Decline Craft™

November 1, 2019

You are what you feel. And by that I don't mean the feelz (e.g. when you feel offended by some random, harmless inanity uttered by someone else, be it cultural appropriation, wrong use of pronouns, or similar triviality, or when you feel that you're in the wrong body or stuff like that) No, what I mean by "feeling" is the entire sensory overload and the processing in overdrive mode, huffing and puffing every time you come into contact with a new dataset of the fabric of reality; and, with it, the lightning-fast mapping and incorporation of that encounter into the inventory of preexisting conceptions, images, sensations, and ideas that you store for future events. That inventory is made, mind you, of beliefs. Yes, beliefs. There is no such thing as a purely objective world inhabited by purely objective beings who interact in a purely objective manner. We are feeling machines, biological artifacts endowed with a worldview schema that incorporates notions of what is good and bad, what is the right way to act, and a constant inquisition about the nature of it all, fed constantly by traditions that are encoded in the fibers of the biological entity where the bipedal moral computer runs.


And what I just described, more or less words, is the entirety of Being. Chew on that a bit, old dog. Being. Yes: Being. One more time? O.k., one more time then: BEING. Nothing that is dead can partake in the experiential orgy of Being. Ergo, to be alive means to actively forage for knowledge so as to reduce surprise as much as possible. That is, at least, the Fristonian view. And that, mind you, was already theorized in the annals of this blog. We just did it more poetically and less brutally materialistic. Remember The Mechanics of Meaning? Well, humans are meaning machines, i.e. biological systems pimped up with self-awareness, hence each specimen of the homo sapiens has a worldview which must cohere at least a bit in order to reduce cognitive dissonance. It's just that Karl Friston's free energy principle (FEP) obfuscates this by saying that systems (within their Markov blanket) try to minimize the difference between their model of the world and their perception, inferring and acting continuously, Bayesian style, to reduce that "surprise".


The key part where Friston and I disagree is related to the Markov blanket.


Succinctly put, in machine learning a Markov blanket is the "shield" around a node that is inside a network and that contains all data needed to predict the behavior of that node. In Christian language: in order to define the thing that is alive according to the FEP, Friston uses the Markov blanket to delineate that thing that exists. In our worldview model inspired on Leo Apostel's ideas, the existing thing does not contain in isolation all data needed to predict its behavior, i.e. there's no Markov blanket. The worldview model is, instead, a dynamic, fluctuating, two way highway with tradition as a central piece, so it is less mechanistic by definition. That is, a human is constantly riding on the shoulders of his ancestors while creating models and theories about the world, i.e. asking both objective and value-loaded questions: Is this good? Why does this happen in the natural world? How can I know? What are the steps to achieve this result? Where do I come from and where are we headed to? Etc. Like the thing in Friston's theory, our subject is beefing up its worldview at every stage, trying to make it cohere so as to navigate the world with a way of extracting meaning and useful information from the fabric of reality. This, added to Wheeler's participatory anthropic principle (PAP), pretty much paints a world where there's a symbiotic relationship between the observer (epistemic forager) and the universe around it, which gains its meaning from being observed.


The PAP is a perfect segue into yet another divide between Friston's FEP and the adapted worldview model. So, here's the thing. I need you to watch this funny animated video that explains pretty simply the double slit experiment, a cornerstone of quantum mechanics. It's a bit over 5 minutes but completely worth it. Go on, give it a try.


Ready? O.k. So, what Wheeler did was a variation of this famous experiment. Unlike the original experiment, on this one the method of detection was changed after a photon had passed the double slit. What did Wheeler demonstrate by that? That the path of the photon was not fixed until the scientists carried out measurements. One thing is the universe behaving one way or another depending on whether it is observed or not; but another, crazier thing is to actually bring the universe into existence by means of a consciousness observing it. Do you remember that riddle about a tree making or not a noise when falling in the middle of the forest and nobody is there to witness it? Well, in a similar vein, what Wheeler showed is that in a pre-life world the tree, whether it falls or not, exists in an undetermined state --only coming into existence retroactively, i.e. it is only when a consciousness is present in the forest that reality is determined.


Crazy, isn't it? Well, it doesn't end there. There's yet another key difference between the mechanistic free energy principle and the repurposed worldview model, and it will blow your socks off: Friston's model does not incorporate the variable of death. You see, the living thing or consciousness in the FEP model is a linear agent obeying the logic of an elegant formula, gathering information via Bayesian methods and adapting or acting so as to reduce surprise. The FEP's biological unit has a model of the world which is continuously trying to align it with its senses and associated perception --and, mind you, it seems to have valuable applications in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence. But as a theory of everything, of life and the universe, it's so elegant and refined that it is unrealistic, focused as it is solely on efficiency. Our human agent is more complex: it is also biologically nested and tries to reduce surprise, but the variables it contains are constantly in motion, attempting to harmonize its inner world (i.e. explanation, ontology, prediction, axiology, epistemology, praxeology) with the universe it brings into reality, as per Wheeler's PAP, while it forages for information. Moreover, the agent is conscious, which means that it is self-aware of its existence and finitude. Why is this absent from the FEP if it is, perhaps, the most important characteristic of human consciousness? Knowing that one will eventually die colors up entirely all aspects of the worldview, not only the parts that deal with the objective world but, more critically, the value judgment aspect. It is very likely that such self-awareness is what gives basis to the need for meaning, transcendence, both genetic and cultural legacy, social bonding, respect among peers and family, honor, etc.


So, to wrap up, the worldview model, heavily adapted from Apostel's work, offers a more granular and organic view of human consciousness, Being and the fabric of reality than Friston's free energy principle. That said, it is a work in progress and it has a heavy philosophical bent instead of an elegant mathematical exposition. Is that a weakness or a strength? It's hard to say at the moment, but certainly it reminds me of the way Thorstein Veblen entered the world of orthodox economics, like a goat in a crystal shop, and beefed up the narrow, mechanical view of the homo economicus with a model that attempted to integrate evolutionary theory, institutionalism, the social dimension of purely economic transactions, and symbiotic relationships between the individual, his environment, and his position in the competence hierarchy.

At the bottom of it all, the search is quite simple: what constitutes Being and what is the fabric of reality? It has taken thousands of years and there's still no definitive answer. I don't expect one to come in 2019. Perhaps in 2020.




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