Showing posts from 2011

The brain as a knot of consciousness

As regular readers know, I am an idealist; that is, I subscribe to the notion that reality – despite being solid, continuous, and apparently autonomous – is a projection of mind. I also subscribe to the notion that the brain is a kind of filter of consciousness: It localizes consciousness – which itself is primary, irreducible, and unbound – to the space-time location of the body. I've explored these two notions separately, not only in my books, but in several articles in this blog. So, here, I will not repeat the argument (logical or empirical) for these two notions, but will instead focus on how they can co-exist.

The idea that the brain does not generate consciousness, but instead limits and filters it down, seems to require dualism and contradict idealism. After all, if all reality exists in consciousness, how can the brain – which is a part of reality – filter down that which gives it its very existence? A water filter is not made of water; a coffee filter is not made of cof…

Our modern madness

A fundamental metaphysical dichotomy for at least the last few hundred years has been the question of whether reality is objective (i.e. realism) or a projection of the mind (i.e. idealism). Here is a brief analysis of how these two lines of thinking emerge:

An idealist takes his immediate experience as the starting point, and builds from there. To him or her, perceptions in consciousness are the primary data of reality, requiring no reduction. Everything else are abstractions of a different ontological order, including the concepts of matter, energy, and space-time. In other words, we invent the notions of matter, energy, and space-time to create stories that tell us what is going on, but the primary data of reality are perceptions themselves, not the concepts we attach to them; The realist, on the other hand, takes concepts and abstractions as the starting point, like the notion that the perceptions in his own consciousness are caused by objects in an imagined, autonomous reality ou…

What am I?

I was in a train the other day, on my way to the airport for a week-long trip to Asia. Sitting quietly and listening to music, I was completely lost in my thoughts as the train stopped at a major railway station to let some passengers off and take some more in. It was not my destination, so I just lazily contemplated the movement of people going busily about their business on the platform; a veritable sea of hundreds of individuals, each locked, like myself, inside their own thoughts, worries, dreams, and disappointments; each immersed in a mass of other people, rubbing shoulders with others like themselves, and yet each profoundly alone in his or her unique perspective of this show we call existence. How many unfathomable life stories were represented by each of those tiny, insignificant bodies going busily about the station, like bees in a hive? How many novels could be written about their individual dramas? Each of those lives was equivalent, in complexity, richness, nuance, and s…

Consciousness and memory

Often, when we wake up in the morning after a night of deep and uninterrupted sleep, a dark void of nothingness seems to stretch back to our last moments of awareness before falling asleep. Therefore, we very naturally conclude that we had absolutely no conscious experiences during the preceding few hours. Similarly, upon returning from general anaesthesia, we hold on to the comforting notion of having had no subjective experiences during the course of whatever medical procedure was performed on us. Yet, strictly speaking, all we can assert from our state of mind upon waking up is that we cannot recall any experiences during the preceding hours; not that experiences were absent. Unlikely as this may sound, for all we know we may have had spectacular dreams, lifetimes of rich perception and insight, but simply not remember a thing.

It is impossible for us to distinguish between the absence of a memory and the absence of a past experience. Indeed, states we ordinarily associate with un…

The problem with fundamentalist atheism

As someone with a fairly rationalistic, skeptical, and even scientistic background (though slowly improving), I confess to have some degree of sympathy for parts of the message coming from fundamentalist atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. To the extent that they promote critical thinking, I believe they make a positive contribution to society. But there may be a significant way in which they fall victim to the very criticism they pass onto others. Allow me to share a thought on this.

Of the three, Daniel Dennett has most of my respect, for the very cogent, clear, and even fun way in which he argues his case. I find it delightful to watch his eloquence in action, and I have sincerely learned much from him. He has, unquestionably, an analytical intellect of enormous power; there lying his key weakness, in my view. Indeed, I believe Dennett is wrong regarding just about every important point he has argued, from the nature of consciousness to the val…

Expressionist absurdity


InRationalist SpiritualityI suggest that a possible answer to the perennial question of the meaning of existence is that physical reality is a kind of expressionist artwork: a device or allegory whose aim is to evoke certain subjective states – emotions and ideas – for the sake of experience and insight. A peculiar characteristic of physical reality, as an expressionist allegory, is that we all experience seemingly the same allegory from slightly different points of view. As I discuss in Dreamed up Reality,what guarantees this consistency of experience across subjects are the laws of physics and logic that give reality its continuity, self-consistency, and predictability. Thanks to this consistency, reality provides us with a common playground of shared experiences, instead of isolating each one of us in a unique, idiosyncratic universe of private reveries that would forever prevent us from communicating meaningfully with each other. So the laws of physics and, more fundamentally, …

Evolution, intelligent design, and other myths


When I think of, and talk about, the big questions of science and spirituality, I do not adopt the notion of a supernatural being separate from nature as the external ruler of reality; somehow the form of such notion doesn't resonate with my intuitions. However, I am indeed sympathetic to the possibility that there may be intelligence and awareness intrinsic to nature. In other words, that as our knowledge of nature advances we may find a natural intelligence and awareness – not just mechanical laws – woven into the very fabric of reality at multiple levels. As I sought to elaborate on in Chapter 6 of Rationalist Spirituality, our science today is very far from showing that it has uncovered all causal influences determining the observable phenomena of nature. The notion that it did simply reflects a pervasive but ultimately unjustified extrapolation grounded purely on subjective values (a paradigm), not on empirical evidence (I discuss this in another article in this blog). Ther…



Many of my articles in this blog have a common theme: they attempt to throw doubt on aspects of our worldview that we normally take for granted. There is thus a way in which these articles can be taken as negative: Instead of offering new explanations, they seem to solely undermine existing explanations. If they are correct, a reader may throw his arms up and say “right, you’ve got a point there; but then, how do we makeprogress?” Somehow, we expect progress to be made only when new explanations are offered.

But new explanations can only emerge if we are able to put our old explanations in perspective and look upon them from ‘outside the system,’ as Douglas Hofstadter likes to put it. In this context, a big part of making progress is the dismantling of notions and beliefs that prevent us from seeing alternative, and more promising, paths forward. When our paradigms become rusty, they work as barriers to progress; they lock us into repetitive and exhausted patterns of thought. Like ho…

A thought experiment about evolution


I want to invite you today for a thought experiment. Let us suppose that the key tenets of our scientific, material-reductionist paradigm are all correct. According to this worldview, reality is objective and independent of mind; mind and its conscious perceptions are a by-product of the matter of the brain; and the brain, along with our ability to understand nature, has evolved through natural selection favoring survival of the fittest. Still according to this worldview, life has evolved within a space-time fabric where the interplay of matter and energy gives rise to the set of objective phenomena we call reality. Let us imagine this reality as a collection of objects in the canvas of space-time.

As the first living organisms evolved, they were immersed in the same space-time canvas populated by all the other objects that make up reality: rocks, water, sand, air, other living beings, etc. They also had perceptual mechanisms that gave them indirect access to these other objects: fo…

The subtleties of perception


The other day I was thinking about those old autostereograms: pictures of apparent random dots that, when looked at in just the right way, make a 3-dimensional image jump out at you. I have never been good at that, but the key seems to be to not focus on the dots. It requires a certain ‘way of seeing’ that transcends analytical effort. Indeed, any effort at analyzing the picture ensures that you will not be able to see the 3D image, even though it’s there right under your nose all the time.

Sometimes I wonder if autostereograms aren't excellent metaphors of reality. How much of reality are we capable to see with our regular, highly analytical way of seeing? How much do we miss? How much can there be right under our noses, but which we never see or even intuit in our daily lives? After all, if the metaphor is valid, the more we try – in the sense of making a goal-driven effort – the more difficult it becomes to see. Is there a trick to see more of reality, just like there seem t…

So the only explanation possible is...

In logic, a strong distinction is made between deductive and inductive inferences. Here is an example of a deductive inference:

Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. Therefore, if I go to Amsterdam, I must go to the Netherlands.
Clearly, a deductive inference is necessarily implied by its premise, beyond any doubt. Now consider the following inductive inference:

My house has been broken into and there are unidentified footprints in the backyard. Therefore, the footprints were left by the burglar.
Now the inference cannot be derived with certainty from the premises. There is only a reasonable probability, given the circumstances, that the footprints were made by the burglar. Indeed, they could conceivably have nothing whatsoever to do with the burglary; they could have been made, for instance, by the gardener who came in to collect some forgotten tools while you were not home.

Inductive inferences are entirely dependent on our ability to correctly evaluate probabilities. However,…

Schizophrenic idealism

The philosophy of idealism, defended through the ages by great minds like those of George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Gottfried Leibniz, and John McTaggart, entails that all reality is ultimately just a conscious experience. In other words, unlike realism – which postulates an external, objective world 'out there' triggering our perceptions – idealism postulates the existence of nothing but our conscious perceptions themselves. As such, idealism is a much more parsimonious and cautious worldview. Yet, somehow, realism has come to completely dominate the worldview of our culture. Most of us hardly question the assumption that there is a reality 'out there' independent of our minds; that is, that nature would still go merrily on even if nobody were looking. Leaving aside the scientific evidence to the contrary, one wonders why realism has come to be synonymous with our culture’s collective intuition of reality.

The problem is that most people, when considering t…