American Progress, by John Gast, circa 1872. Source: Wikipedia.

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 make progress?” 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 horses with blinds, we become unable to contemplate the landscape and become single-minded. This is where, I believe, throwing paradigmatic assumptions into doubt does contribute to progress. We need to be critical of our stories while being immersed in these stories; a very difficult thing to do. The human creature has an innate tendency to hold on to stories that have proven useful in the past, and then to extrapolate these stories way beyond the point where it is empirically justifiable. Keeping this tendency under control requires active and critical effort, and doesn’t come on its own. The belief that our current epistemology is entirely justified by empirical observations is one of the most pervasive fables of our time, as I discussed in an earlier article.

So keeping our culture’s current stories in perspective by pointing out the ways in which we do not know them to be true is, in my view, a legitimate and constructive thing to do. In my books, I do attempt to offer new explanations and models because I know our minds cannot tolerate the vacuum left when old stories are dismantled; after all, we live in a world of myths, as Carl Jung so correctly pointed out. But I do not offer these explanations as the final truths, or even as ‘theories;’ I offer them just as, hopefully, intriguing and well-articulated hypotheses; as food-for-thought, if you will.

In talking about ‘progress’ we need to ask ourselves what one means when one speaks of it. The notion of progress, as we normally understand it in Western culture, is historically a positivist one. According to it, progress is about developing technology, infrastructure, and social order; in other words, objective things in the world ‘out there.’ But that seems to be but one of many possible translations of what progress means to us intuitively. Indeed, if you think about it carefully enough, you may find that, at the end of the day, we human beings truly progress if, and only if, we somehow feel better during the course of our lives. Feeling better is the goal; the rest are just means to an end. This way, we progress if the total amount of a certain subjective ‘substance’ we accumulate in our lives – a substance sometimes called ‘happiness,’ other times ‘well-being,’ and even ‘inner peace’ – increases. Any other definition of progress is indirect: Why do we want better technology? To feel better. Why do we want better urban infrastructure? To feel better. Why do we want more stable, fair, and well-functioning societies? To feel better. And anything that makes us feel worse ought not to be called progress.

The problem here is this: We have no objective way to measure the elusive substance of happiness. Therefore, we tend to translate it into something we can measure, like how fast our computers are, how quickly we can get to work, or how high our bank balance is. But the translation, as many of us discover once we've passed 35 years of age or so, is often wrong. Today we live longer lives than ever before in the known history of our civilization; but are we happier than our ancestors? We have access to technologies beyond the imagination of aboriginal cultures around the world; but are we less anxious than they are? We consume hundreds (if not thousands) of times more resources than a poor villager in Bangladesh; but do we have more inner peace?

If the stories we tell ourselves in our culture are at the basis of our anxiety and hopelessness, but they are true, then we have no alternative but to manage the situation as best as we can. If nature is truly meaningless, our existence an accident of probabilities, consciousness merely a side-effect of the synchronized dance of atoms, and the future decided solely by the heartless throw of the quantum dice, then let us face it and put aside some money for the analyst’s bills. But are we sure these stories are really true? No, we’re not. These are the fatalistic extrapolations of people who are so immersed in the paradigm that they are unable to pay broad enough attention to what is happening all around in science and also outside of science: in the real world of human experience – the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know. These inductive inferences have not been demonstrated on the basis of empirical observations; they are justified merely by a subjective set of abstract values and beliefs.

If progress means, ultimately, to find our way to true inner peace and well-being, showing the fatalistic artifacts and extrapolations of our current paradigm for what they are surely has its place in our progress as a culture. One of the most pervasive maladies of our times is the illusion of knowledge; the strong inner belief that we’ve figured it all out and it’s all pretty much meaningless. We don’t know that.

A thought experiment about evolution

(An improved and updated version of this material has appeared in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Do we see the world through distortive glasses? Image source: Wikipedia.

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: for instance, eyes that allowed them to form internal, subjective images of the objects populating the reality they were immersed in. The game of life consisted in optimizing one’s behavior in the dynamics of all those objects so to increase one’s chances of surviving and reproducing. Now note that, still according to the current scientific paradigm, because a living being only has access to its own internal images – not to the objects populating reality – its choices for implementing its survival strategy are entirely based on those images alone.

The images are constructed according to the architecture of the living being’s nervous system, which is itself, as postulated, a result of evolution through natural selection. An obvious question is thus: What would the optimal mapping between objects and subjective images be so to optimize survival? A mapping between two spaces – the objective space of objects and the mental, subjective space of images – can, mathematically speaking, assume infinite forms. One of these possible forms is the identity mapping: to each object in the space 'out there' corresponds a unique, analogous image in the subjective space 'in here.' Such one-to-one mapping, again, is just one possibility and should not, in principle, be assumed to be the most effective one as far as survival is concerned.

Indeed, many of the objects in the space 'out there' (that is, objective reality) may be irrelevant to survival to the extent that they cannot influence the physical body whose survival is being optimized for. For instance, my own work in the field of artificial neural networks has shown that nervous systems can evolve to advantageously discard the representation of objects whose corresponding images would just increase the amount of 'noise' in the nervous system. Other objects may indeed be relevant to survival in different ways, but mostly according to their relative differences, so that a mapping that altered and distorted their true attributes (like location, behavior, appearance, autonomy, intensity, etc.) so to highlight these relative differences could conceivably favor survival. Again, in another one of my earlier scientific works, it has been very clearly shown that certain artificial nervous systems perform much better when failing to fully or accurately represent the data available to them. Beyond my own work, a wealth of data on pre-processing systems for artificial neural networks shows that one-to-one mappings between objects and subjective images are often not optimal. Artificial nervous systems using these advantageous pre-processing schemes would, thus, ‘see’ a world very, very different from what is actually 'out there.' Their perception of reality would hardly resemble reality, but instead be set up, through evolution, to 'transform' reality and optimize their own chances of survival. In essence, they would live in a hallucinated theater.

You see, evolution would, most certainly, favor mappings between objects (that is, reality) and subjective images (that is, perceptions) that favored survival, whether such mappings would accurately or completely represent reality or not. After all, the variable being optimized for here is not representation accuracy or completeness, but survival.

And now here we are: highly evolved organisms with the unique ability to create scientific models of reality. And yet, we naively make an assumption that our own models seem to render highly suspicious: we assume that what we see, or otherwise perceive, can be accurately mapped one-to-one onto the ‘real reality out there.’ We assume that the subjective images in our minds correspond perfectly to the objects of reality. We assume, thus, that we have complete and undistorted access to that reality. This is a contradiction: there is no reason to believe that our brains would have evolved to represent reality completely and as-is; they would, instead, have evolved to represent it in whatever incomplete or distorted way favored survival the most. Therefore, as evolved creatures, we simply have no way to tell what is really going on. And although our technological instruments do broaden our perception mechanisms beyond what nature has provided us with, they are ultimately also limited to what we can perceive as far as our ability to build them, and perceive their outputs.

So we end up with a profound contradiction: if we are to be consistent with the scientific paradigm, we cannot trust that what we see is what is actually going on; we may, for all we know, be living in an elaborate, brain-constructed hallucination of reality that happens to maximize our chances of survival. However, the very scientific paradigm that tells us this was itself built upon the very assumption that what we perceive corresponds accurately to nature. If that assumption cannot be made, then can we trust the conclusions of our scientific paradigm to begin with?

The subtleties of perception

An autostereogram. Can you see the shark? Image source: Wikipedia.

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 to be tricks to see autostereograms? And if there is, what is the meaning and significance of what we would then perceive?

I have asked myself these questions since my early adolescence. Because I have – or so I believe – a particularly hardened analytical mind, answering these questions to my own satisfaction has always been a difficult – often frustrating – exercise for me. But over the years I have had some successes. I have succeeded in allowing – fleetingly, as it may have been the case – a natural change in my way of seeing through a temporary disruption of the analytical mechanisms that are so much a part of my ordinary perception. What then became clear to me, springing up into my cognitive field as a self-evident and eternal reality, is what is described in my book Dreamed up Reality.

So the only explanation possible is...

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (etching by Goya, c. 1799). Source: Wikipedia.

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, probabilities are notoriously tricky to evaluate without the benefit of statistics based on past empirical observations of analogous situations. For instance, consider this hypothetical situation:

For the past 10 years, 90% of the times the postman came to my house after I was already awake. Therefore, I inductively infer that on Monday the postman will come after I wake up.

Here the probabilities are easy to estimate based on past empirical observations of analogous situations: 10 years of it, to be precise. These previous, empirical observations of the arrival of the postman form a so-called 'reference class' of earlier occurrences. The probability of the inductive inference can then be calculated based on this reference class (in this case, 90% probability that the inference is correct). But what about cases when no proper reference class is available? For instance:

Vicky returned from clinical death claiming to have seen the doctors working on her body as if she stood outside of it. Therefore, Vicky’s story is a post-event confabulation based on earlier memories.

But wait; how many times have similar stories, told in analogous situations in the past, been known to be confabulations? Here is another:

George saw a luminous object in the sky performing maneuvers impossible for any known aircraft. Therefore, George saw an alien spaceship.

How many times have similar observations in the past been known to be caused by spaceships from another planet? A final example:

The fundamental laws of nature have been the same across space since the Big Bang. Period.

Now, where are the reference classes in these cases? There aren’t any. Our estimate of probabilities here is not based on objective statistics of previous empirical observations. Instead, and this is a key point, it is subjective; it is based solely on our paradigm – a set of subjective values, assumptions, and beliefs that inform us of what should be possible or likely. According to this paradigm, consciousness is a by-product of brain activity, so Vicky could only have confabulated her story. According to this paradigm, we already catalogued every observation that can conceivably be produced by the dynamics of our earthly reality, so George could only have seen a spaceship from another planet. And finally, if the laws of nature were changing over time our entire scientific edifice would be foundationless, so they could only have stayed the same.

In all these cases, the form of the thought is this: 'Since all other alternatives allowed by the paradigm can be discarded, then the only alternative left must be true.' In other words, we extract conclusions by elimination of alternatives. The problem here is that, to infer conclusions by elimination, we must know the boundaries of reality. In other words, we must assume that our paradigm is complete; that there is no yet-unknown aspect or facet of reality lying outside our current paradigm. This is a supremely arrogant, naïve, and dangerous assumption on the face of it; one that history shows to be more-than-likely wrong (for this latter inference we do have a solid reference class!). You see, we don’t know what consciousness is or where it comes from, so discounting that it can exist independent of brain activity is precipitated at best. We don’t know all the parameters and dynamics of our earthly reality, so postulating a non-earthly agency to explain certain bizarre observations is hastened. And finally, we just cannot know whether the laws of physics have been the same since the Big Bang; yes, we have models based on this assumption that seem to explain reality, but that’s inverting the argument: these models were built so that they would make sense of the assumption to begin with.

Now here is the problem: a very significant portion of our worldviews, even the most hard-nosed scientific ones, is based just on this type of inductive inferences unsupported by a proper reference class. In fact, science itself is based on this kind of inductive inferences: after all, they are the only way to claim that the same laws and dynamics empirically observed under laboratory conditions apply to reality at large, over time and across space.

Inductive inferences motivated only by paradigms, instead of empirically-derived reference classes, lead to worldviews that are at least as much a reflection of our own thoughts (and limitations of thought) as they are a reflection of a supposedly objective nature. We live in a reality largely defined by a paradigm – a set of beliefs – as opposed to objective, empirical facts. This may reflect a level of unconscious closed-mindedness and sheer naïveté that one day may profoundly surprise us.