Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Real epistemology

This letter from Stuart Resnick to Ray Kurzweil does a nice job summarizing my view of true epistemology. Stuart is referencing Buddhist philosophy, but I think the points he makes apply to any conceptual approach to consciousness. Here are the relevant excerpts:

Buddhism uses the word "consciousness" as follows. If a factory makes animal crackers out of dough, you could say that "dough" is a name for the substance common to all the animal crackers, regardless of their differing names and forms. In the same sense, Buddhism uses "consciousness" as the name for the substance of all things without exception. Though this definition may seem somewhat different from the one you use, it's still adhering to the understanding that "consciousness" is a synonym for "what you're experiencing right now."

According to the view of "consciousness" assumed in your debate with Searle, you could doubt that it's a property of a chair. But you'd hardly doubt that a chair appears IN consciousness. And in fact, anything you could possibly perceive, experience, or imagine appears in consciousness. For instance, if you can "imagine" something, it's (by definition, by both definitions) in consciousness. You could speculate, "A long time ago, a universe existed in which consciousness had not yet arisen." That speculation itself would be one more thing appearing in consciousness.

So far I am pretty much in full agreement.

To say "consciousness is the ultimate substance" is a way of expressing this conclusion that all things appear in consciousness. It follows that "consciousness" has meaning only as a name for this substance. That is: since nothing could be outside of consciousness, there's no meaning to the idea of "having" or "not having" consciousness. So the Buddhist view is: the very idea that there are things that "have consciousness" (i.e. "sentient beings") is along the lines of a dream, a delusion, or mere jugglery conjured up by some magician.

I would not go as far as Resnick that the idea of things "having consciousness" is necessarily a dream or delusion. However he is certainly correct that we cannot ever hope to know of a world of unconscious materiality. Everything we do, see, or think about is known only insofar as it is registered by consciousness. And this is the foundation of epistemology, which materialists so very often lose sight of.

The relevance to this blog is to notice that the ultimate composition of the only world we can know, is subjective. Objective reality is just another subjectively experienced set of concepts and models for predicting the (subjectively experienced) results of investigations. It may be "true" or not, but its epistemological foundation is exactly the same as belief in Zeus, crystal healing, geocentrism or telepathy. In all cases we are talking about beliefs and models, experienced subjectively. This even goes for beliefs like Dennett's and the Churchlands, who are convinced that subjective experience is not real, and attempt to flog this porridge among their materialist fellow-travellers.


Merlijn de Smit said...

The same argument - that a wholly unexperienced, "material" reality is literally inconceivable - is also developed by Timothy Sprigge in his "Absolute Idealism" (which is a very nice read and a reminder that things are wide open in philosophy).

Enigman said...

Hi M.C... Unlike you, I would disagree with "in fact, anything you could possibly perceive, experience, or imagine appears in consciousness," in view of the word "possibly." For example, I could possibly imagine N pink fish with red hats on, for arbitrary N (any natural number in one sense of "possible," but lots in most others too), and yet I've only actually imagined 2 of them. And I aim never to imagine many more!

Stuart said...

Many thanks for finding my conversation with Kurzweil buried deep in the internet. My interest in this issue comes from getting teaching from a few Zen masters I consider highly skilled, from some non-ordinary experiences during hard sitting practice and drug trips, and from some reading and courses. My formal academic or intellectual grounding is minimal; I'm thrilled that someone like Kurzweil gave me the time of day, and that you made the effort to add your own perspective.

In trying to frame the issue in the most simple basic way... I think about how odd and therefore intriguing it is that it feels natural and automatic to see the world as having at least two very different elements, which we can call "subject" and "object." Normally, when you have distinct elements like this, you can find the dividing line, like the border between California and Nevada. Yet when I look for the actual border between "me" and "this," I can't find it. The body has a skin that clearly separates inside from outside, but the mind has no skin; though it feels like there's gotta be something that separates what's inside/outside my mind, where is it?

Subject and object define each other, and I wonder what one means without the other. In the little formal philosophy course I took decades ago, one idea really struck me. I think it was Kant who noted that the objective can be resolved into the subjective but not vice versa.

In dreams, for instance, there's a world of apparent objects, but it turns out it's an entirely subjective experience. If we try to reverse it, it'd be like taking a human's body, expanding it in size so we could wander through it like a factory, and searching for that part that we could point to and say, "There, that's the self, that's the subject!" We can't even conceive of how that'd be possible.

One more thing: I'm charmed by the fact that in my Zen tradition, the first cause of suffering to be explored is "attachment to name and form." In other religions or paths, they may talk about overcoming "materialism" or "clinging to stuff" or similar. But that type of talk skips a few steps by assuming that stuff or objects or materials are really there.

"Name and form" is different. It's clear that thinking produces names, and we experience forms like "red," "loud," and "sweet." I like the way we can consider our attachment to "name and form" without pre-supposing that they adhere to any substantial "things."


middleworld said...

Everything is conscious. Consciousness is movement, spin, being, awareness. There are many forms and architectures of consciousness. But, everything Is Conscious.

If light is a wave, you actually physically touch an object when you see it. Even a star. Consciousness is extra-physical light. If there is an objective reality, it is not for our architecture of consciousness.

Light is probably the closest materiality to consciousness. Consciousness is love.

Stuart said...

middleworld said...
Everything is conscious.

You can call water "water" or "eau" or "aqua" etc, and those are all just different names, not what it is.

This thing that we're experiencing right now is before words and ideas, but we can give it all sorts of names: "Everything" or "conscious" or "substance" or "mind" or "God" yada yada. Not good not bad, but they're all just names for it. Anything at all can be a name for it; a famous Zen master once called it "Dry shit on a stick."

To say "Everything is conscious" provides 2 of the infinite possible names for this thing that's originally nameless.

"Love" is just another name... until you for instance meet someone who's hungry and give them food, and then that's something.


Chris said...


This comment is actually to your latest closure of AMNAP, which you omitted the option for comments,

I greatly enjoy using you as a digest of fringe science issues... but I appreciate blogs are a time sink. I guess I could subscribe to Dean Radin's blog... It wouldn't be quite the same, though. Never mind.

Best of luck with life!


M.C. said...

Thanks Chris. For your purposes,
I'd recommend you follow Annalisa Ventola's Public Parapsychology blog and Ulrich Mohrhoff's Koantum Matters blog. They cover that material pretty thoroughly. TDG also has links to that kind of material (along with lots of more mainstream and more wild and wooly stuff too).

My sidebar links cover lots of other great sources for related topics, too.

I am sorry to be leaving AMNAP, but my heart hasn't been in this particular subject for some time, and I leave it in the hands of many very capable folks who do still yearn and love to discuss it.

Life's too short to go through the motions without having your heart in it. And that's where I got to with discussing psi phenomena and research. So I am moving on. . .

I think this stuff is interesting and fascinating and points out something very important about reality. However I've said my piece about it. Generally people don't change their minds, materialism is a religion along with the rest of them, and I'm bone-tired of hashing out the same arguments, over and over. Time to let others pick up the baton and run with it. . .