Its: not all in your head

I have spent the past few posts emphasizing that rational objects like aardvarks and zebras and medians don’t have any spatial location – which is to say that if they exist, they don’t exist in the material world.

Now look: I know that almost none of us actually believe this.  In particular, we don’t believe in rational objects, which is to say, in pure concepts that have no location in the world – which is part of why we don’t believe in God. We believe in the laws of thermodynamics, and it has not escaped our notice that the idea of an aardvark – like any idea – is information, and that this information – like all information – requires energy (or its mass equivalent) to be stored or transmitted, and that whatever this energy is, it – like all energy – is a physical quantity and therefore must be located, well, in the physical world.  Which means that, by the transitive property, we can rapidly discover that the idea of an aardvark must exist in the world.  

But what is also true is that to believe such a thing is to run clearly afoul of the standard scientific dogma.  Which is why you will never find, anywhere, a concrete claim for what specific physical substrate the subjective experience of the idea of an aardvark is stored on.  Nobody ever says “hydrogen is where subjectivity is.”  Which is why the problem with the brief proof above is the claim that the idea of an aardvark is information. For information, in science, may be measured in bits, but it is always carried upon some medium.  That’s what’s missing for the mental world: a medium. And the reason it is missing is that our dogma forbids it. The mind is immaterial.

And it is this troublesome fact – that the standard dogma holds that the mind is immaterial, and the contents of the mind are immaterial, and the number two is immaterial – that we need to grapple with if we are to develop a real feeling for the enormity of the metaphysical task that awaits us.  For if over time humanity has more and more closely apprehended the nature of reality, and if we would continue this forward motion, we must know what obstacles we are up against, and we must develop sufficient motivation to overcome them.  It is impossible to imagine that we can develop such motivation if we continue to tell ourselves that the modern metaphysic may yet work.

So let me say it here: it won’t.

Many thoughtful people – many of them neuroscientists (among whose number I do not count myself) – think I’m off my rocker. There is, they tell me in so many words, no problem with the modern metaphysic.  There is a place in the world for zebras and aardvarks and pi.  I’ve just somehow overlooked it.

For example yesterday I received this thoughtful comment from Justin Kiggins in response to my post titled: Where is pi?:

“[Where is pi?] asks the neuroscientist? Well, it exists in our heads. Quite literally. If pi truly is a distinct concept which humans can grasp AND such concepts have an underlying biophysical foundation in our brains, then it exists in the state of our brain at that moment when we are conceptualizing it. Perhaps there is a pi-cell, like the grandmother cell or the Jennifer Aniston cell. (  Or perhaps there is no such dedicated cell, but it exists instead in a single state in the high-dimensional state-space of activity across the cortex. Who knows what its manifestation is, but in that moment, when you conceptualize it, it exists in the physical world in your brain.”

Not to pick on Justin – I think we’ve all done such things – but look at his apparently unconscious sleight of hand.  First he writes: “if pi truly [has]… an underlying biophysical foundation in our brains…” Now that’s the hypothesis that he should want to prove, right?  In regular science the next sentence would be something like “centrifuging the cerebrospinal fluid of a human being who, prior to death, had a documented understanding of pi, at 1500-2000 revolutions for 10-15 min should produce a buffy coat containing pi, as macrophages are known to eat pi.”

But no. Because as it turns out, his conditional statement was not a hypothesis, but a rhetorical flourish.  In fact he has assumed what he wanted to prove. He goes on to talk about cells and states and cortical activity, which all sounds very appealing and functions to blind the reader with science, and then closes with a definitive statement: “in that moment, when you conceptualize it, it exists in the physical world in your brain.”

It is an intellectual scam, writ small. From an “if” we have produced a “then” without any of the usual intervening axioms or facts.

If this were just the case of Justin it wouldn’t be a cultural problem.  But Justin speaks for all of us. We are, all of us, blind with science.  And we are blind not for cognitive reasons, but neurotic ones.  If I can put on my shrink hat for a second, I would say that modern neuroscience has put together a wonderful array of circumstantial evidence that the brain produces the mind.  For this reason it is just killing us that we can’t find the smoking gun – the link in the explanatory chain to bridge the explanatory gap and solve the Hard Problem.  Such impotence doesn’t fit with our grandiose view of our knowledge.

And so we tell ourselves that “brain makes mind” actually makes sense. And then we teach our students – like me, and Justin, and my cousin Benjamin – to just keep saying “pi is in our heads” and “zebras are in our heads” and “aardvarks are in our heads” over and over and over.

But we are cheating.

By the ground rule of western science, rational ideas – the mind – cannot exist in the physical world.  As emphasized in the previous posts, this isn’t up for negotiation. The brain gets no diplomatic immunity to violate this law, and therefore is as incapable of serving to explain how the mind is produced as is the kidney, or the dung beetle, or iron pyrite.

We are fooling ourselves. We talk about cells and multi-dimensional state spaces and patterns of cortical connectivity and it sounds – pardon my French – so fucking smart that we end up believing we have solved the hard problem.

But we have not solved the hard problem.

The plain truth of the matter is that pi and the number two and the idea of an aardvark have no place in all this great wide world to go.

In the next few posts I want to explore just how radically different our metaphysical framework would be if rational objects were physical (here’s a small example: zero couldn’t exist), and why we can’t go on much longer simply muttering “mind is brain” to gloss over our conceptual faux pas. I will close by suggesting that we have on our hands not merely a metaphysical problem, but a social crisis and a medical emergency.


  1. Fist admitting to be largely lost on this argument but:
    – fully willing to hold forth unencumbered by any knowledge or understanding
    – believing the claims that randomness pretty much rules — the gangsta “drive-by” epistemic model

    we’ll hold forth, to wit

    Lost us at: “We are, all of us, blind with science.” That pure emotion and rhetoric and nothing wrong with that. The rest of the post dunks further in the “this is just unfair” pool, we think. “Blind” to what? but you’ll be explaining.

    Here is the question — just because everything is ultimately subjective doesn’t mean that everything and anything is possible.

    It’s really hard to (verbally) make sense of the idea that the immaterial is unbounded. Of course, we need a new language of the immaterial, suppose. Is one anymore, or less able to make “sense” (htat is the word, for a reason) about the immaterial when unconscious or conscious? No, right?

    Now the proposition that one is as likely to comprehend something when unconscious (not dreaming either) than conscious is …what?

    Even the act of , verbally again, wanting agreement on the immaterial seems a contradiction. BTW, it’s a “god” not the “God.” Or which “God?”

    If it’s not bounded in all sorts of highly subjective ways how can “it” even be referenced.

    Do we not, yet, understand brain/consciousness-language sure. Does that mean we won’t? Probably not. But maybe not. The world does not have to be accessible to primate brain processing? But does lack of specificity in language, measurements and numbers mean everything is up for grabs? No, for any primate.

    But of course, for any entity, force or stuff that cannot be perceived by any primate brain it probably not a problem. But that’s a guess.

    Doesn’t our model of the mind/me/consciousness-language user as defined by body and social stimuli feedback loops processed, mainly, in the brain cover all the bases we can talk about?

    Of course, we can never know if “zero” exists outside of human brains but we must soldier on.

    Then there is that whole “emergence” thang which only the Brits seem capable of talking, incoherently, about.

    Wow! “…not merely a metaphysical problem, but a social crisis and a medical emergency.” That is one great “hook” — shoulda been a copy writer!

  2. What do you think of Dennett’s responses to the hard problem (that it isn’t really a problem at all)? He basically says that a philosophical zombie, a person who acts on the outside as if conscious but is lacking phenomenal experience, must be the same as a conscious person. Maybe subjective experience is just an illusion?

    Also: “That’s what’s missing for the mental world: a medium”. The mind is in the brain. I know you’ll just think I missed your point, but at this time we haven’t resolved the issue and saying it’s in some non-physical realm isn’t going to help anyone find out anything more about consciousness.

    1. When reading this atricle I thought it was interesting to read about the focus on efficiency of employees rather than serving the customers best. Ethnography seems to be very useful for not only design purposes but for any type of business looking to create or dive into a new market. I also find it interesting to read that it used to be the design tacked on to a marketing scheme; And now, it’s opposite because the aesthetic and functional design is what makes the product valuable and on the market in the first place.

  3. I’ve always thought that all referents require a mind to exist “in” and independent of such an observer all things are one undifferentiated thing.

    I’ve been scolded by numerous professors both of scientific disciplines and of philosophy. I’ve been called a fool and a solipsist but you are making the exact same point here. It’s also the same point Heidegger was making in Being and Time.

    I’m really happy to see a scientist start to take Existentialism seriously.

  4. Too many straw men, eg “standard dogma”, “mind is immaterial”, “the hard problem”; too many mistakes, eg implicitly identifying the (human) mind with rational ideas, and treating “material” as a synonym for “physical”; and too many double entendres, eg the “existence” of pi and zero.

    1. As many others have mtinnoeed it’s fascinating that ethnography is a relatively new practice as far as design research goes. It seems that it has been a work in progress, much like a prototype or concept model for anything, and has only recently been brought into more of a common practice for businesses and designers. Xerox was definitely on the right track with the big green button for printers and I think many companies follow similar ideas for their research and follow through. Now that ethnography is more popular it’s hard to imagine how any good research is done without it. By combing all aspects of research and observing people in their natural environment it doesn’t take much to realize that is would be very effective.

  5. Again, I think you should read Walker Percy’s “Lost in the Cosmos,” maybe his “The Message in a Bottle” as well. Before he was a writer, he was a Columbia-trained M.D. He was also interested in the inability of science to account for consciousness; he didn’t try to resolve the metaphysical conundrums, but instead examined the semiotic nature of the human mind. Not exactly what you’re onto here, but parallel, perhaps.

  6. Um. No. But you certainly did a good job misrepresenting my statement in order to grind your axe against empiricism.

    First he writes: “if pi truly [has]… an underlying biophysical foundation in our brains…” Now that’s the hypothesis that he should want to prove, right? … But no. Because as it turns out, his conditional statement was not a hypothesis, but a rhetorical flourish. In fact he has assumed what he wanted to prove.

    Actually, I said:
    If A is of class B
    and items of class B exist in C
    then A exists in C.

    Which your ellipses conveniently changed to
    If A …
    … exists in C
    then A exists in C.

    Neither of the following statements is necessarily true:
    “pi truly is a distinct concept which humans can grasp”
    “concepts have an underlying biophysical foundation in our brains”

    The second one is the one that you have a problem with and it is not the hypothesis that I want to prove. I made no attempt whatsoever to “prove” that pi has a biophysical foundation in the brain of someone conceptualizing of it. The two statements are assumptions (or, more accurately perhaps, working hypotheses) and were intended to be such, as they are not empirically tractable (well, the first maybe, but not the second). As you have argued extensively, this might not be the case. As you noted, there is evidence of this. People experience profound changes in personality or perception based on brain injury or lesion often caused by the particular location of the lesion. More subtle aspects of decision-making can be manipulated with direct electrical stimulation or transcranial magnetic stimulation. Psychactive substances mediate depression and other mental states. To dismiss such evidence as “circumstantial” is a nice rhetorical flourish, given that all science incorporates inference and inductive reasoning.

    But the alternative solution to such concepts being in our brains is that they only exist somewhere else in a non-physical realm. OK, sure. I sure as hell can’t test that hypothesis, so I will constrain the problem of where the phoneme /ba/ exists or where the concept pi exists or where the smell of my wife’s delicious cookies exist or where my memory of my first car exists to the observable world and assume that those concepts exist quite literally in my head. And I am OK with that. Because without constraining ourselves to the physical world, we can’t evaluate the causes of profound neurological diseases or develop appropriate interventions (whether those solutions be social, pharmacological, or engineered). Without the assumption that the brain and its interactions with the rest of the world (environment, society) is all we have to work with, the pursuit of non-metaphysical solutions is fruitless. Apparently, though, you consider this constraint a “medical emergency.”

    If both of these presuppositions true (that is, assuming that the answer to “does pi exist in the brain?” is “yes”) then one can ask “how does pi exist in the brain?” My so-called attempts to “dazzle with science” were not handwaving, but actual scientific hypotheses. I’m sorry if these hypotheses (which are not of my own imagining) are too shiny for this discussion… Unlike your absurd rhetorical hypothesis about CSF and macrophages eating pi, I was suggesting plausible biophysical instantiations of the concept of pi (which is what you requested).

  7. Just like Kant and many other rationalists, you are confusing the material reality of a concept with the material reality of the object which it represents. The first is a configuration of neural pathways corresponding to sensory data that may or may not have been obtained directly from reality, i.e. either from direct or recounted experience, reality or fantasy etc.

    The second is a configuration of neural pathways that corresponds to actual chemophysical changes represented by primary signal processing. The misunderstanding arises from a failure to recognize the fundamental distinction between primary (perception) and secondary (conscious) processes: the world is independent of our neural pathways.

    Funny though, how philosophical misunderstandings have a tendency to recur again and again. I’m still waiting for the new Nietzsche though ;)

    1. 1.) As a child, I would partake in imiivnatgae play with my sister. We usually played house or school. By playing school or house, children have to assign roles to begin the play. This allows for children to use their problem-solving skills to determine who is the teacher, mother, father, little sister or whoever. To keep the play going, the children have to collaborate and use their problem-solving skills to fix any conflict that may occur. For example the child might pretend they are crying and the other child who may be playing mom would have to figure out how to tend to the fake crying child’s needs. This would allow both children to take their own life experiences and integrate it into their play. Imaginative play such as playing house or teacher, relates to the fourth brain principle. This type of play gives the children hands-on experience by playing with practical items such as a telephone, kitchen set, or even paper and pencils. By allowing the children to work with these practical items, the children find meaning in their play and it excites them to partake in their tasks. This type of play also leaves opportunity for others to be emerged into their play. Each child has a chance to interact with others and develop social skills. 2.) During class, we talked about how the curriculum is child-centered. I think the imiivnatgae or dramatic play allows the students to make their own decisions. They can really focus on what they are interested in and integrate that into their play. By allowing them to partake in activities they are truly interested in, the students will understand and learn much more. -Rachel Martenco

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