A question of knowing

What do we know?  Is it just a matter of remembering?  Does the memory do it for us?  Is it entirely a state of the brain?  What if the brain is but a staging point with its own quantitative and qualitative limits?  Whichever way we look at it we seem to arrive at a less than satisfactory definition – ‘the known’ could be tainted by its incompleteness, and how would we know?  Laying claim to our experiences doesn’t seem to get us any further forward; yet, for the sake of our sanity, we rely upon our impressions and ideas of an external reality, together with what we are told about things.

Therefore, despite its shortfalls, it seems that equating the known to an external source appears to be the most tactical way of proceeding.  However, our ability to consider this move raises a more fundamental question: is knowledge something else, something more than the facts by which we seek to measure it?  Does the act of knowing appertain to another nature beginning with an awareness which we subsequently fragment in attaching it to the things we are aware of for the time being, apparently on the outside, believing that our awareness belongs there because it has to be an ‘it’ that is like everything else?

Also, don’t we find that the more we know the more we become aware of how little we know – that factual knowledge can harbour deep uncertainties?  Even scientific knowledge advances on the basis of a constantly revisable awareness – knowing now that 99% of the universe doesn’t seem to be knowable in the same way as the 1% known as its observable dimensions.  But in order to consider what that fact means, scientists will need to do something that the facts cannot do for them – consider the meaning in the broader context of an expanding awareness which they can attach to the facts, but cannot find there.

Mike Laidler

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