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The World as a Black Box

Episode 3: The World as a Black Box

Have you ever wondered how it is possible that we can look at things from the inside or from the outside? Here we explore the concept of the black box, to understand what it means to be an observer.
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Imagine an opaque sealed container with a single input and a single output. You don’t know what it contains or what it is supposed to do. You can see what goes into it and what comes out of it, but that is all. Such a container is called a “black box.” By definition, you are an observer outside the box. You want to understand what is going on inside it.
Here’s the twist, though: you too are a black box. That is, the brain responsible for “you” and for the experience you call “seeing” is sealed inside a container, your skull. Without opening it up, neither you nor anyone else can see what the box contains. Even if your skull is opened through surgery, it will be far from obvious what the “mechanism” inside is supposed to do or how it works. Like the black box, the best way for an observer to understand what makes you tick is to watch your inputs and outputs. On one level, that could mean watching what you eat and what you excrete. But physical openings are not the only inputs and outputs for organisms. There are also your sensory inputs and your motor outputs. The human body is bombarded constantly with potential stimuli from the surrounding world. Like the brain sealed inside the skull, the body is sealed within the skin. An observer can note what seem to be actions you perform and also what seem to be stimuli to which you respond. However, identifying these is a matter of the observer’s choice and interpretation. A fellow human being from your culture will be able to make assumptions about your inputs and outputs based on what you have in common. An alien observer from another galaxy might be reluctant to make any assumptions at all. In either case, the outside observer may have different ideas than you do about what your inputs and outputs are.
What an organism considers significant to respond to is its own interpretation of energy or matter impinging on it, which may be different from an observer’s interpretation. An outside observer can only speculate on what an organism, such as a human body, considers significant—mostly by observing its outputs in response to inputs. This is something to keep in mind when observing other creatures.
But just as the body or the skull is a black box to the outside observer, the world outside the body or the skull is a black box to the organism. The barrier works both ways. Inside and outside are mutually relative. Each is a black box to the other. From one point of view, the organism’s sensory interfaces with the world are inputs to the organism. From another point of view, the organism’s motor outputs are inputs to the world as a black box. There is an ongoing interchange between these black boxes.

Any interpretation of the world outside the skull or body can only take place through processes within the skull or body. You cannot jump out of your skin to see the world as it might look to a disembodied spirit. The world has no intrinsic look to it. There is no such thing as the real appearance of the world when no one is looking. There is no such thing as looking without eyes to do the looking. Your brain cannot leave the skull to have a direct view of the world outside. Your knowledge of that world is limited to what can be gotten by treating the world as a black box. In other words, you can try doing something—which for you is a motor output but which for the world is an input—and then observe changes that result from what you do. For you, these are changes in sensory input; for the world, they are outputs.
Imagine yourself to be an observer inside the skull, representing the brain. You can also imagine yourself as an outside observer, representing the external world. From either point of view, if you wish to know what is happening on the other side of the barrier, you can only try some input and observe the output. In this regard, a scientific observer is in the same boat as their own brain inside their skull. The challenge is the same: poke the universe and see what happens or poke the organism and see what happens. Scientific experiments are controlled ways of “poking,” whether they are experiments performed on the universe or on an organism such as yourself.
Perhaps this is one reason why the universe was once thought of as an organism. For a long while since, however, it has been more convenient to think of the universe and the organisms within it as machines. The advantage is that machines are created by human beings, so we can understand them, at least when they are simple, because we made them. They are exactly and only what we say they are. However, the universe—and the organism—were not created by us. They are what they are, not what we say they are. There is no guarantee that we can understand them. Our present idea of understanding is to think that what lies inside the black box is a machine, because machines are predictable. That works to some extent, especially to create technology. But neither the universe nor the organism is literally a machine.
Trying to understand the universe is tricky enough. Trying to understand yourself as part of it (or as not part of it) adds the problem of self-reference. It is like standing in a hall of mirrors, where you see endless reflections of reflections of yourself. Suppose you want to under-stand how your brain daily creates the impression of a real external world in your experience. As part of that impression, your brain also creates the impression of a self (you!) who seeks to understand. Where exactly do you stand when “under-standing”? Inside your brain looking out, or outside it looking in?
Including yourself in the picture introduces a maddening circularity. You want to know how your brain produces your experience. Yet “your brain” is an idea, which is part of the “experience” your brain is supposed to produce, which is also an idea that is part of your experience… and so on. Of course, everything that can enter your consciousness is part of your experience. It only seems otherwise when it becomes a feature of a story you tell. It then seems to be an element of objective reality, potentially a story science can tell. Science would like to explain your personal experience in terms of basic entities and forces—to explain sensations, thoughts, and feelings ultimately in terms of the movement of atoms and electrons. But the concept of atom and the concept of electron are derived from the personal experiences of scientists, which are specially gleaned through the use of experimental apparatus. To explain those personal experiences in terms of atoms and electrons simply repeats the question on another level. Science goes in circles when it tries to explain mind in terms of matter, because both ‘matter’ and ‘mind’ are concepts in the mind.
When you think of yourself as a black box, you are in a particular dilemma, which is also an opportunity. You are both the inquirer and the object of inquiry. Questions like “why did I do that?” or “why am I feeling this right now?” invite you to look from both perspectives. You can search your real-time experience for reasons in your own private logic. You can also wonder, as an outside observer would, what is the cause of your feeling or behavior. We are privileged to have both ways of looking.
If you have enjoyed this episode, please tune in to more on this channel or visit my website at www.stanceofunknowing.com.
Music by John Nemy. Production by John Humphrey, Eureka Web Design.