The found and the made

There is a categorical difference between natural things and artifacts. The latter we construct, the former we simply encounter. We can have certainty only concerning our own creations, because—like the constructs of mathematics—they alone are precisely what they are defined to be. For this reason, the Renaissance thinker Vico advised that knowledge of human institutions was more reliable than knowledge of nature.

If this distinction was glossed over in the early development of science, it was probably because natural philosophers believed that nature is an artifact—albeit created by God rather than by human beings. We were positioned to understand the mind of God because we were made in God’s image. Believing that the natural world was God’s thought, imposed on primal substance, the first scientists were not obliged to consider how the appearance of the world was a result of their own minds’ impositions. Even when that belief was no longer tenable, the distinction between natural things and artifacts continued to be ignored because many natural systems could be assimilated to mathematical models, which are artifacts. Because they are perfectly knowable, mathematical models—standing  in for natural reality—enable prediction.

According to Plato, the intellect is privileged to have direct access to a priori truths. In contrast, sensory knowledge was at best indirect and at worst illusory. In a parallel vein, Descartes claimed that while appearances could deceive (as in Plato’s Cave), one could not be deceived about the fact that such appearances occur. However, Kant drew a different distinction: one has access to the phenomenal realm (perception) but not to the noumenal realm (whatever exists in its own right). The implicit assumption of science was that scientific constructs—and mathematics in particular—correspond to the noumenal realm, or at least correspond better than sensory perception.

The usefulness of this assumption rests in practice on dealing only with a select variety of natural phenomena: namely, those that can be effectively treated mathematically. Historically this meant simple systems defined by linear equations, since only such equations could be manually solved. The advent of computers removed this limitation, enabling the mathematical modelling of non-linear phenomena. But it does not remove the distinction between artifact and nature, or between the model and the real phenomenon it models.

The model is a product of human definitions. As such it is well-defined, finite, relatively simple, and oriented toward prediction. The real phenomenon, in contrast, is ambiguous and indefinitely complex, hence somewhat unpredictable. Definition is a human action; definability not a property of real systems, which cannot be assumed finite or clearly delimited. The model is predictable by definition, whereas the real system is only predictable statistically, after the fact, if at all.

In part, the reason the found can be confused with the made is that it is unclear what exactly is found, or what finding and making mean in the context of cognition. At face value, it seems that the “external” world is given in the contents of consciousness. But this seemingly real and external world is certainly not Kant’s noumena, the world-in-itself. Rather, the appearance of realness and externality is a product of the mind. It presumes the sort of creative inference that Helmholtz called ‘perceptual hypothesis.’ That is, for reasons of adaptation and survival, the mind has already interpreted sensory input in such a way that the world appears real and external, consisting objects in space and events in time, etc. Overlaid on this natural appearance are ideas about what the world consists of and how it works—ideas that refine our biological adaptation. To the modern physicist it may appear to consist of elementary particles and fundamental forces “obeying” natural laws. To the aborigine or the religious believer it may seem otherwise. Thus, we must look to something more basic, directly common to all, for what is “immediately” found, prior to thought.

Acknowledging that all subjects have in common a realm of perceptual experience (however different for each individual) presumes a notion of subjectivity, contrary to the natural realism which views experience as a window on the world independent of the subject. What is directly accessible to the mind is an apparition in the field of one’s own consciousness: the display that Kant called the phenomenal realm. What we find is actually something the brain has made in concert with what is presumed to be a real external environment, which includes the body of which the brain is a part. This map (the phenomenal realm) is a product of the interaction of mind and the noumenal territory. What is the nature of this interaction? And what is the relationship between the putatively real world and the consciousness that represents it? Unsurprisingly, so far there has been no scientific or philosophical consensus about the resolution of these questions, often referred to as the “hard problem of consciousness.” Whatever the answer, our epistemic situation seems to be such that we can never know reality in itself and are forever mistaking the map for the territory.

Whether or not the territory can be truly found (or what finding even means), the map is something made, a representation of something presumably real. But how can you make a representation of something you cannot find? What sort of “thing” is a representation or an idea, in contrast to what it represents or is an idea of?

A representation responds to something distinct from it. A painting may produce an image of a real scene. But copying is the wrong metaphor to account for the inner representation whereby the brain monitors and represents to itself the world external to it. It is naïve to imagine that the phenomenal realm is in any sense a copy of the external world. A better analogy than painting is map making. A road map, for example, is highly symbolic and selective in what it represents. If to scale, it faithfully represents distances and spatial relationships on a plane. A typical map of a subway system, however, represents only topological features such as connections between the various routes. The essential point is that a map serves specific purposes that respond to real needs in a real environment, but is not a copy of reality. To understand the map as a representation, we must understand those purposes, how the map is to be used.

This map must first be created, either in real time by the creature through its interactions with its environment, or by the species through its adaptive interactions, inherited by the individual creature. How does the brain use its map of the world? The brain is sealed inside the skull, with no direct access to the world outside. The map is a sort of theory concerning what lies outside. The mapmaker has only input signals and motor commands through which to make the map in the first place and to use it to navigate the world. An analogy is the submarine navigator or the pilot flying by instrument—with the strange proviso that neither navigator nor pilot has ever set foot outside their sealed compartment.

The knowledge of the world provided by real time experience, and the knowledge inherited genetically, both consist in inferences gained through feedback. Sensory input leads (say, by trial and error) to motor output, which influences the external world in such a way that new input is provided, resulting in new motor output, and so on. The pilot or navigator has an idea of what is causing the inputs, upon which the outputs are in turn acting. This idea (the map or theory) works to the extent it enables predictions that do not lead to disaster. On the genetic level, natural selection has resulted in adaptation by eliminating individuals with inappropriate connections. On the individual level, real-time learning operates similarly, by eliminating connections that do not lead to a desired result. What the map represents is not the territory directly, but a set of connections that work to at least permit the survival of the mapmaker. It is not that the creature survives because the map is true or accurate; rather, the map is true or accurate because the creature survives!

The connections involved are actively made by the organism, based on its inputs and outputs. They constitute a representation or map insofar as an implicit or explicit theory of reality is involved. While such a connections (in the physical brain) must have a physical and causal basis (as neural synapses, for example), the connections may be viewed as logical and intentional rather than physical and causal. Compare the function of a wiring diagram for an electrical appliance. From an engineering point of view, the soldered connections of the wires and components are physical connections. From a design point of view, the wiring diagram expresses the logical connections of the system, which include the purposes of the designer and the potential user. In the case of a natural brain, the organism is its own designer and makes the connections for its own purposes. The brain can be described as a causal system, but such a description does not go far to explain the neural connectivity or behavior of the organism. It certainly cannot explain the existence of the phenomenal world we know in consciousness.