Friday, June 14, 2013

When does 2 + 2 = 5?


Short and sweet. Just a tongue-in-cheek, but yet serious title:
"When does 2 + 2 = 5?"
The first answer that probably comes to mind is: Never.  The one thing we ought to be able to count on, in this world anyway, is simple arithmetic, like:
   1 + 1 = 2
   2 + 2 = 4
   3 + 3 = 6

How much easier can it get than that? ... And please don't give me any of that George Orwell* stuff.

The problem is, I wrapped up Bat Day #35 by saying this: "Subjective facts require first person consciousness to even be aware of them." We were discussing how to describe what chocolate cake tastes like in someone else's mouth. We (or I) decided that we (or you) could not actually know what that was actually like except when the chocolate cake is in our own mouth.

And worse luck: to actually know what that special 'chocolaty' taste is like in our own mouth (what Nagel calls a subjective fact inside our own head) requires first person consciousness to even be aware of that.

Here's the point: Where does that conscious awareness come from?

Well ... we are not going to solve, in this short blog piece, all the questions related to that question, like: Is consciousness a physical state or mental state? Is our mind a separate but somehow connected 'thing' which is forever, or only temporarily, associated with our physical body? (As written, that one is kind of a trick question). What exactly IS conscious awareness?

I would like to answer those questions, but not in this post, especially given that scientific, religious, psychological and philosophical experts are fiercely battling over the possible answers to those very questions. But the ONE thing each of us can seem to know, just by turning our own thoughts inward, is that we are AWARE of how chocolate cake tastes to us.

We also know that if someone showed us an MRI or other printout of our brain while we smacked down on the last bite of chocolate cake, that MRI or other printout would not show to anyone, including ourselves, how the last morsel of velvety 'chocolaty' cake tasted to us. But we not only know how it tastes, we are aware we know how it tastes.

As Yogi Berra might say:  If I wasn't aware of what I knew I couldn't know that I knew it.*  That type of awareness, I suggest, is something added onto, or into, or emerging from the physical processes of your brain as your brain experiences YOU eating chocolate cake. Without getting either scientific or religious about it (yet), it is like adding 2 + 2 and getting 5 instead of 4. It is like getting something extra in the bargain, something we didn't pay for, something that makes the whole bigger than the parts.

After giving these thoughts some thought, you might disagree with me. You might conclude this thing, this conscious awareness thing, is not really an example of 2 + 2 = 5. If so, that's perfectly okay. I am using that expression not in a strict arithmetic sense, but instead, at least partially, in a figurative sense.

Still, it seems a pretty safe bet that rocks and rivers and lightning storms do not possess anything like a conscious awareness of what, or who, they are. But we do. It is in that sense that we have something extra, contained in our minds or brains, which rocks and rivers and lightning storms do not have. For them, 2 + 2 = 4, while for us, 2 + 2 = 5. Or so it appears.

We will look at some of the other questions in later posts in this "live book".

Credits and Notes

- no author located for the black & white image used of 2 + 2 = 5
- "Colorado and Nevada assortment of three rocks on wood background", photograph by c emerson (June 2013); all rights reserved
- * George Orwell, in his book 1984 (pub.1949), used 2 + 2 = 5 (or 3) as an example of a state-directed effort to control an unthinking population: "How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four." -- "Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane." -- quoted passage taken from GoodReads at -- Here, in this post, I am using the phrase, hopefully, for the opposite effect, to show that our minds, or brains, possess something extra, the ability or capacity to direct self-reflection.
- * my reference to Yogi Berra in no way implies or is intended to suggest that Mr. Berra has read or would agree with any part of this blog post; Mr. Berra, who was three times MVP of the American Baseball League and who appeared 21 times in the World Series as either a player, manager or coach, is recognized for having the great ability to make seemingly complex paradoxes appear easy to understand; the words used in this post are not quotes, but were created entirely by c emerson; see wiki/Yogi_Berra
- this post is dedicated to a very fine lady, to whom I am related, and who has conversed with me in depth on these thought-provoking topics in the past, more to my benefit than hers; much love


Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Can experiences be objective?

"Very little work has been done on the basic question . . . whether any sense can be made of experiences' having an objective character at all."
- Thomas Nagel said that in 'What is it like to be a bat?' - The Philosophical Review (1974).

Please recall that Professor Nagel began his 1974 article by saying,
"Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable."
This famous introductory sentence would lead you to think the article would focus specifically on consciousness. But after the fourth paragraph neither the word 'conscious' nor the word 'consciousness' appear again. This is not meant as a criticism. Instead, as I point out in Bat Day #12, Nagel equates 'consciousness' with 'conscious experience', which he then equates with 'subjective character of experience', 'subjective experience', and even just 'experience' without any additional qualifiers.

The most common phrase Nagel uses, from the fourth paragraph to the end of the article is, 'subjective character of experience'. He uses that phrase, along with the phrase 'mental states', to describe what you and I would routinely think of as things happening inside our minds.

All of this is very important because what Nagel wants to do is to focus, not on consciousness directly, but instead to draw our attention to the differences between our conscious experiences, things happening inside our minds, and external events, things which we might witness as we are looking out our windows or while walking down the street. These differences are wrapped up in the definitions of objective versus subjective descriptions.

To describe an example: You may be sitting on a jury one day, and a video tape of a bank robbery is shown in which two robbers both point their guns at one of the guards, but the tape (in slow motion, if you prefer) clearly shows a muzzle flash from one gun, and not from the other. Other objective evidence gathered shows that only one bullet was fired during the robbery. Now imagine the same situation, but this time there is no video tape. Instead, six different witnesses, all of whom were at the scene, describe two entirely conflicting stories. Three claim they saw robber A fire the lone bullet, while the other three claim they saw robber B fire the lone bullet. After careful cross-examination, it appears that all six witnesses had clear views of both robbers, and none will change their testimony as to who they 'saw' pull the trigger.

The objective fact is that only one of two robbers pulled the trigger and shot the deputy, err ... the guard. Another objective fact is that six persons witnessed this event. It is also an objective fact that three of the witnesses have stated under oath robber A did it; and yet one further objective fact is that the other three witnesses stated under oath robber B did it. The subjective facts are that after six persons 'experienced' the identical external event, their six minds diverged into two different recollections or understandings of this one event. Or, as another possibility, one or more of these six persons are lying, or have something else going on inside their 'minds' that caused them to 'see' things differently.

My captioned quote from Nagel asks "whether any sense can be made of experiences' having an objective character at all." In a certain way, this is the essence of his article, as actually written. Nagel is challenging those who believe that mental states can be dissected and analyzed completely on physical grounds (like lightning). His point is: the subjective character of a mental experience cannot (yet) be described fully, if at all, in objective, video tape type terms, where all observers can 'see' the same exact things that are really going on inside another person's mental processes.

The professor does not argue that a purely physical theory of mental states is necessarily invalid.  To the contrary, he says all this "should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method — an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or the imagination . . . One might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see."

But for Nagel, "it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective." In other words, the very nature of the subjective internal character of personal experiences stands as a major, if not permanent, barrier to showing how a person's mental states could be physically produced or reproduced. This is the sense in which consciousness, which is a mental state, perhaps becomes an intractable problem for determining what our own minds actually are.

In my next post I shall take an additional look at what 'conscious experience' suggests, in relation to "Self"; that is, in relation to our earlier questions of what, who, where and when.

Image Credits

- image, Mirror Baby, comes from Wikipedia at, posted by roseoftimothywoods at (CC-2, 2007).
- image, Bank├╝berfall, comes from Wikipedia at,_Bank├╝berfall.jpg (CC-3, 1931)
- image, U.S. Navy Tug of War, Annapolis, MD, comes from Wikipedia at (Public Domain, 2005), by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Ryan Child; image cropped for height and width by c emerson