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The Skin of the World

A Philodendron climbs up the trunks of a Rubber tree, Ficus elastica.
Photographer: David Clode | Source: Unsplash

I am taking a step back from writing about contentious topics — authoritarian politics, climate change, approaching extinction and animal rights. Not for ever, but for a few weeks. It feels like every conversation about those topics increases the fear and anxiety of everyone in the room and tilts the scales in favor of those who traffic in fear and anxiety, i.e., the very people we should be opposing. Therefore silence until I learn how to talk about our common future with imagination.

That frees me to write about a much older problem:

Why does the tree look just so? What’s the nature of experience? Why does the world appear the way it does?

Thinking about such questions is a relief after disputations about democracy and capitalism, for they are purer questions, in both senses of that term, i.e.,

  1. Pure rather than applied in the sense of pure mathematics versus applied mathematics, so that one can consider it abstractly. A metaphysical problem.
  2. Pure rather than impure in the sense of being free of politics and therefore amenable to unbiased inquiry.

Unlike some other pure problems, this one is easy to understand. Some scientific questions take a lot of technical preparation — if you were to ask a layperson why gravity isn’t reconciled with quantum mechanics, they wouldn’t know where to begin. The nature of experience and the appearance of the world are at the other extreme of familiarity. Every single one of us has intimate acquaintance with the matter under discussion, and if you haven’t been corrupted by texts that question your basic instincts, your gut’s likely telling you:

There’s a world out there of which you’re a part; it exists whether you believe in it or not; sometimes it hits you on the head but mostly it helps you get what you want.

The world just is. We can take the world for granted. Even those who question the solidity of the world for a living — scientists, philosophers, priests and poets- still conduct their lives as if it’s just there. Even questioning the world assumes a stable reality, so we are left with this intriguing question:

How do we probe an entity that’s presupposed by the probe?

I don’t have an answer to that query and it’s not a question that can be addressed directly like a nutcracker approaching a nut. Instead, we need to circle the question like a mountain peak along a hundred different trails, picking up insights along the way and hoping that immersion in the problem enables a shift in perspective.

Which is what many have done over the centuries. In the Indic sphere, both Vedantic and Buddhist traditions pay a lot of attention to the nature of experience. Then there’s the modern philosophical school that calls itself Phenomenology with a capital P. I am inspired by bearded men East and West, but I also want to keep my distance. For one, these traditions tend to be anthropocentric while I want a method that works for Octopi as it does for people. The second is that I don’t want to be responsible for being “true” to these traditions — if a reading of some dead man is mistaken, so be it; what’s more important is whether that reading illuminates a problem we care about.

Photographer: K. Mitch Hodge | Source: Unsplash

The First Trail

Let’s start at the surface, the skin, which is both an organ and the organ. All of us have a skin. It’s the interface between the outside world and us, the spatial marker of things that are mostly me, even if some of those things are on the way out such as breath and excrement, and things that are mostly not me, even if some of those are on the way in — breath and food. Sensation also begins with the skin. Every sensory receptor we have is part of the skin. Some of these receptors are mechanical, others are photosensitive, but there’s nothing that comes into our minds that isn’t mediated by the skin.

But my skin isn’t alone in the world, for it is one surface among many. As you walk around a room, what do you perceive?

  • You see a view of the world that consists of surfaces arrayed in space.
  • You hear the vibrations of surfaces.
  • You touch the texture of surfaces.

And so on, I hope you get my point. We live in a layout of surfaces. The surfaces we perceive are not abstract geometric surfaces. These are physical surfaces, with texture and toughness. These surfaces also have solidity, which takes us towards their mass, but should be distinguished from it. From our organismic perspective, mass, temperature, shape etc don’t really exist. Those quantities are useful surrogates, but they are not really real.

The layout of the world is mediated by the skin. We don’t have access to the world except through the receptors in our skin. The topography of the world — its layout — is mapped on to the topography of the skin and then transformed.

Is the unity of the experience due to the continuity of the skin?

If so, without the skin, the world would be a bumbling buzzing confusion, but because the skin is continuous and because the different senses are naturally integrated in the skin and the registration on the skin proceeds naturally from one sense to another, we have a seed that helps integrate the world.

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Normally, we think of the brain as the mediator, the place where sensation is transformed into perception and cognition. That may be, though there are reasons to disbelieve such a simple story. But the point I am trying to make is that whatever the brain does, whether that’s information processing or just registration, is in the service of the skin. It’s the skin’s view of the world that’s important to us.

The most important consequence of the skin’s view of the world: we see the skin of the world, not its volume. It’s surfaces that matter, not the interior. No wonder we see and hear and touch surfaces while the volumes bounded by those surfaces are rather more mysterious entities. For example, looking at the person sitting across the table from me, I notice the succession of emotions fleeting across his face, but what is he really thinking? It seems as if my neighbor’s mind is hidden beneath the skin, his intentions opaque to the observer.

What if the most fundamental distinction of all was between skin and body?

Before heaven and earth, before idealism and materialism, is there a primordial distinction between skin and body? When I said earlier that our gut instinct is to trust the world out there, that trust is felt on the surface of our bodies. If I say the world is unreal and you take a stone and crack my head open with it to show how reality intrudes on my illusion, the demonstration assumes the bleeding skin is the boundary of the real interior.

Yet, all of virtual reality depends on that bleeding skin being successfully faked by the impact of a virtual stone. So what happens when that circle of trust is broken, where the skin is no longer an indicator of the underlying body? To put another way:

If “normal” reality assumes a tight link between the skin and the body, what happens when that link is severed?

And we come to a deep cut:

  1. Either the skin is separate from the body and one is no indicator of the other. I can transport myself from skin to skin without affecting the body. Or as the Buddhist might say, there’s no body at all and I am transported from one empty skin to another.
  2. Or, there’s a deep and intrinsic relationship between the skin and the body. I am trapped in one because I am trapped in the other.

Which one of the two is it?

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Too Cheap to Meter

In 1954, a commissioner of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, declared that atomic energy would make electricity too cheap to meter. In other words we were going to enter an era of such radical abundance of free energy that we would not need to pay for it at all they had no cost. We all know how that turned out. The promise of free energy was only one of the consequences of the atomic revolution. Some of the other consequences were much less appetizing. We still live under the threat of destruction and radioactive waste. As for free energy, we are still waiting. What’s the lesson of the story?

Dangers lurk underneath anything we take for granted or that promises radical abundance

What nuclear energy was for the outer world, experience is for the inner world: something we take for granted, whose depths

are yet to be plumbed and that hides several of our deepest flaws.

Experience

We take experience for granted. It’s not even too cheap to meter. Experience is ubiquitous and effortless. Every time we open our eyes we see the world in full bloom. Yet, as we know from contemplative teachings and from scientific research, our experience is conditioned by our personal, cultural and evolutionary history. Much of that history isn’t pretty.

In response to such pervasive suffering, contemplatives throughout human history have searched for insights that ends misery once and for all. Contemplatives realized that experience lies at the heart of suffering; in fact, the study of the human condition is nothing but the study of the conditions that underlie human experience.

More recently, scientists have also started inquiring into the human condition. Their approach is — by it’s very nature — factual. Can we bring the ethical concerns of the contemplative together with the methods of the scientist? Quantemplation is an attempt to do so: it’s an exploration of the causes and conditions that underlie human experience. In doing so, we should be sensitive to three strands that contribute to our tapestry:

  • The contemplative traditions that inquire into the nature of human suffering.
  • Scientific research into the biological underpinnings of human experience.
  • Technological tools that help us probe human experience in the first, second and in the third person.

Is and Ought

Human experiences are elusive; like the proverbial elephant, they appear differently to different seekers. To the scientist, experiences are like rocks. They can be studied like one studies other facts. Why is that rose red? why is the sky blue?

At the same time, experiences carry a moral charge. All experiences have a value laden character. They are either pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad and any experience could be better or worse tomorrow than it is now. I might experience tooth pain in my molars and at the same time, I may wish that it goes away. The first comes under the rubric of the way things are and the second comes under the rubric of the way things ought to be. This combination of is and ought is one of the most interesting things about experience which means that it can never be studied by science alone or by a moral tradition alone.

In other words we have to be practitioners of the Dharma and experiment rigorously with our own experience.

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Consciousness Unexplained

Academic work, like any other human activity, is dependent on constant practice. Writing routines are hard to re-establish once they are broken. If you go away to a conference for a week, the momentum that has been built up before that period disappears and is replaced by its opposite, i.e., an aversion to putting thoughts to paper. You could say that this is a psychological law of inertia, i.e., you are likely to keep doing things the way you did in the past few days and so if your routine gets upended for some external reason, its going to percolate into your life even when the intrusion disappears. I guess that explains why privacy is important for any kind of creative work because constant intrusions can upset your inertial state even when the offending person goes away (as opposed to self driven interactions with peers, where you are no longer in the work frame, so its not seen in your subconscious as an intrusion at all).
Anyway, this psychological law of inertial is not what this post is about. I have been thinking about what is called the “hard problem of consciousness”. By the hard problem, philosophers and cognitive scientists mean at least two different things:

(a) Why is it that there is anything like the qualitative aspect of an experience such as the enticing red of a local New England apple picked in September that burst with flavour when bitten and

(b) The uniquely subjective, “first person” character consciousness where supposedly you cannot tell whether I am having the experience of a red apple or a blue mango even if we are seeing the same object.

What seems really strange is that the subjective first person character of an experience of biting into an apple can be studied and even understood from an objective scientific point of view. Indeed, if I was running a apple orchard, I could test my apples for some combination of chemicals that increase their perceived taste and hybridize tastier varieties even if I didn’t have a taste bud on my tongue.

In other words, objective quantities can be reliable signatures of subjective experiences. Modern economies depend (in fact, enforce) on our signatures on dotted lines standing for our commitment to various actions. Here is where the problem of consciousness really comes in: On the one hand, these signatures stand for our presence, but on the other hand they are not really us. Nobody would confuse you for your signature on a cheque, but in some sense, that signature is also you, as far as the domain of commerce is concerned. So, is the cheque part of you or not?

We seem to have varying intuitions when it come to collapsing the distinction between signatures and the things that the signatures represent. Turing, in his famous Turing test for intelligence argued that the signature is the thing itself when it comes to intelligence. According to the Turing test, a computer that cannot be distinguished from a human being as far as verbal behaviour is concerned is as intelligent as a human being, i.e., the signature of intelligence is the same as intelligence itself.

The same puzzle can be seen in our intuitions about the relationship between minds and our brains: if brain activities are reliable signatures of our mental states, then are they the same as our mental states? Or, to take another example: our facial gestures are reliable indicators of our emotional state, so should we identify facial gestures with their emotions? One can see the real quandary that arises in this case: while my feeling of joy doesn’t seem to be the same as my smile, the smile is surely part of the feeling of joy, its not just an abstract indicator of my joy.

Here is the heart of the problem of consciousness then: while objective facts, behaviours, chemical states etc are reliable indicators of our experiences, they are no more than signatures of our experience. To know a signature is to know enough about the object as far as current norms of scientific inquiry (i.e., inquiry based on the criteria of prediction and explanation) is concerned. If I know the path that the moon took last month when it revolved around the earth (the signature in this case) then I know as much as I need to in order to predict the future behaviour of the moon.

But predictive, explanatory knowledge is not enough for understanding experience. To take the emotion example again, while I can predict that you are angry by reading your facial gestures (and flee if needed), I don’t know what anger feels like to you. A real science of consciousness will not emerge until we can go beyond the current norms of scientific inquiry, which value prediction and explanation over understanding.

What would such a science look like? For one, it will have to start from something besides objective measurements (which are signatures of the things being measured after all). At the very least, we would have to record subjective and objective measurements simultaneously. In the emotion case, one would have to record both objective measurements (like the extent to which your eyebrows are raised and your lips pursed) and subjective measurements (reports of how angry or sad you feel). A real science of consciousness will take subjective and objective data as its starting point. Once it does that, both aspects of the hard problem of consciousness become amenable to investigation. Instead of asking “how come there is such a thing as the taste of an apple in a world of objective facts?” we will investigate the relationship between the objective and the subjective aspects of being an apple simultaneously. To conclude, its only our metaphysical bias towards “objectivity” that keeps us from doing scientific investigations of consciousness.

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Weekly Newsletter #5: Consciousness

My Name is Red.

I apologize in advance if this weeks email is too abstruse or technical. Consciousness is a difficult topic and there’s only so much one can do without jargon. As a famous man once said, “make things as simple as possible, not simpler.”

The Memetic Stratosphere

There are some technical ideas that draw people like flies. Quantum mechanics is one of them. Everyone from Einstein to Deepak Chopra has something to say about it. Evolution is another. Networks are a third. There was a time when logic was in a similar situation, but with Godel being dead for a while, it’s not clear if logic will have the same status in the future. On the other hand, computation is everywhere and it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and says that computation is different from what we think it to be.

When an idea reaches the memetic stratosphere, it attracts attention from cranks as well as geniuses. To a certain kind of person, these ideas are like a flame to a moth. Most people get burned when they come too close. At the same time, it’s impossible to create a lasting intellectual impression if you haven’t said something important about one of those paradigmatic concepts. That’s to say, Fields medals and Nobel prizes will come and go, but a good idea will last for ever. How’s that for a Platonic view of reality?

Consciousness

Consciousness is one of those topics that gets everyone’s heart racing. Think of the various ways in which we have used this word:

  1. Conscious Experience, i.e., what it feels to see red or blue.
  2. Unconscious experience, i.e., the Freudian account of experiences that are below the surface.
  3. Neural Correlates of Consciousness, i.e., the parts of the brain in which consciousness resides.
  4. Higher Consciousness, i.e., people who have evolved to a greater stage than the normal human being. Perhaps one day machines will attain that state more often than we will.
  5. False Consciousness, i.e., the Marxist idea of beliefs that makes you go against your class interests.
  6. Quantum Consciousness, i.e., the idea that consciousness lives at the quantum level. This one rings two memetic registers at once — quantum and consciousness, so it isn’t surprising that it draws even more attention.
  7. Krishna Consciousness. Ask your robed friend at the airport.

Suffixials and Prefixials

We could go on and on. Consciousness is like salt or pepper in food. It can go on top of any intellectual dish and draw out flavors that were missing otherwise. Consciousness is a suffixial, for it goes after the entity it’s enhancing — see all seven above. Network is also a suffixial concept; social network, media network etc. Quantum is a prefixial concept — quantum physics, quantum mechanics, quantum healing etc. If I had an infinite amount of time, I would investigate the differences between prefixial and suffixial memes, but since I don’t, I am going to mention that difference in passing and let it be.

My Name is Red

These days, people are obsessed about scientific accounts of consciousness. They want to know how something like subjective experience arose in a world of mindless matter. Philosophers and scientists are kept awake at night by a deadly question: Where in that network of neural firing patterns is my experience of red?

I find such questions strange. They assume that Humpty Dumpty has broken down and shattered into a million pieces. Some consciousness theorists look at the mess on the floor and wonder how they can put HD back together again. Others think consciousness itself is fundamental, that matter arises out consciousness. If that seems outlandish, then talk to quantum physicists, who are increasingly thinking that information comes before matter. Information based approaches to consciousness are hot these days. The new kid on the block is integrated information theory, IIT, due to Guilio Tononi and enhanced by Christof Koch. I will attempt a thorough analysis of Tononi’s ideas in a future newsletter. Meanwhile, Ngram viewer confirms that we’re living in the age of information.

The Age of Information

While scientists are hot on the chase, some wonder if consciousness can ever be understood scientifically. Phenomenologically oriented philosophers (try saying that phrase five times without stumbling!) argue that the dilemma arises only because we are adopting a naturalistic frame i.e., we are thinking like a scientists, but that’s not the only frame that’s available to us. In any case, consciousness might live at a higher level than the naturalistic frame; it’s what makes any form of framing possible. The debate is endless and I am only flagging some of the debating points this time around. For now, I am flagging consciousness as a topic that plays a starring role in my explorations. Stories, math and code are some of the others. We will cycle through the list again and again before one of us is exhausted.

This Weeks Links

  1. Let’s start with Christof Koch’s summary of Tononi’s account of integrated information theory. I was with Christof when he tried to convince the Dalai Lama that the internet is conscious. HHDL wasn’t convinced.
  2. Scott Aaronson’s take down of IIT. Scott is a quantum information theorist; I guess he isn’t interested in the combined power of quanta and consciousness.
  3. Ray Monk’s Wittgensteinian view that consciousness isn’t about science at all.

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Consciousness in the World

This post is partly a response to Sartaj’s post from a few days ago. He starts his post with a rather remarkable quote: “Colors are an artefact of perception.” This one line captures four hundred years of western investigations of the mind. One line of inquiry summarized in this quote goes as follows:

  1. If experiential states are indeed artifacts of our minds’ activities, then colour, shape, thoughts are all fundamentally subjective and not real, or at least not really real. In other words, ordinary experiences are no different from a fantasies or hallucinations.
  2. Our consciousness is inaccessible to others even in principle. Since there is nothing real “out there” about our experiences, we have no way of sharing the same experience. We can only infer the mental states of others. I can’t feel your pain; I can only infer what you feel from seeing you grimace.

An alternate line of investigation, which starts with the same assumptions about the artifactual nature of consciousness but ends up with the opposite conclusion goes as:

  1. I don’t have access to the world, only to my own experience. However, unlike 1&2 above, the accessibility of consciousness and the inaccessibility of the world leads me to conclude that experience is primary and the world secondary. In other words, “cogito ergo sum,” i.e., consciousness is the truest mark of existence.

In these schema, experience and consciousness keep shifting from one pole (consciousness is not real) to another (consciousness is the only real). I would like to contest the basic assumption though; is it possible for an entity to be truly real and also a product of the minds’ interaction with the world? Take colour: isn’t it possible that colour is real and a product of perception? The organism dependence of certain entities don’t make them less real. In terms of Gibsonian affordances, a smooth rock about two feet high and a foot in diameter is objectively sittable as far as human beings go. It is real and dependent on the potential presence of organisms like us.

Like probabilities, we can postulate both absolute and conditional existents. An absolute existent is an entity that exists independent of other entities. A conditional existent is an entity whose existence depends on the mutual existence of some other entity. Chairs and table are no less real for being conditional existences. If we take the Buddhist’s seriously, all entities are really conditional existents. A rock is no more or no less an artifact than a colour. Underlying my argument is a desire to recover a fully-fleshed world, a world that hasn’t yet been divided into primary and secondary qualities. Galileo might have had a good reason to divide qualities into primary and secondary ones for his physics. However, we are not doing Galilean physics here. The world of organisms is needlessly divided into dualisms: primary and secondary, mind and body, consciousness and matter. While we need to understand why these dualisms came to dominate out ideas about the mind, we need not take them for granted.

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