There’s very little that you can say “deserves” absolute trust.

Mathematical Knowledge vs. Knowledge about the Universe

Mathematical knowledge is knowledge over constructed universes. We create a universe by a set of axioms, and then we say, “yadda yadda yadda, therefor, we can know this thing foo.”

Knowledge about the universe around us is constructed by a process of experimentation, because we don’t have a fundamental set of axioms for our universe. We experiment, experiment, experiment, and then we have large groups of people and machines who go about checking our lines of reasoning, to see if it makes sense or not.

It is worth noting that there are tons of holes in our reasoning, because we actually don’t know the axioms. We just make guesses, assumptions, and try them out, and try to seed our hunches intelligently.

We go with “what works.” There need be no actual bearing on reality, and we cannot actually know if it has any bearing on reality. (Proof: We’d have to know with certainty that we were staring at the “outermost universe,” the total universe. But we can never know that- you can only know with certainty that you exist, and that there’s an experience. 1)

For mathematical knowledge, it’s all based on the constructed reality, and so our understanding can be “perfect,” provided that there isn’t an evil genius messing with us. 2 An evil genius might systematically cause us to trust that a step in the pyramid is true, even though it is false. When we use a computer to verify steps, the evil genius put in a small program that conceals a section, systematically. [1]

This means, that even with our mathematically constructed universes, there is still a degree of trust that the conclusions are correct.

Shannon might have something to tell us with his noisy channel coding theorem, but it cannot save us from an intentional man-in-the-middle attack on the part of an evil genius.

The Plausibility of Religious Arguments

We merely trust that a super-intelligent Cthulu monster sitting just outside our universe is not manipulating us into accepting false proofs over our constructed mathematical universes. “There’s no reason to believe he’s there” is not actually a reasonable argument, and cannot be accepted as a first principle. The argument may be persuasive, but it is not reasonably complete.

It is entirely within reason to believe that a God constructed a universe, gave you a perfect understanding of the situation around the construction of a universe, and then placed you within it. The people in the system have no understanding of the surrounding circumstance, they’re just doing “what works” within the system, which includes ostracizing you, for believing in something so completely out of whack with their reality. The world would be a much easier place if we could discard such plausibilities, and many people work hard to convince you that they can’t be so. (Because you would be interfering with “what works” if you held to that plausibility.) But as convenient as it would be if it were not plausible, it is plausible, and thus we are where we are today: A bunch of crazy people who think that they have the only path to salvation, and woe onto anyone who makes sense of the world. But who knows, one of them may well be right. The catch is, even if they are right, they can’t possibly know it, so at least you got them on that one.

I like the heuristic where: If the person is dead certain that they’re right, 100%, cosmically, forever and ever, then it’s safe to ignore that person.


Actually, there are a couple things that you can know with certainty, with absolute, 100%, trust:

I’m not sure if there is more than that, but there’s at least those two things!

Those lines require no trust, are completely self-evident, and are perfectly sounds starting points in an argument.

Sadly, both of these are denied by many scientists, and perhaps a majority of brain scientists, in a fit of anti-religious SuperFreudianism, along with a handful of spiritualists who have taken PostModern ideas just way too far, and a handful of Buddhists who have confused the doctrine of selflessness (“extinguish the self”) with a doctrine of “you don’t actually exist”-ness.

A bit more detail for the scientists: The objection on the part of scientists usually centers on definition. Since you cannot explain what “experience” means in a way that they will accept, they will assert then that it is merely a conceptual dangler, and should best be done away with by Occams razor. This is, of course, preposterous, but they reason with it nonetheless, and just ignore the self-evident part of it. Either that, or they will confuse the concept of “experience” with the concept of processing within a brain. By confusing the concepts, there is then no explanatory gap to be bridged (“why would processing within a brain lead to an experience?”) JaronLanier has suggested that this confusion is intentional ("You can't wake someone who's pretending to be asleep,") which I think is true in some cases; I personally think that it’s regularly more of an over-application of the anti-religious heuristic (see SuperFreudianism,) and an unwillingness to go check the reasoning (because the trust in “Science” - actually the scientific worldview - is so high,) and that the rewards of checking the reasoning are so low (ostracism from scientific community, uncertainty, doubt, political insecurity.) Once someone actually goes and checks the reasoning with full attention, it’s then that we’re in the realm of intentional confusion. (That is, people pretending to be asleep.) Either Dennett has not given his full attention to consideration of experience (plausible, given his trust in the scientific worldview - people with sufficient trust in a thing do not need to seriously consider alternatives) or he is pretending to be asleep. I personally believe he is pretending to be asleep, because he wrote a paper called something like “The Inconceivability of Zombies,” which essentially broke down into ad hominum arguments, but never answered the essential challenge of Zombies, crossing the explanatory gap. Dennett, if you’re reading this, I want you to know: Regardless of how rediculous or implausible the concept of a zombie is, it’s not the rediculousness that’s the point– it’s the conceivability of a zombie that is the point, and it is that conceivability that means that you have an explanatory gap to bridge. Since you have not bridged the gap, you have basically surrendered in defeat. You too can clearly conceive of the Zombie, (regardless of how unworldly and strange it would be,) and thus you can understand the need for a bridge to cross the gap. Since you offer none, you are in defeat. Adherence to “the scientific worldview” does not reason make. It’s not good science, either.

If that was all just a bunch of jibberish to you, don’t worry about it.

Just don’t let anyone bully you into believing that you don’t exist, or that there isn’t actually an experience. No matter how many nice papers they write, or how complicated their stories, or no matter how appealing their rank, just don’t forget it: You exist, and there’s an experience taking place.

(Why “there’s an experience,” rather than “you’re having an experience?” Because some crotchety old fools get into this whole “oh, but who am I?” line of argument, that’s (A) sophomoric, and (B) completely unnecessary for the point we’re trying to get across. It is enough to simply say, “There is an experience!”)

See Also



This is just text that ran off the end of KnowledgeIsBasedInTrust, but that I think didn’t really belong, and couldn’t bring myself to delete. So, I’m just dumping it here.

Hmm,… I should have called this page “AbsoluteTrust?” instead.

Excellent Lion! I almost completely agree and I wish more philosophers of mind would recognize this “middle ground”.

Although I haven’t read Dennett so I can’t say for myself if I think he’s intentionally asleep. Certainly, from what I read in summaries of his work, I disagree with his conclusions and I don’t see how he can think that, but since I’ve never read him directly I like to imagine that maybe he makes more sense than his summarizers.

Science is a method; it should not be a worldview, if a worldview is understood to be a collection of assertions. Adherence to specific assertions constitutes belief, or faith, and a person is not a scientist because they believe this or that or have faith in this or that, but rather a person is a scientist if they adhere to a specific method by which they determine which statements will be considered to be true and which to be false. Dennett has misunderstood science, and considers science to be an authority, an oracle from which true statements come, and he ascribes to the fallacy of the scientific worldview, understood as a collection of unproven assertions, one of which is that the physical world is all that there is. What is in fact the case is that the physical world is all that can be investigated by the methods of empirical science, since the subjective (namely, experience) is not accessible to anybody but the experiencing subject, and so fails one of the criteria which phenomena must satisfy if science is to investigate them, namely verifiability by different scientists. Dennett has confused “can be investigated using the methods of empirical science” with “exists”, and concludes that experience does not exist, erroneously. Such is the state of modern philosophy that a man with an understanding as confused as Dennett’s is held to be one of the greatest of modern philosophers.

Regarding the question of certainty, it is true that the statements of mathematics can be known with no more certainty than the certainty with which we declare that what we are presently thinking is this (e.g. four) and not that (e.g. five). For all inference from premisses to conclusions can be only as certain as the knowledge that the premisses have been correctly represented in the inferring mind. Consequently if, when we represent to ourselves in thought the number four, we subsequently doubt that it is four and not five that we have thought, then all of the theorems of mathematics are to be held in a similar doubt. The invocation of the evil genius is unnecessary, since if such a thing is to be doubted then all empirical knowledge, including knowledge of the existence of agents with powers and intentions (such as evil geniuses who would, through their causality, alter the representations of our minds) is subjected to a similar doubt. The evil genius, then, is introduced only as an intermediate step, to make it comprehensible, to one who has not thought out the consequences of doubting his own representations, how it could be that those representations could be subject to doubt.

However, in the assertion of that which is held to be beyond doubt - that there is an experience, if one reflects on a particular empirical experience and then judges of it that it is an experience, then that judgement is subject to a similar doubt to the judgements of mathematics, with this difference - that in the case of a judgement that four and not five has been thought, what is doubted is that it was this (four) and not that (five) which was actually thought, while if we have merely asserted that something has been thought, without judging what it was that was thought, then it is not our ability to distinguish between representations (four and five) which is doubted, but our ability to identify the existence of the representations themselves. If, for the purposes of exposition, I introduce the evil genius, and give him for a moment the powers of a god, then the genius could have brought me into existence (where I never existed before) in a state of mind where I judge that I have just had an experience (where in fact I have not).

Consequently, the experience which is asserted to exist, if it is not to be doubted in this way, must be the same as the experience which asserts, for in all experience, the reference to any other experience is to be doubted. On the other hand, if it is not a particular experience which is asserted to exist, but rather experience in general, then insofar as the assertion is apprehended by the mind, and all apprehension is experience, the assertion is true, although the reasoning leading to this conclusion is subject to the same doubt as mathematics.

What I find interesting, because it is the starting point for a field of investigation, is the observation that there is a statement which is known with at least as much certainty as mathematics, which has the consequence that the set of statements which are as certain as the statements of mathematics and logic contains statements which are neither statements of mathematics nor logic. So the question is how many of these statements are there and how can we know them.

On the other hand, if it is not a particular experience which is asserted to exist, but rather experience in general, then insofar as the assertion is apprehended by the mind, and all apprehension is experience, the assertion is true, although the reasoning leading to this conclusion is subject to the same doubt as mathematics.

Maybe we’re just mixing language here, but I think you’re missing it here- I think you’re confusing processing with experience.

“All apprehension is experience” is not necessarily true.

I can conceive of processes, even processes working with highly complicated abstractions, to which there is no experience.

For a “low-tech” example: I could program my computer to raise a flag if it notes that the instruction pointer is changing. (And every time it executes, it will raise a flag.)

It does appear to be the case that all of our experiences map perfectly from the contents and motions of our minds, but we can imagine “zombies,” for which the processing occurs, but that are not actually experienced.

(The program with the instruction pointer, again, is one such zombie, in the popular imagination.)

The conceivability of zombies then poses the challenge, the “explanatory gap:” why is there an experience, when there just as well could be none?

The existence of the world does not necessarily depend on an observer. That’s a plausible consideration, but we won’t commit Berkeley’s error: It is not required. So the world could exist, perfectly fine, as “reality,” with no observers, and all the computations that were made would function perfectly fine, without observation.

That this is not the case, demands explanation.

But we cannot say that “all apprehension is experience.” Because the zombies apprehend, and their minds function, but they do not experience.

Given that observation is not required, and given that observer(s) plausibly (and by modern scientific cultural beliefs, almost certainly) do not have any effects on its/their subject(s,) we have a real dilemma: How did knowledge of the observer, the observer that is not just processing (which we could call “mind,” instead,)… …how did the knowledge of the observer get into the system?!

  • Possibility 1: Observers manipulate the system. (Incredibly unlikely, by scientist’s culture, heuristics.) Another way of wording it: The system is sensitive to at least the presence of the observer, and capable of cognizing it within a mind.
  • Possibility 2: Observers choose to observe systems that are “defective” in that they account for the possibility that they are being observed by entities that are somehow “outside of the system.”
  • Possibility 3: It’s just a coincidence that the systems are defective in that they believe they are being observed, and, lo, they actually are.

To explain Possibility 2 a little more clearly: Imagine if you had a set of videos. Some are just random static. Some are about things that happen. Some are first person videos. And some are first person videos where the person in the video talks and thinks as if they know they are being watched.

The tape is just tape, image on celuloid. It has no way of “knowing” anything. There is no “extra information” making it’s way into the tape, from the viewer.

In this story, the reason the tape is being played, is because the person wanting to watch the tape picked it.

Basically, the “knowledge” is not real knowledge, because it is not justified. It is like a 6 sided die, rolled in a dark box, at a party. Guests guess what the die says. A few think it is 6. One person is adamentally certain that it is 6. The person is right, but confused, broken, a little deranged; As equally deranged as the person who submits with equal confidence, that it is 3.

Is the world really like this?

Well, consider the alternatives: It’s just a huge big enormous coincidence. Or, pan-psychism is true, along with all the loopy things you have to accept with. (That is, all closed loops you can draw around molecules have their own awareness, or that there are “consciousness fields” that sort of pull calculation awareness together into discrete entities, or some such things.) Or that the universe is at least somewhat “magical,” responding to the force of observers.

This weird possibility gives you: (a) determinism, (b) observation, (c) no bizarre coincidences, (d) conceptual simplicity. Though, that doesn’t mean it’s true. One of the other bizarre ideas could be true, too.

My apologies for taking so long to reply; I don’t have internet access at home, and didn’t come in over the weekend.

Maybe we’re just mixing language here, but I think you’re missing it here- I think you’re confusing processing with experience.

“All apprehension is experience” is not necessarily true.

I can conceive of processes, even processes working with highly complicated abstractions, to which there is no experience.

For a “low-tech” example: I could program my computer to raise a flag if it notes that the instruction pointer is changing. (And every time it executes, it will raise a flag.)

This is just a problem caused by different uses of language. By ‘apprehension’ I understand apprehension of a representation by the mind, something which can only occur in experience. Your example is that of a computer computing something, but to say that a computer apprehends when it processes can be nothing more than a metaphor, if the word ‘apprehension’ is to have any meaning at all. For all physical processes can be regarded as computations, so that even when a stone is smashed with a hammer, one can say that it computes the number of pieces into which it should break. If such a thing counts as apprehension, then every physical process will be apprehension, and the word ‘apprehension’ will be so widely applicable that it will be useless. So I can only say that a computer apprehends in the same sense in which I can say that a stone thinks, or that soap is unhappy, that is, as a metaphor.

I have presented the solution to the MindBodyProblem. It addresses, to a large extent, the questions that you raise.

However, the question which you asked which isn’t answered there is the following: How does knowledge of experience get into the physical body, since experience cannot influence the operations of the body, and the body would say the same thing whether it had experience or not?

The answer to this is the following. The body says “I most definitely have experience, and I can tell this by introspection.” There are two ways in which we can regard this behaviour.

If we regard the body as merely a physical object behaving according to the laws of physics, then it has not actually asserted anything at all, but it has merely moved about and caused vibrations of the air. To say that a physical object, like a body, knows anything, or asserts anything, is to speak with metaphors.

If we regard the body as a person with an accompanying mind, which consequently has experience, then we can regard its statement as an assertion. That is, it is only a mind which can assert, and it is only if we already consider there to be a mind that we can say that it knows anything. It is the mind which knows, and which asserts, while the body only moves.

Consequently, the question, which seems at first to be impossible to answer, arises because what is taken away by hypothesis (the experiencing mind) is put back again with metaphorical speech, when it is said that a physical body knows or asserts something. When we regard a physical body as a zombie, we cannot consistently say that it is mistaken about anything, because only a mind can be mistaken.

Because the zombies apprehend, and their minds function, but they do not experience.

It appears that you are using the word mind in a way with which I am not familiar. By the mind I understand that object which has experience as its attributes. A zombie is understood to have a body, but no mind. I believe my usage of the word is standard.

I guess that’s why Lion was objecting to you calling the problem of experience “the mind-body problem” everybody’s talking about the same problem, but some say zombies have no minds, some say zombies have minds but no experience. It’s mostly a terminology issue, I’d be inclined to define “mind” in a way that allows hypothetical zombies to have one; it’s probably better to avoid the issue and directly talk about experience to avoid the ambiguity :)


1. It’s a logical possibility that you yourself are the outermost universe, as a New Ager or mystic may be prone to tell you, but you cannot actually know this with certinaty; You can only fool yourself into believing that you know it with certainty. These thoughts could be entered by a “religious genius,” making you think you know things that you don’t.
2. An “evil genius” is a being, proposed by Wikipedia:Descartes, that intentionally goes about settings things up or immediately interfering, to make you think crazy things.

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