TA102-103 (Vimal)


Commentary 3


by Herbert FJ Müller
18 January 2008, posted 26 January 2008


In answer to your proposal for an epistemological view to deal with the mind/brain question, I will start by discussing one central aspect which influences your theory, and which I therefore think needs general consideration.  This is not to say that this is the only thing to be considered, far from it; but I think it is a better strategy to pay attention to one important point at one time rather than many.  I hope that this is ok with you, and that it can serve as a starting point for further discussion, in case you are interested.


(The following is quoted from the abstract of your TA103: )  Our hypothesis is that matter (mass, charge, and space-time) and associated elemental PEs co-evolved and co-developed into neural-nets and associated neural-net PEs, respectively.  The signals related to neural PEs interact in a neural-net and neural-net PEs emerge (possibly by the chaotic process of self-organization), which are then embedded in the neural-net by the processes of development and sensorimotor tuning with external stimuli. That is, neural-net PEs are a set of SEs embedded in a neural-net.”  


Let me start by discussing this from a phenomenological point of view.  Mental structures are formed within ongoing subjective experience (SE); this concerns all mental structures, including for instance qualia such as pain, color, heat; gestalt formations, ideas, words, numbers, and word-gestalt concepts such as ‘objects’, and their properties such as mass, charge, spin, etc.  The decisive term here is ‘within’, because it means that none of the structures, including the ones referring to ‘the world’ (such as ‘matter’ or ‘micro-matter’), can occur without (outside of or independently of) SE.  This is a ‘topological’ question if you like.  Seen from the SE side, this means that SE is ‘encompassing’, which is a central concept in Karl Jaspers’ epistemology.  He wrote (for instance in 1948/91 pp.38-39) that ‘we are in the encompassing and we ourselves are the encompassing’. 


If Jaspers’ observation is correct, as I believe it is, both materialism and idealism are impossible (and you appear, in principle at least, to share this opinion).  Neither matter nor ideas can exist before and independently of SE, as mind-independent realities (MIRs = metaphysics-ontology).  This applies to any kind of matter, no matter what its ‘size’ is; thus neither objects, nor the physical universe, nor quanta or sub-quanta are possible before, outside, or independently, of SE.  ‘Dual-aspect’ views are unhelpful because they tend to ignore and thus obscure this problem.


Now that in turn implies that ‘co-evolution’ of SE and matter is impossible.  SE is first, it is the background or matrix in which concepts like ‘matter’ can be structured.  The idea of neural nets as material ‘explanation’ of mind would be an example of what Jaspers had called ‘brain-mythology’; and the situation has not changed since he wrote this.  As I see it, understanding of mental activity in terms of brain and nervous function, or of any other ‘objective’ structure or function, occurs within SE, and there is no way of inverting or otherwise changing this relationship.  The same reasoning applies to more recent mythologies about microtubules, quanta, sub-quanta, etc.  The subject can never become an object that can be structured and observed (even though it can have a name like an object, such as ‘subject’, or ‘SE’). 


I add a quote on this last point from my TA93 (and if you have time, I would be interested in your opinion of this paper) :





“ [31]



The subjective aspect of experience (or consciousness) has "to remain empirically inscrutable"; it cannot become objective because "the reflecting self ... becomes the governor and cannot contemplate itself from the outside" as an object (Glasersfeld 2001, [32]).  There is no subject in exclusively-objective studies.   The unobservability of the subject is a fundamental fact which is in principle recognized in constructivism, but usually neglected in MIR-views.  This point will need consideration in the discussion of "second-order cybernetics" (below).




The mind-brain question cannot be approached by MIR-views, because mind cannot be made into an object; as von Glasersfeld puts it (2001, [41]): "In order to do that [understand consciousness objectively], I would have to step out of [consciousness], and at the same time remain conscious, in order to face my own consciousness."  Brain function studies take place within the encompassing mind but cannot in turn reach the mind.  This does not mean that objective studies have no value, quite the opposite; but it means that subjective experience is primary.




The relation of objective studies (for instance of brain function, or of quantum physics) to subjective experience (consciousness, observer, mind) is asymptotic, not one of identity (notions like "the embodied mind" or "the mind-brain" attempt to render the mind objective and thus imply a misunderstanding of this relationship).  Objective functions can approach but not reach subjectivity, and in contrast to geometry, the difference cannot be neglected without eliminating ourselves, as happens in MIR-views.  Words can become MIR-objects (for instance as elements of grammar and syntax, in printed form, etc.), and word-concepts too, but the ongoing experience which they express cannot.




To accommodate experience, scientists must acknowledge that all working-structures (and the distinctions between them) happen within mind or experience; keeping experience at the center, without solipsism.  When maintaining this awareness, one can safely alternate between working-objectivity, working-idealism, working-subjectivity, etc.




The inverted thinking {1} of MIR-belief is a typically human problem.  Animals too structure their own worlds (see Horvath 1997), but the human capacity for distancing (reflection) is greater, in part related to language use, i.e., the large-scale association of specific communicable sounds to images (Glasersfeld 1995, Ch. 7; a classical example is Archimedes, who was so distant from events around him that he did not notice that a Roman soldier was going to kill him while he reflected on geometric problems).




The aim of the objective method is to eliminate observer-bias, not the observer. ”







Jaspers, K. (1948 / 1991) Von der Wahrheit.  Piper :   München, Zürich. 
For other references, see TA93.




Herbert FJ Müller
     e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>