Thursday, March 21, 2013

Abstraction of Abstraction

Ayn Rand writes about the process of abstraction from abstraction in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.  The human infant looks at concrete sensory data first, then he differentiates and integrates among the various sensory data to form an abstraction, then he builds higher level abstractions upon the lower level abstractions.

For an infant, free will and self-awareness as we know it do not exist.  There is, however, a special way of seeing things.  Instead of an indiscriminate representation of the visual field, which is what animals perceive, a human being has an awareness of similarities and differences between different colors, shapes, and angles.  He is able to abstract one aspect among all other aspects of the visual field. 

In order to develop free will, the newborn's mind has to make a countless number of abstractions, in the visual field and from other senses as well.  This happens automatically, much like a computer program running.  The development of the child's mind works by logically progressing through tiers, or levels, of abstraction.  The first level would be the most basic, perceptual level abstractions.  An example would be red vs blue, or square vs circle. 

A higher order abstraction would be color vs shape.  There would be a similar progression for the other senses such as touch and auditory perception, which are of crucial importance for forming these abstractions.  For instance, the differentiation between pleasure and pain, or a low note vs a high note. I suspect that these conceptual leaps are not possible without the other senses, and without interaction through tactile learning.

Again, an infant is not explicitly aware of this process, it happens automatically.  The progression from one 'level' of abstraction to the next is necessitated by the very nature of the process.  The same ability to differentiate and integrate will make the next level abstraction happen after a number of abstractions are made on an earlier level.

Further on in this process, the child's mind differentiates between the senses themselves, i.e., sight vs sound.  This would be a very advanced conceptual leap for the child's mind.

Given this pattern and this logic, what would ultimately be one of the last and most important abstractions for the child's mind to make?  It would be between its own processes and the external world.  In short: Volition is the abstraction of abstraction.  It is the process of abstraction differentiating itself from everything else.  This is when free will and, simultaneously, self-awareness are born.

This is how I explain free will in terms of the ability to abstract. I had also tried to explain the capacity to abstract in terms of volition, but I couldn't see how that could be done.  However, I have noticed there is a certain kind of binary nature to both abilities, that I would like to explore further. The ability to abstract involves differentiation and integration between one or more mental units. Volition involves a choice between one or more options. This binary nature of the human mind's most fundamental abilities seems to be the key to its nature and what makes it so special.  I would not be surprised to discover this represented in some physiological aspect of the human brain.

In regards to this I have considered the two hemispheres.  Perhaps in the human brain they can play off of each other in a way that animal brains cannot.  (I am aware of a girl who is said to live with only one hemisphere of her brain, removed in early age due to seizures.  The plasticity of the brain could have compensated for this at the age when she had the surgery, but perhaps in her infancy it would not have been possible for her to develop self awareness and true volition with only one hemisphere.)  I have no way of knowing or proving this, it is just a suspicion of mine since it seems to be an obvious way of explaining the binary nature of volition and abstraction.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Epistemological Theory of Everything

I want to try to explain the evolution of the human mind in terms of as few or only one faculty or ability as possible. I am operating on the premise that man's consciousness is fundamentally different from all other life forms on earth. 

In academic circles, man's distinction from animals, what makes his mind different, is usually a laundry list of things: empathy, language, culture, art, reason, tool-making, free will, opposable thumbs and so on.  It would be much harder to explain how all these separate abilities evolved all at once. 

What if there was one essential ability that explained all the others?  What if you could explain everything that man was, everything that makes man different from other species, in terms of one attribute?  Philosophers have usually picked reason as the one distinguishing feature of man.  Man has been called 'the rational animal' and also 'the political animal.'

What exactly is reason?  In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand defined reason as the ability to identify and integrate the material provided by the senses.  She also explained what makes this possible.  Ultimately she suggested that everything that was special about man's mind and man's form of awareness was the ability to form concepts, which is based on the ability to abstract.  If this is correct, everything that man is is narrowed down to one single ability, and all of man's other abilities evolve from this in a single lifetime, and in the history of humanity.

If there was a way to point to something in physical reality, and say 'this is what enables us to abstract' this would be the answer to consciousness.  I believe that everything we are can be explained in terms of this ability.

There was only one other crucial attribute of man's consciousness that was not explained by Rand or Peikoff in terms of the ability to abstract, and that was free will. They were apparently not related to each other, so they were conceived as two different attributes.  Given Randian epistemology,
we had to evolve both free will and the capacity for abstraction possibly at the same time.  How likely is this?

What if it is possible to explain one in terms of the other?  Is it possible that one was more fundamental and basic than the other?  The answer is controversial, for epistemology in general and for Objectivism.  I believe there is a way to explain free will as a derivative and a necessary consequence of the ability to abstract.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Explaining Consciousness

A theory of consciousness has two aspects to it. One is to explain the sensory data that we experience. The sights, sounds, sensations of temperature, smells, etc, without which consciousness would not be possible. I believe that this has been sufficiently explained from a philosophical standpoint in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology by Ayn Rand; and it has been explained by modern science in terms of light waves and sound frequencies. For this reason I won't go into too much detail regarding the senses. I think that it is not too difficult to understand how the senses work in purely physical terms.

What I'm going to write more in detail about is the other aspect of consciousness, particularly human consciousness, which is what the mind does with these sensations: differentiation, abstraction, reason, volition and so forth. These are not quite as easy to think of in purely material terms, especially since we cannot point to some physical property of the brain and say that this is what is responsible for free will. However, I do think that with the current state of modern biology and with Rand's epistemology, I can show how it is possible to relate every mental faculty with a corresponding physical aspect of the brain.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ayn Rand and Materialism

Given that all there is is matter and motion (materialism), and that motion is as much a fundamental part of reality as matter or entities are, we can begin to see a very basic framework for understanding the mind.  Consciousness is not a thing, it is not an item, it is a process.  Since we cannot have actions without entities, the thing acting in this case is the physical brain.  Since we cannot have entities without actions, the action in this case is consciousness.

Ayn Rand was against materialism, with a good reason:  Most philosophers and intellectuals have used materialism in a way to deny the reality of the mind and free will, and the principle vehicle for doing this was determinism.  I'm very sympathetic to Rand and Objectivism, and one of the points I differ with her on is that materialism is not a denial of the mind and it does not have to lead to determinism.  I think that materialism is an explanation of consciousness, not a refutation of it.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


My theory of consciousness is based on materialism.  I submit that we cannot understand consciousness while believing in any sort of 'immaterial' or 'spiritual' realm.  All that exists is matter, it is all that has ever existed or been described by science or philosophy.  The 'spirit' realm or an actual entity such as a soul has never been proven or observed.

It would be perfectly rational to maintain materialism on the grounds that no one has ever presented any evidence of any other kind of existence or type of entity.  However we can be sure that the immaterial doesn't exist for the same reason that we can know God doesn't exist:  It is a concept that defines itself out of existence.

Spirit - the spirit realm, the soul, ghosts, God, whatever that is immaterial - is only defined in terms of negatives.  No theologian or philosopher has yet to tell us what spirit is, only what it isn't.  To paraphrase George H. Smith in 'Atheism: the Case Against God', without a definition of a concept we literally don't know what we're talking about.  We cannot even claim to not believe in the immaterial - in the same way that we can claim to be skeptical of elves - because we don't know what the idea refers to in reality. 

The other reason we have to believe that materialism is true, in a more specific case, is that we have a similar problem with 'the soul'. The soul supposedly exists outside of your body, it persists after your physical body dies.  But what is your soul?  It must be assumed that it is your mind, your awareness.  The idea is that you can be aware, conscious, without your body.  What else can the idea of a soul mean?  What significance would a thing that does not include our consciousness, our experience of reality, have for us? If our 'soul' goes to hell to suffer for eternity, but we will not be aware of it, what do we care?

The soul is clearly a reference to the mind.  The idea is that we will continue to be aware without our eyes, our skin, our ears, without any sensory input.  We will also be able to think and feel without our brains.  Have the believers in immaterialism ever explained to us how this is supposed happen? 

We will not be able to explain consciousness so long as we entertain the idea of immaterial
entities.  This will only get in the way of any understanding.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Action as an Axiom

Ayn Rand, in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, identifies three axioms.  An axiom is something that cannot be denied without affirming its truth.  The three axioms were existence, the law of identity, and consciousness.

There were also corollaries, or derivatives, of these axioms.  One was the law of causality, which is the law of identity applied to action.  The existence of entities, of things, is another corollary axiom. 

I would like add one more to this: motion, or action. Motion is as fundamental a part of reality as entities are.  An action definitely cannot exist without entities, without things that act, but neither can entities exist without action.  In reality stillness does not exist.  It is common to think of motion as less real, less concrete, more ephemeral, than an entity.  But in fact motion is as real as the
entity, as a property of it.  It is another fundamental aspect of existence.  The two, entities and actions, or matter and motion, cannot be separated.

Stillness is an illusion.  Everything that we perceive as still is actually moving.  Perception is indeed an action.  It is only the movement of one thing relative to the movement of another thing that creates the appearance of stillness.  Everyone used to believe Earth was flat, and that it stood still.  It's only relative to us that it appears to be still.  It is the same when driving a car next to another vehicle moving at the same speed, it's the other car that appears to be still and everything else appears to be moving.

It is these types of 'illusions' that lead us to believe that we could perceive stillness with our senses, that we could 'see' something that was still.  It is the belief in motion as ephemeral and unreal that lead us to believe that our consciousness was an entity, ie. a thing, an object.  I believe that these ideas about motion and consciousness are wrong. 

A Theory of Consciousness

The purpose of this blog will be to share some of the ideas I've had about the nature of human consciousness, materialism, free will and other pertinent concepts.  Most of these theories are based on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, specifically the books Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology by Ayn Rand.  It will be harder to appreciate the concepts in this blog without being familiar with the aforementioned literature, but you are welcome to read anyway.