10 September 2013

The New Mysterian Myth

"Our internal computers are powerful but unknowable."

Read this on an unrelated site, coming from the mouth of a reporter. Is New Mysterianism actually a popular "pop" neuroscience hypothesis these days? I find it inane to conceive that the brain somehow is incapable of understanding a system as complex as itself - when has that ever been the case in any other discipline - who would say that the endocrine or the lymphatic systems are too complex for the brain to understand, for example? What is the objective measure of complexity, really? And even if the complexity of the brain is such that human scientists had difficulty understanding it, can't we summarize our knowledge of portions of the brain such that we can preserve knowledge of all its essential functions using models that are simpler than the natural reality?   

Of course I may be putting words in the mouth of the author of this line. Maybe they mean that the brain is unknowable for other reasons. It would be more plausible to think that the brain is unknowable because of the type of thing that it is, perhaps. One could argue that there are sorts of things in this universe that the human mind is not particularly suited to understand, and it could be a cosmic irony that our own CNS falls into one of those areas. Still, the power of metaphorical thinking is vast, and everywhere we look with science we seem to make progress. Perhaps these areas of expertise which are not amenable to human understanding are also unknown unknowns, so that even our ignorance is hidden from us, but human research is driven not by sighting down the easiest avenues of pursuit. Rather, our engine has always seemed to be necessity, as the cliche goes. 

I realize now that this post is actually somewhat tangentially related to its prior. We could conceivably measure rate of evolutionary change via changes in the complexity of organisms, but that would get us nowhere for a variety of reasons - the most pertinent of which is that complexity has no measure. Complexity can manifest as a function of the scale of inquiry - a simple baseball seems complex on the atomic level. Complexity can manifest as a function of the sort of inquiry - the baseball is chemically simple, but the physics of its trajectory and attitude from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's glove appear to be dynamical. 

(Probably Unoriginal) Hypothesis: complexity is not so much a property of things as it is a property of inquiries about those things. The brain is not complex, it is the degree to which we want to know it that is complex. Didn't Glieck say as much in his book on chaos, Chaos

Granted, that's chaos, but then chaos is intimately related to complexity. This much I do remember about that book. One, perhaps the one, objective way to measure the complexity of a thing (not the inquiry into it) is to look at how well you can reproduce the thing using abstracted patterns that describe it. This is not possible for all things; measuring how well a thing is reproduced is often only discernible by means that, it immediately becomes obvious, are essentially qualitative. Yet it is possible for some things; you could measure the complexity of a statistical model that way; by how closely its abstracted pattern reproduces an observed distribution.  

How you could ever measure the brain's complexity using that metric is beyond me. And how much of what we understand as humans is the same as the brain in this way? We don't understand the actualities of our surroundings; we don't have objective, un-biased/skewed/anthropocentric knowledge of our existence. That much (and only that much) of postmodernism is true. Yet we do science, and even beyond that, we execute simple heuristics that somehow tell us when the patterns and metaphors we use to represent our existence are close to the mark.  

The reason for that kind of bizarre ability is kind of simple, probably. And I think I've already touched on it here: The complexity of the universe we interact with is tamped down by our physical size, our mental limitations, etc. The arbitrary facts of our existence determine a sort of baseline for us to work against, which has made it much easier to apply metaphors and patterns to the universe that model it (the way we experience it) pretty well. Think how much more intuitive newtonian physics are than quantum physics. It's when we are able to gain insight into scales and ways of looking at things which are not normal for humans that it gets difficult; our pattern-making and metaphor-jumping starts to get messy. Not impossible, but a more difficult grade. It would be a mistake to call this hill a cliff, as the New Mysterians do.
I have no idea of the worth of this concept, but one thought does now occur to me. It serves the wonderful purpose of making epiphenomenalists look silly. They seem to have lost their ability to fight with the pantheists in their effort to exclude consciousness from the Great Causal Chain, as it were.  

Postscript: While I'm on the topic of the brain, I might as well write down something I was thinking about. My head is exploding right now, which is not a good sign (it's another one of those subtle indicators that tells me I'm far out of my depth), but I wonder whether it is wise to confine attribution of sentience to living things only. A rock is not alive; how do we know it has no experience? Nagel asked "what is it like to be a bat?" I want to ask "what is it like to be a rock?" Isn't this something practically religious and unscientific? Well it may be, but then the skeptics, so abhorrent of the unproven that they revile conscious sentience as an "epiphenomenon" are basically giving this illogical idea a helping hand. To call sentience consciousness an epiphenomenon only strengthens this pseudo-religious idea of "pansentience," let's call it. If it has no effect on the brain, conscious experience could just be something that all matter does, stuck in a non-causal loop off to the side of everything else, generated by, but not itself generating, anything at all. Maybe we're just the only lumps of stuff in this big lump of stuff we call the world to emergently gain the ability and the will to communicate our consciousness and make it known to others. How would a rock do that? Would it even want to do that? Does this mean that when we die our conscious experience does not go away, but rather undergoes a transformation? Was our birth into this world the opposite reaction? 

Seems to have at least one good use going for it - pansentience makes the epiphenomenalists look like goobers. When you completely sideline conscious experience, you make it impossible to find evidence of absence in something like a rock. That rock might be experiencing things, but you'll never know, because its experience never has anything to do with anything you might observe!