those sensory cells. And they seem to have some abilities to move around, to change their own orientation toward the world. It seems to me that, for such organisms, the problem that they face is one of using their abilities to move in ways that will allow them to wield their sensory cells so that they will deliver useful information. That is to say, they need to discover ways to gather information that will aid them in sustaining themselves in the world. In effect, the organism has to build and operate its own magical black box. But it won’t really be magical, for the organism itself will be operating that black box to support its continued survival.”

    That’s a good description of empiricism, and a good critique of any Primacy of Thought. So, I’m now not sure where you disagree.

    • Then, later, “As I look around, I see biological organisms whose survival depends on them finding ways of sustaining themselves in the world.” – There you go, you’ve just made those very assumptions.

      You are reading something into it that is not there.

      A tree is a biological organism. Do you really think that tree is making assumptions that its senses supply it with reliable information?

      You’ve changed the meaning by missing out “generally”.

      No, I haven’t changed the meaning. That you think I have suggests that you are missing my point. I was disagreeing with the assuming of reliability, whether or not qualified by “general”.

      i.e. black box rationalism: “concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience”

      And you want to replace that with black box empiricism, the assumption that there is a magic black box that provides sense experience.

      The difference is minor. All of the innate knowledge assumed by rationalist might well be found in the magic black box that is assumed by empiricists.

      Our brains hold our cognitive system that receives sensory inputs, performs motor actions, and so empirically interacts with the world.

      But that’s where I disagree already. I disagree that we receive sensory inputs. I am disagreeing with the notion that perception is passive.

  2. Hi Neil,

    “Do you really think that tree is making assumptions that its senses supply it with reliable information?”

    I was talking about *you* making those assumptions that you deny making, in saying that *I* look around (assumes you exist to do the looking) and *I see* (sight is a sense that you are using).

    The tree, and many organisms, don’t need to make conceptual assumptions, the way we do. But they have ‘assumed’ methods of acquiring sensory data, by virtue of the mechanisms they have evolved to use.

    “I was disagreeing with the assuming of reliability, whether or not qualified by “general””

    Then how is your “As I look around, I see biological organisms whose survival depends…” supposed to give you any reliable information?

    I can’t see how you see ‘black box empiricism’. Empiricism is sensory all the way. The fact that some sensory mechanisms are ones that have evolved over time to form a brain, which then *thinks* it is a black box rational system is detail.

    “The difference is minor.” – I agree the difference is minor *now*, now that pure reason has been seen to be an unhelpful model. The empirical model, is that we are all sensory, and that the rational brain is a particular instantiation of a part of the whole system that happens to have been cordonned off into the skull, and communicates with the rest of the material world through the nervous system. It is true that a purely rational mind of solipsism could imagine that the empirical world we experience is all an invention of that mind, but there are no benefits to choosing that model.

    “I disagree that we receive sensory inputs. I am disagreeing with the notion that perception is passive.”

    I unclear where you see the passivity in this. In once sense everything is passive interaction of molecules. What we call an active systems has varying degrees of autonomy, in that it receives inputs, processes them, and, among other motor outputs can direct motor action to ‘decide’ on which further inputs to listen to. If that’s all you mean by “I am disagreeing with the notion that perception is passive” then this is a trivial disagreement about where the boundary lies; where a system starts to actively guide its own inputs to become active in searching out data.

    I’m not sure how to interpret “I disagree that we receive sensory inputs”. In what specific sense to you think we don’t? Can you expand on this?

    • Then how is your “As I look around, I see biological organisms whose survival depends…” supposed to give you any reliable information?

      I had to learn how to get reliable information. It isn’t something that just magically happened and that required an assumption of reliability.

      The reliability comes from the way information is gathered. And I am in charge of that gathering.

      Empiricism is sensory all the way.

      No, it isn’t. As I read the literature, it is syntactic the way. It is the application of formal methods (deduction, induction) to data that is assumed and taken for granted. There doesn’t seem to be much discussion of any sensing. The sensory part is left to a magical black box.

      The fact that some sensory mechanisms are ones that have evolved over time to form a brain, which then *thinks* it is a black box rational system is detail.

      So you are saying that it is okay to rely on a magical black box, because that magical black box in turn came from a Darwinian magical black box.

      I am saying that we need to examine how the black boxes work, and not just take them to be doing magic.

      The empirical model, is that we are all sensory, and that the rational brain is a particular instantiation of a part of the whole system that happens to have been cordonned off into the skull, and communicates with the rest of the material world through the nervous system.

      Which empirical model? The empiricist model is syntactic all the way. It assumes that syntactic data is magically delivered to us, and it works from there on. It requires an assumption of reliability precisely because it is entirely syntactic and not at all sensory.

  3. “I had to learn how to get reliable information”

    You didn’t have any choice in this matter in your early years. As an infant you had no conscious control of your learning. By the time you did have conscious control your brain was already an autonomous learning system; a systems that uses empirical methods to discover and to learn. This is part of my point about personal awakening. By the time our consciousness awakes to what it is doing the brain has already been doing it.

    “It isn’t something that just magically happened”

    It’s not magical, it’s growth, development. What do you think happens in all other animals that learn? There development is automatic, withing the framework of the evolved biological system they happen consist of. Do all animals ‘decide’ to learn? are they in control?

    “The reliability comes from the way information is gathered.”

    Yes, empirically, by sensing the and reacting, devekoping and learning.

    “And I am in charge of that gathering.”

    Evenetually, as humans grow, the degree of autonomy and learning increases. But the gathering, processing acting is still an empirical process.

    “As I read the literature, it is syntactic the way.”

    Then I think you’re being particularly selective in your reading. The syntax of discovery is only one element, and even that is only a descriptive model applied to parts of the process.

    “It is the application of formal methods (deduction, induction)”

    Only when describng the process formally. A young animal doesn’t call it induction when it is trying something several times and eventually becoming more confident that what it has learned from specific examples is generally the case – e.g. a particular food is nice or nasty, crying for attention all the time eventually becomes unproductive. And deduction too is just a formalisation of a particular method. But human knowledge acquisition is empirical by nature; it’s science, logic, maths, these human invented formalisms that we add to it that make it seem like something different. This is a mistake the religious make when they talk about ‘other ways of knowing’ There’s only one way humans know how to know, and that’s interacting with the environment, reasoning about it, acting on that reasoning to change the way we interact with the environment: empiricism.

    “data that is assumed and taken for granted.”

    Yes, sensory data is taken for granted, that there is a world out there to be sensed is taken for granted, that our bodies receive, through the senses, data about the world is taken for granted, unless you deny it and opt for a model of reality based on solipsism.

    You yourself take it for granted that there is something, some data, to be gathered when you say “And I am in charge of that gathering.”

    “So you are saying that it is okay to rely on a magical black box, because that magical black box in turn came from a Darwinian magical black box.”

    To rely on it to some extent, we have no choice. But this is where you miss the point of ‘generally’. Every scientist who carries out experiments goes to great lengths to check the detail over, to have someone else check them – individual human senses are known to be flawed, and it is that acceptance, that acknowledgement, that has allowed science to advance. But ‘generally’, when a scientist leaves his lab and goes home, drives his car, eats some food, he is not living his life in total scepticism. He takes for granted the ‘general’ reliability of the human system to succeed in its natural environment. You are making statements that would be rightly critical of anyone who thinks human senses are totally reliable. But nobody does.

    “I am saying that we need to examine how the black boxes work”

    This is nothing new. You are not telling me anything I haven’t already said myself, or that the whole of psychology and neuroscience, along with ancient philosophy and religion hasn’t been trying to do already.

    “and not just take them to be doing magic.”

    You keep introducing ‘magic’. Who is claiming magic?

    “As I read the literature”

    Try this. Here’s Hume the empiricist criticising the ‘magic’ of rationalism.

    “When we see that we have arrived at the utmost extent of human reason we sit down contented; tho’ we be perfectly satisfied in the main of our ignorance, and perceive what we can give no reason for our most general and most refined principles beside our experience of their reality; which is the reason of the mere vulgar, and what it required no study at first to have discovered for the most particular and most ordinart phaenomenon. And as this impossibility of making any furtheer progress is enough to satisfy the reader, so the writer may derive a more delicate satisfaction from the free confession of his ignorance, and from his prudence in avoiding that error, into which so many have fallen, of imposing there conjectures and hypothesese on the world for the most certain principles.”

    And then, on to empiricism:

    “But if this impossibility of explaining ultimate principles should be esteemed a defect in the science of man, I will venture to affirm that ’tis a defect common to it with all the sciences, and all the arts, in which we can employ ourselves, whether they be such as are cultivated in the schools of the philosophers, or practiced in the shops of the meanest artizans. None of them can go beyond experience, or establish any principles which are not founded on that authority.”

    “When I am at a loss to know the effects of one body upon another in any situation, I need only put them in that situation and observe what results from it.”

    Note that this is not claiming infallibility in our experiences, just that they are what all our ideas must unltimately be based on – even if those experiences are unreliable to some extent. There is no claim of the ultimate reliability of our experiences.

    And remember, this is Hume in 1739 (A Treatise of Human Nature), and his main goal was to express how our reasoning is not the sole source of knowledge but just one part of the process that is applied ultimately to our experiences. This is a descriptive treatise on human empiricism, that may indeed touch on ideas like deduction and induction, but that’s just to put human understanding in perspective. He is trying to explain our reasoning in terms of our experiences, so does spend a lot of time addressing our reasoning in that context. But the message is clear – we come to knowledge ultimately through our experiences, and our experiences are experienced through our senses.

    But more to the point, Hume’s ideas, when considered in the light of later science, when his ideas are adapted to incorporate evolution generally, and genetics, and biology, and chemistry, and physicis, we learn that all our processes and those of all living things are based on the same principles. And, in the case of animals with central nervous systems, and in humans in particular, those processes give rise to a more centralised autonomus system, but one that still has to interact with the world. In humans, this developed method of interaction with the human environment has the general label of empiricism.

    • Who is claiming magic?

      When something is unexplained, and there is no attempt to find an explanation, I am considering that to be an accepting of magic.

      People make strong assertions, and clearly believe they are true. But they make no attempt to investigate. That’s what I am criticizing. Sensory experience is being taken as a freebie, as a starting point that does not have to be investigated. That’s what I am calling a reliance on magic.

  4. I agree with Ron’s points here, but I wanted to repeat one of Ron’s questions that I had myself. You said:

    “I disagree that we receive sensory inputs”

    Can you expand on this? What exactly do you disagree with here?

    • What exactly do you disagree with here?

      I am disagreeing with the word “receive”. We go out and get information. It doesn’t just come to us.

      • “I am disagreeing with the word “receive”. We go out and get information. It doesn’t just come to us.”

        What is the difference between going out and getting the information versus us simply receiving it. Couldn’t you just say that you believe that we go out and receive sensory inputs? Then you’d have your “going out to get it” requirement, but we’d still be receiving those inputs. In order to receive anything, something must be sent. If you stand near a hot object, your body will receive sensory inputs that a part of your body is getting hotter. You do not need to grab or take that information. I’m pretty sure it comes to you whether you like it or not. You’ll need to expand on this a little, taking my example into account.

        -Peace and Love

        • What is the difference between going out and getting the information versus us simply receiving it.

          If we receive data, then all we have is the data.

          If we go out and get data, we have both the data and our knowledge of how we went about going out and getting it.

          I’m saying that having just the data is not sufficient.

          • So all you are arguing is that we’re not vegetables? Well I agree. We do intend to interact with the world around us rather than just sitting still and letting our senses do the work — but that’s not the point here.

            “If we receive data, then all we have is the data”

            Well we have the unique translation of the data provided by the brain, as well as our brain’s relationship between the new data and previously received data. So we don’t just have the data we’re receiving, we also have the previously acquired data which gives the new data meaning.

            “If we go out and get data, we have both the data and our knowledge of how we went about going out and getting it.”

            Yes, we clearly do not mindlessly experience sensations. We do appear to intend to interact with the environment and “look” for certain things, but that doesn’t mean that this “search” takes place for all incoming data. That only takes place for data that we are actively searching for. There is also data that we receive regardless — for example the hot object sensation. We don’t need to search for it, our body will create a stimulus and send that message to the brain allowing us to perceive the hot object. So there is no need for us to “search” for the data. It can be received even if there is no search. If you disagree then tell me why using the “hot object sensation” in your reasoning — as you have avoided it so far.

  5. The going out and getting of data only comes about as a learned behaviour, in response to stimuli that we receive that causes us to learn that behaviour. If we hadn’t received the data in the first place we wouldn’t have the slightest inkling that there is any data to get. Part of this learned behaviour is learned evolutionarily as a consequence of all the receiving and learning and behaving of ancestors, right back to stages that could be didn’t have central nervous systems, back to when all interaction was passive.

    Knowledge is only data in context, in our specific case in the context of all we have acquired previously, as individuals, as a species, as a society. Outside this context what we class as knowledge is only data.

    “I’m saying that having just the data is not sufficient.”

    Sufficient for what?

    • I was wondering the same thing. Sufficient for what?

    • If we hadn’t received the data in the first place we wouldn’t have the slightest inkling that there is any data to get.

      There wasn’t any data to get. That’s the whole point. We have to invent forms of data, invent ways of getting that data, and then finally get the data. It is the invented part that I am counting as knowledge.

      • Any forms of data that we “invent” as a perceiving entity, are simply a result of evolution. Our body has been engineered through countless cellular and multi-cellular generations to eventually have sense organs. What those organs are sensing, the data of which we speak, is a result of that evolution. The sensory cells in those organs have evolved to specifically detect certain types of incoming data: heat, light, sound, stress, deformation, acceleration, chemicals for taste and smell, etc. They have no choice when molecules bind to them and an action potential gradient is produced. They have no choice at the sensory level what data is received. Once this data is sent through the nervous system to the brain, it is true that the brain doesn’t have to perceive every single sensory cell’s action potential — as a lot of it is truncated and compressed before it gets to the brain. On top of this, the brain can “grab” data that it sees as most important in terms of what you eventually perceive.
        However it is still passively receiving ‘X’ amount of sensory data (we’ll call this all the data) and you may only perceive a fraction of ‘X’ due to what the brain chooses as being the most important to survival. If this rejection of some sensory data and transmission of other sensory data (to your perception) is what you consider the “grabbing of data” rather than passive “receiving of data” then we have some agreement here. However you said “I disagree that we receive sensory inputs”, which is something different entirely. If you had said that we don’t passively receive perception from our senses, then I may agree, because perception involves filtering (the “grabbing” or rejection of particular) sensory data.

        One question is: which data is discarded and why? A simple answer is to say that “only the data that survival/evolution has deemed most important need make it’s way to your conscious perception”.

        You need to be sure that you aren’t confusing the two terms: senses, and perception — because they have incredibly different meanings.

  6. Our very existence is data. What we are made of is data: variations in states of matter/energy; distinctions. When data comes together in the states of particles it interacts: physics, chemistry. When electromagnetic data strikes particle data it interacts, transduces, passes through interfaces, transforms, is absorbed, causes internal reactions, causes behaviour, causes reactions back into the environment. Scale this up in complexity over evolution and you have humans doing more of the same, just in more complex ways that we describe as autonomous, at least to some degree.

    When we ‘invent forms of data’ is all we are doing is more of the same, transducing data. It all comes together as patterns of data. Data repeated, replicated, emulated, forms a consistent set of patterns, that in turn forms its own context in which similar patterns are recognised. The passive reception of data that becomes complex in this way we label as active data processing.

    In our complex case, in which the partly autonomous brain is the central system for receiving data, recognising patterns, building patterns of response in data that drives motor action, behaviour, it’s all data. In our complex case we label it empiricism.

    But without the basic interaction, the receiving of data, there would be nothing.

    And just to make this point clear, the reception of data is two way, even at the very basic level of our sensory inputs: action and reaction. Even as we absorb a photon, that’s a photon that isn’t free to interact with something else had we not been in its path. As tiny spider lands on the hair of my arm I detect it, and the spider detects my hair with equal and opposite force – though of course on the different scales that same force has different significance. But the amount of data transferred each way is the same in every interaction.

    And here data isn’t to be confused with what we describe as informational content, which requires context. Electromagnetic data from radio transmissions is passing through me all the time, and as it does so it will be inducing effects in me that on my scale, to my nervous system, seem undetectable. But put a radio receiver in the path of that data, and let the transducers do their work, along with the radio power source, and this very same data becomes contextualised information to me.

    Everything is data. And for complex systems with boundaries that means receiving and transmitting data. In complex humans that’s the empiricism that constitutes our interaction with the rest of the world.

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