Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery. It’s Matter.

May 17, 2016

By Galen Strawson

Every day, it seems, some verifiably intelligent person tells us that we don’t know what consciousness is. The nature of consciousness, they say, is an awesome mystery. It’s the ultimate hard problem. The current Wikipedia entry is typical: Consciousness “is the most mysterious aspect of our lives”; philosophers “have struggled to comprehend the nature of consciousness.”

I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is — where by “consciousness” I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.

The nature of physical stuff, by contrast, is deeply mysterious, and physics grows stranger by the hour. (Richard Feynman’s remark about quantum theory — “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics” — seems as true as ever.) Or rather, more carefully: The nature of physical stuff is mysterious except insofar as consciousness is itself a form of physical stuff. This point, which is at first extremely startling, was well put by Bertrand Russell in the 1950s in his essay “Mind and Matter”: “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events,” he wrote, “except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” In having conscious experience, he claims, we learn something about the intrinsic nature of physical stuff, for conscious experience is itself a form of physical stuff.

I think Russell is right: Human conscious experience is wholly a matter of physical goings-on in the body and in particular the brain. But why does he say that we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events we directly experience? Isn’t he exaggerating? I don’t think so, and I’ll try to explain. First, though, I need to try to reply to those (they’re probably philosophers) who doubt that we really know what conscious experience is.

The reply is simple. We know what conscious experience is because the having is the knowing: Having conscious experience is knowing what it is. You don’t have to think about it (it’s really much better not to). You just have to have it. It’s true that people can make all sorts of mistakes about what is going on when they have experience, but none of them threaten the fundamental sense in which we know exactly what experience is just in having it.

“Yes, but what is it?” At this point philosophers like to give examples: smelling garlic, experiencing pain, orgasm. Russell mentions “feeling the coldness of a frog” (a live frog), while Locke in 1689 considers the taste of pineapple. If someone continues to ask what it is, one good reply (although Wittgenstein disapproved of it) is “you know what it is like from your own case.” Ned Block replies by adapting the response Louis Armstrong reportedly gave to someone who asked him what jazz was: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never going to know.”

The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz made the point vividly in 1714. Perception or consciousness, he wrote, is “inexplicable on mechanical principles, i.e. by shapes and movements. If we imagine a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and be conscious, we can conceive of it being enlarged in such a way that we can go inside it like a mill” — think of the 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage,” or imagine the ultimate brain scanner. Leibniz continued, “Suppose we do: visiting its insides, we will never find anything but parts pushing each other — never anything that could explain a conscious state.”

It’s true that modern physics and neurophysiology have greatly complicated our picture of the brain, but Leibniz’s basic point remains untouched.

His mistake is to go further, and conclude that physical goings-on can’t possibly be conscious goings-on. Many make the same mistake today — the Very Large Mistake (as Winnie-the-Pooh might put it) of thinking that we know enough about the nature of physical stuff to know that conscious experience can’t be physical. We don’t. We don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff, except — Russell again — insofar as we know it simply through having a conscious experience.


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76 comments on “Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery. It’s Matter.

  • This is a seriously disappointing analysis from Strawson and looks to be setting us up for his old trope of panpsychism. Why won’t he talk about the informational content of conscious experience and that we have a full account of the informational content of it? That it contrives an astonishing experience is information we can also account for and that once we know it is astonishing there is no missing information. There is no further extractable information that red is red and the Quale is vivid.

    Neuroscientists have no great interest in his problem. Its just that, we the everyday living, get discomfitted looking in to our mind mill. We’ll get used to it after a few more generations. This is not unlike the startling effect of when we started to be able to introspect on our automatic selves. That happened over millennia, this is all rather sudden.

    What use shall we make of our new level of introspection?



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  • Seeing as it’s, to me, quite late on a Wednesday night, almost time for me to lose my “consciousness”, till Thursday, I’ll let the resident philosophers argue about the meaning of my daily absence from the mysterious substance.



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  • You have avoided the issue. A turtle, in principle, could go about all its activities without there being “anyone home” to appreciate the experience. What is the essential difference between a living thing and a robot doing the same things? We are not talking about perception, but experiencing. Another way of putting it. Can it really feel pain or just fake it?



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  • Roedy

    Can it really feel pain?

    Meaning….?

    In the Qualia Red and Pain what extra information apart from red-like-this and pain-like-that and really, really VIVID, pertains?

    How might anticipation of pain, retrospection on pain and immediate recollection of pain “amplify” the perception?

    Why are your baby and infant pains now seemingly non existent? Did you experience them or merely perceive and react to them?



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  • @OP – Every day, it seems, some verifiably intelligent person tells us that we don’t know what consciousness is.

    What in fact we don’t know is the woolly definition and muddled concept of consciousness they hold in their heads.

    The nature of consciousness, they say, is an awesome mystery. It’s the ultimate hard problem.

    All problems are “hard” for those who can’t or won’t study scientific research, so prefer to go rambling through the puzzled incredulity of mind-boggled ancient philosophical speculations.

    The current Wikipedia entry is typical: Consciousness “is the most mysterious aspect of our lives”; philosophers “have struggled to comprehend the nature of consciousness.”

    That is the problem of the introspective mental ramblings of earlier philosophers. The modern philosophy based on neuroscience and psychology, gives some very clear explanations.

    I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is —

    At least they think they do at a vague superficial level.

    where by “consciousness” I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling.

    There are a whole lot of interactions between the brain circuits, neurotransmitter biochemical reactions, and sensory systems feeding inputs to the brain.

    It is laughable to suggest that the average person “knows exactly what consciousness is

    It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.

    The pseudo-mysteries invented by dualist theologians, are basically god-of-gaps gapology, but having said that, the actual biology is complex, so while basic processes are clearly explained by science, a lot of the complex detail has yet to be understood.

    Detailed answers however, will be discovered by experimental work such as this, – not through introspective navel gazing or wandering through the speculations of ancient philosophers!

    http://science.sciencemag.org/content/340/6139/1472
    BigBrain: An Ultrahigh-Resolution 3D Human Brain Model



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  • Here is an account of the “Hard Problem” of consciousness and why it is hard. The rest is easy.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness

    The thing to note about the “hard” part is that once we understand that epiphenomena which the panpsychists like Chalmers and Strawson are advocating are effects with no feedback path, then their whole solution fails because the phenomenon of qualia, of vivid experience, cannot generate reports of its own occurrence, which it most clearly does…We’re talking about it here. The only way we can get reports of qualia is if the information exists in brain states already, or rather (personal) qualia are the product of (personal) brain states.



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  • Phil #7

    Qualia! What precisely is qualia and what precisely is not qualia, that is the question.

    What was that, Phil? Reports of qualia? “Information” existing in brain-states already? So sense impressions, like the feel of sand in our fist, is an experience already present in the brain, is not of an empirical origin? That’s not really true. Everything that doesn’t pre-exist is learned, is of empirical origin. All knowledge begins with experience (qualia) but not all knowledge is derived from experience (qualia).

    The very conditions that make all experience of “qualia” (a highly questionable, vague term) possible originate from the brain itself.

    You’ve strenuously denied the existence of a priori knowledge with regards to what is really a priori, that is, space and causality and time, and now are asserting that qualia, which relates primarily to sensory data, pre-exists? and in the mind?

    The Wiki article does not distinguish between sensations and knowledge. The latter, as I have made clear to no one (although I have supported this point by using, in addition to my own remarks, excellent quotes from a great master), can never, ever produce the latter.

    Epistemology appears quite dead at the moment. Better yet, everything is all twisted, and on its head.

    Confession: I could barely make heads or tails out of your comment. But you seemed to conflate knowledge with sense data and failed to adequately distinguish between the two. Instead, they are lumped together as “experience.”

    If I have in fact again misunderstood you please take the time to point out my mistakes, when or if you can.



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  • Dan #8
    May 20, 2016 at 7:15 am

    Qualia! What precisely is qualia and what precisely is not qualia, that is the question.

    Rational Wiki has some suggestions, but I go along with Dennett!

    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Qualia

    Objectivity and testability

    The concept of qualia has been rejected by some philosophers and neuroscientists as not even wrong, or simply untestable and therefore useless. It also has scientific defenders. It is, after all, hard to dispute that one seems to have qualia, subjectively. One’s pain hurts, and one’s food has a taste, and so on. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and philosopher William Hirstein have suggested that one person’s qualia could be rendered accessible to another once we have the ability to “connect” two brains via some sort of cable. Unfortunately, this technology is a long way off.[1]

    Daniel Dennett, like many in the cognitive sciences, characterizes qualia as a useless and unfalsifiable concept, saying that it must be possible to know whether a change in qualia occurs and whether there is a difference between having qualia and not having them



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  • I haven’t a clue what qualia is. I am not sure anyone does. But sense impressions must surely exist. And we really do experience them.
    I think philosophy sort of died around the year 1900.



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  • Dan #10
    May 20, 2016 at 8:20 am

    I haven’t a clue what qualia is. I am not sure anyone does. But sense impressions must surely exist. And we really do experience them.

    We do, but the understandings of the mechanisms as far as they go, are explained by science. The other untestable stuff like, “How do you know what my brain is actually experiencing”, is guesswork. (even though drugs, trauma, organ malfunctions, etc. are known to have corrupting effects on perceptions.

    I think philosophy sort of died around the year 1900.

    It not so much died, as [Natural Philosophy}(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_philosophy) was absorbed, as the separate specialist sciences joined up into a comprehensive overview. Those who cannot understand the implications of the discoveries of modern science, are simply stuck in the past, with the misconceptions of the past.

    The rubbish refuted bits, fantasies and fallacies in earlier philosophical ideas, which have been dumped, by science, but not by others, persist in the form of theology, where “faith” is believed to trump evidence!



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  • Alan # 11

    What precisely is qualia? I have attempted to gain a clear idea of its meaning and have failed. All I can find is references to various questions associated with it, but no actual definition.



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  • “I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is — where by “consciousness” I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. ” —OP

    Experience is consciousness. Consciousness is experience. Tautological.

    “We know what conscious experience is because the having is the knowing: Having conscious experience is knowing what it is.” -OP

    No. Knowledge in concreto is not knowledge in abstracto.

    “Human conscious experience is wholly a matter of physical goings-on in the body .” –OP

    Yes, this must be the case.



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  • 14
    bonnie2 says:

    @ # 10 – …philosophy sort of died around the year 1900

    Onset of automobile and ‘Victrola'(?) – thinking outside the box whilst inside the “box”.



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  • Personal Remark

    It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I had hardly more than a vague idea what the word “qualia” meant, prior to today. I have just read (this past hour) several rather lengthy papers on this subject. I probably should familiarize myself with some of the thinkers that were mentioned in those papers, but those papers were extraordinarily boring. No wonder everyone on this site has such a low opinion of “philosophy.” —It’s just one damned Ism after another. Everyone should read the great pre 20th Century philosophers – and not these shallow-pates – before they make up their minds.



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  • Dan #15
    May 20, 2016 at 10:30 am

    No wonder everyone on this site has such a low opinion of “philosophy.” —It’s just one damned Ism after another. Everyone should read the great pre 20th Century philosophers – and not these shallow-pates

    In my view, the worth-reading 19th. and 20th. century philosophers, were trying to be scientists.

    In the 21st. century those rational philosophers who try hard enough are scientists.

    The irrational ones, and the stuck in the past ones, remain theologists!



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  • Alan,

    I perfectly appreciate Dennet’s use of qualia. For him they are to mean a quality of experience that has congruence between brains. These are, as he insists, non existent.

    I just need the word to include the meaning “the informational fact of the very vivid quality of conscious or near conscious experience” overlaid upon the mere information in the experience. I added in the “personal” tag to show these are the non congruent kind that we reasonable folk have.

    I am though annoyed that he thought to take a good word out of circulation like that. We need a word for the personal quality of experience. Others use it this way too, fully accepting that in some sense his “red” could even, at a neural level, be my “furry” for all the difference that is made in cultural exchanges.

    The difference is more semantic than it might at first glance appear.



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  • 18
    Pinball1970 says:

    @Danielr-2

    No wonder everyone on this site has such a low opinion of “philosophy.”

    Hi Dan my low opinion is mainly based around the fact I dont know about the history, main players or their publications so I cant really discuss it with you.

    Ie a little bit of jealousy disguised as snobbery!

    I actually do enjoy reading some of the debates but I tend to get so lost in the definitions that I forget what question was!

    I have no idea what the real difference between sensations, feelings experience and /or consciousness is.

    As for qualia…



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  • Alan #11

    We owe quite a lot of scientific theory to the late early modern (!) philosophers. Kant gave us (and Herschell) the nebula hypothesis, one of the cornerstones of modern cosmogony. But also Kant licensed the idea that underlying reality may be wildly different from our sensory reports.

    This is TRUE and powerfull. Faraday imagined the universe consisting only of interacting fields, later spacetime bends and then BELL.

    He then went on to anthropocentric nonsense, but we were still under the cosh of being creatures with all the mind-rotting tosh of teleology. There was no evolution to rescue us from being in some sense intended and fit for an intended purpose.

    The rubbish refuted bits, fantasies and fallacies in earlier philosophical ideas, which have been dumped, by science, but not by others, persist in the form of theology, where “faith” is believed to trump evidence!

    Troo.



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  • I’ve greatly enjoyed going back to philosophy (thanks, Dan), especially now I have a much broader understanding of other sciences other than physics and neuropsychology. I’m starting to think there is a book in it somewhere.

    Philosophy is certainly full of dead bits as Alan alludes to and Philosophy is dreadful at passing consistent judgment upon itself in the face of evidence. The dreadful impoverished models of even consciousness, missing the rich panoply of aspects we now know to pertain, need stark flagging so we can note then step around.

    A Rough Guide maybe?

    Hm.



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  • Dan #8

    You’ve strenuously denied the existence of a priori knowledge with regards to what is really a priori, that is, space and causality and time, and now are asserting that qualia, which relates primarily to sensory data, pre-exists?

    No. Absolutely not. I’m using “qualia” as defined in #17

    “Non congruent” in effect eliminates “a priori”. There are no pre-existing experiences held in common and waiting to be discovered. This is sophistry. Quite unneeded.



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  • Hi, Pinball,

    I greatly appreciate your candor. I suspect that many people dislike philosophy but haven’t actually read much of it. You are one step ahead of them if you can be honest in this way. (I too have my own prejudices.)

    I greatly enjoy debating and discussing but prefer reading, studying, extracting, and absorbing. Many people confuse philosophy with its own history or see it as an endless discussion without end or aim.

    I regard it as the love of ideas and of truth. As Nietzsche said “few are pre-ordained for knowledge.” (The Gay Science, Sanctus Januarius) What I believe he meant was that it is much easier to engage in a perpetual and habitual process of repudiation and doubt, than it is to come across a passage or a phrase, or an entire system, for that matter, and be able to say to oneself: “this is true.”

    That takes a certain courage; what you then affirm may become irrevocable; you are bound to contemplate and accept implications of an unpleasant, i.e. pessimistic, nature.

    The branch of philosophy which can yield the most fruit is, in my opinion, epistemology: the study of the nature of knowledge. Moral philosophy and aesthetics are outgrowths of this. It must first be established what it is we can and cannot know, before any conclusions or theories can be established concerning the subject of the nature of the will’s freedom or lack thereof, or what beauty is or the sublime. Epistemology (or critical philosophy) is the foundation-stone upon which everything else rests.

    What is perception? What are the senses? What is knowledge and what are its limits? What is learned from without (from the outside in) and what originates from us a priori (independently of experience and yet making experience possible). These and other related questions have been answered. There are those who dismiss the conclusions that I allude to, but they do so for the same reasons you gave, yet can’t admit that they understand nothing. They dislike what they haven’t read. There is nothing outdated about, say, Schopenhauer, the greatest epistemologist of them all. Most of what he said has never been refuted. Yet they say it is not science, because neurology was not known to him. His approach, however, was entirely scientific. He alone explained to us what the true nature of consciousness is, and yet spared us the superfluous details associated with that bag of meat known as the brain, and focused solely on what the brain actually accomplishes.

    The neurologist looks inside the brain and tries to find truth about conscious experiences and states that way. He (the great philosopher), on the other hand, looks outward, and through logical deductions, introspection, and careful, minute examination (while proceeding empirically and presupposing nothing) brings to light the true nature of what and how we perceive, sense, and know. This cannot be found by looking IN the brain. Neurology is useful in many ways, useful for the surgeon, the biologist, the medical doctor or student; not for the lover of truth is search of real meaning.



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  • Phil 21, 20

    Sorry I misquoted you yet again.

    No pre-existing experiences? That seems unanswerable, for how could an experience be experienced and not experienced? The conditions that give rise to experience experience, however, is pre-existent. We have to be alive, don’t we? Now just extend that a bit. In order for something to appear to us (and I will call this the object and cast qualia aside) space must already exist; for how could something be presented as extended and yet not in space?

    We should write that book together! Of course we’ll have to iron out a few details.



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  • Today (5/20/16) a radio program called Science Friday, on National Public Radio, was just on the air to interview a fellow named Sean Carroll. The show is about his latest book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. (Dutton, 2016) He’s based in Los Angeles, California.

    I haven’t read it.

    Here is a link to a recording of the show (www.sciencefriday.com).
    http://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/finding-our-place-in-the-universe-one-discovery-at-a-time/



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  • Nothing to do with philosophy, much as it appeals to other people, but more to do with the brain and its functions. It seems that one of the major functions of the brain is to ‘forget’ stuff. Last week’s lunch, who you met at the theatre, that wizzo recipe for asparagus. It’s gone, the brain has successfully deleted unimportant data from our memory. When we look at the actual function of a brain, it is to keep the critter alive, be aware of predators, mating opportunities, food, shelter etc. and in real time ! Does a leopard regret killing that antelope two days ago ? Probably we’ll never know. Leopards have memories too, they know their territory, they know to avoid lions if possible, they understand the techniques of stalking and killing antelopes. Consciousness is a product of brains, which we don’t yet understand, but then we don’t understand dark matter or dark energy either, – yet ! In the field of consciousness, let science science be the one eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.



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  • @ Phil R. 23

    Hi! I used the word neurology incorrectly. I meant to say neuroscience.

    Neuropsychology? As long as it doesn’t replace psychology, I am sure it can be useful.

    So-and-so develops an inferiority complex. The psychologist surmises that this is due, in part, to a denied competition with the father. The neuropsychologist differs, rejects that as non-medical and attributes the patient’s set of symptoms to various neurocognitive defects.

    But are they both causes? Which is the cause and which is the symptom? Maybe they are both causes and both symptoms (to one extent or another) but I vehemently reject the rejection of the psychoanalytic explanation vis-à-vis the personality. If you have any doubt that psychoanalytic investigation can penetrate to the very source, to the very roots of mental conflicts, then read Wilhelm Stekel’s great work Compulsion and Doubt.

    But my point in comment 22 was that brain physiologists may be able to teach us how we perceive or know, what is going on the brain. But this kind of knowledge can never produce wisdom (a word on the verge of extinction). Wisdom consists in understanding what the nature of what we see and know is.—In other words, is it Real or Ideal?



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  • @ Mr DArcy, others

    Hello, Mr. DArcy. I hope you are well. I enjoyed your comment.

    I understand that philosophy isn’t your thing. What about psychology? Have you read Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis? He presents his theory of the parapraxes (slips of the pen, tongue, etc.) in those lectures. I mention this because you mentioned forgetting stuff. Clearly, “accidentally” leaving one’s umbrella in an attractive person’s apartment, is not “caused” by activity within the brain alone. The desire to return to that apartment has something to do with it too, doesn’t it?

    I must confess that the question: “what is the difference between the physiological and the psychological?” is not so easy to answer.



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  • Oh yes forgetting stuff is important. Unfortunately I never yet yet left my umbrella accidentally / on purpose in some desirable female’s house, – as far as I remember ! That memory would have stuck ! Bugger the weather outside !



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  • Dan 28

    The mysticism you put into “desire” is why you (or Steve) have not awakened the desire in me to read the books you are advocating, that and the time they were written that is. Apart from Dennett, who is in my to read pile, you have given me no reason to want to. The only reason I can find so far is so I can debate who is the greater of the philosophers which seems like a bus mans holiday than a whorthwhile reason, to me. This conversation has been going on for a while and still nothing from you that has captured an interest to make me choose philosophy as my major.

    Desire is and must be in the brain or its just woo disguised as a genuine discussion. Desire to eat translated as a need to eat and a survival technique of evolution which could, when combined with other “desires” and the complicated interactions, be the basis for all desire(s). It is an action of the brain and not a stand alone mystical occurrence or entity. I am an electrician and no matter how complicated a circuit gets, the expierience of light or heat (say) has no mystical content and mysticism offers nothing in fault finding.

    I/we need a practical example (no philosophical gobbledegook ) of what Qualia are please. Anyone?



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  • Olgun.

    I’m going to point you at

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualia

    to show you the range of its meanings.

    Sadly my definition is not in there. The closest is the “raw feels” description, but I add the detail that the information within the conscious experience has a single super-added piece of information that is signalled by the startling quality of a vivid reality. This is the quality that brains add to some the the information that is processed by retinas and cochlears etc. but not to all. It is the quality that alerts us to the potential salience of the other information that sits under it. This is exactly the conscious experience of perceived reality and that this subset of what our sensors have taken in deserves at least to be written to short term memory to be further triaged in the face of further perceptions and retrospections and get to the next stage of memorising, or be dicarded.

    So the information packets of bound perceptions (the brain ties near simultaneous perceptions together…it lip syncs etc.) are internally (subconsciously) tested using a variety of heuristics and those passing the test of potential salience have the single super-added quality of vividness, conscious experience, they become qualia, the stuff of conscious experience.

    Dennett is rejecting the old ideas of the quale, as some all-of-a piece raw feel and quite rightly. The single essential and true idea (I think) is that these are not in any sense real, but that everything including the vivid quality is entirely the product of brain states. This is like saying there are no things that are “intentions”, there are only brain states. True but… This is why I say he causes a semantic problem of taking away the words we need to invoke ideas of “raw feels”.

    Dennett gets “Mary the colour scientist” wrong as he is not up to speed on his neurology. Paul Churchland is. Indeed he is quite the scientist we need here having written scientific papers on vision. Churchland knows that Mary’s brain will not grow to perceive an absent stimulus. Brains grow to their task.



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  • Qualia: It is a bullshit concept. It refers to nothing except a label for pulses in your neurons.

    Olgun! Desire is in the brain? Ha-ha. (Sorry) Then we are our brains. We don’t have desire; the brain desires. We don’t have selves, only brains. The brain loves, the brain hates, the brain feels. (I don’t know what the self is but it sure as hell isn’t that bag of meat we call the interior of the brain. That isn’t me.) Ever see the assassination of JFK? His self exploded all over the place.

    Get a scan of your brain. Look for yourself and your desires there. And say hello for me. Gotta go. My brain is hungry. What’s in the fridge?

    -Brain



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  • The more unintelligent a man is, the less mysterious existence seems to him. —Arthur Schopenhauer

    [This is not always the case, but is often the case, and I am alluding to no one in particular. —DR]



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  • Desire Under the Elms

    We are conscious of desire. But saying that desire is IN the brain is DEFINITELY missing something. The brain doesn’t think. Nor does it will or act or live! And that which knows (thinks) can never know itself. Think about that. That’s all I ask. But don’t let yourself be led to anything remotely resembling transcendent speculation. God forbid.

    Science is great and…

    “Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme.”

    But…

    “Science without epistemology is – insofar as it is thinkable at all – primitive and muddled.” —Einstein



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  • Greg

    I always found this phrase by Steven Pinker telling: “Consciousness is a by-product of the brain being on.”

    The position that the vivid nature of conscious experience is a spandrel, an accidental feature, of evolution, and of itself, of no significance, is quite common. This is always possible but we can sidle up to this position and identify rather more than simply “the brain being on”. On in what way? Is the way that is on unusual? I think there are two ways that the brain mechanisms are notable during conscious experiencing and that, though not closing the last bit of the loop of “The Hard Problem” it may allow us to get some sort of better feeling for how it happens and in time with sufficient familiarity may become a sufficient explanation…



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  • Repost from Youtube. Link at end of message.

    “My head-on auto accident shut my conscious mind off, for over an hour. I was told that I was awake, but I have no memory of the crash. Thought experiment for the medical personnel caring for Korean farmer Nam-ki Baek. Stimulate the various senses while the body is on life support. Try to wake up the mind. Have family members (important for voice recognition) read books, tell stories, talk, and express emotion next to the body, and record it to be played back at a later time. Touch the skin, massage the body, expose it to ice cubes and heat packs. Use electronic devices to stimulate the muscles to keep the tissue tensile strength and mitochondria in various limbs active. Periodically open the eyes with mechanical help, and use special glasses to stimulate the optic nerve system with images of family videos, or primary colors, or familiar scenes, peoples faces expressing emotion, showing favorite stories or movies. Even when someone thinks a lack of brain wave readings means nothing is happening, we don’t yet know the chemistry of a brain’s switching mechanism to turn on/off consciousness. Put tasty food in the mouth, to stimulate the tongue. Use perfumes to stimulate the nose. Try to jump start the mind.”

    Link: huffingtonpost.com/sukjong-hong/etc.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sukjong-hong/korean-farmer-injured-protest_b_8831272.html



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  • Thanks Phil.

    If you can remember, there was a thread where the illustration showed more information coming back from the Occipital Lobe than going in from the Visual Cortex (think I’ve got those parts right. Cant find the link just now). I said the information coming back and still active when the eyes are closed could be the reason we dream and you said I could be right?

    Is the matching up of stored images and the input from the eyes the qualia? The reality we know with new stuff getting through to the Occipital Lobe to be stored?

    I read on for a while and clicked a few links on your Wiki page and somehow came to this. Can the brain make up its own qualia in certain cases of blindness?

    The biggest question for me is whether I am heading in the right direction?



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  • Dan

    My brother-in-law’s favourite response to “are you hungry Jock” was always “If I don’t eat, I don’t shit. If I don’t shit I die”. Which is your ‘self’. The eating or the shitting?



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  • Olgun

    Neither?

    (We are knowing beings. And as I said above, that which knows can never know itself. Whatever the self is, what we are, cannot be known; it is inscrutable. I think the problem of self is another hard problem. Non-human animals have no selves, or do they? Do we? What is its nature?)



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  • Olgun #42

    Excellent recollection

    The “Life Driven Purpose” thread (pg-52) went through a lot of these ideas and this

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/02/life-driven-purpose-pg-52/#li-comment-198188

    gave my understanding of this process of returning data to the thalamus (a kind of integrating switchboard).

    Most of my dreams are built of rather feeble (grey, only moderately vivd) experiences. As just dreams as opposed to the interpolating device that smooths over our discontinuous waking perceptions, these represent a fascinatingly depleted sort of qualia. The heuristics that judge potential saliency seem not to be too convinced that they have detected the real McCoy. Mostly they hover below the brink of potential saliency, are not conscious experiences and therefore not tagged for the chain of increasingly reliable memorisation. Woken we may catch these things with their bound packets of information (its my friend from school, she’s smiling funnily) and this added piece of information of vividness, but this latter is not as notable as when waking. It was vivid enough to get it into short term memory, so I could access it when awoken, but unless I bolster it with further thoughts and memorable associations, to carry it to the next stage of memorisation, after sixty seconds or so the grey whisp will be gone forever as a new biographical memory.

    Qualia, information packets with a vividness/potential-saliency tag come not just from processed perceptions with the interpolations of the “Prosaic Apparatus” but also from the REM sleep ramblings of that same apparatus working on fitful subconscious thoughts/recollections bravely attempting to stitch them together into a coherent (ignorable) narrative, but still further from plain waking recollections, day dreams. These latter may be a little more vivid again than dreams. The added vivid/potentially-salient tag can be stronger but will always be paler than that of actual waking perceptions.

    Some people partially lose contact with a lot of their semantic memory (how the world works and is). Schizophrenics when glowing. Here it would seem the Prosaic Apparatus fills the semantic memory gap, inventing from what cultural semantic memories remain a possible solution to complete the narrative. This is when the hallucinated information packets are tagged with qualia quite as vivid as normal waking experience.

    Many other sensory or memory access deficits occur. My tinnitus is an attempt to plug a high frequency defecit in may battered cochlear. The newly blind suffer/enjoy Charles Bonet Syndrme with visualisations of the most vivid and robust qualia they’ve experienced.

    This is why qualia (packets of information with the tag of vividness) should not be taken as the tag for waking conscious experience, but the tag for potential saliency (could be interesting, could be useful, best make a note.)



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  • Dan #40
    May 21, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    The brain is a product of the will to knowledge.

    The will to gain knowledge is the product of the brain!

    Cycle these repeatedly for brain development and expanding knowledge.



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  • The brain is the product of the need to co-ordinate muscles and produce more useful action.

    “Knowledge” (and muscles!) are evolved intermediaries…

    (This in turn serves thermodynamics.)

    This hasn’t changed.



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  • Phil, Alan

    Knowledge is a product of the brain, and the brain is the product of the need for (or will to) knowledge. I suspect that Darwin, although he might not have put it quite that way, would have agreed.

    {Speaking of the will, Phil, I wrote two rather good ones on the Free Will thread.]



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  • Dan #49
    May 22, 2016 at 10:28 am

    Knowledge is a product of the brain, and the brain is the product of the need for (or will to) knowledge. I suspect that Darwin, although he might not have put it quite that way, would have agreed.

    Just to expand on my comment:-

    The brain generates knowledge from sensory inputs, but in doing so it develops the brain circuitry in specific ways and thought habits.

    Where these habits are to seek further knowledge, the process cycles on increasing specialist capacities!



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  • Alan4discussion,

    I’m presenting some links to feature some interesting research and news on the possible relationships between what a person eats, their gut bacteria, and their mood/consciousness.

    Web: theatlantic.com
    Title: When Gut Bacteria Changes Brain Function
    Author: David Kohn
    Link: (Retrieved 5/22/16 from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/gut-bacteria-on-the-brain/395918/)

    Web: nytimes.com
    Title: Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Explain Your Mood?
    Author: Peter Andrey Smith
    Link: (Retrieved 5/22/16 from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/magazine/can-the-bacteria-in-your-gut-explain-your-mood.html?_r=0)

    Web: onr.navy.mil
    Title: Gut Feeling: ONR Research Examines Link Between Gut Bacteria, PTSD
    Author: Warren Duffie, Office of Naval Research
    Link: (Retrieved 5/22/16 from http://www.onr.navy.mil/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2016/Gut-Microbes-Effect-On-PTSD.aspx)



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  • Jeremy #54
    May 22, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    I’m presenting some links to feature some interesting research and news on the possible relationships between what a person eats, their gut bacteria, and their mood/consciousness.

    It has been well known for some time that gut bacteria acting on food can pass chemicals into the blood to affect neurotransmitters, or by affecting the endocrine system. There are psychoactive effects from ingested substances (Obviously some like alcohol, and drugs.)
    There are various plants and fungi which contain drugs (eg alkaloids) or toxins which affect the brains of animals which eat them.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locoweed

    Ergotism is thought to be a source of symptoms described as “witchcraft” with mania, melancholia, psychosis, and delirium, all symptoms reported in the Salem witchcraft records.



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  • Dan

    That Robert Epstein article is a serious fire hazard. Stuffed with straw men. Why not learn about this stuff properly rather than finding fringe material that makes you feel better? Steven Hawking’s opinion on neural matters is a problem?

    The IP metaphor indeed. Its like he has never read a single paper on how inference generation can happen using Heb and Bayes but with not a single hint of Boole. Unreliable? You bet. Hovering on the brink of chaos pattern recognition, infant brains randomly wired for synaesthesia…. Who proposes the IP metaphor but professionals baby-talking the general public?

    AI now wins when it processes information not like computers, but like brains. The best recognition algorithms are those that evolve themselves into functionality from a random jumble of neuron-a-like entities



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  • Dan 51 and Phil 57

    He gives himself, and his own doubts, away here:

    And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast
    aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the
    end, replaced by actual knowledge.

    DoH!!!



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  • Alan4discussion,

    Regarding Ergotism and Saint Anthony’s Fire, to what degree do you suppose trends in the business market (Feudal system) may have enhanced the proliferation of the sickness, if at all, assuming mills and storage silos became too big to expeditiously deliver rye, from the farm to table? If the farm crops had been smaller, along with smaller silos and mills, I would think there would have been less time for the rye to rot before the grain was eaten.
    Regardless, the disease and hallucinations of ergotism certainly must have fanned the flames of many a witch’s pyre, considering how religion has dealt with other diseases.

    Clip from Joseph Jenkins book (2nd Edition, 1999) Humanure Handbook, page 94 and page 95 excerpt:

    "Andrew D. White, cofounder of Cornell University, writes, “Nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offenses against the Almighty. In the principal towns of Europe, as well as in the country at large, down to a recent period, the most ordinary sanitary precautions were neglected, and pestilences continued to be attributed to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan.”(1)
    It’s now known that the main cause of such immense sacrifice of life was a lack of proper hygienic practices. It’s argued that certain theological reasoning at that time resisted the evolution of proper hygiene. According to White, “For century after century the idea prevailed that filthiness was akin to holiness.” Living in filth was regarded by holy men as evidence of sanctity, according to White, who lists numerous saints who never bathed parts or all of their bodies, such as St. Abraham, who washed neither his hands nor his feet for fifty years, or St. Sylvia, who never washed any part of her body except her fingers.(17)
    Interestingly, after the Black Death left its grim wake across Europe, “an immensely increased proportion of the landed and personal property of every European country was in the hands of the church.”(18) Apparently, the church was reaping some benefit from the deaths of huge numbers of people. Perhaps the church had a vested interest in maintaining public ignorance about the sources of disease. This insinuation is almost too diabolical for serious consideration. Or is it?
    Somehow, the idea developed around the 1400s that Jews and witches were causing the pestilences. Jews were suspected because they didn’t succumb to the pestilences as readily as the Christian population did, presumably because they employed a unique sanitation system more conducive to cleanliness, including the eating of kosher foods. Not understanding this, the Christian population arrived at the conclusion that the Jews’ immunity resulted from protection by Satan. As a result, attempts were made in all parts of Europe to stop the plagues by torturing and murdering the Jews. Twelve thousand Jews were reportedly burned to death in Bavaria alone during the time of the plague, and additionally thousands more were likewise killed throughout Europe.(19)
    In 1484, the “infallible” Pope Innocent VIII issued a proclamation supporting the church’s opinion that witches were causes of disease, storms, and a variety of ills affecting humanity. The feeling of the church was summed up in one sentence: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” From the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the seventeenth centuries, women and men were sent to torture and death by the thousands, by both Protestant and Catholic authorities. It’s estimated that the number of victims sacrificed during that century in Germany alone was over a hundred thousand.
    The following case in Milan, Italy, summarizes the ideas of sanitation in Europe during the seventeenth century:
    The city was under the control of Spain, and it had received notice from the Spanish government that witches were suspected to be en route to Milan to “anoint the walls” (smear the walls with disease-causing ointments). The church rang the alarm from the pulpit, putting the population on the alert. One morning, in 1630, an old woman looking out of her window saw a man who was walking along the street wipe his fingers on a wall. He was promptly reported to the authorities. He claimed he was simply wiping ink from his fingers which had rubbed off the ink-horn he carried with him. Not satisfied with this explanation, the authorities threw the man into prison and tortured him until he “confessed.” The torture continued until the man gave the names of his “accomplices,” who were subsequently rounded up and tortured. They in turn named their “accomplices” and the process continued until members of the foremost families were included in the charges. Finally, a large number of innocent people were sentenced to their deaths, all reportedly a matter of record.(20)"




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  • Jeremy #61
    May 23, 2016 at 10:07 am

    Regarding Ergotism and Saint Anthony’s Fire, to what degree do you suppose trends in the business market (Feudal system) may have enhanced the proliferation of the sickness, if at all, assuming mills and storage silos became too big to expeditiously deliver rye, from the farm to table?

    It would be the seasonal climate in the fields plus infection in the soil which would determine the extent of the contamination, but obviously transportation and mixing of grains from different sources in mills, could have an effect.

    If the farm crops had been smaller, along with smaller silos and mills, I would think there would have been less time for the rye to rot before the grain was eaten.

    I think the idea of grain rotting in silos/granaries, is a mistaken concept, but localised milling could have isolated outbreaks more.

    Ergot is fungal disease of growing Rye, with the Ergot replacing the grain in the initial harvesting.
    It thrives in wet seasons. This link explains it.
    http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/wong/BOT135/LECT12.HTM



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  • It seems to be the case that consciousness is rather a diffuse non physically attached attribute but rather a quite discrete and measurable electrochemical process. We are not special or magical beings, we are basically nothing more than Robots: very complex and redundantly imperfect flesh and blood self-replicating organic surviving machines, with high and complex cognitive functions including intelligence and self-conscience. Getting into details about our most singular human special attributes, Self-conscience (defined as the attribute consisting in be aware of our own existence, identity and individuality separate from anything out of our physical boundaries) has being operationally proposed according to Nicholas Humphrey in “The Inner Eye” as the feedback simulation model representing our same self being inside of our minds (functional integrative receptor/effector computational data analysis center in our brain) in order to establish an effective feedback from all the subtle and varied characteristic real time inputs from other highly complex interactive fellow psychological beings in a context of a highly social interactive environment. Evolutive conditions on such peculiar environment favored and set up this level of psychological insight as a key determining factor to create a selective driving force to improve gradually this attribute over thousands of generations of previous ancestor hominids. To add more on this subject, there is even newer information that points out that the morphological conscience integrative site has being found: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24967698 also long term memory hardware storage: http://newsroom.cumc.columbia.edu/blog/2015/07/02/long-term-memories-and-prions/ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3843876/

    Well, here are still a lot of unsolved questions, but at least what we can have for granted about any natural phenomenon as is this one is that when there is a satisfactory empirically evidenced-based scientific explanation any previous alternate metaphysical or supernatural explanation is obsolete…



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  • So being self aware is to “know” consciousness. Seems snappy and to the point except it is not. There have been accounts of apparently comatose patients being aware of what is going on “locked in syndrome”. All the electromagnetic brain activity measurements indicate no activity. So where is this ‘stuff’ that is material, real and measureable that indicates this patient can hear and understand the family visits, the doctors prognoses etc? I attribute no supernatural agencies to this phenomenon but I should be interested in a scientific explanation.



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  • Michael Taplin #64
    Aug 17, 2017 at 11:36 am

    Welcome Michael.

    So where is this ‘stuff’ that is material, real and measureable that indicates this patient can hear and understand the family visits, the doctors prognoses etc?

    Anecdotes can be misleading – especially those from hearsay from some religious sources, who have views they really, really, really, want to believe.

    However, you may find some interesting information on the brain and consciousness in this linked recent discussion!

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2017/07/open-discussion/#li-comment-224993



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  • Michael, others

    It is significant that every definition of consciousness that I have ever read uses synonyms or descriptions to define it. Consciousness is “awareness” or “activity”, etc. Could it be that our language cannot do justice to certain problems without considerable difficulty?

    Kant’s analytic statement comes to mind, that is, a statement that adds nothing to our knowledge as the predicate is contained implicitly in the subject. And descriptions presuppose something that hasn’t yet been defined: what is “active”?

    Analytic (adds nothing to our knowledge): Water (in a non-frozen state) is liquid. Consciousness is awareness.

    Synthetic (adds to our knowledge of a given subject): water is H20.



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  • Dan #67
    Aug 17, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    Consciousness is “awareness” or “activity”, etc.
    Could it be that our language cannot do justice to certain problems without considerable difficulty?

    I think you have identified the superficiality problem of the philosophers of the pre-brain-scanning era.

    Kant’s analytic statement comes to mind,
    that is, a statement that adds nothing to our knowledge
    as the predicate is contained implicitly in the subject.
    And descriptions presuppose something that hasn’t yet been defined:
    what is “active”?

    I think Olgun’s link @#66, and my links on the Open Discussion, give the clear neurological description of electrical and chemical conscious brain activity, which is the evidence which the speculations of the early philosophers lacked.



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  • Alan,

    I am curious to know what you think of this statement – a typical one – by the so-called foremost philosopher of the 20th Century, Wittgenstein. Isn’t it unscientific and deadening?

    Just for once, don’t think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all!—For that is the way of talking that confuses you. (Philosophical Inv.)



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  • Dan #69
    Aug 18, 2017 at 5:29 am

    Just for once, don’t think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all!—For that is the way of talking that confuses you. (Philosophical Inv.)

    There is no definition of “understanding” or “mental process”, so the statement would at best be based on woolly thinking, and at worst indicate a lack of any understanding of substance of either word! – Pure semantic waffle – unless there is some associated text giving an evidenced context.
    I think his notion of “confusing you”, is a psychological projection of the self-contradictory double-talk, which is confusing him!

    It looks like another misdirected “Emperor’s New Clothes” – pseudo-sophisticated search for meaning in semantic gobble-de-gook!

    It would be difficult to conceive of some form of “understanding” which did not include a mental process or brains! (Unless we go into AI computer circuits!)



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  • Dan,

    W’s point isn’t so much about thinking. Its about language. He’s trying to get you to notice something about language. Its a point a little like the use/mention dichotomy of words but rather more subtle and slippery. His illustrations though are interestingly hampered by, f’rinstance, the modern attitude to clocks and time. I think some need re-writing.

    On consciousness. I think I can give a useful definition of the conscious state. But I’ll just be repeating what I have said for a few years now.

    Ollie,

    Great find. This was always going to be the answer. But its nice to see facts.



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  • I was wrong. I am not convinced that thought is matter. Obviously it is not a form of matter!

    I don’t see how we are justified in (smugly asserting) that thought is matter. It has no physical characteristic, unless you’re talking about science fiction.

    Phil,

    I am frankly tired of all defenses of Wittgenstein, or attempts to clarify what Wittgenstein said. He is nothing to me, doesn’t exist for me. Of course you are free to write what you want, especially since I sometimes bring him up. And it is not just about language. That deranged SOB denied the existence of everything!



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  • attempts to clarify what Wittgenstein said. He is nothing to me,

    Well that will be a relief. I have little love for him though he he said one critically important thing and prompted Poppper to his second best observation.

    W was mentally unstable, was an insufferable little prick but at least he rejected all his most pretentious ideas from his precocious start. If anything he rather played down the flamboyant style in later life, rather under achieving.

    I have though felt the need to defend him from ridiculously emotional judgements.

    Thoughts are indeed physical. They are no more immaterial at any moment than the ideas of Aristotle. I could destroy the existence of Aristotle and his ideas if I had good enough knowledge of his ideas’ physical whereabouts. It would be a gargantuan but not inconceivable task to destroy his legacy.



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  • Phil

    I can’t help bringing him up.

    My dislike of W is emotional and intellectual. He didn’t believe in definitions. Now you’re a scientist. Doesn’t that irk you just a little?

    I find the late Wittgenstein pretentious. I never read his “Tractatus.”

    What did he say of value? Please tell me.

    Experiment: I will open my copy of the Investigations at random and see what he says.

    “When I say ‘I am in pain’, I don’t point to a person who is in pain, since in a certain sense I don’t know who who is.” (Section 404)

    Typical W. If he was a serious thinker instead of an obscurantist he would delve into the difficult subject of personal identity and try to shed light on it instead of adding to the confusion!!



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  • Dan

    He didn’t believe in definitions. Now you’re a scientist. Doesn’t that irk you just a little?

    No, because he was talking about language and about metaphysics. We have mathematics (the God of metaphor) and logic. Scientists know that definitions of mooted entities are meaningful only in relation to other tentative entities but that by mapping back to reality and mastering the prediction of such entities in experiments we can know we have found something near enough to an essential thing.

    For one final time: His contribution was that you cannot prove things reliably with metaphysics.

    That quote makes no sense unless you realise that he holds that ostensive definitions are functional and foundational in language, so that the immediate paradox is built upon a deeper and more subtle problem.

    And no, that is the last of it from me. No more W.



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  • Damn!

    Much as it came to piss W off, Popper was right. By using ostensive definitions i.e. pointing at experimental results, mooted (metaphysical) entities become effectively valid….or not!

    I’ve said all this too many times now.



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