How do we know what we know?

If you grew up like me you were brought up in a culture based on a dualist metaphysics, one that asserts that there is an objective reality outside of ourselves (whatever “we” are) and that we know about it indirectly through our senses and conscious reasoning.  This is the basis of the Western traditions of science, liberal arts and symbolic systems (such as mathematics and human language).  Essentially anything that can be studied is part of this metaphysics.  Gödel showed us that this metaphysics will never lead to complete knowing, though everyone agrees we can continually refine our knowledge and thereby at least asymptotically approach enlightenment.

Descartes proved to us that each of us individually do indeed exist, and he tried to argue further that the universe as we perceive it — however imperfectly — does indeed exist too.  But before you drink too deeply from the Cartesian well, keep in mind that his argument for an external reality depended on the existence of a benevolent God, one that would not deceive us with such an elaborate ruse as to make the world seem so real when it wasn’t.  His whole argument after cogito ergo sum is logically flawed.

There are other metaphysics that assert reality is entirely subjective, that there is no reality outside of ourselves.  This of course begs the question of who “we” are such that reality can exist or not outside of us.  But to even ask this question is to miss the point.  Knowledge is direct, we “experience” it; and if we have no expectation, no attachment, no judgement, then we can truly understand.  Anytime we engage in the act of thinking, we break from our direct, immediate, complete knowledge of who we are and knowledge of everything there is to know.  This of course is the metaphysics of Zen Buddhism, Taoism and other Eastern traditions.

I am in danger of losing anyone reading this if I don’t immediately disavow this second way of knowing in favor of the first.  There are many who consider themselves intelligent — whose very self-image is based on intelligence — who will be saying to themselves right now that experience without thought is all well and good as a tool for getting to insight.  But ultimately insight (and knowledge and knowing) requires thought.  And in particular it requires thought that is self-consistent, which is to say rational and logical.  The worst things in the world to such a person are logical inconsistency and paradox.  There are fundamental laws at work, not just about the universe but also about knowing.  These believers will invoke the trinity of Occam, Bayes and Popper, but they forsake the word of Gödel: you can choose consistency, or you can choose completeness, but you can’t have both.

For those of us who have already cast ourselves out of the garden of completeness, all I can say is that it is never too late to reconsider how seriously we take all this cogitation.  I mean after all, what’s the harm in exploration as long as we always have our very capable minds to help us navigate?  With this in mind, I have begun to reconsider certain assumptions.  And for those of you who recall my very first post, the willingness to do so was the only rule that I imposed on myself and insisted of those who wish to engage.

Because we all have different experiences in life, we each have a different internal “language” with which we receive truth and gain understanding.  Those of us who come from the Western tradition — which is to say anyone who thinks of themselves as a thinker — we are in need of more practice in letting go of the map and experiencing the terrain directly.

Have you ever noticed that when someone speaks deep truth (no matter what “language” they are speaking) you get a sense of deep resonance that is beyond words and conscious thought?  I certainly do.  And another thing I notice about these experiences is that they only happen when I stop engaging my analytical mind to critique or compare what the person is saying to what I already “know”.

If we cling to faulty assumptions in the face of truth we feel discord of some form (anger, embarrassment, indignity, righteousness, etc).  But I view this as really another form of recognition of the truth before us.  It’s a sort of allergic reaction to the invading memes that would damage our internal edifices, the faulty assumptions that protect our egos and our ideas of who we are.  To embrace the truth often means a level of change we are not yet willing to undertake, and which we may never be willing to undertake.  In the face of such high stakes, we rationalize away the truth in order to preserve internal consistency and harmony.

As an experiment to illustrate this point, consider your immediate gut reactions to the following statements one at a time:

  1. “There are ways of knowing that are beyond science, beyond analytical thought, and they are crucial for you to engage in if you wish to get past your limited understanding of the universe.”
  2. “Think about that one thing you know with all your being to be true.  Got it?  Well, it’s not true. You believe in a falsehood, a convenient fiction that you use to deny the veracity of your deepest fears.”

Is it possible to not have a negative reaction to at least one of these two statements?  Most people would say no.  If you are comfortable with both statements, congratulations, you have broken free of the shackles of narrow-mindedness that bind most of the world.

If you are like me, you have no trouble at all with Statement 2, but feel at some level that Statement 1 is new-age horseshit, at best an opiate for the masses but at worst a very dangerous conceit.  So let’s take a deep breath and use this as an opportunity to explore what’s causing the negative emotion so that we can challenge those assumptions and thereby learn.

My reaction to Statement 1 is based on the denial of the value of my personal identity as a thoughtful, analytical, intelligent person, one that doesn’t do things that are irrational.  If Statement 1 is true, then my life is less valuable than I had presumed, perhaps even valueless.  Man that would suck.  If I take Statement 1 to be true then I will be forced to change who I am in order to once again feel as valuable.  I might even be forced to participate in a seance and other freaky and totally pointless activities.  Not gonna happen, I don’t have that kind of time to waste.  I could be making the world a better place or at least pursuing my own happiness.

Sounds a bit silly when I type it out.  After all, what’s the point in making the world a better place if we’re all dead anyway (on average a true statement if you are a stats geek).  And as for happiness, I know most of the literature, and I have to admit, as happy as I am there are some proven paths to happiness that I have yet to fully explore and they fit squarely in the experiential, non-analytical sectors of life.  So what could be the harm in turning off the analytical mind a bit more and experiencing without judging?  At worst maybe I’ll be a bit happier, and at best maybe I will become more effective at making the world a better place. But is this direct experience actually valid from an ontological perspective?

Even within the Western analytic tradition there are themes of experiential knowing.  Psychologists now speak (very analytically of course) about the state of Flow.  In Flow, we are so thoroughly engaged in the task at hand and so perfectly in sync that our experience of time changes dramatically.  We are able to achieve extraordinary performance, effortlessly and without thinking.  Gladwell popularized this concept in Blink, claiming that the vast parallel processing power of the human brain and nervous system for useful cognition is largely untapped (or masked) when we focus on conscious reasoning.  To tap into the full potential of the mind, we need to apply techniques to short-circuit our conscious thought processes.

Every professional athlete, musician and performance artist is familiar with Flow/Blink, and you’ve no doubt experienced it many times yourself.  For me, it’s usually been when engaged in a sport where there is little time to think (like ping-pong, volleyball or snowboarding).  In the mental realm, I have been able achieve leaps in performance and rely heavily on on my “blinking” ability — whether it be playing poker, brainstorming, writing, or just interacting in a positive way with those around me — by orchestrating a Flow state.

I’m still learning what best puts me into Flow, but it seems to be some combination of prolonged intense concentration, mild sleep deprivation and small amounts of psychoactive substances like caffeine, modafinil, marijuana, or alcohol (though I must say that too much substance, or combining it, always kills the flow for me).  Recently I’ve found that adding in physical movement or music also help trigger Flow.  On this last front, while most people would say “what took you so long,” it’s worth pointing out that every person is unique in terms of what works for them.  For instance, what most people refer to as meditation (i.e. eyes closed, absolute stillness of body and mind) doesn’t do much for me.  My mind somehow responds better to hyper stimulation than tranquility.

Early in life, learning is mostly the process of of creating new structure out of noise.  As our adult minds form, this structure creation that was once crucial in our learning process becomes a beast of burden and we lose our mental plasticity.  To counteract this imbalance we must consciously re-integrate those activities that we had no trouble jumping into as a child.  The challenge is not to let our egos and silly notions of personal identity get in the way of our beginner mind.  Ken Robinson makes this point as well as anyone I’ve encountered, and I invite you to sit back and enjoy for the next 20 minutes with your own beginner mind:

As for me, I’m off to my favorite yoga studio to participate in kirtan and tap into some good communal vibes.  Maybe I’ll even hit the Buddha along the way.

  • 1. “There are ways of knowing that are beyond science, beyond analytical thought, and they are crucial for you to engage in if you wish to get past your limited understanding of the universe.”
    2. “Think about that one thing you know with all your being to be true. Got it? Well, it’s not true. You believe in a falsehood, a convenient fiction that you use to deny the veracity of your deepest fears.”

    I found the first statement to be obviously true and the second distressing because it denied the first.

    I can preserve some equanimity by taking false to mean “seriously incomplete”– for example, that my ideas of the sorts of knowledge which are beyond my imagination are sufficiently off as to be distracting.

    Also, it’s obvious that I can probably get beyond my current understanding of the universe, but whatever I’ve got will be massively incomplete, though that point is mere nit-picking.

  • kevindick

    I’m not sure your post accomplishes what it intends. I’m a huge fan of Bayes, Popper, and Occam. Yet neither of your two statements bother me in the least. The first is obvious to anyone that has achieved a high level of proficiency in a physical skill (at least the first part of the first, I’m not sure how to parse the second). The second is obvious to any Bayesian (you can’t assign a 100% probability to any belief, ergo there must always be some possible evidences that can change any belief).

    In fact, I would say that Bayes, Popper, and Occam are perfectly compatible with non-dualism. Why do you think they’re not?

    • Rafe Furst

      First, congratulations :-)

      Second, I don’t take issue with Bayes, Popper and Occam, just those who forget there’s a limit to what their methods can apply to. My observation is that group is 99% of the population who invoke those names.

      • kevindick

        Well, 99% of people that have any particular philosophy of a hammer see everything as the corresponding type of nail. I would bet that Bayesians are more open to potential non-Bayesian frameworks than say Christians are to a non-Christian god. But this is a sideshow to the real question of the limits of Bayesianism.

        My feeling is that Bayesianism is extremely useful if your goal is to evaluate the possible effects alternative courses of action will have on what you experience in the future, where the decision time horizon is greater than minutes. In fact, I don’t know of a better system than Bayesian for this purpose. But of course, being a Bayesian, I am happy to examine evidence that there is a superior system :-)

        But it obviously falls short when you’re talking about choosing alternative courses of actions on minute or faster time horizons. Not enough time for explicit analysis. Of course, you can apply Bayesianism to the heuristics you use on these short time frames, but there are issues of scoping the heuristics and meta-cost-benefit limits to how much time you want to spend refining your reflexive heuristics.

        Moreover, it tells you precisely nothing about what you _should_ want_ to_experience_ in the future. Now, to a certain extent, you can model your own future satisfaction using Bayesian methods. But there’s an endogeneity problem and you quickly run into Godel, Escher, Bach/Strange Loop limits. When you come down to it, I have never seen a satisfactory “rational” explanation of what you should want to experience.

        Are we on the same page here?

        • Rafe Furst

          Big picture: My point was to suggest that a good way to achieve greater cognitive enlightenment is to venture off the cognitive grid entirely and into the purely experiential at times. Not a terribly hard sell, I admit.

          What is a hard sell to most of us “thinkers” is the notion that direct knowing is both possible and valid despite the fact that words and analytical thought can only approach these truths asymptotically.

          Heuristics (as I use the word) are a form of analytical thought, just very condensed. Flow/blink is at another timescale and is sub-analytical. Furthermore it makes no sense to try to deconstruct decisions/actions that result, in the same way as it makes no sense to ask what part of a Hebbian network “caused” the output to be what it was. It’s the entire path-dependent history and total input that shapes the brain and produces the output. The only answer to “why” this decision/action was chosen over another would be to replay the history (or a large portion of it). The map and the terrain are very closely linked in these situations.

          So my answer to “is there a better system than Bayesian” would be yes. One that also includes non-analytical, non-judgmental, direct experience, where the focus is on short-circuiting the rational mind. A balance of thought and no-thought, judgment and instinct. And use our emotional reactions as clues for when there is discord between the two modes.

          • “Big picture: My point was to suggest that a good way to achieve greater cognitive enlightenment is to venture off the cognitive grid entirely and into the purely experiential at times. ”

            Here we are at context. The model endeavours to encapsulate experience as it moves away from the machine.
            That which is closer to the machine is a simpler implementation of Cause, Effect, Form, and Function.
            Simplicities implement higher frequencies, and higher frequencies implement simplicities.

            God and the spiritual are just as valid to the machine as they are to abstractions arising within the machine.

            I hear you and think vicarious experience. Vicarious experiences are akin to machine level déjà vu.

            Interesting is how vicarious education has become.

            Please forgive my use of idiom.

  • John

    Rafe, I don’t see a contradiction between 1 and 2, and both seem to have merit. Do I win a prize? Along with Popper (etc.) you might add Kant, who made the distinction between a “thing in itself” and our interior mapping of the “thing.”

    Reminds me of the Eastern Orthodox approach to truth — called apophatic theology, or negative theology. Also found in Hinduism as “neti-neti” or in the fundamental premise of Buddhism.

    Ken’s TEDTalk is among my favorites.

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  • John Wallace

    Thinking and experiencing are both important. Which is more valuable usually depends on which is in shortest supply.

    As far as Flow goes, I find myself in the flow when my mind begins visualizing an action before it’s taken. It’s the change in state from when my brain is consciously telling my fingers how to hit the piano keys to when I can hear the music before I play it and my fingers are mindlessly on the right keys at the right time. The same happens when I start programming at 3pm and look up and find it’s 4am and my energy level is so high that I can’t bear to stop and sleep. Most of the time I hit flow when my judgmental, time-aware left brain shuts up and the part of my brain that knows how to do the job takes over.

  • Rafe Furst

    Stuart Kauffman has finally been able to articulate well the uneasiness I feel about statistical reasoning in his eloquent article, Breaking the Galilean Spell (worth reading in its entirety):

    Then can we make probability statements about the evolution of the biosphere? No. Consider flipping a coin 10,000 times. It will come up heads about 5,000 times with a binomial distribution. But, critically, note that we knew beforehand all the possible outcomes, all heads, all tails, all 2 to the 10,000 possibilities. Thus we knew what statisticians call “the sample space” of the process, so could construct a probability measure.

    Can we construct a probability measure for the evolution of the biosphere into its Adjacent Possible? No. We do not know the sample space!

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