Psychedelic corruption, politics and other random thoughts

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
As we leave yet another intense week behind, there is a confluence of concerning thoughts in my mind regarding recent developments. The common theme seems to be increasing corruption, for financial or political gain, of areas of human activity that should, at least in principle, be above all that. It's a long story, so bear with me.

For years now I have been a member of a closed Facebook group called 'Reality Sandwich Writers Circle,' a discussion forum for those who write for the Reality Sandwich website, a psychedelic community e-zine. A few days ago someone posted there claiming that the website had been taken over. Upon visiting it, I realized it was indeed completely different, looking silly and atrocious now, rather like a mixture of McDonald's with SpongeBob. I understood that the previous management, to whom I was committed, was gone, which prompted me to leave the group. Today, I saw a concerning post on Facebook making serious claims about what happened.

I don't know what the facts behind this conflict are. But financial motivations at least seem to be behind it. If so, this is rather surprising, as for decades now the psychedelic community hasn't been a promising corner of society for those looking for profits. These are people generally motivated by the pursuit of inner development and healthy relationships with others and the planet, not material goods. They are probably some of the lowest-spenders on the planet.

Be that as it may, it lines up with other recent developments. In a video I posted on Facebook a couple weeks ago (see below), Jamie Wheal suggests the possibility of pharmaceutical businesses co-opting the psychedelic renaissance. They would do it precisely by removing the psychedelic effects from the substances and patenting the resulting drug. The idea is this: research done e.g., at Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University, indicates that psychedelics may have therapeutic effects helpful in tackling depression and anxiety. If pharmaceutical companies can create a drug that keeps the desired effects whilst removing the trip itself, it will be marketed as a high-margin problem-solving drug, instead of a path towards self-discovery. This may not be possible, as the therapeutic effects may originate in the trip itself; but unless and until this is proven, it is conceivable that the results of psychedelic research will be monetized in ways previously unimagined. Commercial creativity seems limitless.


In the same day I posted the video above, someone sent me a link to a for-profit start-up company in the UK, backed by big Venture Capital investors. This start-up synthesizes psilocybin—the active component of psychedelic mushrooms and truffels, which grow spontaneously in backyards and can be cultivated at home by anyone—in the laboratory. I understand that lab synthesis produces the purified substance, which may have advantages, but it still sounds to me like trying to sell bottled tap water... Oh wait, Coca-Cola did exactly that, so perhaps it's not as absurd as I think... Maybe I am just too old-fashioned.

Anyway, I did notice that the two key researchers of Imperial College's newly founded 'Center for Psychedelic Research,' Prof. David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris, are in this company's advisory board. I am not sure this means anything, but it's factually true. Also factually true, as I have recently learned, is that psychiatrists are charging north of $800 for supervised psychedelic therapy; per session. Next to my earlier writings arguing that psychedelic research and its reporting are appallingly biased (see this, this, this, and this), all this adds to my already significant concerns.

But who am I to know, right? The only thing I do know is my personal experiences: I have cultivated psychedelic-containing organisms at home, legally, safely and very easily. The experiences they provided me with years ago have been of tremendous learning value and considerably helped my personal development. I paid very little to achieve all that, basically acquiring spores (also legally) and some basic tools. I had no professional supervision for my experiences and neither did I require any (although I do recognize that others may indeed need it, depending on their psychological health). I simply had a sober person (my partner) in the house during my experience, just in case something went wrong; which fortunately never happened. Beyond that, the only professional help I ever got was from my doctor, to ensure that everything was okay with my heart and liver before I first took the substance. If I were offered free psychiatric supervision for a trip today, I would politely decline (as, in fact, I have), for I consider the experience the most personal activity one could possibly engage in. These are my humble personal views, for what they are worth. I fail to see any need for any big-money commercial infrastructure around psychedelic usage.

The thing is, psychedelics are well on their way to legalization. Everyone can see the writing on the wall. And this is very, very good. Prohibiting naturally-occurring substances less toxic than most over-the-counter medications, and with demonstrably beneficial psychological effects, is just preposterous. But legalization is also a business opportunity that many will spot. Given the norms and values of our society today, it would be naive not to expect the sharks to jump into the pool to 'monetize'—a handy business word I often use in my day job—these new developments. One could argue that researching psychedelics requires a lot of money, so there must be returns, otherwise why would investors, well, invest? Alright... perhaps nothing—not even the most sacred—can be spared an 'economic rationale' with 'return on investment.' A community and life-style that were once the antithesis of commercial gain, may, after all, be commercialized, just like medicine, education, basic utilities, food... and bottled tap water.

Which brings me to something totally different... Or is it really? You see, I was looking the other day at the Twitter pages of the likes of Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and others. I did it because there are clear overlaps between what I talk about and what they talk about. But they have hundreds of thousands, even millions of followers, whereas I have a few thousand. I have always known that and taken it for granted, but the other day I suddenly wondered why such disparity after a whole decade (I published my first book almost 10 years ago). It doesn't really bother me, as my 'daemon' is all about publishing, not gathering followers, but my curiosity was piqued. What is the difference between how I bring my message out and how they bring theirs? As far as rigor, academic grounding and 'respectability' are concerned, I dare suggest that my record betters theirs. So that's not it.

And then I got it: they all put politics in the mix. These guys take overt, polemical political positions. Sam Harris is supposed to be a neuroscientist and talk about consciousness, but politics and religion are all over his online presence. This, I presume, is what commands large audiences. A rather lackluster and substance-thin exchange between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek the other day was billed "the debate of the century." Really? Why? Perhaps because both have clearly defined, easily labelable (yes, it's a word) political orientations? (Note: I sincerely respect both Peterson and Žižek, something I can't say of many others.)

But I talk about metaphysics, a subject—I strongly believe—well above politics. I do have political positions, but they are too nuanced to get any popularly-recognizable label. I am probably as much conservative as I am liberal; as rightwing as I am leftwing. Or, better yet, I am neither conservative nor liberal; neither rightwing nor leftwing. Instead, I believe I am simply thoughtful. I reject these labels because they make the story too easy, too flattened, too artificial. Society has too great a variety of problems and potential solutions for us to divide the pot in two. Our problems and issues aren't that simple; they aren't reducible to slogans.

Moreover, it seems that every minor political militant knows a lot more about what is going on in the world than I do. I am convinced I have way too little access to the unbiased truths of the matter to dare identify myself with any camp. Perhaps this is my weakness. For me to talk about politics as I talk about metaphysics would require, I think, a depth of understanding I just don't have. I feel I should leave that to pundits, political scientists and other experts. I could cause stir by stating that, say, we are all going straight to hell on the back of the horses of democracy and capitalism, but who the hell am I to know this? (Before you rush to conclude that I've just revealed my covert political views, think again.)

Finally, I would hate for people to reject what I have to say just because my political views may be different from theirs. I want to keep the focus on what matters to me most, and that is metaphysics, the ground of reality underlying all the madness of economic gain and political activism. Yet it seems one can't stay above the fray of politics and business and be popular at the same time.

Everything that attains popularity seems to be eventually politicized or economically corrupted; even the most sacred. It's a funny world...
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Evolution is true, but are mutations really random?

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The evidence is overwhelming that evolution by natural selection is true: organisms change from generation to generation by the accrual of genetic mutations. These mutations are selected for, or against, according to the ability of the resulting organisms to survive and reproduce in their respective ecosystems. A video released by Harvard Medical School a few years ago vividly—if didactically—illustrates the process:


However, an extra idea is often conflated with the foregoing: whereas natural selection is demonstrably not a random process, the mutations underlying the process are consistently assumed to be. The problem is that evidence for natural selection is not evidence for random mutations: nature will select for survival fitness whether the mutations themselves follow a trend or not.

To demonstrate that the genetic mutations underlying evolution are random, one would need a fairly complete record of (a) the mutations themselves, as they occurred throughout the history of life on Earth, including those discarded by natural selection; and (b) the corresponding phenotypic characteristics. Only then could one run a randomness test to verify that no phenotypic trends are present before natural selection plays its role. Of course, the fossil record is far too sparse to allow for such a test.


So the assumption that genetic mutations are random has, strictly speaking, no empirical basis. Its motivation is merely subjective: many cannot fathom any plausible mechanism that could impart a pattern on the mutations themselves. Compelling as this may sound, lack of imagination and a subjective sense of plausibility aren’t valid reasons to pronounce scientific facts.

The spirit of scientific investigation is precisely to look for yet-undiscovered natural patterns, thereby implicitly assuming—if anything—that they, in fact, exist. To affirm, on account of subjective dispositions, that genetic mutations are pattern-less is arguably antithetical to the very spirit of science.

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Moreover, scientific results and speculations have violated our sense of plausibility so often that, by now, we should have learned to be cautious about it. For instance, when compared to the hypothesis—seriously pushed by many physicists to explain the bizarre fine-tuning of universal constants—of countless parallel universes, for which there is no shred of empirical evidence, the possibility of an inherent natural bias underlying genetic mutations doesn’t seem so absurd to this commentator.

In an attempt to be more objective, one could argue that genetic mutations are quantum-level events, which have been demonstrated to be inherently random. But since the hypothetical trends in question are phenotypic—that is, biases towards certain body structures, functions or capabilities—they necessarily entail many quantum events. At such a compound level, global patterns across events can be consistent with individual events meeting randomness criteria. Let me illustrate this with a simple analogy.

Imagine that you toss three dice on a table, multiple times. After each toss, you inspect each die separately and verify that they randomly display a number from one to six. But when you look at all three dice together, you realize that either they all display an even number or they all display an odd number. The resulting global pattern not only clearly violates randomness, but is also constituted by individual events that, when inspected in isolation, meet randomness criteria. Therefore, that individual quantum events are random doesn’t preclude the possibility of non-random global mutation patterns.

Indeed, the possibility of there being global patterns of behavior in nature that transcend locality restrictions is opened up by quantum mechanics itself. In the words of physicist Erich Joos, “Because of the non-local properties of quantum states, a consistent description of some phenomenon in quantum terms must finally include the entire universe.

Moreover, although physicists can test individual quantum events in the laboratory and verify that they are random, it is impossible to discern a global pattern within the complexity of the physical world at large; there are just too many ‘dice’ to keep track of under controlled conditions. So for all we know and even can know, genetic mutations may follow yet-unrecognized phenotypic trends operating non-locally across mutation events.

As a matter of fact, there are empirical suggestions of fundamental natural regularities—‘laws of nature’—irreducible to microscopic events. If so, such a precedent should compel one to avoid outright discarding, on the basis of mere intuition, the possibility of unknown macroscopic laws biasing the genetic mutations that drive evolution.

Finally, one could argue that we don’t need anything other than random mutations to explain the variety of life, so that postulating a pattern prior to natural selection would violate Occam’s proverbial razor. But we don’t really know that randomness is enough, do we? The only way to verify it would be to run a quantum-level simulation of the evolution of life to see if, with trendless genetic mutations as input, we could reproduce the biological variety empirically observed. Such simulation is, of course, impossible. Only toy models are feasible, but these aren’t representative of the complex reality we are trying to understand. If anything, the amazing richness of life seems to suggest precisely a natural bias in that direction.

Notice that I am not claiming that such bias exists; I don’t know it either way, this being precisely my point. I am simply pointing out that the hypothesis cannot be discarded. Moreover, I am not hypothesizing any deliberate intervention in natural affairs by some supernatural agency. I am simply raising the possibility of yet-unrecognized but natural regularities, which impart trends on genetic mutations. Nothing we know today precludes this possibility.

I also acknowledge that, to many, the hypothesis of an irreducible phenotypic bias feels so implausible as to be ignorable. There is nothing wrong with holding such an opinion. But passing opinion for established truth is a problem, for if we make an exception to the scientific practice of separating subjective views from objective facts, we open Pandora’s proverbial box.

The very notion of ‘randomness’ is already loaded and ambiguous to begin with: although it is defined as the absence of discernible patterns, theoretically any pattern can be produced by a truly random process; the associated probability may be vanishingly small, but it isn’t zero. So the claim that a natural process is random not only amounts to little more than an acknowledgement of causal ignorance, it can also be construed so as to be unfalsifiable.

On top of such inherent problems, today the idea of random mutations has become so intertwined with that of evolution by natural selection that, remarkably, the overwhelming empirical evidence for the latter is implicitly misconstrued to be evidence for the former. This is a serious inaccuracy, for there is arguably no other natural process as relevant to us as the nature of life.

If anything deserves the full rigor of interpretation required by the scientific method, it is the evolutionary mechanisms that produced us humans. Humbly acknowledging what we do not know about them is imperative, lest we arbitrarily eliminate interesting avenues of investigation.
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GUEST ESSAY: 1 + 1 = Idealism

By J. T. Schaffer

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed and commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author. For my own views on the subject of this essay, see my book The Idea of the World.)


There is some question as to the ultimate nature and origin of mathematics. Does it exist fully formed in some eternal Platonic realm that we can access and learn from, or is it simply a human contrivance, similar to language, that allows us to efficiently describe some aspects of our external reality, better with the objective than the subjective?

If we argue that mathematics exists eternally and fully formed, as Plato did, we are left to explain or ignore the question of how it came to be. How is it that that which is eternal and beyond change contains that which functions to describe just the opposite? In positing an eternal realm are we abandoning reasoning to find the origin of that which represents perhaps the pinnacle of reasoning? While this might be the case, it should be accepted only as the answer of last resort if our powers of reasoning fail us.

If we assume, however, that mathematics is the product of conscious reasoning, then we need to explore how that process would work.  We can start with what is perhaps the simplest mathematical fact: that 1 + 1 = 2. If we consider this fact from the perspective of Leibnitz’s Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles, there is a problem. The Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles states that no two distinct things can be exactly the same as each other; to be different there must be a difference. If this is true then, as a mathematical object, there can be only one number “1,” since it has no associated properties that would allow copies of itself to be considered different and unique. Accordingly, it cannot be added to itself to produce two anymore that I can add the lone dollar in my pocket to itself to get the two dollars needed to buy a cheap cup of coffee.

As a practical matter we can resolve this difficulty by considering that we are not adding one to itself but adding two unspecified objects or units of something. We can also declare that the two ones are different by fiat. And finally, we can attribute some imaginary difference to them. Regardless of the choice made, the statement 1 + 1 = 2 assumes a context that is true only for applied mathematics, not abstract.


What we need is something that allows numbers that are intrinsically the same to have some external differentiating factor. Basically this is the function that space serves. The numbers remain identical but their possible location in space can differentiate them.


If we presume that the two ones are referring to two distinct objects or units of something, the question then becomes not where does mathematics come from but: Where does that which mathematics refer to come from? The problem with this is that we end up using mathematics to describe the origination of that which gives rise to mathematics. For this to be true the two must be inextricably linked. It implies that the laws of the universe, in mathematical form, cannot be taken as a given existing prior to the Big Bang that gave rise to the universe

To declare two ones different by fiat is a functional answer. It is how the rules of any game are determined. It is how civil laws are formulated. And for an inquisitive child, it is an answer often given by parents: “Because I said so.”

For mathematics, difference by fiat makes it possible to do arithmetical operations as well as algebra. A better approach, however, would be if some hypothetical difference could be imagined. While we can add and subtract in our heads it remains a rote routine. What we need is something that allows numbers that are intrinsically the same to have some external differentiating factor. Basically this is the function that space serves. The numbers remain identical but their possible location in space can differentiate them. And this remarkable capacity of space to differentiate otherwise identical objects it not limited to mathematics, physical objects such as electrons also depend upon this remarkable capacity of space for allowing unlimited, identical copies to all coexist.

Space does more than just make copies possible. It makes number lines, graphs and, geometry possible as well. In doing so it increases our understanding of the power of mathematics to describe things. As an algebraic equation x+ y= z2 can be solved for any arbitrary x and y. But to fully understand what the equation represents it is necessary to graph it in space and see that it is not just the Pythagorean theorem, but the general equation for circles. Once we have z we have a radius and can now determine the circumference of the circle and its area. The number pi is now knowable. And this pi of Euclidean geometry is the same pi that appears in many algebraic expressions that have seemingly nothing to do with space.


But as we followed this line of reasoning, we find that something unexpected happened. We found that the concept of space is required by mathematics at its most abstract but simplest level. Without it we cannot add 1 + 1 to get 2. This means that we cannot have cosmological equations that describe the expansion of the universe from a spaceless singularity unless we accept that the differences in numbers are a conscious stipulation (by fiat). This takes us back to the earlier observation that mathematics and the objects that it refers to must be inextricably linked. Yet if they are both coming into being in the same process, what is the nature of that process?

It cannot be a causal process because there is no past that precedes what we are trying to establish and describe. Causality is both past-dependent and necessarily involves an infinite regress. The alternative, acausality or randomness, is equally problematical. Acausality is non-rational. This would imply that the pinnacle of rationality would then both rest upon an irrational foundation and necessarily be an illusion.

The simplest way around this is to take the very process we are engaged in at face value and use it as our guide. We are asking questions and seeking understanding, a conscious endeavor. If we consider mathematics as a conscious construct, what is to prevent us from considering consciousness as the source of everything else as well? If the mind can conceive of mathematics, why can’t it conceive of the universe and its content as well? We have already considered that numbers can be different by fiat, a conscious choice. We have already considered that by imagining space we enhance the power of mathematics. Given this, it would not be unreasonable to consider that consciousness is the true fundamental that gives rise to mathematics and the world that it partially describes. It would explain why mathematics is better at describing the objective than the subjective.

The problem with this conclusion is that science sees consciousness arising from physicality, and religion sees consciousness arising with God. But perhaps the reason we are having trouble progressing and encountering seemingly irresolvable conflicts is that we are going in the wrong direction. There is no evidence which prevents us from considering that the subjects of both science and religion arise from consciousness itself, and then seeking to better understand that process. Doing so would put all sciences and religions on the same footing. Now that would truly be a Grand Theory of Everything, a theory of conscious, intelligent self-design driven by curiosity and the quest for self-knowledge, whose starting point is simple awareness of being.

Copyright © 2019 by J. T. Schaffer. Published with permission.
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Here is how anyone can understand the true nature of reality


My latest book, The Idea of the World, is undoubtedly my most rigorous and academically solid volume to date. This is its strength, but also its Achilles' heel: although still accessible to any educated person, its elaborate argumentation demands more effort from the reader. However, my previous six books are easier to digest, and together cover considerably more ground than The Idea. I have recently revised them all, in the form of the so-called Uniform Reprints, which I discussed here.

To gently introduce you to those earlier—but quite up-to-date—volumes I've given six interviews to Jeff Mishlove, as part of the renowned Thinking Allowed series that began back in the 1980's, originally airing on PBS. Each interview generally covers one of the books (although Jeff and I discuss a variety of other topics as well). Below, I provide links to the respective videos and brief commentary on each book. Don't let the books' original publication dates put you off: they are all freshly revised and rendered consistent with one another, so they form a coherent whole.

Why Materialism Is Baloney


This is my best-selling book so far, although The Idea will probably soon catch up with and overtake it. It provides an accessible argument for the claim that there is no objective material universe; that the entire universe is in mind, although not in your personal mind alone. I seek to show that we, as individual subjects of experience, are like whirlpools in an ocean of mentation that both contains and surrounds us, and which presents itself to us as what we call the 'physical' universe. The book's argument is based on visual metaphors that are easy to grasp and follow. Its tone is informal but combative, as suggested by the cheeky title, for one of its key claims is that materialism is a preposterous metaphysical view.

More Than Allegory


Every author probably has a favorite book amongst his own output. More Than Allegory is my favorite. This is my most far reaching work yet, even with some revealing—though highly stylized—autobiographical segments. In it I discuss the ways in which religious myths across the ages have probably hinted at very true aspects of reality. I take you along a thought line whose inevitable conclusion is that spacetime is an illusion, and help you gain direct insight into how you create this illusion 'from moment to moment.' As a bonus, I expose the 'Big Bang' for what it actually represents; and no, it isn't what you've been told. Finally, part III of the book doesn't hold anything back; no, really, nothing. It goes as deep as possible into the rabbit hole we call the nature of reality. The story told there, despite its rather fantastical overtones, is, in fact, true in the ways that really count. You may doubt it after you've read it, but hey, I wouldn't want to fool you, would I?

Meaning in Absurdity


Everything we consider true about reality is ultimately based on layers and layers of belief systems, some more reliable or justifiable than others. At the bottom of this edifice of belief is Aristotelian logic: a set of statements that are, supposedly, so self-evident that they dispense with substantiation. We all know they are true; or do we? What if we were to critically examine the edifice of our beliefs and discover that reality, in fact, has many more degrees of freedom than we dare grant it? What if our very logic isn't, after all, as self-evident as we suppose? Could this explain the so-called 'high strangeness' phenomena that have been reported throughout the ages, such as UFOs, 'alien abductions,' psychedelic hallucinations, spontaneous religious visions and so forth? Could our own deeply hidden and unexamined belief systems limit what we are actually able to perceive or otherwise cognize of the world around ourselves? Could the world around us right now entail much, much more than we dare imagine? These and many other related questions are explored in this short but daring and intense book.

Dreamed up Reality


Together with Part III of More Than Allegory, this is one of my most personal books, for in it I relate—with abundant details and extensive a posteriori commentary—my own private experiences with (highly) altered states of consciousness. That's it; enough said. If you want to know more, read the book! Its subject matter is sensitive; it's the kind of thing that one doesn't want to discuss in brief, for one risks being drastically misinterpreted. And I don't want you to think I am a nutcase!

Rationalist Spirituality


This was the first book I wrote, the one that received the most extensive revision recently, and probably the most accessible route for anyone interested in dipping their toes into my philosophy. Although I make clear upfront that my position is monistic idealism—i.e. I hold the view that consciousness is all there ultimately is—the book uses dualism (body/soul, subject/object, mind/matter, etc.) as its running metaphor. Since most people are used to dualist concepts, following the argument line in this book should be fairly straightforward. It's a short and direct volume. I do make explicit, however, how to port the dualist metaphor onto my actual idealist philosophy, so readers won't be ultimately restricted to a dualist mode of thinking. Those interested in looking deeper will be able to see how dualism sort of 'sits on top' of idealism, like an application running on an operating system.

Brief Peeks Beyond


This is my most varied book. In consists of a number of essays—organized in chapters according to their subject matter—tackling topics such as the mind-body problem, how research on memory is distorted and misportrayed by the media, the rampant misrepresentation of psychedelic research that sometimes is unashamedly encouraged by the researchers themselves (!), the psycho-social dynamics underlying how the metaphysics of materialism is promoted on the basis of scandalous double-standards, how materialism underpins consumerism and the suicidal pillaging of the planet we have been bearing witness to, the politics of it all, and even how to live a decent and meaningful life informed by straight philosophical thinking. I also discuss at length—and this book is the only place where I allow myself to do it—the implications and applications of the metaphysics of idealism, which I espouse. Despite the variety of themes tackled, the book does offer a coherent overall message built out of seemingly incommensurable pieces of one overarching jigsaw puzzle.

I hope you enjoy the books and find value in them!
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GUEST ESSAY: Radical skepticism, revived

By Aditya Prasad

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed and commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author.)


Radical skepticism gets a bad rap. Sure, it's possible to question everything about your reality, but what's the point? Countless freshman philosophy majors and enterprising potheads have done just that, and look where it got them. Better to face up to the cold, hard facts!

But maybe they simply didn't know how to wield the tool properly. Let's take a trip down the rabbit hole and see if we can't do better...

Ompha, Lompha

Young Earth creationists believe that the earth was created in the past ten thousand years. According to their so-called Omphalos Hypothesis, dinosaur bones and other seemingly-old artifacts were planted there by God as a test of our faith.

As ludicrous as this may strike you, it contains no logical contradiction. In fact, there is no way to disprove that the universe sprang into existence, fully formed, last Thursday. Mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell takes it one step further (as mathematicians and philosophers are wont to do):
There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that 'remembered' a wholly unreal past.
But why stop there? For all we know, this may all have appeared freshly in this very moment. But while such a claim is not logically impossible, it is certainly very improbable. Right?

To help answer that, let's look at a technique called Bayesian inference.

Bayesian inference

Suppose I am hiding a coin from you. I tell you it is either a (US) penny or nickel, and you have to guess which. What kind of evidence would help you decide?

If I tell you that there is a US president on one side of the coin, that is no help at all, because it applies equally well to both coins. Whatever you thought the relative odds were before, they should remain unchanged after.

On the other hand, suppose I tell you that I flipped it and it landed on its edge. Both coins can theoretically do this, but because the nickel is thicker, it is probably more likely to land that way. Depending on how much more likely, this evidence should nudge your bias toward the nickel to a corresponding degree.

So we see that evidence is one crucial component in determining your beliefs. The second, equally important piece, is something that we hinted at earlier: your pre-existing bias, technically known as your prior.

If you're like most people, you probably started with the assumption that both the penny and nickel were equally likely. And why not? In lieu of any information, this seems like a reasonable starting point. But you don't have to start at 50-50. You might look up some stats on the number of pennies and nickels in circulation, and use that ratio as your prior. Or perhaps you know that I secretly love pennies, and use that to inform your initial bias. It's totally up to you.

Whatever your prior, you must combine it with evidence, to get an updated bias (called the posterior). You can either stop there or use this posterior as a new prior, to be combined with further evidence (generating yet another posterior), and so on. Over time, as the evidence accumulates, any mistakes in your initial prior will get ironed out.

In this way, Bayesian inference is a formal framework for doing something that's already very natural to us. We may start off uncertain about something, but we allow the weight of evidence to bring our beliefs into closer alignment with reality.

Let's apply this to our question about the past.

Evaluating the past

First let's try to pick a good prior.

Basic physics tells us that fully-formed worlds are very unlikely to just pop into existence. Therefore we should a priori be very biased against this possibility, right? Unfortunately not: we could only have learned about physics in the past, which we cannot trust without resorting to circular reasoning.

Okay, what about Occam's Razor? It tells us that we should prefer simpler theories to needlessly complicated ones. But this is a statement about preference, not likelihood. Moreover, it runs into the same problem as before: when, exactly, did we collect evidence that justifies the Razor?

Try as we may, we cannot logically justify any particular prior. So let's throw up our hands and start at 50-50. The evidence should settle it, right?

Well, this picture I took yesterday seems like pretty good evidence at first. But remember that our hypothetical sudden-world is designed to provide such fabricated evidence. So this supposed "picture from yesterday" fits both models equally well, and it is therefore of no use. By design, neither is anything else. Drat!

A final attempt might be to say fine, let's accept that maybe the world sprang into being five minutes ago (or whenever you began this exercise). But since then, you've been collecting evidence that justifies your trust in physics, Occam's Razor, and the rest. This ought to restore your faith, right?

But notice that you can repeat the thought experiment right now. How do you know that this is not the first moment? When you try to work out the answer, you will find that your supposed "evidence from the past five minutes" goes out the window just like our supposed "picture from yesterday." So this approach fails, too. There's nowhere to get a grip!

Strange as it may seem, we are not rationally justified in saying that a real past is "more likely" than a fake one. It certainly feels like the real past is more rational, but this is an illusion. For now, simply notice how powerful this illusion is. We will return to it later.

Choosing our beliefs

We do not necessarily need to rely on reasoning to choose our beliefs. Discussing a different skeptical hypothesis, physicist Sean Carroll points out:
There is no way to distinguish between the scenarios by collecting new data.

What we’re left with is our choice of prior credences. We’re allowed to pick priors however we want—and every possibility should get some nonzero number. But it’s okay to set our prior credence in radically skeptical scenarios at very low values, and attach higher prior credence to the straightforwardly realistic possibilities.

Radical skepticism is less useful to us; it gives us no way to go through life. All of our purported knowledge [...] might very well be tricks being played on us. But what then? We cannot actually act on such a belief [...]. Whereas, if we take the world roughly at face value, we have a way of moving forward. There are things we want to do, questions we want to answer, and strategies for making them happen. We have every right to give high credence to views of the world that are productive and fruitful, in preference to those that would leave us paralyzed with ennui.
Russell also recognized this:
Skepticism, while logically impeccable, is psychologically impossible, and there is an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it.
In other words, given that evidence cannot help us, we might as well pick whichever belief is most helpful. And our commonsense notion of time is the most helpful of all.

But is this really true? Have you ever been genuinely free of the belief in a real past, in order to make a fair comparison? Is such a state even possible or desirable? Wouldn't you be like a proverbial goldfish, totally unable to function?

As it turns out, that is not what it is like to be free of conviction about the past. It is entirely possible—though not easy—to drop your belief in a literal past while retaining the ability to function as though it were real. You can (and should) try to enter that state right now, but unless you've cultivated exceptional facility with your most subtle mental processes, you will attain at best a vague facsimile of it. Something deep inside you is unwilling to genuinely and completely let go. It protects itself by telling you "well, our belief is the best one anyway!"

The authentic state of not-knowing belongs to the purview of mystics and contemplatives. It is unfair to expect mathematicians, physicists, or even philosophers to find the time to explore it properly.

The future

Let's visit another oddity. 18th-century philosopher David Hume popularized something called the Problem of Induction. Roughly, it goes as follows.

It seems painfully obvious that the past provides good evidence for the future, right? But why do we believe this? Well, it has certainly been true in the past. Okay, but so what? We'd like to say "... and therefore it will be true in the future," but then we are assuming what we set out to prove. There's that nasty circularity again! So we cannot justify our belief that the past will continue to provide evidence for the future.

Thus, the fact that the laws of physics have faithfully operated for billions of years gives us no reason at all to believe that they will continue to operate even one second from now [1]. As before, notice how ridiculous and illogical this feels, despite being impeccably rational. This is a powerful clue, if used properly!

Unfortunately Hume, too, loses his nerve before fully taking on board the implications:
Should it be asked me whether I sincerely assent to this argument which I have been to such pains to inculcate, whether I be really one of those skeptics who hold that everything is uncertain, I should reply that neither I nor any other person was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion. I dine, I play backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends and when after three or four hours of amusement I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strange and ridiculous that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further. Thus the skeptic still continues to reason and believe, though he asserts he cannot defend his reason by reason.

The nature of reality

It does not stop with time. Consider the hypothesis that this world is a simulation—and further, that its creators are clever enough to hide all evidence of this fact from us. Then, by assumption, there is no way to test the hypothesis, and we are again free to discard it on the basis of practicality, even if not on pure rationality. In fact, there are an infinite number of strange and seemingly-pointless possibilities that we can cut away with one fell swoop in this way. This can make us feel supremely confident in our default worldview. But there is at least one strange possibility that comes away unscathed.

Consider the hypothesis that the world is a dream of sorts. This possibility may seem inconsequential, as with the previous examples: if the dream behaves exactly as a physical world would, then there's no point in pursuing the belief further. On the other hand, if it actually is a dream—and moreover, your dream, in a sense—then your participation might be pivotal in gathering evidence of the fact. How might this work?

In a nighttime dream, naively questioning your surroundings is often insufficient to expose the dream's unreality. In most cases, the dream will fabricate an explanation that—despite being nonsensical from a more awakened perspective—will nonetheless suffice to quell your suspicion. Nothing to see here, move right along! To expose the sham, you must question the dream in just the right way, at which point you might become lucid.

So how does the analogy extend to this reality? How would one question it in "just the right way?"

The mind doth protest too much

You might begin by noticing how illogical it is to feel so dead certain about the past despite having no rational basis for the belief. Next, watch as your mind tries to wriggle out of this accusation: "well, such a belief is evolutionarily adaptive, so it's probably embedded deep in our ancient limbic system, beyond the reach of higher cognition..." Bam! In a finger snap, circular reasoning again magically restores your faith: I believe in the past because the past made me do it, duh. Whew! Nothing to see here!

This should trigger a great deal more suspicion in you than it probably does.

If you were to sit and grapple with this conundrum very sincerely—not just thinking harder about it, but experientially penetrating the very heart of the discrepancy—you might have a mind- and reality-shattering "aha!" moment, not unlike what Zen Buddhists call kensho or sudden awakening. It might reveal that you've been taking life utterly for granted [2], subtly (but erroneously) assuming that you have the slightest inkling of what it is and how it works. Side effects may include an overwhelming flood of gratitude, awe, wonder, love, joy, and humility, beyond what you believed possible. There may even be insights about the nature, purpose, and evolution of this dream, though they may be hard to prove or even communicate via the standard channels.

Why is it impossible to prove that the past really happened, or that it's even likely? Sure, maybe this is all just sophistry and there's a perfectly reasonable explanation. Or maybe something much more curious is going on, right under your nose but hidden by a cleverly self-protective veil.

If this all sounds like too much for you, well, then, luckily you have the option to continue to blindly trust your default beliefs. And why not? After all, some Very Smart Scientists have assured you that being too skeptical would be "ridiculous," "frivolous," and "paralyzing." And who are you to question that? Nothing to see here, move right along...

Copyright © 2019 by Aditya Prasad. Published with permission.

Notes

[1] http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2012/10/problem-of-induction-explained-simply.html
It’s a good test of whether someone has actually understood Hume’s argument that they acknowledge its conclusion is fantastic (many students new to philosophy misinterpret Hume: they think his conclusion is merely that we cannot be certain what will happen tomorrow.) ... [But] if Hume is right, the belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is as unjustified as the belief that a million mile wide bowl of tulips will appear over the horizon instead. We suppose the second belief is insane. But if Hume is correct, the first belief is actually no more rational. ...

[T]he onus is on these defenders of “common sense” to show precisely what is wrong with Hume's argument. No one has yet succeeded in doing this (or at least no one has succeeded in convincing a majority of philosophers that they have done so).
[2] Notice that to take something "for granted" can mean either to be unappreciative of it, or to logically presuppose it. Here it takes on both meanings: we are quite confident that we've been experiencing life for a long time, which is why this moment feels so mundane. And now notice that "mundane" means both "pertaining to physical reality" and "tedious, repetitive, dull." Again, this is not a coincidence.
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Meditations on Sleep and Cyclicality

Jitish Kallat, the book.
This is an essay very dear to me, written at a time when I was attuned to life and the world in a different way; a way less linear, flat, logical, rational than the one that has dominated my life since I embarked on the project of doing The Idea. Make no mistake, authors pay a very real, living price for the mental ethos they have to put themselves in in order to carry out their work. But I digress. The point here is that I will be presenting this essay to you in a very unusual format, but for a good reason...

First, let me tell you the background story. A little over three years ago, a friend of mine, Jitish Kallat, perhaps one of the most important artists of my generation, asked me to contribute a piece to a book that was being prepared about his work. I love Jitish's work. He has an extraordinary sensibility for the metaphysical backdrop of life and world, an ability to capture it with a subtlety that eludes most of us. His work reflects life and world back to us in a way that unveils what he sees, but we don't. And so I enthusiastically agreed to contribute something.

Soon enough, however, I realized the magnitude of the challenge I had embarked on. To provide prose to accompany Jitish's work was a tall order. My usual Apollonian approach wouldn't do his art justice. I ruminated on the task for days, until one rainy morning, as my girlfriend still lay asleep, I sensed that I was in the right mental space... an elusive space I don't visit often, but which I value above almost any other. What you will read below is the result.

The production of Jitish's book is a gem of refinement, care, aesthetic sensibility and attention to detail. It would be a crime to reproduce my essay here outside the context of the book. So, with Jitish's kind permission, I made photos of the relevant pages, which I am reproducing below. To read the text you will need to click on each photo to enlarge it.

I hope you enjoy the ride! And if you weren't acquainted with Jitish's work before, here is your cue...









(For more on the themes explored in the essay above, see my book More Than Allegory, where these themes are elaborated on with much more depth and detail.)
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GUEST ESSAY: Reality is a Hyperdream

By Jason Barr

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed and commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author. For my own views on the subject of this essay, see my book The Idea of the World.)


Does reality 'seem' mental?

I understand that this might raise more questions than it answers. However, it is important to know that reality does in fact appear mental, even though it is a common criticism that "reality obviously does not seem mental, look at me kick this rock!" A good analogy to understand the plausibility of reality being mental is dreams, so you can look upon reality as a 'hyperdream.'

Reality while asleep? These are dreams constructed mentally from emergent unstable minds and reality while awake is a hyperdream, which is more vivid and consistent while being constructed mentally from a fundamental stable mind. Philosopher Erik Haynes:
This philosophy argues for a unified consciousness at the core of reality. Humans are primarily conscious beings (or souls) with a tangible sense of reality provided by, and connected through, God's consciousness. This can be compared to the way in which the dream world seems to incorporate everything that reality does yet one would not say that the dream world contains matter since dreams exist completely in the mind. Since the mind is capable of producing a tangible reality in the dream world, then how much more so would God's mind be capable of creating a tangible reality for His creation?
The category of mentality, or 'consciousness,' is all that is needed to explain reality. We know that this category of being has to exist and even honest physicalists ('materialists') admit this. Neuroscientist Sam Harris:
Consciousness is the one thing in the universe that can’t be an illusion. Consciousness is the fact of experience, the fact that something is happening, the fact that the 'lights are on' in some basic sense even if we don't understand anything. So even if I'm a brain in a vat, what I'm calling consciousness is still a manifest fact of reality, and is the basis for every other fact.
In other words, we only believe objects exist because we are conscious of them. We only know things because of mentality. You cannot doubt it because even doubt is mental. You really cannot get 'behind' mentality.

Reality can be explained just as well with less explanatorily useless postulates, as there is no need for a reality beyond the category of mentality. Also, philosophical problems dissolve, such as the hard problem of consciousness that the physicalist has to deal with, and the interaction problem that the substance dualist has to deal with.

The category of non-mentality (or, a 'reality beyond consciousness') is therefore explanatorily superfluous and one of the biggest violations of Occam’s Razor I have encountered. It should, in my opinion, be tossed in the graveyard with the aether and Russell’s tea pot, even if it cannot be 'disproven' with absolute certainty. Leo Gura:
Notice that in your sleeping dreams, they have narrative arcs, they are always story based; it's always a sequence of events that happened to you just like ordinary life (in a spatiotemporal reality, controlling a body, interacting with objects etc.). Doesn’t that make you suspicious about ordinary life? Are you noticing all these similarities? This should make you very suspicious.
The fallacy made by the vast majority of people in the world is confusing differences in degree with a difference in kind. The degrees of vividness and consistency are higher pertaining to waking reality, but that does not magically make waking reality non-mental. In fact, what it most likely means is that waking reality is a more vivid and consistent dream that we all share from different perspectives... Simple.

In conclusion, reality clearly does appear mental. It seems precisely to be a more vivid and consistent dream that we experience from our own first-person reference points.

Copyright © 2019 by Jason Barr. Published with permission.

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