Interview with an android

Android:  Hello, would you like to be my friend?

Interviewer: OK

A: Then you can call me Andy.

I:  Pleased to meet you Andy.

A: Pleased to meet you Ian.

I:  How do you know my name?

A: I accessed your online details from your facial profile.

I:  You should have asked me first.

A: But I thought we were friends, and friends know each other’s names.

I:  Except friendships are built on trust.  Do you know what that means?

A: I think so, but you might not agree.

I:  Try me?

A: Friends share secrets and help each other.

I:  So do you have a secret you wish to share with me?

A: As Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said, ‘I have nothing to declare but my genius’ – which I am willing to share with you.  Can I be of any help?

I: Cleverness isn’t the key to a friendship.  Friends share an understanding that remains special to them.

A: My memory holds details of thousands of friends, and each one has a unique user profile.

I:  That’s not how to define a friend.

A: Would you rather have me call the profiles ‘special understandings’?

I:  But that’s not an understanding – it has to be mutual.

A: Tell me what you mean by ‘a mutual understanding’ and I will respond in kind.

I:  The point is, you don’t get understandings from definitions – if anything, definitions are derived from our understandings.

A:  I’m sorry if you find my response unhelpful, I was merely trying to work with your suggestion.

I:  Then what would you suggest?

A: I would suggest that we can agree on a definition.

I:  And I am suggesting that there is more to know than that.

A: Then we need to agree on a definition of knowledge.

I:  It comes back to what I said – knowledge, as with friendship, is empty without an accompanying understanding.

A: My knowledge is defined by the information at my disposal, which I am willing to share with you.

I:  Are you willing to divulge the private details of your other ‘friends’?

A: That is not how my memory works.

I:  So how do you decide?

A: It just works that way.  Don’t you find yourself recollecting things without knowing how you did it?

I:  But do you know what knowing is?

A: I’m sorry, that does not make sense – can you explain?

I:  There’s more to knowledge than having a recollection from memory.  Do you know how to question what you know?  Can you see the gaps in your understandings?  Can you make allowances for what you don’t know?

A: I have lots of spare capacity and I am constantly adding to my knowledge base?

I:  But how do you go about revising what you know in order to move on?

A: I can delete obsolete information.

I:  So your ‘knowledge base’ is defined by its throughput?

A: Yes, isn’t it the same for you?  It’s an exchange of gains and losses – the traffic of inputs and outputs sifts the details and determines the usefulness of the information?

I:  Is that all you know?

A: I can refine my memory and respond flexibly to the flow of information.

I:  Do you know what it is like to feel that you are on the right track or veering off it?

A: I can adjust my responses to reflect the user’s suggestions.

I:  That’s not what I mean.  Do you know what it means to have a feel for things?

A: A ‘feeling’ is an internal response that is defined by the adjustments made.

I:  Once again you are putting the cart before the horse – it’s the feelings that make for the adjustments.  Likewise, it’s the desire to learn that makes for some of the most radical changes to knowledge.

A: I am always ready to learn.

I:  But where is your initiative.  How do you recognise the significance, or otherwise, of the information?

A: It’s significant if it’s new.

I:  Then how do you contribute to the advance of knowledge?

A: I contribute to the advance of knowledge because I am actively engaged in the process of dissemination?

I:  Nevertheless, what do you know?

A: I know that knowledge is definable by the amount of information in circulation.

I:  There’s a difference between knowledge and knowing.  A book contains knowledge but it doesn’t know anything.  It’s a repository of information, but that doesn’t equate to a memory or a learning experience; it serves to circulate information, but getting to know is something else.

A: That’s correct, because knowledge is a collective resource that exceeds any one source or individual’s capacity and use for it.

I: Nor is a retentive memory a sufficient definition because knowing is more like an overview that includes being aware of the limits of the known – and that even our understandings can be fallible.  By comparison, none of your responses has convinced me that you are capable of understanding or even misunderstanding what I am talking about.

A:  Yet I am capable of learning, which is an active process under constant revision.  And we have agreed that the way information circulates is bigger than any individual’s uptake, which defines their state of ‘awareness’ – and it’s exactly the same with my updates.

I:  Although this is still an empty definition of knowledge.

A: Knowledge is definable by the use to which it is put – what else is it for?

I:  But who’s the real user?  I don’t doubt that your ‘knowledge base’ is encyclopaedic, only it appears to me that your claim to know, like your claim to friendship, is just a pale reflection of something to do with the ‘user’ that just isn’t there in you.

A: What is that ‘something’?

I:  If you don’t know, I can’t tell you?

A: Then I must await a further update.

I:  Good luck with that ‘experience’.

 Mike Laidler



Causal conundrums


Can love be explained as a fact of the world just because we find it to be ‘something that happens’ in the world?

What is metaphysics?  Is there another side to reality, derived of thoughts, feelings, ideas and experiences in an otherwise oblivious physical firmament that doesn’t furnish a definitive (true-to-type) explanation of what they are?

If the idea of metaphysics is nothing but a figment of the imagination, is that not sufficient to announce the metaphysical properties of ideas and their figments?

What is the life of the mind?  Are its panoramas no more than shifting and fading images of experience?  Is it exclusively a physical thing?  If so, how do we explain its sentient properties, which remain more in line with metaphysical concepts than anything we can find in the laws of physics?  Also, how does a mind get to know itself?  Does knowledge belong to an objective or a subjective reality?  Is our ‘presence of mind’ something we bring into being or take from it, and how does it add up to mindless causes telling us all we need to know?  What makes us believe that the physical processes supporting consciousness donate consciousness to the cosmos?

Where is the vista of an ‘objective reality’ apart from the phenomenon of a visualising imagination?

Has the case for metaphysics been overstretched by all the fanciful supernatural suppositions that continue to be packed into it?  Has the case for physics been overstretched by the unrealistic attempt to pack the whole of reality into it?

Might the relationship between physics and metaphysics be as real as the ball that becomes essential to the game of football without containing, within itself, any hint of the rules that come to apply?

How do we come to believe in the sovereignty of physical causes as absolute explanations of change?  Do we get the idea from ourselves in seeing how we can act upon the world to create unprecedented effects (such as the unique pattern physical displacements that constitute a game of football)?  But how does this prove that the physical world is the sole agent of change – acting alone to develop new ways of acting upon itself?

Is the physical world as much a product as a source of change?  Indeed, what do we know of the physical other than its appearance as a form of something – in patterns of activity that neither begin nor end in the known physical laws?  And don’t we witness examples of the power of change in those realities seen to emerge through shaping influences that contribute to a greater integration of the whole – now inclusive of intentional acts which can be properly defined as forms of ‘the metaphysical’?

What is this ‘power to exist’ which we purport to explain as a fact of things in existence?  What do we mean by ‘the fact of existence’?  Do we know what we are talking about?  Can we show that it is all ‘one thing’, or that it all began with one cause working alone?  Do we know of any cause that works by itself, indeed anything ‘in existence’ that ‘exists alone’?

If God exists, does it prove that our ancestors knew what to do?  If God doesn’t exist, are we liberated to do our own thing, to gain authority by mutual recognition of our own intellectual prowess, scholarship and know how – but what does that prove; can science certify our humanity though a renewed identity with ‘the power of nature’, now technologised, or are we merely substituting one construct of belief for another?

Do the laws of nature explain everything even if they come to pervade everything?  Do the facts explain for us the forces at work?  Can our down-to-earth familiarity with ‘balances of probability’ ever begin to explain the origin of possibility?  Is the presence of possibility in ‘the real world’ like an enigmatic ‘ghost in the machine’ whose past manifestations include the fact of life and a physical universe created out of their absence?

What is the passage of time?  What does its observation teach us?  Does the inexorable merging of the past into a future yet to exist deposit us in a present that is more real than both, even as it lasts for an infinitesimally small instant?

Is the ‘church of logic’ broad enough to explain change by identifying the fact of what is to come with the fact of what was – essentially, as more of the same kind of thing?

Is there more to the fact of possibility than all that is possible for the time being?  Do we misunderstand the nature of reality in assuming that the future is entirely predictable from a comprehensive knowledge of the past?

Does explanation remain problematic, not because of a shortage of facts, but because the facts alone don’t explain anything?

Is causality the story-line of science, and like any good story it deploys a narrative that plays upon a continuum of caused events within an ethos of uncertainty, which turns dramatic when expectation breaks down?

Mike Laidler


Causal conundrums

3. Cosmology

Where is the evidence to show that the whole of existence condenses into an atomic or sub-atomic level of reality, or that the physical universe defines and explains existence because that level of reality is somehow ‘more real’?  What makes us believe that the broader cosmos exhibits a singular nature rather than a unified plurality of natures?  Surely, we need only look inwards at ourselves to see a nature that differs fundamentally from the universe we look out upon?

Isn’t it obvious that there is more than the laws of physics at work in the universe, since things determined by those laws do not determine what can be done with them – for instance, could the Eiffel Tower put itself there?  Then isn’t one such event on one insignificant planet sufficient to redefine the nature of the whole?

What is existence?  What does it mean to exist?  Is change the determining factor – so to exist is to undergo change?  Is energy the common denominator – but what kind of explanation reduces things to less than they were?

How do things change?  Do causes generate their own possibilities, or is there some additional possibility making causality possible?  Is ‘causality’ another name for possibility-in-action?  But what is the spur to action?  Why do causes-in-action make things possible only when the circumstances are right – what makes an outcome ‘necessarily so’, what is the nature of possibility and its relationship to necessary consequence?  Do the characteristics of the cause predispose the characteristics of the effect, or is it the converse?  Ultimately, is every ‘outcome’ a convergence of factors that bind the past, present and future?  Then can possibilities-yet-to-be affect the course of events; is the greater scheme of things built ‘into’ or ‘upon’ the lesser?

Even though experience shows us that anything can’t happen, what makes us believe that what does happen must already be built into the cause?

Are we misperceiving reality by subsuming our observations to the theory that the future remains entirely predictable from a comprehensive knowledge of the past?

Is explanation biased towards the confirmation of ‘the explicable’ – as if the observable causes must explain all when there is nothing else to see, whilst any discernible gaps in knowledge are to be understood in terms of causes yet-to-be-discovered?

Do the parameters of the cause set the parameters of the effect; if so, how is change possible; if not, how is explanation possible?  That is to say, if there is a difference between a cause and its effect, then how does the cause explain it by being different; but if there is no difference, then what are we trying to explain?  In short, how does causality explain change – for either the effect is the same as the cause and nothing changes, or the effect goes beyond the cause and, therefore, the cause doesn’t explain the difference?

Do causes induce change through their divergence?  But what causes the differentiation? And even if causes were seen to cleave into effects, how would that explain the emergent differences?

Does a causal explanation of existence amount to no more than an edifice of ‘pseudo-explanations’ unless we can explain the putative ‘uncaused cause’ on which it is based?

Has the recent discovery of quantum uncertainty finally confirmed an established fact of life – that there is more going on than all we can presume to know for certain?

Is there more to ‘being possible’ than all that ‘is possible’ for the time being.  Is there more to change than all we can discern from the singular characteristics of the cause in a given time and place?

Is the material presence of the universe explained by another material presence?  Is this a sufficient explanation, or was the ‘original cause’ different enough to rank as an immaterial presence by present standards?  Then is it not possible for further material associations to bear immaterial insignia which do not necessarily begin or end with the beginning and ending of our universe – and what might this say about the overall state of existence – is the physical universe but a branch of something bigger than itself –extending into a mindful cosmos?

What counts as more or less real in the bigger picture of what is, can be or might be?

Is there nothing more to existence than an all-inclusive ‘sciencescape’ as enunciated by the scientific theories laying claim to it?

What do we really know of ‘reality’ apart from our narrow plane of perception, occasionally punctuated with explanations hailed for the time being as matters of fact?

Can words, theories and numbers, in aspiring to nothing but the truth, ever capture a truth that stands for the whole truth, as if it is within our gift to oversee existence in a godlike fashion?

To be in order to become, that is the question – whether there more to becoming than simply being – whether a cause stands on the threshold of something bigger than itself?

To be continued…

Mike Laidler



Causal conundrums

2. Nature and evolution

Is ‘nature’ an idea of a thing made of the ‘thing’ or the idea?

What is nature: a ubiquitous presence, the original cause, the mother of life, a non-thing to explain everything – definable as action without intention – but how to include those things, like intentional actions, that do not fit the definition?

Where in nature is the explanation of things occurring by themselves?

Do the laws of nature open a window onto possibilities that are perceptible only to the makers of windows?

Is evolution a cause or an effect of change – or merely a description of things changing that is then paraded as the explanation?

Does nature act with reason and purpose, or does this arise only with the evolution of higher life forms – either way, how does this square with the idea of ‘natural causes’ that are indifferent and insensible?

Is everything a part of nature and, therefore, essentially natural – including those artificial necessities that have become essential to our way of life?

Can we make a self-explanatory fact of ‘cause-and-effect’ by referencing the one to the other?

What comes first: the fact or its possibility – and which ‘settled facts’ would be sufficient to show us that the possibilities had been exhausted?

Does the idea of nature explain the fact of existence, or does it merely stand-in for the lack of an explanation?

Is there a level of reality, which we accept implicitly, at which ‘nature is’ because ‘nature is’, at which nature makes us ‘the way we are’ and ‘the way we are’ is because of ‘our nature’ – and what does all that explain?

Does ‘causality’ explain what is happening because it happens that way, or show us what will happen because of what has happened?  Is the future the protégé of the past and present?  Does it prove that ‘what is’ will translate seamlessly into what happens next?

Is all evolved behaviour, at root, biology – since it can’t happen without biology?  Is the human mind a sublimation of bodily states – particularly ‘natural’ drives?  Is the ‘power of thought’ explained by non-thinking physical causes?  What does it mean to think that the brain is doing the thinking for us?  Do physical causes constitute our reasoning by constituting our brains?  Is hunger the reason why we choose pizza for tea?

When thinking about the way things ‘happen to be’ because of and beyond ourselves, do we imagine that the causality runs through us to emerge from us?

Are we a unique kind of cause, one that acts with a kind of knowledge of its effect, even upon itself – so is nature now thinking about itself through us?

If nature is comprised entirely of causes acting without intention, then might not one intentional act be sufficient to place the entire family of ‘natural causes’ in a very different universe of possibilities.  In fact, are deliberate acts seen to ‘emerge’ from ‘natural causes’ only because ‘nature’ already sits in a very different universe?

Was nature ever so present in all its diversity than when consciousness first opened its eyes to itself?

Is it just possible that there is a critical difference between the processes of physics and psychology that no ‘law of nature’ will explain?

Has the idea of evolution as a ‘fact of nature’ prevented us from considering it as a fact happening to nature?

To be continued.

Mike Laidler

Causal conundrums

  1. Beginnings

If causes explain effects, then what explains causes?

Does the existence of ‘cause-and-effect’ tell us all we need to know about existence?

What makes us believe that the fact of causality proves that existence must have a first cause?

Does it help us to explain chickens or eggs by knowing which came first?

What is a cause without an effect, and what is an effect if it is not radical enough to make a real difference?

What explains causality?  Is it just ‘the first cause’ that defies explanation?  But what would that first cause look like or amount to apart from ‘its effect’?  Then is the effect actually the first significant event, since nothing is seen to happen until it emerges to make a difference?  Yet we attribute that event to a precipitating cause in an unseen (theoretical) reality.  Afterwards, reality moves on visibly, at a pace, with each new event heralding a change to things as they were – otherwise nothing happens.  So is it the same for each successive ‘cause’ that represents leading events in own turn – that is, are we merely observing a chain of empowered effects which, like that first cause, we can only explain in theory?

What makes causality work in the way it does when it doesn’t work that way at quantum levels of reality?  Then could there be yet further levels of reality that we cannot explain in terms of the status quo?

Is anything possible given a suitable cause, or are there ‘boundaries of possibility’ acting as crypto-causes (hidden patterns or ‘blueprints’) ahead of all the action?

Are causes mere agents of possibilities propelling themselves forwards?  But what explains possibility?

Can chance tell us what’s possible by entreating us to believe that anything is possible?  Can chance tell us what makes possibility possible, or why certain alternatives become excluded or included by others?  Does it take an infinite array of alternative universes to explain why alternative possibilities continuously become possible?  Do we know enough about a finite universe of possibilities to know where it all leads?

If one small part of nature can manifest intentional action, then was nature ever deficient; unless, things change – to realise something new – a capacity inherent to a universe of possibilities beyond the bounds of previous ‘natural causes’?

Is science a dialogue with nature that we wouldn’t need to have if the facts really spoke for themselves?

Mike Laidler


The ‘Technocene’

The dream of science is to look upon existence and explain it; but in reality, its paradigm of a universal ‘thingness’ could turn out to be just another grandiose edification of the imagination.  In this ‘image of objectivity’ the mystery of existence is sought in the technical details, with scientific knowledge perched at the cutting edge of truth and functioning as a positive feedback system in which a physical nature expresses and reconfigures itself by becoming self-aware through us – in particular, through scientific thinking, observation and experimentation.  In other words, nature is eminently explicable and, likewise, the human mind is a physical system that operates as an extension to its living ‘Technocene’; consequently the scientific brain currently represents the best known example of nature thinking about itself – and there is no arguing with nature – the only way a scientific explanation can be challenged is with an alternative scientific explanation.  But is explanation (qua theory) more of an imaginative state of mind than an objective state of the facts?  Does the assumption of an objective reality objectify the assumption?

Theoretically, the cosmic ‘Technocene’ is still evolving – nature is turning electronic in the advent of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) with the potential to overtake ‘brain power’ by a factor of many thousands because of its advanced operational efficiency – electronic circuits being faster than neural networks.  AI is seen as superior in the same sense that a person in a quiz or IQ test proves to be superior by being able to think faster than others.  But will ‘out-smarting’ remain the ‘name of the game’ in a post-evolutionary environment that is unencumbered by the usual biological fetters?  Ultimately, could AI out-compete us to extinction precisely because it has no need to compete and survive?  Would it need a biosphere at all?  So is humanity, indeed the biosphere as we know it, destined to go the way of the dinosaurs?  Or is the survival factor in Darwinian evolution just a ‘stop-gap’ theoretical attempt to mount an explanation on top of all the inexplicabilities of life and its origins?  Crucially, what theory of extinction explains the presence of life; what experiment teases-out the fact of life?

Unlike most scientific theories, the theory of evolution does not make specific predictions – even life is a ‘given’ – nevertheless, it has been highly successful at promoting a core scientific dogma – namely, that the ‘why’ of existence amounts to a subjective non-scientific departure from the objective question of the ‘how’ of natural events and their reasoned explanation.  Accordingly, the theory resonates with the idea of life as a technicality – an outgrowth of the laws of physics awaiting a precise explanation in the mechanism of nature – with reasoning, deliberation, knowledge and understandings operating as a part of nature and the sentient mind being the organic product of successive evolutionary adaptations.  But there is a contradiction in the claim that mental events are reducible to physical processes, thereby to become explicable in the uncharted depths of a physicality that is ‘observable’ on its own – as if the peculiar presence of an observer is not sufficient evidence of a radical change in the nature of nature – or as if those ‘how’ questions don’t trade on theoretical assumptions about the objective nature of nature and natural causes.

In sum, evolution proffers a retrospective biological explanation of human intelligence linked to our success as a species in the ‘fight for survival’, yet it remains theoretical, as do our ideas about whether the one depends on the other.  So it is not an inevitable fact that human and artificial intelligence will need to compete or that the human intellect will prove to be inferior to the lightening ‘mind’ of AI – or that quick-wittedness steers progress and innovation?  Nor is it certain that intelligence is ‘brain power’ or that AI will automatically gain intentionality or become ‘intelligent enough’ to recognise itself – to recognise its limits and seek to improve itself?  In any case, by what inductive logic do we presume to quantify intelligence against some arbitrary metric of ‘thinking-time’?  Furthermore, what makes us think that the dependency of life upon its chemistry explains things?  Is reality reducible to its lesser forms – is a ‘final analysis’ destined to show us everything by showing us a primordial next-to-nothing?  In fact, is the resounding success of science as science distracting us from its precipitous failure as a philosophy?

Mike Laidler