Epistemic Status: Likely
I almost want to learn how to draw. Until recently, my feelings about drawing were uninterested and dismissive. It’d be cool to do, but it the type of thing other people are good at, not me. My thoughts weren’t so blunt, though. Something more like “I don’t know how to draw because it wouldn’t be useful to me”. Right.
Then, I read Dennet’s Consciousness Explained. I haven’t finished it, of course, but that might be fixed in a few months. It’s not a drawing book (in case you’re wondering) but something I read in it made me think that perusing basic competence in sketching stuffs would be something I’d want to eventually do.
In the section I recently finished reading, Dennet argues against the idea of ‘pictures in the mind’ in a particularly persuasive way (to me, anyway): if we really did have ‘pictures’ in our heads, then everyone would know how to draw; it’d be as simple as transferring the internal pictures to an external medium, the only barrier to everyone being professional-quality (photorealistic) artists would be hand-eye coordination (which tends to be fairly good in humans).
But that isn’t the case, which was to be demonstrated, thus completing the reductio ad absurdum.
The persuasiveness likely doesn’t carry-over in my blunt-force summary, but you just need the gist of it. This argument resonated with me when I first read it, partially because I had a superficially similar pet theory of my own. I’ll try to explain it, though I’ll stress the mental environment and train of thought which gave birth to this idea have long since dissolved, so I can’t faithfully re-construct my exact thoughts much better than than you could.
Personally, I have no idea how other people mentally see their act of mentally seeing, but for me, it’s always been a very low-res affair. Seeing a dog and visualizing a dog were utterly distinct things to me. One was ‘high definition’, with minuscule details and phenomenal stability. The other was, in word, not. Which isn’t to say that I lacked imagination, just lacked a vivid imagination, if such a thing exists.
Now, my original hypothesis about “how visualizing works” is that we don’t actually visualize.
The long(er) of that is that people don’t actually ‘see’ ‘pictures’ in their heads, they just think they do. The brain cannot re-construct their entire visual feed, it’s too information rich. People just think they’re ‘seeing’ the object of their supposed visualization, by triggering the activation pattern associated with recognising that object.
You may wonder “what do these remarks have to do with drawing”? Well, not much. I was originally going to opine about my new pet theory that learning how to draw would improve my brain’s ability to visualize, but along the way there I caught a glimpse of something a bit more interesting.
Let me do a face-heel turn and come at my thesis from an entirely different angle.
I have a peculiar way of looking at reality.
Peculiar for humans, at least, I do have this arrogant presumption that my way of looking is superior than others in a meaningful sense, but oh, I digress.
Pick something up, hold it up in the air. Stop holding it.
You’ll see it falling down as it’s supposed to. That sense of “things fall down” is something everyone understands. For me, that sense is a bit more ubiquitous. It’s my favorite lens for understanding reality: everything can be seen as “things falling down” in a deep sense, most importantly through the second law of thermodynamics.
For the largest part, humans are complex enough that their deterministic nature can easily be swept under the rug. Yes, you could understand a human through atom-by-atom simulation if you truly wanted to and could, but it’s mostly an academic consideration.
Or so I thought.
The first step of my argument is noticing how we come to learn words.
Disclaimer: I’m no neuro-linguist, or neurologist, or linguist. Full stop. I assume the process is something kinda/sorta like my crude descriptions. I’m not confident it is, and so I’d love to learn that I’m wrong.
I digress. The short of it is that as you learn a word, like dog, its associated brain-circuits (the sounds (or symbols) of ‘dog’) becomes so closely connected to its referent that only one pattern firing is enough to activate the other. So seeing a dog activates your ‘dog’ circuits, seeing ‘d’,’o’,’g’ together or hearing /dôɡ/ activates your ‘seeing a dog’ circuits. Like culturally inherited synesthesia.
So, when someone is telling story that has something to do with dogs, e.g. “I saw a dog and ran like heck”, hearing the phonemes associated with ‘dog’ triggers your seeing-a-dog circuits and that is the origin of ‘mentally seeing a dog’ phenomena.
The deterministic horror crept in when my mind noticed to the other time when you might be imagining a dog. Thinking. You’re thinking about whether you fed your dog, say, and the mental image of your dog creeps into your mind.
When thinking along those lines, it’s very tempting (and I tried at first) to just say “the brain triggers the seeing-a-dog circuits and …”. but then something in that clause stopped me dead in my tracks. The brain triggers the seeing-a-dog circuits? That pique my scepticism.
It looks suspiciously like loading off agency to another part of the brain. Agency is located in the brain, full stop. It’s caused by something which is not, itself, an agent*. So we can’t reject an explanation just because it doesn’t feel ‘agent’-y
So something in the brain caused that mental image to appear, and it wasn’t ‘me’, because ‘me’ is my brain.
Surely there is nothing more of an extension of our will more than our capacity for imagination and thought?
It’s a tempting notion.
I think it’s false, or at the very least, not well-founded.
Our capacity for somewhat unlimited thought is the keystone of our sense of freedom. We can imagine alternatives, rationally weigh costs and benefits. If freedom is real thing, it’s going to be made of pieces that, while adding up to freedom, still aren’t freedom per se, as in all other complex things.
Complex, open-ended, metaphorical thought is assuredly a component of our freedom. So, thought isn’t free or unconstrained itself.
Here’s an example: think of the proof of the Riemann Hypothesis.
You can’t. This, of course, effectively proves thought isn’t free. You can’t think just anything at all, as surely as you can’t teleport or build castles on clouds.
To think of a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis, you need
- to actually know what a mathematical proof is
- to actually know what the Riemann Hypothesis is
- to have a sufficiently rich ‘ground’ of mathematical understanding
- prove the Riemann Hypothesis
The point: thoughts are like constructions, you have build them on something. Thinking is like walking, in that you can only go to a location immediately near you.
We tend to have an intuitive model of our thoughts as a kind of uncaused causation that leaps into reality from the essence of our being or whatever. It’s a bit hard to describe owing (I think) to its inconsistency.
I’ve sketched a demonstration that our thoughts aren’t fully free, and are confined to at least rudimentary interaction with the rest of the causal web of reality.
I can go farther.
If words and meaning are just connections between symbols and reality so tight they are inseparable, what are thoughts?
The label ‘thought’ is kinda an umbrella, so let be more specific, when someone has a kind of internal narration going on, what really happening at the lower levels?
My idea is that it’s pattern-matching all the way down.
Consider what happens if I asked you to solve this problem:
5 + 4 = ?
It’ll take you fractions of a second for your brain to complete the pattern and bring the solution: 9.
Now, let me pretend to ask you to solve this:
54 + 77 = ?
Unless you’re a savant, the answer isn’t quite as obvious. But let me digress.
During my early grade school years, we had these inter-class competitions called ‘addition bowls’ and ‘multiplication bowls’, likely named after the Superbowl in sports. In these competitions, the students would line up on two teams, side-by-side, and the students at the front would be shown a flash card with two numbers. Whichever students answered first would ‘win’ and go to the back of the line, the other student sitting back down. Whichever team didn’t lose all their members won.
Naturally, these competitions were quite effective at teaching basic arithmetic operation. The point of interest here was that this kind of game came down to differences in seconds.
If you’re beholden to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you’ll recognize this type of training as creating into System 1 response to symbols like “2+3=?”. Where seeing them causes a kind of lookup table operation, retrieving another symbol. Allow me to call this style ‘shallow’ pattern-matching.
You did shallow pattern matching on my first request, to sum 5 and 4. The other request, to sum two two-digit numbers, activated what call ‘deep’ pattern matching, primarily because it concerns a pattern ‘deep’ within the object in consideration.
This type the pattern matching is the domain of System 2, you recognize it as something you don’t know off-hand, but can solve for. You are still completing a pattern, but this time the completion isn’t the answer, but the general procedure for producing it. You look at the equation, and your brain realizes the answer can be acquired by doing this, that, and the other thing.
I was allowed a digression, so now the responsibility falls upon me to connect it to the subject of this post.
Earlier, I briefly touched upon the phenomena of internal narration as a target for reduction to causal determinism. I’ll pick that thread back up.
When someone is lazing about, entertaining themselves by narrating their mundane actions as if they were a character in a novel, what’s actually going on?
I don’t have all of the answers, but I’d bet I have a rough sketch of the underlying process.
As children, we read stories, we’re taught in school how language and grammar works, we gradually start to grasp the patterns ‘deep’ within the language. Most importantly, we’re understanding the maps between language and reality well enough that we can reverse it; fiction is pretty spectacular once you look at it like that.
We gained a functional pseudo-introspective apparatus as a side-effect of our social competence, i.e. we needed to learn to answer questions like “What are you thinking?”, “Why are you doing that?”, “What’s your opinion on x?”, etc.
Narration in this perspective is ‘merely’ using our mastery of language to describe our internal world.
More generally, (verbal) thinking is using our deep linguist pattern-matching ability-to-describe-with-language on memories, including our previous thoughts. ‘Reasoning’ then, is just another deep pattern-matching affinity, primarily being able to generate notions that follow logically from whatever notion you have grasped in your mind’s hand.
In third grade, I had an existential crisis. We had this school-specific pledge of ‘good behavior’, essentially. It mentioned something about choosing to do the right thing, and I thought about how absurd that was. I was something of a problem child, but every time I did something ‘bad’, it was a response to a specific stimulus, and I considered that the appropriate response (I don’t think this way anymore, of course).
Later that day I continued that train of thought, thinking about my actions while riding my bike. I occurred to me that this kind of determinism applied to all of my actions, and spent a few minutes trying to disprove it. I would swerve suddenly to prove to me I was a uncaused causation. It didn’t work, because immediately afterward I’d noticed how my swerving was a response to my thinking that I should be able to make ‘free’ choices, which was a response to my thinking earlier about choice, which was a response to the pledge, etc.
The thought that your actions are determined, that love, hate, and our works of art and thought, are just by-products of what can effectively be considered the scaled up version of ‘things falling down’ is pretty distressing.
My response to this reaction is note that this feeling comes from conflating the external view of reality with the internal view of reality. Like conflating ‘truth’ and ‘provability’ in formal systems. The most cases they line up quite nicely. But there are quite a few cases where they don’t, and it’s important to distinguish them.
Gödel’s famous “This formal system can’t prove this statement” statement is a nice example. A statement about humans in this vein is something like “You won’t clench your fist in a few seconds”.
Either you’ll clench your fist right now to be contrarian, or you won’t, to be meta-contrarian. So the statement is either true or false.
But how to you tell which?
This is pretty easy, but I’ll give you a chance to figure it out on your own.
Simple: you decide.
No tricks or escape clauses. The truth of the statement is entirely your choice.
It’s still determinism. Unless some extremely lucky bit of quantum noise aligns just right in order to impact the firing of your neurons, your choice is still written in the state of reality at moment. But Omega couldn’t swoop down and determine your choice before you make it.
I might need to elaborate the last point. Omega, as ve is used in philosophical thought experiments is said to have perfect (or near-enough-to-perfect) accuracy at determining the behavior of physical phenomena. So it’s inconsistent to say ve suddenly can’t for feel-good reasons.
But no. Omega gets its data by simulating you. In other words, Omega learns of your choice from you actually making the choice. Only it’s in a simulation. Same thing.
You can never know what you do before you do it, this is because you choose what to do. Determinism simply means you determine your choices.