Subjects and objectives

“I think therefore I am” – but in what arena of awareness do I conjure a thought as the focus of my attention?

What is the truth that changes as the facts change?  What is the logic that pitches reason against reason?  What is the belief that shows us the ‘right thing to do’?

Is truth our imaginative representation of facts that are believed to defy contradiction?

Does logic become our guide to the truth only because we have decided beforehand that the truth must be logical?

Do we see as we believe believing we see as we see?

What is this chalice we call consciousness – at once a source of all pleasure and pain?

Is a memory the same thing whether or not we are actually remembering?

What is the fact of proof – for even as life can be found to have its causes in a preceding physical reality it neither proves that cause and effect are identical nor explains the difference?

What is entropy but an event that gains no purchase without the events that have already defied it?

What is reality apart from a convergence of events, now inclusive of a point of view?

What is the cause that allows us an insight into ourselves without the fundamental distinction initiated by taking a point of view?

Is the device that responds automatically to our movements aware of us no less than we are of ourselves when blindly accepting that perception is due to the causes that trigger our responses?

What is the observation that allows us to see the order of things and our place within it?

Are theism and atheism not conventions of belief – since we either believe that God exists in the way we believe, or that there is no God because there is no evidence to match our preconceptions?

Can there be a more classical case of begging the question than presuming that existence must have a cause?

Without philosophy how would we know how little we know?

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

 

“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

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

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Countenances

Salvationist: “My wife and children are in heaven and though I believe we will meet again I can’t understand God’s purpose in leaving me here knowing that I suffer so much because of their absence.” 

Atheist: “I sympathise with your loss, but your belief that there is a divine purpose to life is preventing you from coming to terms with reality.  Even if there remains a part of you that can’t get over your bereavement and doesn’t want to forget, life requires you to carry on and move forward – to allow your wounds to heal naturally beneath their scars.” 

Apologist:  “Be careful what you wish for.  Tales of myth, magic and manipulation, from time immemorial, serve to remind us that our attempts control destiny, by fair means our foul, can invite tragedies that are far worse than any we are trying to avert.  Perhaps this is the best of all possible worlds.  And who are we to reject God for doing nothing, as if we could do better given the power to cancel all pain and suffering?”

Cosmogonist: “Take heart, it is possible that we live in a ‘multiverse’ whereby alternative, potentially infinite, versions of reality exist in parallel.  So there could be multiple versions of you existing in diverse ‘elsewheres’ – because the possibilities can take different turns at innumerable junctures.  It may be only in this ‘here and now’ that your loved ones have departed.  Yet there will be others in which you have an entirely different life and relationships, with or without children.  In some versions you are happy in others you are sad, for different reasons, whilst your beliefs and disbelief’s might be many and various.  And the message from quantum physics is: nothing is impossible.”

Scientist:  “Nature is everything – and we know what it is because it is all-inclusive.  We need to stick to the facts instead of trying to conjure scenarios that exist only in the imagination – and, therefore, don’t really exist.  One day science will explain everything; in the meantime, it has given us a life of leisure and luxury that is better and longer than anything our forebears could have dreamed of.  In addition, advances in medicine and therapy have moved forward in leaps and bounds to alleviate our suffering.”

Sage: “We are cleaved of a truth that is bigger than us and united in the being of which we are all lesser examples.  But death and decay show that everything we presume to own of life is not really ours.  Meanwhile, everything we take upon ourselves in the name of ‘the self’ encumbers us with consequences we cannot avoid.  Indeed, the claim to possession invites the spectre of loss.  Moreover, the comfort we seek from one another merely intensifies the prospect – as we subsume the question of life and death to one of gain and loss.  Yet no one else can restore you to the greater truth that you have willingly surrendered to your experiences of separation.”

Existentialist: “Belief and disbelief are two sides of the same coin – squandered upon the vain circumspections of our presumptions to categorise the truth.”

Realist: “We are obliged to live life prospectively whilst understanding it retrospectively.  Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, but our ability to acknowledge that fact enables us to adjust our expectations accordingly rather than trying to make the world fit into our preconceived ideas and ideals or conform to our summary prescriptions of right and wrong.  So we must find a balance between fact and belief that works in the present – and even if looking ‘on the bright side’ can turn out to be wrong, it may still, on balance, prove to be the most sustainable way of proceeding.”

Moralist: “Even if we can’t change our circumstances we can always change ourselves.  And though we cannot know what the future holds in store, it’s enough to know that we are doing the right thing by one another.  At the very least, we have a duty to keep trying.”

Humanist: “Human experience and rational thinking need to work towards finding a positive meaning to this life without the expectation of supernatural assistance, revealed knowledge or divine redemption.  We can waste our lives in the belief that another life awaits us.”

Psychologist: “The self that you take to be the recognisable continuum of your being is but a psychological device for creating a recognisable continuum.  Born into different circumstances you would have acquired different memories, understandings and attachments – in effect, you would function as a different person.  It is the emotional investment in a particular identity, with all its accompanying affinities and affiliations, which galvanises your mission to navigate a world of joys and sorrows as you experience the grit and glory of life through all your triumphs and tragedies.  All things considered, life is never more wonderful or daunting than when it pushes you to the limit – to actualise your latent potentials.”

Mike Laidler