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Neither science nor human consciousness in general can legitimately claim a “view from nowhere”—a perspective that transcends all perspectives.
Writing of Kant, Hilary Putnam says: “What we can know… is never the thing in itself, but always the thing as represented. And the representation is never a mere copy; it always is a joint product of our interaction with the external world and the active powers of the mind. The world as we know it bears the stamp of our own conceptual activity” [H. Putnam Realism With a Human Face Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 1990,p. 261, quoted in Walter J. Freeman and Rafael Núñez “Restoring to Cognition the Forgotten Primacy of Action, Intention and Emotion”].
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The whole thing chases its own tail!
The quandary is not only philosophical, but reappears scientifically in quantum phenomena that must be distinguished according to whether they are found or made in the course of the experiment. Detectors can involve “creation effects” insofar as the position of a particle is made definite by the experiment itself. Cf. Diederick Aerts “The Entity and Modern Physics” in Castellani, p239-40. Cf. also Ravi V. Gomatam “Quantum Theory and the Observation Problem” 1999, sec.vii: “The claim of Bohr seems to be that without actually setting the detectors in place physically, we cannot even define what property is being measured for the quantum object, and as soon as we consummate the relation by an actual laboratory observation, the property is asserted to exist. Thus, the experimental arrangement seems to both create the context necessary for speaking of a property of the object in real terms, and to measure the property.”
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…everything that enters consciousness is a function of two “variables”: subject and object.
This makes ‘experience’ the dependent variable, a function of subject and object, e=f(s,o). Note, however, that the “equation” works even with ‘subject’ or ‘object’ as the dependent variable, s=f(e,o) or o=f(e,s). Of course, this Equation is unavoidably paradoxical, in that it purports to isolate factors that it claims can never be separated.
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…all cognitive activity is inevitably a function of both subject and object together.
Cf. Einstein: “We represent the sense-impressions as conditioned by an ‘objective’ and by a ‘subjective’ factor. For this conceptual distinction there also is no logical-philosophical justification. But if we reject it, we cannot escape solipsism. It is also the presupposition of every kind of physical thinking.” [A. Einstein in Paul A. Schilpp, ed., Albert Einstein, Philosopher Scientist vol2, p673, Harper torchbooks 1949/1951]
In calling it the Equation of Experience, I implicitly refer to the conscious experience of human beings, as creatures with a first-person point of view. It could as well be called the Equation of Cognition, for it applies as well to all cognizing systems, when viewed behaviorally or third-personally.
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…mind (even artificial mind) that is not a physically embodied product…
I do not dispute that machine-based true artificial intelligence could be conscious; but it would have to be “embodied” as the product of an evolutionary contest. Like the intelligence of natural organisms, a non-trivial AI must be based in priorities that cannot be programmed into it from the outside or from the top down. By the same token, I do dispute the notion that human consciousness can be uploaded into a computer, so that the human self can live in a disembodied state.
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…quantum properties implicate the role of the observer as well.
Bohr understood that observation of quantum detection events is a product conjointly of observer and observed, which cannot be separated in the quantum realm by the same conventions as in the classical realm. Quantum properties cannot inhere strictly in the objects concerned, as they do in classical realism. [Niels Bohr Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature Cambridge UP 1934/1961, p54: “Now, the quantum postulate implies that any observation of atomic phenomena will involve an interaction with the agency of observation not to be neglected. Accordingly, an independent reality in the ordinary physical sense can neither be ascribed to the phenomena nor to the agencies of observation.”]
Accordingly, there are as many interpretations of Heisenberg’s uncertainty relations, for example, as of quantum theory as a whole. On one interpretation, the “uncertainty” is epistemological, pertaining to a limit on usable knowledge. On another, properties of micro systems are inherently indeterminate (an ontological interpretation). On a third, uncertainty is a statistical scatter reflecting real fluctuations, which might be either truly random or else deterministically chaotic. A fourth interpretation has uncertainty introduced by the measuring apparatus or the act of measurement. [David Wick The Infamous Boundary: seven decades of heresy in quantum physics Springer-Verlag 1995, p153-56: “The main function of Heisenberg’s laws, like Bohr’s complementarity interpretation, is psychological: it lets one stop worrying that the real picture has been missed.”]
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This circumstance of scale is an incidental fact of the world we live in, to which we have adapted with an appropriate stance we call realism.
Max Jammer makes the point that the human eye and ear (the distance senses) are far more sensitive to energy differences than the sense of touch is to mass differences: “The human sensory apparatus is thus 1032 times more sensitive to energy perceptions than it is to mass perceptions… If this ratio were of the order of unity… the identity of mass and energy would have been an obvious fact of experience. The human eye, perceiving light from the sun, would then also feel the impact of photons.” [Jammer Concepts of Mass, p190] In such a world there would be no perceptible difference between objects and the light that illuminates them.
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It is an expectation…which is not realism at all, but an idealism that assumes an impossible omniscience.
Apart from their philosophical differences, Einstein and Bohr clearly both understood that the crucial difference between the classical and the quantum realms involves what is now called entanglement. This refers, not to the inseparability of subject and object, but to the indivisibility of what must be considered integral systems. Cf. Don Howard [“Revisiting the Einstein-Bohr Dialogue” 2009]: “Bohr embraced entanglement, seeing in it the roots of complementarity. Einstein rejected entanglement as incompatible with the principle of the spatial separability of systems, a principle that he thought not only a necessary feature of any field theory like general relativity but also a necessary condition for the very intelligibility of science. Everything else is derivative, including Bohr’s defense of complementarity and Einstein’s charge of the incompleteness of quantum mechanics, a charge unsustainable without the assumption of what Einstein termed the ‘separation principle’.” The question remains: what role does the observer play in this inseparability—indeed, in the very conception of space and of distinct objects? Kant placed space on the subject side, where Hume had placed causality: space is not another entity in the world, not itself perceptible, but a mode of perception—a cognitive act to make sense of sensation. As such, space is less a topic for physical than for cognitive inquiry. Modern physics, in contrast, seems to place both space and causality on the object side.
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He applied the latest anatomical knowledge to ancient skepticism…
Descartes attempts to demonstrate that material bodies have in themselves no qualities but geometrical ones (extension, number, shape, size, motion, etc). This excludes odor and color, for example, on the ground that no secure relationship can be established between these as sensations and as attributes of external things. He believes this ambiguity contrasts with the status of “primary” qualities, which he considers obvious and God-given. Significantly, he intends to find a philosophical high ground, secure against skeptical doubt concerning the testimony of the senses. For this he turns chiefly to mathematics and other notions reliable because divinely implanted in the mind. Later thinkers would interpret that reliability as a result of genetic determination, so that the very quality of apparent self-evidence bears an evolutionary significance.
Evidently, other doubts had occurred to him as well—dangerous in the time of the Inquisition. With lip service to Church dogma, he restricts his arguments to sensation, the meaning of which could be safely questioned following a venerable tradition. Descartes’ famous skepticism aptly reflects the existential anxieties of the day, for decimations of war and plague had followed a mini Ice Age in Europe. Such events would have seriously challenged faith in divine benevolence, even suggesting a reign of evil. The Church responded to such doubts with its version of malevolence: the Inquisition. What one believed was a matter of consequence.
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Still, he argued…one could not doubt its occurrence.
From this Descartes drew the dubious conclusion that one cannot doubt one’s existence as a conscious subject. His cogito ergo sum would more logically have read: cogito ergo cogitationes sunt. Strictly speaking, one is no more (or less) entitled to infer the existence of a self from experience than one is entitled to infer the existence of an external world. Much less is one entitled to conclude that God must exist in order to guarantee, through his goodness, that systemic deception is unthinkable!
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…a function of consciousness that establishes a major freedom of the self.
The psychological unity of the conscious subject arises in the process of unifying changing appearances as stable objects. As Piaget noted, self emerges with world in the developing consciousness. However, the integration of the self also happens through a process opposing the psychological integration of objects. Bracketing—which flexes the cognitive muscles of the self—involves a kind of controlled deconstruction of experiential objects. This ‘phenomenological reduction’, as Husserl calls it, is a dialectical process, yielding a higher integration of appearances (for example, in scientific constructs), and hopefully a more adequate representation of the world, which is ultimately measured by its survival value.
Husserl seeks in experience only the basis for an alternative standpoint: “If I do this, as I am fully free to do, I do not then deny this ‘world’, as though I were a sophist, I do not doubt that it is there as though I were a sceptic…” [Husserl Ideas 1913, 1931 Collier Books 1962, p100, his italics]
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Bracketing some aspect of experience… involves a suspension of belief.
People have exercised this ability for as long as there has been reflexive consciousness, and Husserl simply formalizes a normal ability in order to better study it. He claims phenomenology as a new science, but this claim is a bit excessive, since it simply appropriates a natural ability as a philosophical discovery. [Ideas ibid p103] The “phenomenological world” he claims to have discovered was hardly unknown to the ancient Vedic culture, for example, nor to the European man in the street in early twentieth century, who may have lacked a handy name for it. On the other hand, there has been a progressive deepening of subjectivity throughout history. Husserl’s formalization marks a new point in this progression, and attempts to redress the ongoing rejection of subjectivity in the sciences. It questions the natural standpoint as an axiom of scientific method.
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Properly, such “skeptical” positions reflect the need to question the role and status of specific scientific concepts in particular contexts and to focus on the procedures involved in creating such knowledge.
Positivism is an essentially conservative and skeptical approach—sometimes too stubbornly so. Some thinkers doubted the Copernican system even as late as the close of the 17th century, largely because of the unsettled question of stellar parallax [Allen G. Debus Man and Nature in the Renaissance Cambridge UP 1978, p99], while the majority of scientists ignored this glaring obstacle to the heliocentric theory. Mach continued to doubt the reality of atoms well into the 20th century.
Berkeley and Hume were early positivists. Berkeley rejected the notion of forces inhering in things, in favor of kinematic descriptions: “…neither can we know or measure [forces] otherwise than by their effects, that is to say, the motions… But what is said of forces residing in bodies, whether attracting or repelling, is to be regarded only as a mathematical hypothesis, and not as anything that really exists in nature.” [George Berkeley Works vol3, quoted in Max Jammer Concepts of Force Harvard UP 1957, p207] Similarly, Hume rejected the notion of causes inhering in things, in favor of perceived temporal sequence. Contributing to Hume’s generalization concerning causality, Berkeley holds that force is a construct of physics that should not be mistaken for metaphysical causality. For him, cause is a characteristic of agency; since matter itself is inert and passive, the only possible agents are spiritual or non-material. Berkeley’s positivism is entwined with his religious idealism.
Perhaps a modern day example that invites applying a skeptical positivist approach is the concept of “spin” of a particle, which should not be taken too literally for two reasons. First, it cannot be directly observed, but only inferred from experiments (e.g. Stern-Gerlach). Secondly, such experiments do not necessarily detect an already existing property but may in fact create it, by putting the particle in a definite state.
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This does not imply that things have no intrinsic reality or real properties…
We know that perception involves integrating and synthesizing continually changing sensory information. A perceptual object is a stable configuration emerging in consciousness from the flux of moment-to-moment sensation. Similarly, the scientific object emerges from experimental data, under the guidance of theory and invariance principles. Like the perceptual object, the constructed scientific object can sometimes advantageously be deconstructed to make explicit the logic, data, and operations that led to its inference. Sometimes this leads in turn to a grander synthesis. General Relativity, for example, represents a grand integration and re-assertion of objective reality, which had been “deconstructed” in Special Relativity, when Einstein was more under the influence of positivism.
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…two great themata were in contest… at the turn of the twentieth century.
Ernst Mach represented an extreme of one view, that “nothing is real except the perceptions.” Max Planck represented the opposing view, that science should seek “the complete liberation of the physical picture” from perception. (Both quoted in Holton Thematic Origins, p245.) Here is what Holton himself has to say: “Phenomenalistic positivism… is the necessary sword for destroying old error, but it makes an inadequate plowshare for cultivating a new harvest.” [p258] Nevertheless, realism and positivism are relative stances. Planck’s realism did not prevent him being skeptical concerning the reality of Einstein’s photons.
Einstein’s later thought mirrored Planck’s more than Mach’s, and continues to influence theoretical physics today. Mach held that patterns of sensations are the sole testimony concerning the external world, and that there was no need to assume an unknown hidden reality behind them. However, “sense data” are not irreducible elements of a phenomenal world, presented raw to the mind, but sophisticated products of mental bracketing. What appears given in sensory experience is already a construction, with no more claim to be fundamental than the theoretical constructs of physics that are supposed to correspond to external reality. Similarly, data from instruments is already theory-laden. Nevertheless, Mach had a significant influence on the physicists of his day, not least on the youthful Einstein, who translated “sensations” as physical “events,” consisting in the observed coincidence of frames of reference. Events so conceived invoke a conscious agent to observe them, but only in the context of the physical circumstances involved in observation.
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Physical properties… inhere more in the thing or in the relation.
The alchemists thought of weight as a quality like color, in the sense that it was detachable from an underlying substrate that carried qualities. Therefore, they didn’t believe that an increase of weight necessarily implied an increase of matter. Conversely, the development of a proper concept of mass contributed to the downfall of alchemy and the rise of modern chemistry. [Max Jammer Concepts of Mass in Classical and Modern Physics Dover 1961/1997, p75]
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The scientific disenchantment of the world…confining the “show” of experience to the interior of the skull.
See E.A. Burtt (historian of science) quoted in Gerald Holton EHP, p52: “The world that people had thought themselves living in—a world rich with color and sound, redolent with fragrance, filled with gladness, love, and beauty… was crowded into minute corners in the brains of scattered organic beings. The really important world outside was a world hard, cold, colorless, silent, and dead…”
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But if tables and chairs behaved according to quantum rules, we might be less inclined to perceive them as solid or real.
Even properties like solidity historically enjoyed an ambivalent status as either phenomenal or objective. Geometrically, ‘solid’ is defined in terms of extension, usually considered a visual quality. Some early Greeks thought of matter simply as that which takes up space. The Arabic maddah means ‘extended, with dimension’, clearly a geometric or phenomenal sense of matter. In contrast, Latin massa, Spanish masa, Greek maza, and Hebrew mazza are words relating to the modern term mass, all referring to bread or (a lump of) dough, and strongly suggesting substance. The Stoics maintained that matter is more than mathematical extension, physics more than geometry.
Magnitude and shape were once considered forms (qualities) that could be imposed on substance, but not properties of the substance itself. [Max Jammer Concepts of Mass in Classical and Modern Physics Dover 1961/1997, p23-4]. Modern physics also considers the quantification of matter to be somewhat like the imposition of Aristotelian form. It involves a non-negligible interaction of a measuring system with the system measured, and is relative to the observer’s motion, so that mass and other physical quantities are relational, not intrinsic properties. In contrast, in Newtonian physics the influence of the measuring system was negligibly small, permitting the illusion that properties could be non-relational. Kepler had still thought of motion as a quality, property, or state residing in the thing, rather than as a relationship to other things. (Hence, he cannot be credited as the originator of the modern concept of inertia, because that would have required a view of rest and motion as dynamically equivalent, though in relation to different reference frames.) [Jammer ibid, p57].
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…there must be criteria to distinguish patterns that correspond to real structures…
From a point of view that considers everything as pattern, the only basis for such discrimination is the empirical data. [James W. McAllister “What do patterns in empirical data tell us about the structure of the world?” Synthese (2011) 182:73–87] This assumes from the outset that there is no referent outside the data set—no “reality” to guide the distinction. However, the evolution of perceptual systems involves interaction with the external world, just as day-to-day experience does. What we select as meaningful patterns (sometimes configured as objects) is obviously guided by feedback from the real world. In the case of scientific data selection, predictive value guides interpretation of data sets.
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Invariance plays the role in science that perceptual constancy does in ordinary experience.
Cf. Max Born, [in Castellani, ed., Interpreting Bodies, p165-6]: “Invariants are the concepts of which science speaks in the same way as ordinary language speaks of ‘things’, and which it provides with names as if they were ordinary things.” This ability to recognize gestalts of experience is a double-edged sword, both in ordinary cognition and in science. For example, the mind may be overanxious to generalize or recognize types, wrongly dismissing details and exceptions that might lead to deeper patterns or laws, or that might bear significance not yet understood.
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Though we may imagine electrons as universally identical ideal objects (like billiard balls), there is no corresponding way to inspect and compare them as individuals.
Born was concerned to uphold the physical reality of microscopic entities in nature. [Max Born “Physical Reality” 1953, Philosophical Quarterly 3 (1953) p139-49] In defending the reality of molecules, he gives the example of a bullet fired from a gun. Although it cannot be seen, no one doubts the reality of the bullet as it moves through the air at supersonic speed. However, the examples of bullets and gadgets, which he holds up as paradigm objects, are precisely not natural things but artifacts. Born contrasts machines with the fundamental concepts of physics, but from an abstract point of view they are of the same kind, in contrast to natural things.
If the objective existence of definite things in nature is questionable, how much more tenuous is the existence of natural kinds of things? Essentialism holds that natural kinds exist independent of human classification. Another position is that such divisions cannot be considered apart from human thought, and that there is no unique classification scheme that corresponds to natural kinds. These views are complementary more than contradictory. While natural divisions and structures may objectively exist, there is no guarantee that human concepts represent them uniquely or exhaustively, or adequately fulfill their intended purposes. For example, chemical elements as we presently conceive them certainly represent real kinds; yet, they may not be the last word. Chemical elements gloss over finer distinctions such as isotopes. While the periodic table is not likely to be overthrown, the concept of element has changed over time and may continue to evolve. At one time, the elements were fire, air, earth, and water!
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…rather than the evident, tangible, material presence of nature.
This transition has a gender dimension, since women had held a key place in the perceived natural order through their procreative role. Abstraction is thus associated with patriarchy, in which men became the key players in defining reality.
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A characteristic of Greek…the verb to be serves multiple functions…
In English, it usually indicates predication (‘the tree is green’) or identity (‘one plus one is two’). But it can also mean existence (as in ‘to be or not to be’). Since use of this verb also carries with it an unconscious association with existence, predication suggests existence and not merely a given speaker’s arbitrary assertion. ‘The tree is green’ suggests a real state of affairs as opposed to a mere perception, opinion, or statement (whose truth is not to be taken for granted). The tree’s very existence is insinuated merely by asserting that it “is” green, whether the tree actually exists or not. Cf. Cassirer: “Even the copula of judgment, even the ‘is’ of the purely predicative sentence, was seen [through the influence of the Greek language] to be thus permeated by intuitive content; logical ‘being’ and ‘being so’ [existence and essence] could only be expressed through transposition into some kind of intuitive existence.” [Ernst Cassirer The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms Vol 3: the Phenomenology of Knowledge Yale UP 1955/1980, p333]
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…the general tendency of thought to reify… making verbs into nouns, so to speak.
P.W. Bridgman gives the examples, in physical thought, of the tendency to think of energy as a thing, and to speak of its “flux.”