Dualism and the Five Levels of Existence

To review, an information processor or IP is a physical construction that manages (creates and uses) certain kinds of information. Information or function consists of nonphysical generalizations about physical or functional things that have been abstracted away from them using indirection which creates the capacity to predict what will happen with better than random odds. This can also be called answering questions or resolving uncertainties. Information exists because it can be distinctly discriminated from other things that exist and can interact with them in various ways. Physical things exist specifically and functional things exist generally, but both can be distinguished and can form interactions. Consequently, we can conclude that interactionist dualism is true after all. The idea that something’s existence can be defined in terms of the value it produces is called functionalism. For this reason, I call my brand of interactionist dualism form and function dualism, in which physical substance is “form” and information is “function”. As an interactionist, I hold that form and function somehow interact in the mind. To understand how that works, I’m going to further distinguish five levels of understanding we can have for each of the two kinds of existence, only the first two of which apply to physical things:

Noumenon – the thing-in-itself. Keeps to itself.

Phenomenon – that which can be observed about a noumenon. Reaches out to others.

Perception – first-order information created by an information processor (IP) using inductive reasoning on phenomena received . Notices others.

Comprehension – second-order information created with deductive reasoning, usually by building on percepts. Understands others.

Metacognition – third-order information or “thoughts about thoughts”. Understands self.

We believe our senses tell us that the world around us exists. We know our senses can fool us, but by accumulating multiple observations using multiple senses, we build a very strong inductive case that physical things are persistent and hence exist. Science has increased this certainty many fold with instruments that are both immune to many kinds of bias and can observe things beyond our sensory range. Still, though, no matter how much evidence accumulates, we can’t know for sure that the world exists because it is out there and we are in here. But we can always suppose that something exists, and we call the existence of something independent of our awareness of it a noumenon, or thing-in-itself (what Kant called das Ding an sich). The only way we can ever come to know anything about these noumena is through phenomena, which are emanations from or interactions with a noumenon. Features of noumena that exhibit no phenomena are completely unknowable from a scientific standpoint, because science builds on verifiable interactions. Example phenomena include light or sound bouncing off an object, but can also include matter and energy interactions like touch, smell, and temperature.

Perception is the receipt of a phenomenon by a sensor and adequate accompanying information processing to create information about it. Physical things have noumena that radiate phenomena, but they never have perception since perception is information. A single percept is never created entirely from a single phenomenon; the capacity for perception must be built over billions of inductive trial-and-error interactions as life has done it. We notice a camera flash as a percept, but only because our brain evolved the capacity over millions of years to convert data into information. So if a tree falls in the forest and there was nobody to hear it, there was a phenomenon but no perception. Because IPs exploit the uniformity of nature, our perceptions can very accurately characterize both the phenomena we observe and the underlying noumena from which they emanate, even if complete certainty is impossible.

Perception includes everything we consciously experience without conscious effort, and includes sensory information about our bodies and the world, and also emotions, common sense, and intuition, which somehow bubble up into our awareness as needed. Experience and learning can improve our perception, extending the fixed natural part with a variable nurtured part that can help us get more out of our innate gifts. All information created by perception is first-order information because it is based on induction, which is the first kind of information one can extract from data. Inductive reasoning or “bottom-up logic” generalizes conclusions from multiple experiences based on similarities, a trial-and-error approach. Because all inherited genetic information is created inductively, I will use the term “percept” or “perception” to refer to any biological or mental information created inductively. Evolutionary processes don’t think, but they can be said to perceive benefits of inductive strategies and to save those percepts genetically. I have to generalize perception this way because the perceptive information of the mind combines mechanisms that slowly evolved with sensory information collected in real time to make the composite information we experience as perception. Our ability to see red is entirely genetic, but our experience of seeing red is real-time. Also, our ability to build a vast mental library of red things we have seen and to draw associations and intuitions about new red things we see by connecting them red things we have seen before is entirely genetic, but we can also extend that learning past direct genetic consequences via comprehension and metacognition.

Comprehension goes beyond perception by using deductive reasoning to establish causes and effects, which gives us a deeper ability to see what will happen. I will decompose deductive reasoning more as the book unfolds, but for now, it is sufficient to say that deduction builds information from the other direction using “top-down logic” on abstract entities that can be mapped to bottom-up perceptions. We don’t comprehend our inductive senses (senses, emotions, common sense, and intuitions) because we can just use them without concerning ourselves with what causes and effects might tell us. But we can build deductive explanations for them if we are interested in explaining how they work, which is, of course, a chief object of this book. Already, by characterizing them as inductive and breaking them down into categories, I have started to present a deductive model of them. The value that deduction brings to the table that induction lacks is implication or entailment, known formally as logical consequence. Provided you stick to the rules of the deductive system you set up, logical consequence tells you exactly what will happen with perfect foresight. And because causes and effects can be chained together, deduction can take you with certainty many steps further than induction, which can basically only reach probable one-step conclusions. I call the causes and effects of deduction second-order information because these kinds of models give us the sense that we understand or comprehend something we know, as opposed to the merely comfortable or familiar feeling of inductive first-order information. The limitation of deduction is that the physical world is not a theoretical model, so we have to find ways to line our models up with actual circumstances, which always involves some shoehorning (fitting something that does not easily fit), which we do with both inductive and deductive heuristics.

Metacognition is thoughts about thoughts, or, more specifically, deductive reasoning about thoughts. Comprehension is a first-order use of deductive reasoning in which the premises can be mapped to inductive entities, while metacognition is a higher-order use of deductive reasoning in which the premises are abstractions based on conclusions reached by lower-order uses of deductive reasoning. Most significantly for us as people, when we posit the existence of our own self, or any of our interests or thoughts as the starting points of further deduction, we have moved into the realm of metacognition. We can then start to deduce cause and effect relationships and logical chains of reasoning about these abstract entities. Metacognition thus expands our realm of comprehension from matters of immediate relevance to matters abstracted one or more levels away. It extends our reach from physical reality to unlimited imagination. I call the abstractions of metacognition third-order information because this move to arbitrary degrees of indirection unlocks new kinds of explanatory power. While second- and third-order information can increase the functional range of an animal, it also creates new challenges for evolution to keep this information focused on evolutionary needs. To meet these challenges, humans evolved a much wider range of emotional responses to channel mental powers productively. Both comprehension and metacognition heavily leverage our innate talents, so I am not suggesting they operate independently of them, but what is interesting about them is that they can do things that perception can’t.

Noumena and phenomena just happen. That is, they are not functional in that they do nothing to influence future events. While physical things are necessarily noumenal and phenomenal, functional things can take on these roles as well. Viewed externally, a functional thing like a thought or a concept has a noumenon — which is the function the IP derives from it. The IP may or may not know the exact extent of that function, but another IP external to it can only learn about that noumenon through its phenomena. The phenomena of a functional noumenon are not physical observations, of course, because it has no physical substance; instead, they are observations of its functions. For example, a calculator is an IP with a multiplication button. Not knowing anything about how the calculator works, you can observe what it does. You may develop a theory based on using it many times that it does repeated additions. In this case, we know that you would be right and that you will have discovered the actual noumenon of the button, but you still can’t prove it because it may, for example, be programmed to do division instead in leap years and you wouldn’t know that until the next leap year.

When our concepts are based on formal models like mathematics, we have access to their actual noumena because we defined them. In this case, all their logical implications are also noumenal by definition. But the implications of many formal models can be too complex for us to reason out (i.e. prove), so we may instead opt to gather information about them by induction. If we can run the model on a computer, we can do this by running millions of simulations and analyzing the results for patterns. If we run logical models in our minds, this often includes applying approximate or intuitive reasoning because we have not or don’t want to work out the details of the model to the nth degree. In practice, then, much of our knowledge of purely deductive models comes from phenomenal perception of them, which means it is suspected to be true but not known to be true.

Evolved functions can also be said to have noumena that blend all the inductive trials that went into forming them. Although any attempt to simplify all that into a deductive cause-and-effect model is necessarily a simplification, we can use such simplifications to better understand the noumena with the understanding that we are only characterizing the underlying function and not fully grasping it. Daniel Dennett calls explanations of evolved noumena “free-floating rationales”1

This is a great way of putting it, because it emphasizes that the underlying logic is not dependent on anything physical, which is essential to understanding the nature of function. All functional noumena are necessarily free-floating in the sense that they don’t have to be implemented to exist; they embody logical relationships whether anyone knows it or not. But we focus nearly all our attention on function that is also implemented, meaning it has a physical manifestation through an IP, because information processing can’t be conducted in the abstract. Function that is expressed physically is pragmatic, an idea I will get back to later.

Perception, comprehension, and metacognition, on the other hand, don’t “just happen”, but are the outputs of information processing on IPs that have either evolved or been designed to process information in specific ways. Those that are evolved but not designed used perceptive feedback loops over many cycles to refine the functional qualities of the information. The information tends to become ever more “informative” over time because of how the ratchet effect creates a functional ratchet that preferentially conserves function as it goes. It does not matter that function is sometimes lost, either inadvertently due to accident or drift, or because the functional needs of the IP’s niche shift and a function that was useful before is no longer needed. What matters is that function is always useful to IPs and they will always act to increase the function they need at any given point in time, whether that increase calls for a more complex mechanism or a more streamlined or simple one. There is no evidence that inherited information processing (i.e. information in DNA) has any comprehension or metacognition. I am fairly sure nobody has proposed a plausible mechanism whereby deductive models could be leveraged by evolutionary mechanisms, let alone self-reflective ones. I think that idea goes too far, but I do think that inductive methods are capable of much more “clever” behavior than current evolutionary theory imagines, and I will discuss this later on.

Perception, comprehension, and metacognition are purely functional modes of existence, so function can be thought of as being three levels deeper than physical existence. While this doesn’t make it “better” than physical existence, the concept of “better” (and all concepts for that matter) is strictly functional. Since our entire concept of the world depends on only these three upper levels, we don’t actually need the physical world. We could happily live our lives entirely within a computer simulation if it did a good enough job. Scientific experiments within the simulation would arguably expose differences between physical and simulated reality, but it would not be necessary to lie to simulants or prevent all access to the physical world. Simulation could just be used as a more affordable way to extend reality. Though minds can potentially run on different platforms, information processing will always require IPs implemented in the physical world.

Let’s review our three quandaries in the light of form and function dualism. First, the origin of life. Outside of life, phenomena naturally occur and explanations of them comprise the laws of physics, chemistry, materials science and all the physical sciences. These sciences work out rules that describe the interactions of matter and energy. They essentially define matter and energy in terms of their interactions without really concerning themselves with their noumenal nature. As deductive explanations, they are based in the functional world of comprehension and draw their evidence from our perception of phenomena. While the target is ultimately the truth our noumena of nature, we realize that models are functional and not physical, and also only approximations, even if nearly perfect in their accuracy. With the arrival of life, a new kind of existence, a functional existence, arose when the feedback loops of natural selection developed perception to finds patterns in nature that could be exploited in “useful’ ways. The use that concerns life is survival, or the propagation of function for its own sake, and that use is sufficient to drive functional change. But perception forms its own rules transcendent to physical laws because it uses patterns to learn new patterns. The growth of patterns is directed toward ever greater function because of the functional ratchet. It exploits that fact that appropriately-configured natural systems are shaped by functional objectives to replicate similar patterns and not just by physical laws indifferent to similarity.

Next, let’s consider the mind-body problem. The essence of this problem is the feeling that what is happening in the mind is of an entirely different quality than the physical events of the external world. Form and function dualism tells us that this feeling reflects that actual underlying natural entities, some of which are physical and some functional. Specifically, the mind is entirely concerned with functional entities and the external physical world is entirely concerned with physical entities, except that other living things are themselves both functional and physical. This division is not reducible at all, as physicalists would have us believe, because function is concerned with and defined by what is possible, and the realm of the possible is entirely outside the scope of mere physical things. While function doesn’t reduce to physical, it does depend on the brain. The mind is a natural entity comprised of a complex of functional capacities implemented using the physical machinery of the brain. So the mind can be said to have both a functional aspect and a physical aspect. Since the mind is the subset of brain processing that we associate with consciousness and experience, which is arguably a small subset of the large amount of neural processing that happens outside our conscious awareness, it is quite relevant to discuss the physical nature of the mind in terms of the subset of brain functions directly associated with consciousness. But one can also talk about the functional aspect in isolation from the IP that physically supports it. Although this aspect is just an abstraction in the sense that it needs the brain to support it, as an abstraction it can be thought of as entirely immaterial, our “soul”, if you like. This view of the soul is not supernatural; it just distinguishes function from form, and, more to the point, higher-level functions from lower-level functions, being the essential activities of survival like sleeping and eating with which we have conscious awareness but which don’t define our long-term objectives.

Finally, let’s look at the explanatory gap, which is about explaining with physical laws why our senses and emotions feel they way they do. I said this gap would evaporate with an expanded ontology. By recognizing functional existence as real, we can see that it opens up a vastly richer space than physical existence because it means anything can be related anything in any number of ways. The world of imagination is unbounded, while the physical world is closely ruled by rather rigid laws. The creation of IPs that can first generalize inductively (via evolution of life and minds) and then later deductively and metacognitively (via further evolution of minds) gave them increasing degrees of access to this unbounded world. The functional part alone is powerless in the physical world; it needs the physical manifestation of the IP and its limbs (manipulative extremities) to impact physical things; there is nothing spectral going on here. Physical circumstances are always finite and so IPs are finite, but their capacities are potentially unlimited because capacities are general and not constrained to handle only specific circumstances. So to close the explanatory gap and explain what it means to feel something, we should first recognize that the scope of feeling, experience, and understanding was never itself physical; it was a functional effect within an IP. So what happens in the IP to create feelings?

I’m just going to say the answer here and develop and support it in more detail later on. The role of the brain is to control the body in a coordinated way, and as a practical matter it solves this using a combination of bottom-up and top-down information processing. These two styles, which have to meet somewhere in the middle, are known most colloquially as unconscious and conscious. The role of consciousness is to focus specifically on top-level problems that the unconscious can’t handle by itself, which is actually a very small fraction of the matters that come under consideration. The way the brain presents information to the conscious mind so that it can do this job is by creating a theater of consciousness, which, like a movie theater, is a highly produced and streamlined version of all the information processed by the unconscious mind. What we think of as pain or any experienced feeling is really just part of the user interface between the unconscious and conscious processes in the brain. The essence of conscious experience is an awareness of the world and the passage of time, and further the sense of our bodies and the external world and emotions about our conscious states. These things are functions of consciousness that result from its role as the top-level controller. We only see consciousness and the experiential feelings unique to it as separate from the physical world because they are functional and function is separate from physical. We focus on them above all other brain functions because we, as conscious beings, only have privileged access to a small subset of the functions in the brain, and this interface between unconscious and conscious is at the crux of that. While not magic, the interface is set up to create an equivalence between perception and physical reality that is as seamless as possible, which is the role of the magician as well, so it seems like magic. There are reasons why things feel precisely the way they do which I will explore later on.

To summarize my initial defense of dualism, I have proposed that form and function, also called physical and functional existence, encompass the totality of possible existence. We have evidence of physical things in our natural universe. We could potentially someday acquire evidence of other kinds of physical things from other universes, and they would still be physical, but they may produce different measurements that suggest an entirely different set of physical laws. Functional existence needs no time or space, but for physical creatures to benefit from it, there must be a way for functional existence to manifest in a natural universe. Fortunately, the feedback loops necessary for that to happen are physically possible and have arisen through evolution, and have then gone further to develop minds which can not only perceive, but can also comprehend and reflect on themselves. Note that this naturalistic view is entirely scientific, provided one expands the ontology of science to include functional things (which I will do more later), and yet it is entirely consistent with both common sense and conventional wisdom, which hold that “life force” is something fundamentally lacking in inanimate matter. We also see evidence of that “life force” in human artifacts because what we really sense is order that suggests a functional origin. Life isn’t magic, but some of its noumenal mystery is intrinsically beyond any full understanding. But our understanding of life and the mind through closer and closer approximation from deductive cause and effect models will continue to grow and its certainty will eventually rival our understanding of non-living or prebiotic matter using the physical sciences.

  1. Dennett, Daniel C., From Bacteria to Bach and Back Again: The Evolution of Minds, W. W. Norton & Co, 2017

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