The Science of Function

Discussing function as a thing that exists can lead to some confusion. As with physical things, we can name functional things, such as 3D vision or justice. The names are not the things themselves, but if we understand the reference then we know the function being discussed. As with physical things, functional things don’t always have explicit names, but we can still describe them, and the descriptions can then act as references to them, still without being the things themselves. Names and descriptions provide the metafunctional role of grouping similar entities into one category that can then be considered as a unit. Internal to the mind, concepts play this metafunctional role of naming or describing categorized entities. When we think of 3D vision or justice, we have a distinct notion (concept) in our head about what each means, which encompasses both the breadth of the concepts and the special cases with which we have personal experience. Names, descriptions, and concepts are ways we can refer to things without being the things themselves. What gets confusing is that names, descriptions, and concepts are functional themselves. Boyle’s Law describes the relationship between volume and pressure of a gas at constant temperature. Gases are not actually functional things themselves; they are entirely physical. Boyle’s Law gives us a functional way to discuss gases that we don’t confuse with gases because gases aren’t functional. We know that Boyle’s Law is a model that abstracts behaviors about gases and only relates to the reality of what gas quarks, atoms, and molecules are doing with respect to certain perspectives. “3D vision” and verbal descriptions of it give us functional ways to refer to sight that are not sight themselves, but in this case, sight is a function and is not physical. Both gases and sight have an essential nature (or noumenon) independent of our descriptions of them, but the former is physical and the latter is functional. We understand that we can never have knowledge with certainty about noumena, but only with phenomena, i.e. what we see. But the physical noumena are sitting right there, as it were, while the functional noumena have no physical location and are known to us only by virtue of what they can do. So it is easy to keep in mind that Boyle’s Law is a partial model that relates certain macroscopic behaviors of gases that doesn’t say anything about individual gas molecules. Any theory of 3D vision also will be a partial model that relates certain macroscopic behaviors of vision but says nothing about detailed sight input, e.g. from each rod and cone. More to my point, it will characterize the processing done from a limited perspective that will ignore some other aspects of 3D vision. We can’t actually talk about what 3D vision is, we can only talk about some things about it to develop a metafunctional perspective on it as a function.

I mention this because our descriptions of things are always sketchy. First, they presuppose a great deal of context which is presumably understood and agreeable. Then, they focus only on the most salient aspects in the hopes that the rest will be implied. For physical things, one can presumably see the object and make other physical observations that provide deeper understanding far beyond what superficial observation can achieve or verbal description can convey. But direct observation is not possible for functional things. Fortunately, most functional things, such as 3D vision and justice, also have instinctive and subconceptual support. So while we can’t see them in the physical world, we share an innate grasp of them, and we have names and descriptions for them which are adequate to call them to mind, so these kinds of functional things can be nearly as evident to us as physical things. We can further invent functional things out of whole cloth, which we do when we create art, fiction, or any system of rules, such as the law. Many (if not most) of these quite intentionally hearken back to innate concepts, subconcepts, or instincts, but they are nevertheless fabricated constructs of our own minds subject only to the limitations we set for them. So justice under the law is a pale shadow of the justice we feel; it seeks to provide justice but does so with a variety of rules that may or may not be just in any given situation.

Consequently, to the extent that I can reveal functions of the mind to you, I am limited to using words and hence names and descriptions. I will do my best to characterize what the mind is via such descriptions, outlining its overall and component functions, but these descriptions will necessarily be sketchy, as descriptions always are. Sill, I am hoping that a great deal of context is understood and agreeable, so what I have to say should be easy enough to follow. We do have an innate grasp of what the mind is up to, even if we are not in the habit of giving ourselves credit for knowing. Considering viewing the mind as a functional entity is a somewhat new perspective, I will start from the top down with the most salient aspects and fill in more details as I go. My explanations will appeal to and depend on our experience of mental function, which is to say how we subjectively experience our own minds. This approach is introspective, which poses a challenge to objectivity. I will address that challenge in more detail later, but in short, I will look to introspection to stimulate hypotheses, not to test them. The resulting descriptions of mind I develop will constitute a theory to be tested. Like all theories, it is not intended to have the same function as the mind or to be complete, only to be internally consistent and supported by the evidence. I intend to show that it is consistent with prevailing scientific perspectives once those perspectives are interpreted in the framework of form and function dualism. Just how one can objectively test theories about functional things, which are necessarily about and conceived using subjective mechanisms, is a subject I will discuss later.

All scientific theories are descriptions, and hence are sketchy representations of reality. Boyle’s Law is “sketchy” even though it seems to work perfectly because volume and pressure are approximate measures of reality dependent on instruments and not fundamental “properties” of spacetime. Spacetime does not actually have “properties”, which are ways of describing aspects in general ways when actually the component pieces under observation just follow their own paths and are not inherently collective. But we can measure volume and pressure almost perfectly most of the time, and in these cases the law has always worked to our knowledge and so we can feel pretty comfortable that it always will. Though unprovable and sketchy, we can label it “true” and depend on it without fear. Of course, to use it we have to match our logical model which models gases as collections of independently-moving particles with volume and pressure to a real-world circumstance involving gas, which depends on observations and measurements to provide a high probability of a good fit of theory to practice. This modeling, matching, observing, and measuring involves some subjective elements which have some uncertainty and vagueness themselves, so all objectivity has limits and caveats. But we can accurately estimate these uncertainties and establish a probability of success that is very close to one hundred percent in many real-world situations.

Given these caveats about how science can only characterize subjects and can’t reveal their true nature, let’s take a look at which sciences study functional subjects. Viewed most abstractly, science divides into two branches, the formal and experimental sciences. Formal science is entirely theoretical, but provides mathematical and logical tools for the experimental sciences, which study the physical world using a combination of hypotheses and testing. Testing gathers evidence from observations and correlates it to hypotheses to support or refute them. Superficially, the formal sciences are all creativity while the experimental sciences are all discovery, but in practice most formal sciences need to provide some real world value, and most experimental sciences require creative hypotheses, which are themselves wholly formal. Experimental science further divides into fundamental physics, which studies irreducible fields and/or particles, and the special sciences (all other natural and social sciences), which are presumed by materialists to be reducible to fundamental physics, at least in principle. Experimental science is studied using the scientific method, which is a loop in which one proposes a hypothesis, then tests it, and then refines and tests it again ad infinitum.

Science can alternatively be subdivided based on whether it is about physical things or functional things. By this rule, the formal sciences are entirely functional, while the experimental sciences are partly about physical things and partly about functional ones. But even sciences about physical things are predominantly functional, because physical things in the natural world, the noumena, are only known to us through our observations of them, the phenomena, and phenomena are entirely functional themselves. The phenomena exist as functional entities in our minds which can be formalized using scientific hypotheses, which are also therefore entirely functional. And what of the functional things in the natural world, do they have noumena, and do we only know about them through their phenomena? Yes, that is exactly right. We know that the information management systems of life, from genes to instincts to subconcepts to concepts, all have real functions, but we can only guess what those functions might be by observing them in action. The true, noumenal functions are hidden to us. But how can that be? Isn’t a function cut and dried — do this because of that? No, function is a very complex, interwoven, and layered feedback response that only appears causal at the uppermost conceptual level, and at lower levels is a network of interactions which cannot be untangled. It is noteworthy, then, that physical science uses functional hypotheses to study functional phenomena, and is only indirectly about anything physical, and yet it does not even overtly acknowledge the existence of functional entities. Physicalism is seriously in denial.

What sciences can be called functional sciences? The formal sciences include logic, mathematics, statistics, theoretical computer science, information theory, game theory, systems theory, decision theory, and theoretical linguistics. They are named after formal systems, where “form” means well-defined or having a well-specified nature, scope or meaning. These are functional concepts that establish relationships to create information, i.e. patterns with predictive power over the system. The formal sciences don’t recognize their functional basis; in Mathematics Form and Function, Saunders MacLane proposed six possible foundations for mathematics: Logicism, Set Theory, Platonism, Formalism, Intuitionism, and Empiricism. But these foundations are all wet — all the formal sciences are really founded in functionalism: formal abstractions matter because of their functional capacity, not because they align with logic, sets, ideals, forms, hunches, evidence, or any arbitrary rules. Traditionally the formal sciences stayed within the boundaries of rigid systems of rules, but as computer science opens up more fluid kinds of data analysis using big data, it becomes increasingly apparent that function is the real foundation.

Within the experimental sciences, all function derives from life, which creates and uses information using feedback. Biology studies both the physical and functional products of life, although the “official” physicalist line is that the functional products are physical byproducts and not entities in their own right. The social sciences, on the other hand, study only functional products of life, and consequently have only a very tenuous and uncharted connection back to physicalism. This gap, commonly called the explanatory gap, is generally just ignored with the hope that it will go away if not looked at. So the social sciences just assume what seems obvious to us, that we have minds that are responsible for our behavior. What kind of thing these minds are is left as an exercise for the reader, which leaves the social sciences somewhat adrift at sea with no way to get back to dry land. One can, of course, build floating cities and live in them, and this is not unlike how our own minds are tethered to reality, but it is not ideal. A unified scientific foundation will give us better leverage to build more powerful and explanatory theories.

Science is sometimes characterized as a quest for truth or certainty, despite its admission that absolute knowledge (i.e. of noumena) is unattainable. So from the outset, science has admitted that certainty is somehow relative, yet maintains that higher relative certainty is possible. To build a better foundation for science means we have to characterize what we know in terms of how certain we are about it. What are we most certain about? Descartes’ insight “I think therefore I am” remains our most certain knowledge — though we don’t know (quite) what we are or what thinking is, we know we do it. Beyond that, we know our senses feed us information, which puts information and function at the center of our knowledge of the world. We think, and what we think about is information. Our next largest certainty is object permanence, the idea that the physical world exists independent of our conception of it. Not only does our sensory feedback strongly provide evidence of a permanent physical world, our whole sensory apparatus is designed from the ground up to endorse this perspective. So we think, we have information, and we have extremely strong corroborating information supporting the idea of a physical world. Thinking and information themselves are inherently subjective, while object permanence goes to the literal definition of objective, “being based on objects under observation.” Putting the focus on object permanence has led to the physical sciences’ claim that monism trumps dualism, which has cast the functional sciences adrift in a foundationless state. To be fair, the functional sciences have not laid claim to their functional bedrock and have left themselves grasping and gasping. But I am claiming it now: functions derived from life create and use information, with thought being the most intricate use of information to emerge from life. But it still begs the question: how can we achieve a level of certainty about fundamentally subjective things that can rival the kind of certainty we have over traditionally objective subjects? Because it is not enough to know that we need to make the functional sciences better founded, more scientific, and more certain, we need a means to accomplish it.

The objectivity science seeks is not dependent on the physical reality of the objects under observation; it is only necessary to establish a reality independent of the mind, i.e. an objective reality. Objective knowledge is more reliable and broadly applicable than subjective knowledge. Taken together, reliability and broad applicability account for science’s explanatory power, which has fueled the scientific revolution that has transformed civilization over the past 400+ years. While we can’t actually establish a reality independent of the mind, because that would be noumenal and we can’t prove the existence of noumena, information that has been corroborated in different ways by different people becomes increasingly reliable and applicable and thus comes to constitute a brand of knowledge we call scientific truth. It is not that it is true, it is that it can be taken as true for many intents and purposes with little risk of deficiency. Somewhat ironically, scientific truth is true exactly to the degree it is functional, so it does exist but as a functional thing, not a physical thing.

We can conclude, then, that the path to achieving objectivity about functional things in the natural world is by finding ways to corroborate hypotheses about them in different ways by different people. At that point, we will establish their reality independent of the mind through their phenomena. So what phenomena exist about functional things in nature, and can they be corroborated? I’m going to try to answer these questions for each of the four kinds of functional information managed by natural systems.

Genes. Living organisms have physical manifestations in their bodies, but what is of more interest to us here is the function of each gene. The information is kept on something of a “short leash”, because genes either encode proteins or regulate their encoding, and proteins engage in pretty specific chemical reactions which we can identify, which usually reveals at least the primary purpose of the gene. The physical, chemical basis of their operation is tied pretty closely to their apparent function. This doesn’t completely resolve their function, because we often only come to appreciate the net value of the gene relative to competing versions of the gene or to other genes when the species is under specific stresses that demonstrate that value. Still, for the most part, chemical knowledge translates pretty well to functional knowledge in the case of genes.

Instincts. Instincts are entirely genetic themselves, but can’t be considered to be on quite as short a leash because they influence mental behavior rather than just directly performing a chemical role. Still, in principle, we can identify behaviors driven by instinct if we can find circumstances under which they will occur independent of any opportunity to learn the behavior from another source. Beavers that have never seen a dam can still build them. Humans who have never heard a language can still create one. It’s a rather tricky job to pick out the exact genes that make these behaviors possible, but we know they must exist. While we have to wait to identify the genes and the proteins to achieve full objectivity about these functions, we can prove that they exist just by observing them and verifying that they are not learned behaviors.

Subconcepts. It starts with percepts, which are the sensory impressions that swirl around our minds continuously from our many senses, which start with the five classic senses sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Sight combines color, brightness, and depth to create percepts about objects and movement. Smell actually combines over 1000 independent smell senses. Taste is based on five underlying tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami). Hearing combines senses for pitch, volume, and other dimensions. And touch combines senses for pressure, temperature, and pain. Other somatosenses include balance, vibration sense, proprioception (limb awareness), hunger, sexual desire, and chemoreception (e.g. salt, carbon dioxide or oxygen levels in blood). Still higher level percepts experienced only in the brain include our sense of time, emotion, attention, agency, self, and familiarity, among others. All these things swirl around in our minds without our having to devote powers of reasoning to them. Beyond percepts, subconcepts form with and without conceptual feedback to bring some order to all the information that passes through our brains. The primary conscious sense that subconcepts give us is familiarity; nearly everything about our daily lives seems comfortable and familiar because we can align it so neatly with our subconceptual framework. When any pattern is detected that doesn’t fit nicely into this framework, subconscious processes in our brains immediately notify our conscious minds of this “break with reality.” But the real power of subconcepts is not in feeling comfortable but in managing our lower-level decisions. The subconceptual framework has ready-made solutions and support for nearly all the circumstances we encounter most often, making it easy for us to “act without thinking”. Such actions may, in fact, have been reasoned out in the past and are now largely processed for us subconceptually as “preapproved”.

The question for subconcepts, however, is whether we can gain any objective knowledge about them. All the direct phenomena about them are experienced subjectively. Our behavior may provide indirect phenomenal evidence, but such evidence could easily be from a very complex combination of thought processes and cannot be reliably linked to just one kind of subconcept. Arguably, certain percepts are closely associated with fixed behaviors, so we can definitely see eating and mating as broad responses to hunger and libido. But eating and mating can be put off or engaged in for other reasons, so behavior doesn’t prove them. We can also correlate chemical or neural reactions to percepts, but again, the connection cannot be more than approximate. We can prove that the body is in a state where food is needed or pain nerves are firing or heat is excessive, but we can’t conclude what state of mind will result. Partly, this is because the mind habituates to sensory stimuli that persist and can actually stop feeling hungry or in pain or too hot. Most commonly, background noise can be ignored. If we are interested in the function of the subconcept, then we have to accept that the answer is very contextual as the information that makes its way to conscious attention is filtered based on evaluations about its relevant value. Partly, then, we can’t conclude what state of mind will result because state of mind is a network of information and any summary view of it that “identifies” that state will necessarily gloss over much internal detail.

But is it possible to develop objectivity about subconceptual thinking based on our subjective experience of it? The traditional answer is no, of course not, introspection has been demonstrated to be wildly unreliable as anyone might say anything about how they interpret their own personal perspectives. But my answer is, yes, of course, because all phenomena are subjective at the point of perception and only acquire objectivity later as we corroborate them in different ways by different people. In the case of functional phenomena, we need to keep in mind that how we subjectively feel the quality of our personal experiences, i.e. as qualia, is not where we need or could get objectivity, it is about the function of the phenomena, i.e. what they inspire us to do. In this regard, we can draw conclusions about what value our percepts and subconcepts bring to the table which achieve a reality independent of the mind because they hold up well for different people in different circumstances.

Concepts. As I have noted before, the hallmark function of conceptual thinking is problem solving, which is much more powerful than the intuitive leaps of subconceptual thinking because logical reasoning uses concepts to chain causes and effects together in an infinite variety of creative ways. But the question here is whether there is any way to look at conceptual thinking objectively. On the one hand, we can definitely look at logic objectively, because any number of logical systems can be formalized with rules independent of the thinker. Oh the other hand, it is very hard to say what fraction of what we call logical reasoning is actually cut and dried logic and what fraction is, shall we say, hand waving. So if we are not careful, we might establish this very objective view of reasoning that actually has little to nothing to do with how we actually reason. But how can we examine our reasoning processes to extract an objective view? We can’t ignore that logic plays a role, but we have to acknowledge that it is embedded in a larger decision-making system that integrates instinct, subconcepts, and concepts to achieve the ends deemed most desirable. These ends may not be in accord with any particular line of reasoning, sometimes even including the line we believe we are consciously following. I’m simply proposing we take as high-level a view as possible, meaning one that can be verified in the most different ways by different people. This means we start by looking for broad commonalities in thought processes that everyone would agree to rather than for specific mechanisms which would seem to vary from person to person.

So yes, our thoughts are the phenomenal evidence of the existence of the mind and we can’t just ignore them when undertaking a scientific study of the mind. But we need to be dispassionate and work from our most certain knowledge down to more speculative thoughts. The phenomena that transpire in our minds are really there and we can observe them; we just have to be careful that our conclusions have broad support from many perspectives and are not just personal whims. It is not a whim to say we think or that inner speech can help us develop ideas in our heads. Everybody would agree to these things. And I believe there is plenty more that nearly everyone would agree to that if articulated could form a much broader objective explanation of the mind than we currently have. Still, we need to keep in mind that just because we all might agree with something doesn’t make it true; after all, our first-person perspective of our own minds is designed to help us in our role as an agent in the world, not to give us perspective into how it does that. I am at no point saying or suggesting we can’t understand our own minds — I am not a new mysterian (like Noam Chomsky) — but I am saying that our understanding of the mind will not be facilitated by an innate facility for understanding it, such as we have for vision or language. Instead, we can understand it because anyone can understand anything, in principle, because understanding always exists at a descriptive, sketchy level that only explains some but not all of the aspects the underlying noumena. To understand something deeper than a high-level overview takes more work and time, and these practical reasons may make deeper understanding impractical and unattainable, but we’re still a long way off from having to worry about going too deep considering we haven’t yet scratched the surface. So I would characterize new mysterians as simply philosophically confused; they are mistaking knowledge, which is about phenomena, with “absolute” knowledge, which is presumably “about” noumena, without realizing that such a position is illogical because knowledge and “aboutness” are inherently phenomenal and functional. Is the noumenon itself mysterious? Yes, of course, and permanently so, but this is irrelevant to our ability to understand phenomena on a variety of levels.

I have concluded that objective facts exist about our own minds to which we could agree if they were articulated. However, this answer to the question “What phenomena exist about functional things in nature, and can they be corroborated?” does presume some objective facts which previously said we should agree to, namely that four kinds of natural information management systems exist and that they are genes, instincts, subconcepts, and concepts. To discuss the subject, I am hypothesizing some high-level points and then trying to defend them objectively. I am doing it as cautiously and considerately as possible, starting with function, which I claim has an informational basis and separate claim to existence, and moving from there to systems that manage function on different time scales with different physical mechanisms. I will continue to add more hypotheses and conclusions and will not always be able to justify every conclusion from every angle. But I will try to provide adequate justification as I go. I am not intentionally treading into any controversial waters; I am only seeking hypotheses and conclusions well within the scope of objective information we all already take for granted but don’t usually articulate.

Now that I have established that we can derive objectivity about the mind from our thoughts about it, I will look closer at how we can go about doing it. The formal sciences, at least, can reasonably claim near perfect objectivity. Knowledge within a well-defined formal system can be known for sure and provably so (though some things in formal systems can’t be known or proven). Whatever their limitations, the clean, logical models of the formal sciences provide great coherence and functional power. Their rules are declared rather than discovered, so there is no need for empirical verification. The physical sciences are also quite objective because they are built on the formal sciences (e.g. for mathematical models) and impersonal empirical support gathered with instruments. It doesn’t mean physics is solved; general relativity improved on Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and MOG (MOdified Gravity) may improve on general relativity. And it doesn’t free formal and physical sciences from elements of subjectivity; our formalizations and theories on these subjects invariably involve judgment and bias because any system can be modeled (i.e. simplified) in an infinite number of ways. But we have had little trouble agreeing on models that work well, and keeping secondary models as backups. The main thing is that we know the assumptions we are building on.

But life is a far less tractable subject. Billions of years of adaptations have piled on complexities orders of magnitude harder to decipher than those of nonliving physical systems. That complexity is driven by feedback to provide general-purpose functionality instead of the very specific cause-and-effect actions studied in physics and chemistry. Consequently, theories about life can never achieve the same level of formality and closure enjoyed by the physical and formal sciences. But we do have some objective sources of information about function in living things. Chiefly, we know life evolved, and we know a number of the mechanisms that made that possible. More significantly than the mechanisms, we know that it was driven by the value of function to survival. Function was selected for, and the mechanisms that made it possible were only along for the ride. It was not the genes that were selfish, but the functions of the genes. Those functions are informational constructs whose true depth hides in the full history that led up to each gene surviving to the present day, and can’t be fully grasped just by discovering, say, the primary role of the protein the gene encodes. The whole context of how the function provides general value in a wide variety of circumstances contributed to why the gene is exactly the way it is as opposed to some slightly different way that might seem to be more advantageous superficially. The genes that make instinct, subconcepts and concepts possible were also selected for based on benefits they provided in a wide variety of circumstances.

Now, if we only had behavior to go on, we would be very hard-pressed to guess anything about the mechanisms of our minds. In fact, without our own first-hand experience of consciousness, we would have no reason to suspect that minds even existed. We would just see robots moving about getting things done, not unlike ants. To the extent ants can be said to have minds at all, which is pretty debatable, they are certainly not remotely as functionally complex as ours. And we can’t argue that minds are necessary, either, since it is clearly possible to design a brain in another way that could perform the same variety of tasks ours to without any mind in control. While it is tempting to suppose that such a zombie-like robot would not be as adaptable to new circumstances as us, it is certainly theoretically possible to program it to have a range of adaptability that would be more than enough to handle whatever issues Earthly creatures might reasonably face. While such robot humans would have no need for art or entertainment, they would procreate and advance civilization as well or better than we would. While we can’t argue that minds are necessary, we can argue that all earthly animals with centralized brains have features of consciousness strong enough to suggest that evolution strongly selects for minds and not so much for robots. So the real question is why consciousness is so useful to brains when simpler, more hard-wired methods would appear to be a more direct solution to the problem.

The answer is that consciousness is function made animate through agency because agency comes with some survival benefits that are useful in earthly evolution. Unpacking this, the brain is quite capable of getting things done without consciousness, and our ability to do many very familiar tasks while hardly thinking about them demonstrates this, as does the ability of sleepwalkers to raid the fridge without awareness. The value that consciousness brings to the table is the ability to carefully weigh all the options available at the top level to select the one best course of action that the body should undertake next. It doesn’t simply employ a prioritization algorithm as one might expect. Instead, it runs a subprocess in the brain and tells it that it is an autonomous agent in the world. This fiction, that the prioritization decisions can be “felt” by that agent through sensory feedback, very effectively focuses all the body’s priorities into functional space: every input and output is no longer just data, but is interpreted from the perspective of this fictitious first-person actor. The concept of an actor or agent is purely a functional interpretation and has no meaning in the physical world. That we observe others acting purposefully in no way implies that they experience agency; my example above with zombie-like robots shows that they don’t need to perceive themselves as agents. So how can one objectively explain the experience of agency; what does it feel like? In other words, is it possible to objectively describe subjective experience? It is possible, provided one keeps in mind that “explain” and “describe” can only render conceptual meaning, and subjective feeling itself (beyond the “feel” of concepts themselves) is not conceptual, so this is very much a case where the “map is not the terrain”. I will present this explanation in a few chapters when I discuss consciousness in detail, but for now, I’d just like to make the point that the objective description will strictly talk about the function of each kind of subjective experience, not the special quality (e.g. redness) it seems to have to us personally. That special quality is not imaginary, in the sense that our subconscious tells us the quality is there, but it is imaginary in the sense that it only exists as information in the brain. The result is that things feel like their function, i.e. what they make possible. The net result is that everything feels very customized and special in its own right, even though that specialness actually derives from the function and not the stimulus or its quality (e.g. redness). Many of these functional distinctions are learned, “acquired tastes” which we come to appreciate, but most are innate, the product of millions of years of evolutionary pressures mapping function to feeling.

To give an example, as we survey an ordinary scene in front of us, we are calm and nothing stands out to our attention, even though we can distinguish any number of discrete objects in the scene. But if anything in that scene becomes bright, or flashing, or red, or fast-moving, or loud, etc., our pulse will quicken and our attention will immediately be drawn to it. Those stimuli have the function of warning; they are different from each other, but any of them can trigger the warning reaction and so in many ways feel the same to us. Red and yellow stand out more in any context than other colors because in our ancestral environment objects of these colors were more likely to warrant attention than green, blue, brown or gray objects. This doesn’t mean color alone alarms us, but it is a factor, and importantly, it affects how these colors feel to us. Blues and greens are calming, while reds, oranges, and yellows are a bit unnerving. It is not unpleasant; it is just part of the quality about them that we feel. If we could devise a set of glasses that could invert greens to reds and blues to yellows1, I believe that after a week or two we would come to invert them back, feeling red things like leaves as if they were green and green things like blood as if they were red. While this experiment has not yet been done, this result has been found with similar experiments that flip the image to the brain horizontally or vertically. I am not saying flipped or inverted qualia revert to being indistinguishable from before. No, superficially the quality remains inverted — people who view inverted scenes know they are inverted but can interact with them on that basis as if it were perfectly normal, and it doesn’t seem strange to them. Similarly, people would know that red things like leaves are being perceived as red, but they would trigger calming and other feelings the same way that green things used to feel. Much of the feeling we get from colors and other qualia isn’t about their superficial distinctness but about our beliefs about their function. Our memory of how colors used to make us feel would matter more to us than the way they appeared now, and we would remap our feelings about the colors back to what they were before. The reason I believe the brain could do this color feeling inversion is that it does this sort of thing all the time; changes in lighting can make the same color appear quite different, yet our feeling about it remains the same. The brain is constantly trying to interpret inputs into functional buckets, correcting for variations in the signal. Ultimately, redness, brightness, loudness, etc., are about how information is hooked up in our minds, not about what is happening outside them, and the way it is hooked up is all about what how that information can help us, i.e. what its function is. In other words, the brain is functional and not literal, so it has many mechanisms to look past literal changes to the underlying function.

The perception that physics and chemistry are fundamentally more objective, provable, and definitive has led to them being called hard science, while social science, which is seen as more subjective and less provable and definitive is called soft science. Biology has both hard and soft aspects. The distinction really derives from our intuition that hard science is a fixed or closed system while soft science is not. A closed system can be modeled as perfectly as you like with a logical model that explains all its fixed components. A variable or open system includes feedback loops which continually impact and adjust the design and capabilities of the system itself. When an open system is implemented using a closed system, as the mind uses the body, there will be an underlying fixed physical explanation for what is happening particle-wise at any given instant, but the physical explanation will reveal nothing about the functional capacities of the system. Physically, information doesn’t exist; fluctuating signals traveling on wires or nerves exist, but divorced from any concept or purpose they have no relevance to anything. It only acquires relevance when an information management system gathers and uses information about something else, summarized and analyzed at practical levels of detail. Cells manage inherited information through genes, which summarize metabolic information, mostly about proteins, in a practical way. Minds manage information summarized from sensory inputs using both inherited (natural) and learned (artificial) mechanisms. Because cells and organs have a very fixed structure and behavior for any given species at any given point in its evolutionary history, the study of these structures from a physical standpoint can often be done with clean, logical models that explain all the fixed components. These models can often be experimentally verified to a high degree of confidence. Although we know such models of biological systems are inherently less fixed than those of nonbiological systems, they are quite comparable for most intents and purposes. They do posit a function for each kind of tissue, which is necessarily a subjective or soft determination, but the primary purpose of most tissues seems very clear, so while some appreciation for multifunctional tissues is lost in this kind of summation, it still works pretty well. But this approach mostly breaks down when studying the brain because its functionality is so highly integrated across many levels. We have identified primary functions for many parts of the brain, but we also have to accept that almost every function of the brain includes substantial integration across many areas. Not only do different brain areas and functions work together to achieve overall function, but they also incorporate feedback across multiple timelines. Instinct gathers feedback over millennia, long-term memory gathers it over a lifetime, and short-term memory gathers it for the scope of a problem at hand. And then there is the matter of the processing, or thinking, that we do with the collected information. While this bears considerably more discussion, for now it is sufficient to say thinking is quite open-ended and impossible to predict. So the distinction between the hard and soft sciences, or more accurately between the physical experimental sciences and the functional experimental sciences, is quite significant. However, it is misleading to characterize it as hard vs. soft; the distinction is really between fixed, closed systems and variable, open systems.

  1. Alex Byrne, Inverted Qualia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015

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