Knowing and Meaning


I don't hear it so much anymore, but when I was younger a common greeting was "Whatta you know?". It was also common to express surprise by saying, "Well whadaya know about that!" I can also recall someone I respected, although I can't remember exactly who, routinely looking me in the eye and greeting me with, "What do you know for sure?".

When it first dawned on me, after being told by Randy Foldvik, that I had spent most of my life on a "search for truth", it also dawned on me that everyone else on earth was probably also on their own "search for truth". That explains the ubiquitous question. Used as a greeting, it courteously asks about progress so far. It might better have been phrased as, "What do you know so far?"

Since my last entry here, I asked myself, what am I trying to accomplish? After mulling it over, I concluded that I am trying to know what is going on in reality. I am trying to come up with an answer to that old question, What do you know? But then, the obvious question arose: What does it mean to know? And this leads to, What is knowing? and What is meaning? That is what I'll explore today.

Descartes tried to come up with an incontrovertible and obviously true starting point for developing his system of understanding what is going on. He settled on the famous cogito: "I think therefore I am". I quoted this in a philosophy forum once, and a guy named Harv challenged me by asking, How do you know who you are? or some such question. And, I had to agree that Harv was right. Who, exactly, is that "I" in the cogito?

This is the problem of identity. It can be expressed by questions like, Am I my body? Am I my brain? Am I some collection of brain states? Am I the same person I was as an infant? Am I the same person when I am dreaming? Am I a collection of personality traits? Am I the totality of my memories?

In my view, none of these precisely defines my identity. To me, I am the experiencer of the world line of my body. I see that Microsoft's spell checker doesn't like my word 'experiencer'. Too bad.

If I had said "I am the person who experiences the world line of my body", then I would be presupposing that I am a person. If I had said "I am the thing that experiences ..." then I would be presupposing that I am a thing. I could have said "I am an entity that experiences...", or I could have said "I am the entity that experiences...". All of these options and presuppositions illustrate difficulties that we would have to clear up before we can even get started.

So, to avoid those difficulties, let's get rid of the reference to "I" altogether and reduce the Cartesian cogito to simply, "Thought happens".

I think this is where Descartes should have started, so this is where I shall start. That thought happens is absolutely undeniable. Denial itself is a thought, so to deny is to confirm. To confirm is also to confirm. So either way, thought happens, with or without a doubt.

Now that leaves us with two words to define. It is well and good to agree that thought happens, but what is 'thought'? and what is "happens'? Here is where it gets very personal.

Sitting here at this keyboard at 9:20 AM, the day before D-Day, 2009, there is a body called Paul Martin that is keying in these words and letters. From that body's perspective, there are certain thoughts that are being converted into English and stroked into the keyboard making up this text. There are also a couple eyeballs in that body that are taking in the images of these words as they appear on the screen in front of the body. There is also something, or some entity, or whatever, that is consciously aware of the experience of what seems to be happening as the words above have described it. It is that something, or entity, that I refer to when I use the term "I", as I just did here.

The keyboard, the body, the words, the world, ... all of it, may not exist. But the thought did exist. By "did", I mean the thoughts expressed in the previous paragraph. They might not exist now as I type this line, but there are thoughts of the same type going on as I type this sentence. Since thoughts seem to come and go, even though the current thought in the stream of thoughts is undeniable, it makes sense to say that 'thought happens'. This implies the dynamism that would be missing if instead I said that "Thought exists". That would be too fleeting. It would be true at the instant it was conceived, or realized, but what about thoughts that were thought in "the past"? Do they exist? And what is 'the past' anyway? So, the choice of the word 'happens' seems to be a good one.

So we have this unquestionable notion of thought which comes and goes in a sort of a stream. And, the only thing I know for sure, is that each thought on that stream gets experienced in succession. I know that. And the "I" that knows it seems to be the same "I" that does the experiencing. "Seems to be", but I can doubt that. Maybe there is one experiencer of the thoughts and a different experiencer of the thought of knowing about the thoughts. But let's leave that for later.

Let's go back to the only thing I know for sure: each thought, in the stream of thoughts, get experienced in succession.

So now I have an answer to the question, "Whatdya know for sure?". But now I have a question: Who wants to know? As I indicated, I have forgotten exactly who used to ask me that question, but that's not important. What is important is the question, are there other experiencers like me? Are there other minds?

Well, of course, in deference to any readers of this sentence, I have to acknowledge that, yes, of course, there are many other minds. One for each living human, at least. But if any, or all, of them experience, it is clear that their experiences are completely separate and distinct from mine. In spite of Bill Clinton's claim, I know that I do not feel their pain, nor do I think they can feel mine. We don't have access to each other's thoughts.

So what makes me think that other people think like I do? Well it's because there is nothing special about me. Everything about me is ordinary and non-descript. Nothing sets me apart from any of the other six billion or so people on Earth. I think, so I suppose that everyone else does too.

So now comes the crucial question. Exactly how many experiencers of thought are there? It is on this question that I think most all philosophies and religions have gone astray. It seems so easy and obvious to jump to the conclusion that of course there are six billion of them. But as I have tried to sketch out, I know of only one. The rest are inferences that can be doubted.

Here I am sitting back in my chair thinking that we are at a branching point in the analysis. What I want to do is to take the idea that there exists only and exactly one experiencer in reality as a postulate, or premise, and then see what we can deduce logically from that premise. So one tack we could take is to go for it and start deducing. But I'm afraid that would cause the loss of a lot of readers who would think it pointless to pursue such a silly premise. Another tack might be to present a plausible scenario or mechanism that would be consistent with the premise and still make the world appear as it does with six billion independent thinkers. I have already tried this tack in other essays and conversations, and again, I lose the interest of most people. A third tack would be to name-drop and refer to a few eminent thinkers, like Schroedinger, Goedel, and Dyson who have come to the same conclusion that I have. But that may not be convincing enough to keep you reading.

So, I'm sitting back in my chair again wondering what to do. ... OK, here's what I am going to do. I am going to leave the proposition optional. You may take it as a premise or not as you choose. I am going to talk (or write to be more precise) as if there is only one experiencer, and I will refer to it as "I", or "me". Deep down, I know that I mean the one-and-only experiencer, but the language I use will sound perfectly normal and customary without any commitment to my premise. You, as a reader, and presumably as an independent thinker, may interpret what I write with the "I" referring to yourself. So when I say something like "I know thought happens.", you should ask yourself whether or not that applies to yourself and whether or not you agree that it is true. The "I" refers to you. That way, you can still follow what I am going to develop even though you might believe that you, the reader, are a completely separate and distinct experiencer than the guy who wrote these words you are reading. It shouldn't cause a problem.

So where were we? Oh, yes, we have this unquestionable notion of thought which comes and goes in a sort of a stream. And, the only thing I know for sure, is that each thought on that stream gets experienced in succession.

Next, let's try to come to grips with what these thoughts are, or at least what they are like. As I fold my hands and sit back in my chair, again, I experience the thoughts of perceiving the screen and keyboard in front of me, the sound of the fan in the computer beside me, and the ideas that I am trying to express in words as I type these sentences. Even though the thoughts are fleeting, some of them seem to stretch out over time. The sound of that fan seems to be continuous, but I am usually not paying attention to it. When I do, I am definitely thinking about it, and when I do it later on, it seems that the sound has been persistent. So I perceive, along with the immediate sense impressions, that there is a past set of events of which I am consciously aware, even though those events are only vaguely represented in my memory. And, if I think about it, those memories stretch back a long way. I can still remember the names of most of my grade school teachers. My life seems to have been a more-or-less continuous path stretching back now nearly 70 years.

Part of my memories, as of this moment, is that when I move away from this computer, I find that things in the world are placed just as I remember they were the last time I experienced them. At least I think I remember those experiences. In fact, I think I could get up from this computer right now and find my way to the kitchen and find the soy milk in the refrigerator just where I think it is. But, that is simply one more fleeting thought that "happened" as I composed and typed the previous sentence. But still, I could do it. I could walk out, find the kitchen, and prove that the soy milk is there. I think.

But if I did, I am pretty sure that I would experience finding the soy milk in a new "now" and all this typing of my thoughts right "now" would be just part of my increasingly vague memories and I would have to do an experiment of coming back into the office and checking the computer, just like I checked on the soy milk. I think that people with short-term memory loss must go through an experience something like that without the benefit of the memories. Each moment for them is a starting point in experience with thoughts happening but not getting recorded in the memory.

That leads me to the next thing I know. I know that thought happens, and I know that I think I can trust some memories that I think I have. So we have two additional "thoughts": we have memories and we have trust. We also have that construction, "think I can trust". We'll call that belief. I believe there is a kitchen to the north of me with soy milk in the refrigerator. The trust comes about when I make some sort of wager or commitment that depends on my belief being consistent with the experiences I have when I actually test it.

That introduces a new concept, that of testing. In other words, I believe that I can deliberately choose to cause this body to do things, like go to the kitchen and check on the soy milk. I believe that I have free will. I believe that I can choose to take action that will change the world I experience and that I can actually take that action I have chosen and actually change the world. As I recollect, from my vague memory, I have learned that there are many people who don't believe that they have free will. They also may believe that I don't have free will. They may be right about themselves, but I know that I have free will, and maybe they don't know that I do and maybe they don't have it themselves. I don't know about that.

It may be time to consolidate the terms that I claim that I know something about. I know thought happens, that thoughts of memories happen, that belief in some of those memories happens, that trust or faith in some of those beliefs happens, and that deliberate actions of free will happen.

Now I am sitting back in my chair again, wondering how to proceed. I'm thinking that at this point we need to become mathematical. Or at least logical. Or even just systematic in our use of language. Here I am composing English sentences that I suppose make some sort of sense, even though they might be false. At least I suppose that if there are other minds, they might understand what I have written. Or at the very least, that if I read it later on, that I might understand it. So let me get mathematical.

One of the indelible experiences of my life, which left me with lasting memories, was my introduction to mathematics by Prof. Carl Grimm. He taught me what mathematics is. Or, at least, he taught me what he thought mathematics was. Or more precisely, he taught me what I came to think mathematics is.

Since that experience, I have come to think that maybe my thoughts about mathematics and what it is, are different from what most mathematicians think it is. [(7/11/15) cf. my essay Conceptual Math] I have also come to realize that this different view of mathematics is consistent with my different view of what reality is -- recall my view that there is only one experiencer in all of reality. So the next step is for me to explain my view of mathematics and then to use that to begin to explore the consequences of the notions of thought, belief, etc. that we have developed so far.

What I remember Prof. Grimm say is that mathematics is the attempt to answer the question, "What can we say with certainty?" The mathematical answer is that we can say nothing with certainty except that if you take a set of premises that are true and derive statements from them using logic, then those statements must also be true. That is, the only thing we can say with certainty are statements of the form, If...then....Mathematics makes no claim or statement about whether any particular premises are true; only that if they are, then the conclusions must also be true. So mathematics is powerless to say anything about the truth of anything real, whatever "real" means.

Nevertheless, we can say a lot of things with certainty. But they are all of the If...then.... variety.

The next move is to take a look at those "If"s. What are they and where do they come from? They are the premises that mathematical theories start with. They are almost plucked out of thin air. For several thousand years, they were notions that were thought to be obviously and absolutely true. They were Euclid's axioms. Things like the idea that there is only and exactly one straight line connecting two distinct points. Euclid didn't say exactly what a point or a line is, or what it means to be straight, or even what he meant by the number one, but those ideas were thought to be obvious too. They were called primitives and they didn't need to be explained.

[I am tired and hungry. I'll continue later with ideas on logic and language.]

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