February 29, 2008

K(p) & -K(K(p))

A fascinating short piece in Salon about some neuroscience work on knowing -- from the `aha!' moment when we recognise that an explanation fits the data to the certainty attached to deeply cherished beliefs. What's tricky here is that this self-conscious experience of knowing isn't, the author thinks, a rational or truly conscious process.

In his bestselling "Blink," New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell describes gut feelings as "perfectly rational," as "thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously" than conscious thought. But he's flying in the face of present-day understanding of brain behavior. Gut feelings and intuitions, the Eureka moment and our sense of conviction, represent the conscious experiences of unconsciously derived feelings.

Look at the feeling of knowing in the light of evolution. It explains how we learn. Compare it with the body's various sensory systems. It is through sight and sound that we are in contact with the world around us. Similarly, we have extensive sensory functions for assessing our interior milieu. When our body needs food, we feel hunger. When we are dehydrated and require water, we feel thirsty. If we have sensory systems to connect us with the outside world, and sensory systems to notify us of our internal bodily needs, it seems reasonable that we would also have a sensory system to tell us what our minds are doing.

To be an effective, powerful reward, the feeling of conviction must feel like a conscious and deliberate conclusion. As a result, the brain has developed a constellation of mental sensations that feel like thoughts but aren't. These involuntary and uncontrollable feelings are the mind's sensations; as sensations they are subject to a wide variety of perceptual illusions common to all sensory systems. Understanding this couldn't be more important to our sense of ourselves and the world around us.

1 comment:

Andrew Bailey said...

These people need to talk to a philosopher -- better, an epistemologist who works on rationality. =)