In ‘Why Does the World Exist?’, author Jim Holt tackles the biggest question of all – a question so big there are clever people out there that deny it’s even important. And he goes on amusingly-written transatlantic jaunts to ask the really clever people what they think about why something exists rather than nothing. He meets the most intelligent scientists and philosophers out there with respect to this issue. And of course, he gets nowhere, because the intellect is used on its own to tackle this profound mystery, and the intellect isn’t meant to be just there on its own chasing this mystery. Why this mystery of mysteries is to be tackled by the intellect on its own isn’t addressed – it’s taken as a given. But maybe that’s not how it should be done. Perhaps the sheer thoroughness of the book in covering all bases and getting precisely nowhere suggests another approach might be needed. Neither scientists nor philosophers seem to get anywhere at all with this issue. There is another approach, of course, but it’s derided and routinely ignored. It’s not even that the intellect should be discarded, either – it’s not a matter of ‘just go with the feels’, not at all. But when the analytical intellect is brought to bear on these issues, these deep issues of what it is to be human, it quickly takes over and cuts itself off from what it regards as a kind of unholy, mysterious murk, a dark forest where the branches are so close together the sunlight can’t get in. And it’s very defensive about it all, too. Trying to get consciousness that’s been steeped in one particular type of intellectual activity since infancy to even think about moving its attention somewhere else can be, and often is, met with some pretty fierce resistance, a resistance so aggressive it seems borne of a deep insecurity, an insecurity that results from the very culture in which we live our lives.
We currently live in a time when the light of science is at long last banishing the darkness of superstition in which humankind has lived for countless millennia, apparently. It’s not long to go now before we’ve got everything somehow sorted, all problems solved – all it will take is more science, more analysis, more thinking, and we’ll be there.
Or so goes the story. Of course although this view is all-pervasive, it’s not true. You only need to look at the way that scientific innovation is used for the purposes of warfare – chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, grenades with plastic pellets in them that melt when they explode, making it much harder to remove them from wounds – to realise that a certain ambiguity about science is more appropriate. Science is about things, life is about life. When science tries to be about life, it says nothing at all about the essence of what it is to live a human life. Perhaps it’s because of the death of god, but people are looking to science for matters of meaning, which it’s not qualified to be involved with. The genetic fallacy – that the more you know about where something’s come from, the more it’s somehow fully explained – appears to be the substitute for the certainty that used to be found in religious faith. But it’s a fallacy, and nothing in science tells us anything about why it’s all there in the first place.
On top of this, in that very arena of science that’s supposed to give us ultimate answers, dim adumbrations are appearing of something that’s doesn’t quite fit, something we’re even being asked to ignore while we look the other way. They’re not disappearing the more we discover, either – they’re becoming just a bit less dim as time goes on. Ironically, the more brightly that light of science shines, the more it illuminates this… something starting to peep out of the shadows. As these are outlines of something that doesn’t seem quite right, and that’s an intuitive feel, it’s perhaps worthwhile to list a few of these issues appropriately, in a way that we can ponder them rather than just analysing everything to death. We could perhaps then catch sight, even if only briefly, of how they all point to the same ‘place’, or the same underlying essential issue involving what it is to be human at our core, this ‘something’ we’re aware of yet are unable to give a clear account of, which we don’t seem to be able to either explain or escape.
Remember that intuition is a key driver of science – the idea of the disinterested scientist dispassionately sorting through data with clinical detachment and somehow thus generating scientific innovation is at best a myth, a comforting archetype, despite what you may read in shouty online comments from people who obviously have no idea how science actually happens. The real business of science is much messier, much more human, and being human it involves intuition at its heart. So to be intuitive here is the opposite of escaping reality – it’s sensing deep into it.
So here is the list of things to ponder, not analyse, but ponder in the Jungian sense of mulling over. Disconnect from online drivenness and let these issues sink in. Note, too, that perhaps they relate to each other in some way…
The hard problem of consciousness
This is the classic one. Despite the hype, we haven’t got anywhere at all with explaining exactly how neuronal activity actually creates subjective experience. No, that theory you’re thinking of just now doesn’t explain it, either. Go through it carefully and at some point there will be a leap from ‘moving objects around in such-and-such a way’ to ‘subjective experience’, the leap being the bit where it isn’t actually explained. Science as currently performed has to deal with ‘objects moving in such-and-such a way’, so we have now seen decades of research – some of which has given us some pretty neat technologies, to be fair – that is all to do with moving things around, nothing to do with subjectivity. And as it is, there’s no real reason to think that the mind’s computable anyway – computers appear to have been picked as they’re cool and modern and sciency but they’re not conscious, and what is consciousness for in the first place if it can all be done with 1s and 0s? That’s why that issue about zombies keeps irritatingly cropping up and won’t go away – all the creations of AI function without subjectivity, so what’s subjectivity doing there exactly? Really the whole AI approach looks like a gigantic confusion of metaphor with reality. As AI researcher Stephen Earle Robbins puts it, to create an alternating electric current you need an AC motor. If you code everything into a computer language, it doesn’t matter how minutely turned, how sophisticated this language is, it’s still a computer language running, not electricity. (Could the confusion be at least partly caused by the fact that computers run on electricity? Who knows.)
The Big Bang
This goes, to some extent, with the previous point to ponder. Subjectivity appears somehow in our brains, and the universe somehow apparently came from nowhere. Both of these things are utterly impossible from a scientific point of view, and that very impossibility leads to all manner of delusional, just-so posturing – ‘explanations’ of how the quantum foam spontaneously led to the universe coming into being, in which case miracles are possible after all as the quantum foam allows them, or perhaps ‘explanations’ that the universe came into being from nothingness which rely on mathematical equations but without ever saying why, or in what way, those equations have their being, or why they’re effective, or acknowledging that actually it’s not nothingness after all if equations are involved. Compare and contrast with the ‘explanations’ of consciousness that leave the important bit out, as mentioned above. Apart from those two particular pseudo-explanations we have the current favourite, the multiverse theory – the most extravagant violation of Occam’s razor ever devised, and entirely unprovable. This is where we really see that the ‘objectivity’ of science so often comes with a belief system.
The framing problem
A biggie in AI, this one. This goes with the first point, too. It’s quite technical, which in itself displays (or shows in a Wittgensteinian sense if you’re into that sort of thing) the problem itself, because it’s a foundational problem with the entire way that the AI project is conceptualised, constructed and performed in the first place. Because of this problem, inherently linked with basic features of science itself, AI comes up hard against a brick wall known as ‘common sense intelligence’. Common sense intelligence! What’s that doing in the analytical, objective world of rational science? But there it is. Dennett, the great denier of the very existence of consciousness, gives the example of a robot which needs to move its spare battery out of a room because a bomb is going to explode. It plans to move the battery out of a room on a cart, but the bomb is on the cart. Even if the robot knows this, it might still move the cart out of the room. If you try sorting out the robot’s algorithms to let it ‘know’ (lol) what it needs to do to avoid being blown up, i.e. to select what possible things it needs to do that are actually relevant out of the list of possibilities of anything that it might do, you need to include so many possibilities it’s impossible. (And remember – this is Dennett admitting this.) Trying to program an algorithm for making the selection of relevant/not-relevant makes the problem even worse. Yet somehow us wetware biological beings frame effortlessly, without even thinking about it. There’s a related issue where programmers need to put relevant context in to get AI to work, and this is then presented as somehow a kind of triumph. But that’s just hype – if the context needs to be added by the programmers, that’s cheating. An actual conscious being doesn’t need to do this – it knows how to frame the context already. And no progress at all has been made on this matter. Whatsoever. It’s another brick wall. And again, as with consciousness itself, many researchers seem honestly convinced that actually progress is being made, and are happy to say as much, in public even. (For an extremely thorough demolition of this idea with associated suggestions for at least the beginnings of a possible way out, see Time and Memory by Stephen Earle Robbins.) AI researchers are turning to phenomenological philosophers to try to find a way through the impasse (and SE Robbins feels Bergson may be key here) – but whether that’s true or not, it’s kind of wonderful to see AI researchers turning to the discipline that so many scientists, especially of the more reductionist physicalist variety, disdain so greatly for its woolliness. Could that turning to philosophy have something to do with consciousness, and more specifically human consciousness? If it isn’t, why are AI scientists turning to the likes of Heidegger, Gibson or Merleau-Ponty? There’s a whole field of phenomenological cognitive science out there. But nowhere in the field of AI is there even a hint of an explanation of how things are recognised, or ‘got’, or understood, or felt. There’s all those 1s and 0s, interwoven in the most ingenious ways – but where do they become ‘I fancy a sandwich’? Or the sudden realisation with a groan that the answer to 7 down is ‘shoe’? With a computable model of mind, there’s nothing there at all that sees what’s going on. It would appear that subjectivity, and along with that, philosophy, are getting their revenge, but let us continue with our list of boiled sweets for the mind, things to suck on and see what flavours appear.
Inside and Out
According to Dennett, the concept of subjective consciousness is a category error – everything’s external (although we then ask ‘How is even the illusion of illusion possible’?). But that’s not what it feels like – we have our inner worlds, and nobody from the outside can feel what we feel.
From H Chris Ransford’s book God and the Mathematics of Infinity:
- By definition an all-knowing God can answer any meaningful question (so no stuff like ‘how long is a piece of string?’).
- You, a mere mortal, write out the sentence ‘God will never say that this sentence is true’. Call that sentence S. S can be equivalently rephrased as ‘God will never say that S is true’.
- Ask God if S is true or not.
- If God says yes, then S is actually true after all – which means that God will never say that S is true.
- If God says yes, S is true, then God is being self-contradicting, having just said S is true even though S states the opposite.
So God’s never going to say S is true, even though we know it is and everybody knows that. So we know something God doesn’t, which means that God isn’t all-knowing after all – silly old God. Unless, of course, God’s in us, looking out…
Our consciousness of the unlikeliness of existence
… and with us in it aware of this unlikeliness. But we have our human concept of chance, which looks suspiciously as if it’s ‘real’ in the same way that seconds, minutes and hours are real, i.e. a concept we seem unable to escape from but which we’ve invented. But the chance involved, either with having the universe there in the first place, or in respect of our individual lives, is beyond comprehension, and perhaps calculation. But if it can’t be calculated at all then we can’t use chance to explain anything, and if the odds can be calculated, they’re immensely far beyond what we’ve ever encountered anywhere else, and our lives have occurred in the only universe we know exists, which given its sample size of 1 undermines the very concept of chance itself. Worse still, if it is all meaningless we’re left with the problem of how a meaningless reality gave rise to creatures with a sense of meaning, which if everything is meaningless and the universe is a closed system, isn’t possible. Physicalist types like to say that actually it is all deterministic and meaningless and our sense of meaning is an illusion created by not being aware of all the deterministic ins-and-outs, but apart from the fact that this destroys the value of meaning, which is quite a biggie for us humans, it doesn’t explain why lack of awareness should allow ‘meaning’ to appear instead of just ignorance, or in what aspect of consciousness this even happens in the first place. This goes with…
That we have a sense of living authentically or otherwise
All that stuff about office drudgery and how that’s not really who we are. Animals just do what they do – where is the clearly-obvious line between, say, a tiger hunting and a tiger relaxing? It’s all of a piece, all of a tigerness. Which brings us to the next (more telling) thing to ponder…
We work for a living
… and use money to buy stuff with what we earn (apart from a relatively small number of individuals who have so much money they’re excused from the whole setup and who generally seem no happier than the rest of us). This is referenced in Genesis, when God gets really very cross indeed with Adam and Eve and kicks them out of the Garden of Eden – from now on they’re going to need to work. Meanwhile, in the New Testament, Jesus’ sermon on the mount includes this passage:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?Matthew 6:28
That we have language which is capable of being written down if we want to, i.e. it’s symbolic
It doesn’t matter if we write it down as such – we’re capable of writing it down. We have words with definitions, but forget that all the definitions ultimately refer to each other.
That we have all the different arts
So very many ways of expressing what it is to be human, and the sense that this is where the real stuff is. As Wittgenstein put it, “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all”.
That we have a sense of morality
Why do we even need this? In The Cosmic Game, psychologist Stanislav Grof does a little riffing on how widely moral codes vary, referring in one telling example how in one tribe in New Caledonia if a woman gave birth to one twin of each gender they were both killed because they’d committed incest in the womb, while in Egypt and Peru the law required that in royal families the brother had to marry the sister. Supposedly this means that morality doesn’t exist, but that’s lazy, unexamined thought. The point is actually that we always have moral codes. Philosophers tie themselves in knots and attack each other with gusto over what morality is, but there somehow it is in the first place to argue about. As Doris Day put it ‘I’ve met plenty of nasty people, but I’ve never met a nasty animal’.
That we cook our food
Indeed, quite apart from the myriad of different cuisines found throughout the world, we uniquely have a moral sense there too. The whole point of vegetarianism and veganism is that while other animals may eat each other, we have the choice of whether to eat them or not. No other animal is like this. This one’s really worth pondering. What exactly is that choice? Where does it come from? How is it even possible in our minds?
That we wear clothes
Which, going via the Garden of Eden again, leads to…
That we’re messed up about sex
If we’re just like the animals, why don’t we just have sex in the streets when it’s time? Even if people were to have sex in the streets as and when, it’d be because they got off on exhibitionism, which kink would be a sign of our distinctive humanness anyway. Furthermore, when animals attain adulthood, they keep their innocence, whereas humans don’t, and we know this. The naivety of your pet cat or dog will remain even when adulthood comes along. My utterly beautiful and much-missed cat Jess came in one night smelling of sex (not a smell I’d be eager to encounter again, it must be said). She was 16 at the time, and had a boyfriend from a few doors down, a lovely white tom who she clearly was attracted to – growing old disgracefully indeed. But she never lost her adorable innocence. That innocence is the reason (most of) us have pets in the first place. The very reason paedophilia is so vile is that for humans – and only humans – sex is such a corrupting force. For all other animals, it’s just something they do as part of their particular animalness. Meanwhile, unlike other animals we are permanently sexually ‘on’ – does this perhaps go with in the creation of so many moralities of sex, so many restrictions and rules and regulations of this basic aspect of humanity? Who knows. Let’s not digress though, and move on to matters more cosmic…
We’ve discovered that the universe began with the Big Bang billions of years ago, and indeed with our science can now consciously alter our DNA
… although we can and do often use that same science to tell ourselves that we’re nothing special. And so we start arguing amongst ourselves over whether there’s something different about us compared to the other animals. And we argue, too, about what we should do with our DNA-altering technology – curing inherited illnesses: good, selecting for gender: bad. Why’s that then? Why not just do what we feel like with our DNA? But events of the 20th century weigh on our minds and our consciences very heavily, and it is right that they should do so. It’s that morality thing again. In any event, long before we invented CRISPR we had a concept of ‘breeding’, whereby we tried combining different plants, or animals, in various ways to create new hybrids for whatever reasons with few ethical problems (such as pedigree dogs with eyes that can pop out if they bump into a chair leg, for example). If we try the idea with ourselves, though, the idea becomes enormously problematic.
We have the concept of Progress
Meanwhile, that science that tells us we’re not special is intimately linked with our notion of some kind of progress. No other animal has this idea. If we examine animal species, the only changes we see are the changes of evolution, which happen over geological timespans. Perhaps, for example, corvids may have different ‘cultures’ with regard to the way they use tools, for example, or dogs may bark with a different accent in France, but nothing is left behind to show this. But if we look at, say, the last 2,000 years, we see the record of the immense changes that have happened in the world of the human. We don’t just pass on our genes, we want our children’s lives to be better, and we use our unique minds to at least try to ensure this. The further back in time you go, generally the dirtier everything looks compared to now. Everything is getting cleaner and brighter and shinier. Just to take a mundane example, anybody who remembers shops from the 70s and even early 80s will remember how cruddy they were, how dingy and muted. This also goes for films, sound recording, clothes, and so on. Everybody’s getting cleaner, too, which has led to an upsurge in asthma due to lack of contact with dirt in early life.
That we measure time
Why do we do this? How are we able to conceptualise time such a way? Our minds are all of a piece with time, but once we start artificially dividing time up, big problems appear for AI apart from anything else. (Again, SE Robbins’ book Time and Memory goes into exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, detail on this.) It’s the issue of dividing that which is in reality undivided – it’s useful for practical stuff, but reality isn’t practical stuff. For all the brilliance of our science, it rapidly becomes ultracrepidarian when it takes on this most fundamental aspect of our lives.
That we are able to wonder what we’re doing here, or why anything at all exists in the first place
And we can witter on about it on blogs like this with our written language.
That we argue about whether we’ve got free will or not
The argument never ends. No point in getting into it here (or anywhere, perhaps).
That we’re conscious, and know this, yet are unable to define to ourselves what consciousness is, or why it’s even there.
Why aren’t we able to define consciousness, then? We see, or sense, something qualitatively different about our minds, while we also sense that some aspects of our minds commonly known as ‘science’ are somehow very useful yet are now coming up against seemingly intractable problems, problems qualitatively different from any encountered before, problems that challenge the whole ‘carry on as before’ approach that’s currently popular (and which, to be fair, has taken us quite a long way). And we are intimately part of nature as well. The same order and disorder, destruction and creation, beauty and ugliness, strangeness and familiarity, uniqueness and repetition – all are within our apparently uniquely self-reflective consciousness, and all are found in our thoughts, our behaviours as well as in nature. But only we have the knowledge of good and evil.