Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Self Referencing Nature of Conscious Cognition

I was very interested to read this blog post by up and coming theologian Arni Zachariassen (his blog is recommended reading, a much needed antidote to dull witted fundagelicalism). His brief post is about the limitations of scientific “reductionism”; it contrasts the scientific description of life’s experience with the compelling qualia of the individual’s subjective perspective. For example, the scientific description of music in terms of wave mechanics and neural effects at first sight seems to have little in common with the parallel story of its impact articulated in terms of the consciousness of the listener with all its deep existential connotations.

Seemingly, then, we have a discontinuity between two apparently incommensurable worlds: a) The third person accounts of science expressed in formal tokens and sharable in the public domain, accounts which “reduce” sentience to an ontology of unfeeling elementa, such as atoms, coordinates, fields etc. This world of elementa is set against b) the first person ontology of conscious cognita; a world of apparent privacy and even scientific inaccessibility. In the polarized paradigm of a contemporary milieu that is apt to see logos and mythos as irreconcilable there is a tendency for the aficionados of these contrasting perspectives to deny the reality of the other: Naive materialism which places so much store by the formal descriptive tokens of science will, of course, find no sentience in elementa and is therefore tempted to deny the reality of consciousness. The existentialists claim that life’s mysterious experiences are all we really can know and that there is no common sharable objective reality out there.

It is truism, however, that from a third person perspective human beings, their pleasures, their feelings, and their thoughts etc can only ever be seen as “physical objects”; that is, as a complex configuration of behavioral traits which when looked at under the microscope resolve into complex patterns of interacting physical elementa. As a physics fan I’m quite partial to the idea that a full third person description of human behavior ultimately “reduces” to physics; that is, that there is point by point map between first person cognita and the third person elementa of physics. I may even be prepared to go as far as to say that humans, from the third person perspective, are highly sophisticated computational devices. (Although, perhaps, incorporating some exotic elements such as sensitivity to quantum events and some of Penrose’s ideas on incomputability). But even if such a mathematical reduction is possible it would have little impact on another inescapable truism, a truism that is apparent even in the reductionist’s vision: For the existence of the third person perspective necessarily carries with it, albeit implicitly, the fact that a reductive third person mathematical description must be instantiated with the observational protocols of a first person perspective . As I have said elsewhere , the third person mathematical description is, in the final analysis, an account of how the first person, in a self referencing act, describes itself. This self referencing act is reminiscent of those programming languages whose compiler is written in the self same language it compiles.

In his book “The Rediscovery of the Mind” the philosopher John Searle expresses the view that the first person perspective of the conscious thinking agent must be regarded as an irreducible feature of the cosmos . I agree. Clearly we do not think of one another in terms of those third person accounts which “reduce” human beings to configurations of interacting elementa. Instead our innate ability to empathise enables us to project into the minds of other persons the qualia of conscious cognition. This is the foundation stone of morality: For if we could only think of other sentient beings as conglomerations of elementa we would have become sociopaths.

I have written on this subject before. See:


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