Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The "Mind Is Flat"? No "Inner Mental World"? No Specific Knowledge? Then We're Already In A Realm Of Illusion


Nick Chater's book, 'The Mind Is Flat', is a stark exposition on the limits of what we believe to be reality, as well as the functioning of our brains.  Right off the bat (p. 8) we're informed "there is no inner world", it's "utterly fake".  So that any aspiration we have to explore it, say for presumed richness, depth and scope is a waste of time. We will get nowhere because the mind is "flat" and our brains trick us into believing there is more there than momentary brain bursts.  

The brain then, is merely an "improviser" which approaches reality via improvisations derived from previous improvisions - thereby generating new momentary thoughts and experiences.  In other words, our apparent flow of conscious thought is composed entirely of spurious creations of the moment.  Beliefs, motives, and even the narratives we tell are entirely figments of our imagination.

The first thing that struck me in Chater's work were the parallels to the assertions made by Alex Rosenberg in his The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  Rosenberg's  stark exposition of the limits of free will and consciousness perfectly echoes Chater's stark delimitation of the brain's inner world.

 Like Chater's book, Rosenberg's seeks to show why a meaningful conscious experience of reality couldn’t work.  In its most extreme form, Rosenberg claims that just as there can be no cosmic purpose there can be no aboutness. In other words, our brains -  despite the appearance of an ability to generate meaning-   do no such thing. In the end words mean nothing. The brain didn't interpret reality and couldn’t assign any dimension of interpretation, whether to history, psychology, physics, astronomy or whatever.   

Chater essentially says the same thing, i.e. if our minds are "flat" we fool ourselves into thinking we are plumbing anything below a flat surface, any depth -  and that includes imputing meaning or rendering interpretations.  All of those require not only depth but also incredible insights, such as arriving at the predictive equations of celestial mechanics.  The deduction of the equations themselves required also more than "one thought at a time" - though Chater informs us: "We are able to attend to one word, object or color at a time and no more."

And:  "The fragments of knowledge that people generate are both woefully under-specified and fatally self-contradictory."

But if this were true, how would the brain be able to work out a multi-body framework, i.e. using the Delaunay variables, to compute perturbations affecting celestial bodies, i.e. 

So if equations such as in celestial mechanics have no interpretative (or synergistic) origins,  dimensions, how did we manage to use them to send spacecraft to Mars, Mercury, Venus?   This is a question I reckon Mr. Chater can't answer any more than Mr. Rosenberg.  (But Chater does agree, p. 146, "automatic processes can go on at the same time")  The problem, of course, is that working through multi-body interactions in celestial mechanics requires a skill beyond use of automatic processes).

Rosenberg bases his claims on documented experiments, such as those by Lüder Deecke and Hans Helmut Kornhuber in 1964, showing that all human actions precede conscious decisions to perform them. For example, Rosenberg argues, in his discussion concerning neural time delays, that a simple action like flexing a wrist can’t be done at the instant one consciously thinks of doing so[1]. Instead, there’s an inevitable time delay of about 200 milliseconds from conscious willing to wrist flexing and finger pressing[2].  He adds that the cortical processes responsible commence 500 ms before that!  The obvious implication: Consciously deciding to do something is not the cause of doing it.  This is pretty well the conclusion Chater arrives at as well (Ch. 6, 'Manufacturing Choice').  In Chater's case (p. 131) we are "making up our preferences as we go on", finally opting for one - then forget it as the next thought or choice displaces it.  But it comes to the same thing, i.e. deciding to do something is not the cause of doing it.

   The point is humans aren't equipped to gain real time access to anything in their world! What actually happens in vision, for example, is that the brain must perform tricks to first erect an image that appears inverted on the retina. The process takes time and processing via the optic nerve is also needed. Thus, in Rosenberg’s parlance, vision turns out to be hindsight not foresight. Rosenberg’s inescapable conclusion is that because of this we are victims of a monumental illusion condemned to live our lives through rear sight, not foresight. This transfers to his Chapter Eight, in which we are shown The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About It At All.  

Chater, for his part, is not far behind in delivering similar gobbledygook.  Thus (p. 51), we only have an "illusion of explanatory depth", such as in the computed perturbations of one celestial object by another. Hence, "the verbal accounts we give of our knowledge turn out to be flimsy improvisations, invented after the fact."  There is in reality 'no there, there' so we are "being spectacularly fooled even about our own sensory experience."  Which again is not that different from what Rosenberg claims.   

But what are the implications of such radical baloney? I suspect they are the same whether one adopts Chater's arguments, or Rosenberg's.  Hence, if either or both of these guys is correct, it's hasta la vista to any mode of introspection or knowledge. Shakespeare’s work, The Tempest? Doggerel and drivel! Einstein’s original paper on special relativity? A product of excess brain improvisations of prior single thoughts based on previous improvisations. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness? A delusional, solipsistic voyage that could as well have been produced from LSD ingestion! Basically, all our fine cogitating, ruminating and writing translates to a torrent of meaningless effluent. Or in Chater's parlance: "a historical  collection of momentary thoughts out of which no coherent theories ever materialized."

All our millions and billions of volumes of books, e-books and scientific or other journals amount to culminations of massive forest destruction or wasted bytes. With no introspection, the products of human thought have no interpretative dimensions. They’re merely elaborate chemical-physical automatons operating under the illusion of genuine personhood. Human history follows suit, reduced to the simple retelling of all our accidents, and nonsense. Philosophy is reduced to nothing more than assemblies of chaotically processed, random signals input to our neurons, then output. 

As for mathematics? It's effectively reduced to a mere series of backward looking "improvisations" with no coherence or creativity.  But as mathematician Jordan Ellenberg points out : 'How Not To Be Wrong: The Power Of Mathematical Thinking,  p. 436;

 "Every mathematician creates new things, some big, some small.  All mathematical writing is creative writing.  And the entities we create mathematically ae subject to no physical limits."

for example, "impossible" polyhedra can be created such as I demonstrated in my Sept. 16. post from last year.  Was I being "fooled" spectacularly by my brain's improvisations or hallucinations?  Hardly, given the surface was a result of a precise mathematical equation, e.g.

z= f(x,y) =  tanh (x13 

So it appears the only ones duped by their brains are Chater and Rosenberg. In respect of the former, perhaps one of the best review putdowns I read was the following:

"Chater's depiction of the 'mind' (that is, consciousness) as a supreme improviser, constantly making up ideas and justifications for our behaviour, rests on his view that we can only 'think' one thought at a time and that only the conscious part of us can 'think' at all. But this seems akin to arguing that just because I can only read one book at a time the library must therefore contain only one book."

You nailed it!

See Also:



[1] Rosenberg: The Atheist’s Guide to Reality- Enjoying Life Without Illusions, 152

[2] Ibid..

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