ESSAY SUBMISSION: Knowledge and Ignorance

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Shajan

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Sep 13, 2020, 7:01:17 AM9/13/20
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Knowledge and Ignorance

Debates on Consciousness are often clouded by a lack of clarity in the usage of the word ‘knowledge’. For example, the phrase ‘knowledge of my own consciousness’ attributes an experiential meaning to ‘knowledge’ where as it only has a representational meaning in scientific discussions. Neuroscientists can study electrical excitations in my brain and gain knowledge, but this is not the same as knowing my consciousness as I experience it. How is my private experiential knowledge related to the scientist’s objective knowledge? Exploring the connection between knowledge and biological evolution could offer some help.

Let us begin by suspecting the validity of all kinds of knowledge except ‘objective knowledge’, the kind of observer independent knowledge that is science’s concern. Let us ignore words such as ‘consciousness’ and ‘mind’ to begin with, as these appear too vague. What exactly do we mean by consciousness? There are neurones and electrical activity in the brain but where is consciousness located?

I don’t deny the reality of consciousness. It is the one thing I am absolutely certain about, but I find it difficult to talk about it unambiguously. I could remain silent in my conscious experience but I am on a slippery slope the moment I begin to express my thoughts. It appears sensible to avoid this difficulty and start by taking baby steps on firmer ground. 

Of course, this approach has its limitations. Objective knowledge tells us nothing about the intrinsic nature of the anything; it is only a ‘view from the outside’. Moreover, objective knowledge is possible only because we have consciousness in the first place. I acknowledge it is a tricky situation, but let us ignore these difficulties to begin with. Objective knowledge is real, it works and it is more likely to lead to consensus through rational arguments.

There is one thing we can agree about all living things – the fact of biological evolution. Let us try to understand knowledge as a product of biological evolution. Let us ask how we, complex molecular machines evolved through natural selection, are able to generate knowledge about the world? This is the only way to study ‘knowledge-capable-life forms’ objectively. Words such as ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ cannot be used to explain knowledge because we do not know what these words mean. There is no mind to begin with, only the objective certainty of biological evolution.

Life evolved from simple self-replicating molecules to monstrously complex trees and animals over a period of 3.5 billion years. ‘Knowing’ was not around for almost the entire duration of this growth and proliferation. It is a very recent entry on evolutionary time scale. How did the transition from ‘knowledge-less ape’ to ‘knowing man’ happen? How did early humans perceive themselves and their environment?

I am sitting comfortably in my room typing these words into the computer. There is a beautifully painted jug on the side table. I know it is shaped out of clay, painted by a skilled artisan and fired in an oven to give me the comfort of storing water. Let me do a thought experiment. I want to travel back in time, to the agonising perplexity of my earliest human ancestor seeing the world for the first time. I forget the history of water jugs, chemical composition of clay, structure of atoms, and along with it every bit of knowledge that makes me a civilised human being. I stare at the jug through the emptiness of my mind. Isolated in pre-historic vacuum, far away from the origin of languages, my mind has lost its words. Universe is confined to this remarkably coloured object and myself. How do I describe my experience? What is this thing I am staring at? Captivated by its shape and colour, I hesitantly stretch my hand to explore. I tremble at the feeling of contact with this strange object and withdraw, only to try again and again. What are the secrets of this jug's being? I don't know. Words have flown off, leaving only a smothering vacuum. I do not know how to express my perplexity. What exactly is the thing known to my civilised contemporaries as a jug? What is left in a jug if I empty it of all the ideas and associations that have got into it in the past ten thousand years? 

I am confronting the puzzle that haunted generations of early humans - the task of describing the ‘thing-in-itself’. Our ancestors at the dawn of awareness lived in a puzzling world of mysterious objects. Generations of early humans lived in terror of this ‘unknowability’. 

This puzzle slowly dissolved with the invention of language. Easiest way to deal with any mystery is to cover it up. Early man attempted to tame the unknowable ‘thing-in-itself’ by giving it a name. Act of naming is the most basic form of objective knowing. It is a highly effective trick of transforming the strange and unknowable into the familiar known. Names are objective entities for the group of people who share this knowledge. The glowing sensation within, as experienced by the hairless ape, appeared less worrisome with a name, the simple sounding ‘I’. The wild, fearful thing that pounces on the hunter became an objective fact after it was named "qxzitlntol" - something that can be spoken of and acted against. Real objects are mysterious and unknowable. Knowing is an act of de-mystification, a practical trick of concealing the strangeness of the unknown behind a veil we call ‘knowledge’.

But how can a molecular machine pull out such a trick? We are forced to postulate an agent, a part of ourselves with the task of exploring and covering up the mystery of things. Let us call this agent the 'knower'. 

A great lot of things can be learned if we begin by treating the ‘knower’ as a black box (a symbolic representation for something of unknown structure, but defined by its input/output relationship). We have no idea about the structure or mechanism of the knower, but we know its input and output are undoubtedly real. Sensory impressions go into this black box and objective knowledge comes out. In fact, the ‘knower’ is functionally similar to other sense organs such as the eye or the ear. 

I am not cooking up something mysterious. There certainly was a point in evolutionary time scale, not far from the appearance of human species, when objective knowledge did not exist. Contrast this situation with the present. What happened between these two points in time? We are looking for natural explanations and it appears most sensible to view knowledge as the output of a sense organ, similar to other sense organs. We do not know anything about the structure or mechanism of this sense organ at this stage. It is a black box, definable in terms of its input and output, which are undeniably real. Thus 'knower' is simply a label attached to a new function evolved in humans, possibly over several thousand years. It evolved as the ‘organ of knowing’, just as eyes evolved (much earlier) as the ‘organ of seeing’.

Demystification proceeded in stages. Man mastered the trick of naming and extinguished the mystery of his surrounding by naming everything around. Noun forms thus conceived were tied up at various levels of interrelationship, resulting in complex language structures. Names helped survival by dramatically improving the efficiency of communication. 

Roots of our knowledge go back to the existential fear experienced by primitive hairless apes facing a world of mysterious objects. What else possibly can be the relationship between the ‘knower’ and rest of nature? The only reason it evolved is to ‘take control’ by covering up the unknowable. ‘Knower’, by its very nature, is fearful of the ‘unknowable’ and views it as an existential threat.

The ‘knower’ grew bolder with experience accumulated over generations and 'name covers' were slowly lifted to take a fresh look at the mystery behind the veil. The substance named ‘clay’ was found to be a mixture of chemical compounds A, B, C etc, which were in turn smaller packets of mystery. Early science thrived on the identification of such constituent parts and patterns of interaction. Unknowability was pushed back by another step. Subsequent stages of demystification have produced fruitful branches in the tree of science - atomic physics and quantum mechanics.

Amazingly, beautiful patterns emerge from such 'covered up mysteries'. That tells something about the nature of reality and its relation with the knower. Isn’t the knower itself an offshoot of the original unknowable? What else can it be? It must have the same intrinsic properties as existence before de-mystification. Comprehensibility of universe to human mind may be as trivial a fact as natural numbers being divisible by the unit of counting, the number one!

Our eyes have a limited range of vision. There are real things that would remain forever invisible to naked eye. The universe is likely to have properties that would remain forever beyond the ‘knower’. Such a conclusion appears unavoidable if we accept the ‘knower’ as a product of biological evolution. We are forever attempting to hold the unknowable thing-in-itself by grasping it with our tool of objective knowing. We detect newer patterns with every attempt, adding layer after layer to our interpretation of reality.

What is the nature of reality beyond the veil of knowledge? Unknowability is pushed back as knowledge grows deeper, but where does it end? The fundamental unknowability doesn’t disappear but goes into hiding behind the growing façade of certainty. Man has built his majestic edifice of knowledge on the foundation of a great mystery. The foundation, ultimate ground of all reality, will forever remain beyond our objective grasp. Our ancestors were aware of this ignorance and it was the source of their wisdom.

Scott Roberts

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Sep 13, 2020, 4:54:30 PM9/13/20
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"Biologic evolution" as you describe it, is not an objective fact. It is an interpretation of the facts of comparison of existing biological forms, and the fossil record. There are other ways these facts can be interpreted. If, for example, one does not consider spacetime to be fundamental, can one even assume that "3.5 billion years ago" is an objective fact? Your theory of knowledge presupposes that which is not at all certain.

Ben Iscatus

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Sep 14, 2020, 5:49:08 AM9/14/20
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This is an insightful essay, Shajan. I can't help thinking, though, that you could have made reference to Levy-Bruhl's "Law of Participation".

Shajan

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Sep 14, 2020, 9:54:57 AM9/14/20
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Scott,

I think we should start at the shallow end. Evolution appears to provide the most logical explanation for what we are and everything we do, including ‘knowing’. I am not making any assumptions about what caused evolution, but just the fact that humans have a long evolutionary history.

Shajan

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Sep 14, 2020, 9:56:41 AM9/14/20
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Ben,

Thank you. I am not familiar with the works of Levy-Bruhl, I will look it up. The idea ‘knowledge’ is a kind of veil or ‘avarana’ is a theme in many streams of eastern thought.

Ashvin Pandurangi

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Nov 4, 2020, 9:48:39 AM11/4/20
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I think we should start at the shallow end. Evolution appears to provide the most logical explanation for what we are and everything we do, including ‘knowing’. I am not making any assumptions about what caused evolution, but just the fact that humans have a long evolutionary history.

Shajan,

Evolution with materialist/physicalist assumptions provides no explanation for the most consistent and undeniable aspect of who we are, experiencers, and what we do, experience. Evolutionary theory cannot be blamed, however, because it is the starting physicalist assumptions which make such an explanation impossible, in principle. 

Only after we abandon the flawed physicalist assumptions, the history and progression of life and human life becomes intelligible in a coherent way. 

Ian Corral

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Nov 4, 2020, 11:19:50 AM11/4/20
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It actually does. Color (which does not exist outside us) was something that evolved to allow us to make distinctions and survive. Same with the rest of our senses, it's all survival. It also explains the problems we have in society, where modernity has changed our lives so much that we can't really keep up with it all and our evolved adaptations become our banes. 

It does provide a very good explanation to be honest, you just don't want to hear it because you think humans are special in some way. Evolution has done a pretty good job explaining a great deal of "who we are" which is a bag of flesh and nerves. 

Also if you think there is an experiencer, Buddhism would like to have  a word with you. I would also argue experience isn't something you do so much as you are technically a "victim" of. I mean you can't really stop sensation that much unless you try. 

Shajan

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Nov 5, 2020, 9:44:23 AM11/5/20
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Ashvin,

I agree evolutionary theory (in its current form) cannot explain consciousness. Theory of evolution, taken to its logical conclusion, would imply consciousness is unreal.

 Where is the faultline in the physicalist theory of evolution? I believe it is the fact that we are able to extract objective knowledge about the world. Physicalists can argue 'consciousness is unreal' or ‘it is not what it appears to be’  without contradiction. But it is not possible to do so about objective knowledge.

 So it becomes important to study the history of 'knowledge’ in evolution.

Ian Corral

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Nov 5, 2020, 12:32:27 PM11/5/20
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I think it does. I mean a creature that isn't aware of it's surroundings isn't likely to live for very long. As for the rest of consciousness, it seems like there is some merit to their points. We humans assume a lot, even the existence of a mind despite there being no evidence for a mind. 

Ashvin Pandurangi

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Nov 5, 2020, 1:58:52 PM11/5/20
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Shajan,

 Where is the faultline in the physicalist theory of evolution? I believe it is the fact that we are able to extract objective knowledge about the world. Physicalists can argue 'consciousness is unreal' or ‘it is not what it appears to be’  without contradiction. But it is not possible to do so about objective knowledge. 

Let us define "physicalist assumption" as the assumption that mindless space-time and matter are the fundamental constituents of reality, and they give rise to everything else we experience, including the feeling of experiencing itself. (I realize some would point to other entities like quantum microtubules or "information" as the fundamental constituents of reality, but all of the same problems apply to those as well).

Once that assumption is used in any scientific theory of reality, including Darwinian evolution, the theory necessarily concludes that qualities of experience are byproducts of some more fundamental mindless process. It necessarily concludes that there was a time when conscious experience did not exist in the Universe, and also that there are real entities which exist independent of any conscious experience.

Do you agree that this version of Darwinian evolutionary theory cannot, in principle (not now, not ever), provide an adequate explanation of human conscious experiences?
On Thursday, November 5, 2020 at 9:44:23 AM UTC-5 Shajan wrote:

Ian Corral

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Nov 5, 2020, 2:43:41 PM11/5/20
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This sounds more like the argument from ignorance. 

Shajan

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Nov 6, 2020, 9:29:30 AM11/6/20
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Ashvin,

Agree. Darwinian evolutionary theory cannot, in principle, provide an adequate explanation of human conscious experiences. 

Perhaps this is telling us more about the nature of consciousness rather than the explanatory power of evolutionary theory. Consciousness is not a ‘thing’ that can be explained. How could pure subjectivity be represented in words (except through metaphors)?

Shajan

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Nov 6, 2020, 9:31:13 AM11/6/20
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Ian,

Words such as ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ lack clarity. 

How could we explain the fact that human beings are able to comprehend nature if there is no minds to comprehend? 

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