What is real? — baby don´t hurt me, don´t hurt me…for real!

Pain comes from something, right? Even phantom pain. But even if you dare to ignore pain, the reality of pain, the hurtful experience is VERY real for a human being. May “reality” be expanded to “what hurts is fiction”? Are emotions real, or is there a case to be made, that all reality derives from the concepts, schemes in our mind, interpreting something outside of us and inside of us as “pain”? Is pain, deconstructed as a “construction” of our mind, less “painful” — or can we learn something important about our world and world-views if we dare to put fiction first, evaluating the “case” to be made against reality by an unlikely advocate: science.

This an attempt to discuss “The Case Against Reality”, an article about the work of Computational Cognitive Scientist Donald D. Hoffmann from April 2016, sending in a cybernetician Heinz von Förster and physicist Lee Smolin into the Colosseum of thoughts. [http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/04/the-illusion-of-reality/479559/]

I first have to admit that I deeply believe in fiction — that it comes first and that it toggles, gives rise and creates reality. My scientific training as a Cognitive Neuroscientist conditioned me otherwise, but the sharpness of the scientific blade is only as useful if it is not called to cut itself. When I applied a certain theory of the mind to the mind, a second order dynamic got unfolded, and a lot of my thoughts about reality changed BECAUSE I knew about the body and the brain. The concept of second order cybernetics (cybernetics stems from κυβερνήτης (kybernētēs) “steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder”) are found in positions of Heinz von Förster or Ernst von Glasersfeld and early computer scientists Warren McCulloch who were paying tribute to self-referentiality in models of the mind raising interesting implications and applications with their approach:

… a brain is required to write a theory of a brain. From this follows that a theory of the brain, that has any aspirations for completeness, has to account for the writing of this theory. And even more fascinating, the writer of this theory has to account for her or himself. Translated into the domain of cybernetics; the cybernetician, by entering his own domain, has to account for his or her own activity. Cybernetics then becomes cybernetics of cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics.” [Heinz von Foerster (2003), Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition, New York]

I would moderately call myself a pragmatist radical constructivist (yes, this rhetoric construction is necessary, but this is not the place to elaborate on it) believing that a theory of behaviour of living organisms and machines and control and communication in the animal and the machine is based on the mind of the participant observer. It is therefore based on recursiveness, fiction and storytelling — extending neuroscience and cybernetics into media applications and political science. So I am biased in reading Hoffmanns account and I am giving a warning and a disclaimer: as I think he is basically on the right track — a very important track if we want to succeed to understand ourselves and our actions better — all critique may still only underline my “well-founded conviction” that our lives are much more based on fiction than on “reality”.

Hoffmann: “I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.”

This sounds what I would call with Nietzsche “Perspectivism”. To give a philosopher who works with concepts a primary voice over a scientist´s attempt to form a general philosophy based on observation…you may call more of a political statement than who is more “right”. It sounds or could be to a constructivist word-view of the 60ies and 70ies, radical or not. The “consciousness” part is not so convincing for me, as he seems to put observation in co-extension with “consciousness”. Defining and working with what “consciousness” might be is a hard problem of philosophy and not a given. Those two phenomena may be separate, separable and maybe overlapping, but not the “same”. There might be “realities” we are unconscious of. There might be large conscious parts of our our lives which are not objectively real but feel real. That his mathematical description, his point of view of observation, does tell us something about consciousness might be a big assumption.

“Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviours. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you.”

Even though I do like and tend to send “truth to hell” as well, that seems for me a tad too general and black&white. The middle ground may hit “something”: You run against the palm tree, ouch, even though you were afraid of a tiger painted on a bark 20m away. It does not matter if there is no “palm tree” or “painting” on the quantum level, as we changed the observer´s position to the macro worlds of human size “things”. And those things cut like a knife, may they be safe foam weapon or not. The real knife and the fake one induce the same reactions emotionally, until you get calmed down that one is really not hurting you. ;-) The argument is that symbols are as real as the the thing they symbolise and sometimes even more “real”, more true, growing to be bigger then the thing they stand for. See flags and kings and brands. Evolution has shaped us to believe enough in our environment to hunt and gather, but we do not need to go beyond adaptive behaviour. We are not optimised, we mostly work on common denominators, of successful procreation and feeding, but not if its “optimal”.

The old argument of (cognitive) biologists, that fitness does not equal optimisation only “good enough FOR” (mating, finding food, shelter, etc.) is not entirely killing the argument of “food, I taste it now, it will nourish me enough or not — or kill me if it is too poisonous”. this links to Hoffman´s own argument, that “now” this is subjective, momentary “truth”. You flee because somebody has put up a sign “Biohazard”. True in a LARP, too, where you perceive things as “true”. My argument would be that they have impact BECAUSE of that, even though they are designed and “fake”…fiction helped us to survive. Being nosy may kill you. In our media-ruled contemporary world that might have been turn to the contrary for a long time now…

“Evolution shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones.” So I wondered, could I provide a similarly simple formal foundation for the science of observation?

Gefter: A mathematical model of consciousness.

Hoffman: That’s right.”

No, not so right in my view, as I deem the process of observation and the notion of consciousness as coextensive, overlapping, but not the “same”. Lets try it again with quantum physicist Lee Smolin about the origin of mathematics: “But isn´t it a bit unsettling, that there are concepts existing in our minds whose properties are as objective and immune to our will as things in nature? We invent curves and numbers and mathematics, but once we have invented them we cannot alter them.” and further into his investigation what “time” might be, a concept which evades us as skilfully as “consciousness” does for millennia:

There´s a lesson here, which is neither mathematical beauty nor agreement with experiment can guarantee that the ideas a theory is based on bear the slightest relation to reality. Sometimes a decoding of patterns in nature takes us in the wrong direction. Sometimes we fool ourselves badly, as individuals and as a society. Ptolemy and Aristotle were no less scientific than today´s scientists.” [ in Lee Smolin (2013) Time Reborn: From Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe]

Understanding grows “consciousness” and this is not a mathematical description but a figure of speech. Understanding changes, “proving” the point — in this case the point of view.

“That’s the basic idea of the whole thing. I have a space X of experiences, a space G of actions, and an algorithm D that lets me choose a new action given my experiences. Then I posited a W for a world, which is also a probability space. Somehow the world affects my perceptions, so there’s a perception map P from the world to my experiences, and when I act, I change the world, so there’s a map A from the space of actions to the world. That’s the entire structure. Six elements. The claim is: This is the structure of consciousness. I put that out there so people have something to shoot at.”

Lets take aim: P the perception map. How do you model the functions accurately if you do not have access to a point of reference other than “yourself”? The problem and the bull´s blind black eye lies in between P and A the space of actions to the world. Kant´s old questions “What should I do?” and “What do I know?” do not get answered in a formal way with 6 variables and within a paragraph. And claiming this reduced formula to be “consciousness” can be really taken as a bit of a provocation, but not necessarily a solution to the problem — or adding or deepening understanding about it. It sounds like the re-introduction a part of psychology´s history of the first half of the 20th century: Behaviourism (see e.g. Pavlov and conditioning experiments, for a radical viewpoint B. F. Skinner). Behaviourists treated the brain and internal states as “unknown” as a sort of black box and tried to worked only with the observable behaviour of organisms.

Behaviourism does nevertheless state that the behaviour of a human or an animal is a consequence of that individual’s history, including especially reinforcement and punishment, together with the individual’s current motivational state and controlling stimuli. But, although behaviourists generally accept the important role of inheritance in determining behaviour, they focus primarily on environmental factors, leaving out the gap between “micro-macro”, input — output, a light impulse and an observable reaction — but mostly ignore what the nervous system does in between. The shot goes into that gap. Mind, the gap. My benchmark of a useful theory of the mind would be, if we understand better how the senses and the interpretations of sensory stimuli are connected and maintained — and how this translates into action. Consciousness is in my view part of the gap between sensory “input”, recurrent internal activity and choices, decisions and actions demonstrating beliefs — or wild guesses.

“Now the fitness function doesn’t match the structure in the real world. And that’s enough to send truth to extinction.”

Reality obviously does not match the structure inside our heads (do you find cows and chairs if you cut up a brain — no — and despite some attempts, neuroscientist never pinpointed a single nerve cell only coding for grandmother, the legendary “grandmother neuron” or “grandmother cell”) — and that is enough in my view to put truth asleep and wake up the art of storytelling as our strongest tool to negotiate how to interpret reality. There is more to it than a lack if structural “identity”, it is that the fitness function is recursive. We feed back our action to the world and change it. We are working to make a match happen. We use our hands and tools to form the world so that it matches our internal wishes, images, beliefs and convictions. Truth is not erased by the this, it gets created. We do create a self-fulfilling system of truth — only to forget who tells these stories so that they appear more true, more divine, more “natural”. I guess as a scientist or laymen immersed in sociopolitical dynamics we shall not fall into the trap of crossing ourselves out from the equation…

Let me comment this along with Lee Smolin, which really comes in handy for some of the questions asked in Cognitive Science as well:

“All the major theories of physics are about parts of the universe — a radio, a ball in flight, a biological cell, the Earth, a galaxy. When we describe a part of the universe, we leave ourselves and our measuring tools outside the system. We leave out our role in selecting or preparing the system we study. We leave out the references that serve to establish where the system is. Most crucially for our concern with the nature of time, we leave out the clocks by which we measure change in the system.”

For the sake of the argument I´ll rephrase this quote to fit the discussion about reality:

All major theories about reality are about parts of reality — mostly our reality of senses, radio programs we listen to, TV series we watch, books we read, people we follow on facebook, balls we play with, biology we learn about, mating (which either comes naturally or is educated behaviour), interaction with the Earth in the age of the Anthropocene, pollution, garbage in orbit next to satellites of communication, the search for extraterrestrials through radio telescopes, a Live-Action-Roleplaying game. When we describe parts of our reality, we leave ourselves and our measuring tool outside the system — our mind and body.

We leave out our role in consciously or subconsciously selecting and preparing the system we study. We do participate, we are not neutral observers, our filtering systems are not neutral. We leave out our conscious and subconscious references, our senses, our preformed filters and concepts acting as filters that serve to establish where the system (the body, the mind) is and what it means. Most crucially for our concern with the nature of reality: we leave out consciousness AND the non-conscious parts of our mind by which we measure change in the system. Usually this is done by post-stabilised and -stabilising storytelling, creating a past which was never exactly “like this”.

“When I’m having an experience, based on that experience I may want to change what I’m doing. So I need to have a collection of possible actions I can take and a decision strategy that, given my experiences, allows me to change how I’m acting.”

Here I think the case is made that reality is based on whats affects us now, what we make sense of now, and how we integrate that in our “good enough” filter of remembered experiences. It is putting it into concepts we live by — so that these “things” (mum, pan, wheel, hand, sun, x-ray, hope, love) become real.

There is the weak point, the soft-spot where we can start to do something. We can change THIS reality, we can work on our concepts, but we will have difficulties to change HOW we we perceive them (or technically make them perceptible). Ignorance comes in for help, because we need to block out those stimuli which are irrelevant to us and our goals (normally food, mating, social contact, entertainment, shelter). So the bottom line is that we can change our interpretation of WHAT we perceive, that is our power.

We are now called to be even more ignorant through a rise in anti-intellectualism that our own concepts, our knowledge is not to be trusted, as they are not useful. Making money is, knowing what safety is and how it´s the fault of the others, the foreigners that we do not earn enough money. Money, profit is real. The impact of this is the problem, because it speaks to the reality of our goals. It changes behaviour, it radicalises people, because it plays on their innermost fears.

The case against reality is a double edged sword to call the concept of “engineered access to ultra-violet light” useful storytelling as it is with mathematic equations, but it may also ask the question putting any concept any story one tells at the firing line. This is the engineering we should focus at, that is the science which underlies all human activity. We CHOOSE what part of our world/reality we want to consider worthy to access and ponder about, we choose which parts and dynamics of our environment inner and outer we let change our behaviour. At least I hope that it is most of the time a conscious choice. ;-)

“I can talk to you about my headache and believe that I am communicating effectively with you, because you’ve had your own headaches. The same thing is true as apples and the moon and the sun and the universe. Just like you have your own headache, you have your own moon. But I assume it’s relevantly similar to mine. That’s an assumption that could be false, but that’s the source of my communication, and that’s the best we can do in terms of public physical objects and objective science.”

Exactly. Even though the notion of “exactly” is deceiving because I can only guess what he meant by that and the interpreted overlap of my concepts makes me write “exactly”. We ca call for empathy and overlap of referential systems — which come through education. Less education, less (scientific) overlap. Human understanding might easily share shelter, food and social needs, based on cultural backgrounds and connected ethic beliefs. Not to KNOW about another culture means sharing LESS understanding, thus raising the possibility of exclusion, hate and racism, diminishing the probability of hospitality, empathy and caring. Successful communication is built on effectively assuming that this might have happened to ourselves too, or possibly can happen, too. Populist politics are homing in on that “soft” spot telling people the tale that the others, the foreigners do not want to understand them, do not care, and therefore they shall not care. It abuses the argument, that only people in a distinct local area understand each other well. Thousands of years of worldwide exchange, marriage and co-existence proves this tale wrong — and only focusses on the bad parts of “forced understanding” and obedience through war. What they understand is the fear of their own people, leaving out that we share more with each other than with our beloved house-pets. From head-ache to apples and the moon, this is the best we can do in terms of public opinion about human differences.

“The formal theory of conscious agents I’ve been developing is computationally universal — in that sense, it’s a machine theory. And it’s because the theory is computationally universal that I can get all of cognitive science and neural networks back out of it.”

How does he get to form these words, how did he manifest them, based on what exactly? Observation? Mathematics? Computations? Our words are like our perceptions, they act as filters — excluding this, including that. They help you filter the noise to extract something meaningful for you. If you change your view, your words change, your filters change, so your world changes. You create different technology, write different programs and create different interfaces.

Possibility A) Mathematics. The clean realm of ideal form, where 1 is 1 and a circle an perfect circle, in perfect form nowhere to be found in nature. With Lee Somlin again:

Thus the basic paradox of mathematics: The things it studies are unreal, yet they somehow illuminate reality. But how? The relationship between reality and mathematics is far from evident, even in this simple case.

Possibility B) Observation. Our senses tell us, we see and seeing is truth like with Thomas the Apostle from the New Testament. But what they did not have as filters 2000 years ago was the distinction between digital and analog, between mind and science of what the “Mind” is capable of and how the body translates stimuli into thoughts and beliefs. It is based on a simple 1:1 paradigm of WYSIWYG — What You See Is What You Get. But despite its usefulness in web- and interface design, this is not how our body and our neural system work and it seems already wrong on the sensory level. Sensors do code for only “so and so much at this specific site of the body” but not the “what”. They roughly translate an analogue change in the sensor cell into an “ON/OFF” binary change in excitement of a neuron — meaning the next nerve cell does “fire” through the electrochemical stimulation or not. Somehow we can imagine it acting as a Analogue/Digital converter (sorry for the technical metaphor, it is not meant to describe the process in detail or give it full justice). We compute the differences and the meaning later, we construct it out of incomplete and sometimes contradictory stimuli. It is essential, that our interface with the world is “soft” and not just hardwired 1:1 truth input/output. It seems to be sort of a lot worse that an A/D converter. A lot worse…

“Nevertheless, for now I don’t think we are machines — in part because I distinguish between the mathematical representation and the thing being represented. As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world.”

Well, interesting, finally somebody dares to come forward from the elite side of ivy league Cognitive Science and postulates a fundamental shift in world-view — and reasons in arguments why dismissing reality may make sense. If it wouldn´t be for the Radical Constructivists (Heinz von Foerster, Ernst von Glasersfeld etc.) relativist positions in Postmodernism (Deleuze, Derrida etc.) and the Evolutionary Epistemology extending the path of Nobel prize winner Konrad Lorenz, I would cheer its bold novelty.

It´s a rare position now, as we all seem to be bound by economic pressure to worship the “real” (profit) and the “measurable” more than ever, but putting some basic assumptions of human experience into question is not a novel thing and dates back to ancient Greek philosophers, yes, and also Chinese ones…e.g. by Laozi, Confucius, Mencius and Mozi, who all lived during the second half of the Zhou dynasty (8th to 3rd century BCE), specially in their tendency to be in general suggestive than strongly articulated. Political concerns seem have been favoured over metaphysical speculation in contrast to our notion of “philosophy” but exactly this focus on worldly affairs and what is real for humans in a society make Chinese philosophers fruitful in a discourse about reality. A very blunt denominator here could be the ontological primitive of “experience”…

“I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life — my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate — that really is the ultimate nature of reality”

That reads like a paradox to me as this reality as an objective reality is put into question by him, but we obviously we can perceive SOMETHING right here, right now — and those are the things we may compare in communication. My real feeling of reading this — and that it is not some undecipherable gibberish to me…

“I’m emphasising the larger lesson of quantum mechanics: Neurons, brains, space … these are just symbols we use, they’re not real. It’s not that there’s a classical brain that does some quantum magic. It’s that there’s no brain!”

True. ;-) Only metaphors we live by. But this is the chance, this is how we evolve in using these fake distinctions and creating observers after observers to find our more of this subjective fiction we can still so joyfully and successfully communicate with each other. I am all in on the the hypothesis of Prof. Hoffman, I like his computational approach, but even if it sounds radical, it may not be radical enough.

I think it is even worse as the problem of impact and the problem of ignorance get combined. How does the pulsating radio waves of a distant Quasar change your behaviour? You may read a scientific article about it (thus storytelling, backed up by reasons of the author of course) but you may never go so far as to visit a large radio telescope to see the apparatus itself or the people working with it. No, they are even hyperreal as a direct translation of the waves into audible soundwaves from an ongoing recording may cause you to panic as one interprets it as the message of aliens. And yes, even if you do not believe in the concept of a “brain” — it might still be observable by a participant in a car accident seeing it on the ground next to you head smashed in. Reaction of empathy: feeling sick.

I do stress in addition to Hoffmanns “proof” through mathematics that our access (so also mine or his) to this phenomenon is utterly based on fiction and imagination. It does not mean that extending our senses into space, the cyborg widening his senses as an individual by large radio telescopes, infra-red or ultra-violet sensitive cameras are meaningless or “an illusion”. The blind spot is that scientific extensions of our senses most likely do not affect you in your everyday decisions, other than you being part of a night mission as a Special Ops mercenary or a radio-astronomer. They do not guide your life in what is “relevant” for you every day — “relevant” does vary a lot and gets instrumentalised a lot by those who have interest in designing what is “relevance” — unless you are one of the scientists, a dwindling community of people concerned with the fringes of what we know and what we perceive. STORIES do guide our life. The gadgets which connect us to stories. Reality is based on fiction not on science.

“To some degree, the more true to reality fiction is these days, the more avant-garde it will seem. “ Ning Ken in ‘Modern China is so crazy it needs a new literary genre’ [http://lithub.com/modern-china-is-s...]

Most of the people may have the opinion now that science is useless and a good laugh and a cynical joke may save the country. But to have a good estimate of what we know and what we should and could believe, we need to get educated. That is impossible for a lot of people in this “Age Under Pressure” where the stories they get told make them afraid of the future, afraid to unfold their actual capabilities, because the time they can spend thinking about their reality are diminished to zero. The problem is not:”There is no brain!” — it is the perception:”There is no time!”. There is time. As for the the existence of time (read Lee Smolin), there exists a beautiful filter we form and sculpture every day: our memory — a memory of moments.

What is real then? What is reality?

Well, my angle would be, that we experience reality in the moment. Now. Now….and now. Like pain. It is to be found NOWHERE and now here. And nobody may tell you it is not true — however fantastic your experience might be. Roughly in between a succession of conscious bundled “moments” of 250ms-3sek giving space to action and reaction. Action and reaction like in a Live Action Role-playing game (LARP), action which derives from our understanding of figurative speech which we also cannot evade in text, scientific or not. It shows what is LESS real than the NOW: past and future. The important conclusion for me is not the “Unreal” of our lives, but that reality is CHANGING. That we, every moment are the agents of change, being mostly stuck in the past or the future, creating our “persistent” reality. I agree again with the physicist, who gives that sort of attitude a different wording:

”The fact that it is always some moment in our perception, and that we experience that moment as one of a flow of moments, is not an illusion. It is the best clue we have to fundamental reality.”

This is what I will discuss in depth in my book project, which still takes take shape and draws on experiences, resources and discussions of the last 20 years. I am grateful for any exchange about the topic and happy to cross blades with any argument — luckily we are staying in the arena of fiction, the “fighting pit of words” dealing with the “true nature of reality”. Real swords cut deep and inflict pain, but foam swords are not less real if their fiction has meaning and we choose to act upon it NOW, leading to a change in character, perspective or vision — ultimately creating the story of our lives…