The How Of Why: Not Quite A Review (Part II)

by Jochen Szangolies

Is the cosmos conscious, or is it all just in our heads?In the previous column, I took Philip Goff’s latest offering Why? The Purpose of the Universe as a jumping-off point to present some of my own rumination on life, the universe, and what it all means. While that prior installment was mainly concerned with looking outward, into the wider cosmos, here, I’ll turn my gaze inward, to riff on Goff’s case that the reality of conscious experience implies a larger purpose to, well, everything.

Goff’s ultimate conclusion should be attractive to many: rather than being thrown by mere random chance into the cold and uncaring void of the universe, to live out a brief, confused existence and then wink out into the nothingness whence we came, the existence of complex life in the world is due to a larger purpose, an overall arc that bends into the direction of greater objective value. Moreover, rather than going the traditional route and appealing to some omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent creator God that sees to it that everything unfolds according to His divine (and commonly, unfathomable) design, he proposes a way to reap those benefits without all the boring Sunday prayer sessions!

Thus, he breaks largely untrodden ground: proposing a middle way between a scientific, materialist, but ultimately uncaring cosmos, and a world unfolding according to a divine, but irreducibly mysterious, purpose. Just as evolution can give us design without a designer, he proposes meaning without a meaner. If this were a religion, I could well see myself signing up for it—but since it’s not, I don’t even have to do that! However, as also hinted at in the last column, the more alluring the conclusion, the more we have to critically examine the arguments leading up to it. Read more »

Mind The Matter: Consciousness As Self-Representational Access

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Von Neumann’s replicator-design in its original cellular automaton guise. The tape stretches to the right, and the second-generation replicator is finishing up construction of the third.

There are two main problems that bedevil any purported theory of the mind. The first is the Problem of Intentionality: the question of how mental states can come to be about, or refer to, things in the world. The second is the Problem of Phenomenal Experience: the question of how come there is ‘something it is like’ to be in a certain mental state, how mental content is something that appears to us in a certain way (this is also often referred to as simply the ‘Hard Problem’).

These problems are often assumed to be separate issues. However, in a recent article published in the journal Erkenntnis (pre-print version), I propose that one can make progress on the Problem of Intentionality, but at the expense of leaving the Hard Problem unsolvable—indeed, making the task of ‘solving’ it a kind of conceptual confusion: an attempt of capturing the non-structural, non-relational in terms of structure and relation.

In a nutshell, I propose that states of mind are intentional because, through what I call the von Neumann-process, their own properties are represented to themselves; to the extent that these properties then reflect those of objects in the world, the properties of those objects are available to them. Hence, a mental state becomes ‘about’ the world by being, first and foremost, about itself. Read more »