The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Forrest Landry. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is thinker, writer, and philosopher Forrest Landry. This is the second time Forrest has been on the show. He also appeared back in EP 31, where we engaged in a pretty broad survey of his thinking on various topics. Landry Forrest, good to chat with you again.
Forrest: Hello. It’s good to be here.
Jim: Yeah, great to have you back. It’s going to be a fun adventure into ideas. Today, we’re going to go deeper into one facet of his work, which I think we touched on briefly in EP 31, and that is the work he calls Immanent Philosophy. That’s what, I-M-M-A-N-E-N-T. And while he has a book on it floating around, he recommended and after comparing the two, I agreed that the website version is considerably more readable and kind of further along in his thinking. It’s a god awful URL, so I’m not going to try to give it to you over the air here. Come to the episode page at Jimrutt.com and we’ll have a link to the much more accessible website version of the work.
Jim: Now, when you hear something called Immanent Metaphysics, regular listeners of the show are thinking, “Jim is definitely going to say when I hear the word metaphysics, I reach for my pistol,” which I say all the time. But guess what? you’d be wrong. Forrest’s work isn’t that annoying, all too common sort of metaphysics, where people just make some shit up and ask you to believe or have faith. Rather, he’s attempting something different, and doing a serious attempt to build an understanding of the universe for some pretty basic fundamentals. Whether he succeeds or not, it’s another story, but it’s a serious attempt, and does not qualify for my metaphysicians pistol. And so while not annoying, and not metaphysics pistol worthy, the work that we’re going to talk about does cause me to have a little bit of what I call knee jerk against the philosopher’s disease, which is the desire to have firm foundations. I suppose my pragmatist kind of self wonders if firm foundations aren’t impossible, and/or useless, but I could easily be wrong.
Jim: So before we get into the details, because we’re going to get into details, people, we’re going to get into some real details, Forrest, why is this effort towards an Immanent Metaphysics worthwhile undertaking?
Forrest: I think in the world today, there’s a lot of places where we’re finding ourselves confronted with important choices. I think a lot about things like existential risk and civilization design, and all these sort of relate back to, in a lot of ways, ethical concerns, values, and things like that. So somewhere along the way, it became kind of important to really understand what is the nature of choice? How do we make choices? Is choice even real? There’s obviously a lot of debate in the scientific community, particularly, about this notion called freewill as a philosophical premise.
Forrest: And so somewhere along the way, it became important to really understand what are these concepts? How do they work? What kinds of things can we learn from this, so that when we’re thinking about how to do choice making at community levels, for example, that that’s sensible, that it’s grounded, that it actually works. So for instance, how do you conceive of the notion of goodness? How do you conceive of the notion of choice? What is the basic methodology by which we can know anything at all basically? We have, obviously, our first hand experiences, and we learn things. We have this huge body of knowledge, all sorts of literature and scientific knowledge and technical knowledge, things that we built, and so on. And to make sense of all of that, to really understand the implications about what this all means, why it matters, and how we can basically do better design, to better choice making individually and collectively, so a lot of this work is oriented in various ways to essentially get at those kinds of questions.
Jim: And that seems to me certainly worthy and kind of different than metaphysics in the high philosophical tradition. Yeah, I’m thinking particularly about Kant and Aristotle, both whom I dug into in some detail over the years. And when they talk about metaphysics, they’re talking often about the nature of the ground of being in constant chaos. But Aristotle’s actually also they acknowledge that they’re talking about theology. And that doesn’t seem to be the domain that you’re exploring here. In fact, you define your domain for metaphysics more crisply, much more crisply, and narrowly maybe, as an inquiry into the nature of the relation between self and reality. And then in your briefest statement of it, you say, “The interaction between the subjective and the objective.” Could you take that highest level concept and statement of what you’re doing and essentially compare it and contrast it to the historic meaning of the word metaphysics and maybe, especially if you’re up on it on Aristotle and Kant?
Forrest: Sure. One of the primary ideas behind metaphysics was essentially two questions. What is and how do we know? So what is goes into study of existence, and we get into this whole thing about what is ontology? What is the nature of being? And that has a whole history talking about atomic theory and things like that. And then the other part of it, which is how do we know anything? What is the nature of knowledge? What is this phenomenology of consciousness by which we can apprehend and perceive things in any way at all? This whole branch of questioning basically is wrapped up under the label called Epistemology.
Forrest: So between the questions of what is and how do we know, ontology and epistemology is pretty much the domain of what metaphysics talks about, at least historically, so far as I understand it. I mean, there’s other branches, there’s axiology, for example, that talks about what’s valuable. There’s obviously aesthetics, which has to talk about what’s beautiful. So we can start to extend from this metaphysical premise about what is and how do we know to how do we know what’s beautiful? How do we know what’s valuable, or what’s meaningful? And basically, from there, you can kind of springboard into more common topics of philosophy, the good, the true, and beautiful, and things like that.
Forrest: So in effect, there’s there is a kind of deep relationship between these historical ways of thinking about metaphysics, and what I’m looking at in terms of the relationship between the subjective and the objective, because as a premise, or as a starting point, I basically said, “Well, the relationship between the subjective and the objective is real.” I mean, otherwise, we wouldn’t even have a way of thinking about or talking about any of this. And that, if we’re going to think about perception, and also about choice, perception and expression kind of rudimentary terms, we’re looking at that connection between the subjective and the objective. We’re really inquiring into what is the nature of the flow from the objective to the subjective that we would call perception.
Forrest: So in effect, we can sort of remodel our thinking as being in terms of the perceived that would be the objective, the perceiver, that would be the subjective and perceiving as a process itself. And so we would say, Okay, well, ontology and epistemology attached to perceiving, and that from an understanding of the nature of this perceiving that we can understand something maybe about the nature of the perceiver and the perceived.
Forrest: And so when you look at scientific knowledge, for example, and this is starting to come forward to think more about Kant, as a philosopher, there’s an observation that the notion of perception itself isn’t necessarily going to give you perfect information about what is perceived. And, for that matter, it’s not going to give you perfect information about the perceiver either. In fact, when you go forward in physics, you see something along the lines of… they start talking about electromagnetism and light, and so on, and it happens that light can’t perceive itself. So in other words, I could have two laser beams, and they could just cross in space, the wave fronts just go right through one another. And so in effect, there’s no interaction between two photons. They have to interact through essentially another process of electrons and things like that.
Forrest: So in effect, if somebody is looking at the wall, and I’m looking across them out the window, I’m not going to be able to see what they’re seeing, I can only see the things that they can see. So I can’t perceive the perceiver, I can’t perceive perception, I can only perceive what is the object of perception, I.e the perceived. So of the three phenomenon, perceiver, perceived, and perceiving that perception can only really actually perceive one of those. So in effect, when Kant was looking at all this, he was basically saying, well, as a result if we’re going to treat the objective as being real, and this is a slight distinction between the way he does it in the way I do it, but if you treat the objective world as existing, then to some extent, perception itself isn’t going to give you perfect information.
Forrest: And so he rejected the notion of metaphysics, because he says, “Well, we’re really trying to learn about the objective, we’re trying to learn about what exists.” Whereas in my own work, I basically distinguish between the notion of to exist, to be real, and to be objective. So in effect, there’s a lot of philosophical literature, there’s a lot of overlap between these terms. But they’re actually three distinct claims to say that something’s existing is not to say that it’s real, or there are some things that are real that do not exist. There are also things that could be described as existing, but it’s really hard to have a clear notion of what it means to say that they’re real. And moreover, there are things that are objective that don’t exist and so on. So, in effect, when we’re repeating really carefully, and we’re really looking at foundations in a deep way, sometimes it becomes really important to notice that these distinctions matter.
Forrest: And while I don’t necessarily need to get into all that right now, I can certainly point out, in my own inquiry, that there’s some overlap with earlier philosophers in the sense that we’re talking about the same sort of things, we’re starting with the same sort of foundations. And I think that in contrast to some of the earlier work that’s being done in this space, I’m taking the notion of relationship between subjective and objective as being its own ontological class. In effect, to say that the relationship between the perceiver and the perceived is actually more fundamental that the process of perception is more fundamental than both the perceiver and the perceived. And that in effect, we can only really know the nature of the objective and the subjective through the mediaology of the relationship between them. And that that relationship between them is neither a proper content of the objective nor proper content of the subjective. But it’s literally a fundamental notion in itself that’s not, although relatable and is not separable from those other concepts is not the same as them. So in one sense, we could say things like the relationship between content and context is neither an element of the content nor an element of the context. That is effectively its own concept, its own category.
Forrest: So from that premise, we can start to see well, actually, this notion of relationship as being fundamental shows up everywhere, it shows up in the relationship between say, truth and falsity, like the number zero and the number one. Well, the relationship that distinguishes a zero is not a one and a one is not a zero is essentially a different thing than the concept of zero and the concept of one. And that, in effect, this idea of relatedness which is encoded in much of science and understanding of the world general relativity is obviously relativity concept. That relationship relativity and things like that turn out to be really, really powerful tools for understanding things like choice, causation, change, and really basic concepts, and the relationship between the subjective and the objective.
Jim: All right. That’s a good start. I think we’ll move on from there. Somewhat uncharacteristically, there’s one key term that you do not define, or at least if you did define it, I didn’t find the definition, because you carefully define a lot of things you use, and that is self. It comes up a lot. Could you take a shot at defining self in the sense that you want it to be considered in this work?
Forrest: There is actually definition, but it shows up in the second volume. So the effective choice has a description of this. Self in the way that I’m thinking about it here is effectively the product of all the choices you have made, and all the choices you could make. And I know this sounds like a really obscure way to think about this concept. But on the other hand, it turns out to have a lot of utility for figuring out things downstream in a number of different areas. But the idea here is that if we had a real notion of choice, which is something that is developed elsewhere in this work, then the notion of self in the sense of having memory or having capacity desires and sort of whole constellation of what we think of as mind and body and the interaction that both of those have with the world at large. So whether we’re working on issues associated with the hard problem of consciousness, or we’re working with issues having to deal with philosophical concepts, such as ethics and aesthetics, somewhere along the way, we do want to ground that notion and to say that the notion of self is characterized in terms of choice.
Forrest: And that in effect, without having some real connection between the subjective and self and choice that we’re not really making the same sort of inroads that say the notion of causation as applied to the objective has enabled science and technology to be truly effective in creating worthwhile things in the world. So in the same sort of sense that we can talk about the perceiver, perceived, and perceiving as being a fundamental triplicate where we’re axiom three distinct and separable, not interchangeable applies, and we’re actually one, the relationships more fundamental than the perceiver, and the perceived that the perception is more fundamental.
Forrest: We can say that there’s this triple of choice change in causation and that if we want to understand the nature of the relationship, we’re looking at change. If we want to understand the nature of the objective, we’re looking at causation. And if we want to understand the nature of the subjective, we need to think about choice. So in this sense, the notion of self is characterized in terms of choice. And you notice that the formulation is essentially it’s a summation of past choices, a summation of future choices, and those two things taken as units are then multiplied together. So you end up with essentially a dimensionality increase in the sense that we’re talking about both actuality, what has been and potential reality, what could be. So effectively your memory plus your capabilities. So in this sense, thinking about that as a product space is important for a number of technical reasons. I hope that helps to at least clarify some aspects of how I think about and define the term self.
Jim: Yeah, that’s very helpful. And it’s not far from what I interpolated, but it’s very good to hear from you. Now, regular listeners to the show know that one of my fascinations and hobbies is studying the domain of quantum interpretation. Some people would even say quantum mechanics is a bias term, call it quantum foundations or quantum interpretations. And in the book, you do talk a bit about the relationship of your perspective of itself to quantum mechanics, and we talk about the status of the observer, etc, in the world. And I’m quite interested in how foundational you should step back a minute to remind people that there are several interpretations of quantum mechanics, some of which an observer is critical, Penrose, for instance, Bohr probably. Bohr is so obscure. It’s hard to say what the hell he actually means. And others, the concept of measurement is fundamental. And whether there’s an observer or not, is irrelevant.
Jim: And then there are additional quantum foundational theories. In fact, some of the more modern ones in which neither observers nor measurement are actually fundamental in quantum mechanics, and rather, the concept of decoherence through various mechanisms is fundamental. So is your theory built upon and falsifiable around the concept of the role of self as observer in quantum systems?
Forrest: Well, I should probably back up a little bit, simply because I have a fairly nuanced opinion about all this. You may have guessed.
Jim: Sure you do, and so do I.
Forrest: Yeah. So just to clarify, I mean, first of all, I’m still thinking about the relationship between the subjective and objective. So of the various interpretations, the ones that tend to focus on the notion of measurement itself are ones that I tend to prefer think more about. I still feel that I’m learning about all the various interpretations. There’s a lot of them out there. But basically, as just an orienting perspective, the first thing that I look for is how is the relationship described? So when I think about… And I’m going to use the word quantum mechanics as much out of habit as anything else, I didn’t realize that there may be political or social implications with the notion of mechanics itself.
Forrest: But in some respects, thinking about the topic, what I’m what I’m really thinking about, at least as far as my understanding of the topic is concerned, is how do we understand the nature of the relationship between say, the space of possibility and probability and the space of forces in time. So in other words, when you think about the sort of dynamics of what’s being calculated, and what do the formulas represent, it’s sort of an evolution of various probabilities over possibilities. And that the measurement essentially is a coupling of these as forces in time. And this is in contrast to thinking about things like general relativity, which tends to conceive of things in terms of patterns, in this case, mass in space, and how those influence how we think about force and time. So in other words, time is wrapped up into a dimension of space and forces, conceived as a kind of tensor over space.
Forrest: So if I just look at it in a very general sort of way, then the relationship between quantum mechanics and general relativity, one of them has to do with patterns in space relative to forces in time, and the other has to do with probability over possibility to forces and time. Because the two theories have different ways of thinking about the nature of time, and also a force, incidentally, that we’ve come against this sort of irreconcilability between quantum mechanics and general relativity as primary theories of thinking.
Forrest: But in the way that I think about things, I’m not so wrapped up in the concepts of interpretation, per se, as I’m thinking more in terms of what is actually happening as a sort of phenomenology of the theories themselves. So in other words, not so much just the phenomenology of the observed results of experiments being performed, but essentially what concepts are put in what kinds of relationships to one another, so in other words, looking at the mathematics as a kind of prelude to philosophical thinking or thinking about the philosophy as essentially being encoded in the mouth.
Forrest: So when we’re looking at interpretations, I mean, obviously that’s a lot of the practice, but I find that it’s more fruitful to sort of take these abstract views about what is the theory actually doing? What are the fundamental relationships that it’s encoding? So in this particular sense, like I said, if we’re looking at sort of a coupling between probability over possibility to force over time, then to some extent, I’m thinking about in terms of, say, signaling theory or measurement as a kind of information theoretic process. And so then I end up leaning more towards, say, physics from Fisher Information, if you’re familiar with that work. And so in that particular sense, I found that to be probably the closest rendering to how I think about a lot of these topics. I hope that’s an answer to your question.
Jim: Yeah. That’s a good statement of your position. And the reason I push back on this is that regularly, philosophers tend to come in on quantum mechanics and take a perspective. I talked to a philosopher yesterday on the podcast, Alexander Baden, he did the same. And I like to point out that while there are now at least a dozen or more live quantum foundational theories, it’s amazing and annoying that there is yet not a single experiment that differentiates among them. And so that choosing a specific perspective, like one in which probability is a fundamental concept, might be wrong. There are models of quantum foundations that are all so far still consistent with all the experiments, some of which have no probability in them at all, radically deterministic, some of which have localism preserved, though, as you point out the Bell inequalities in the broader Bell theorem, rule out us only a certain class of hidden local variable forms of locality. And in reality, there are plenty of other foundations in which locality is preserved, though sometimes at the cost of probability.
Jim: And so I’m always warning philosophers, “Be careful about picking one of the interpretations and planning your philosophical flag on it.” Because at least so far, there’s no principled way to choose amongst them other than taste, essentially.
Forrest: Well, I think that that may actually be an outgrowth of a different kind of questions. So for example, when I think about what physics is for, it’s a modeling process by which we answer why questions. And when I think about what metaphysics is for, I think about it as a kind of descriptive process to answer what questions. And obviously, when we get to things like technology, we’re actually asking yet a different question, how do we do something? So in effect, the the models that are created by physics are very useful to answering how questions and to some extent, we can consider those models themselves as being the object of what questions. But obviously, there’s the reality of the world. And so the whole phenomenology of doing experiments as a process kind of a first person perspective where we take an idea and we test it. That’s essentially a sort of interactive process, where we’re attempting to try to just answer what is the case?
Forrest: When we think about what are metaphysics as a thing, what is for? Well, personally, I treat it as a kind of toolkit to create clear concepts that can then be used by things like science, physics, in particular, but also things like computer science, where we’re trying to develop methodologies of how do we think about programming languages, for example. So in this sense ,in the same sort of way that mathematics tries to create tool sets to use for various applied things, obviously, mathematics has this whole thing of exploring relationships and concepts just for their own sake, and maybe discover later that they’re useful for some function.
Jim: Or not, by the way, right?
Forrest: Or not. Yeah, right.
Jim: Yeah, let’s go down the physics mathematics, how are they related rather, we’ll be here whole afternoon.
Forrest: Exactly. Okay. Fair enough. But I would definitely suggest that part of the reason why there hasn’t been very many proposals put forward that would effectively try to distinguish which interpretation of quantum mechanics supposedly the relevant one is simply because the methodology of interpretation itself is a what question rather than a why question. So I don’t, myself have the expectation that it would produce things in the norm of experiment and process. As much as I would have the expectation that it would produce things in the norm of clarification, I erode reifying process. So for example, the value of the metaphysics isn’t so much in terms of whether or not it produces testable experiments, but whether or not it produces concepts that clarify how to think up testable experiments. For example, what are we actually asking? Like, can we clarify the question well enough so that the experiment that we do tells us something that we didn’t know? Or do we discover after the fact, Well, let’s see, there’s a whole bunch of loopholes the way that experiment was done that didn’t really answer this question, so now we have to do the experiment again, for at least a variation of the experiment that tries to close these these loopholes.
Forrest: As I remember with the Bell theorem, in particular, there was an experiment done, and then a bunch of people said, well, it didn’t address this, it didn’t address this other thing, and so on, so forth. So they did another version. And I think they took something like four or five, maybe even seven tries, before producing a version of the experiment that was sufficiently clear that people basically stopped asking, “Is this a real thing?” Or “Can we find a loophole?” They kind of gave up on that approach, and moved on with other questions.
Jim: Yeah, it’s interesting that indeed, finally, the consensus view is EPR has been shown to be true, right? But Bell’s inequality is violated by quantum mechanics, which has some very interesting implications. But then it’s very interesting that the theoreticians then came up with other foundational formulations, which had attributes such as locality, which at first, it seems like a violation of Bell’s inequality rules out. But it turns out, it doesn’t. So even once you close the experimental loophole, then people are looking for theoretical loopholes, and they’re finding by the dozens. Let’s move on from that. This is very interesting. I think I see the distinction that your metaphysics and metaphysics in general could be useful in thinking about this, but probably doesn’t stand or fall. For instance, there are some words in your book that one could read as saying that you support non localism. And one would then say, if localism was found to exist, then maybe your system falls. But that does not seem to be the case.
Forrest: No. First of all, like I said, I’m just looking for what concepts have the greatest reifying power. So in other words, the greatest clarifying capacities. And so in a sense, when we’re looking at, say, the Bell’s theorem, I’m thinking about locality as basically being an idea associated with causation. And to the sense that an entanglement doesn’t necessarily provide a way for signaling from one place to another in a faster than light way. Really what we’re basically saying is the causation itself travels through space in a time limited way. Whereas the connectivity, that the notion of correspondence itself doesn’t necessarily require that.
Jim: That’s a good way to say that. In fact, it’s compatible with both sides of the locality, non-locality argument. So that’s good.
Forrest: Well, this would be an example of reifying power. So in other words, the fact that I can make that description relatively easily, and to do so in a way that’s consistent with already understood ways of thinking about these topics, is part of the reason why I think the metaphysics has value.
Jim: Good. Let’s move on to getting something closer to the core of your work, and that is choice kind of generally considered. Let me read a little quote from the work. “Metaphysics is specific in that anything that is inherent in the essential nature of choice itself is applicable to every choice that one makes.” If you expand on that, I mean, that’s a pretty damn dense sentence.
Forrest: Okay. So if we say that something is intrinsic to the nature of comparison, or we say that something’s intrinsic to the nature of causation, I.e that you can’t really even have a nature of causation without thinking about time, before and after, that there’s a notion of state before and state after, and that there’s a consistency of the before and after relationship, then in this particular sense, the idea here is that similar attributes could be associated with the notion of choice in the same sort of way that we can sort of think about causation in a fundamental way. We can think about choice in a fundamental way, and that anything that we identify as intrinsics to the nature of choice, that’s inherently true about the concept itself, is going to be realized in any experience of that concept, or any practice of that concept, or any instance in which that concept has being.
Forrest: So in this particular sense, I’m not actually claiming anything other than that the notion of choice has a kind of coherency to it, the same way that the notion of causation has a kind of coherency to it. And that it makes sense for us to examine the concept of choice because that helps us to characterize the kinds of principles that would be relevant to thinking about things like say good choices, or wise choices. So in effect, to become clearer about how to make choices, it is useful to notice and note things about what the nature of choice is just in a sense way that as a scientist, I would want to know something about what the nature of causation is, particularly, if I’m going to be studying that.
Jim: And we’ll dig into that later in more detail as you lay out some of these distinctions about distinctions, essentially. Another concept you have and that’s a hit on this one relatively quickly, again, we could go on for days while in it and that’s the distinction between interaction and relation.
Forrest: You mentioned earlier about, say, physics and mathematics. So relation is a temporal, so in other words, no time. And mathematics for the most part is just talking about structures of relationships. And you don’t need a temporal element. So in other words, if I prove something to be true in mathematics, then it has always been true before I even knew that, and it will remain true forever more, unless someone, of course, shows that my perception of that was in fact incorrect. In other words, they find an error in my proof, so to speak. But if there’s some notion of structure in mathematics, it doesn’t necessarily require that we have any concept of time in order to conceive of them. So that’s what we mean by relationships. I think of mathematics as being essentially the study of pure relationship.
Forrest: Whereas, when we’re talking about interaction, we’re talking about something that inherently has a temporal element. So for instance, when we’re thinking in the first person sense of an experimental process, there’s before the experiment was done and there’s doing the experiment, and then there’s after the experiment is done. And that somewhere along the way, we went from not knowing something to knowing something. So in that sense, the idea here is that information is effectively flowing from the objective to the subjective. And that the moment in which that happens is the interaction.
Forrest: So in one sense, we can think about fundamental theories of physics as being not just a kind of measurement process, and the first person perspective of the scientific method, but also being a signaling process in the notion of, say, communication theory, or information theory. So in the sense that there’s an interaction, we are implying these concepts of temporality, we’re implying a concept of flow of information from basically one place to another that there’s other possibilities of what could have happened instead, and so on. So in effect, when we think about interaction, we’re actually implying a lot more than just say, structures in space. We’re also applying forces and time and probabilities over possibilities. And so from these concepts, we can construct things like information theory, communication theory, measurement theory, signaling theory, causation, ideas, and all the rest of this stuff.
Jim: I want to be clear, I wasn’t clear when I read it. Does your vision of interaction require an observer?
Forrest: I think require’s an interesting word here, it’s more like to say that an observer is an epiphenomenon of the interaction.
Jim: Now, what would that mean? Let’s imagine before there were anything early in the solar system, so not that long ago in the history of the universe?
Forrest: Well, we’re going to have to go way back further. We got to go all the way back to the Big Bang. Okay, so there’s-
Jim: No, let’s go a couple days after the Big Bang.
Forrest: No, no, no, right to the instant, right? So you have an empty universe, now all of a sudden, you’ve got something.
Jim: Well, maybe we don’t have an empty universe, maybe we don’t have a universe at all. I think we talked about this one for about two hours, too.
Forrest: Sure, sure.
Jim: Okay, let’s take your version, tell the story. Go ahead. Let’s go for it.
Forrest: I’m attempting to just simply create an a sort of narrative that allows for the idea to just be apprehended at all. I’m not necessarily trying to claim this is the case so much as I’m just trying to just give a description. So if you imagine an empty universe, it’s just like completely just there. The notion of interaction as making a thing that is perceivable in that universe implies just even by the reaction of imagination that as soon as we attempt to imagine a something, there is ourselves the imagine or doing it. And so in a sense, what I’m effectively getting at is that the concept of an observer is implied in the notion of interaction, and it is to the degree that we don’t have a deeper substrate to think about epistemology, then ontology, then to some extent, there is a connection between these two concepts.
Forrest: And so therefore, I sort of say, well, the same way that we know that there is the objective through the process of knowing, that we posit that there is a subjective through the process of knowing and that the process of knowing is effectively more basic than say, the being of the objective or the being of the subjective. And there’s really no way for us to know any differently than that.
Jim: But taking the view of a fairly naive realist, which is at least play on TV, as Murray Gell-Mann would say he was pretty confident the moon was still there before there was any conscious self to observe it.
Forrest: Well, if we have the supposition that conscious self resembles anything like human beings or consciousness as we understand it, then yeah, I would agree with your notion, the moon has a kind of beingness that transcends our presuppositions about this. And before people go forward and think well, I’m positing a kind of Pan psychism here, on one hand that would be one way to interpret what I’m saying, but on another hand, we could, we could just simply say that the notion of the being of the moon is if we’re saying that it’s non contingent, that there’s a kind of perfected determinism about that, then in effect, you’ve already said everything that you’re going to say, that’s the claim that’s being made. But on the other hand, if we’re basically asserting that there’s any level of indeterminism about the existence of something, then to establish whether or not it exists, we have to have an interaction with it. We have to actually posit the potentiality of verifying that the moon does in fact exist.
Forrest: So if you assert determinism, it’s already there, then you don’t need the verification because you have the assertion. Whereas, if you’re talking about a smaller object, maybe not something as large as the moon, but something say as small as a single particle, you have these virtual particle pair production kind of things going on, and the notion of whether it’s there or not is actually really ambiguous. So in the sense to verify that something is there, therefore becomes a kind of essential aspect of the proposition. In other words, how do we know that something exists? Well, what’s the methodology by which we establish that? Well, you’ve set up an interaction, and once you have the interaction, then you know one way or the other. But in this particular case, the differences and this is the key difference is that I don’t need to make an assumption about determinism in order to do the verification.
Forrest: So even after the verification, for example, okay, I’ve established that at this moment in time this thing existed, the interaction is taken as the basis of what is knowing rather than the presupposition of that it exists in a kind of deterministic, non-contingent way. And that’s really all I’m trying to get to with these distinctions is to simply say, “What is the basis of our knowledge? Are we being intellectually honest to say that the basis of our knowledge is first person interactions via the scientific method or things like that, that the that the epistemic processes is at least consistent?” Or are we going to allow for, say, in mathematics, that we’re just going to posit some axioms, and move forward in terms of trying to determine what are the implications that these axioms have.
Forrest: And I’m not making a judgment that one way or the other is better or worse, it’s just that we need to kind of know whether we’re doing mathematics or doing physics, and that, to some extent, it becomes really important to not get confused when we continue to do these practices.
Jim: Like it’s my reaction that would be that if you are looking at something from the perspective of an observer, and as we’ve known for at least since Kant and more so more recently, we know that our perceptions are not reality, right? We look up at the moon, and what we’re actually seeing is some photons reflected back onto our retina.
Forrest: Well, I need to interrupt here, because what Kant actually said, and this is being very careful here is that the perceptions themselves don’t accurately represent the objective, like if we identify the notion of reality with the objective. And by the way, I would say that’s not necessarily the best way to go about this. But if, for example, we were to talk about what can we know from perception, about the thing that we’re perceiving, Kant was basically saying there’s a fundamental limit, about knowing the characteristics of what’s being perceived, define just in terms of the characteristics of what perception is.
Jim: Correct. That’s where I was going with my little description there. That’s been well known, at least since Kant that our perception is not anything like a full readout of reality.
Forrest: So here’s the turn. The turn is that unlike Kant, which basically said, “Okay, well, the perceived is real,” I’m basically saying, well, the perception is real. And that the notion of the perceived is something that we’re in effect coming to know through the vehicle of perception, and that there’s an asymptotic limit, as you’ve pointed out, that we can’t know the thing of the perceived but at least we don’t necessarily need to make assumptions about it a priori. For example, we could decide that the thing to be perceived as prior to the perception, but that’s an unprovable thing, right? To establish that something exists, I have to actually perceive it, which is a kind of interaction. So therefore, we say that interaction is in some sense more fundamental than the notion of existence.
Forrest: And from there, it isn’t too hard to say that the notion of interaction is actually even more fundamental than notion of creation. And that if we really want to understand the universe, on one hand, we could say the universe is a container in which is there is all this stuff. But then we can sort of switch gears and we can say, okay, well wait a minute, the notion of universe is the concept that is effectively a pointer to three other concepts, exactly three other concepts creation, existence and interaction. And that if we were hypothetically possible through some methodology perhaps to know everything there was to know about existence, everything there is to know about interaction, I.e the laws of physics, and how things happen, and so on, and everything that there is to know about creation, presuming that that was knowable at all, then we would know everything there is to know about universe because the universe doesn’t have anything other than stuff about creation, stuff about existence, and stuff about interaction.
Forrest: So if I had perfected knowledge of these three topics, I would therefore have perfected knowledge of the topic of universe because there’s nothing that we can assert about universe that isn’t some subset, or some combination of knowledge about creation, existence, and interaction. So in this sense, what we’re doing is we’re basically saying, okay, if we think about it at the nature of the level of the concepts themselves, then then we notice that there’s a certain dependency relationship that to know anything at all about the nature of existence, it have to depend upon the nature of interaction to do that. And so therefore, we have to say that, at least on a conceptual level, and the conceptual level at this point is all that we have, I mean, there’s no other… Somewhere along the way, we have to actually ground our notion of ontology and epistemology in terms of either themselves or in terms of something deeper, or some union of those things. Then in this particular respect, what we’re basically saying is okay, well, somewhere along the way, we have to actually reconcile the notion of the real as being in terms of the interaction, rather than in terms of the things that are interacting.
Jim: Here, you talk about proof, and I guess this is what I would call the manifestation of what I called at the beginning the philosopher’s disease, which is the search for proof. And I often point out in these kinds of discussions that we can’t prove very much. For instance, we cannot disprove the assertion that the universe was created five seconds ago with all of our memories in place and all ballistic objects in motion. And so that it seems to me it kind of tortured turn to say that the perception of the moon is prior to the moon, essentially, when it seems more parsimonious, at least shall we say, and since we cannot prove anything, or have solid foundations, we then have to use higher level meta rules to figure out what’s useful. And what I called naive realism and perspective, hey, yeah, the moon’s there, and by the way, we get incrementally better information about the moon via perception, originally by our naked eye than with telescopes, and then with radio astronomy, and then by sending people to the moon and bringing back pieces of it, etc. And in that sense, the moon is prior to the perception.
Forrest: I think that makes a lot of sense. I mean, first of all, as a craftsman and as a person who’s done a lot of engineering and build companies and things like that, I have a tremendous appreciation for practice as being practiced, and that there’s this funny quote, “Theory believes that practice and theory are the same, but practice knows that theory and practice are different.”
Jim: Not like that. Yeah.
Forrest: Yes, it’s fun. Anyways, the point that I think that I’m agreeing with you is that there are actual heuristics that are very, very useful. For example, looking at the moon versus quantum particles, the larger the thing is, the more the heuristic of it’s going to be there when I’m not looking at it is actually just a useful thing to do. Whereas, the smaller it is, once you get to things that are super tiny, the level of indeterminism becomes prevalent. So now we can start to say things like, well, the smaller it is, the more indeterminism applies, and the larger it is, the more determinism applies. And so obviously, at mesoscopic scales, it makes sense for us to sort of treat large macroscopic objects, particularly things that are bigger than us is not being influenced by anybody’s choice, or actions, or perceptions, or what not at all. And things that are smaller than us is maybe being well, somebody made that and they had a choice about how they could have made it and so on.
Forrest: But the point here is that going back to the notion of proof a little bit. So we talked about physics, and we talked about mathematics a little bit, although you didn’t want me to get into the relationship between those. There is this nice, little thing that connects to the notion of proof. There’s proof of validity, which is in a mathematical system, do these concepts derive from these other concepts. So in other words, if I start-
Jim: Formal proofs axiomatic systems. Yeah, they’re essentially mathematics, logic, etc.
Forrest: Yeah, Euclid geometry kind of stuff. Then in the other side, you have this notion of soundness and soundness is not a provable thing, but it is a very practical one. For instance, if I develop a model in mathematics, and then I find a correspondence between this domain, the model of mathematics and some other domain, maybe something in psychology or something in a steam engine or whatnot, and I say, Okay, well, if I measure these things, and I map those to these concepts in this model, and then the model computes this, gets this other set of numbers, and then these other set of numbers should correspond with these other things that I haven’t yet measured, but I need to, that becomes where the mathematics goes from theoretical to applied.
Forrest: And so in effect, if we’re really trying to do good metaphysics, and this is, again, maybe a contrast with the way this has been thought about previously. But I’m actually much more interested in questions of soundness. I think that mathematics itself is already an excellent tool for developing questions of validity. But the idea here is that in the same sort of way the category theory would effectively be kind of a generalization of the notion of how to think about validity principles in terms of structures, that the metaphysics and the axioms and the modalities is essentially as a general notion of soundness in terms of how to correspond the foundations of one domain to another so that we can discover these places where applicability actually occurs.
Forrest: So in this particular sense, while on one hand I can claim that, hey, there’s a certain kind of proof and in an analytic sense, I can use a sub-domain of mathematics to establish that such and such a series of definitions results in such and such a series of theorems. The notion of proof itself can become a somewhat more empirical practice. In other words, can we establish that there is a very good reason for us to think that there is a soundness relationship between a structure of concepts in one domain and a structure of concepts in another? In other words, what is the reifying power of the correspondences? So in this particular sense, what we’re looking at here is, can we take a model from one world and use it to clarify the structure of the models of another world? And can we do things in such a way that by making those correspondences or sort of metaphorical process? Then we can learn things about the world in which we’re working, which would otherwise be very, very hard to do.
Forrest: In the same sort of way that there are some things that can only be discovered through first hand experience and other things that can only be discovered through analytic practice, we are effectively using a kind of methodology that combines the best of both of these to essentially say, okay, what is it that we can do to clarify our perceptions? And I realize I’m going on a long time here, I’m going to stop in a moment. But I just want to fill in this last piece, which is that there is a kind of experimental process where we can test this notion of soundness. It isn’t exactly a proof from the same sort of way that would be a mathematics, but it’s more of a proof in the same sort of way as say the scientific method.
Forrest: Say for example, I have an idea about what something actually means, I can take a huge body of literature that uses that concept, and I can take the concept that I have, and I can use that to restructure the body of literature that uses that concept, and then submit that revised body of literature both to the people who originally wrote it, and other people who are reading it. And from that, basically try to ascertain, has that reconstruction of that underlying concept increase the degree to which everybody understands that literature, that body of literature? Did it actually improve the body of literature in the utility function of the people that wrote it, and that are reading it? And this is the kind of experiment which can actually be done to test whether or not a philosophy or metaphysics, whether the definitions of the terms of the constructions and so and so forth.
Forrest: They’re actually do have reifying power? Do they increase clarity? And so in this particular case, I can say, well, I’ve been doing private experiments of this kind for going on 30 years now, and so far, it’s worked really well. At least in terms of if you’re using reifying power as an underlying metric as to the quality of a metaphysics, the same way that popper falsifiability, and so on would be a way of evaluating the success of the physics or that provability would be a way of evaluating the success of a mathematics. So far as I’m aware of this particular body of metaphysics has, by a substantial margin, the strongest level of refined power ever yet observed.
Jim: Could you give me an example? If you’re willing to talk some more about this, that would be really good. Give us an example of first what you briefly what you mean by reifying power. I mean, I know what the concept of reification is more generally, but you’re using it in a specific sense, I got a sense here. And if you have an example of this, this would be great.
Forrest: Well, the whole metaphysics is… I mean, the reason why I’m working with this material is because literally the entire body of it is composed of examples since there’s an embarrassingly large number of examples. One that I recommend as a kind of starting point is the increments ration theorem. That’s a fairly abstract example, but it shows the ways in which these things can work in something that actually matters today. But on the other hand, developing that will probably take at least a half an hour of time, I don’t know that I want to just do that right now as a response to just one question.
Jim: By the way, we’re going to get to the increment ratio theory in considerable depth later. In some ways, I found that almost the punch line of your work, interestingly.
Forrest: I think of it as being maybe one of the most important elements of it. The ethics itself is another critically important sort of derived product. But yeah, between those two, there’s a tremendous amount of what at least I’ve experienced as being really valuable and helpful and understanding things. So I think as far as an example of what reifying power shows up as or what it looks like, I’ll point to those things as forward examples. But in the moment, just to clarify, what do I mean by reification power itself. So in this sense, the notion of reification is usually to take something that’s vague and to make it more structure like or more definite in the structural relationships.
Jim: Often with a negative connotation that one is lost some important detail when doing so.
Forrest: Yeah, I hear that, and at this particular point, all I can really say is that I’m trying not to get into the realm of connotative judgments about what’s going on here. To some extent, we’re trying to characterize what’s happening without basically saying whether it’s good or bad to do that. Because obviously, to say whether it’s good or bad to do that would be to imply an ethics, and the ethics itself is derived from this material. So to some extent, I have to, somewhere along the way, assume what I’m trying to show. So going all the way back here without thinking about reification, in the sense of judgment, I’m thinking about it purely in the sense of, can we take vague relationships and at least clarify them so that they are somewhat more distinct? So in the same sort of way that a metaphor would allow us to basically take two things that were otherwise unrelated in short kind of correspondence, we can use the metaphor as a way of understanding each of them a little better.
Forrest: So in this sense, metaphors are helpful to understanding their educational devices people use them as ways to model things and to figure out stuff and go about their lives. So in this sense, what we’re really looking at is that what characterizes a good metaphor? Well, we can think about it in terms… Like if we look at power itself as a kind of the concept of power, as a metaphor, it’s like a physics at least, it’s a force that overcomes a resistance in a given time, the more force that it overcomes over the greater distance that it has done so. In other words, it’s pushing on a barrier, and it pushes that barrier 100 feet down the road, and it does so really quickly, then the more powerful it is.
Forrest: So in this particular sense, we can talk about political power being something like can change the opinions of lots of people, and those lots of people really didn’t want to change their opinion, that would be the resistance factor. And change their opinions really dramatically, that would be the distance factor. And it did so really quickly, that would be the time factor. So a person that was really charismatic could effectively be described as in that sense more powerful as a leader than someone who was not. And so in effect, we can now start to say, okay, well, this notion of power as a metaphor can now be used as a metaphor to describe the power of metaphors. I know that’s kind of a trick, but if you think about it, it does actually work.
Forrest: So in a sense, we now have a way of thinking about a metaphor that is powerful is one that connects things that were concepts or phenomena or domains that were widely disconnected from one another, connects them really, really well, and does so in an immediate and visceral and kind of total sense very quickly. So in this sense, we’ve now constructed the notion of the power of metaphor in terms of how insightful is it? How penetrating is it? How fully is it applicable? How extensive is it? And did it connect things that that were otherwise surprising to be connected?
Jim: And Rutt Speak, we’d say how useful is it?
Forrest: Yeah, exactly. Can I take this thing and use it in a sense, can I trust the relationships that this thing has brought to my awareness? Can I act on it in a way that is reliable, in the sense that the things that I do produce the outcomes that I expect? And it provides a adequate basis of choice to make good and wise choices? So when we’re thinking about reifying power, it’s sort of like an extension of the notion of what we think of as a powerful metaphor. It’s basically like saying, “Okay, can we get to the point where we’re looking at the essence of what this concept is, such that we can now combine that concept with other concepts, because we’re perceiving that essence truly and well.” So effectively, the more that it has taken something that was really vague and turned it into something that was really clear, the more reifying power we’re talking about.
Forrest: And again, all of these are our essentially aligned descriptions, aligned to metaphors, we can talk about intelligence in similar ways. There’s a lot of things that once you start to become skillful in this, you begin to see all sorts of applicabilities, models show up the same way in many places, and all of a sudden, you discover that you’re working with metaphors and things that have enormous reifying power.
Jim: Of course, we also know that language itself is remarkably metaphoric, when we go to Lakoff and Johnson, etc. We’re moving forward with our research, right? Well, guess what, that’s moving from geometry or walking into applying it. I mean, it’s just astounding when you really realize how much everyday metaphor is built into the language. And then we also have Vidkun Stein, because we go down on that road for a long ways, but probably shouldn’t, which is to what degree the language game can actually be used with precision. And I think both of those would say that it’s really hard to build firm foundations, but as you were saying, one can at least use the standard of is it useful?
Forrest: Yeah. And so in this sense, rather than talking about reification as something that can be done in some sort of completed way, we’re talking about reifying power in the sense of, can we make it more useful? In other words, it has some useful to start with and by doing this, we make it more useful, and they’re more trustworthy, and easier to work with. And have we converge to the asymptotic limit of “perfect reification” or “perfect structure” or “perfect metaphors”? Well, I think it’s the journey that matters here, not so much the outcome.
Jim: Yeah, that’s good.
Forrest: I mean, obviously, the outcome is important. But if our methodologies aren’t consistent with the outcomes that we hope for, then to some extent, we’re wasting our time.
Jim: Yeah. And again, that falls into the category of… What was the word you used? Distinct from proof, you had soundness?
Forrest: Yeah, validity and soundness.
Jim: Validity and proof, of course, I’m familiar with. But soundness is good. That’s a nice concept to kind of wrap these things in and somewhat can grow into my usefulness. Let’s move on. Something else you mentioned in passing in the book, this kind of moves, scale a little bit from very fine grain to big picture, and then we’ll probably come back down again to fine grain here in a few minutes. And that is your reference Cartesian dualism, and sort of where that stands in the history of the development of these ideas. Could you explain very briefly, and this is a concept most people who think hard about this space are very aware of but some of our audience may not have dug into this. Very briefly what Cartesian dualism is and what is your program say about it?
Forrest: So very briefly, it’s about the relationship between Mind and Matter or what is substance in the world versus ourselves as beings in the world. And there’s two huge philosophical traditions, one of which basically says that substance is first and bodies and minds are composed out of substance. And the other are somewhat more mystical or religious perspective, depending upon which line of history you’re looking at, which basically says, no, we have this notion of deity or of the totality of consciousness that subdivides itself into the beings that are us, and that we project to the world around us as a kind of epiphenomena of this consciousness emanation. So theories of the Kabbalah, for example, go in this direction a bit more. And from an experimental perspective, obviously, there’s no way to verify one way or the other because anything that would be done in the experiment sort of like trying to verify whether you’re in a Holodeck, on Star Trek, for example, how do you verify? Well, if the simulation is perfect, you wouldn’t be able to verify it. So this gets us into the whole simulation hypothesis and things like that.
Jim: Yeah, we did an episode on that two weeks ago with Robin Hanson, which was fascinating. And it’s a rabbit hole. At the end of the day, we have to acknowledge that we just don’t know
Forrest: Exactly. So roughly speaking, we can say that the simulation hypothesis is sort of akin to the notion of idealism as a philosophical history, as a label for a category of philosophical history. And realism is a label for the philosophical categorical history of atoms and what we normally think of as classical physics. So in this sense, these are two main theorems or ideas about what is and how do we know. In my work, in contrast to both of these, is that I think of it as effectively saying, well, the relationship between realism and idealism, I.e the relationship between mind and body is actually the primary subject of study, right? So when we’re looking at the relationship between the subjective and the objective, we’re basically saying, I’m not going to posit realism, I.e that the objective existence is unconditional, nor am I going to posit the subjective as existing in an unconditional sort of way. I’m in effect going to describe the relationship between the subjective and the objective as being unconditional.
Forrest: And so this gets us to say, for example, Descartes which basically said his famous notion, “I think, therefore I am” is that the process of thinking is the basis by which we can establish the process of being, right? I think, as a process to IB as an outcome, and that the outcome ontology, in this case, is dependent upon epistemology, knowing of thinking, or in this particular case of kind of perception. So in a sense, if we’re to take Descartes seriously, we’re basically saying that process is fundamental, and that we can only really know anything about being as contingent upon process. And whether that being is objective or subjective is essentially still contingent on process, and that to some extent, later, even to distinguish between objective being and subjective being is going to be the notion of distinction itself is a process. To make a distinction is to do something and to create a change.
Forrest: So in this particular sense, to really kind of keep the concepts at a relatively abstract level, I mean, if you look at, say, for example, Descartes’s Program, he basically had the idea while he was in prison for all the things that people put people in prison for, a heretics and so on. I’m going to not take as knowable anything that I could have any possible doubt of. So he basically said, “All right, even if I can think of a way in which I can be deceived, even in principle, if like a demon were to basically be manipulating my perceptions, and therefore create illusions about what is left that is perfectly knowable, that there can be no deception about it, that is essentially ground truth.” And so that’s where the, “I think, therefore I am” statements came from.
Forrest: But what I think is interesting about all this is that Descartes, for example, actually missed a number of things coming out of it, which are also part of that ground. For example, anything that is intrinsic to the nature of doubt as a process is also undoubtable. For instance, if we say that attribute A is going to be an attribute of every process of doubt, then the action of having doubt itself about the nature of doubt basically establishes that intrinsic as essentially being present. For instance if I say that doubt has a notion of something can be true and can be false, then to have doubt about doubt is to have already presupposed the notion of truth and falsity. So in this particular sense, there’s a kind of separate ground that can emerge from the notion of what are the intrinsics of process itself. And this is largely what the axioms and the modalities explore.
Forrest: For example, if we’re looking at what is the nature of the relationship between mind and body or between subjective and objective? And we know that the nature of that relationship is intrinsically process, then we’re basically saying, well, what are the characteristics that are inherent in the nature of process itself? And it turns out that there is this idea that is actually a very general one. When we look at the notion of process, it’s actually a very, very primal concept. It’s probably the single most primal concept of which it is possible to conceive at all considering the conception itself can be regarded as a kind of process.
Forrest: So in this sense, we have this notion called the route to otology, which is essentially to say, well, when you really look at it, comparison is a process, measurement is a process, signaling is a process. Even to think about choice change and causation are all essentially examples of or manifestations of the underlying notion of process. So therefore, if we can characterize the nature of process itself, we’ve learned something about the intrinsics associated with the process of doubt. We’ve learned things that are intrinsically true about the nature of the relationship between the subject of an object. And from that, we can actually read, derive or reground the notions of both ontology and epistemology or realism as a way of thinking and idealism as a way of thinking.
Forrest: So in effect, it turns out that the relationship between realism and idealism is itself considerably more primal than both the notions of realism or idealism. And even the notion of establishing anything about any of these things effectively pre-presupposes this process ground, much into the same way that having doubt about doubt presupposes the concept of doubt. And so that’s a lot of sort of how these things sort of fit together from a historical point of view, and also sort of what have I done with all of this?
Jim: Got it. I’m going to do a little sidebar here because it appeared in order more or less in the section about Cartesian dualism, and then we’ll go on to the bigger question of mind from brain. Can you talk a little bit about New Age as another alternative going forward?
Forrest: Oh, God. This is where you want to get out the full philosophical gun.
Jim: Metaphysics call pistol.
Forrest: Metaphysics gun, yeah. I think you and I both share this notion that rampant commercialism and hypocrisy is something to be avoided at all costs.
Forrest: And so when you when you mentioned the New Age, I get that sort of same twitchy feeling that I imagine you also have.
Jim: Yeah, let’s not go there. People listen to the show, know my views on all this shit. We’re probably pretty similar, right? Let’s move on to this is that so interesting question. And we’ll eventually, at the end of our journey, get to the so called hard question. But this is not an attempt to go there, but to talk a little bit more generally about mind from brain. This is what Descartes kind of put it this way. As listeners know, I’m pretty involved with the cognitive science community, I serve on various boards, I still do little research myself, read all the current research at the cutting edge of the cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience view on consciousness, even have my own theory of consciousness.
Jim: And I will say that in the world of cognitive science, people are interested in the question of consciousness. Every single one would declare themselves a anti-Cartesian. That’s not true of all philosophers, of course, but of all cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience people, they would say, with some level of confidence, that mind is an emergent manifestation of brain. And then that’s to say that there’s all the say about mind that’s the important distinction, that mind itself then opens up a whole new domain of inquiry about things that are not physics necessarily. But that the Cartesian argument that mind and brain are different substances, which somehow communicate through… What was it? The pineal gland or some ridiculous thing is just not to be taken seriously. So sort of at that level, where does your flag come down about mind and brain?
Forrest: Well, that’s a big question. First of all, I’ve written a whole lot of stuff about this, and I can send you papers and things that I’ve done in this space.
Jim: Yeah, let’s not quite go there yet, because I did read the paper of hard question as the last thing I read, that’d be the last thing we’ll talk about. But just the shorter form. Let’s not going to add all the way to the weeds. We’ll do that at the very end of our series here.
Forrest: So let me try to really just create a kind of snapshot, nutshell sort of view. And I think that that might make it easy for us to talk about at least some of these things without getting into the weeds, as you say. I think that a lot of the neuroscience that’s looking at the relationship between mind and brain is looking at it in terms of observed neural correlates. And you can really show that there is a correspondence between what’s experienced in a subjective way and what’s happening in brain tissue. I’m not debating any of that. I think that to some extent, we make it to a point where we have really good neural correlate understanding, and maybe quite nuanced understandings of perception and consciousness and so on, on the basis of these correlations.
Forrest: But when people are asking the hard problem, a lot of times they’re not exactly clear about what that problem is. But if we’re just sort of jump to conclusions, so to speak, even if I were to posit, for example, perfected knowledge about neural correlates, that for every subjective experience, I could describe it in terms of an objective phenomenology and brain tissue, I still wouldn’t have answered the hard problem, which has more to do with why is this moment this one? So in other words, the correlations themselves don’t actually say anything about causation. Causation has a temporal elements. And so in effect, I can say, “Well, if I do this to the neural tissue, then this person is going to have this experience next.” But we still haven’t answered the question of why they’re having any experience now. In the theory of correlation itself, it doesn’t distinguish between today and yesterday or today and tomorrow. From the correlation perspective, I should be able to predict with complete accuracy or just even just directly, no, through some sort of examination, through the hyperspace of all time, read off what the lottery numbers are. Like why isn’t it the day after tomorrow? What is it specifically that makes today today?
Forrest: So in other words, how do we distinguish, like, on what basis do we distinguish between the past and the future? Well, we all have a subjective experience of that there isn’t now and that the first person perspective is not the third person perspective. And unfortunately, no matter how good our information is about neural correlates, it doesn’t give us the philosophical tools necessary to answer any of these questions. And so that’s why the hard problem is hard is because to some extent, you need a different toolset in order to address it. And that’s kind of I guess my overall stance about thinking about these sorts of things is that to large extent, when people are looking at these sorts of issues, mostly, I just feel that they’re asking the wrong question, or don’t really understand what they’re trying to get to.
Jim: I certainly I agree with you that the reductionist neural correlates thing, while somewhat interesting isn’t even getting close to the interesting stuff. The fact that we can now demonstrate that you probably have a Lady Gaga cluster of neurons, and we put a little voltage on them, the concept of Lady Gaga, the broader concept will come to mind. Isn’t that interesting?
Forrest: Yeah, it’s fascinating.
Jim: And it’s actually true. It has been verified. But actually, it doesn’t get even close to the questions that we’re thinking about here. But fortunately, there are people now doing work, a big jump up, and that is thinking about what is consciousness in terms of a dynamical system, right? It’s not a static view, it’s a essentially a set of highly, both complicated and complex machinery that is doing something. And I would say that in this space, I tend to follow John Searle, who’s a quite subtle philosopher of consciousness, and not a neuroscientist or cognitive scientists. So he knows a lot of cognitive science, not so much neuroscience. And his perspective is… I love his quote. That “Consciousness is much like digestion.” You can’t actually put your finger on it and say, “that’s digestion.” Instead, it’s a process that involves various organs of the body that uses the mouth, the tongue, the esophagus, the stomach, the liver, the colon, etc. And digestion is this thing and it’s intimately driven in biology, because if digestion doesn’t work, guess what, you die.
Jim: And he says, “Consciousness is the same.” It’s not a thing that you can point to a neural correlate. It’s rather a process, a dynamical high, very high order dynamical process that is essentially a dance in the brain and the body, by the way, and is very biological. And we do know it’s expensive in both energetics, a fair percentage of the brain’s horsepower is spent in consciousness, and also in probably even more so in genetic information space, the amount of genetic information to code the underlying proteins that then give rise to the dynamical system which produces this many attributed system of consciousness.
Forrest: Just out of curiosity, do you happen to know how much… And I’m asking this question because this is an information need. How much of the genetic coding describes the structure of the brain? As in which brain tissue areas are connected to which other brain tissue areas more than just the proteins themselves, but literally, like the entire constellation of the structure of the neural system? How much of the connectome is encoded in the genetics?
Jim: Of course. This is the fucked up thing is that the answer is zero directly, right?
Forrest: Directly, but indirectly, there’s structures of tissue at least on a macroscopic level. I mean, we can compare brains to one another, and the actual tissue and they don’t look completely different from one another. The folds are in different places, but the connectivity patterns have a lot in common.
Jim: Correct. And then again, it’s so subtle because the problem is that all that the DNA programs for is proteins essentially, right? So you think that is the source code or more like the assembly language. It then runs through the ribosomes, which produces the proteins and other related supporting chemicals, the chemicals do their dance, produce the activity of the cell, and then the cell has its own behaviors in terms of, for instance, where do the axon… Closer to your question. The axons of a given neuron either long extension is reacting to a series of chemical fogs essentially as it’s developing and growing, and these chemical fogs are given off by the neuro transmitter emitters. So that’s why I say it’s a very long way from raw genetic information to the connectome, though obviously, one begets the other. So to say exactly how much, we can’t say, but we can say it’s got to be a lot.
Forrest: I’m sure it is. I mean, I guess, just make the question a little more specific of if you happen to hear or know somebody who’s doing work in this area, I’d certainly be interested to hear more.
Jim: I can ask some of my people at MIT. I’m on the board of the brain and cognitive science department at MIT, and I’m sure we have somebody there who would at least have an opinion. So I will ask that question, and I’ll get it back to you. Anyway, back to Searle. Consciousness is a biological process that’s expensive both in energy and genetic information space. Exactly how much, probably we don’t know. But it’s got to be a lot. And it has a purpose, there’s a reason for it, because things that are energetic and have high genetic costs, obviously, have a reason. And I have my own views on that, which is that it’s a convenient hack to reduce the combinatoric explosion of choice, which is interesting to touch back to your idea of choice.
Jim: And so I tend to look at consciousness in a very unromantic, unmystical way, and say that is a process not much different than digestion. I like that. The Rutt corollary also often has the same final output.
Jim: And from that perspective, it does not kill exactly the hard problem. But it makes the perspective of the hard problem, I think, a little bit different if we assume that this is just a biologically optimized system for doing something that allows organisms to successfully reproduce.
Forrest: Let’s take that all the way to its conclusion. So first of all, I’m not disagreeing with you about the relation of consciousness and process, and processes mediated by biology the same way that software may run in hardware, right? So leaving all that aside, and basically just getting to the notion of process itself. Say, for example, we were to take as perfected the notion of process and consciousness that there’s an identity there, and even the notion of process in biology is, to some extent, maybe even perfectly coupled for the purposes of what I’m wanting to do, it doesn’t matter. Somewhere along the way, we still have to reconcile the notions of the intrinsics of the process.
Forrest: So when I think of the notion of process, when I think of the notion of interaction, or remember, I mentioned that notion of route to otology before. So I can look at comparison as basically being kind of a template concept for the notion of interaction as a component concept of the notion of process. So in effect, one way we can conceive of the notion of processes in terms of interaction. So you can think of interactions as being sort of like the atomic constituents of process. And to some extent, you can treat the notion of interaction as directly as amorphic with the notion of process.
Forrest: And in this particular sense, again, for the questions that we’re asking, we don’t need to care whether it’s atomic by composition, or not. And by atomic, I’m just simply meaning unsplittable, I.e either the notion of processes are unsplittable because it’s directly equivalent to the notion of interaction, and the notion of interaction is unsplittable because effectively the component parts of it, although necessary and sufficient to make the concept of interaction, or the concept of comparison, you can’t take less than these things. It’s like quarks in subatomic particles. If you separate the quarks, you don’t have the particle anymore.
Forrest: So in effect, there’s this notion of process in terms of patterns and space, force and time, probability and possibility. And that if we’re wanting to understand the notion of comparison, well, again, the same sort of template shows up. It just has slightly different terminology, it cleaves the system in a slightly different way. In this case, we have subject object, sameness difference, content and context. And that basically, regardless of how we think about process, one or another of these divisions into six sub-components is effectively going to be necessary and sufficient in order to be able to reify the notion of the concept of process at all. So in this particular sense, we can… Again, in a lot of this material, what I’m doing is I’m developing this a bit to the point where we can say, “Okay, these six concepts together completely subsumed the concept of process or completely subsumed the process of interaction or of comparison.” And that the pattern of how these assumptions occur are actually the same pattern, it’s the pattern described by the axioms and modalities directly.
Forrest: So in this particular sense, to bring this all the way back to thinking about consciousness as a process and what does all this tell us about consciousness as a process, well, in the same sort of way that time is a intrinsic to the notion of process, it’s an intrinsic to the notion of consciousness. You asked about theories of quantum mechanics and interpretations of quantum mechanics earlier. And so one of the main observations that has been made using the metaphysics, and again, as an example of the kind of reifying power, is that the concept of consciousness itself is bound to the concept of time. It’s also bound to the concept of hard random or either there needs to be some notion of potentiality. So that probability over possibility aspect. And that the you can’t really think about the notion of subject of an objective, I.e that the fact of there being a subjective is itself directly connected to the notion of this temporality to the notion of process to the notion of the other things could have happened.
Forrest: So in this particular sense, I think that even with really strong, as you said, process correlations between consciousness and biology, and I like that you mentioned the digestive system simply because an awful lot of our actual mood and state of being comes from how well we’re digesting food, that in effect, there’s still this underlying hard problem having to do with the selectivity of the notion of locality, the selectivity of this particular locality in time and space and possibility. That is a kind of symmetry breaking that the theory itself of process as described in a purely physicalist sense doesn’t actually provide the tools for. The more that we look at physics, and biology, and chemistry, and those kinds of things, and we come up with really, really good third person models for describing them, we still have this, how do we get a first person perspective from a third person orientation? It’s really easy to see how we go from a first person perspective to developing a third person understanding of the world, I.e, the scientific method giving us a way of having recordable knowledge that’s shareable and all that that has a degree of objectivity associated with it.
Forrest: But going in the opposite direction, what’s the process that moves us from a third person perspective to a first person perspective? And that is, of course, a different order of thinking than that which was initially involved in the scientific method itself. It requires a different kind of toolset. So in this particular case, while I can agree with the direction that you’re going and actually follow you all the way to the asymptotes of that line of thinking, the questions that are being asked about where does the symmetry breaking happened to basically make it so that consciousness is localized to this place, to this moment, and this possibility of what could have happened, remains an open question.
Jim: Let’s wrap it here for today, because we’re going to get into just this question late in our process in some considerable more detail. And Forrest and I agreed before we started today, that almost certainly the amount of material to cover from his work is way more than I could do justice to in 90 minutes, and it’s been at least two and possibly three episodes. And I would say that’s going to be at least two episodes and probably three, so you ain’t seen nothing yet, listeners. We’re getting ready to dive into some of the deeper concepts in Forrest’s work. I think this show was mind blowing. Wait till you listen to the next one. With that, I’m going to wrap it up here, Forrest.
Forrest: Excellent. Yeah. Awesome.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.