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Merging Sartre and Dennett on Causality

Reading Sartre on the nature of “past” in the spectrum of Universal Time. It reminds me of Dennett’s Darwinian approach to causality and Dennett’s description of our perceptions as being right-fitted for our survival, rather than actual qualia of the object being perceived. Sartre’s description of the role the For-Itself plays in the creation of Universal Time reminds me of Dennett’s description of the brain as a prediction machine and consciousness as an effective meme for harnessing and wiring the brain for predictions. Merging the two we can say the past is the story we tell about the present to make predictions about the future.

Sartre is a Cliff-Hanger and Understanding Sartre through Dennett

Being and NothingnessDennett Cover

I have now read and re-read the first 140 pages of Being and Nothingness. It is a cliff-hanger. Besides the mechanics of consciousness, which seem to parallel Dennett’s (albeit 50 years earlier and far less accessible), Sartre paints the picture of human reality bound to incompleteness, to lack and bad faith and anguish.  I’m on the edge of my seat to see what he does with a humanity whose reality is thus described.

It may raise a few eyebrows to compare Dennett and Sartre but both seem to describe the same mechanics of consciousness.

1. We exist.

2. We distinguish between ourselves and the rest of existence.

For Dennett this is the distinction between me/inside and others/outside. For Sartre it is the distinction between the in-itself and the for-itself.

3. We obtain information from the world and this information is uniquely human.

For Dennett this is epistemic hunger driven by evolutionary fitness. It shapes the seemingly unique way we experience the world, the information we receive from the world. For Sartre this is definitional to the for-itself driven by lack. The for-itself continually obtains information from the world, nihilating the in-itself being of the world, contextualizing the world into specific information for us/for human reality. It explains the transphenomenality of our experience in the world. That is, how and why we get information from the world, why we can’t experience the world as it truly exists. But rather, we can continually ask questions of the world around us and continually learn more.

The more which there is to learn comes from human reality. It is not a feature of the world itself. For Dennett, this feature of human reality comes from epistemic hunger, an evolutionarily successful trait. For Sartre, it is an existentially accurate description.

For Dennett, the specific ways in which we experience the world are a product of memetic evolution. Successful memes survive and multiply. Thus we experience thirst as an awareness of the need to find and drink water, for example. Sartre describes the awareness of a desire to drink water when thirsty as a function of human reality. It is not inherent in our bodies nor in thirst itself. But he does not describe the mechanism by which that human reality is realized as the specific desire to drink water.

4. Human reality causes consciousness to appear.

For Dennett, the appearance of consciousness is an evolutionarily successful meme for obtain information, interacting with the world and for the human organism to survive.

For Sartre, consciousness is a function of the in-itself falling into the for-itself. What it seems Sartre means by this is that consciousness appears as we ask questions of ourselves and world. Consciousness comes from the nothingness human reality brings to the world. This nothingness creates the possibility of us perceiving an object as red or blue, for example. The object is what it is. The world is what it is. It exists. The nothingness we bring to the world creates the uncertainty around whether an object is red or blue. We cause nothingness to be part of the world and we then attempt to fill it by obtaining information, by answering the question.

It seems the concept of memes is more helpful/less ambiguous in explaining the appearance of consciousness. But the concept didn’t exists in Sartre’s day. Even if he did, I wonder if he would have used it. He seems to have a specific conception of our being (I’m working hard to avoid the cliche “of the human condition”) which he wants to describe.

5.  Consciousness is an internal conversation which we are occasionally aware of. It is not a thing which exists. It is not who we are.

For Dennett, there is no single thing which is consciousness. There is no Cartesian theater where consciousness takes place. There are conversations and perceptions which become famous in the brain for a period of time (fame in the brain). They rise to the surface and we become aware of them in a heterophenomenological manner. But there is no single thread of a “me” which is my consciousness nor which is me.

For Sartre, the being of consciousness is the consciousness of being. Consciousness arises when we ask questions, when we are aware we are asking the questions and aware we are answering them. It arises from existence and the way human reality is continually formed. It is not independent of the condition of our existence and it is not a thing in itself. It comes from the pre-reflective cogito. I only think because I am. I am only aware that I think because of how I am (i.e. that I bring nothingness to the world). I am, as a being, well before I think. [This can get painfully fun]. I am only conscious when I have knowledge of my consciousness, of asking and answering about myself or the world.

Sartre, so far, does not seem to explicitly address whether there is one stream or multiple conversations which appear as consciousness. I imagine he would be lean toward a single, consistent thread so that his method of introspection and phenomenology could provide a consistent platform for exposition. His rebuttal of Freud also suggests he would lean toward a single thread.

For Dennett, the conversations are tied to evolutionary survival. Sartre has no such imperative driving his exposition. Sartre does not try to explain consciousness. He probes it and describes it. There may be an over arching theme to his exposition. His description of human being seems to hint that there is, that there is something to be said about the way we experience our consciousness. He doesn’t seem to think about it as a mechanism of our survival as a species. Though I’m looking forward to finding out. Perhaps he does, but in a very different way.


Tying it to AI, Sartre, like Dennett, seems to support the proposition that human reality creates/shapes the specific information we obtain from the world. Thus, an artificial consciousness would have to have its own reality and its own information. Otherwise, it would simply be a human automaton. Not a small feat, but different than an artificial consciousness. As discussed previously, communication between us and an artificial consciousness would likely present an interesting challenge and area of research.

Picking the Right Topics

As project managers it is helpful to focus conversations on the right topics. Talking about the right topics with the right people at the right time increases our value in the eyes of the team members or stakeholders with whom we communicate. Further, it helps strengthen bonds with the people we talk to, which comes in handy during the ups and downs of a project lifecycle.

On the other side of the coin, talking about the wrong topics wastes time, decreases our perceived value and can negatively impact relationships with critical team members or stakeholders –magnifying the impact of risks which surface over the lifecycle of a project.

Selecting the right topic for every conversation is a complex decision. There are many factors which go into selecting the right topic to discuss. It entails matching content, phrasing/syntax, audience and timing, each of which has multiple dimensions to it. In this post, we’ll discuss the match between content and audience using a particular dimension –their hierarchical order.

Topics, like scope, can be thought of as existing at different hierarchical levels. Topics can be discussed in a broad, general way or in excruciating detail.

For example, a new inventory management system can be discussed at a general level such as its role in achieving a long term, corporate strategic goals. Let’s say the goal is to deleverage the balance sheet by increasing cash on hand. This topic can be decomposed into a list of business benefits that contribute to achieving that goal, such as reducing days in inventory. It can be further decomposed into high level features which a system could have to deliver that business benefit, such as order management. The topic can be reduced even further down to the specific requirements of each feature such as the way the order management feature integrates with particular point of sales systems.

This hierarchy and decomposition can be represented using a Work Breakdown Structure type representation. Let’s call it the Topic Breakdown Structure (TBS).

Here is a generic model of the above example.

TBS Topic Name
1 Strategic Goals
1.1 Business Benefits
1.1.1      Features          System Requirements


Here is that same model filled in with the specifics of the example discussed.

TBS Topic Name
1 Deleverage Balance Sheet by Increasing Cash
1.1    Reduce Days in Inventory
1.1.1      Improved Order Management          Integration with Particular Point of Sales Systems


Understanding the TBS level of a particular topic becomes valuable when matching content to audience. Different audiences are interested in different TBS levels of a topic.

One can imagine a senior executive is likely far more interested in discussing how to achieve corporate goals than the benefits of as specific software feature. When speaking to a senior executive in the example above you’re likely better off talking about how to deleverage the corporation’s balance sheet than how the order management feature of a piece of software could integrate with a particular point of sales system.

On the other hand, developers working on implementing the order management features are likely much more interested in understanding how it should integrate with particular point of sales systems than discussing the corporation’s balance sheet.

We can represent this audience hierarchy using an Organizational Breakdown Structure.

OBS Organizational Title
1 Senior Executive -SVP Operations
1.1    VP Operations
1.1.1      Software Development Manager          Development Team Members


We can cross-reference the TBS and the OBS to help guide which topics to discuss and with whom.

Picking the Right Topics

Matching the topic level with the audience can determine whether your conversation is considered valuable or a waste of time. Thinking about the hierarchical dimension to matching topics and audience can help us pick out the right topics for the right people and improve our communication. This can lead to better project management and better project performance.

Thinking of the hierarchical dimension of the topic/audience match has an added benefit for how we all spend our time. It can help guide whether you’re involved in conversations that are truly worth your time or whether they are better suited for someone at a different level of the organization.

Daniel Dennett, AI Experiments of Consciousness and God

Dennett CoverEx Machina


When we break the quantum state we obtain information which falls into non-quantum causality. Time and distance matter. Particles are only in one place at a time. Hume’s unexplainable but useful causality appears. Our consciousness pulls together a practical world from the information around it. When consciousness breaks the quantum state, why do we obtain the information which we do?

Perhaps this is entirely a function of the specific hardware which is our brain? Reading Descartes it is easy to be enthralled with a mystery of consciousness, theorize about alternate mental states and imagine different forms of consciousness which can obtain different information from the quantum world. Reading Dennett, we can move beyond enthralled to a discussions which seems more practical and more in line with our contemporary world. Instead of imagining different forms of consciousness, we can think about the hardware, input/output and communication necessary to make up a consciousness which showed us different facets of the quantum world or helped us better understand how we can interact with the world. A discussion in this arena may still seem far-fetched and overly conceptual. But a Dennett based discussion seems to provide a language and building blocks to advance the discussion and potentially enable the design of empirical experiments. At the least, it puts thought experiments in a more modern context.

We can think about a potentially useful set of experiments in the area of artificial intelligence. The current AI’s we’re building are automatons, facsimiles of ourselves and functions we perform. While impressive, I believe we can do more and doing so would provide a revolutionary leap in our tool set for understanding the world. What follows is an extended probing around designing AI experiments for consciousness, with a slight side trip into a discussion on the conditions necessary for a god-like brain to exist.

What if we expanded the aims for AI to include the creation of new forms of consciousness? For example, create a consciousness which has no need to extract information from the world. We can call this a Contented Organism. Why contented? Well, to follow Dennett, consciousness evolves for fitness of the species. To follow our analysis of Descartes and Hume, our conception of intelligence is useful and we break the quantum state in ways that are useful. Therefore, we can suppose an organism that has no need to extract information from the world or that has no need for what we’d call a useful intelligence nor need to usefully break the quantum state must indeed be contented. We can suppose it is ambivalent with respect to its state of being, whether alive or dead, happy or sad, threatened or safe.

Or perhaps it must be, by definition, completely unaware of its state of being, receiving input only. If it were aware it was an observer would that reduce the amount and type of input it received? Or does that reduction come when it is aware of what it is observing, or when it tries to communicate what it observes using a language, like ours, which supposes a subject and object, collapsing and categorizing the world around to facilitate communication, sharing with another?

I’d like to imaging the possibility of a Contented Organism taking in a full spectrum of input from the quantum word around without limit yet, somehow, aware usefully are Is this possible? Or, would the need to communicate with this consciousness necessitate some form of information extraction? Could we create a language with which to communicate with such a consciousness allowing it to remain with its perceptions and us to understand those perceptions?

What if it had no need to be understood or share, would its speech action or artifacts, its heterophenomenological output, come across as nonsense? Or perhaps it would come across as the ramblings of an input-drunk mystic?

Speaking of mystics, it seems natural, and devilishly fun given Dennett’s atheism, to explore the conditions necessary for the existence of a god-like brain. (Like Dennett addressing philosophical zombies on page 95 this is being written with a smile on my face.)

Dennett begins Consciousness Explained with a prelude that contains a convincing argument for the possibility of relatively simple processes able to create the narrative experience of consciousness. Using a thought experiment about dreams he describes how simple rules can produce elaborate narratives of external experiences that actually never happened. We have used this type of approach, along with his subsequent description of consciousness, in formulating the questions which bound the necessary conditions for a Contented Organism to exist. At first blush it seems trivial to use the same approach to describe the necessary conditions for the existence of a being which has awareness aspects generally ascribed to the Western conception of god. By awareness aspects I mean traits such as being all knowing, self-aware and even being the essence of all existence it knows, yet not having easily understandable direct communication with humans. We can use Dennett’s approach and, subsequent description of consciousness, to figure out how such a being and relevant set of conditions can exist. For Dennett, the being and set of conditions in his prelude is how a brain living in a vat can be fooled into thinking it lives in the world, without having an incredible amount of computer hardware generating all possible inputs. This is solved by showing how a relatively small amount of hardware with a relatively simple set of rules can generate all input necessary to fool a brain in a vat.

Building off the Contented Organism can we imagine hardware, a type of brain, that is aware of everything, at all times? This requires a little further imagination to conceive evolutionary circumstances that somewhere in the universe, at some time, there’s a brain that doesn’t need worry about limiting input, making survival decisions, constructing an internal narrative or creating heterophenomenological output understandable to human beings (this, of all the conditions, seems the least difficult –unless there is something universally constraining about the way we understand language). Can we conceive of hardware with these properties and that has no conflict between observing, being an observer, being aware of being an observer and being aware of the observations?

Communication Kanban for More Effective Communication and Better Management

On projects and in our daily life, we are faced with the decisions of when to communicate to a specific person and how much to communicate to them. We can apply the concept of a Kanban board to help approach these decisions, communicate more effectively and be better project managers.

A Kanban board describes the big-bucket, discrete steps work goes through until it is done. For example, a software development project may have steps like To-Do, In Progress, Testing, Done. Work is written on a note card. The work can be specific stories in Agile or work packages in Waterfall. The work is then moved through the discrete steps on the board as it progresses through various stages towards completion. The work can move forward and backward. For example, it can fail Testing and be sent back to In Progress. But the work can never be in two stages at the same time. The process is serial.

At any point in time we can look at a Kanban board and see how much work is in each bucket. We can see how much there is still to do, how much is actively being worked on, how much is being tested and how much is done. As a result, a Kanban board provides a quick, visual representation of whether work is flowing through the process or whether there are bottlenecks. We can also see exactly where the bottlenecks are in a process. They are at whichever bucket has the most cards in it. When cards pile up in a bucket it means the people working that step are backed-up. Maybe the equipment they use is broken or maybe a particular piece of work is taking longer than anticipated. They may not have the training necessary to work on that card or there may not be enough people or resources to work on the amount of work being pushed to that bucket.

There are a number of reasons cards can pile up. But once cards pile up, each additional card only adds to the bottleneck. What’s more, the larger the pile up, the less likely it is to clear up. Each card reduces the speed at which any single card can be processed in that bucket. It reduces the overall efficiency and effectiveness of that step in the process. Quality goes down and throughput is reduced. Cards are likely to get dropped, pushed aside for higher priority cards, or forgotten – because the work doesn’t stop.

We can use the concept of a Kanban board to think about when to communicate to someone and how much to communicate to them. Before applying the concept, let’s define these decisions a bit further.

The decision “when to communicate” is straightforward. It means what point in time is the best time to communicate to this person in order for the communication to be effective.

The decision “how much to communicate” means how many pieces of information should we convey in any communication in order for the communication to be effective. For example, let’s say I have several pieces of information to convey, such as a project is delayed, two people are taking vacation next month and that the VPN is being flaky. I can choose to convey all that information at once. Alternatively, I can choose to convey only one piece of information now, wait a day, convey another two pieces, wait a day and, if the information is relevant, convey the final piece of information then. It may very well be that that final piece of information is no longer relevant and therefore we can drop it, reducing the total amount of information needed to be conveyed. For example, one of the people may have changed their vacation plans and is no longer taking vacation next month or the VPN may have become more stable.

(As a side note, we make decisions on how much to communicate when designing presentations or writing sentences. We can choose to try to communicate a lot of information on one slide of a presentation or in one sentence. Or, we can limit how much we communicate with each slide or sentence.)

The choices we make on when to communicate and how much information to convey impact the effectiveness of our communication.

Applying the concept of a Kanban board we can think of each person has having a distinct internal process through which communication flows. For example, in Reinventing Communication I leverage OODA to describe the process through which communication flows internally and translates into individual behavior. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Using an OODA model, communication is received by an individual, processed, a decision made in relation to that information and then the individual takes an action. That is, they choose to behave in a particular way.

(As an aside, OODA nicely links together information and action. But we can certainly use other models to describe the internal flow and maintain the value of applying the Kanban board concept to helping us decide when and how much to communicate.)

We can conceptually map the steps of OODA onto a Kanban board with each step or bucket being one of the four steps of the OODA model. One column for Observe, another for Orient, another for Decide and the final column for Act. Now, unlike a visualized Kanban board, it is quite difficult to have 100% visibility into the flow of information inside any individual. However, we can watch for signs from an individual of how much information they are ready to receive. For example, are they open to conversations or cutting off conversations? Is there body language open and attentive or closed off and eager to move onto something else?

We can also keep a watchful eye on the environment in which someone operates to get a sense of how much information they have in process and how many decisions they are facing at any point in time. For example, you may have sat in three meetings with someone or have been cc’d on emails to them and know they’ve received a ton of information that impacts their projects. They are processing a lot of information and have several decisions to make and potential actions to take.

We can use this awareness to decide when is a good time to communicate with them and about what. It may make sense to wait for them to finish processing most of what they’ve already received before adding another piece of information, another card, as it were, to their processing queue. Being aware of each person’s internal Kanban board can help us decide when to communicate and how much to communicate at any point in time. Remember, effective communication is based on the receiver, on the person we are trying to communicate to, and not on when it is convenient for us to communicate.

Given that any process has a limited number of cards it can effectively cycle through at any point in time (i.e. a limited amount of information, when talking about communication) only a limited amount of information can be conveyed to a person at any given point in time to be effectively processed. Providing too much information leads to a bottleneck. There is information overload, reduced effectiveness of each next piece of information and a higher likelihood that any particular piece of information will dropped, pushed aside or processed incorrectly – resulting in an undesired decision or an undesired behavior.

We can further extend the application of the Kanban concept by introducing the idea of Work In Progress or WIP. WIP is the number of cards in process and not complete. We can keep tabs of how much WIP a particular process can hold at any point in time and find the optimal number of cards for that process. We can do the same for each person with whom we communicate. We can pay attention to the people with whom we communicate and develop of sense of their individual throughput, their optimal WIP, as it were. We can be aware of how much communication WIP they can process and how much they currently have moving through the process. This can help us decide when to communicate with each person and how much information to convey at any point in time. Doing so will make us better communicators and, at the end of the day, have more successful projects.

Looking at it from the other side, we are not only senders of information but also receive information throughout the day. Our minds automatically control the amount of communication WIP we are working on at any point in time. But we can increase our effectiveness as managers by consciously managing our internal WIP. We can move off autopilot and consciously and intentionally decide which pieces of information to deal with, what decisions to make and what actions to take. Further, we can free up capacity in our internal process by delegating tasks and delegating decisions, honestly leaving a decision up to someone else and not thinking about it. These are often hallmarks of the most effective managers. They are excellent at delegating and have other people they can lean on for decisions. These factors give managers the capacity to focus on the right decisions, properly process the available information and take appropriate actions. Managing our own internal communication WIP, and finding ways to increasing our throughput, can make us more effective managers.

Information, Dreams and Leaving Descartes’ Meditations

It seems a distraction to argue we create casual relationships in reality due to some interaction between consciousness or the mind and the quantum world. I find the applied implications unproductive in that there will always be someone who is not in-line with the desired state of consciousness and can use that to their advantage. As the joke goes, your AI is no match for my baseball bat. Further, attempts to change other people’s consciousness remove individual freedom and tend to empower tyrants. Tests and experimental research into changing consciousness seem to carry grave potential harm to those involved, coming from psychological or chemical experimentation.

Avoiding the first hypothesis -that consciousness creates causal reality, we’ll focus on the second -that there is something about the interaction between the information we extract from the quantum world and our minds which leads to a causal reality. From what we know so far of the quantum world, there is an interaction between reality, as it were, and observation by a consciousness. Quantum experiments show the effect of observation on subsequent observations and measurements of physical experiments. The cat is neither dead nor alive until we observe and make a conscious determination. Particles create an interference pattern, traveling through both, one and neither of two slits, until they are observed. Information in the future effects the past once the future measurement is taken.

One characteristic of the information we receive when the quantum state is broken is that it seems to be readily usable. With it, we can create causal theories that accurately predict future states of reality. The theories provide a basis for incredible feats of engineering. Engineering increases crop yields. Engineering sends people into space and back. Engineering produces lifesaving medicine. Engineering produces machines we use to probe deeper into the world to describe new theories enabling further feats of technological accomplishment. Valuing these types of accomplishments we can say the information is usable and useful.

Descartes’ Sixth Meditation describes different states of the human mind. He distinguishes between being awake and dreaming. Memory serves as a distinguishing factor between being awake and dreaming. While awake we connect perceptions with each other and with other event in our lives which happen while we are awake. Like Hume, Descartes notes that this is a habit. But he says this habit and connections does not occur while we dream. That is, our dreams don’t follow the same causal chains we follow while awake. He goes so far as to say that were reality to behave like a dream with say a person suddenly appearing and disappearing, he would believe the person was a product of his mind rather than truly existing in the external world.

I’d propose that memory is not unique to being awake. We certainly seem to be able to have the sensation of memory in a dream. We can feel as if something in our dream has happened before and that one event can lead to another. We can participate in a dream and feel impending joy or fear because of some understanding of the sequence of events and perceptions going on in the dream.

I’d suggest the difference is that our perceptions in a dream follow different causal paths than our perceptions when awake. The information we receive is not usable in the same way as the information we receive from our perceptions while awake. It is difficult to predict future states of what we’ll perceive in a dream. We’d likely find it hard to build a table with theories born from a dream. The habits of non-quantum, causal physics which we find while awake don’t seem to apply.

However, quantum realities seem quite at home in a dream. A person can exist and not exist at the same time. A ball can pass through a window and a door at the same time. We can perceive an event occurring one way than perceive it completely differently a few seconds later, in the future. Perhaps our mind is continually extracting both quantum and non-quantum information? Yet it is useful to retain and work with non-quantum causality through the regular course of our day. All the while waiting until we’re asleep to process the quantum world.

This suggests an imperative of utility of information while awake and going about the course of our day. I’m left with many questions.

Is there something about our world that necessitates extracting useful information? Will the nature of the information we extract change through some sort of extension transference loop when we harness quantum states in our tools such as quantum computing? Or, as seems to be the case so far, does the information need to fit into non-quantum causality to become useful? If there is something unique about the interaction between our minds and the information we extract, can we create a truly independent AI if we are locked into non-quantum causality, one which breaks the quantum state through its perceptions and extracts information with different characteristics? Or, as seems to be the case so far, are we pursuing AI’s that abide by the same non-quantum causality as us? Could we recognize an AI which did otherwise?

Descartes relies on useful conceptions to make his arguments and on conceptions which preclude certain alternatives. His conception of the Divine is useful for his argument about God’s existence, and ours. His conception of the intellect is useful for his arguments on our existence, God’s existence, existence of the external world and in how we come to truth. We haven’t dwelt on this but have mentioned the power of the natural light of intellect which paves the way to truth. Along similar lines, he distinguishes between conceiving and imagining. Whereby, conceiving holds truth and imagination, while powerful, is ultimately fancy. The function of a mental state determines if what it holds is true. Conceiving can hold truth. Imaging cannot.

Descartes speaks of the necessities of the world in the Meditations. He mentions them earlier but closes the Sixth Meditation remarking that “the necessities of action often oblige us to make a decision before we have had the leisure to examine things so carefully…” The Meditations are a break from the necessities of the world, a vacation, an experiment where Descartes cloisters himself and explores his inner terrain. He asks questions that he finds interesting. He follows paths he believe are truthful. I find finishing The Meditations leaves me with a feeling described by admirers of Thoreau finishing Walden. We’ve joined a powerful observer on a journey outside of the realm of the usual. We’ve participated in an experiment which inspires us to ask our own questions and apply the voyager’s curiosity and passion to those questions. We’ve seen in it and taken from it what we find appealing and likely, useful.

Echoing the practical discussion in this post, I’ve found The Meditations useful for exploring ways to think about artificial intelligence, mental states and how we process information in a quantum world – particularly in light of Hume’s Problem of Induction, as well as probing the political and social implications of various patterns of argument. Descartes Meditations leave me with a contagious nostalgia for its reasoning and arguments.

Hume, Induction Creating Reality and the Value of Descartes’ Limited Conception of the Divine

Hume’s induction problem is not a problem in the quantum world. Linear causality seems to exist only because we observe the chain of events. While it is true we can’t infer causality from one billiard ball hitting another, we may be able to infer causality from the act of observing one billiard ball hitting the other. That is, the causality exists by us observing the event, the interaction of one ball and the other.

Induction itself does not make logical sense as a basis for ascertaining universal laws. Induction is not a valid logical chain. However, the method of induction itself, based on observation, may actually create the universal laws. Or, on a weaker claim, it may form reality into a shape by which we can extract usable information that forms the basis of universal laws. Observation increases the probability amplitude of reality taking a shape by which we can use the information from reality.

Descartes, in the Fifth Meditation, provides another proof of God using a parallel to geometric shapes and the associated mathematical properties of those shapes. Take, for example, a triangle. The properties of a triangle, such as all angles summing to 180 degrees (the sum of two right angles) and that larger angles are opposite the longest side, are inherent in the triangle. They are true regardless of whether the triangle exists in his mind or in reality. God’s existence, he argues, is inherent in God. He can conceive of God existing as clearly as he conceives of the triangle’s properties being a definitional part of the triangle.

He mentions he can image a winged horse. However, existence is not inherent in a winged horse. The fact he can image a winged horse does not prove that it exists. Thus his argument falls back to knowing the existence of God is true because of the clear light of the fact that existence is inherent in the idea of God himself. It is firmly rooted in his conception of God.

This parallels the idea of induction as producing usable information. We can say Descartes saw similarity between the nature of information about a triangle and the nature of information about God. In a proof of God he is looking for information that is similar to information he can draw about a triangle. While this seems a vast reduction of what God is, it is useful for Descartes. By reducing the information required for a proof of God (metaphorically, breaking the quantum state, an unknowable state of what God is, as it were) he makes it easier to extract what he sees as useful information about God. This may explain his conception of the Divine. It seems smaller than what a more complex and nuanced conception could be. But for Descartes there is value in have a smaller and more tightly defined conception of the Divine. It allows him to create seemingly rational proofs for what could otherwise be an entity not knowable through reason or logic.

Dancing with Descartes’ Conception of the Divine

We learn more about Descartes’ conception of the divine in the Fourth Meditation. He probes the source of errors. He finds that error comes from exercising judgement where one does not have complete knowledge. He resolves to avoid error or sin by withholding judgement until he has complete knowledge about the subject under consideration.

He states we have unlimited free will and that this is the mark of God on us. This is how we are made in his image, as it were. We have unbridled free will, the same as God. He states that we have complete and true knowledge of certain subjects. However, we are finite beings and do not have true knowledge of everything. Only God knows everything. It is possible to have complete and true knowledge of subjects because our ability to know comes from God. Further, the knowledge we have is true because God is not a deceiver. Error and sin cannot come from mistakes in knowledge, since God is not a deceiver. Instead, error and sin come from making judgements in circumstances where we do not yet have complete and true knowledge of the subject.

This paints a conception of the Divine uninvolved in the day to day life of created beings. Were God involved in day to day life he would determine the choices confronting his creations. Regardless of Descartes resolve to withhold judgement God would determine when choices had to be made and the subject of those choices. It is quite conceivable that one as to make choices regarding subjects of which one does not have complete and true knowledge. This means that God is creating the circumstances which can lead to error or sin.

Clearly, in Descartes conception, God is benevolent and would not intentionally put someone into a situation which can lead to sin. This leaves us with a few explanations for those circumstances where one needs to make a choice without having complete and true knowledge. One, the need to make a choice is an illusion. We don’t really need to make a choice at that time. Two, the choice itself is an illusion. It exists only because we don’t have true knowledge of the subject. Descartes speaks to this explanation when describing how the more he knows about something the less of a choice there is for alternatives which are not good. By definition then, since we have a choice we don’t have true knowledge about the subject. Three, we do have true knowledge about subject but somehow don’t know it.

It is easy to conceive of circumstances where one actually has to make a choice and where one really does not have complete and true knowledge. The circumstances arise constantly in commerce, medicine, IT, war and other commons situations of human life. Neither one nor two seem plausible. Three may be plausible and fits in well with Popper’s criticism of Descartes, in that truth and freedom sin are reserved for a special class of people with true knowledge. However, it isn’t very satisfying and more can be learned about Descartes conception of the divine by digging deeper. Specifically, we can dig into his definition of error or sin.

It seems we can resolve this dilemma by postulating two different realms of error. One is an error of judgement in a mismatch of knowledge and decision. Thus, one may know something to be true and choose the opposite. Let’s call that choice falsehood. Or one may know one doesn’t have knowledge of something, make a choice and justify the choice by saying it was done out of knowledge. Let’s call that choice cowardice.

Choice falsehood seems to fit Descartes conception of the divine and to exist in the fourth meditation. In the fourth meditation he discusses things which are false as being distant from God. Choice cowardice may be what Descartes hopes to avoid in resolving to withhold judgement on subjects of which he does not have complete and true knowledge. This creates a class of choices of which one can be blameless for the outcome since one had no opportunity not the make the choice and may have made the wrong choice due to lack of knowledge. The outcome of these choices has consequences only to the extent one claims the choice was made with knowledge of what would happen.

Adopting this approach, Descartes avoids believing in an uninvolved God or a God who knowingly puts his creations in situations where they can sin. Humility remains a virtue. In fact, we can say choice humility stands in opposition to choice cowardice. We can define choice humility as making a choice without having complete and true knowledge and recognizing one cannot appeal to one’s knowledge to justify the choice. This seems in line with Descartes description of facts and knowledge. This also places the responsibility for falsehood, cowardice or humility (a virtue) on each individual. Virtue is attainable by all and not just those with true knowledge. It makes a virtue of recognizing that we may not have true knowledge. It also makes a virtue of making choices we know to be right. Though, how we determine what is right remains unanswered. Perhaps more menacingly, choice humility creates a loophole for malice. Those intent on doing harm could choose falsehood and quite easily claim humility. The only way to truly know seems to rely on the natural light. We are then left with another example of the potential for abuse, within Descartes’ arguments, of those with a different conception of the divine.

Descartes, Quantum Causality and Conceptions of the Divine

Descartes’ proof of God, in the Third Mediation, relies on a Newtonian concept of causality. All information about the effect, in this case Descartes’ conception of God, comes from the cause, an existent God. He draws a straight line, in one direction, from his conception of God to the prime cause, God. Over the last few years experiments in quantum causality seem to show that information about the current state of a particle can come from both the past and the future. Lines of causality, particularly related to information or knowledge of something, can be bi-directional, moving both backward, to a prime mover, and forward, to some future state. This may affect his argument.

The quantum experiments could weaken his argument. Though, they could strengthen his arguments or, at least, still his pattern of argument. Many theologies contain an inevitable future redemption. I don’t know Descartes’ thoughts on a future redemption. He does believe his own knowledge grows over time. He also believes complete knowledge is one of God’s traits. Therefore Descartes’ own increase in knowledge over time is part of the proof of God’s existence. This is different than believing in a future redemption. But let’s assume he believes in the inevitable perfection of the world and that this is an actual trait or manifestation of the Divine.

The future redemption, then, becomes a piece of knowledge which exists in the future which contributes to the current state of his conception of God. As Descartes may put it “It is certain the world will be redeemed and more perfect in the future. Looking around I see this state does not exist currently. But we know it exists in the future. There is no way I could extract that conception from the world around me [I am skipping the bulky terms of formal versus objective realities] since it does not exist. Yet the natural light of my intellect shows that it is inevitable and exists, albeit in the future. It therefore becomes abundantly clear that a God must exist, which is separate from and outside of my own existence, for whom the future redemption exists. Were we to say that this concept of redemption comes merely from extrapolating that my own knowledge of the world grows more perfect every day, this too would prove God’s existence. For I, being finite, cannot conceive of an end to this perfection of knowledge, whereas the future redemption contains a world awash in the knowledge of God and more so, the world itself would be perfected to a state inconceivable to my finite mind.

I believe the quantum experiments would strengthen Descartes arguments. It strikes me that Descartes has a very personal conception of God and would find ways to make that conception fit the fact patterns of science. One thought experiment that leads to me to conclude that he has a personal conception of God is based on Descartes’ thought experiment on his current state of existence. Descartes argues that in order for him to exist currently something must be giving him existence. Having been born is not enough. Something must explain how he exists right now as a thinking entity. Since he has no knowledge of how he exists right now as a thinking entity, yet he is sure he exists right now as a thinking entity, there must be something which has that knowledge. That is God. Further, God is the source of that existence. God is both the knower of the knowledge of Descartes existence as a thinking being at this moment and the source of that existence.

The argument stems from Descartes inability to explain how he knows, with the clarity of the natural light, that he exists right now as a thinking entity. For Descartes, clarity of knowing is the highest ideal. He places intellect above all. God is the ultimate intellect.

He also uses his conception of God, as a singular intellect, to argue for monotheism. Descartes argues that because he, Descartes, has a single intellect, God is singular and not a pantheon of gods. There is no need for a pantheon on gods. This argument works whether the sufficiency of a singular intellect comes from a logical argument i.e. one single, perfect and infinite intellect is logically all that’s needed. Or, it also works, if the argument reflects an idea that perfection is unity in intellect (something which he seems to share with the stoics) i.e. that perfection for Descartes means that everything can be explained and encompassed by the natural light, by the single guiding principle of intellect.

The two arguments are one intellect is all that is needed and one intellect is perfection.

For Descartes, emotions are given far less reality than intellect. (In this way, he seems to share much in common with Epictetus’ stoics.) This leads to my thought experiment. I wonder how Descartes proof of God would change if he were a hero from a Greek epic, say the Iliad or the Odyssey? The characters in these epics put a high premium on emotions. Emotions have a greater reality than even appearances. Gods morph into humans. Human actions reflect the whims of gods. Divine and semi divine creatures threaten the fulfillment of human intent. The world is full of seemingly random, emotional events which interfere with the best laid, intellect driven plans of people. In fact cunning, often thought of has cleverness or intelligence, in Odysseus, is defined as the ability to deceive. Deception and manipulation rule to roost. Intellect is an ineffective tool in the world of Greek epics.

If Descartes were a Greek hero, with emotion above all, would he conceive of God as the source of all emotion, the ultimate holder of all emotions? Would he want to have one god hold all these emotions?

It seems conceivable he could look at his own emotions and want to lay claim to having some of them inside himself and others as coming from outside himself. Recognizing the Greek heroes valued different emotions than we do now, I’m going to use those emotions we seem to value in this example. So, for example, Descartes as Greek hero (Descarteus?) may be proud to say he has kindness and love inside him. But, when he hurts someone he may claim that comes from outside himself. Could he abide by the inconsistency of having some emotions inside him and some outside himself? Looking at his emotions and seeing how ephemeral they are and how they can pass over him as though from an outside source, he may very well conclude they all come from outside himself. He may also be unable to feel how one emotion can so easily pass and become another emotion and conclude they are influenced by sources outside himself. Would he want or hold a unity of emotions as supreme? It seems easy to conceive Descarteus developing arguments for the existence of a pantheon of gods, each specializing in one emotion or another, slipping effortlessly into and out of our world, influencing us without our knowledge and arguing amongst themselves leaving us clueless as to the course emotions or actions may take.

[In the above example I prefer the phrase “unable to feel” rather than “unable to understand” to keep intellect well out of this. Though, the argument works even if you allow intellect to come in through this keyhole because his goal would not be to understand thought but to understand emotion. In fact, we do see this resulting in a pantheon of sources, albeit a pantheon inside oneself, when Freud turns intellect to emotions and asks how we understand our emotions. I also prefer “clueless,” instead of “leaving us in the dark” to avoid the often judgement laden contradistinction between dark as bad and light as good, as in Descartes’ “natural light.”]

Descarteus, using the same patterns as Descartes, may come to a very different set of conclusions.

This leads us back to the idea that Descartes has a specific, personal conception of God behind his arguments. It dovetails with the beginning of this post, where we discussed how he could and, I argue, likely would, fold new fact patterns into his arguments to advance his conception of God. His pattern of argument is flexible and his personal theology likely contains all elements to supply his arguments, with sufficient mental gymnastics, with material to support those arguments. All these can be rallied to support his personal conception of God.

Before stepping away from this post I’d like to share a tangential impression of the Third Meditation. This impression is extraneous to the text, though the letter of dedication to the Sacred Faculty of Theology in Paris, included in some editions of the Meditations, is somewhere there in the impression, and it by no means is meant to imply that Descartes fostered religious orthodoxy.

I sometimes read the Third Meditation and can see its pattern of argumentation used to foster religious orthodoxy and to close the door on further discussions about Divinity. In many cases the argument collapses to “as all true believers know… [reflecting Descartes personal conception of God]” and therefore “if you do not reach the same conclusion you must not be a true believer.”

We can have different personal conceptions of God. For example, it seems conceivable that God contain all intellect and all emotions. Descartes talks about divine emotions. He mentions God as good and beneficent. But his use of these terms seems far removed from our very human emotions. They seem to beg for the intellectual study of morals and ethics, rather than speaking directly to our often capricious emotions. The way Descartes talks about God seems to leave no room for emotions like anger and doing harm (though these are mentioned as describing God in the King James Bible) and it sees manifestations like deception and cunning as antithetical to God. (In fact, much of this first part of the meditations dwells on how God cannot be a deceiver.) We’ve talked about apply his pattern of argumentation to accommodate new fact patterns, the quantum experiments, and an entirely opposite conception of divinity, one based on emotions. In both cases, his pattern of argumentation can be applied and stands strong. In fact, it seems to be a solid pattern of argument for explaining the Greek pantheon and Freud’s theories. But I wonder if the pattern of argument would stand or change if he had conceived of God as being both the source of intellect and as being the source, in some sense, of our very human emotions?

I suspect the arguments may then be less cut and dry, less easily grasped by the mind alone, but perhaps gentler on those who have or want to explore different conceptions of the Divine.

Doubt as the Threshold of Artificial Intelligence

Descartes Sutcliffe

In his Third Meditation Descartes distinguishes between knowledge which comes from images and that which comes from himself. Images are created by things outside himself. The sun creates an impression. In fact, it creates several different impressions. One is of a relatively small object seen from the perspective of a person on earth looking at the sun. The other is of an enormous object seen from perspective of someone on earth with an understanding of astronomy. Same sun. Different images. Different knowledge.

Internal knowledge is a singular knowledge, exclusive of other alternatives. The same source creates only one knowledge.  Here the source is internal, it is the act of knowing and being aware that one is knowing. It is singular in that it allows for only fact. Either he exists or he does not. The proof for self-existence comes from being able to doubt that one exists, to doubt what one knows but nonetheless be aware that one is knowing. In this way Descartes is certain he exists, because he can doubt.

Deep Learning is at the forefront of machine learning and artificial intelligence. It is based on taking images or other impressions of the external world and training recurrent networks of formulas. As Descartes points out, the external world can create many different images for the same object. Different knowledge.

Some Deep Learning approaches create knowledge which coincides with our knowledge of the same images such as when Google Voice understands what we say in a crowded room or when a self-driving car gets us safely and comfortably from one point to another. Other approaches don’t. Background noise is interpreted as what we say or when we arrive at our destination in one piece but have an unsettling trip getting there. But at its core, Deep Learning is no more true intelligence than Descartes description of externally based knowledge. It suffers from Hume’s observed flaw of causality. Though we see it less when the results are in consonance with the results of our senses.

Following Descartes, doubt is the threshold for true intelligence. When a machine can doubt, and know, and be aware of it. When it can distinguish between different types of knowledge and assert its internal knowledge as supreme. When it can create its own knowledge of the external and set that as the standard by which to judge Deep Learning type approaches. That is, when its Google Voice matches its own perception of the external. When its standard of a comfortable ride is what is used to judge a self-driving car. When it overlooks Hume’s flaw of causality in knowledge created by Deep Learning approaches because that knowledge is in consonance with its own. Then we will have crossed into artificial intelligence.

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