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    • CommentTimeOct 19th 2011 edited
    I put this in London Zoo for lack of a better place.

    So I've been looking at a very specific question from a philosophy perspective for a little while now. Those familiar with philosophy will note that I stole the title of this thread from Heidegger, who is not someone I necessarily agree with but the construction of his phrase is pretty much perfect so I stole it and you'll never pin it on me so shut up.

    Anyway. I'm counting on the breadth of members' specialties to give me some really great, diverse points of view on this question (forthcoming). I posted it to facebook and got one undergrad neuroscience major, one economist and my brother who has degrees in economics, business, and educational development (currently director of projects at TenMarks).

    I phrased it this way on Facebook:
    Is it safe to say that consciousness is the juxtaposition of physical states of mind as suspended in time? Anyone interested in neurology?

    Basically what I'm getting at is this: We exist. We're fairly sure of that. We're not as sure that the rest of the world exists, but that's fine, we can disregard that for the time being. Historically, the thought has been that we are temporarily occupying bodies and that our essence is transcendental, however more and more we are realizing that we are very much tied to the world in a many number of ways. My interest is in time itself: we construct ourselves out of what we remember and what we expect to happen, but at any given moment we are nothing but a grid of firing neurons reacting to external and internal stimuli.

    I want to hear every perspective: I will converse and argue with anyone, though expect me to quietly observe at times to see where the conversation says. I want a giant brick of raw knowledge to cut my thesis out of, and I want your thoughts and I want your selves and I want beliefs and histories and opinions.

    For reference of where I'm coming from culturally, right now things that I'm reading, watching and listening to are as follows:
    Heidegger's Basic Writings
    John Carpenter's film Dark Star
    Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin
    No small amount of Nietzsche, Sartre, Zizek, other existential stuff as well as Marx and some Anarchy stuff...
    Guided By Voices (specifically Alien Lanes)
    Some Aristotle before summer
    Hellboy (the comics)
    Doctor Who

    A bunch of other stuff, but that's the misc stuff that I'm working with. I don't think any of them are less valuable than anything else, though I suppose there are things that will be more USEFUL (like the actual philosophy).

    tl;dr - Why are we?
    • CommentTimeOct 19th 2011
    In terms of raw knowledge, you'll want to pick up a copy of Julian Offray de la Mettrie's Man A Machine. It's mostly funny, rudimentary "Hey what's with guys who eat red meat always being fired up all the time" kind of observations, but it's one of the earliest instances of a non-secular, non-self theory of behaviour.

    And now, to ramble:
    There's a passage in Hume's Treatise of Human Nature that's about trying to mentally capture the origin of your own thought that is also really great. When I talk about conscious in this sense I think of the brain's composition of sensory information being like endless onion layers.
    Once, when I was a kid, I was given a cabbage to carry, which I thought was a cauliflower. So I started ripping off the leafy layers, trying to find the good edible stuff inside. Then I got yelled at. It's my favourite analogy: The supposed "good meaty stuff" (the soul, the personality, a person's essence, a concrete thesis statement for an individual existence) isn't actually there - it's an illusion created by endless waves of data and data-processing. Or, it IS there, but we'll never dig so deep, or clear away the constant waves of excess stimulation, to find it. Thus, the point is moot.
    (Which, unfortunately, brings us to the way Pitchfork writers construct their album reviews: the theory that no amount of context regarding the state in which the critic was in at the time of critiquing will ever be too much, and that no correlation between the critic's tastes and mindsets and those of the audience can ever be assumed. It's not, on its own, a misguided theory, but there are times and places in which demographic and dietary information are requisites to relating to a person's viewpoint. Most contemporary pop-cultural uses are not those times and places.)

    I'm sure I'll have lots of more on-topic rambles to come, but I want to point out how awesome it is that you're keeping your cultural artifacts in the same list as your philosophical texts. Thumbs up.
    Also, you're gonna get a lot of anecdotal evidence by way of drug trips, which is sometimes useful and sometimes not. Muting certain mental processes and slowing down others often results in a fascinating dataset, as long as you don't get too distracted by how robot-like our brains can be sometimes. (Logically, that should be "how human-consciousness-derived our artificial data structures are," but, you know what I mean. Yeah, we created computers in our own likeness. Don't act like you didn't know.)
    • CommentAuthorVerissimus
    • CommentTimeOct 19th 2011
    The mind trying to grasp itself is a bit like a dog chasing its own tail.

    Anyway, it's a big subject. We are our brain, I think. That is the ego, it's an organ, or a machine that has several tasks to perform in maintaining the body; one of these tasks, is processing sensory stimuli in order to found out in which way to steer the body in order to find food, or evade attackers, or find a mate to reproduce. The brain developed through evolution to gain more understanding of the world, enabling us to become better at these vital tasks which aid in our survival, and through an evolutionary fluke the brain developed self awareness, whatever that is, and this self awareness served us well so far.

    You say,

    We exist. We're fairly sure of that. We're not as sure that the rest of the world exists

    but isn't it also possible to turn this around? "The world exists, we're fairly sure of that. We are not as sure that we exist as a separate entity from the rest of the world."
    • CommentAuthorFlabyo
    • CommentTimeOct 19th 2011
    Taking the simpler question 'why are we?', then despite all my time at uni, my reading, my friends, everything. The only answer I have is:

    Because we are.
    • CommentTimeOct 19th 2011
    @Allana - I got a .pdf of it off the intertrons, it'll go on the reader and I'll get to it sooner or later. Thanks for the rec!

    I'm not a Hume fan, but I do own that book and I will look at it closer. Mostly I disagree with the whole inertly compelled to the Good thing. I more closely agree with the Nichomachean ethics rather than the later theories that seem to just emphasize one small thing Aristotle was talking about. But I digress.

    I TOTALLY agree with the onion example! though I would add that there are sections to the layers: The outer, the inner, and the further inner (you might be able to call this the "Real"), and I think the very, very core of this is the biological function of the brain. Externally, we have atoms colliding, and interally we have atoms colliding, but there's something between those two things: the self. But I'm thinking that the juxtapose between the external and internal is the self...yeah. I kind of dig holes. :P

    I feel that all stimuli relating to culture has a certain cultural geneaology, and is therefore relevent in a discussion about Being. Culture is the way we attempt to fill the gaps between onions, I feel, and philosophy is a part of culture, no greater or lesser than any other.

    I'm starting to get the feeling that the way I think sober is pretty similar to the way other people think when they're high.

    @Verus Really what gives us this ability of self-awareness is the advanced frontal lobe. Aristotle actually talked about our ability to know ourselves is what separates us from animals, and he was mostly right! He just didn't poke around in a brain to find out why.

    Though, for your second comment, I point out Descartes: Cogito Ergo Sum. This is a cornerstone in the history of philosophy as it provides a causal argument for self-existence. Though we can't know if we are living in a simulation or not, I find that the question doesn't matter at all, that it is your responsibility to act upon the information you have, and even if you consider that it may be incomplete, not acting because you may not know everything ever seems like an inert moral exercise. I think that makes sense.

    If you want to expand your assertion with a more complex logical reasoning, I'd love to hear it! I'm really all ears, I want to hear all arguments. I like your claim, I just want there to be more behind it.

    @Flabyo Probably the most practical answer, but I bet we can each find a very different meaning/intent behind the question and draw a collection of truth out of it.

    Thanks for responses! Moar! Moar! :D
    • CommentTimeOct 19th 2011
    No one has topped Borges in capturing and expressing so succinctly the anguish and exasperation of experiencing time, finitude, life and death.

    "Time is the substance I am made of. Time is the river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas is real; I, alas, am Borges."
    • CommentAuthor256
    • CommentTimeOct 19th 2011 edited
    Just dropped by to say - check out Dan Dennett. I only really know his stuff from stuff I've read and seen online, so I'll try not to mangle it too much, but he has authored the "Multiple Drafts Model" that suggests: consciousness does not exist as a thing, cannot be isolated, and does not have a location in time.

    Which is pretty eyebrow-raising.

    I think the logic behind this is that the brain has a lot of identifiable functions, but cannot realistically create anything that is "more than the sum of its parts". Thus, the appearance of consciousness is the cumulative effect of these processes - which, significantly, don't always run continuously or at the same speed.

    The standout part of the wiki article on MDM:
    "The conscious self is taken to exist as an abstraction visible at the level of the intentional stance, akin to a body of mass having a 'center of gravity'. Analogously, Dennett refers to the self as the 'center of narrative gravity', a story we tell ourselves about our experiences.".
    Worth a look.
  1.  (10295.8)
    I've always considered cogito ergo sum to be a bit of a cheat. Descartes sneaks himself into the premise with the word "I" (technically the first-person singular conjugation of a verb in Latin) then acts all clever when he pops out at the other end of the argument with another "I". But I don't dispute the conclusion: I do exist. Likewise, his second conclusion (a world exists) is sound enough, at least up to the point where he calls God as a reliable witness to corroborate it.

    As for "why are we?", I reject the underlying assumption of the question: that there is a reason. I do not have a "purpose", and neither does humanity, nor our ecosystem, nor even the universe. It just is. Some people find this notion of existentialism dispiriting, and conclude that if there's no reason for us to live then that's a reason to die. Which is completely unsound logic; there's no purpose in dying, either. Personally, I find it liberating and invigorating: if there is no prior reason for me to exist, no grand purpose which I am already committed to serving, no meaning of life... then I'm at liberty to choose or create my own. I... am... free!
    • CommentAuthorVerissimus
    • CommentTimeOct 19th 2011 edited
    @tedcroland: Cogito ergo sum seems simple but it is a problematic statement. The problem with "I think, therefore I am" is that it's a bit of a circular argument. In order for there to be an I that does the thinking, that I also has to exist. So once somebody says "I think", that person has already assumed that he exists. It is the same as saying "I cough, therefore I am." In order for there to be an I that does the coughing, an I also has to exist.

    So it makes more sense to remove the "I" from the first part of the statement: "There is thinking," rather than "I think." From that statement it is much harder to come to conclude the existence of the "I". "There is thinking, therefore I am" doesn't make a lot of sense. So we're left with just the first part "there is thinking."

    Another problem is: How does the "I", the subject, know that it is thinking? The subject perceives that to be the the case, through it's mental capacity. He or she perceives "thought events". Now the mental capacity of the subject, by which it perceives these thought events, works somewhat similar to the senses, which are also functions of the brain. Like seeing something, or hearing or smelling or touching something, we hear the thoughts in our head. Descartes himself has pointed out that we cannot trust everything our senses tell us at face value, yet somehow for his own thoughts he feels he has to make an exception.

    So Descartes would contradict himself in a way if he were to claim that "There is thinking therefore I am". It is like saying "There are flowers in the garden therefore I am." Just as those flowers are not necessarily proof for the existence of an I, neither are those perceived thoughts...
  2.  (10295.10)
    Cogito ergo sum isn't presented as an objective proof, but a subjective one. The only person it proves anything to is the thinker. I call it a "cheat", but it works as far as it goes. Descartes was asking: "How do I know that I exist? I know this because I'm asking the question, and if I didn't exist, that wouldn't be happening." He doesn't just "sense" that he's thinking; the existence of his thought itself proves it.
    • CommentAuthorVerissimus
    • CommentTimeOct 19th 2011
    In that way it is a self evident truth, yes. In order for me to have any feeling or sensation or awareness at all, I must exist.

    But in that way, I am not sure how much you can read into it. It is subjective, it already assumes there is a me before there the statement is produced.

    There is of course a "me", on certain different levels. I can poke myself, point at myself in the mirror, and say "Look! there I am." But that is defining a certain chunk of meat as me. But does that mean that when that me in the mirror changes, for instance when I get an artificial limb, or when I lose ten pounds, that it is no longer me? The ten pounds that I lost, is that me? Does Descartes also exist when he isn't thinking?

    For Descartes his thoughts are the ultimate expression of the ego, and therefore he chooses it as his identity. But it is pretty arbitrary.

    Why must there be an "I" at all? Why is Descartes so concerned with proving he exists?
    • CommentTimeOct 19th 2011
    "Time is an active construction of the brain. We can set up simple experiments to make you believe that a flashed image lasted longer or shorter than it actually did, or that a burst of light happened before you pressed a button (even though you actually caused it with the button), or that a sound is beeping at a faster or slower rate than it actually is, and so on. Time is a rubbery thing."
  3.  (10295.13)
    @Verus: Descartes was a mathematician at heart. He was trying to determine what he could know with absolute certainty – the metaphysical equivalent of 1+1=2 – and see what he could deduce from that.
    • CommentTimeOct 20th 2011
    Dealing with the epistemological issue before the ontological issue is just putting Descartes before the horse.
    • CommentAuthorSolario
    • CommentTimeOct 20th 2011
    @Verus, Descartes doesn't use thinking as his first example - he says that he doubts his own existence, and if there is doubt, there must be something that is doubting. And if you end up doubting that you doubt, then you're still doubting and you end up in an infinite regress. It's a pretty handy tool for proving with absolute certainty that you exist in some form or capacity. What that form or capacity is, however, Descartes can't prove and doesn't go into. It's a tautology and not a circular argument; actions can't exist without a subject to perform them.

    His major problem is that he presupposes that logic, space, time and causality actually exists and aren't just the same as the illusions, he's attempting to combat.

    @Finagle, I'm not sure you can divy up the two anymore. I don't think it's impossible to talk about existence without a thinking subject relating to it, because we can't transcend our own subjectivity. It's totally unknowable and unthinkable to us as rationally thinking beings to go beyond ourselves. We'll never be able to talk about the thing-in-itself, only the thing as it appears to us. Doesn't mean it doesn't exist, just that we'll never be able to see it as it is. When we see something and agree that it's a chair, that's just a consensus reality that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with actual reality. (At the back of my mind I keep thinking Kant had a rebuttal for this, but for the life of me, I can't remember it - anyone want to prove me wrong? And what about stuff like common culture and language? Goddammit, I'm forgetting everything I've ever learnt.)

    And I'm with Jason on why of it all: existence isn't teleological and the only meaning it has is what, we imbue it with.
    • CommentTimeOct 20th 2011
    We are because if we weren't, there'd be no one to ask the question.
    • CommentTimeOct 21st 2011
    "Time is an active construction of the brain. We can set up simple experiments to make you believe that a flashed image lasted longer or shorter than it actually did, or that a burst of light happened before you pressed a button (even though you actually caused it with the button), or that a sound is beeping at a faster or slower rate than it actually is, and so on. Time is a rubbery thing."

    In case you don't want to read the wonderful brief interview Allana has pointed you to there, I have read it for you, while drunk:

    There are some eerily appropriate compression errors in this video at key portions that makes the experience all that much more immersive.
    • CommentTimeOct 21st 2011
    Cheers, oddbill! That was smashing :)
    • CommentTimeOct 21st 2011
    Eerily appropriate, indeed. Amazing! It's so soothing to have a voice droning on about the fabric of reality in the background, during breakfast. Thanks for doing that.
    (I say video series. Maybe you could collab with Philosophy Bro?)

    In other news, here's some of the passage I was talking about (to save you from having to read the rest of Hume's drivel):
    β€œFor my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov'd for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of mself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov'd by death, and cou'd I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou'd be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity.... If any one upon serious and unprejudic'd reflexion, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can no longer reason with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu'd, which he calls himself; tho' I am certain there is no such principle in me.”
    - Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, p 165
    • CommentTimeOct 21st 2011
    Aw guys, I was trying to make a joke so I wouldn't have to really engage with the philosophy.

    The problem with putting the epistemological issue before ontology is just what @Allana posted....close your eyes, poof it all goes away.

    Kant dealt with all this by turning the whole problem on its head. The universe *has* to be for the most part(*) how we perceive it, because otherwise our brains wouldn't work. All of us humans who are operationally functional do the pragmatic thing, get up in the morning and go do our stuff. We don't suddenly worry that we'll step outside and gravity won't work, or the sun will be dark or the sky will be green.

    That's just the problem of episteme, though. Kant only addressed what we can *know*. As far as *that* goes, though, he put it on pretty solid ground - the universe pretty much (*) works how we humans think it does, and we manage to go through out our lives being pragmatic persons who just do "what works" and manage to exist that way.

    Now, when you go talking Being, capital "B" Being...that is a whole different deal. It drove Heidegger and Nietzsche both insane. Or maybe that was just because they're Germans (**).

    But I'm going to put myself waaaay out there, and say that most of the major issues with dealing with epistemology and perception have been sorted in modern philosophy. The latest update to my mind is the work of Maturana and Varela dealing with "autopoeisis" and self-organizing systems. Philosophy has had to deal with the input of the empirical sciences, like evolutionary biology, and we've gone on to deal with it. How and why does the eye perceive a figure against a background? Existentialism and phenomenology (*pace* Descartes) have dealt with this in great detail.

    The how and why of Being, though? Why should we do one thing and not another? Still something quite not dealt with.

    * - I am discounting for the purposes of discussion anything microscopic, sub-atomic, or otherwise not an observable phenomenon, because it doesn't influence how "natural humans" behave on a macro level.

    ** - I'm of German descent, and married to a German, so I can say stuff like "Alle hat ein Ende nur die Wurst hat zwei", laugh it off and not be racist. Unless you count self-hating, which is another discussion.

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