Notes on time and causality

A collection of philosophical essays on the subject of causality, determinism and time in general

On the different systems of knowledge depending on the goals that a given individual has and on urges and emotions as the ultimate source of truth.

Let me describe to you a natural phenomenon that I observed. It is a very weird one - at one moment it is green, but at the second it fades to black and then it becomes invisible. I suspect it can take some other colors too… It sometimes produces sounds too, but here is no way you can tell what it is going to do next. Such phenomena may very well exist (it might be completely random or it might be governed by some laws, that we just cannot perceive), but there is neither a way for us to know that it does exist, nor a reason for us to be interested in it. Because this phenomenon does not repeat itself in a way that we can perceive, it cannot be mapped by any mental images, and we can only perceive the world through mental images.

0. A mental image (or dogma, as we called it earlier) is a set of many impressions united in order to be perceived as one. All objects and events that we perceive are actually just mental images.

Because the of fact that we only see mental images implies reality as we perceive it is not objective, many (weird) philosophers have argued that we are actually living in a dream or a simulation of some kind, and that reality as we perceive it is not at all related to the reality that actually exists. But for me that is clearly not true - while mental images themselves do not say anything about the real world, the fact that we have gotten the habit of creating mental images does say something - their existence is a proof (the only proof?) that the world is not completely random.

But there seems to be a contradiction there:

The collision between those two statements has naturally led to many philosophers to despair - basically, they mean that 1) there exist some truth in this world, but at the same time 2) we can never know this truth is.

To reconcile this paradox, we should consider what truth really is, as our current everyday notion of it is obviously wrong - truth does not exist in the world, truth is subjective. Reality is like a canvas that contains the form of the world, but it is up to the observer, to us, to draw the contours: we circle one spot and say “This is A”. Then we take another picture and search for where A went, or for other instances of A.

But where does A originate from initially? What provokes us to start perceiving the world in terms of A-s and B-s and not just gaze at it and wonder what the hell is happening all the time? Up until now, we spoke a lot about the subjective aspect of knowledge, but we never said anything about the subject AKA the human, animal, robot, god or other lifeform that (who) actually perceives reality, makes these assertions and has these thoughts. But how do we even define what a subject is in this context? I claim (you will see why shortly) that it is defined by the things they want - their will, urges, wishes, emotions etc. or their “goals” as I will call them here.

Now, a goal is not a specific state of affairs of the world - there may be many states of affairs that constitute the realization of a given goal - rather a goal is a kind of mental image that a given observer has, with one more detail, that it is associated with feelings of pleasure.

1. A goal is a mental image representing a state of affairs which is for some reason desirable for an individual, or the opposite - undesirable.

With that in mind, let’s go back to the distinction between dogmatic and empirical thinking. As we said, when thinking empirically, we obtain information about the world, and when thinking dogmatically are we able to use the information that we gained. We said that empirical and dogmatic thinking go hand in hand, that you cannot have one without the other, but another way to look at it is that they are actually in conflict - one makes you smarter, but unable to do anything - the other turns you into a mindless machine that can only chase windmills.

Furthermore, when comparing the two modes of thinking, we may say that the empirical part is somewhat more “legit” than the dogmatic one. When thinking empirically we enrich our representation of the world. If we have goals, empirical thinking helps us find more and more ways of achieving these goals. If our aim is knowledge and precision, we should only think empirically and practice suspension of judgment, collecting all info and enriching our knowledge without ever trying to unite and structure it, as every structure is a simplification.

The reason we think dogmatically is just because of our (living beings’) modus operandi and it is pretty simple - we sometimes have to act. The situation is “do or die” for some of these goals as (as abstract they are) sometimes our whole existence depends on achieving them.

If this factor wasn’t there, our whole world would be different - we would just watch reality forever, studying getting more and more intimately knowledgeable with the way it is, but doing nothing more. But we get hungry. And when that moment comes, we have to assume we know enough and switch to dogmatic mode in order to try to catch some prey, or to get to the grocery store. It is at this moment is when the mental image is formed. The image of food is a product of the fact that we get hungry, as is any other mental image, in any other lifeform:

2. All mental images that a given individual forms are either desirable (or undesirable). So all mental images are trivially associated with or are themselves goals (or antigoals).

A corollary of that is:

3. No mental image or a piece of knowledge that relies on mental images is objective - all of them are actually a product of the individual's characteristics.

For example, the pistol and glass example is associated with the desire to break the glass for some reason.

Now, where were we? Oh yeah, we were talking about truth (I know such detours make the reader wish to take a pistol themselves and point it at either their or my head but bear with me, please). As we said, mental images are not, by themselves, true and false. This is so because (let’s reiterate it once more) we can assess whether a given mental image works, only by applying it and interpreting the result, but we can only do that using other mental images. We cannot see reality outside of the mental images, so, when considering it by itself, we cannot call an image true or false, we cannot even compare one image to another and say which is better or closer to the “real world” (because, again, we only perceive the “real world” through images). I love Wittgenstein’s essay “On certainty” and especially the opening sentence which was written as a response to G. E. Moore’s argument against skepticism, that consisted in raising his hands and saying “here is a hand and here is another one”. Wittgenstein’s response:

  1. If you do know that here is one hand, we’ll grant you all the rest.

That is, if we have a starting point if there is one thing that we know to be true, then everything else can indeed follow from it. But we do not have such starting point, so that is why mental images are by themselves neither true nor false.

The situation changes when we observe mental images with their connection to goals. Goals are by definition desirable (or undesirable), they cause pain (or pleasure), they make us fed (or hungry). And it is based on these sentiments that we deem the mental images that correspond to them true (or false).

3. A mental image has a degree of reality, that can be equated with the degree in which its corresponding goal is desirable for the individual (based on an individual's own subjective criteria). Comparing mental images with one another is a converged way of comparing the goals for which they stand for.

Notice that I don’t say that the truth can be equated with how often the goal is successfully achieved by the individual. Achieving a goal is abstract, having it influence our worldview is not.

In our everyday thinking, we don’t always associate truth with pleasure and falsity with pain, for example, we have expressions like “truth hurts” that representing the conflict between mental images and reality. Let’s talk about how perception evolved to get to that point.

Evolutionary perspective

The behavior of the simplest organisms that have no brain or have a very rudimentary brain can be described by the stimulus-reaction model - they perceive an object and react on it immediately in the manner that they are predisposed (with natural selection clearing out inadequate responses). A little more complex, but still fairly simple are organisms that can also judge whether a given reaction was “good” or not (e.g. by using pain detectors) and store in their brain a lot of good stimulus/reaction pairs e.g. seeing a predator and running away. These pairs resemble rudimentary memories but unlike real memories, they don’t require for an organism to have concepts of time, causality or any of the other related concepts in order to exist, as these pairs:

Such organisms can also work with concepts (a concept in their case being just a collection of memories that resemble one another), but they are still very simple. For them, the concepts of truth and falsity (if we can call them that) are equivalent to the feelings of pleasure and pain.

More complex are organisms that have the ability (or perhaps it is more correct to say “the ambition”) to predict the future. Indeed those are the ones that have a concept of a future and past at all, as the concept of a prediction is the same as that of the future. Predicting the future requires more than just taking stale pictures of things and figuring out what you need to do in case a similar situation arises: it requires the organism to have the concept of a world (or of “substance” as it is sometimes called). This can allow organisms to produce images that:

The main difference between the two is different types of knowledge - simple organisms can only have knowledge that has limited scope, while more complex ones have knowledge that is universally valid. The two types of knowledge correspond to the two types of Aristotelian syllogisms

We need to think only a little about how those two types of knowledge are acquired to see that, although comparable, they are drastically different from one another:

Simple organism who thinks in terms of statements with limited scope, thoughts are only a means for gaining a more favorable feedback from reality, which means that their significance is limited e.g. a simple organism that has an apple which is not tasty would be “unhappy” about the sore taste, but it would not ever be unhappy about the fact that his assertion turned out to be false.

A simple organism just abandons an idea, as soon as it feels wrong to it, being wrong does not lower his self-esteem, it does not bring it an existential crisis, nor does it cause it to abandon some other related ideas that it has.

Furthermore, a simple organism would not feel the need to unite several different phenomena that it experiences under one common cause, nor does it feel the need to ponder over why things are the way they are and not some other way (as I do currently). The simple organism is humble - it just does not hope that it can ever know what the things that it says really are and so it does not bother itself with them.

If they could talk, simple organisms would probably say that they are wrong by default, whereas we, because we are “smarter” consider ourselves correct by default.

4. Statements that have only limited scope can be justified only by *observation* - if I observe two or three objects that I categorize as `A`s (e.g. "apples") and I find that they possess the property `B` (e.g. "tasty"), I can conclude that `Some A-s are B` based on those observations alone i.e. based on my instincts. 

Statements with universal scope, on the other hand, are axiomatic by their nature - they create reality as much as they describe it. My basis for saying `All A-s are B` is not at all different from my basis for saying `Some A-s are B`. What is different is my decision to assume that this piece of knowledge is universal.

References