Crown of reason
Pride of purpose
Eye of conscience
Premise of truth.
A voice within the void.
Moral of the tale
Meaning in being
The ‘is and isn’t’
of science’s ‘all’.
Crown of reason
Pride of purpose
Eye of conscience
Premise of truth.
A voice within the void.
Moral of the tale
Meaning in being
The ‘is and isn’t’
of science’s ‘all’.
Android: Hello, would you like to be my friend?
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’.
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?
Is explanation the final factual frontier? When we come round to thinking that something ‘requires’ an explanation we base the project on our idea about what might count as such. But once we assume that we have our explanation we are inclined to forget that the idea of it is grounded in the hypothetical. Consequently, we move away from the fact that we are relying upon assumption by assuming that we are not, because the fact is now ‘explained’. And without doubt, the prevailing assumption of our scientific age is that ‘hard facts’ provide the real explanations – that causal explanations rationalise those facts and a joined-up knowledge puts things in their place – with scientific proofs standing at the summit of the known. In other words, we assume that a real knowledge of the world seeks to explain it and anything ‘known’ in the absence of an explanation is inferior and incomplete. It follows logically that our knowledge of ourselves, reality, life, the universe and indeed existence in general, must remain incomplete until we find the ‘final’ explanation? But in what way might we expect it to finalise things?
Despite all our scientific advances and achievements we still can’t account for the ‘isness’ of being. Then how do we explain ourselves? All we can do is refer one state of being to another – so life is basically chemistry and everything is bound up with comings and goings that symbolise the impermanence of the ‘power to be’ within the overwhelming embrace of the ‘law of entropy’. However this generalisation is more apparent than real and its logical premise merely adds to the confusion. Confused means ‘fused with’ – for instance, the logic of explanation equates the mind to the brain as if their entirely different states of being are scientifically and, by implication, factually irrelevant. This resembles the premise of the now defunct ‘hylozoism’ hypothesis: that life is an intrinsic property of matter since there is nowhere else for it to be. Undaunted, science remains bent on explaining everything into-existence from some primal state – certified as the original cause of any change. But when the child asks about life and death – that is, really asks – we find ourselves juggling with these conceptual confusions – hoping that our bodies and brains might hold the ‘material’ answers, somewhere.
It is said that ‘time and tide wait for no man’. Then what is the extent of our reputed ‘God-given’ dominion over and ethical responsibility for the planet? Do we actually know? For decades it was largely thought that the facts on climate change were ambiguous and independent of human activity. There is still ambiguity – because that is the nature of the facts. And what is reason’s purview when so much of perception is tied to the image of what we want to see? Indeed, despite the growing consensus that something needs to be done, plus the acknowledgement that actions speak louder than words, the notion of ‘necessary and sufficient action’ still remains a source of controversy. Nevertheless, it is possible to cut through all the ideation and procrastination to test the true sentiment behind our stated wish to do something – bearing in mind that there is no scope for ‘doing a deal’ or reaching a compromise with the forces of nature. In reality, climate change may be a symptom of a bigger problem and it is not nature that needs to be fixed.
Doesn’t ‘globalism’ mean that China’s emissions are also our emissions? What if the time for making comparisons and apportioning blame is over? Even the checked advance of climate change could mean that the ordinary and the everyday are destined to become the exceptional and occasional. Or is it just a matter of hanging on until science and technology find the solution? But isn’t our predicament also due to our insatiable desire for more technology? Perhaps we need to be honest with ourselves. If we are to be serious about climate change and its threat to civilisation, then is it not time to re-evaluate the social and economic priorities of the ‘good life’ with its rude incarnations in our vain and excessive indulgences in wasteful luxury and lazy convenience? If we can’t rise to that challenge and begin to moderate our extravagances right now then all other measures, adjustments and innovations could be compromised. This problem beggars the imagination and demands a radical redefinition of our civil responsibilities. Something needs to be done, but it may be the one thing that we can’t expect the authorities to do for us?
‘Philosophy Alive’ examines the relationship between our thinking and the facts. This involves questioning our assumptions about what the facts mean. For instance, if climate change poses an immanent threat of global disaster, then there is no doubt that we will need to take urgent and drastic action. Some critics might point out that the ‘Armageddon scenario’ is still hypothetical, even in the long term, but there is a double consideration here – if the potential consequences are so daunting then we can’t afford to play ‘Russian roulette’ with the lives of our children, so to be pragmatic, we might need to treat the possibility as an inevitability and act accordingly. Then, even if science has over-estimated the impact of climate change, the error is a good thing if it acts as a spur to positive reform. Meanwhile, given that science is not infallible, let us hope that we have not already passed some unforeseen point of ‘no return’.
Extracts from “Goldilocks retold”
(first published July 11, 2016)
Once upon a time Goldilocks chanced upon a baby bear’s bowl of porridge that was just right for the eating. Sometime later, scientists took a fresh look at the fact of a universe that happened to be just right for the emergence of life, and recognised that the necessary fine tuning of the manifold preconditions, the ‘physical constants’, seems more like a contrivance than a coincidence – a conspiracy of coincidences – so named the “Goldilocks enigma” † …And though we see life as a novel possibility, it is explained as an effect of causes that subsist within existing boundaries of possibility. Yet the effect causes profound changes. It looks like non-living causes determine the mix of possible preconditions, but, ultimately, it is the potential for life that sets the limits. Furthermore, that potential remains a defiant mystery, regardless of how much we learn about the preconditions for life on earth, or indeed the preconditions for different types of life on different kinds of planet. Moreover, no amount of causal analysis explains how effects ratchet up the course of change, beginning in the observable differences between cause and effect. Indeed the paradox at the heart of existence is the pre-existence of its possibilities, despite their probable absence in certain forms at certain times – subsequently to ‘emerge’ in the times and events an observer chances upon, in the form of co-incidence called ‘reality’.
† Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? Pub. Allen Lane 2006
The demon of the pixels
According to one convention in physics, everything boils down to the presence of a fixed amount of information in the universe. Information is said to be everything because everything exists as a version of that information. And the flow of information represents the active nature of existence. Even a body at rest relative to another has an operational status. So everything exists as a form of activity with the differences between things being represented as different patterns of organisation. It means that, at a material level, we are stardust but behave differently because of its particular arrangement as us. The accepted explanation is that everything has a cause – that causes make the difference. But there is a gap in this explanation that is proving difficult to fill: How does the organisation get organised – that is, what is the cause and what enables it to organise the elements? In short, how does the stardust begin to behave differently?
Scientifically, life is describable as the form of organisation particular to the cell, but this falls short of an explanation because we “still can’t tell the fundamental difference between animate and inanimate matter – often still described as the ‘magic spark’.” ‡
So what might be the source (cause?) of this ‘magic’? Could the answer be that “hidden webs of information are solving the mystery of life”? ‡‡
Paul Davies: “Well, in spite of what you hear, I think nobody knows what life is or how it started. If you look at the level of an atom, then it’s just basic physics, but if you look at the level of a cell – well it seems like magic. It’s just amazing what life does. …We can’t even distinguish between something that was once alive and is now dead or something that’s almost alive or something that is living now. We don’t have a criterion that can do that. ….I think the secret of life lies with organised patterns of information. ….in trying to understand how information couples to matter. …how information can gain leverage over matter – and I’m convinced after thinking about this for decades that the existing laws of physics are not up to the job. We need some new laws – not only new laws, but new type of physical law in order to explain how information comes into the picture. … we need to look beyond known physics and have some new physics. …Life is not really so much about chemistry, it’s not the stuff of which we’re made, it’s the way it’s put together and the patterns of information. …and I have always felt that this informational signature is very distinctive for life on earth, and that they should be universal.”‡‡‡
However, can this “manifesto” for a new approach begin to resolve the question of how things diversify to become alive, since if life is due to “organised patterns of information” then the same basic unknowns attach to them about how they organise, stabilise or become metabolic and purposive? And what does it prove if the web patterns (qua “hidden webs”) happen to carry the ‘mysterious’ stamp’ or ‘magic spark’ of life – are we not merely recasting the same old questions into a different narrative, not knowing what makes the difference; for instance: how do the patterns bridge the difference between the ‘animate and inanimate’ or undergo the necessary transitions to feature that difference as ‘themselves’?
Consider this analogy: a densely pixelated screen is capable of reproducing any image – therefore, any image appears as a sub-set of the screen’s capacity, yet that capacity doesn’t “control or manage” what can be depicted on the physical array (“how information comes into the picture”) – something else, other than the pixels (qua elements) determines the emergent pattern, especially if it is an actively self-maintaining pattern – only, in this case, we know what that something else is (us). But even this fact remains unexplained at the level of the physical fundamentals. Indeed, the questions (gaps in explanation) begin at a much lower level than that of the emergence of life, namely: how does an essential randomness at the level of the elementary particles turn into a developmental gradient that paves the way for further organisations and events amounting to settled radical changes – firstly material states, then life?
So, although the digital image is just pixels it is also more than that – and it is this additional factor – the organised “coherence” – that isn’t explicable in terms of its diffuse elements. Likewise, life can be depicted as a self-maintaining pattern that isn’t explicable in terms of the chemical and cellular elements alone – even though it is nothing without them. Remember, we have already discovered that genes carry ‘the information of life’, though perhaps not all of it because they have not crossed ‘the divide’ – genes are agents of change, they form a ‘vital’ part of each living cell, except the DNA (the much larger organised pattern of this information) is not alive, despite being “coupled” to life, with “leverage” over it. Therefore, whether or not there are “hidden webs of information” corresponding to a nascent “lifeness”, and even if a putative “lifeness” is attributable to them, it is actually the explanation that remains hidden – and the same problem transfers to explaining the origin (organisation) of the so-called “hidden webs”. That’s because, the effect (life) behaves differently to its causes – otherwise there would be nothing to compare and no difference to explain.
In sum, does the web hypothesis contribute anything to the explanation of where the change-to-life comes from, or is it just another doomed attempt to explain one thing in terms of another? That is, does the representation of everything as a pattern of information, manifested of something else (presumably another pattern of information), make ‘the reality’ more explicable in terms of these nominal (sometimes hidden) causes – or is it just because we wantonly assume that there must be a cause to explain the phenomenon of change – so to expound the mysterious organisational principal that will plug the persisting gaps in our explanations – even when the emergent features (in this case, new patterns of information) dramatically exceed the behavioural repertoire of those causes?
‡ BBC Interviewer, Martha Kearney, introducing physicist, Professor Paul Davies (BBC’s Radio 4 ‘Today Programme’ broadcast at 08.41 on February 12, 2019)
‡‡ Professor Davies’ new book is entitled: ‘The Demon in the Machine: how hidden webs of information are solving the mystery of life’. Pub. Allen Lane 2018
‡‡‡ Quotes from Professor Paul Davies
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.