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2/25/2018 No results found for “scandal of self-knowledge” | Three Pound Brain

Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

No results found for “scandal of self-knowledge”

by rsbakker

(h ps://rsbakker.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/this-is-your-brain-on-math.jpg)

Or so Google tells me as of 1:25PM February 5th, 2018, at least. And this itself, if you think about it, is, well, scandalous. We know how to replicate the sun
over thousands of targets sca ered across the globe. We know how to destroy an entire world. Just don’t ask us how that knowledge works. We can’t even
define our terms, let alone explain their function. All we know is that they work: the rest is all guesswork… mere philosophy.

By the last count provided by Google (in November, 2016), it had indexed some 130,000,000,000,000—that is, one hundred and thirty trillion—unique pages.
The idea that no one, in all those documents, would be so struck by our self-ignorance as to call it a scandal is rather amazing, and perhaps telling. We
intellectuals are fond of lampooning fundamentalists for believing in ancient mythological narratives, but the fact is we have yet to find any definitive self-
understanding to replace those narratives—only countless, endlessly disputed philosophies. We stipulate things, absolutely crucial things, and we like to
confuse their pragmatic indispensability for their truth (or worse, necessity), but the fact is, every a empt to explain them ends in more philosophy.

Cognition, whatever it is, possesses a curious feature: we can use it effortlessly enough, successfully solve this or that in countless different circumstances.
When it comes to our environments, we can deepen our knowledge as easily as we can take a stroll. And yet when it comes to ourselves, our experiences, our
abilities and actions, we quickly run aground. “It is remarkable concerning the operations of the mind,” David Hume writes, “that, though most intimately
present to us, yet, whenever they become the object of reflection, they seem involved in obscurity; nor can the eye readily find those lines and boundaries,
which discriminate and distinguish them” (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 7).

This cognitive asymmetry is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the ‘language of the universe,’ mathematics. One often encounters extraordinary claims
advanced on the nature of mathematics. For instance, the physicist Max Tegmark believes (h ps://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-the-universe-made-
of-math-excerpt/) that “our physical world not only is described by mathematics, but that it is mathematical (a mathematical structure), making us self-aware
parts of a giant mathematical object.” The thing to remember about all such claims, particularly when encountered in isolation, is that they simply add to the
sum of ancient disputation.

In a famous paper presented to the Société de Psychologie in Paris, “Mathematical Creation


(h p://vigeland.caltech.edu/ist4/lectures/Poincare%20Reflections.pdf),” Henri Poincaré describes how the relation between Fuchsian functions and non-
Euclidean geometries occurred to him only after fleeing to the seaside, disgusted with his lack of progress. As with prior insights, the answer came to him
while focusing on something entirely different—in this case, strolling along the bluffs near Caen. “Most striking at first is this appearance of sudden
illumination, a manifest sign of long, unconscious prior work,” he explains. “The rôle of this unconscious work in mathematical invention appears to me
incontestable, and traces of it would be found in other cases where it is less evident.” The descriptive model he ventures–a prescient forerunner of

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contemporary dual-cognition theories–characterizes conscious mathematical problem-solving as inseminating an ‘subliminal automatism’ which
subsequently delivers the insight. Mathematical consciousness feeds problems into some kind of nonconscious manifold which subsequently feeds solutions
back to mathematical consciousness.

As far as the experience of mathematical problem-solving is concerned, even the most brilliant mathematician of his age finds himself stranded at the limits
of discrimination, glimpsing flickers in his periphery, merely. For Tegmark, of course, it ma ers not at all whether mathematical structures are discovered
consciously or nonconsciously—only that they are discovered, as opposed to invented. But Poincaré isn’t simply describing the phenomenology of
mathematics, he’s also describing the superficiality of our cognitive ecology when it comes to questions of mathematical experience and ability. He’s not so much
contradicting Tegmark’s claims as explaining why they can do li le more than add to the sum of disputation: mathematics is, experientially speaking, a
black-box. What Poincaré’s story shows is that Tegmark is advancing a claim regarding the deepest environment—the fundamental nature of the universe—
via resources belonging to an appallingly shallow cognitive ecology.

Tegmark, like physicists and mathematicians more generally, can only access an indeterminate fraction of mathematical thinking. With so few ‘cognitive
degrees of freedom,’ our inability to explain mathematics should come as no surprise. Arguably no cognitive tool has allowed us to reach deeper, to fathom
facts beyond our ancestral capacities, than mathematics, and yet, we still find ourselves (endlessly) arguing with Platonists, even Pythagoreans, when it comes
to the question of its nature. Trapped in millennial shallows.

So, what is it with second-order interrogations of experience and ability, such that allows a brilliant, 21st century physicist to affirm a version of an ancient
mathematical religion? Why are we so easily delivered to the fickle caprice of philosophy? And perhaps more importantly, why doesn’t this trouble us more?
Why should our civilization fail to refer to self-knowledge as a scandal?

Not so very long ago, my daughter went through an interrogation-for-interrogation’s-sake phase, one which I initially celebrated. “What’s air?” “What’s
oxygen?” “What’s an element?” “Who’s Adam?” As annoying as it quickly became, I was invariably struck by the ruthless efficiency of the exercise, the way
she need only ask a handful of questions to push me to the, “Well, you know, honey, that’s a li le complicated…” brink. Eventually I decided she was pacing
out the length and beam of her cognitive ecology, mapping her ‘interrogative topography.’

The parallel between her naïve questions and my own esoteric ones loomed large in my thoughts. I was very much in agreement with Gareth Ma hews
in Philosophy and the Young Child (h ps://books.google.com/books?
id=7IZxyxu8jG0C&pg=PR4&lpg=PR4&dq=Ma hews,+Gareth,+1980,+Philosophy+and+the+Young+Child&source=bl&ots=ikfK-
rlS3p&sig=8bBS3JN_dnxkPSrOjSL7jEYDMr0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiZhKWF1bfZAhWk2YMKHQZpDdMQ6AEImwEwFg#v=onepage&q=Ma hews%
not so much separates the wonder of children from the thaumazein belonging to philosophers. As Socrates famously tells Theaetetus
(h ps://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/plato/p71th/theaetetus.html), “wonder is the feeling of the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” Wonder is
equally the feeling of the child.

Enough, apparently, to trigger parental migraines. Socrates, of course, was sentenced to death for his wonder-mongering. In my annoyance with my
daughter’s questions, I saw the impulse to execute Socrates in embryo. Why did some of her questions provoke irritation, even alarm? Was it simply my
mood, or was something deeper afoot? I found myself worrying whether there was any correlation between questions, like, “What’s a dream, Daddy?” that
pressed me to the brink almost immediately, and questions like, “How do airplanes fly without flapping?” which afforded her more room for cross-
examination. Was I aiming her curiosity somehow, training her to interrogate only what had already been interrogated? Was she learning her natural
environment or her social one? I began to fret, worried that my philosophical training had irreparably compromised my ability to provide socially useful
feedback.

Her spate of endless, inadvertently profound questioning began fading when she turned eight–the questions she asks now are far more practical, which is to
say, answerable. Research shows that children become less ‘scientific’ as they age, relying more on prior causal beliefs and less on evidence. Perhaps not
coincidentally, this pa ern mirrors the exploration and exploitation phases one finds with reinforcement learning algorithms, where information gathering
dwindles as the system converges on optimal applications. Alison Gopnik and others suggest (h p://www.pnas.org/content/114/30/7892) the extraordinary
length of human childhood (nearly twice as long as our nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzee) is due to the way cognitive flexibility enables ever more
complex modes of problem-solving.

If the exploration/exploitation parallel with machine learning holds, our tendency to question wanes as we converge on optimal applications of the
knowledge we have already gained. All mammals undergo synaptic pruning from birth to sexual maturation—childhood and adolescent learning, we now
know, involves the mass elimination of synaptic connections in our brains. Neural connectivity is born dying: only those fed—selected—by happy
environmental interactions survive. Cognitive function is gradually streamlined, ‘normalized.’ By and large, we forget our naïve curiosity, our sensitivity to
the flickering depths yawning about us, and turn our eyes to this or that practical prize. And as our sensitivity dwindles, the world becomes more
continuous, rendering us largely oblivious to deeper questions, let alone the cavernous universe answering them.

Largely oblivious, not entirely. A persistent flicker nags our periphery, dumbfoundings large and small, prompting—for some, at least—questions that render
our ignorance visible. Perhaps we find ourselves in Socratic company, or perhaps a child poses a striking riddle, sooner or later some turn is taken and things
that seem trivially obvious become stupendously mysterious. And we confront the scandal: Everything we know, we know without knowing how we
know. Set aside all the guesswork, and this is what we find: human experience, ability, and activity constitute a profound cognitive limit, something either
ignored outright, neglected, or endlessly disputed.

As I’ve been arguing for quite some time, the reasons for this are no big mystery. Much as we possess selective sensitivities to environmental light
(h ps://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2018/02/05/experiential-pudding/), we also possess selective sensitivities both to each other and to ourselves. But where
visual cognition generally renders us sensitive to the physical sources of events, allowing us to pursue the causes of things into ever deeper environments,
sociocognition and metacognition do not. In fact, they cannot, given the astronomical complexity of the physical systems—you and me and biology more
generally—requiring solution. The scandal of self-knowledge, in other words, is an inescapable artifact of our biology, the fact that the origin of the universe
is far less complicated than the machinery required to cognize it.

Any a empt to redress this scandal that ignores its biological basis is, pre y clearly I think, doomed to simply perpetuate it. All traditional a empts to secure
self-knowledge, in other words, likely amount to li le more than the naïve exploration of discursive crash space–a limit so profound as to seem no limit at
all.

PUBLISHED: February 25, 2018 (2018-02-25T11:44:20+0000) Advertisements

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FILED UNDER: PHILOSOPHY
TAGS: Heuristic Neglect Theory : Mathematics. Scandal of Self-knowledge : Poincare

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