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Consciousness and Epistemology

  1. Mar 29, 2004 #1
    An admittedly sloppily expressed question to get a discussion going which comes at the problem of consciousness from a more epistemilogical angle.

    Goedel’s incompleteness theorems show that for any and every formal and systematic explanation of everything (in all possible universes) there must be a meta-system which cannot be included in the explanation. Many people argue that this is consciousness.

    Equivalently every explanation of everything must contain an undefined term. Some people, but fewer than above, argue that this implies that consciousness cannot be defined within any explanation of it. (i.e. that its existence cannot be explained, even if known).

    Equivalently any proof-based or observation-based explanation of everything cannot explain the ‘essence’ that underlies matter or the ‘ultimate reality’ that underlies the physical universe. Some people (lots of people this time), argue that essence and ultimate reality are consciousness.

    I’ll leave it there and see what happens. Any thoughts?
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  3. Mar 29, 2004 #2


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    These are wild over-characterizations of what Goedel, or any of his successors, have ever proved. He proved that any deductive system that can prove arithmetic is incomplete, and his successors have showed that any system that includes second order propositional calculus is incomplete. But there are forms of reasoning that don't fall into those categories.
  4. Mar 29, 2004 #3

    Les Sleeth

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    I can't see how his characterizations are all that wild. I interpret what Canute is mostly asking is if what math cannot account for might be something essential, unbroken, continuous . . . Such an aspect of reality would be unavailable to both math and reason since they require "parts" to work properly.

    Now, I suppose whether or not Canute is missing the mark with Goedel is still in question. My opinion is that what Goedel said with mathmatical principles Canute has adequately interpreted for philosophical consideration.
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2004
  5. Mar 30, 2004 #4
    Every time one tries to discuss the incompleteness theorems outside mathematics one is criticised. Even Roger Penrose is called a crackpot for doing it. However I want to take the chance. If I have mis-charaterised or misapplied them then whoever thinks so will have to show me my mistake. (which I will gladly accept if it is one) Otherwise it will remain impossible to talk about their implications outside mathematics, and even Goedel speculated on these.

    (In fact they are not all that important to this discussion because what I've said here can be derived from them can be shown in other ways).

    Sleeth - that 'unbroken, continuous' stuff isn't quite what I meant but it doesn't matter. The basic issue is that everything we know suggests that any explanation of everything must leave something out, i.e. there is no such thing as a EoE, and what must be left out in every case seems to be our own awareness.

    This is hardly a new idea, even in phsyics, but it doesn't get much discussion so I thought I'd risk it.

    SelAdjoint - You're right that there are other ways of reasoning. However the question is which type do we use when developing non-trivial complex theories and explanations. As far as I can see we always use formal axiomatic systems.
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2004
  6. Mar 30, 2004 #5


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    I'm not sure how I feel about this general idea. It would be helpful if we could provide an explicit demonstration of how the formal Godel limitations apply to our reasoning about consciousness rather than making sweeping statements which may or may not apply. As it stands, I would say I'm pretty much agnostic on the issue.

    In any case, we don't need to consider Godel's theorem to provide strong arguments that subjective experience cannot be accounted for by a strictly materialist model of reality. If anything, it seems to be a sort of 'cherry on top' of the standard critique. It certainly would be helpful in establishing the critique if it turns out to be a valid approach, and might even provide an illuminating basis for further theoretical results. But, again, to seriously consider it I'd like to see a more rigorous treatment. Has Penrose gone into much more detail than you have here about how the incompleteness theorem formally applies to the way we describe and think about the brain/consciousness?
  7. Mar 30, 2004 #6

    Les Sleeth

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    Sorry if I put my words in your mouth. It is MY opinion :smile: that what mathematical models miss is anything that is indivisible within its functions, and that that indivisibility represents a more general principle. If we "back out" so we can mathematically represent the more general principle's presence in a more general system, and there is still something unrepresentable mathematically, then again we've run into yet a more general principle. Is there an absolute bottom line, where indivisibility may be absolute?

    I think in terms of ontologically backing out of manifest reality toward more and more basic systems (i.e. toward raw existence), one might run into consciousness at a pretty basic level, but I suspect that an absolute most basic level of existence is beneath that and not conscious at all. Why?

    If the absolute most basic level is conscious, then how do we explain learning, development, conscious evolution? Assuming we humans are specific manifestations of something more generally conscious, then the fact that we can learn demonstrates the more general thing learns. But if it is now learned more than it used to be, then we can assume earlier it was less learned. Tracing that back we come to a stage that is unlearned, which suggests consciousness has a begining.

    For that reason I suspect there is a level of existence more basic than consciousness. A raw poteniality which has the potential for consciousness, as well as for everything else that is manifest. In the past I've postulated this raw poteniality is an infinite continuum of non-quantumized "ground state" light. If so, obviously it would be too subtle to be detected by our machinery.
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2004
  8. Mar 30, 2004 #7
    I think I can back up what I've said so far.

    I agree with the first sentence but not the second. This is because I see the theorems as postdictions of non-dual philosophies, or predictions made by them from the other point of view. I include in this Buddhism, Advaita, Taoism etc but also Spinoza and Heidegger. Unfortunately I don't have a quick and ready way of supporting that statement but I'll try to do it as necessary.

    In a general I go along with Penrose's basic notion that the theorems tell something important about the way we think and about our ontology, or evolutionary cosmology if you like, and that they are not just an epistemilogical quirk.

    Yes he has but I don't know him well enough to sum them up properly. He suuggests that the theorems show that human consciousness emerges from a state that is more fundamental and which lies beyond (or underlies) our everyday states (which are mostly derived from computational reasoning). In other words he suggests that the theorems are consistent with what Buddhists et al have always asserted. That is, if those assertions are true then the provability of the incompleteness theorems follow.

    This is because in a non-dual view of reality there is a 'meta-system' for the universe, and for our reasoning about the universe, which must inevitably lie beyond the phsyical universe and beyond systematically logical thought.

    Bear with me on this one. I've never discussed it in any depth before and not much work has been done on it. I don't think Penraose's argument quite works but feel a very similar argument does work.

    Here are some bits and pieces.

    http://cognet.mit.edu/posters/TUCSON3/Yasue.html [Broken]

    BTW if you find yourself in a plenary with him at Tucson (!) perhaps you could ask him if he's considered how his argument relates to the non-dual view of reality and consciousness. I think they got there a few thousand years before him.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  9. Mar 30, 2004 #8
    Not sure I get you but that rings true.

    I agree. Thus Buddhists etc. often assert that consciousness does not exist. (Even though it's also fundamental).

    Not sure about this because 'consciousness' gets tricky to define at all at this depth. Certainly a state beyond 'self' anyway.

    I would argue that it cannot be detected in principle because if it could it could not be 'ultimate' (it's existence would still be realtive or 'dependent'). We would still need yet another state beyond what we can detect. To link back to Goedel - the existence of the meta-system cannot be proved wityhin the system, only infered from the existence of the system. If the universe is seen as a formal axiomatic system (as per Penrose) then 'ultimate reality' is the meta-system (equivalently so is 'essence').

    I prefer to think of it in terms of a perfect condensate of some some sort, one and many at the same time and infinitely peturbable - but it's just a metaphor.

    Your point about the 'continuum' that mathematics cannot deal with is what I've occasionaly tried to argue from Zeno's paradoxes of motion, which are not paradoxes if reality is ultimately undifferentiated. But I haven't convinced anyone yet. Most seem to think that the calculus resolves them.

    This brings us back to Penrose, who argues for some sort of ideal condensate in the brain, linked somehow to quantum coherence and microtubules - but he loses me on that one.
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2004
  10. Mar 30, 2004 #9
    Consciousness is the label which we apply to that which labels things.
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2004
  11. Mar 31, 2004 #10
    Or to this which labels things. :smile:
  12. Mar 31, 2004 #11

    Les Sleeth

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    I meant "detected by machinery" but I wonder if consciousness can. If this absolute stuff is what consciousness rises up out of, then might not returning to the originating condition bring awareness of that since one is now "one" with it, yet conscious?

    I am assuming you are referring to the absolute stuff. Why do you think of it as a condensate? Condensed from what? It seems to me that physical reality is more of the condensate, especially after noticing the universe is flying apart, breaking down, radiating away . . . To me it looks like everything is de-condensing.
  13. Apr 1, 2004 #12
    I don't think there's any 'might' about it.

    Well it's only metaphorical. But evolutionary cosmologists treat the early universe as an ideal condensate, and these substances have some curious properties. I'm only a dabbler in these topics but it seems that a condensate can consist of many individual atoms yet be in such a state of coherence that the identity of these individual atoms becomes subsumed into one, the parts become a whole. In this state (at the limits set by the uncertainty principle) the substance is so peturbable that any disturbance would immediately (and 'non-locally') upset the whole thing. Thus such a condensate could not survive long in an undifferentiated state and would inevitably give rise to relative phenomena, aka universes - to unrigorously mix up a few different metaphors. But I'm not suggesting that this is actually the case, it's just interesting to try to match the concepts of physics with those of other world-views.

    Your notion of a ground-state of non-quantised light seems a little similar (although I don't understand what you mean by non-quantised here) I have a feeling that there's a lot more to photons that QM currently thinks there is. There are some very good arguments for microphenomenalism.
  14. Apr 2, 2004 #13

    Les Sleeth

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    Thanks for the explanation.

    This idea of a "ground state" is one of my most favorite subjects for contemplation. I know it's not what your thread is about, so maybe I'll start another one to see if anybody wants to theorize about it.
  15. Apr 2, 2004 #14


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    I think it should be pointed out here that, as far as I know, Penrose is not a dualist. I'll look into this a little more and then come back. From what I recall off the top of my head, he speculates that consciousness cannot be explained by our current understanding of physics, and it is his intuition that a physics of quantum gravity is what will provide the necessary framework. In particular, he postulates that microtubules within neurons (probably because their purpose is unknown, although this is true in all cells, not just neurons) are aligned according to quantum events, and it is this alignment (on a full-brain basis) that will account for consciousness.

    He doesn't seem to have provided any reason to believe that this is true. He's just taken one unknown characteristic of neurons and, seemingly on a leap of faith, equated with an unknown physics. It is the contention of most neuroscientists that consciousness can be explained using our current understanding of physics and chemistry.
  16. Apr 3, 2004 #15
    I'll look forward to it. However underneath the epistemology the 'ground state' is exactly what this thread was meant to be about.
  17. Apr 3, 2004 #16
    Two quibbles. Firstly Penrose's idea about quantum coherence is not the issue here. It's his views on the incompleteness theorems that are more interesting. Secondly neuroscience cannot explain consciousness in terms of brain without falsifying idealism. Most (all?) philosophers agree that idealism is unfalsifiable so don't hold your breath for a neuroscientific explanation.
  18. Apr 3, 2004 #17


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    I don't believe that a neurological explanation for consciousness would falsify idealism. Isn't that a category error?
  19. Apr 4, 2004 #18
    I don't think so. Lyle and Dennett argue that it is, (and so have to argue that consciousness doesn't really exist), and most philosophers argue that to think science can explain it is to make a category error.

    However IF neuroscience could get over this problem and show that consciousness is caused by brain then it would falsify idealism, which it isn't supposed to be able to do. I don't know why this issue isn't a bigger one in consciousness studies but it doesn't get mentioned.

    I haven't come across a proof that Idealism is unfalsifiable, although it seems to be. I'm wondering if there is a clearly structured proof of its unfalsifiability and whether it is possible to argue that it might be falsifiable.
  20. Apr 4, 2004 #19


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    And I don't believe a formal proof would have any force, for just the inverse reason, because that would constrain empirical reality, which "it is not suupposed to be able to do."
  21. Apr 4, 2004 #20
    Sorry - don't see what you mean here.
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