I Solved the Epistemological Problem!

I’m back from my writing vacation.  I’ll begin by returning to my previous essays – where else to begin but at the end of the before?  Reader warning: this is not a well thought out and edited essay.  There is a reason so cut me some slack and read on.

About two days ago in response to some thought passing through my mind and now entirely lost, I picked up a book and read a little of it.  A footnote mentioned the philosophical problem of epistemology – the theory of knowledge – and asked the question ‘how do we know that we have reliable knowledge of a world outside our mind?’  That was all I needed.  This essay practically wrote itself.  I present it as an example of the temper of my mind, of what arises out of the Stygian darkness of my unconscious mind, irrupts into my consciousness and is transliterated into a syntactical collocation of words, that is, a story.

How do I know that I have reliable knowledge of a world outside of my mind?  I cannot answer that question as it is asked.  Not to worry, eminent philosophers cannot answer it either.  So, I reword it into “How competent are neural systems to acquire knowledge of the world outside the system?”[1]  Neural systems acquire information via their sensors, filter that information for significance, do something with that significant information, and output specific and appropriate responses.

Neural systems are behavior control systems that convert experience into perception governed by the species-specific survival rules embedded or embodied in the structure of the neural system itself.   They convert perception into response using various heuristics built into the neural system by its survival rules.

To effect control, the system requires information about the values of the input parameters – that is, something about the state of the world outside the individual organism.  In this sense, survival is essentially individual: this specific individual organism either controls its variables successfully or does not.

The individual vs the rest of the world dichotomy is, so far as I know, universal down to viruses.  They are individual and self-contained.  They have an identity, self and non-self.  They require knowledge of their external state: are they outside or inside a cell.  At one time it is outside and inactive.  At another time it is inside and active. It ‘knows’ whether it is inside or outside a host cell of the correct species.  A virus does not have a problem with epistemology, with acquiring information from and about its environment.  Its ‘knowledge’ of its location crosses the information barrier from outside to inside.[2]

Likewise, each living organism, from single cells to complex assemblies, is evidence of its competence to acquire information (and materials and energy) from outside, import it inside, and do something with this information.  Organisms with neural systems do not have a problem with epistemology, of knowledge of their ambient environment.  That is what neural systems do.  My initial question was “How competent are neural systems to acquire knowledge of the world outside the system?  The answer is the simple single word ‘very.’  To overstate my case, viruses can do something that philosophers have trouble doing.

H. sapiens has the additional facility of transliterating patterns of perception into words to create stories. We build a representation of our environment, a simulacrum of the outside world – partial, limited by our sensory inputs and their filters, and the additional difficulty of the second order pattern match of words to perceptions. Our stories, about our internal and external worlds, our simulacrums, are the locus of our epistemological problem. ‘Our’ is the operative word: only H. sapiens has an epistemological problem.

That was a 3 AM brain dump and only lightly edited.  I enjoyed writing it and I enjoy reading it: that is, I receive a brain reward from both writing and reading.  I will continue with a potpourri of more ideas and stories.  They are in the order of their appearance in my mind and, again, without a lot of editing:

9 AM: I had worked on this essay for several hours before I remembered that some time ago, I had written some notes about neural control systems having similarities to some industrial control systems.  Are they PID – proportional, integral, differential – control systems?[3]  Some neural systems operate to maintain homeostasis in various physiological and emotional parameters so they must have PID capabilities.

PID control requires feedback loops and somehow, I got to thinking that the ego, the I, the consciousness, operates, or is part of, some of the feedback loops, particularly in the slow response of Kahneman and Tversky’s fast and slow systems: the conscience, the ‘I ought to’, and the ‘I should not have’.

Words and stories are both effect and effectors of more fundamental neural processes.[4]  That places them squarely within some feedback loop(s).

1:30 PM: The problem of epistemology arises with words and stories, with what I have called ‘Words in My Mind’ and ‘second order pattern matches of words to perceptions.’  From my previous set of essays:

  1. Our sensory systems input information about the external world from experience. The specific sensors we possess limit the type, quantity and quality of information which can be perceived.
  2. This information is filtered – not all experience is perceived. We perceive what our sensory systems are equipped to perceive and what our filters allow us to perceive.
  3. The filter system is, at the first level, controlled by our survival rules built into our neural systems – genetics. At the second level, the filter system is tuned by our epigenetics – that is, by our parents and grandparent’s life experience up to the time of the formation of the gametes that created the succeeding generation.  Finally, the filters are tuned by the individual’s history from the moment of conception – learning.  Information is path dependent.
  4. Our survival rules also generate motivation, necessity, desire, direction, and energy via various brain rewards and punishments.
  5. The nervous system, acting as a control system, reads the input information and processes it using the appropriate heuristic: it makes a decision based upon a complex mesh of (frequently insufficient) information and mutable motivation.
  6. This new information is sent to some output module – in the case of thought, to the word transliteration module.

Without sensory systems we would have no knowledge of an outside world.  Without filters we would be overwhelmed by information.  Without processing, information would be a confusing mélange.  Without motivation we would do nothing.  Without effectors information would be useless.

Our unusual neural systems make our epistemological problem possible.  That problem arises from the structure of our neural system and our need for creating and telling stories.  It is limited by the set of sensory systems, and their range and sensitivity, and the filtering of their outputs; driven and shaped by our survival rules and motivations.  It is path dependent and limited by the vagaries of memory.  The second order match of words to thought is inherently flawed.  Words are not a one to one match to thoughts which are multiplex derivatives of a web and mesh connected neural system.  Stories are built upon a selection of these thoughts, a best match of words to thought, then linearized and syntacticized.[5]  Yet we need, almost obsessively, to create, tell and listen to stories.

The body of this essay was clearly the result of a mental trigger, a nucleation, that crystalized multiple strands of previous thought into a set of attractive correlations.  One sentence in a footnote triggered thoughts in my unconscious, which were then reported to my conscious via the word transliteration module.  This is an example of the mental process I have outlined in my previous set of essays which I have cumulatively titled “Words in My Mind.”

This essay is a bit scattered, a bit repetitious, a bit vague, etc.  It is the way my mind works.  In my communication schema, I call this process ‘inception’ – the beginning.  It is an example of my previous set of essays which I now title “Words in My Mind” and an introduction to the forthcoming set which I title “Words in Other Minds.”  The first set was about the process of creating stories.  This set is about telling stories. Why do we generate stories, why do we tell stories, what happens when we tell stories, why do stories frequently conflict?

And no, I did not really solve the epistemological problem.  It is an insoluble problem.  We do not possess a ‘story-telling checker’.  There is no mental process that checks the validity of our stories.  Stories are functional, they do something for us.  They are useful but they are not truthional.

A day later: Part of our epistemological problem is that we like our stories so much that we are bound to them in certitude – personal possession of truth.   Certitude is a motivational, functional, and brain reward complex.  This is a brand-new conceptualization that just popped into my head and needs a lot of further thought and is another example of a trigger event, a nucleation crystallizing a long gestation of thought which goes back a long way, at least 2 years.  I see another essay on the horizon.

But there is a workaround for the problem of truth and certitude.  The success of scientia and knowledge, and of the sciences in particular, has been due to obviating, leaping over, the limitations imposed by our sensory and filter systems by creating new technical – that is, man-made – sensory systems and new story telling techniques, and creating new stories out of that new information and method.[6]  Truth vanishes, or maybe better – truth evaporates.  Truth is replaced with a process.  These are topics of my third set of essays – a ways down the road.  Walk it with me, willya .

As I write these words, they are my private truths.  When I publish them, they will leave my mind and enter ‘the marketplace of ideas’ with a new life of their own and attempt to become public truths.  My next essay will be a very different story of public truths and their difficulties.  And it will be linearized and syntacticized = edited – the second stage or process in communication, of creating and telling stories.

[1] I leave on the table the associated question of how competent are plants to acquire knowledge of the world inside and outside of their selves.  They acquire exactly enough information to survive, to live, and to reproduce.  They have biochemical responses to their environment that trigger specific and appropriate responses and further they, or at least some, are able to communicate this information to conspecifics and even to unrelated species.

[2] Is it possible that this conceptualization of outside/inside and an information barrier is not entirely correct – that at this point we are unable to form sufficiently accurate concepts and tell appropriate stories?  There may not be an information barrier.  There may be a much better concept.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PID_controller

[4] In particular emotions.  Cf. “Turn Off the Words” – anxiety: http://jackofafewtrades.com/2017/09/turn-words-off/

[5] Our basic unconscious thought process does not appear to be either very linear or syntactical.  Those emendations are part of the story-telling process.

[6] Here I adumbrate the topic of an entire set of essays, ‘Scientia’, which will follow the current set ‘Word in Other Minds.’  I used the word new repeatedly because the new system of stories has caused multiple conflicts with the older stories.  Therein lies a major intellectual problem of our time.