10 July 2011

Do you believe in time and mind?

This is my response to Greg Byshenk's 5th comment on my last post, Do you believe in zero? We have had a very enlightening exchange on this topic. This one was too long for the comment box so I'm posting it here:

Let's examine the unreality of faeries and unicorns, because at a certain level they have referents in the world even though they are clearly creatures of fantasy. Faeries could be the imaginative re-combination of people and dragon flies. Unicorns could be ibex with a single horn in the middle of their heads. Both are then given interesting causal capabilities that we humans don't have, like the abilities of other actual creatures to glow, fly, or perceive outside our sensory range. The point is that the conceptually basic components of unicorns and faeries certainly do exist, but when we take those basic low level components and arrange them differently at another level then we get something fantastic.

Lakoff and Johnson, in Philosophy in the Flesh, say that linguistic analysis shows that there is no literal core referent in concepts of time, only metaphorical constructions. This puts time on the same referential footing as faeries and unicorns; they are all three imaginative recombinations of more basic literal concepts.

But saying that time is not real just because the concept lacks a thing in the world to refer to does not convince me that it is not real. Sure it may be an illusion in some abstract sense, but it's very useful as a concept and pervasive in it's practical applications despite the evidence that it lacks a literal reference point.

Let me bring in Lakoff and Johnson here to assist with the broader point:

From the chapter entitled Realism and Truth in Philosophy in the Flesh- “[E]mbodied truth requires us to give up the illusion that there exists a unique correct description of any situation. Because of the multiple levels of our embodiment, there is no one level at which one can express all the truths we can know about a given subject matter. But even if there is no one correct description, there can still be many correct descriptions, depending on our embodied understandings at different levels or from different perspectives.

“Each different understanding of a situation provides a commitment to what is real about that situation. Each such reality commitment is a version of a commitment to truth.

“What we mean by “real” is what we need to posit conceptually in order to be realistic, that is, in order to function successfully to survive, to achieve ends, and to arrive at workable understandings of the situations we are in.” [italics in original]

This bit comes after they have spent a few pages tearing down the correspondence theory of truth. Notice that they simultaneously reject simplistic ideas of both objectivity and relativity. There are aspects of human experience that will always have absolute commonality because we share the same biological structures and on the other hand there are many aspects of human experience that we do not share, therefore nuanced views of both objectivity and relativity are required.

I would get near universal agreement (except for some post-modernists and buddhists) on the reality of my chair and the non-reality of faeries and unicorns (also with a few motivated exceptions) because all the people considering the issue share the same conceptual structures (including the motivated few who overcame them in order to reach their contrarian ideologies.)

Concepts of time, on the other hand, have a totally different basis. There is no objective, level-independent, neutral way to think about time. There is no universally shared conceptual structure, only a diversity of cultural and linguistic traditions. But that does not make time unreal, it just makes it really complicated.

Mind, on the other hand has a literal core referent. According to Lakoff and Johnson, at its core, mind is literally what thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines and wills. There are manifold metaphorical constructions that make this skeletal core actually useful for understanding issues in the real world, but there IS a literal core referent to a causal agent of some kind. Therefore, mind could be said to meet your criteria for reference but time does not. Is mind real and time not real?

My current studies at Reed are focused on psychology and I take the mind to be a real entity that is the primary concern of my studies. Given that I take both mind and time to be real then it is no stretch for me to take the following steps to get to what I consider a responsible concept of a real god:

  • My mind is one of the primary things that makes things happen in my experience and I recognize that other minds are active agents in the world, too.
  • Minds are causal entities that are associated with many (perhaps all) living things.
  • There are causal forces in the world that act independently of things that I normally recognize as living or that occur at higher levels of organization of living things. (e.g. Following the lead of philosopher Douglas Hofstadter and a variety of ant scientists; individual ants can seem stupid but ant colonies can seem smart, therefore the colony is productively thought of as an agent, a causal unit, as are individual ants though at a smaller scale.)
  • Since, in my experience, minds make things happen, then it is possible that a mind-like entity that I am ignorant of is acting independently of things that I normally recognize as individuals, therefore I will come up with a separate term for a mind-like entity with causal agency in the world: god.
  • My concept of god is real in the same way that time and mind are real.
  • God is real like time in that I have imaginatively constructed a concept out of more basic concepts (via metaphor) to solve a problem: the problem of dealing with phenomena in my life that I cannot trace to individual causal agents.
  • God refers to the phenomena of causal forces that I don't understand, in particular forces that are non-living and/or associated with groups of living things that act in seemingly mindful ways.
  • God is real like mind in that I have borrowed the core reference to causal entities but I have dissociated it from the agency of individual living things.
  • Given that I built this concept of god from the concept of mind, then it is, at its core, a concept with properties associated with minds, but there is nothing inherent in the construction that limits me to human minds, therefore I can also equally conceive of god with attributes that are non-human.
  • God is also like zero in that it solves the cognitive problem of how to represent a lack of information (in a system that can only act on information) by the use of a placeholder.
  • Given that the central problem solved by the concept of god is my own causal ignorance, then I have to take responsibility for my ignorance by conceding that true knowledge about the causal factors that are covered by my use of the term 'god' is both possible and, perhaps, likely, given that I live in a complex technological society.


This way of constructing the argument relies on taking the terms mind and time to each indicate something real, while the realness of zero turns out to be irrelevant since it just illustrates a certain functional relationship. Of course, if you do not accept the reality of time and mind, then we simply disagree on those points, and that's where you'll lose me.

This line of reasoning leads me to reject the notion that 'god' is a term that cannot be used responsibly. It is a tool with specific uses that are legitimate and other uses that are not legitimate. I agree with you that god is a bad tool for playing in the realm of politics. Asserting power tends to require some claims to knowledge, preferably, for the aspirants to power, claims to special or unique access to some knowledge. So responsible use of the term 'god' requires a certain kind of (epistemic?) humility which may be difficult (maybe even impossible) to maintain unless there is institutional support for reigning in the temptations of power and correcting the inevitable occurrence of abuses.

Getting back to faeries and unicorns, I would accept the possibility of those concepts being real for someone if I thought that they served a necessary cognitive purpose. To take a concrete example, if a child consistently described the illumination of a light bulb as the action of faeries then I would not argue. Creating conflict over the specific language a child uses is generally of little value in my experience, so it is a battle I choose to fight only rarely.

Of course, electricity is clearly a hazard that must be handled carefully and if the child is probing for fairies in electrical outlets with a screw driver then I'll step in. But to ensure safety in the short term I would explain that faeries are very private folk and can hurt or kill people who get too nosy. This strategy accepts that faeries are real to her and uses the language of her understanding to reframe the story about faeries to reflect real dangers. Accepting and using her current understanding does not undermine my understanding, so there is no risk to me. In the short term my use of language according to her understanding of the situation will be far more effective than attempting to abruptly change her understanding. Over the long term, rather than argue directly about it with the child I would find out more about her causal concepts and probe the limits of her theory of light bulb fairies. I would probably get a kit for playing with circuits and help the child discover the real properties of electricity and in the process introduce the terminology that is generally accepted for discussing the topic. I am confident that the reality of electricity and the scientific understanding of it is compelling enough to ensure my ultimate success in facilitating the child to develop both a proper understanding of electricity and an ability to use socially appropriate language when discussing it (fairy terms in whimsical settings, if she is inclined to do so, and scientific terms in serious settings.)

So in a sense I am right in the danger zone you mentioned. I know that a little girl does not have an understanding of electricity and so the real phenomena she observes have to be explained in some other way. Imaginative creatures are a culturally supported way of thinking about phenomena in her experience. Faeries are real to her because they serve a legitimate purpose as a cognitive tool for her to deal with the situation of light bulb illumination. Her understanding will change over time and she will learn more ways to talk about her experiences, but for the time being faeries are “real” because they provide a cognitive framework for surviving as a little girl with access to electricity.

But, I will also be honest with her that I think the illumination of the light bulb was the result of electricity. Using her language of faeries to explain how to avoid being killed by an electrical outlet does not mean that I share her beliefs, it simply means that I have taken the time to get to know her and understand how to communicate with her. I am fully confident that her understanding will change over time and if she is allowed to engage with reality enough she will learn both the skills she needs to handle reality and a variety of linguistic concepts that will allow her to effectively communicate about it, as well.

I do not subscribe to the view of children as ignorant in the sense of lacking essential information. I do subscribe to the view that they are independent human beings with their own purposes and have access to a lot less information than older people. Rather than being responsible for delivering into their heads the correct knowledge-set I see my job as a teacher as aligning their purposes with mine. As a practical matter that means I should be clear and explicit about my purposes and letting them know when their purposes are in alignment with mine, or not. When their purposes do not align with mine then we will have conflict, in any case. The long term successful resolution of the conflicts will depend on how well we can come to a shared understanding of what purposes we can mutually serve while we share time and space. I usually have no problem getting kids of any age to agree that safety is a mutual purpose we can both serve. I do not take my purposes to be inherently superior to theirs, just different. I am confident that we share a significant proportion of our purposes and can figure out lots of mutually engaging ones to serve while we are together.

Implied in your concern about the propagation of ignorance is the idea that your knowledge is superior to the knowledge of those who are ignorant of what you know. What purpose are you serving such that your knowledge is superior? Until you specify the purpose you serve, there is no way for me to judge your claim that they are ignorant. Ignorance exists only in the context of purposes that structure the meaning of knowledge. Your knowledge may be superior for certain purposes you subscribe to, but, if the people you claim are ignorant don't share your purposes then your problem is not properly with their a lack of knowledge, its with the purposes they subscribe to such that they know things to be a different way. You can instantly convince them of their ignorance if you can get them to subscribe to your purpose and then examine how their previous behavior did not serve it.

The important shift in their perspective will not be about the truth value of their causal propositions involving the term 'god.' The important shift will be in their values, which follow from the purposes they serve. Given the right purposes to serve they will, over time, adjust their concepts of god to fit.

In my view focusing on the word 'god' as a sign of delusion and unjustified belief does not serve the purpose of communicating across religious divides. I believe that eliminating the word 'god' and its synonyms from common usage is impractical and likely impossible. So coming up with a plausible way of interpreting it that is reasonably defensible with what's known from cognitive linguistics about how humans use language seems like a good idea for enabling it to be used responsibly.

Thanks for helping me clarify what I'm doing!
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