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



  1. I agree with the view expressed. I have for a very long time. Becoming more specific, I would ask if you agree with this analog.

    One cannot completely understand a prophet without experiencing in its entirety the prophets vision. By entirely i mean intelectually, emotionally, and subjectively. To do this is to become the prophet. The prophet has no need for institutional support.

    Institutional support, ALWAYS warps the vision for the benefit of the institution because it is unable to recreate the vision completely. To do so would eliminate the need for the institution.

    This is true whether it is the church teaching the paradox of the three is one trilogy or Orwell's government teaching 2+2 = 5 it is an attempt to change reality and create dependency on the institution.

    This prophet stuff is very solitary business.

  2. Interesting...I think the difference in the sum of 2+2 is...the sum of 4 if it's from the mind of a strict scientist...and maybe 5 if it's an artist's sum...especially of those who tend to stretch the imagination to the limits. :)

  3. Thnx Tx and A.M. Very salient & reflective points indeed, IMO. The archetype of a prophet would indeed seem to be solitariness, something I had not considered before. The institutions which rise afterwards ... they do seem to institutionalize ... and appear to want to fix what for the prophet was a living subjective message. That prophetic connection to subjectivetivity, which TX observed raises an interesting set of thoughts in my mind to mull over at length. Certainly helps explain both the barrier that often exists in 'seeing' and 'hearing' what a prophet 'sees' and 'hears', as well as the extraordinary diversity of opinion against which a 'tradition' is then judged, and about which the fight ensues.

    A.M.'s insight into the mind of the artist versus the 'strict' scientist, the former stretching it while the latter works to define it, is an excellent portrayal of the seemingly ever-present struggle between the arts and sciences. Plato famously struggled, even in his own mind, as to what to do with the poets, which in Ancient Greece meant the artistic bent in general to express sentiments rather than rigidify truths. This, too, deserves much thought. Thank you for your 'expressions'.

  4. I received an email from a family member suggesting perhaps I was too restrictive on what MRIs show, as modern MRIs are able to depict the specific activity of our brain's pleasure centers while eating chocolate cake. Loving it for sure, and thank you, X, for your thought-provoking email.

    The dancing and colorful lights, I think you are correct here, reveal much about what the brain is doing while thinking pleasurable thoughts - but not how the cake actually tastes, IMO. While I happen to think Nagel's notion of subjectivity (this time spelled correctly!) is too restrictive, and which I plan to discuss in a later post, I accept that there is at present some kind of barrier shielding our subjective impressions from public viewing, even with the amazing advances brought on by MRI technology. But the mere fact that an fMRI can reveal which part of our brains is reacting to which kinds of stimuli suggests perhaps even new problems for what is left of our privacy? Chocolate cake is not the only thing stimulating our minds: Further dissecting of what parts of the brain represent which type of stimuli (spoiler alert) clearly reveals that things we previously thought of as 'subjective' are, in a certain sense becoming 'objective', as you, X, pointed out. Anyone care to express more thoughts on that?

    Btw, that goes directly to the essence of Nagel's 1974 Bat paper, IMHO. I love the whole artistic imagery of bats in the belfry.

  5. I would love to see an mri of a brain at the birth of thought. The idiopathic rise of a new art form or the burst of intuitive enlightenment a cosmologist may have before the proof.

    I would compare and contrast with someone, a professor perhaps, codifying why and how.

    Of course, we would only learn if birth and description arise from the same area...still that would be interesting. At least to me.

    AM, you more or less got me on this path. I began to wonder how great the parallel between say, the FIRST cubist or surrealist and those who followed and a prophet and his followers.

    As with most things, i find i simply don't know.


  6. TxLostWolf: I never got hooked on Astrology, the oldest religion known to man, but I did delve into in to it during my religion research to find out what it's based on, and I must say, I found it fascinating.

    The Astrologers claim that our personalities are determined by the planets and stars alignment up above our heads at the moment we are born. Depending on where and when, lifelong traits are embedded...that "might" decide whether one is going to think like a scientist or more like an artist.

    I ordered my natal horoscope from a highly respected association and was fascinated how many nails they hit squarely on the head about my instincts and personality. Stands somewhat to reason that could be the reason no two brains think exactly alike. :)

  7. Another metaphor for the 'value added' that emerges from our brain processes might be:
    2+2= Beethoven symphony
    2+3 = taste of chocolate cake

    What appears to the right of the equal sign is not even of the same 'sort' as the formula on the left side. Now that's a surprising equation!

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