16 May 2016

What do we really know about Matter?

Two recent articles hit a similar theme, pushing the notion that our experience (consciousness) is in some sense on firmer ground that our understanding of physical matter.

The first I came across today via Twitter: "Consciousness isn't a Mystery: It's Matter" by philosopher Galen Strawson in the New York Times (May 16, 2016).  Here's the gist:
... we know exactly what consciousness is — where by “consciousness” I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.

The nature of physical stuff, by contrast, is deeply mysterious, and physics grows stranger by the hour. (Richard Feynman’s remark about quantum theory — “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics” — seems as true as ever.) Or rather, more carefully: The nature of physical stuff is mysterious except insofar as consciousness is itself a form of physical stuff
I think this is on the right track...  emphasizing the primacy of experience, but not claiming that experience is necessarily exposing the actual nature of 'physical stuff'.  It's easy to assume we have a good handle on Matter, when in fact we've only discovered some rules about it, along with the working assumption that whatever it is, if you get a complex enough organization you get what we think of as conscious experience.

Back in April, Amanda Gefter wrote on and interviewed cognitive scientist (and author of Visual Intelligence) Donald Hoffman in an article entitled "The Case Against Reality" in The Atlantic.  Hoffman argues that our evolutionary path driven by fitness means that we have no reliable means of accessing what's really out there.
The idea that what we’re doing is measuring publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go. Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects. So what’s going on? Here’s how I think about it. I can talk to you about my headache and believe that I am communicating effectively with you, because you’ve had your own headaches. The same thing is true as apples and the moon and the sun and the universe. Just like you have your own headache, you have your own moon. But I assume it’s relevantly similar to mine. That’s an assumption that could be false, but that’s the source of my communication, and that’s the best we can do in terms of public physical objects and objective science.
Presumably since all humans are on the same evolutionary path, we do indeed have similar assumptions and experiences. But it may be much harder to communicate with beings coming from different evolutionary pressures.