Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dualism, Theology and Cognition

The following summary of the areas I’ve been working in over the years was prompted by my reading of a pre-published paper by Christian Missionary and anthropologist Jim Harries. In very different ways both of us are struggling to come out from under the dualistic philosophical wreckage that pervades much of Western thought. In particular I’ve had years of trouble from Western paradigms which either:

a) Cut the knot of dualism by declaring conscious cognition an illusion in favour of a crude billiard ball materialism or,

b) Persist in maintaining a sharp dualism between mind/intelligence and “Natural forces”.

In Africa Jim Harries has found that once you get past the language barrier and speak the native lingo you soon realise that although like Westerners rural Africans desire wealth, they are not buying into Western dualism as a way of seeking it.  (See here and here).

This summary of my work is indicative of my two-front intellectual war against both knot-cutting-denial of the reality of conscious cognition and the rampart dualism current in much of Western Christian folk culture. In particular as a Christian myself Western Christian folk culture, with its implicit dualism, has been a challenge to my keeping the faith; in fact much more so than any challenge an atheist might raise; at least atheism does try to rationalise its categories rather than multiply entities! (although, of course, I don’t accept the way atheists carry out their rationalisation; as a result of which they teeter on the brink of nihilism)


Most people who have studied physics are impressed by its tendency to suppress the multiplication of entities: Viz: Phenomena which from the first person perspective seem very different in category are often merged by physics into a unifying theoretical narrative. e.g a) Heat and light collapse into the single category of electromagnetic radiation b) Matter and electromagnetic radiation collapse into the single category of quantum waves etc. It was this powerful category simplification that attracted me to physics in the first place and I’ve been in the business of category rationalisation ever since: It’s a great occupation because it considerably simplifies reality & simplification equates to understanding.
Below I list some examples of how I’ve carried on in the spirit of physics’ category rationalisation. In some ways this represents a kind of sketched out manifesto summarising the drift of my thoughts and the “policies” I’m working on. These “policies” have been filled out to a lesser or greater degree and I provide links to related articles giving more details.

Category rationalisation 1:  Human beings are goal seeking systems. 

I introduced the idea of “goal seeking systems” during a written discussion I was having with Jim Harries. As Jim Harries has made me aware Western Christians have theologically slanted their goal seeking toward the dual goals of social development and the afterlife whereas Africans slant it in favour of the single goal of prosperity teaching. Nevertheless, in spite of this big cultural difference there is the obvious underlying shared universal, namely goal seeking. Whether pertaining to the afterlife, hocus pocus magic, prosperity teaching or just plain old commercial goals, Westerners and Africans are both involved with goal seeking; it is a cross cultural universal. In both cases actions are being carried out now with an eye to the future; Viz: sacrifice and work now for a return on the “investment” later; and by “sacrifice” it could be literal! (unfortunately!).  Goal seeking may be either carried out with some consciously conceived aim or the goal seeking system is set up in such a way that when it stumbles across the “goal” it selects it. The teleology of goal seeking is, I propose, a necessary (but not sufficient) condition of intelligence. The concept of goal seeking is pivotal in what follows here.  In my last point below I introduce the radical but tentative idea that the cosmos is an intelligent computation in as much as it shows evidence of having a declarative structure  as opposed to an imperative structure.

While on the commonalities of Africans and Westerners let me also mention, as I hope the following will make clear, both Westerners and Africans engage in the epistemic activity of narrative creation in order to give sense to their otherwise very variegated experiences .

Category rationalisation 2: The elimination of language processing as a distinct cognitive category. 

If I’m right in my simulation models of association then language is just a (very) tweaked version of a general cognitive learning ability which is capable of bringing experiences (in this case experience of symbols) into a weighted association.

Category rationalisation 3: Elimination of the empirical vs metaphysical distinction. All things are at once both empirical and non-empirical.

In its most general form theorising is a case of weaving our diverse experiences together with a unifying sense-making narrative; this is true of both:
a) Low level formal science which deals largely in bits and pieces and
b) The high-level activity of all-embracing world view synthesis, an activity which tends to be informal, seat of the pants and often carried out unconsciously.

The difference between these two epistemic activities is not one of fundamental distinction but one of degree: Science tends to be a very disciplined, formal and highly conscious self-critical activity confined to elementary low level objects with regular behaviour like springs and precipitates. Worldview formation is far more informal, tries to boil down huge intricate nutrient beds of experience and incorporates them into complex “mythological” sense-making narratives. One other difference is that science endeavours as far as possible to engage in a prediction-test coupling in order to cross check its narratives – but this is not always possible even in science – String Theory is an example; we are told that it does a good job of making post-facto sense of things, but it has yet to pass the test of prediction. World view synthesis, because of the complexity and epistemic intractability of its subject matter, tends to be a post-facto sense making activity and doesn’t readily make predictions.

Nevertheless the general idea behind both formal science and world view synthesis is that in both cases theoretical narratives are used in an attempt to join the dots of experience. The upshot is that in one sense every theoretical concept is observable in as much as it attempts to make sense of experience.  And yet in another sense nothing is observable: This is because we do not directly observe the constructions that our minds place behind the data dots of experience; rather those experiences only effectively sample the theoretical objects they purport to manifest. This is true of simple objects like Hooke’s law right through to the most complex baroque conspiracy theory – both activities involve data dot joining, although it has to be said that in this extreme example these activities are of very different levels of rigor, consciousness, self-awareness and self-criticism.

So the pertinent questions revolve not round whether an object is metaphysical or empirical, but rather questions about the epistemic quality used to construct the narrative which links the data dots of experience.

For more, see the side bar of my blog which is entitled The Ideas-Experience Contention and see also here:

In many ways the foregoing is effectively eliminating the science vs. non-science distinction; all epistemic endeavours have both an empirical and metaphysical element. 

The difference between scientific knowledge and other knowledge consists not only in differences of the formality and rigor of the epistemic technique but also in the regularity, order and complexity and of the phenomenon studied.  Springs and precipitates are low level, very regular and therefore very amenable to formal scientific epistemology. In contrast world view synthesis grapples with complex and highly erratic experiences and consequently can’t be expected to return synthesizing narratives with anywhere near the authority of the elemental objects delivered by science. 

Category rationalisation 4: Elimination of the Natural forces vs God’s work dichotomy: See here and here.

Category rationalisation 5: Elimination of the subjective vs objective distinction.

So called “objective” matters are couched in the language of the third person, a language which affects to be absent of the observer perspective. Ultimately, of course, those third person accounts must trace back to a conscious observer-theoretician although third person language tends to suppress this by positing the existence of some perspective detached from any sentient observer; almost a kind of “God’s eye” view, ironically! But I would question whether this detached “thing-in-itself” perspective is a coherent idea: The only world we really have inside knowledge of is the world of sentience and therefore with any third person account, with its affectedly detached language, we actually implicitly assign to it first person content and significance. We have some inkling as to what it means and feels like to be another sentient being, but we don't know what it feels like to be, say, a block of lead. In fact apart from an observer's ability to perceive the block and theorize about it, the block seems to have no real intelligible existence; for even when we think about the existence of the block in third person terms, apparently independent of observers, we implicitly understand its existence in terms of how it impacts cognition. 

I would tend to go along with a view not dissimilar to Bishop Berkley’s version of “positivism”; namely, that a world without cognating observer-theoreticians makes little intelligible sense. As I've implied already, the cognating observer is actually implicit in the so-called “objective” third person accounts.

NOTE: Don’t get too hung up on the connotation of “theoretician”. I’m not necessarily thinking of a consciously deliberating intellectual theorist. The fact is our minds are so smooth and quiet in operation that we theorise and hypothesis about day-to-day-things without apparent thought; the hypothesising mind works informally in the background and then presents its end-results to our consciousness.

Category rationalisation 5: Elimination of the mind vs matter distinction.

When the third person perspective zooms in for a close look at the first person what is seen from the third person perspective is a complex collection of neural nodes signalling each other. Of course, we don’t expect the third person to actually see any consciousness present in the brain of the first person since by definition the third person is other than the first person. I propose that the so called material brain is how the third person experiences the presence of the first person he is observing. Thus, it follows that “matter” is another name for the third person’s conscious perspective on the first person. “Matter” is in effect the medium of communication between minds. “Matter” is how different minds experience one another whereas consciousness is how a mind experiences itself.

Ironically with today’s technology it is possible for the a first person perspective to get a third person perspective on his/her own neurons and thus be aware of himself not only as an object of conscious cognition but also a concomitant object of organised matter; this is likely to produce some interesting chaotic feedback effects.

The two accounts, third person and first person, go hand in glove. In fact I would maintain that both first and third person accounts are needed to make an intelligible cosmos; they are irreducible and inseparable; if you try to make one primary and the other secondary you end up stuck in a schizophrenic philosophical dualism that is liable to reduce the cosmos to either an ill-defined irrational medley of unconnected qualia or an insentient world of billiard-ball matter; both reductions are an error in my view and a full account of the cosmos requires both perspectives to be put together in a complimentary and rational way. “Matter” is the theoretical means by which conscious sentience understands itself.  I sketched out the latter idea when I wrote the prologue of my book.

Category rationalisation 6:  There is no Bible vs Nature distinction.

Because natural language (of the Bible) works by connotation, then for its meanings to be generated the Bible must utilise the mental resources of association that bind it seamlessly and organically to our world.  See here.

Category rationalisation 7:  There is no clear justification whereby one can posit a dichotomy which contrasts an invisible God over and against visible people. Both God and man are invisible as far as the third person perspective is concerned.

Clearly the essence of a person is neither the visible body nor the behavioural sample that the third person observes. In actual fact the essence of a person is a far more extensive object consisting of the immense behind-the-scenes frenetic sentient activity that the third person can only sample and from that sampling informally construct that complex invisible theoretical object we call “personhood”. The essential point is that like everything else the thing-in-itself we call “personhood” is basically invisible apart from a few observed behavioural traits which constitute the “data dots” available to the third person. In other words personhood is not directly observable – it is an object constructed by the third person in order to arrive at a sense making narrative about personality.  This isn’t, of course, done in a formal theoretical way but by innate cognitive packages that work to a large degree unconsciously.  The cognitive package which deals with the (re)construction of deity may well have considerable overlap with our social interaction packages. But in spite of this I think it would be wrong to say that deity isn’t subject to observable tests: In a sense people test their faith every day; experiences confirm or may disconfirm their faith:  But this daily “walk with deity” is carried out in a very informal, subconscious and anecdotal way and this probably renders formal scientific testing of the existence of deity via established epistemic protocols all but impossible.

Being the sort of guy who is probably on the autistic spectrum may peculiarly fit me to understand this lesson of the invisibility of personhood. I can remember a time at infant school when I used to walk around the school playground by myself believing that all the other children were unconscious; they all seemed so irreflexive. This almost solipsist response of mine was probably down to my social cognitive package not working very well; that is, in my case there seemed to be no automatic conclusion which kicked in and told me that the other kids were conscious – it is something I had to learn over a period of time. But the essential point is that in consequence of my mild disability it became plain to me that the behind-the-scenes conscious personality is an entirely invisible entity and has to be mentally constructed by the third person. Human personhood is as invisible as God’s personhood; the epistemics of personhood means that it is always something one has to interpolate between the data dots. 

Category rationalisation 8: This is the ultimate category elimination: Everything is cognition.

Is it right to say that mind is embodied in matter? Probably no, if we accept the idea that so-called “matter” is in fact the third person’s perspective/experience of the first person. The concept of “matter” necessarily follows if one is to have a set of communicating centres of cognition.

But I’m going to go a bit further here and remark upon my on-going speculations in this area. Viz: Rather than “mind being embodied” it is better to say, I propose, that “matter is incognated”. What do I mean by this? My current thinking is that the parallels between quantum mechanics and the way our minds work at the neural level are indicative of one thing; in both cases I see hints of a declarative goal seeking computation rather than the standard view of physics as entirely the domain of imperative processes.  This has prompted me to conjecture that the cosmos is in fact the inside workings of an immanent sentience in action. On this view the cosmos is itself a cognitive process in which we are all immersed. If true, then given cosmic dimensions and its potential computational power, it follows that as far as we are concerned the cosmos looks to be the mental workings of a deity of immense power. Just as the third person perspective of the neuroscientist only sees signalling neurons when he zooms in on the first person, so our low-level perspective of the cosmic cognitive process only sees quantum signalling. Yes, it's all conjectural I know, but its a notion worth pursuing in my opinion. 

To anticipate and suppress any possible pantheistic misinterpretations in these proposals let me point out that the relation between God and his Creation may not be dissimilar to the relationship an author has with his/her story: The author’s story is created by the author and runs in his/her mind as a huge idea and yet the author remains, nevertheless, very distinct from and eminent in relation to his creation.


I have attempted to give the foregoing thoughts a more defined shape in The Cosmic Perspective (see here, here and here),  The Melencolia IPproject and the The Thinknet Project. This blue skies investigation is on going

c. Tim Reeves,  March 2017


Jonathan Kopel said...

Dear Tim,

Your comment "Elimination of the empirical vs metaphysical distinction. All things are at once both empirical and non-empirical" reminds me of the paper of mine you read on relational ontology. I would enjoy discussing this further with you if possible. Do keep in touch!

Jonathan Kopel said...

Dear Tim,

Your idea, Elimination of the empirical vs metaphysical distinction. All things are at once both empirical and non-empirical", reminds me of my reltional ontology work that you recently read (which Jim Harris sent to you). I would enjoy discussing this further with you. Do keep in touch!

Timothy V Reeves said...

Hi Jonathan,

Sorry about my delayed response - I turned on "moderation" some time ago and then forgot completely to look at my moderation queue which I expected blogspot to send me email alerts. I read you paper; yes there is a relation to my work. Are you still interested in discussing these questions? Does what I've written make much sense?

Jonathan Kopel said...

Dear Tim,

No problem. I am still interested in these questions and what you say does make sense. Have you done anything else on this topic?

Timothy V Reeves said...

Hi Jonathan,
My blog post above is just a summary of the content at the end of the URL links I have embedded in the post. Unfortunately this is all very much a work in progress, a kind of intellectual building site with materials and works scattered all over the place. As I push forward I tend to leave an untidy wake of results that perhaps one day I'll pull into some kind of order. If there is one, or rather two things that sum it all up then it must my "Thinknet" and "Meloncolia I" projects. Viz:


However, these works are also rather ramifying and difficult to get to grips with. I tend to proceed very tentatively, not very convinced that the work is actually leading anywhere and hence I don't push it; the bottom line is that it's all an interesting exploration and diversion.

Much of my work has big points of contact with Jim Harries work. However, as I don't seek official publication he can't and doesn't quote any of it. Moreover, I don't think he is at one with the analytical traditions out of which my speculative efforts emerge. He really hasn't ever got to grips with association and neural theory and probably never intends to; if he did some of his African observations might make more sense. There is, I believe, a universal aspect to “Western” science that can be needlessly thrown away as a mere relative “Western point of view”.

Probably best thing is for me to read through your paper on relational ontology again and point out any points of contact with my own work.

Timothy V Reeves said...

My latest post:

This contains material relevant to the subject of "Relational Ontology" and "Contextual Emergence". I am likely to reference this post when I revisit Jonathan's final paper on these subjects.