Do machines perceive?

There is a more down-to-earth rendition of this question: Do plants perceive?  After all, they are alive and, like us, are motivated to survive.  The accepted answer seems to be that they do, but not in the way we do, nor do they need to.  In short, plant life exhibits similarities and differences which help us to address some broader questions such as: is perception a gradation of capacities; is consciousness a necessity; is there an essential motivation?  Of course, there are contenders at both extremes who wish to argue that plants are either capable or incapable of sentient perception.  In the case of machines, the motivation is not theirs, but that might change if machines become conscious – if consciousness can bypass biology.  And isn’t life just another kind of mechanism?  So isn’t perception a process that can be replicated mechanically? On the scientific front, perception is taken to be explicable objectively without the prerequisite of a sentient ‘presence’ – the corollary being that a scientific explanation of perception will automatically yield an explanation of sentient behaviour and account for different levels of awareness to boot.  Then there is the related question of a self-motivated inquiring intelligence; indeed, could an ‘intelligent machine’ ever begin to match a child’s imaginative perception of an event like Christmas?

‘Automata’ have been entertaining us for generations with mechanical responses that look like perceptions and intentions.  Now we have versions that can engage us with conversational simulations.  Altogether, they have shifted the debate onto the question about whether machines can be capable of achieving a ‘functional equivalence’ – whether, for practical purposes we don’t need to talk about mental states.  But even if mental states are considered to be extraneous, it doesn’t prove that they don’t exist.  In fact most exponents of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ tend to skirt around the issues, as if we only need to observe that artificial intelligence and artificial perception amount to alternative, perhaps superior, operational modes of what we call thinking and awareness.  On the other hand, a case can be made for perception to be recognised as a confluence of two realities, the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’, which has been artificially under-stated in the name of explanation by swapping a fact for a theory – the fact being what we know of mental states from the inside, which we have devalued in favour of the theory that such knowledge doesn’t make a real difference because it is more like a passive effect than an active causal component of perception.

In fact, perception makes a difference because it introduces a new sort of realisation – such as when we come to know that colour is something more than the wavelength of light.  So even though we can build a robot to detect different wavelengths and name the corresponding colours, it doesn’t prove that it can actually see colours.  Nor does it matter whether my perceived ‘red’ is your ‘green’ in a world where only wavelengths count – wavelengths that don’t need to be elaborated in perception – except that reflected light has neither colour nor luminosity until perception supplies a different kind of realisation.  Therefore, instead of downgrading our qualitative experiences because robots might not need them, we should be celebrating their special status.  Similarly, a computer can win at chess without realising the significance of its achievement – so its victory is hollow even if it is programmed to cheer.  Consequently, in the bigger picture, there may be more to reality than all we might affirm in terms of its physical properties alone – and the fact that we can equate everything to the physical world is possible only because there are two explicit sides to the equation.

Mike Laidler


Why existence?

Traditionally, our place in existence has been framed by beliefs in the world as created out of ‘the void’. Then it was thought that we might explain ‘life, the universe and everything’ by pruning it all down to a primordial ‘next-to-nothing’. Now we are prepared to consider a wider array of alternative or ‘parallel’ universes with wholly different natures and outcomes – to the extent that, by comparison, nothing is something and vice versa. Of course, our words fail to describe natural phenomena extending beyond everything that counts as natural for us. Even our ideas of ‘quantum leaps’ or ‘shifts’ fail to explicate the magnitude of the changes that colonise the possibilities left vacant in our physical world. And perhaps, after all, origins aren’t everything. Nevertheless, we continue to impose on the facts the same constraints that we impose on our explanations: namely that they remain logically consistent – as if the omnipotent and omnipresent laws of physics said to be the cause everything, must, therefore, of necessity, explain the vector of possibility leading to a game of football or a nature capable of evaluating itself.

Perhaps there is more to a fact than its causes. Also, the fact that a game of football cannot proceed without the ball doesn’t mean that the ball provides the explanation. And it might seem narcissistic, but the possibility of a universe hatching ideas about itself, albeit in the form of our ideas, marks an event as profoundly significant as that of the birth of the universe itself. It indicates that a new kind of possibility attends the laws of physics which cannot be predicted from those laws. Even so, that fact isn’t enough to justify our presence in existence, either at an individual or species level. Yet it is more profound than that, it means that we are participants in possibilities bigger than us, in a conscious dimension that doesn’t demand an evolutionary explanation. So we can start with the fact that our existence is sufficient to demonstrate, albeit within our own minds, a feature of existence that is significant for the very reason that we might otherwise choose to reject as a figment of the imagination – that mental space is a presence in a parallel ‘world of its own’.

The dynamics of change also promote shifts and leaps in the nature of thinking, with the scientific mind denouncing the ‘why’ question as a fanciful attempt to reify the link between fact and imagination – as if imagining fairies makes them real. However, there is a growing controversy over the ‘how’ of existence because beginnings feature changes that we cannot equate to things as they were without begging the question. Moreover, we reify our perceptions in supposing that causes give us answers by revealing more of themselves – such as, by showing us that the mind must be explicable as a physical effect in organic reality. But this doesn’t explain the shift that leads to living entities representing reality in cognitive space. Nor do the operations of the brain resemble thoughts or the imaginative frontiers of knowledge which exist as a functional necessity for our ensuing conceptual explorations. Consequently, it might be just as realistic for us to consider that existence, and what we know of it, exists for what is to follow. When all is said and done, isn’t that why we exist?

Mike Laidler

“What is truth?”

Philosophy asks questions in pursuit of truths – a principle that is also the driving-force of science.  Divisions arise over which questions are potentially answerable; although answers don’t stem the flow of questions, nor does a recognised truth come with a full-stop, as if to put our questions to rest – as if the truth is definable by its defiance of contradiction.  In fact, reality greets us with an avalanche of contradictions: the earth is and isn’t solid, the universe is and isn’t infinite, gravity is and isn’t a force, life is and isn’t just chemical activity, we are and are not merely stardust, a thought is and is not the same thing as a brain process, causes do and do not explain effects, change is and is not more of the same, the present does and does not shape the future, the governing constants and absolutes do and do not control what happens next.  Furthermore, change proves to be more fundamental than any ruling truth.  It means that the truth-content of our answers doesn’t negate the fact that change can be radical, that there can be wholly different answers in different contexts, that those contexts stand out as different dimensions of existence which we partially understand as energy, matter, life, consciousness and thought.  And doesn’t life show us that the facts can defy reason?  Indeed, there is more to existence than we can reduce to the axioms of our logical explanations.  Then if there is to be a resolution that applies to everyone, might it not be this: don’t dismiss ‘the impossible’ simply because it contradicts your aspirations to countenance possibility on your terms – don’t dismiss as impossible the truth that changes to become more than it was.

Mike Laidler

“Life, the universe and everything”: 42 unanswered questions

Why existence?  (Tweet: Pub. Jan 22, 2015)

How is the universe possible?  How is possibility possible?  Of what possibility ensues the chance to wonder?  (Tweet: Pub. April 4, 2018)

What makes nature ‘necessarily so’, perceptible, or an ‘it’?  (A question of stature.  Pub. Sept 24, 2017)

What gives us the idea that there must be ‘a beginning’ that is the beginning of everything – that everything had an absolute beginning ‘once upon a time’? (Once upon a time.  Pub. Nov 6, 2018)

Did life come to earth from another planet?  But what explains the origin of alien life – what accounts for the birth of life in the universe?  Are planetary environments enough to explain its emergence?  Can its evolution explain its existence?  (The Pinocchio factorPub. May 2, 2018)

Perception, in common with everything else, involves the coming-to-be of things that were not – and this raises a question of change which we cannot resolve ‘at source’ either by looking for a first cause or by attributing the form of the effect to its cause.  (Before and after.  Pub. Nov 14, 2017)

So what can we understand about the extent of a universe that apparently expands to exceed itself in the evolution of appearances and understanding?  (True coloursPub. Jan 28, 2016)

Is humanity more than a passive cog in the mechanism of nature?  (Tweet: Pub. Sept 28, 2018)

Is our delineation of nature just a crude metaphor for the inexplicable phenomenon of existence?  (Phases of knowingPub. May 27, 2018)

And isn’t our brand of intentional action something alien to nature?  (Surviving deathPub. Jun 11, 2017)

Then can we, in general, unlock the mystery of change by looking for a primal cause, as if all can be explained by unpacking the nature of nature at its inception?  Or does the answer come from evolution, which is change by another name, diffusely portrayed as the explanation of itself – that is, things change because they evolve?  (Changing things.  Pub. Aug 25, 2018)

Also, the question of necessity persists despite all the revelations of observation and explanation – since we still don’t know how the universe came to be as a necessary fact, and if not, why it came to be at all?  (Loaded dice: The chances of a ‘theory of everything’Pub. Nov 28, 2015)

Then are we to imagine some form of pre-existence of chance behind the origins of everything – if not God, then some no-thing that ‘plays dice?  (In sight of the supranatural: Part 4 – Beyond ourselvesPub. Mar 26, 2018)

However, our causal mythology portrays it as a bottom-up chain of events in a temporal succession, as if the effect was somehow embedded in the preceding sequence of causes, just waiting to be released, as if nature already contains a rudimentary consciousness – otherwise, logically, where else might it come from?  (Changing things, Pub. Aug 25, 2018)

So, as things change, we find that not everything is explicable ‘naturally’, unless we are prepared to broaden our definition of nature.  But do we know what we are doing?  (Tooth fairiesPub. Jan 8, 2016)

How does a knowledge of the universe emerge from facts that know nothing in themselves?  (Tweet: Pub Aug 9, 2018)

Does the idea of a universe that remains devoid of thoughts and intentions do justice to the facts?  (Tweet: Pub. Jan 21, 2018)

What is the presence of mind that enables us to look out upon reality and see ourselves there?  (Demonstrating the transcendent. Pub. April 13, 2018)

Is reality a plurality of realities?  (The way things are.  Pub. Mar 9, 2016)

Are we inside nature looking out, or outside nature looking in, and what does the idea of an outside amount to?  (Tweet: Pub. Feb 8, 2016)

Is reality actually a hologram – a projection of something else which ends at the beginning? (Tweet: Pub. May 27, 2018)

How is it that some things are impossible for nature even though they become possible only through nature?  (Tweet: Pub. Feb 24, 2018)

What makes us believe that possibility becomes explicable by observing its incidence?  What makes us believe that life would be explicable if only we could observe the transition from the non-living to the living?  (The Pinocchio factor.  Pub. May 2, 2018)

Is a living being really like a Pinocchio waiting to be fashioned out of the raw materials?   (Tweet: Pub. May 2, 2018)

What is the arena in which the brain appears ‘before us’ as a cause of observation?  (Private correspondence)

As if we could ever be satisfied by the knowledge that the mind is really a thing, namely the brain, which does the asking then provides the answer.  (In sight of the supranatural: Part 4 – Beyond ourselves.  Pub. March 26, 2018)

But where in nature do we find the ‘thingness’ of intention and awareness except as resonant features of our beliefs, theories and ideas?  (Standing stones.  Pub. Sept 11, 2017)

Doesn’t a sentient presence add a new dimension to reality – so that, even as consciousness remains embedded in the physical world, it also occupies a mental space of unprecedented possibilities?  (Demonstrating the transcendent. Pub. April 13, 2018)

Question: “Seriously, what is the transcendent?”

Answer:  “The transcendent is instantiated by any effect that differs from its cause, nor is this fact explained by observing the evolution that ensues.”  (Private correspondence)

Can everything be traced back to a first cause – if not do we have to rewrite all the theories and theologies? (Tweet: Pub. Aug 25, 2018)

Does nature give us a heart or do we give a heart to nature?  (HeartstringsPub. Sept 15, 2016)

What if the self – the recognisable continuum of our being – is but a psychological device for creating a recognisable continuum?  (Tweet: Pub. Jul 23, 2018)

Does the brain work like the world works – apart from us?  (Tweet: Pub. Jul 3, 2018)

Do intelligent genes explain intelligence? (Tweet: Pub. June 12, 2018)

Does the prowess of AI prove that an intellectual initiative is just a mechanical response in disguise?  (Tweet: Pub Jun 20, 2018)

Then, in some distantly future world populated by intelligent machines, might they be left to wonder how their components came together in an act of creation?  (Could Artificial Intelligence supersede us and spell the end of the human race? Pub. Dec 5, 2014)

If the universe is defined by the laws of physics, does it mean that the mind is really a material state that thinks it is something else and consciousness makes no difference?

Is the ‘objective truth’ a diversion with facts appointed to be the only truth?

Must God exist in the way we believe in order for us to make sense of existence – and if not, does it prove that God doesn’t exist?

Are belief and disbelief two sides of the same coin – squandered upon the vain circumspections of our presumptions to categorise the truth?  (Countenances (edit).  Pub. July 23, 2018)

Have we discovered or invented the truth-so-far about the origins of everything? (Tweet: Pub. Nov 6, 2018)

If all our questions could be answered would there be no remaining unknowns, would reason have finally conquered paradox?

Mike Laidler

Once upon a time

What gives us the idea that there must be ‘a beginning’ that is the beginning of everything – that everything had an absolute beginning ‘once upon a time’?  Isn’t it patently obvious that beginnings are context-specific?  Then are we thinking of some kind of generalised capacity or potential for things ‘to be’– a pre-universe which we understand in the context of what ‘comes to be’ by supposing some kind of cause that pre-exists everything else?  But that opens up the idea of another kind of causality in another kind of reality.  The problem is that we can’t reconcile our idea of everything ‘as caused’ with the existence of a preceding uncaused cause.  It would seem that existence as a whole is bigger than all the causes we can place ‘in existence’.  Also, ideas about the cause of the universe amount to theories that go beyond the empirical evidence.  And doesn’t our capacity for contemplating the nature of existence necessitate the existence of a thinker in addition to the natural causes under consideration – suggesting a nascent context of a different order?  Or do we think that nothing really changes – that an unchanging core of existence explains all: that all things are really one thing, that nature contains the blueprint of itself, in itself, for itself – because the potential was ‘there’ all along?

Is a definitive cause an explanatory myth?  Could ‘once upon a time’ be the stuff of a scientific fairy tale in which everything is explicable in terms of a singular beginning as something else?  Doesn’t the reality of change reveal a succession of beginnings that are distinguishable by their specific differences from the way things were?  Or is our perception of change an illusion?  Some say that the universe was already alive in its primordial state, so that when primitive life ‘appeared’ and subsequently evolved it was really nothing new.  And does the evidence not show that life equates to the material properties of a pre-existing nature, therefore it isn’t all that different after all?  But why then would we contemplate the event of life as a special case, possibly with its own unique beginning on this planet, if we are of the mind that everything shares a universal beginning in the same fundamental properties?  Perhaps there is more to existence than our linear logic can make of it in retrospect, in thinking from effect to cause?  Alternatively, the observable divergences and convergences could be joint aspects of a non-linear continuity that encompasses life, us and everything else – so it is no co-incidence that ‘the beginning of everything’ remains as problematical today for the scientific mind as it was for the ancients – because origins aren’t everything.

Mike Laidler


Ghosts of the past and future

It is said that where there is a will there is a way, but where does the will get us without a way?  That is, how can ‘the will’ make a real difference in a universe where matter is seen to be more real than morality – in which the future is not an open book or the past a closed chapter?  Then what can be so special about our lives in ‘the now’ to make the present seem more real than the past and future?  It would seem that we judge reality, including ourselves, on the basis of appearances in a universe that changes around the unchanging.  And in our lives the past can be seen to be more real than the future inasmuch as we know it existed.  Indeed, spectres of the past can be seen to haunt the present in a sea of consequences.  But where might it all lead?

In our rationalised reality of the present, in a universe that doesn’t need a moral compass, there are no benevolent or malevolent states of nature and no errant influences emanating from an insidious past.  Be that as it may, our descendants might not look kindly upon the decadence of our selfish consumerism, especially if they have to live with its crippling legacies manifesting in forms of environmental or economic collapse.  Then might the spectre of the future be beckoning us now, to indulge less, not more, for the sake of the unborn?  Or do we suppose that science will somehow cure our blindness and save humanity from its excesses?  Meanwhile, Nobel prizes continue to be dished out to economists who extol the virtues of macro-economic growth as the mainstay of our wealth which, so it is believed, can also pass on and consequently ameliorate our debt to posterity.

Mike Laidler


Magical thinking

Facts are never simply ‘the facts’, except that’s how we prefer to picture them.  Indeed, ‘the world of facts’ becomes an extension of our selective perceptions, referred to as ‘the evidence’, in a reality framed by our recognitions and understandings.  And even though reality is constantly slapping us in the face, the ‘objective facts’, so-called, can neither tell us what to think nor show us how to draw conclusions.  That’s because ‘the truth’ is a product of our thinking in a parallel universe – in which the idea is fundamental.  To that extent, all thinking is magical thinking.  Even in the hard core sciences, thoughts about ‘the way things are’ rely upon ideas that are developed into theories and supported by beliefs as they get pitched against rival interpretations.  So whether we happen to believe or disbelieve, we are utilising beliefs.  But there is one thing for sure: the manner of our beliefs and the contents of our theories continue to change whilst, lo and behold, the facts continue to pour in.

Mike Laidler