On worldview multiplicity 2008-11-02

Recently, I got into a discussion with someone who could be described as fairly woo.

Zie believes, for example, that "everything is one" is an accurate and complete description of the world, and moreover, that it is an exclusively complete one - that is, everything is just one. Consequently, zie does not understand why I can profess to be empathic and not agree with this; nor why I would have a strong desire for empirical proofs and tests of things. And moreover, zie considers me to be "closed" because of this.

I've had discussions with other people who have an opposing yet homologous worldview – that the world is just atoms and fully determined consequences of newtonian-scale physics.1 Such folk, in a very similar way, reject such fluff as "oneness" and "enlightenment" as mere delusions or placebo effects - and similarly, consider me to be "woo" or "illogical" when I disagree.

I feel that this highlights one facet of my way of experiencing and thinking2 about the world that is significantly different from that most people: I embrace multiplicity.

I believe (axiomatically, as best I can tell) that there are only two sensible tests that can be applied to any claim:

  1. Is it consistent?
  2. Is it useful?

Both of these claims must be evaluated within the context of some framework, some set of other beliefs, which ultimately include some small core of axioms per the usual Gödelianness. Fortunately, nearly everyone has at least one set of axioms in common - shared beliefs in, for example, what constitutes causality; what things are known to be facts about the world from prior proof; etc.

Within the domain of empirical claims, empirical proof prevails, because otherwise one faces inconsistency. To claim, for example, that a monk can drink hemlock and be unharmed is necessarily an empirical claim that requires a revision of our beliefs - either it is false, and the monk is cheating, lying, or dying; or it is true, and our knowledge of the methods by which poisoning occurs and can or cannot be resisted is mistaken.

Certainly, with any claim, we cannot know beforehand which is the case; one must always be prepared to revise theory to fit the facts. This is what empirical proof provides - facts that eliminate all the all-to-common causes of illusions, mistakes, or fraud. If the monk can only perform his trick when we are not looking at him carefully, then it implies that a more reasonable explanation is that he is a liar; if he can do so still when given pure hemlock by impartial observers yet suffer no ill effects at a dosage that would kill 99% of people, then we have to consider other explanations.

In any case, this process is that of consistency and utility: finding a theory to explain the empirical world (i.e. that of physically observable things) that best matches all of the facts known and is most usefully predictive of novel situations.

In the non-mundane world, these tests are still true.

For example, I describe certain things in terms of the flow of "energy", of the manipulation thereof, of its effects on states of consciousness. I claim that it is a useful way to frame what is happening - it provides a construct within which to treat symbolically an experience that is by its nature in many ways very abstract.

Humans are generally much better at dealing with things that they can treat symbolically. (Mushin and zen, even, I would argue to be a sort of symbol, albeit ones for a state of mind that lacks such symbollic thinking. Ironic, that.) As such, this provides utility. Whether it provides predictiveutility is moot, because we are not treating empirical claims; in the realm of the non-mundane, the experience of or belief in something is it. As such, there is little sensible difference that can be made between erstwhile placebo and treatment effects.

Is it consistent? There's the rub.

It is consistent, certainly, within its own framework. Once you accept the premises, the rest flows.

What people really mean to question is whether it is consistent with what we accept about the empirical world. The thing is, I make no claim that this "energy" is an empirical claim - I do not (unlike many others) postulate that it exists in any observable or physical sense. It is, to me, purely a level of description of a phenomenon that clearly exists subjectively.

Another example, perhaps, might serve to clarify this; I take this example from my classes at UCB with John Searle.

Searle describes himself as being neither a dualist nor a monist. To simplify considerably, Searle contends that the mind is not in "causal" relationship with the body, but rather is a different level of description of the same events - one that contains a certain qualia, which we call consciousness, that is indescribable in terms of the body.

This seems to me to be clear, though I believe he doesn't go far enough; he is still a mammalian chauvinist about consciousness. He asserts, for example, that rocks and trees are definitely not conscious - but proposes no means by which he knows this to be true.

I would say that it is my belief that we can each only know our own consciousness with any certainty; everything else is by extrapolation and empathy. I model your consciousness as like unto mine because you are (presumably) also human. It may well not actually be like mine at all; it could be that the experience you call "seeing red" is what I call "seeing orange". Despite that you agree with me on the names of any color, your experience of it is actually different.

Similarly, I cannot know whether trees or rocks or societies or planets are conscious - but I also have no way of even modeling what their consciousness might be like. As such, the strongest claim I can make is that I am incapable of understanding their consciousness, or that it doesn't exist; I don't know which is true.

"Consciousness", thus, is a framework. We can ask and test empirical claims about it; for example, if I take a psychoactive drug, does my consciousness change? If so, then we must conclude that there is a link of some kind between the biological mechanisms of drugs and the consciousness-affecting ones. It's thus both useful and (with good science) consistent.

It is, however, a framework that provides a utility that strict materialism cannot - namely, some attempt at describing something we each know to exist but cannot prove to each other.

Can it tell us what will happen when someone ingests a new kind of drug? No; "drugs" are simply outside of its descriptive scope.

Is it needed to tell us what will happen (on average) when someone is trained to associate lever-pushing with a trigger of dopamine release? No; behaviorism can handle that just fine.

Can behaviorism describe what it's like for that lever-pusher, though? No, again - and again, because "what it's like" is outside the descriptive scope of biophysics.

So I embrace a multiplicity of worldviews.

Sometimes they overlap in what things they attempt to describe and what they claim to predict, but more usually, they simply talk about different things. Things that can't be explained or dealt with one are foregrounded in another.

When they do overlap in their predictions or other testable claims, there is possibility for one or the other to win out because of consistency vs dissonance. If, for example, I held a framework that dictated that if I were to pray for it the sun would not rise tomorrow, and this did not come true, then I would need to revise that framework.

One can see this happen in people who hold religious or quasireligious beliefs (such as dowsing) whose specific claims are refuted; they either deny the validity of the disproof (in which case it can just be repeated, under a framework for proving things whose general validity they accept), or they revise their religious beliefs enough to be consistent with this new information.

People who are of the strongly anti-woo brand of skepticism see this as being not a win at all, but I would say that it's illogical to do so. All one can reasonably do is prove that, if their belief is true, that it has certain boundaries. With increasingly sensitive tests, one can reduce those boundaries to the point of practical irrelevance, but it's not scientific to claim that one can eliminate them. Every test necessarily has a finite power; there will always remain a gap in which gods can reside. (Whether it is appropriate to call something a 'god' that has no observable power is a question for theologians.)

The other aspect in which this comes up is understanding people.

As I implied earlier about my response to Searle, I believe that one can only understand others to the extent that one understands their worldview frameworks. If you try to model someone in another framework, you may arrive at something that is descriptively accurate (e.g. "they're just evil") but is not at all representative of their actual conscious experience (e.g. "I must aggressively defend my home against people who disobey the laws of god").

I see this all the time as the root of misunderstandings at personal and national scales; people simply lack each others' frameworks and thus fail to understand each other. To the extent that these inadequacies miss the mark, there will be problems when people do not react as we expect, emotionally or otherwise.

One need only look at any politicized issue to see this; "right to life" vs "right to choice", Israel vs Palestine, "war on terrorists who hate freedom" vs "defensive tactics against heathens". They're patently absurd as actual descriptions of what the other side believes; they are instead a war of frameworks, between people who do not share a common framework (or don't acknowledge it) and try thus to construe each other within their own framework.

This kind of misunderstanding is, to me, a tragic consequence of the prevalence of the kind of approach that I described at the outset of this: a belief in some exclusive way of viewing the world.

This is also why I try to increase the number of frameworks under which I can understand the world - I want to understand others better. (Empathy and all that, remember?)

One other consequence of this difference is that there are extremely few people who I feel truly understand me - at best most people will understand one or two of the ways in which I perceive the world.

I don't know very many effective ways of changing this, or proactively teaching someone a new worldview, save by having them experience it directly in some way. That is extremely time consuming to do, and simply impractical for anything other than a tiny scale for people with whom I already have a very high degree of mutual understanding and intimacy.

On a speculative note: if it would be possible to devise a systemic way of changing this - of teaching people, not necessarily to agree with each others' ways of perceiving the world, but simply understanding and portraying them accurately - then the world could be dramatically changed for the better.

How to do this, though? I have no idea.

  1. To my knowledge, there has never been any evidence nor any convincing proposal that subnewtonian nondeterminism - e.g. all the fancy stuff about Heisenberg and entanglement and quanta - has any effect that is probable to be noticeable at the molecular scale and up anytime in the lifetime of this planet. As such, I exclude these weirdnesses from the discussion as irrelevant to anything other than extremely sensitive lab experiments, and specifically, as being irrelevant to any known biological process or any known plausible substrate for consciousness.

    This is however an emprical claim, rather than an axiomatic one. If someone can demonstrate macro-scale effects existing outside übercontrolled environments, or reasons why quantum-scale effects are more plausible than neurotransmitter-scale ones for explaining some facet of consciousness, I'll to change my mind.

  2. By "think" and "mind" I very specifically do not mean exclusively the "rational" or "intellectual" sort; I use these terms to describe, respectively, the process and entity of consciousness. They're just much simpler terms. I get irritated when woo folk tell me that I'm too "thinky" in the same way that I get irritated by the view that gender is a continuum single-dimensional; there are multiple separate correlated but independent elements that make up the whole. One can, for example, be both highly masculine and highly feminine; one can similarly be highly intellectual and highly intuitive.

    As is hopefully clear by the above, I reject most metaworldviews that seek to elevate one element above the others, or to claim that they are necessarily at odds; I would say rather that only some of their undesirable correlaries are at odds, and that the things themselves are perfectly compatible.

Edit 2008-11-19: I've just learned (from the excellent Witten & Frank, Data Mining, p 182) that supposedly Epicurus had a very similar stance: the principle of multiple explanations. Yay being scooped by ancient Greek philosophers.