Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Coherency, Perception, and Truth

Instead of pushing further into economic territory for this evening's blog, I'm going to hop over into psychology, logic, and synaesthesia.  We'll look at a couple models in order to try to understand how we perceive the world.

I'm not an atheist or a theist, but one of my favorite chapters on perception comes from The End of Faith by Sam Harris.  Rather than quote it extensively, I'll leave it on my bookshelf next to The Reason for God and summarize instead.  The basic reasoning is that in order to think something, we temporarily experience a world where we believe it.  In order to make sense of the thought "I'm about to be bitten by a dog," we have to comprehend an imaginary reality where that is the case.  Conversely, in order to believe something, we must be continuously thinking it in the background.  Thus a faithful Discordian looks at the world with the assumption, "God is a crazy woman and Her name is Eris."  This allows them to make sense of the world in the Discordian way, and highlights their perceptions of chaotic things.

The notion that there are background assumptions to any any way of thinking is one of my favorite background assumptions to use when understanding how thinking works.  In order to be able to think psychoanalytically, we have to shape our thoughts guided by the assumption that there exists an unconscious to which can be attributed all thoughts that we are not aware of.  I recall many people in my philosophy of science course last year balking at the notion due to the way it can be used to make many things which do not follow using pure logic seem true.  If the idea that anything that can be considered can be attributed either to the conscious or the unconscious seems a little too convenient, look at the assumption that everything in the universe is bound to regularity and countable. And yet both science and psychoanalysis are potent tools for understanding different facets of existence.  Pure logic gets us nowhere without unprovable assumptions to guide its application.

So I am no more convinced when a materialist tells me that consciousness is an accidental epiphenomenon that ultimately means nothing than I am when a closeted solipsist tells me that matter is a creation of the unconscious deep mind to provide a basis for the unfolding of consciousness.  In both cases, the person's experience of reality emerges in a way that verifies their fundamental assumptions.  To the materialist, it's no surprise that brain activity correlates with consciousness, because they think consciousness emerges from the brain.  It's no surprise to the solipsist either, given the idea that matter is a tool of the mind for helping experience itself.

If we can imagine for a moment that a particular thought has a shape, perhaps we could treat belief systems as fractals.  Let's use a rather simple assumption: that neurons are responsible for the internal experience we all have.  As we have seen throughout the history of neurology, a variety of experiments have been done where a few neurons are monitored or stimulated while either providing another stimulus or monitoring behavior.  People's experiences in the god helmet are explained in terms of the effect its magnetic fields have on the transmission of electrical signals along nerve axons, the mind's ability to apparently control the body is explained in terms of the fact that electrically stimulating the leg of a dead frog causes it to twitch, and similarly the intake of sensory information is explained in terms of transducing light, sound, or touch into electrical signals.

Now, while we have found out a lot of interesting things along this path of science, nowhere have we proved that neurons themselves are responsible for internal experience.  However, when we look at the knowledge base neurology has given us, we feel almost compelled to assume that they are, just as was done in order to gather this knowledge in the first place.  It's worth noting that in recent years it has come to seem more and more likely that neurons are actually specialized connections used to provide shortcuts for repeated thoughts, and that glial cells like astrocytes, which are involved at every synapse between neurons and are capable of sending out neurotransmitters, which provide blood for neurons, and which are capable of turning into neurons themselves, are more likely to be responsible for internal experience.  I mention this only to dethrone the neuron assumption from the way you may have perceived it, as Truth, so that we can take a closer look at how it affected our perceptions.

Now, when I say that belief systems are like fractals, what I mean is that, when you look at the sum of the data that neurology has gathered, you see an inflated and complicated version of the original assumption.  This process leads us to believe that the original assumption was True.  However, while the information is true given the required assumptions, it's likely that the Truth (as in, the Whole Truth) is more subtle than that.

See, the interesting thing is that, just as the solipsist and the materialist can take the same piece of information (brain-mind correlation) and see opposite directions of causation, different people (or the same person at different times) can take this line of inquiry, seeing how each system of thought's conclusions are derived from its assumptions, and hold very different ideas about what it means.  The tendency in post-modernism thus far has been to lean toward the skeptical side, seeing each belief system's claim to truth as undermined because of the way it arises from the shape of the thoughts used.  Some people have called post-modernism the move toward the distrust of all meta-narratives, but their friends were skeptical about that because it, too, was a meta-narrative.  On this path, belief in the capacity of humans to reach Truth is abandoned in the name of preserving the convenient assumption that reality is singular.

However, perhaps they were going about it all wrong.  It's just as easy to treat this correlation between assumption and conclusion the other way: rather than dis-empower ourselves with the notion that anything we can know is False, we can expand our notion of reality beyond singularity into multiplicity.  Any quality that can be applied to every single thing is useless for distinguishing them, so while we can claim that belief systems are on equal footing for telling us about the true nature of reality, we cannot say whether that footing is unstable or sturdy.  Many days, I have faith.  It could just as easily be that our assumptions assemble our realities around us.