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All You Touch and All You See

December 30, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

“All you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be.” – Pink Floyd


Option 1: In the beginning, there was X. At some point, some iteration of X(X) bridged the presumably senseless world of X to the real world which we know.

Option 2: In the beginning, there was X and X was sentient.

Option 3: In the beginning, there was sense.

Option 4: The idea of beginning is a function of sense, so that sense is more fundamental than beginnings and sequences.

Option 5: The universe could be a perpetual collection of conditions without any fundamental capacities or beginnings.

Sense from the senseless

To see a universe as brought into being by senseless effects such as the spontaneous appearance of physical ‘forces’ or as a permanent physical fact leaves sense itself unexplained. How do several things operate as a ‘group’, simply by spatial proximity? What makes a pattern or signal different from noise? What really is a ‘beginning’ other than a distinction made from an expectation of sequence?

This may seem to be a silly issue, but I think that whether or not we take sense for granted guides the entire future of science. From physics to neuroscience to computer science, our assumptions about the capacity to sense and makes sense lead us either to discover a fundamental physical principle of orientation uniting subjectivity and objectivity, or drives us further into alienation. Without sense, we are forced to double down on either the primacy of object-hood or the primacy of disembodied simulation, either route leading inevitably to an orphaning of the self – a ghost-machine within a machine-ghost.

Digital Oblivion

Understanding the relation between symbols and reality is notoriously difficult, partly because our experience of reality is overrun symbols to the extent that the vast majority of what we consider real has been mediated through symbolic description rather than direct experience. Our appreciation for direct experience has naturally tended to atrophy in adaptation to this environment so that we no longer consider ourselves to be an authoritative source on any subject. We define our own presence in terms of learned knowledge to the extent that many people find it impossible to separate their actual sensory-motor experience from the understanding of neurology. The former is relegated to the trash heap of ‘illusion’ or ‘models’ and the latter is elevated to the status of objective reality.

Giulio Tononi’s recent Integrated Information Theory, (covered in a SciAm article by Christof Koch) takes a good first step at measuring consciousness by quantifying in formulas the degree to which information is integrated, but by working from the outside in, it fails to grasp the absolute authenticity of awareness itself, and the role that it plays in putting the ‘in’ into ‘in-formation’.

For example, from the Wiki, the diagram showing how to decompose systems into overlapping complexes assumes some primitive level of association that just comes built in with math, or physics, or reality.

Unfortunately this oversight really makes the question of what consciousness is fade out completely, as we have already assumed some sort of discernment and attachment among digits, bytes, or other theoretical ensembles of data.

Philosophers seem to have an advantage over many scientists in being able to question pattern recognition itself and to see semiotic relations between minds and matter rather than data as objective facts. Almost without exception, information science and quantum physics theories seem fuzzy on the difference, and often staunchly deny map-territory distinctions at all. Cognitive science and neurology both seem to be unaware or dismissive of the depth of the Explanatory Gap and Hard Problem of Consciousness, which are seen to be purely philosophical indulgences. In fact, the location of meaning in subjective sense capacities rather than objects is an essential key to understanding the relation of consciousness and physics.

Divorced from physics, computational theories posit a Platonic universe of digital perfection, unhampered by tangible resources. Neglecting the fact that all computation we know of occurs as the result of physical interaction, modern information-centric theories have little to bring numbers down to Earth. Rather than seeing numbers as a counting of static, memorable, locatable, digitally addressable objects, the enthusiasm for Boolean logic seems to have transcended materiality altogether and replaced consciousness itself. Every week there seems to be a new article proclaiming the possibility of digital simulation, each one more cavalier than the last in its dismissal of concrete realism. It is as if to say ‘With our simulated awareness of simulated logic, we simulate understanding that the only reality of sense stems from the unreality of senseless imitation (whatever that is).’

Truth or Consequences

My point in all of this is that our straying from realism has been a fruitful excursion this far, but that we are now seem to be approaching a fork in the road where we will have to place our bets on the authenticity of ourselves or that of objects or information. If we continue to define the self in terms of unrelated bits and pieces of not-self, we will have successfully disappeared our opportunity to thrive and explore the universe in favor of an automatic cataloging and curating of emptiness. What difference does it make what we choose for our supreme X, as we have already determined its nature in advance.

For all possible X, be it genetic, quantum-universal, information-theoretic, we can be sure that they will share the same curious quality of not resembling ourselves in any way. Where we are irrational, indecisive, sentimental, X is inevitable, automatic, and without need for aesthetic presence. We envision an endless web of digital patterns, racing around each other, working out probabilistic games by necessity rather than choice. Yet somehow, we remain the ones who see and touch this world – still unexplained perceiving participants; translators between one meaningless ensemble of data and another.

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