Have you ‘got’ it yet?

We get computers to mimic us, and programme them thus, and profess amazement that they act in a quasi-human way after we’ve programmed ourselves into them.  And a strange kind of hypnosis often occurs, whereby a lot of AI scientists (and their more gullible followers, which is a lot of followers) feel an overwhelming need to say that this shows that the computers are somehow ‘conscious’.  But at no point do the machines ‘see’ what they’re doing.  And this noticing is the rock on which reductionism flounders.  It flounders so completely, so humiliatingly, that rather than accept that it’s happened, otherwise very clever people such as AI researchers and philosophers of consciousness kid themselves that they’ve found an answer – an answer that when you look at it unflinchingly still boils down to a kind of programming, or a kind of disposition of 1s and 0s or electrical pulses, which as we all already really know, won’t ever ‘get’ anything.  Consciousness breaks the circle of this circular thinking. 

There seems to have been some kind of bait and switch.  We are asked to look over there, then when we look back a trick has been played.  Suppose, say, that instead of computers we got pointillist artists to convert everything into dots of paint, but coded in a way that ‘goes with’ real world events.  But what does ‘goes with’ even mean here?  Straight away science is getting itself in a muddle, before it even starts sciencing.  The dots can’t be used to create pictures, as that’s already getting human awareness involved in the creation of the picture, and we’re trying to avoid that in order to create machine awareness that doesn’t rely on humans.  So the dots must ‘go with’ real world events somehow, but without human involvement.  There’s the bit that’s easy to skip over.  There’s the bit where the switch happens. 

Those dots – would they ever create consciousness?  We know that could never happen – we can (ahem) see that.  So why is it supposedly different for electronic dots in the form of 1s and 0s?  Because computers, apparently.  Naturally there’s a lot of AI hype that begs the question, assuming as a foundation that consciousness can be created by computation, then setting about proving it.  Yeah, how’s that been going guys?  Not noted for its success so far, is it?  Perhaps one thing that doesn’t help is that electrical activity takes place in the brain, and in computers, so it’s assumed computers have a privileged property that can somehow give them a head start.  Though looking at the brain’s over 1000 neurotransmitters, and the way it has more connections between neurons than stars in the universe, is a trifle daunting.  Is it really necessary for a computer to embody this kind of complexity in order to create consciousness? 

So there’s now a line of AI research going on inspired by phenomenological philosophers, with embodied concepts of consciousness.  Suddenly philosophers are back on the scene, to some extent at least.  But phenomenological AI research always comes up against a new brick wall, namely the problem of common sense knowledge.  When even arch-eliminitavist Daniel Dennett acknowledges this as a serious problem then you know there’s trouble afoot.  Once again this issue, whatever it ultimately is, bounces off the brick wall of computation, now appearing as a deep problem in respect of location in the real world we all live in. 

In the end it’s the same problem – there’s no way even in principle that an outward-looking science can use that outward-directed approach in any way when it comes to interiority.  All the huffing and puffing and hand waving and just-so-storying of some scientists actually indicates is how ingrained the issue is, how widespread and embedded it is through so many different cultures, and how unacceptable, freakish, threatening this weird challenge is to that whole worldview.  We are all set for a long, long journey through frustration before this empty reactivity finally burns out. 

Then there’s another issue intimately bound up with the problem – time.  The standard approach in AI to divide the flow of time into snapshots, presumably at least partly because of the computer thing.  But what it is about that difference that means that moving electronic dots can create consciousness while still ones can’t?  Consciousness isn’t divided like this.  Remember that those dots, whether made of paint or electricity, are all individual snapshots of reality.  Why should creating a succession of them somehow go with consciousness?  How could it? And again, just how exactly is the coding done for transferring those dots or electronic blips into what they apparently ‘represent’? 

It’s the computer thing again – why do computers work by dividing things into snapshots?  CPUs always have a clock.  Why exactly is this the way computers work?  Perhaps it ultimately comes from the whole sciencey thing whereby we find out important things about nature by taking readings.  Get a lot of readings and you may well discover something profoundly important about the way that nature works – from the outside.  This approach hasn’t exactly proved successful when it comes to consciousness though. 

Here is the battleground – it’s not just that science looks outwards, it’s also the way that it runs on meter readings.  They’re a powerful fuel for the whole science project.  Combine particularly intense attempts to understand consciousness from the outside with a reliance on taking readings, and you get astonishingly fast sampling via computers. 

In mathematics, repeatedly adding the results of an equation is represented by the symbol ∑.  Meanwhile, integration is represented by ∫.  The difference between summation and integration is profound.  Summing with ∑ will bring the line of the curve on the graph ever closer to the axis, but only integration, ∫, will allow it to touch. 

Fourier analysis represents a particularly promethean attempt by humankind to get from ∑ to ∫.  And it must be said it’s incredibly useful maths in terms of technology.  The crucial feature here of this powerful mathematical tool is that undulating sine waves can approach square (on/off) waves by adding them in the right way in terms of frequency and amplitude. The easiest way to see it, is to see it:

This process in itself can be seen as ∑ making a claim upon ∫.  But to become true square waves they still need to be integrated, not summed.  The jump from ∑ to ∫ is still there.  ∫ triumphs after all, even when we’re making square waves – we can’t do it just with ∑ .  The difference between discrete summing and perfectly smooth integration isn’t just total, it’s key.  In integration is infinity, yet paradoxically there in the integral also is the everyday analogue world, our continuously flowing human world of crackly vinyl and emotion and feeling, of qualia and meaning, of feeling tone, mood and the sense of the aesthetic.  The situation isn’t symmetrical.  Precisely because ∑ can never reach the infinity of ∫ , sine waves created by Fourier addition will always have a hint of the square wave about them – it might be very fine-grained, but it’ll never be totally absent.  No matter how many snapshots you take, they will always be snapshots, and making a flickbook out of them will never result in the inherent smoothness of experience.

We can never make the final leap from ∑ to ∫ however, as you can add forever without end and still be finite, so digitally constructed sine waves will always have this hint of the square wave.  And infinite sidebands means a certain lack of presence, a not-quite-there-ness.

(As an aside, a curious feature of Fourier transformation is that square waves have infinite sidebands.  When a sine wave is modulated, spectral components are created in the sidebands. Perhaps this can be thought of analogously as how when we remove our day-to-day consciousness from consciousness in general, we start to see what we call ‘psychic’ phenomena. Without the presence of the ‘carrier signal’ of our usual egoic consciousness, these curiously appropriately named components are not pin-down-able in the way that concepts usually are in everyday consciousness. They’re there and they’re not – they speak of truth then they lie, they are ambiguous. Ideas of the trickster are found in the numinous, the liminal aspects of so many different cultures.

We can never make the final leap from ∑ to ∫ however, as you can add forever without end and still be finite, so digitally (i.e. square wave) constructed sine waves will always have this hint of the square wave.  And infinite sidebands means a certain lack of presence, a not-quite-there-ness.

And curiously, if you listen to a square wave tone, there’s something hollow about its sound.  It can be filtered and phased, treated so it paradoxically gains a certain fullness, and that’s a very satisfying sound indeed to hear, but the reason it’s satisfying depends on one level on the contrast between the fullness of the filtered sounds and the hollowness of the square wave. )

There are Buddhist methods of meditation that can bring you to the point where you are aware of an incredibly fast blinking on and off of reality.  But if you consist solely of that reality, how can you be aware of the alternating on and off?  What is it that is noticing it? 

We certainly aren’t digital beings, but we discovered something in our minds, something connected with how we make our way in this world, perhaps connected with the fact that we have digits in the sense of fingers, that finds the whole on/off thing profoundly useful.  But only in the slinky integral∫are we found, not in the jagged ∑.  Digits/fingers are for grasping, making, holding, playing, working on the world.  But discrete summation in our minds turns us into ghosts, makes our consciousness a deus ex machina.  And constant sampling is a form of anxiety, never far from OCD. 

Somehow as the ∑ whirls ever faster until it reaches and becomes the infinite (but only in our conceptual minds), time stops and the ∑ is now ∫.  A circle has no gradations, and as it whirls there are no snapshots in time – we cannot see it spinning.  But in our timebound human world the time-free ∫somehow now includes ∑ – we have brought the infinite sidebands of the square wave into our minds, in a major way, through scientific sampling, and we have become not entirely present, as with a sine wave with hints of the square wave of sampling in it.  The Fall is sometimes viewed as something that happened when humans brought time into the world.  The Fall was (and is) when our human ∫ became mixed with ∑ and we started to count out (and keep counting out) each petty second… 

The same issue seems to keep reappearing in different guises – there is the sum of discrete intervals but also the smooth integration of (the area under) the curve.  Light is a wave and a particle – there it is again.  The foundational barrier getting in the way of a Quixotic quest that can’t even delineate a definition of consciousness in the first place. 

In Christianity – we’re separate from God, so ∑. In Vedanta, we are ultimately God, so ∫. But we are beyond ∑  and even ∫ , because all dichotomies melt when faced with the ultimate truth.

Somehow consciousness is right in there at the heart of any reality we can ever know, and for that very reason all our attempts to get inside it from without can never cross the flaming sword barring our way back to the garden of Eden. 

So watch them.  Watch them as they dutifully go about tackling this problem in a way that will never work.  Watch them as they assess from the outside and ponder on their inside how they can make any headway with their outward-based assessments. Then watch as they lie to themselves and others, saying they’ve got a breakthrough theory of consciousness, this time for real.  Note how each new theory is hyped, touted as a genuine breakthrough this time for sure, before it recedes into the past, fading out along with all the other ‘breakthroughs’. Watch as all the appeals to theory, complexity, brain activity, computers inexorably begin to bend out of shape as they approach the unmeasurable mirror of mind.  Railtracks of science disappear into the radiant void of consciousness.  We try to see where the tracks lead, but they vanish into the light. 

To say that meter readings of any sort will – or even could – somehow provide anything in any way subjective is an article of faith that would make a creationist blush.  But it’s peculiarly hard to get a lot of people to see this.  The numb hypnosis of measuring and its dulling of our sight, its attendant deadening of our true human essence…  we live asleep, we are lulled to sleep, a sleep so often tinged with nightmare.  But there is no meaning in a meter reading… 

The Novels of Philosophy

… we have first raised the dust, and then complain, that we cannot see

George Berkeley, or Thomas Jefferson, or Murray Gell-Mann, Marilyn Monroe, Einstein, or somebody else off the internet

Philosophy bears a curious resemblance to the novel in the way it creates concepts analogously to the way characters in a novel are set up and then interact.  But the characters themselves are a creation.  We passively observe the world, and ‘take notes’, either scientific or novelistic, but we also actively create. And just as the novelist doesn’t know how things will pan out until their characters actually do stuff, so it is with philosophy… which is how it is of course with us players on the stage of life… 

Postmodern philosophy, of course, seems quite aware of this self-created aspect, but it does tend to get tangled up in its self-referential cleverness. It can be fun, it can very much not be. Where it gets contentious is in more postmodern philosophies such as, say, those concerning gender.  For example, we are asked to assume there is a male gaze, something for which there is no evidence as such according to the rigorous standards of scientific proof demanded so often in other areas of discourse, but which nonetheless is somehow an essential bit of structure in the whole field of gender studies.  If however you point out that an aspect of this given fact is that if a woman finds the man looking at her attractive then this is much less likely to count this as an example of the dreaded male gaze, this somewhat weakens the whole structure built around the concept because it implies that there is another aspect to the whole dynamic of the gaze – something has been left out, but how that might be, and what the implications are, is not examined for some reason. Discourse so often finishes there instead of going further. And so often people who are proud of their irreligiosity will defend the concept of the male gaze with ironically religious fervour.  But such concepts are like a character in a novel that isn’t entirely believable – or even turns out to be an unreliable narrator.  We’re asked first to take various concepts as givens, then library-loads of academic studies are built around the various ramifications of the interplay between the components of the system and all their myriad implications, which implications of course then feed back into more of the same intellectual ecosystem.  The outside world also has a role to play, especially when it’s fed into the academic research that’s part of that system.  Perhaps this is why questionable concepts such as the male gaze are guarded so ferociously.  But there is always a creative component to observation of the world, and thus always a creative component to concepts that ‘objectively’ describe the world.

The point is, though, that philosophy aims for Truth.  Postmodern philosophy says truth is still a thing but not in any ultimate sense but that’s OK (apparently).  But both classical and postmodern philosophy share this curious trait with the novel that there is an initial framing of ideas that then lead to an interplay with many ramifications, but not so much examination of how the initial concepts are formed/created.  If we consider concept A that we have constructed, and concepts B, C, D… and using these various concepts we explore their interrelations and differences in different ways, we don’t actually know in advance how it’s all going to pan out.  It’s like this for philosophy, the novel, and science, despite the way the latter is constantly pushed, and surface-understood, as a somehow purely objective endeavour.

It’s weltanschauung stuff.  But with rickety components in the foundations.  We are asked to believe people as a matter of principle because of their ‘lived experience’, yet it’s a commonplace outside of these more postmodern philosophical areas that people can believe things that are mistaken.  It isn’t very nice to be on the receiving end of having your mistakenness pointed out to you, but that’s more to do with ego than truth.  And of course it goes both ways – people can be 100% right but find themselves subject to not being believed. 

But.  Let’s not draw the wrong conclusions here. For the curious thing is that novels despite being ‘fiction’ can nonetheless still speak to profound truths of what it is to be human.  (“Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.”) And this is the case with philosophy.  So it’s not like saying ‘there is no male gaze’ – far from it.

This way of thinking about philosophy is a good riposte to scientism, though.  You can see something ‘novelistic’ in statistics with the Bayesian approach, i.e. getting your setup right before analysing anything, analysis itself being a process fraught with all manner of problems and far from the off-pat descriptions of supposed ‘determinism’ or supposedly disinterested ‘objective’ science that are squirted about the place in public.  There’s a reason for that quote about lies and statistics.  Statistics veer into the counterintuitive so quickly and easily, just as they always quickly become part of a sociological and political ecosystem, despite supposedly being ‘objective’. It’s not even that statistics are useless, either.  It’s just again there’s that ambiguity, that nuance, that phenomenological aspect always found in life.  The more we try to grasp, the more it slips away.

To keep things contentious – consider that atheism (as opposed to agnosticism) depends on a particularly intense use of reason to somehow show that any kind of supreme being apparently doesn’t – or even can’t – exist.  But as is stated in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Brahman is beyond existence and non-existence’.  Perhaps this is why atheists like to spend so much time attacking a supposed version of the God of Christianity and/or claiming that Vedanta Hinduism is atheist really (in spite of its own traditional description of itself in Sanskrit as astika – theistic).  Who knows.  As soon as you see that the reasoning, logical intellect is a subset, or just one aspect of, consciousness, and that consciousness in itself is beyond any labelling, things straight away take on a very different aspect.  But of course we all have our egoic intellect, which is always fragile, angry, insecure and defensive, yet paradoxically rather arrogant, not willing to admit it’s but a part of true selves. 

You can see one way that the egoic intellect is limited, however, by the way that the arguments about God’s existence or lack thereof go back and forth without end – there’s always a response from the other side.  Despite what either side may say, or believe, neither side lands a knockout blow. (Let’s hope they never do – imagine if for example an intellect-only knock-down proof of God’s existence was constructed that everybody could intellectually see was unarguably right, and what that would do to humanity and society, and ironically religion too.)  This in itself suggests that the answer isn’t being sought in the right place, that egoic intellectualising is only part of the story of the mind, a subset of consciousness per se.  And indeed, the fact that you can’t actually prove a negative – an old philosophical chestnut precisely because there isn’t a way round it – means that in that one particular solely technical sense, the theists actually win.  As the saying has it, the arguments for God’s existence may be a bit rubbish, but the arguments against are even worse.  But the theists’ intellectual arguments seem quite off in the face of the sheer evil of the world, the evil of humanity, the numberless tragedies, the ruined lives.  And the reason they don’t sit right because they aren’t an answer for the heart, which is ultimately all that matters. It’s a forceful reminder of the way that life is so much more than intellect. Life isn’t about technicalities.

And this is the heart of the matter.  The arguments for and against the existence of God ultimately aren’t a matter of the intellect alone.  In the end they are found in profound depths of the heart.  The analytical, egoic intellect is important of course, but it’s become so disconnected from the heart with which it’s meant to closely work and this is the cause of so much suffering, so much lostness.

Which is quite momentous, because it points back towards this key aspect of our humanity that the intellect is meant to be in harmony with but which has instead been denigrated and/or heavily suppressed for millennia now – the heart.  Atheism is ultimately born of pain in the heart.  Hence the anger – it comes from hurt. And that pain ragefully fires up the mind and the egoic intellect, which expresses its pain in terms of being insulted by the very idea of a loving God.

But ultimately the intellect and heart are joined, and intellectual proofs of ultimate truths are never going to satisfy the heart. This can be seen quite easily by this consideration – that all the metaphysical discussion and decision in the world as to the ultimate nature of reality is as nothing if you’re not able to behave decently towards your fellow human being.  And therein lies the key to true understanding.  That is where you see something about what it is to be human, what it is to live human life.

It isn’t exactly easy to put this knowing in terms that satisfy the intellect, but that deeper, true understanding is in us all nonetheless.  And that’s the next key.  Which is that if it’s in us all, and we’re all so very different to each other, we must nonetheless share something with each other.  This knowing comes first, before all the intellectualising.  But what is that knowing? And that’s the key to the next understanding…