24 February 2017

The Ship of Theseus.

The Ship of Theseus has been a staple of philosophical discussion and teaching for millennia. The folk version of this conundrum is grandfather's axe, in which the axe in question is favoured despite having had its head and handle replaced many times. Can it be the same axe? Grandfather thinks it is, and we, the audience hearing the story, doubt that it can be. I have certainly not surveyed every instance of it, but introductions to this story always seem to take the same approach to the problem and to leave it hanging as a paradox.

So why does this problem continue to fascinate philosophers? Partly, I think, philosophers like problems that can be argued over but not resolved (and their worldviews resist a resolution). However, I think it is also because the ship is a metaphor for ourselves. We visibly change over time and, at least for philosophers, this raises the question of identity. The combination of continuity and change seems to be particularly problematic for philosophers, East and West. 

The locus classicus of the story is Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans:
“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” (14)
The problem is often portrayed as having only two mutually exclusive answers with nothing to decide between: it is either the same ship or a different ship. And thus the story contains a kind of paradox. I will try to show that it is only a paradox because of the way the problem is framed and that by reframing it we can resolve the paradox. I suspect that all apparent paradoxes are related to framing problems.

Over the years, philosophers have added new twists to the problem. What if we collect all the discarded old planks and build another ship out of them? Can there be two boats that we identify as Theseus’ ship? What if Theseus stays aboard the ship as it travels, but running repairs result in the same exchange of old timbers for new. Does Theseus arrive on the same ship that he set out on? And so on. All of these trade on the same framing of the problem.

The framing here focusses on the relationship of the complex wholes and parts (which may themselves be simple or complex). I want to reframe the problem by pointing out that in all of the arguments about Theseus's ship, no one ever questions that the structure is a ship and no amount of plank changing alters this fact. And this gives a clue to how to deal with the question. Let us start with the idea of "ship".

What is a ship? 

What are the minimal features an object must possess so that we can recognise it as belonging to the category "ship". And here I'm going to ignore the complexities of the semantics of ships versus boats and all their myriad variations. For my purposes ship here represents water-craft in a very general way. 

Firstly, any material that can be made watertight and is malleable can be used. One can build a ship from paper, wood, concrete, or steel. What really matters is the average density of the volume contained by the ship's hull. Any object which is less dense than water will float in it. A ship's hull encloses a large volume of space with a thin wall so that the average density of the enclosed volume is very much smaller than the density of the building material, and less than the density of water. Hence, we can build a ship from steel which is eight times denser than water, by ensuring that the hull encloses more than eight times the volume of the steel used.

Secondly, the hull must be water-tight, or as close to it as possible. In practice, most ship designs in the ancient world would have been leaky. Planks can be made to fit together with sub-millimetre accuracy, but still have to be caulked. (For a fascinating insight into ancient boat building techniques see the Jewel of Muscat Project)

convergent evolution
Thirdly, a ship needs to be hydro-dynamically efficient; i.e., it needs to move through the water easily. The best configuration for this is a hull that it is considerably longer than it is wide. A broad-beamed ship will still make way, but with considerably more effort than a long and narrow ship. A prow that converges to a point is also advantageous, though not essential. River boats often opt for a flat bottom and blunt prow, for example. A smooth surface is also advantageous. The efficiency of these criteria can be seen in the way that the evolution of aquatic animals has tended to converge on the same long, thin, pointy, smooth design.

Lastly, a ship needs some kind of motive power to propel it through the water. A water-craft that is not propelled is a raft. A ship can be propelled by any number of sources of power, though in ancient Greece it would have involved a combination of oars for rowing and a square or lug sail for the wind. Both methods impose constraints on the design. A mast must be stepped and stayed, and sailing requires a method to prevent leeway, for example; while oars require a fulcrum and somewhere for rowers to sit (or stand, in some designs).

With just these features, an object may be called a ship. But there is something more going on here. A ship is not a ship merely because it possesses some intrinsic features. A log possesses most of these features. A ship performs a function. The function of a ship is to transport people and/or cargo over water. Note also that we can use "ship" as a verb and it is no longer confined to moving cargo by ship. As John Searle has pointed out, a function is an observer-relative feature of the object. In other words, the object we are calling a "ship" can perform the function of transporting Theseus to Minos and back, but this is not an intrinsic feature of the ship. The intrinsic features a ship has make it suitable for performing this function, but the function itself is relative to the observer. And observer- relative features of an object are created by the mental states of the observer.

For example, if we take the ship out into the middle of the desert and show it to people who've never seen a large body of water, they might not be able to deduce its function from intrinsic features. They may well conclude that, rather than displacing water, the hull is designed as a cistern for storing water. And that the configuration makes it easier to drag over sand. The intrinsic features of the object alone do not tell us what function it serves for human beings. We have to have the concept of a ship in our minds, as well.

Consider also someone visiting Athens who did know the story of Theseus. They might see a ship, but they would not see Theseus's ship. The connection between the ship and Theseus does not exist for them, because they haven't heard of Theseus. One might argue that Theseus exists despite his not being known about and that, even in ignorance, the ship is still Theseus's ship. However, the uninformed visitors could not discover this information through examining the ship. The ownership by Theseus is not an intrinsic property of the ship. The association with Theseus is also observer- relative.

So "ship" is an observer-relative feature of an object with the appropriate intrinsic properties. Thus, a "ship" is not an ontologically objective fact. Nor is "Theseus's ship" an ontologically objective fact. The "ship" is an epistemically objective fact, but ontologically it is subjective, i.e., it only exists relative to mental states in the observer.

So, in fact, the idea of "Theseus's ship" involves some intrinsic subjectivity. And part of what makes the ship interesting is the analogy of our own identity. I'm a good example because my name appears to be unique in history. There is, and has only ever been, one being called Jayarava. The fact that I am Jayarava is an ontologically subjective fact. But in my Sangha it is epistemically objective - everyone in my milieu knows that's who I am, and many do not know me by any other name (i.e., did not know me before my ordination). On the other hand, parts of me are ontologically objective. If you, literally, run into me, you'll certainly feel it. And parts of me are both ontologically and epistemically subjective, i.e., my private thoughts. So my "identity" as Jayarava spans all these possibilities (and possibly more) depending on the point of view of the observer.

The identity of Theseus and of Theseus's ship both rely on a range of types of facts and this makes the problem very much more complicated. There are no simplifying assumptions we can make without excluding essential information. 

Part/Whole Gestalt

A ship, as I have defined it, is a combination of materials and construction. Considerable time and effort is required to turn the materials into an object with the necessary intrinsic features to perform the function of ship. The parts have to be shaped and then fixed together in ways that create the necessary structure and give it enduring integrity. However, the usual way of framing the problem of Theseus ship only looks at materials and ignores the structure itself. This may be why no one seems to notice that despite all the changes, the ship is still a ship.

It seems that many philosophers are blind to the role of structure in the world. Ships are complex objects, made of many parts assembled in the right order to fit the category of 'ship'. There is a tendency to default to a reductionist paradigm in which only the parts are relevant to the question of identity. We do not see structure as real. We only see substance as real. Therefore, if we are going to invest identity in anything it ought to be, in this view, in substance. Structure is apparently incidental. 

If we replace one plank of wood in a ship made from dozens of planks, we have no problem in identifying the structure as the same, with a repair. If we replace all the parts, we struggle because in reductionism the parts are where identity is vested. If there are no original parts, then identity is lost. Somewhere in the middle is a cross-over point. We're not quite sure where it might be, but at some point we begin to suspect that if we replace that arbitrary number of parts, then the identity of the whole somehow changes. And this despite the fact that the ship is continually existent as a structure.

This see-saw—yes/no—approach has characterised Western philosophy for years. Eastern philosophy was mired in its own problems, but clearly the Buddhist philosophy that I am familiar with also tended to reductionism and thus did no better at dealing with change. However, there is a better approach.

It is better to acknowledge that the ship is both made from parts and constitutes a whole. When we analyse the ship into parts we see that parts on their own are not ships and mostly do not have the necessary intrinsic features to be a ship. The epistemically objective "ship" only emerges when we assemble all of the parts into the appropriate structure and we, the observer, have the appropriate mental states. The integrated whole has features which the the parts to not possess: especially buoyancy, hydrodynamics, and motive power. To fully understand the concept of ship we have to take into account both sides of the coin: substance and structure; as well as the observer relative status of the concept of "ship". 

In this view, the structure of the ship is causal. The structure causes the ship to float, to displace water, and to move in ways that parts alone cannot. The materials on their own do not have these features, or at least not enough of them to fit into the category ship. A lump of steel rapid sinks in water. But if we hollow it out so that it encloses a volume more than eight times the volume of the original lump, then it will float. Given the density of steel as a substance, we expect it always to sink. But a steel ship floats because it is ship-shaped. Here structure is more important than substance in understanding the nature of a ship.

The structure also persists over time, despite the replacing of some or even all of its parts. So the structure also exists and is causal. The structure does not exist independently of its parts, but since identical parts can be substituted with no change in the structure, then structure is not absolutely dependent on its parts. Indeed, we can often remove parts from a structure and it remains intact as a structure. Removing a plank from above the water-line of a ship does not destroy the intrinsic features of the object, nor does it stop the object from performing the function of ship.

Thus we can say that the structure is real. Reductionists assert that only substance is real. Antireductionists assert than only structures (or systems) are real. My view, following Richard H. Jones (2013), is that both substance and structure are real. The planks and the ship are both real, and the structure has emergent features that are not features of the planks. Planks have their own important features that enable them to function as a good building material. The individual fibres or cells of wood do not have the features of a large tree cut into planks.  At every scale we look at, both substance and structure are important. However, if you dismantle a structure into its parts, the features of that structure no longer exist. So the reductionist approach to structure nets us no information because it destroys the object of interest. This is a fact every biologist is aware of.


I've already pointed out that identity is an observer-relative function and not something intrinsic to insentient objects. We may project it onto objects, but in this case the identity is something we believe and someone who does not believe this will not be able to deduce it from simply interacting with the object. In this section I want to raise some other problems with how Theseus's ship is identified.

Is the ship that sits in the harbour and gradually has all its parts replaced Theseus's ship? The question assumes that Theseus is a point of reference. But Theseus himself is subject to change. He ages. He sails to Minos and kills the Minotaur. How could such events not change him? Is he the same man afterwards? Well, yes and no. The structure that we think of as Theseus has been extended by having new experiences and some of the parts have been exchanged, but the fundamentals are still there. When Theseus returns, everyone recognises him as Theseus. But they probably also notice that the events at Minos have changed him as well. There is both continuity and change.

Some people approach the question of the identity of Theseus's ship by ignoring the continuity and focussing on the fact of change. In this case, neither Theseus nor the ship is the same. And the difference takes on an exaggerated importance when continuity is excluded from the equation -- and some ignore the change and focus on the continuity.

I can walk out my door and within a few minutes be standing on top of a large mound of dirt, piled up by the Normans in 1068 CE, which has commanding views of Cambridge and the surrounding area. The mound has been there for about 950 years as I write this. Or, on a slightly longer walk, I can visit buildings that were constructed in the 13th Century. These are structures that have persisted for centuries. Not without change and/or repair, but still, arguing that they don't exist is nonsensical. There they are, and there they have been for centuries! One has to go under, over, or around them, one cannot just pretend they are not there. For those who believe that a brick wall does not exist, the recommended procedure is to bash your head against it repeatedly, until wisdom dawns.

These objects are real by any sensible definition of the word. Real and impermanent. Impermanence does not make an object unreal, it only makes it temporary. Buddhist intellectuals have struggled with this because ancient Buddhists defined existence as permanent. An impermanent object cannot be said to exist. In fact, they were mixing up experience and reality. The original target of the criticism was the existence of absolute being (ātman) in experience (pañca-skandhāḥ). Since experience is impermanent, no absolute being could be found in experience. Unfortunately, they went too far with this and equated all being with absolute being. From this, they argued that no being of any kind could be found. But this is simply a misunderstanding of an ancient criticism of ātman

Over time, structure persists. In the light of this we can say that the structure of the ship once owned by Theseus persists, helped by the exchange of rotten planks for good ones. At the same time, the substance of the ship has changed so that no plank of the original is left; but because planks are essentially identical this doesn't affect the structure. If we vest identity solely in the structure, then this is Theseus's ship. If we vest identity solely in the substance, then it is not Theseus's ship. There is no paradox here, because where we vest identity is simply an arbitrary decision we make, though probably motivated by presuppositions and non-reflective beliefs.

Similarly, if we take the old planks and build a new ship, how we see it depends on whether we focus on structure or substance. The new ship is a new structure, made from old substance. So, if identity is substance ,this is the same ship and, if it is structure, it's a completely different ship.

The two extremes are not the only possible answers here. Part of what philosophers do to win arguments is to back us into corners by artificially making us choose one side of a duality. This is another example of the arborescent fallacy, which sees us frame the question as having an either/or answer. In this fallacy, the world appears to us as a series of binaries. The term arborescent is also used in graph theory and botany; and was the title of an album by Ozric Tentacles. Another name for this is false dilemma. Edward de Bono independently wrote about this problem as a feature of neural networks, which he called knife-edge discrimination (1990: 108ff).

After my critique of the tree metaphor in evolution (Evolution: Trees and Braids) I stumbled onto the same critique produced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980), whence the name arborescent meaning 'tree-like' (from arbor 'tree' and the suffix ‑escent  'a process or state of being'). Unfortunately, having looked at their book I found it suffered from all the usual faults of French philosophy of that period: the writing style is obscurantist and the argument jumbled and poorly structured. So I still don't know what they say about the fallacy except what is on Wikipedia (so potentially I know nothing).

The problem of Theseus' ship is framed according to a logical fallacy that results from a cognitive bias to see things in binary terms. Once I realised that both substance and structure were real, the problem I knew as grandfather's axe no longer seemed to me to be an either/or problem. The apparent paradox is simply a limitation artificially imposed by intellectuals who haven't fully grasped the situation they live in. They labour away with theories about how the world should be, based on idealistic or romantic fantasies. Education is a good thing, but all too often it leaves us with unexamined presuppositions that hinder our understanding. For example, most people finish their science schooling believing in reductionism and this is an obstacle to understanding because reduction is strictly limited in its application. 

Another complaint is that identity is a fairly slippery concept. It makes more sense to speak of a conscious entity having identity than a ship. Without a mind, the ship itself has no sense of identity. Therefore, any identity that we perceive is a quality that we have projected into the ship. Identity in this case doesn't reside in the ship at all. It resides in our own minds! What we're really wondering is whether we recognise the ship as being the same or not, which again comes down to whether we look at substance, structure, both, or neither. And I argue that we have to look at both.

Since no object is entirely stable, no matter how long it persists, insisting that identity is a function of some fixed quality rather than something dynamic is just arbitrary. Castle mound is by no means exactly the same as it was ~950 years ago when it was heaped up as the base for a defensive stockade to guard a key crossing point on the River Cam. But it is a mound and there has continuously been a mound on that spot for ~950 years. A mound exists. Whether the mound exists is just something to argue about in a framework that doesn't allow a resolution. If we focus on the grains of soil, then it is not the mound, but another identically shaped mound in the same location as yesterday (by coincidence apparently). If we focus on the structure itself it is the same mound, but the parts have all changed.

Answers are so often already implied by how we frame questions. Logic doesn't stop us getting things wrong.


So, to recap, the problem of Theseus's ship is problematic mainly because of how it is framed and the presuppositions of the person who asks the question. Reductionist methodologies cannot cope very well with persistent structure. Reasoning from the assumptions and methods of reductionism on its own produces nonsense and/or contradictions.

To understand and appreciate structure requires an antireductive approach. We have to see structures as persistent, dynamic systems, with their own (emergent) features and causal powers: e.g., buoyancy and hydrodynamism. Such a structure can function as a ship, but only in relation to other systems, such as the ocean. Also, the function of the object as a ship is an observer-relative function. While it is epistemically objective, the fact of being a "ship" is ontologically subjective. A naive observer would not look at a ship and conclude that it could convey people and cargo across the ocean, especially if they were not familiar with oceans.

Identity is not vested in either parts or wholes of any inanimate object, but in our own conscious states. Any identity Theseus's ship might have is a projection from our minds onto the object. It is Theseus's ship if, and only if, we believe it to be so. Different people, at different times and places, may have different reasons for believing that it is Theseus's ship, but apart from a tiny number of long dead eye-witnesses (whose testimony may still be inaccurate), the rest of us take it on faith.

If we restrict ourselves to focussing on substance and change then the ship is not the same. But if we restrict ourselves to structure and continuity then it is the same. But the dichotomy is not intrinsic. Any object we can see has both structure and substance. Both are real and therefore when considering the question of Theseus's ship, both are equally important.

The problem is that we seek something essential in a complex object in which the parts are being changed for identical parts but the structure remains stable. To simply ask "Is it the same ship?" is an incomplete question. One might counter, "the same as what?" Or in other words, what is the point of comparison?

If we resolve the paradox by reframing the problem and selecting appropriate methods to understand it, does it shed any new light on the problem of identity? I'm not sure that it does. We all have this experience of continuity with change. We have memories that provide us with continuity, even if they are not 100% accurate. Over a normal human lifespan change occurs rapidly at the beginning, slowly in the middle, and rapidly at the end. But we experience ourselves as continuous through our lives. Not, as some Buddhists insist, as unchanging, but as connected over time. We all understand that we change physically and mentally. Externally, we age and, internally, we accumulate experience.

That there is change-with-continuity or continuity-with-change seems fairly obvious when you think about it. However, everywhere we turn this is denied. Theists argue that we have an unchanging eternal soul. Buddhists deny any kind of continuity when discussing metaphysics, but insist on continuity when discussing morality. Philosophers frame the problem of Theseus's ship so that it is a paradox. But everyday experience is of change and continuity. There is a dialectic between substance and structure and it is helpful to acknowledge the contribution of both to experience. 



de Bono, Edward. (1990) I Am Right - You Are Wrong. Penguin

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. (1980). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia . Continuum, 2004. [First translated into English 1987; originally vol. 2 of Capitalisme et Schizophrénie]

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

17 February 2017

Experience and Reality

"Our relation to the world is not that of a thinker to an object of thought"
—Maurice Merleau Ponty. The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences.


In this essay and some to follow, I want to look an an error that many philosophers and most meditators seem to make: the confusion of epistemology and ontology; i.e., the mixing up of experience and reality. This essay will outline and give examples of a specific version of this confusion in the form of the mind projection fallacy.

I agree with those intellectuals who think that we do not ever experience reality directly. This is where I part ways with John Searle who, for reasons I cannot fathom, advocates naïve realism, the view that reality is exactly as we experience it. On the other hand, I also disagree with Bryan Magee that reality is utterly different from what we experience and we can never get accurate and precise knowledge about it. He takes this view to be a consequence of transcendental idealism, but I think it's a form of naïve idealism.

The knowledge we get via inference is not complete, but we can, and do, infer accurate and precise information about objects. This makes a mind-independent reality seem entirely plausible and far more probable than any of the alternatives. So, we are in a situation somewhere between naïve realism and naïve idealism. 

This distinction between a mind-independent reality and the mind is not ontological, but epistemological. The set of reality includes all minds. However, the universe would exist, even if there were no beings to witness is. The universe is not dependent on having conscious observers. So by "reality" I just mean the universe generally; i.e., the universe made up from real matter-energy fields arranged into real structures that have emergent properties, one of which is conscious states. And by "mind" I specifically mean the series of conscious states that inform human beings about the universe. 

What I don't mean is reality in the abstract. I'm deeply suspicious of abstractions at present. For the same reason, I avoid talking about conscious states in the abstract as "consciousness". Things can be real without there necessarily being an abstract reality. Reality is the set of all those things to which the adjective "real" applies. Things are real if they exist and have causal potential. Members of this set may have no other attributes in common. Unfortunately, an abstract conception of reality encourages us to speculate about the "nature of reality", as though reality were something more than  a collection of real things, more than an abstraction. Being real is not magical or mystical.

I'm not making an ontological distinction between mental and physical phenomena. I think an epistemological distinction can be made because, clearly, our experience of our own minds has a different perspective to our experience of objects external to our body, but in the universe there are just phenomena. This is a distinct position from materialism, which privileges the material over the mental. What I'm saying is that what we perceive as "material" and "mental" are not different at the level of being.  

When we play the game of metaphysics and make statements about reality, they arise from inferences about experience. There are three main approaches to this process:
  • we begin with givens and use deduction to infer valid conclusions.
  • we begin with known examples and use induction to infer valid generalisations.
  • we begin with observations and use abductions to infer valid explanations.
We can and do make valid inferences about the universe from experience. The problem has always been that we make many invalid inferences as well. And we cannot always reliably tell valid from invalid.

For example, we know that if you submerge a person in water they will drown. That tells us something about reality. However, for a quite a long time, Europeans believed that certain women were in league with the devil. They believed that witches could not be drowned. So they drowned a lot of women to prove they were not witches; and burned the ones who didn't drown. The central problem here being that witches, as understood by the witch-hunters, did not exist. The actions of some women were interpreted through an hysterical combination of fear of evil and fear of women, and from this witches were inferred to be real. It was a repulsive and horrifying period of our history in which reasoning went awry. But it was reasoning. And it was hardly an isolated incident. Reasoning very often goes wrong. Still. And that ought to make us very much more cautious about reasoning than most of us are.

One of the attractions of the European Enlightenment is that it promised that reason would free us from the oppression of superstition. This has happened to some extent, but superstition is still widespread. Confusions about how reason actually works are only now being unravelled. And this meant that the early claims of the Enlightenment were vastly overblown. If our views about the universe are formed by reasoning, then we have to assume that we're wrong most of the time, unless we have thoroughly reviewed both our view and our methods, and compared notes with others in an atmosphere of critical thinking, which combines competition and cooperation. The latter is science at its best, though admittedly scientists are not always at their best. 

Into this mix comes Buddhism with its largely medieval worldview, modified by strands of modernism. Buddhists often claim to understand the "true nature of reality"; aka The Absolute, The Transcendental, The Dhamma-niyāma, śūnyatā, tathatā,  pāramārthasatya, prajñāpāramitā, nirvāṇa, vimokṣa, and so on. Reality always seems to boil down to a one word answer. And this insight into "reality" is realised by sitting still with one's eyes closed and withdrawing attention from the sensorium in order to experience nothing. Or by imagining that one is a supernatural being in the form of an Indian princess, or a tame demon, or an idealised Buddhist monk, etc. Or any number of other approaches that have in common that seem to take the approach of trying to develop a kind of meta-awareness of our experience.To experience ourselves experiencing.

It's very common to interpret experience incorrectly. As we know the lists of identified cognitive biases and logical fallacies, which each have over one hundred items. From these many problems I want to highlight one. When we make inferences about reality we are biased towards seeing our conclusions, generalisations, and explanations as valid, and to believing that our interpretation is the only valid interpretation. This is the mind projection fallacy.

The Sunset Illusion

An excellent illustrative example of the mind projection fallacy is the sunset. If I stand on a hill and watch the sunset, it seems to me that the the hill and I are fixed in place and the sun is moving relative to me and the hill. Hence, we say "the sun is setting". In fact, we're known for centuries that the sun is not moving relative to the earth, but instead the hill and I are pivoting away on an axis that goes through the centre of the earth. So why do we persist in talking about sunsets?

The problem is that I have internal sensors that tell me when I'm experiencing acceleration: proprioception (sensing muscle/tendon tension) kinaesthesia (sensing joint motion and acceleration) and the inner-ear's vestibular system (orientation to gravity and acceleration). I can also use my visual sense to detect whether I am in motion relative to nearby objects. A secondary way of detecting acceleration is the sloshing around of our viscera creating pressure against the inside of our body.

My brain integrates all this information to give me accurate and precise knowledge about whether my body is in motion. And standing on a hill, watching a sunset, my body is informing me, quite unequivocally, that I am at rest.

I'm actually spinning around the earth's axis of rotation at ca. 1600 km/h or about 460 m/s. That's about Mach 1.5! And because velocity is a vector (it has both magnitude and direction) moving in a circle at a uniform speed is acceleration, because one is constantly changing direction. So why does it not register on our senses? After all, being on a roundabout rapidly makes me dizzy and ill; a high speed turn in a vehicle throws me against the door. It turns out that the acceleration due to going moderately fast in very large circle, is tiny. So small that it doesn't register on any of our onboard motion sensors. The spinning motion does register in the atmosphere and oceans where it creates the Coriolis effect.

Everyone watching a sunset experiences themselves at rest and the sun moving. It is true, but counterintuitive, to suggest that the sun is not moving. Let's call this the sunset illusion.

I'm not sure where it comes from, but in the Triratna Order we often cite four authorities for believing some testimony: it makes sense (reason), it feels right (emotion), it accords with experience (memory), and it accords with the testimony of the wise. Before about 1650, seeing ourselves as stationary and the sun and moving, made sense, it felt right, it accorded with experience, and it accorded with the testimony of the wise. The first hint that the sunset illusion is an illusion came when Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in January 1610.

Even knowing, as I do, that the sunset illusion is an illusion, doesn't change how it seems to me because my motion senses are unanimously telling me I'm at rest. This is important because it tells us that this is not a trivial or superficial mistake. It's not because I am too stupid to understand the situation. I know the truth and have known for decades. But I also trust my senses because I have no choice but to trust them.

The sunset illusion is sometimes presented as a 50:50 proposition, like one of those famous optical illusions where whether we see a rabbit or a duck depends on where we focus. The assertion is that we might just as easily see the sun as still and us moving. This is erroneous. Proprioception, kinesthesia, the vestibular organ, and sight make it a virtual certainty that we experience ourselves at rest and conclude that the sun moving. It takes a combination of careful observation of the visible planets and an excellent understanding of geometry to upset the earth-centric universe. If some ancient cultures got this right, it was a fluke.

The sunset illusion exposes an important truth about how all of us understand the world based on experience. Experience and reality can be at odds.

And note that we are not being irrational when we continue to refer to the sun "setting". Given our sensorium, it is rational to think of ourselves at rest and the sun moving. It's only in a much bigger, non-experiential framework that the concept becomes irrational. For most of us, the facts of cosmology are abstract; i.e., they exist as concepts divorced from experience. Evolution has predisposed us to trust experience above abstract facts.

Mind Projection Fallacy

The name of this fallacy was coined by physicist and philosopher E.T. Jaynes (1989). He defined it like this:
One asserts that the creations of [their] own imagination are real properties of Nature, and thus, in effect, projects [their] own thoughts out onto Nature. (1989: 2)
I think it's probably more accurately described as a cognitive bias, but "fallacy" is the standard term. Also, instead of imagination, I would argue that we should say "interpretation". The problem is not so much that we imagine things and pretend they are real, though this does happen, but that we have experiences and interpret them as relating directly to reality (naïve realism).

The sunset illusion tells us that reality is not always as we experience it. 

We all make mistakes, particularly these kinds of cognitive mistakes. We actually evolved in such a way as to make these kinds of mistakes inevitable. However, reading up on cognitive bias, I was struck by how some of the authors slanted their presentation of the material to belittle people. I don't think this is helpful. Our minds are honed by evolution for survival a particular kind of environment, but almost none of us live in that environment any more. So if we are error-prone, it is because our skill-set is not optimised for the lifestyles we've chosen to live. 

This fallacy can occur in a positive and a negative sense, so that it can be stated in two different ways:
  1. My interpretation of experience → real property of nature
  2. My own ignorance → nature is indeterminate
David Chapman has pointed out that there has been considerable criticism of Jaynes' approach in the article I'm citing and has summarised why. He suggests, ironically, that Jaynes suffered from the second kind of mind projection fallacy when it came to logic and probability. But the details of that argument about logic and probability are not relevant to the issue I'm addressing in this essay. It's the fallacy or bias that concerns us here. 

Interpreting Experience
    A problem like the sunset illusion emerges when we make inferences about reality based on interpreting our experience. For example, when we make deductions from experience to reality, they invariably reflect the content of our presuppositions about reality. For example, a given for most of us is "I always know when I am moving". In the sunset illusion, I know I am at rest because motions sensors and vision confirm that it is so. The experience is conclusive: it must be the sun must be moving. My understanding of how the universe works and my understanding of my own situation as regards movement are givens in this case. We don't consciously reference them, but they predetermine the outcome of deductive reasoning. This means the deduction is of very limited use to the individual thinking about reality.

    If I watch a dozen sunsets and they all have this same character, then I can generalise from this (inductive reasoning) that the sun regularly rises, travels in an (apparent) arc across the sky and sets. All the while, I am not moving relative to earth. What's more, I've experienced dozens of earthquakes in my lifetime, so I also know what it is like when the earth does move! From my experiential perspective, the earth does not move, but the sun does move. Given our experience of the situation, this is the most likely explanation (abductive reasoning).

    So here we see that a perfectly logical set of conclusions, generalisations, and explanations follow from interpreting experience, which are, nonetheless, completely wrong. I am not at rest, but moving at Mach 1.5. The earth is not at rest. The sun is at the centre of our orbit around it, but it also is moving very rapidly around the centre of the galaxy. Our galaxy is accelerating away from all other galaxies. The error occurs because our senses evolved to help us navigate through woodlands, in and out of trees, and swimming in water. And we're pretty good at this. When it comes to inferring knowledge about the cosmos, human senses are the wrong tool to start with!

    A common experience for Buddhists is to have a vision of a Buddha during meditation. And it is common enough for that vision to be taken as proof that Buddhas exist. But think about it. A person is sitting alone in a suburban room, their eyes are closed, their attention withdrawn from the world of the senses, they've attenuated their sense experience to focus on just one sensation and have focussed their attention on it. They undergo a self-imposed sensory deprivation. They've also spent a few years intensively reading books on Buddhism, looking at Buddhist art, thinking about Buddhas, and discussing Buddhas with other Buddhists. We know that sensory deprivation causes hallucinations. And someone saturated in the imagery of Buddha is more likely to hallucinate a Buddha. This is no surprise. But does it really tell us that Buddhas exist independently of our minds, or does it just tell us that in situations of sensory deprivation Buddhists hallucinate Buddhas? 

    The Buddhist who has the hallucination feels that this is a sign; it feels important, meaningful, and perhaps even numinous (in the sense that they felt they were in the presence of some otherworldly puissance). They are immersed in Buddhist rhetoric and imagery, as are all of their friends. As I have observed before, hallucinations are stigmatised, whereas visions are valorised. So if you see something that no one else sees, then your social milieu and your social intelligence will dictate how you interpret and present the experience. If you mention to your comrades in religion that you saw a Buddha in your meditation, you are likely to get a pat on the back and congratulations. It will be judged an auspicious sign. And all those people who haven't had "visions" will be quietly envious. If you mention it to your physician, they may well become concerned that you have suffered a psychotic episode. On the other hand, in practice, psychotic episodes are rather terrifying and chaotic, and not all hallucinations are the result of psychosis. 

    Not only do we have the problem of our own reasoning leading us to erroneous inferences, we have social mechanisms to reinforce particular interpretations of experience, especially in the case of our religiously inspired inferences. Our individual experience is geared towards a social reality. One of the faults of humans thinking about reality is to think that reality somehow reflects our social world. A common example is the nature of heaven. Many cultures see heaven as an idealised form of their own social customs, usually with the slant towards male experiences and narratives. Medieval Chinese intellectuals saw heaven as an idealised Confucian bureaucracy, for example. If we take Christian art as any indication, then Heaven is an all male club. The just-world fallacy probably comes about because we expect the world to conform to our social norms in which each member is responsive to the others in a hierarchy where normative behaviour is rewarded and transgressive behaviour is punished.

    So, given the way our senses work, given the pitfalls of cognitive bias and logical fallacies, given the pressure to conform to social norms, the mind projection fallacy can operate freely. As we know, challenging the established order can be difficult to the point of being fatal. And understanding the power of something like the sunset illusion is important. Facts don't necessarily break the spell. Yes, we know the earth orbits the sun. But standing on a hill watching the sunset, that is just not how we experience it (our proprioception and vision tell us a different story that we find more intuitive and credible, even though it is wrong). And this applies to a very wide range of situations where we are reasoning from experience to reality.

    If I Don't Understand It...

    The second form of this fallacy was rampant in 19th century scholarship. In the first form, one erroneously concludes that one understands something and projects private experience as public reality. Mistaking the sunset as resulting from the movement of the sun, because our bodies tell us that we are at rest. This leads to false claims about reality.

    In the second case there is also a false claim about reality, but in this case it emerges from a failure to understand and the assumption that this is because the experience or feature of reality cannot be understood. This is a problem which is particularly acute for intellectuals. Intellectuals are often over‑confident about their ability to understand everything. These days it is less plausible, but 150 years ago it was plausible for one intellectual to be well informed about more or less every field of human knowledge. So, if such an intellectual comes across something they don't understand, then they deduce that it cannot be understood by anyone. 

    A common assertion, for example, is that we will never understand consciousness from a third person perspective (leaving aside the problematic abstraction for a moment). Very often such theories are rooted in an ontological mind/body dualism, which may or may not be acknowledged. Many Buddhists who are interested in the philosophy of mind, for example, cannot imagine that we will ever understand conscious states through scientific methods. They argue that no amount of research will ever help us understand. So they don't follow research into the mind and don't see any progress in this area. On the other hand, they hold that through mediation we do come to understand conscious states and the nature of them. Many go far beyond this and claim that we will gain knowledge of reality, in the sense of a transcendent ideal reality that underlies the apparent reality that our senses inform us about. In other words, meditation takes us beyond phenomena to noumena

    Another common argument is that scientists don't understand 95% of the world because they don't understand dark matter and dark energy. People take this to mean that scientists don't understand 95% of what goes on here on earth. But this is simply not true. Scale is important, and being ignorant at one scale (the scale that effects galaxies and larger structures) does not mean that we don't understand plate tectonics, the water cycle, or cell metabolism, at least in principle. The popular view of science often seem to point towards a caricature that owes more to the 19th century than the 21st. Criticism of science often goes along with an anti-science orientation and very little education in the sciences. 

    The basic confusion in both cases is mistaking what seem obvious to us, for what must be the case for everyone else, either positively or negatively. 

    The Confusion
    "It's not that one gains insight into reality, but that one stops mistaking one's experience for reality"
    The basic problem here is a confusion between what we know about the world (epistemology) with what the world is (ontology). In short, we mistake experience for reality. And this problem is very widespread amongst intellectuals in many fields.

    The problem can be very subtle. Another illuminating example is the idea that sugar is sweet. We might feel that a statement like "sugar is sweet" is straightforward. Usually, no one is going to argue with this, because the association between sugar and sweetness is so self-evident. But the statement it is false. Sugar is not sweet. Sugar is a stimulus for the receptors on our tongues that register as "sweet". We experience the sensation sweet whenever we encounter molecules that bind with these receptors. But sweet is an experience. It does not exist out in the world, but only in our own conscious states. Sugar is not sweet. Sugar is one of many substances that cause us to experience sweet when they come into contact with the appropriate receptors on our tongue. Equally, there is no abstract quality of sweet-ness, despite the effortless ease with which we can create abstract nouns in English. Sucrose, for example has nothing much in common with aspartame at a chemical level. And yet both stimulate the experience of sweet. Indeed, aspartame is experienced as approximately 200 times as sweet as sucrose, but this does not mean that it contains 200 times more sweetness. There is no sweet-ness. The experience of sweet evolved to alert us to the high calorific value of certain types of foods and the enjoyable qualities of sweet evolved to motivate us to seek out such foods. 

    For Buddhists, the application of this fallacy comes from experiencing altered states of mind in and out of meditation. Meditators may experience altered states of mind that they judge to be more real than other kinds of states, causing them to divide phenomena into more real and less real. And they manage to convince people that this experience of theirs reflects a reality that ordinary mortals cannot see -- a transcendent reality that is obscured from ordinary people. 

    The problem is that an experience is a mental state; and a mental state is just a mental state. No matter how vivid or transformative the experience was, we must be careful when reasoning from private experiences (epistemology) to public reality (ontology) because we usually get this wrong. I've covered this in many essays, including Origin of the Idea of the Soul (11 Nov 2011) and
     Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? (15 Aug 2015), etc.

    Most of us are really quite bad at reasoning on our own. This is because humans suffer from an inordinate number of cognitive biases and easily fall into logical fallacies. There are dozens of each and, without special training and a helpful context, we naturally and almost inevitably fall into irrational patterns of thought. The trouble is that we too often face situations where there is too much information and we cannot decide what is salient; or there is too little information and we want to fill the gaps. 

    Our minds are optimised for survival in low-tech hunter-gatherer situations, not for sophisticated reasoning. The mind helps us make the right hunting and gathering decisions, but in most cases it's just not that good at abstract logic or reasoning. Of course, some individuals and groups are good at it. Those who are good at it have convinced us that it is the most important thing in the world. But, again, this is probably just a cognitive bias on their part. 


    The whole concept of reason and the processes of reasoning are going through a reassessment right now. This is because it has become clear that very few people do well at abstract reasoning. Most of the time, we do not reason, but rely on shortcuts known as cognitive biases. A lot of the time our reasoning is flawed by logical fallacies. Additionally, we are discovering that most mammals and birds are capable of reasoning to some extent. 

    In this essay, I have highlighted a particular problem in which one mistakes experience for reality. Using examples (sunset, visions, sweetness) I showed how such mistakes come about. Unlike others who highlight these errors, I have tried to avoid the implication that humans are thereby stupid. For example, I see the sunset illusion because my senses are telling me that I am definitely at rest, because they tune out sensations that are too small to affect my body. Social conditioning is a powerful shaping force in our lives, and visions are valuable social currency in a religious milieu.

    In terms of our daily lives the sunset illusion or the sweetness illusion hardly matter. It's not like the mistakes cost us anything. Such problems don't figure in natural selection because our lives don't depend on them. We know what we need to know to survive. Although our senses and minds are tuned to survival in pre-civilisation environments, we are often able to co-opt abilities evolved for one purpose to another one. 

    But truth does matter. For example, when one group claims authority and hegemony based on their interpretation of experience, then one way to undermine them is to point out falsehoods and mistakes. When the Roman Church in Europe was shown to be demonstrably wrong about the universe, the greater portion of their power seeped away into the hands of the Lords Temporal, and then into the hands of captains of industry. For ordinary people, this led to more autonomy and better standards of living (on average). Democracy is flawed, but it is better than feudalism backed by authoritarian religion.

    But as Noam Chomsky has said:
    “The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms.”
    In subjecting Buddhism to rational inquiry, I do often elicit incomprehension or outrage. And sometimes it's not masked at all. There are certainly Buddhists on the internet who see me as an enemy of the Dharma, as trying to do harm to Buddhism. As I understand my own motivations, my main concern is to recast buddhism for the future. I think the urge of the early British Buddhists to modernise Buddhism and, particularly, to bring it into line with rationality was a sensible one. However, as our understanding of rationality changes so Buddhism will have to adapt to continue being thought of as rational. But also we have to move beyond taking Buddhism on its own terms and to consider the wider world of knowledge. The laws of nature apply in all cases.

    Whilst Buddhism is largely influenced by people who mistake experience for reality, Buddhism will be hindered in its spread and development. This particular error is one that we have to make conscious and question closely. Just because it makes sense, feels right, and accords with experience doesn't mean that it is true. The sunset illusion makes sense, but is wrong. It feels right to say that sugar is sweet, but it isn't. It accords with experience that meditative mental states are more real than normal waking states. But they are not. The testimony of the wise is demonstrably a product of culture, and varies across time and space.


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