Author Topic: Science and Reality  (Read 4194 times)

Offline Gareth Southwell

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Science and Reality
« on: 16/01/11 @ 14:11 »
Why Failure Isn't Always Good Enough

There was recently a very interesting piece in The Guardian ("We must learn to love uncertainty and failure, say leading thinkers", by Alok Jha, Saturday 15th Jan, 2011). In it, the 'planet's biggest brains' responded to Edge magazine's yearly question, which for 2011 was: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" In other words, what sexy new idea is going to help us better understand the world? Perhaps surprisingly, a common theme from respondents was 'failure', or rather, the need to abandon the idea that science gives us certainty.

Of course, this is not a new idea, but rather reflects a common public misconception. People think that scientists arrive at certain knowledge of reality, and seem to consider 'scientifically proven' as the ultimate standard of truth. But, as Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of Aix-Marseille, was keen to point out, this is in fact a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. Science does not prove things, in any absolute sense, but rather tests hypotheses. As Neil Gershenfeld of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it: "The most common misunderstanding about science is that scientists seek and find truth. They don't - they make and test models." These 'models of reality' are therefore provisional, for any new raw data can in theory disprove them.

Whilst it may long have been used as a rule of thumb, the explicit statement of this approach goes back at least to the work of philosopher Karl Popper and his doctrine of 'falsifiability'. The majority of scientific knowledge comes from the process of induction: by gathering numerous examples (data), I can form a general explanation which fits the evidence. All men are mortal because, as far as we know, there is no way of reversing biological cell death, and all observed human cells seem to be subject to it. One day, perhaps, someone will find a way, but until then, it remains an inductive truth. The 'problem of induction' is therefore that, no matter how much the data fits our hypothesis, there is always the possibility that it may one day be overturned by new data (all men are therefore provisionally mortal). Popper's answer to this was simply to point out that science was not interested in certainty, but in scientifically testing and rejecting various working hypotheses or models of reality. In doing so, whilst our understanding of reality is never certain, it gets closer with each 'failure'.

This is sound general scientific method, and I do not wish to undervalue it. Without it, we would not have anywhere near the level of medical or technological knowledge that we possess. We should therefore all be grateful. However, philosophically, this view is problematic. Firstly, as philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out, Popper's vision of the scientist as the conscientious falsifier of hypotheses is not borne out by history. Often, new conflicting data do not result in the complete abandonment of a theory, but an adaptation of it - sometimes even the rejection of the new data altogether (as 'experimental anomaly', or equipment malfunction, or misobservation). Most science, then, is what Kuhn calls 'normal science': tweaking theories to fit evidence, or massaging evidence to fit theories. Only in exceptional periods does 'revolutionary science' take place, where the underpinning assumptions - the 'world picture' - is itself abandoned. Newtonian mechanics gives way to Einsteinian relativity, and normal science can begin again.

Kuhn is sometimes seen as a radical, but he is not really. He is merely pointing out that underlying assumptions are very rarely directly addressed, and that fundamental shifts are not only quite rare, but often driven by extra-scientific concerns - such as power struggles in society (the battle to switch from Ptolemaic to Copernican cosmology reflecting that between the Catholic Church and opposing secular interests). Kuhn's points may therefore be taken as merely suggesting that scientific progress is not just about the straight-forward progress of rational knowledge. Many scientists would accept this: a pet theory can have ties to non-scientific and non-rational interests, and it's difficult, perhaps impossible, to divorce the two.

However, there is a more fundamental problem with Popper's approach, and with the general notion of science as suggested by those quoted in the Guardian article. We revise our working models of reality in relation to new or raw data, as it's often called. But what is 'raw' about it? Scientists often talk of scientific models 'fitting the facts', which, in philosophical terms, assumes a correspondence theory of truth. My theory is true, because it describes or corresponds to the facts. But, you may say, scientists reject the idea that they search for 'the truth'. Very well: my theory is false, because it doesn't fit the facts; therefore I reject it and formulate a new one. All theories are expendable. But there is an assumption here - it is so subtle as to go almost unnoticed, but it is there: there is such a thing as 'the facts' or 'raw data' which are independent of our 'model of reality'. We can set out the problem in these terms:

    1. Science attempts to describe (model) reality.
    2. Such models are always provisional, but can be revised according to new data (facts).
    3. But what determines the form that the facts or raw data take?
    4. Answer: Our model of reality does.

This is a basic and simplified form of the argument, but you get the picture: it would seem that in order to test certain aspects of our working model of reality, we must take other aspects for granted. This does seem to lead to a real problem for scientific method - doesn't it?

Let me try to illustrate this. Take ghosts. A scientist might say that ghosts do not exist, because if they did they would show up on scientific equipment and in experiments - and they do not (let's, for argument's sake, say that this is true). Now, there is a fundamental assumption here: if ghosts exist, they will show up in experimental conditions and be detectable using scientific equipment. But this is an assumption that experiments do not - and possibly cannot - test.  Failure to find a ghost does not prove that ghosts don't exist, just as failure to find Nessie doesn't affect the Loch Ness tourist trade.

I'm not necessarily arguing for the existence of ghosts or plesiosuars, but merely pointing out that the scientific method is not a neutral way of testing theories. Built into any theory are basic assumptions that the theory requires in order to make sense in the first place. But "the map is not the territory", as Polish philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski once put it; our models of reality cannot be used to determine the fundamental nature of that reality - without, we might add, already assuming certain things about it (such as, for instance, that it is material and physical).

But this is not an argument merely against materialism, but against assumptions in general (of which materialism is one). We could pick on others, such as that cause and effect relationships are fixed and regular. This has perhaps been undermined by certain findings in quantum physics, but it is still a central tenet of scientific thinking - and so it should be, for it has served us well. We must of course hold on to such assumptions, but we should also be aware that they are just that. In philosophical terms, we can distinguish between epistemology (how we know things, how we guarantee knowledge, etc.) and ontology (what exists). Scientific method - 'failure' - may be an important and useful tool in our search for knowledge and understanding, but, as regards the question of deciding what reality ultimately is (its ontology), it is not enough.

« Last Edit: 16/01/11 @ 14:44 by Gareth Southwell »
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Offline MoQingbird

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #1 on: 16/01/11 @ 18:59 »
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This is sound general scientific method, and I do not wish to undervalue it. Without it, we would not have anywhere near the level of medical or technological knowledge that we possess. We should therefore all be grateful. However, philosophically, this view is problematic. Firstly, as philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out, Popper's vision of the scientist as the conscientious falsifier of hypotheses is not borne out by history. Often, new conflicting data do not result in the complete abandonment of a theory, but an adaptation of it - sometimes even the rejection of the new data altogether (as 'experimental anomaly', or equipment malfunction, or misobservation). Most science, then, is what Kuhn calls 'normal science': tweaking theories to fit evidence, or massaging evidence to fit theories. Only in exceptional periods does 'revolutionary science' take place, where the underpinning assumptions - the 'world picture' - is itself abandoned. Newtonian mechanics gives way to Einsteinian relativity, and normal science can begin again.

In paleontology, this general pattern of progress is referred to as 'punctuated equilibrium' and applied to the recurrence of long periods in which fossil communities are relatively stable, in evolutionary terms, interspersed with short bursts of rapid change.  The rapid changes come about when new architectures, processes or materials emerge and destabilize the prevailing equilibrium.  The emergence of photosynthesis, collagen, skeletons (cartilage and bone), lungs, etc. wrought huge changes on the fossil communities.  The emergence of these new biotechnologies is followed by short periods of 'adaptive radiation' in which squillions of new species emerge to exploit new niches and competitive strategies that the technology allows.  Eventually, the niches are filled and weaker competition seen off, and things settle down to a new equilibrium.  Evolution then proceeds to refine the existing competitors, until the next disruptive biotechnology emerges.

We can view scientific theories as ideas competing by survival of the fittest, where fitness is a theory's ability to consistently predict the behavior of reality.  Kuhn's model for how science advances is pretty much the same as punctuated equilibrium and adaptive radiation.

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But there is an assumption here - it is so subtle as to go almost unnoticed, but it is there: there is such a thing as 'the facts' or 'raw data' which are independent of our 'model of reality'. We can set out the problem in these terms:

    1. Science attempts to describe (model) reality.
    2. Such models are always provisional, but can be revised according to new data (facts).
    3. But what determines the form that the facts or raw data take?
    4. Answer: Our model of reality does.


This model describes the equilibrium periods in the development of science.  However, the disruptive ideas that emerge from time to time are generally brought about by the emergence of 'raw data' that doesn't fit our model of reality.  IIRC, Einstein's first significant paper was on the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photoelectric_effect.  Everything in the prevailing model of the atom at the time said that the number of electrons emitted by a photoelectric material should be proportional to the intensity of the light shining on it.  Raw observational data, however, showed that it didn't matter how intense an infrared light source you shone on it, no electrons were going to come off it unless the light frequency was above a certain threshold.  Then, no matter how weak, say, an ultraviolet light you shone on it, electrons would be ejected.  This 'disruptive evidence' led to the 'disruptive theory' of the quantum nature of light.  In science, disruptive evidence usually seems to come before disruptive theories.  (This is not always the case, though: Dirac's mathematical model of the electron entailed the existence of its negative partner, the positron, which was then discovered by Anderson a few years later.)

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Failure to find a ghost does not prove that ghosts don't exist, just as failure to find Nessie doesn't affect the Loch Ness tourist trade.

Ghosts, gods and plesiosaurs... as a scientist, I have only one thing to say about them: show me.  The onus is on the believer to prove their existence, and not on me to disprove it. 

I was listening to an episode of 'The Straight Thinker' podcast this morning.  This show aims to integrate scientific and religious thought.  The episode tackled The 12 Big Philosophical Questions, attempting to provide answers that showed how the Christian god provided all the answers.  The trouble was that the whole discussion was based around trivializing even the *possibility* of science-based answers, by framing the entire discussion in god-based assumptions, from which only god-based answers could emerge.  When it comes to 'the map vs. the terrain', I see the religious community's modus operandi as attempting to fit the terrain to the map, rather than the scientists doing so by forcing their data to match their models. 

Yes, scientists hold assumptions.  Going with the map making analogy, they might, say, start out assuming that the Earth is flat.  But, with improvements in their equipment and an enlarging of their scope, they'll soon find out that their maps are not correlating with the terrain, and eventually someone will think, 'Hey, what if the Earth is actually round?  Would that fit the data?'  And so, progress is made by changing our ontology, rather than forcing the facts to fit it.  See Gallileo vs. the Inquisition for a real-world example of how bottom-up, evidence-based thinking fares in the face of top-down insistence that *The* Map is the only acceptable model of the terrain.  :(

Offline Gareth Southwell

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #2 on: 16/01/11 @ 19:42 »
I take your point regarding the parallel of Kuhn's account to other accepted scientific practices. Not sure if Kuhn-ites would, but we can have that discussion another day! ;)

I'll just comment on two points, if I may.

Firstly, the religious model as supplying all the answers. By my talk of ghosts, I didn't mean to suggest that the only way to question scientific method was by opposing a religious ontology. I wasn't at all. The 'show me' approach is in fact positivism: there must be positive evidence that backs up theories. Well, this is, as I've tried to suggest, an assumption. Taken to its extreme, it can even result in the idea that consciousness must be reducible to a mechanical explanation (e.g. Daniel Dennett). Now, you don't have to be religious to deny this, but merely argue that there are things that an external, third-person perspective cannot account for. Failure to find, or exclusion by definition (where that definition is an assumption) is not disproof.

Secondly, the bottom-up method. There are problems with this, because emergence is a woolly concept.  It is at its most problematic when related to consciousness - what exactly does 'emerge' mean? - but even in talking about water, etc., it is not without difficulties. There is an assumption that simply arguing 'bottom up' will naturally lead to an explanation of the phenomena in question, but this can be doubted. Often, there is an irreducible phenomenal or value-based aspect to concepts, even of quite fundamental things (atoms, etc.). To argue from bottom up is therefore to make a choice in certain regards. I think the problem with some scientific thinking is that it assumes that the facts are not themselves problematic - they are just 'there'. But are they? I know I haven't given concrete examples here, but I will try to do so at some future point (when I have more time). "Got to Dance" is on! ;)
« Last Edit: 16/01/11 @ 19:45 by Gareth Southwell »
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Offline MoQingbird

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #3 on: 17/01/11 @ 02:14 »
Heh, just finished watching Zen and there's nothing else worth watching on TV tonight, so here goes...

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Firstly, the religious model as supplying all the answers. By my talk of ghosts, I didn't mean to suggest that the only way to question scientific method was by opposing a religious ontology. I wasn't at all.

I understood that.  :)

I brought it in as a high-contrast example of a widely accepted alternative philosophy in which questioning the 'raw' data is anathema.

Personally, I separate religion into two sub-domains: the supernatural stuff and the post-Christ ethical stuff.  The ethical stuff makes sense to me, but the fact that it's grounded in the supernatural, which cannot be questioned, does give me a problem.  The beauty of science is that the data *can* change minds, while the problem with supernatural religion is that it causes minds to deny the data.  How long did it take the Catholic church to officially pardon Galileo?

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The 'show me' approach is in fact positivism: there must be positive evidence that backs up theories.

So, I'm a positivist... that's good to know :)

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Well, this is, as I've tried to suggest, an assumption. Taken to its extreme, it can even result in the idea that consciousness must be reducible to a mechanical explanation (e.g. Daniel Dennett).

Sadly, the data shows that very simple mechanical interventions can cause severe damage to consciousness, so I'm with Dennett.  Unless, of course, someone can show me data supporting the contrary view.

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Now, you don't have to be religious to deny this, but merely argue that there are things that an external, third-person perspective cannot account for. Failure to find, or exclusion by definition (where that definition is an assumption) is not disproof.

Oh dear.  That sounds as if I can assert that there are fairies at the bottom of my garden and expect everyone to accept that.  : ))))

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Secondly, the bottom-up method. There are problems with this, because emergence is a woolly concept.  It is at its most problematic when related to consciousness - what exactly does 'emerge' mean?

It's a bit like the boundary between green and blue, eh?  ;)

When does language 'emerge' in children?  You can't put your finger on the exact moment, but you can distinguish between a child who can't talk yet and one who definitely can.

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- but even in talking about water, etc., it is not without difficulties. There is an assumption that simply arguing 'bottom up' will naturally lead to an explanation of the phenomena in question, but this can be doubted.

As can anything.  I feel a couple of House-related quotes coming over me :)

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...in the Phaedo, Socrates tells Cebes that upon choosing a hypothesis, "whatever seems to agree with it - with regard either to causes or to anything else - I assume to be true, and whatever does not I assume not to be true."

When an exasperated Foreman reproaches House for his lack of humility after having repeatedly screwed up his diagnosis [...] House snarls: "And humility is an important quality.  Especially if you're wrong a lot."  When Foreman cries out: "You've been wrong every step of the way!" House replies with a scowl: "Of course, when you're right, self-doubt doesn't help anyone, does it?"

-- Melanie Frappier, "Being nice is overrated": House and Socrates on the necessity of conflict, in House and Philosophy, Ed. Henry Jacoby


(As you can guess, I'm a big fan of House.)

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Often, there is an irreducible phenomenal or value-based aspect to concepts, even of quite fundamental things (atoms, etc.). To argue from bottom up is therefore to make a choice in certain regards.

Searle has some interesting things to say in this regard (in the podcasts of his Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Society, and Philosophy of Language courses at Berkley University, available through iTunesU).

Searle points out that when we first explore an area of knowledge we tend to form high-level descriptive domain models that infer intentionality:  Why do a plant's leaves follow the sun during the day?  Because tracking the sun maximizes the energy it takes in, allowing it to out compete the other plants and further the survival of its species.

This descriptive model is then followed by a lower-level *mechanistic* model that answers the same questions using completely different concepts:  Why do a plant's leaves follow the sun during the day?  Photons hitting one side of the leaf activate the secretion of auxin, a growth hormone, on that side of the leaf.  This causes selective cell elongation that mechanically orients the leaf towards the source of the photons.

Notice that there is no intentionality in the lower-level domain model's answer to the question, and that the explanation proceeded from top to bottom with the phenomenon first being identified at the top level, before being explained at the bottom level.  Humans have doubtless been aware that plants can track the sun for 10s of thousands of years, however, they didn't have the tools to find the mechanisms that caused it until recently.  My experience in software domain modeling has taught me that the interesting bits of a domain model (an ontology?) are not the objects within it, but the relationships between them.  Notice in the leaf example above that it's not the leaf or the sun that are interesting, but the relationship between them.  Ditto for the photons, auxin and cell walls in the mechanistic domain model.

Re: consciousness.  We have a low-level model of neurons, and a high-level (albeit personal) experience of consciousness.  Neurons are simple, while consciousness is both mind blowing and mind forming.  We cannot see how to bridge the gap between dumb, chemical neurons and our experience of consciousness, therefore it is tempting to think that consciousness *has* to be something of a different kind, something 'special'.  Well, a few hundred years ago reproduction was in the same situation.  A male planted his dumb, simple 'seed' and a fantastically complex baby emerged; life *had* to be something special.  Now we know that it's really just chemicals doing their thing, and not just the chemicals themselves, but the relationships between them.  The gap between seed and baby has been filled by many domains: mitosis, meiosis, genetics, DNA, embryology, cell theory, evolution, natural selection, and so on.  Everywhere we look, high-level, intentional models have given way to lower-level, mechanistic ones (with one exception) and I see no grounds - no data - to support doing things differently (but I'll look at your data if it points in a different direction:).

The one exception to lower-level resolution of high-level intentionality is the supernatural.  Many humans reach a point in their lives when they ask themselves, what is the point of all this?  What is my purpose in life?  Projecting our intentionality-oriented, theory-of-human-mind-obsessed minds up one level from the domain of human experience gives us a make believe supernatural domain full of strangely human-focused gods, spirits, ancestors who then give us back a purpose in life, i.e. keeping them happy in return for joining them one day.  (And that's just the angst-cancelling value of the supernatural.  The political control mechanisms it gives you are a whole other story.)

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I think the problem with some scientific thinking is that it assumes that the facts are not themselves problematic - they are just 'there'. But are they? I know I haven't given concrete examples here, but I will try to do so at some future point (when I have more time). "Got to Dance" is on!

Some examples of problematic facts would be interesting :)

Offline Gareth Southwell

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #4 on: 17/01/11 @ 19:22 »
You've made a number of points here, and they take the discussion off in different directions (consciousness, religion, fairies...). So, I'm just going to pick one or two.

House: Wheeling in the big guns, eh? I love it too, though I disagree with his worldview.

Firstly, consciousness. Assuming that there is something about consciousness that can't be captured by a third-person perspective is not dualism. Sticking something in someone's brain and watching their perceptions change does not prove that the third-person, objective view captures everything there is to know about consciousness, merely that the physical brain in some way enables conscious experience. However, to try to reduce a first-person account to a third-person account is problematic - they are not the same. If we oppose Dennett in this regard - which Searle does, incidentally - then we simply oppose reducing ontology to method - that is, reducing a way of knowing to a claim as to what exists. My main beef with scientific method is therefore that it steps on the toes of ontology. This position can be summed up by, "if the only tool you have is a hammer, then you tend to treat everything as if it is a nail."

Positivism is a related point. Positivists assume that only knowledge which is based on sense experience is genuine. You said, in doubting Nessie, 'Show me'. Well, fair enough - but I could also say that about the positivist principle itself: what sense experience proves that knowledge must be based on sense experience? There isn't one! But neither is it a purely logical principle. So, positivism is based on an unprovable assumption - that is all I was trying to point out. Incidentally, this criticism was first advanced by Karl Popper, who also first characterised the "science is failure" approach. You see? Everything is complicated! And, by the way, you want to be careful what you say about the Little People! :)

'Emerge' is problematic because we are talking of a first-person phenomenon emerging from third-person phenomenon. This is a really complicated and subtle issue, but the general problem lies with the idea that consciousness isn't a problem for the objective view - it is. The sorites problem is different - this is where does X become Y (where X and Y are two examples of the same TYPE of thing - e.g. physical). But the problem with consciousness is that X (an objective phenomenon) and Y (a subjective phenomenon) are not on the same continuum. What would such a continuum look like? Materialists underestimate this problem.

Now, I am worried that you're going to jump down my throat here and start assuming that I'm a dualist who beliefs in undiscoverable fairies. This isn't the case. Dualism is a confused picture, which owes its confusion to the materialist worldview. So, as Searle argues, the opposite of materialism isn't immaterialism, but a view that does not create this false opposition. What would such a view look like? It's very difficult to say - I have inklings, but no more. Once again: an unwieldy topic, and one perhaps best explored in another thread.

However, positivism: can you 'show me' that such an attitude is more than just an unprovable assumption?
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Offline Gareth Southwell

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #5 on: 17/01/11 @ 19:40 »
By the way, one quick thing about Dennett. As Searle argues, Dennett simply denies that we are conscious - it is an illusion. This is the ultimate consequence of a certain type of positivist, scientific thinking.

Only objects exist.
Consciousness is not an object.
Therefore, consciousness does not exist.

This is ridiculous, I think. Are you not really conscious now, or at any time? It seems to me 'existence' needs redefinition here to include subjectivity - not in the dualist sense of an immaterial stuff, but merely in a broader sense which take subjective experience seriously. A broader ontology.
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Offline MoQingbird

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #6 on: 18/01/11 @ 16:23 »
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Only objects exist.
Consciousness is not an object.
Therefore, consciousness does not exist.

This could, I suppose, make sense if 'Only objects exist', i.e. you discount the idea that relationships also exist, and that relationships can be objects, too.  It's as if Dennet thinks, 'there are no such things as waves; there is only water.  The wave is an illusion generated by the behaviour of individual H2O molecules.'

But then, the behaviour of the H2O molecules is an illusion generated by protons, neutrons and electrons... so the H2O doesn't exist either, and so we disappear down the rabbit hole into the fabric of spacetime.


Offline Gareth Southwell

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #7 on: 18/01/11 @ 17:33 »
Yes, but that only works for reducing phenomena of one type to more fundamental phenomena of the same type. But with consciousness, this isn't the case.

You could say, for instance, the self is an illusion, or the notion that there is a single 'I' that links together all our thoughts and perceptions - I've no problem with any of that. But to say that consciousness itself is an illusion would mean that I was mistaken that there are perceptions. But, as Descartes can be seen to have pointed out, to have an illusion in the first place IS to presuppose consciousness. I can be mistaken about seeing a tree, etc, but I cannot be mistaken about having some sort of perception (which may or may not be of a tree, etc.). Do you take my point?
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Offline MoQingbird

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #8 on: 18/01/11 @ 17:59 »
I think I've got your point re: consciousness having the perceptions in the first place implying consciousness.

When the self gets into the mix, then things get interesting.  We've all experienced times when we're 'in the zone' and not Self-conscious.  Then there are times when we sit and mull over some internal monologue and we think it is us talking.  But at these times, who is doing the listening?  The consciousness, the self, something else?  And which level is Dennet talking about?

Offline Gareth Southwell

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #9 on: 18/01/11 @ 19:27 »
Well, to take terminology introduced by David Chalmers ("The Conscious Mind"), we may distinguish psychological and phenomenal consciousness. The first concerns things which can arguably be reduced to a "functional" explanation - for instance, we can model how a human recognises patterns, and then programme a computer to do the same. However, we might also like to argue that that there are certain mental phenomenon that are not capable of being captured by the functional model. So, a machine can pattern match, but it does not possess the same qualitative experience whilst doing so. This qualitative experiences are subjective, whilst many psychological processes are quantifiable. Some philosophers therefore argue that there is something going on that quantitative modelling misses - phenomena that are often termed "qualia".

Now, Dennett wants to deny qualia - he wants to say that they are "an illusion". So, even if we concede to him that all "psychological" mental events are modellable and quantifiable, it would still be the case that certain aspects of being conscious resist this. To say that this form of consciousness is an illusion is just to sweep the problem under the carpet, it seems to me, and to attempt to solve the problem of consciousness merely by denying that there is one. But to deny that I am conscious is not to refute dualism, as Dennett thinks, but to deny what is a fundamental reality. We are subjectively conscious. Whatever that means for the scientific worldview, we cannot solve the problem by ignoring or denying something so self-evident.

In summary: It's crazy! It's a failed answer, and we should reject it and move on to more interesting and viable possibilities.
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Offline MoQingbird

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #10 on: 18/01/11 @ 20:55 »
I came across this, Hubert Dreyfus on Husserl and Heidegger: Section 1, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaGk6S1qhz0 this morning (by way of The Partially Examined Mind guys, whose podcast is brilliant if you want to slightly more advanced material).

They talk about Husserl's idea of consciousness-as-intentionality-towards-objects, and the world therefore being constructed by consciousness (hope I'm remembering that right).  Heidegger then comes along and says, yes, but a really skilled carpenter is going to use his hammer without thought, therefore its objectness doesn't depend on his consciousness, and therefore the world is not constructed by our consciousness.

What gets me about this example is that when you first learn to use a hammer you are highly conscious of what you're doing.  You, in effect, create the hammer and its uses with your consciousness.  It is only later that using it becomes subconscious.  (Marvin Minski, in the Society of Mind, called this process 'chunking', whereby difficult conscious tasks become automated and internalized in the subconscious.)

In yea olde days, people used to say that we only use 10% of our brains.  I think the other 90% is holding all that stuff that we've chunked. 

So how does that subconscious 90% relate to the phenomena of consciousness?

When we've been mulling over a problem for days, on the back burner, and the answer suddenly pops fully formed in our heads, it had to have come from somewhere.  How does that 'somewhere' fit into the qualia side of things?

Do qualia exist in a high-level, intentional, descriptive domain, while the neuro-psychological is building up a low-level, non-intentional, mechanical domain model?

Offline Gareth Southwell

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Re: Science and Reality
« Reply #11 on: 18/01/11 @ 21:16 »
Possibly. Qualia are, by definition, conscious. If they were unconscious, perhaps there would be no problem of consciousness. However, Heidegger's point is slightly different. Our consciousness exists against a background of skills and capacities which we may not be directly aware of. I'm happy to agree with this to an extent, and even to consider the idea of unconscious intentionality, problem solving, non-linguistic intuition, or somewhere where things go when they're chunked. But, for me at least, intentionality toward an object, in terms of skills etc, is not the same as qualia.

Qualia are simply the experiences of being conscious. I think, if Husserl is suggesting that intentionality must be conscious, then i might disagree on this point (and agree with Heidegger). Whether it might need to be related to conscious experience (interpretable in the light of, or at some point conscious) is a slightly different question, but even there i wonder. For me, qualia are conscious experiences that are in some way the subjective 'residue' of objective explanation. But an essential and important residue, for they represent what it is like to have experience, meaning, etc.
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