Is Absolute Introspective Self Knowledge an Illusion?
The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset’s dictum that humans cannot ever divorce themselves from their ongoing biopsychosocial (BPS) circumstance (“El hombre es el y su circumstancia.”) posits one of the most intriguing questions about human behavior when confronted with real-time, relevant existential, ongoing contingencies during the decision-making process. If our human species proudly claim being the protagonists of a neo-Copernican revolution that situates us at the very center of the universe because of being uniquely endowed with the marvel of being able to report on a conscious, introspective journey into ourselves, then it is proper to investigate the expected invariance of that solid knowledge base supporting our decision making activity when confronting and solving contingencies threatening the biopsychosocial equilibrium? The successful evolution of the species depends on the solidity of our self knowledge base. How is a real-time human being going to find that quotidian solution that is both simultaneously relevant, adaptive and at the same time, transcending its immediate immanent character, to become the absolute standard of righteousness independent of any variations in the circumstantial aspects surrounding the specific contingency? From the perspective of a universal standard, can our human species escape his circumstantial shadow that inexorably follows him regardless of his conscious awareness of its possibly negative impact presence? If we were to trust recorded history accounts, only a few individuals successfully resisted the convenience drive of his biopsychosocial circumstance and opted, ‘contra natura’, to swim against the strong current and altruistically act against self-interest conveniences to set universal standards of behavior for others to emulate in the Ten Commandments Decalon, Tables of the Law, Koran, etc. We call them the historical prophets. What guides them, where is their source of inspiration and guidance, how is righteousness transformed into a living reality? Informed speculations and conjectures are thus in order to at least answer the how, e.g., the BPS sub-model of Reciprocal Transcendental Information Transfer between the human neo cortex and transfinity. At this time we find it necessary to further expand briefly on the nature of the complex question being asked. Are some humans in history ‘more special than others connecting with that mysterious ‘source’ regardless of their preceding formal training in ethics, axiology, etc. To follow, we will try an objective analytical perambulatory dissection of this issue, how do we gain and use knowledge.
One can gain ontological knowledge about the immediate external world and internal body-proper phenomenal environment with the aid of instrumental recordings from external receptors like in vision, audition, taste, touch, temperature, etc. or with internal proprioceptors, stretch receptors, muscle spindles, chemoreceptors, etc. We establish their ontological status by the more reliable direct measurements of their structure/function or the less reliable spoken accounts/reports or explanations of the subjective qualia experienced. Phenomenologically, these real time, ongoing descriptions entail a minimal form of self-consciousness for the experiencing subject due to the immediacy of the object or event being witnessed or otherwise experienced. But, even when we are asked, immediately after the occurrence, to give an account of what happened, how do we know that one’s particular mental state, beliefs, desires, sensations, etc. did not significantly influence our reply? That particular mental state happens to be our persisting self, our personality, our identity as quoted by the classical Greeks as ‘Gnoscete Ipsum’ or know thyself. But, is an ‘objective’ ontological description being modified by ‘subjective’ epistemological explanations controlled by our immediate and ongoing mind state or a persisting mental state? What controls the decision-making process, convenient short term expediency or long term ethical and moral universal considerations? Is our ‘self-knowledge’ data base persistent or subject to expedient and convenient modifications? Phrased differently, is the decision-making process controlled by an introspective self knowledge or by the subconscious genetic and memetic reflex networks? It is the role of the subconscious neuro-humoral control network to provide the necessary adjustments responsible for the biopsychosocial (BPS) equilibrium servo controls, those that makes possible for human beings to reflexly respond to familiar situations as recorded in their memory data base. New unfamiliar situations mobilize additional self conscious resources that makes it possible to adapt to the potentially dangerous novelty on the basis of either BPS needs or conveniences, immanent or transcendental aspirations and rarely, altruistic acts against self interests. There is a very important distinction to be made between knowledge acquired through perceptual familiarity and knowledge acquired by conceptual representations, i.e., knowledge we describe with some certainty and knowledge we explain by way of inferential symbolic or sentential logical representations of both physical and non-physical properties. When we make normative logical decisions about the relevant non-physical, extra sensory invisibilities only when rooted on falsifiable measurable probable facts about objects and/or events, then we speak with Kantian wisdom, a sort of epistemological naturalism or epistemontology. See Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. When the human experience to be communicated resist statistical apprehension by Bayesian logic, we are now in a very different but equally important psychosocial theological manifold which humans individually adopt as their living truths in harmony with their evolving individualized, real time existential circumstance. As we can see, there are many layers in the content of that self knowledge reservoir we tap when making conscious, freely willed decisions. We hope the reader differentiates this time honored, historically recorded, self evident truths from the typical Sartrean existentialism where individuals live and blindly evolve from moment to moment with no normative guidelines to show the righteous way to behave to preserve the viability of the human species. But, the self evident truth is that we, as a species, have evolved in obvious defiance to the also self evident and reliable natural thermodynamic laws of entropy. Why?
Why do some people lead lives exemplifying moral virtues, prudence and courage, benevolence and compassion notwithstanding the many and various temptations to look exclusively after their own ego centered self interests often at the expense of innocent others, like so many currently elected or appointed politicians? Egoism comes in different flavors, psychic, rational or a deadly combination of both when it evolves into a normative rational mindset where the ultimate aim is to unrelently maximize one’s self-interest at any cost. A veritable intentional psychopathological state of the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Napoleon and other brilliant historical non-repentant personalities; these are the diametrical opposites of our historical prophets. If these diametrically opposite extremes of behavior the result of natural inherited intelligence and also not the result of a corresponding circumstantial existential reality, what then is the fundamental difference? In the classical ‘Summa Contra Gentiles’ it is suggested that through ‘divine assistance’ some chosen individuals are blessed with a direct and immediate grasp of first principles. This reminds us again to ponder on the nature of that divine assistance as being essentially the ability to harmonize the unavoidable, immanent self BPS interests with the transcendental and universal requirements of virtuosity; like Leibniz conceptualization of theology as a human brain centered effort in the ‘chosen ones’ to create a “science of law”. It is almost impossible for us limited human creatures to conceive of an ‘assistance’, divine or not, lacking an efficient physical cause, however small in dimensions. Therein lies the mesmerizing attraction of an epistemology rooted primarily on functional reality as experienced, e.g., the Kantian ‘synthetic a priori propositions’; also somewhat reminiscent of Locke’s faith on what material substances and their powers can do outside our capability of ever measuring their dimensions or functions. But we can always write about the explanatory poetry of a belief or just muse on sheer ‘cult’ nonsense. Being there, done that. After all, why deny it, human certainty is nothing but an epistemic property of human subjects communicating their beliefs with the assistance of all kinds of convenient metaphysical logic and other axiomatic contraptions, however practically useful they may turn out to be! For those of us addicted with the curiosity for the identification of noumenal reality or first principles we have no choice but to rely on the self evident truth that drives our belief-forming activities. Unfortunately the best guide we humans have is what appears to us as counter intuitive, e.g., those non-physical epistemological conceptualizations that become entities able to produce forces that affect physical objects or events. Last but not least, the Darwinian evolution abstraction may be the result of indirect interpretations about observations but it sure as hell makes sense to speculate, if not believe, that species do change in appearance due to what seems to be a natural process that selects and maintains in nature. This may be necessary to explain how species change but may not be sufficient to explain ALL BPS changes experienced inside our quotidian 4d real time existential cage. ‘Evolutionary epistemology’ is in! We have to live with it until a better epistemological poetry explanation comes into being, especially when analyzing the ‘replication’ pathway of the selected change. Spontaneously self sustained? If so, we may have to change all of our physics laws that have been so successful in predicting the probability of future events because they do not predict a spontaneous increase in complexity of structure or function as we corroborate as happening in recorded history. Finally, it is very tempting to assume that acquiring and reporting knowledge about the external environment shouldn’t be different when doing the same in respect to ourselves because, if we accept the premise that reality is in our brains, why go elsewhere? But we have to keep looking and continue to write poetry.
Summary and Conclusions.
There is no doubt that most of us humans rely blindly on our introspective memory accounts of our respective lives because they seem infallible and seem to account for at least all of our acquired existential knowledge, the rest of our knowledge is in genetic data bases we cannot change at will. After all, it seems odd that we should feel that what we are thinking about in any given moment is not true! Yet, how can we be certain we are capable of attaining a third person perspective about our self attributions free from higher order inferences adopted from prefab ‘theories of mind’ or behavioral influences? See Dennet. Interestingly we have analyzed (see articles on intra and interspecies information transfer) how we may be utilizing same brain circuitry, especially mirror neurons, in gaining reliable insights about our own mental states as we do in others. In this simulation effort we may learn of other’s states of mind by using their facial expression cues in a given situation and then projecting oneself empathically into the other’s situation, i.e., allowing the observer through a special mode of self-reflection, to experience what one would believe or desire, feel, etc. if we were in that situation oneself. We had hoped to use similar arguments to explain how the use of similar brain processing circuitry may be activated when receiving information from transfinity sources, if any. We have argued that this ‘simulation theory certainty’ needs to be qualified and improved on.
When we are asked to report on our personal account of, e.g., an accident we had just witnessed, how many persons may ‘consciously’ report relevant objects, events or sensations ‘experienced’ but not strictly present inside our perceptual field or emotional mindset during the occurrence? Was it influenced by the reporter’s current and ongoing mindset or was it objective even when it would carry negative consequences to the reporter or to his special others? Why the inconsistency? Is this the result of the inevitable subconscious influence from individualized circumstances, e.g., sensations, emotions, appetites, etc. or was it always the result of a conscious deliberate intention to benefit from the consequences? Are we really having those thoughts and sensations reported, are they true? There is no unanimous consensus as to how to evaluate the results of introspective reports, or what weight to accord ‘other sources’. Introspection therefore faces an especially complex problem of standard of calibration. Should we rely on what often seems to be an exalted epistemic claim made on behalf of introspective self consciousness as being true and very distinct from the brain epistemic processing we use in other domains, i.e., on what credible basis can we claim that there is a fundamental difference between self-knowledge and other-knowledge? What is obviously distinct is the leisurely, scholarly addictive habit of the few retired to indulge in poetry writing about the complexities of self and the many others sharing the same ecological niche, very different from the quotidian existential reality of the surviving, unemployed and stressed many others coexisting with us. Nothing wrong with writing poetry so long as you keep your feet on the solid grounds of real time existence as you look at the stars for guidance and then take the first step ‘ad astra per asperas’.
Dr. Angell O. de la Sierra, Esq. Deltona, Florida Summer 2012