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From Kant to Schopenhauer

It was noticed by the ancient Greeks already, that sensation is the main, and maybe the only, source of our knowledge. In the new time, Berkley and Hume stressed this in a very strong manner: things are our sensations. But rationalists still believed that some crucial ideas are inborn and have nothing to do with the imperfection of our sense organs.

Kant synthesized empiricism and rationalism by seeing knowledge as organization of sensations by our mind. Space, time, and other categories are not given us in sensations. They are our forms of perception, the way we organize sensations. This is how the synthetic judgments a priory become possible. They speak about the methods of our mind which are inborn and do not depend on sensations.

From the cybernetic point of view, sensations are at the input of our cognitive apparatus, the nervous system. This input is then processed by a huge hierarchical system. As the signals move up in the hierarchy, sensations become perceptions, and then conceptions (there are no sharp boundaries, of course). How much is coming from the reality, the sensations, and how much from the way we process them?

Kant considered the categories as a sort of final, ultimate, because they are rooted in the way our brains are made. The only possible geometry for him was Euclidean geometry.

And here comes the non-euclidean geometry of Lobachevsky. This could be a disaster if we did not interpret Kant's ideas from a modern point of view.

We see no contradiction between the use of inborn ways of analysis of sensation and the refusal to take these ways as the only possible and universally applicable. We cannot change our brain (for the time being, at least), but we can construct world models which are counter-intuitive to us.

We have two cybernetic systems which make world models: our brain, with its neuronal models, and our language, in which we create symbolic models of the world. The latter are certainly based on the former. But the question remains open: at what level of the neuronal hierarchy do the symbolic models take up?

Compare mathematics and classical mechanics. Mathematics deals with objects called symbolic expressions (like numbers, for example). They are simple linear structures. We use our nervous system to identify some symbols as "the same". For example, this symbol: A is the same as this: A. Another thing we want is to know that if you add a symbol B to A, and to another A you add another B, then the results, i.e. AB, will be identical again. The totality of such elementary facts could hardly be codified, exactly because of their basic nature. They are not eliminable. Even if we pick up a number of axioms about symbolic expressions, as we do, e.g., in the theory of semi-groups, we shall still use rules of inference to prove new facts about them, and since the rules and the formal proofs are again symbolic expressions, we shall rely again on the basic facts about symbolic expressions in the original informal way.

In classical mechanics we use much more of our neuronal world models. There is a three-dimensional space; there is time; there are the concepts of continuity, a material body, of cause and effect, and more.

Mach and Einstein would be, probably, impossible without Kant. They used the Kantian principle of separating elementary facts of sensations and organizing these facts into a conceptual scheme. But the physicists went further. Einstein moved from the intuitive space-time picture given by the classical mechanics down to the level of separate measurements, and reorganized the measurements into a different space, the four-dimensional space-time of the relativity theory. This space-time is now as counterintuitive as it was in 1905, even though we have accustomed to it. Hence what we call the paradoxes of the relativity theory. But they do not bother us. We use a bit less of neuronal models, and a bit more of symbolic models, that is all.

In quantum mechanics, the physicists went even further. They rejected the idea of a material body located in the space-time continuum. The space-time continuum is left as a mathematical construct, and this construct serves the purposes of relating micro and macro-phenomena, where it has the familiar classical interpretation. But material bodies lost their tangible character. The elementary objective facts are even lower in the hierarchy than measurements; they are observations which all occur in the world of macro-objects. In the relativity theory observations (measurements) at least belonged to the same universe as the basic conceptual scheme: the space-time continuum. In quantum mechanics, on the contrary, there is a gap between what we believe to really exist, i.e. quantum particles and fields, and what we take as the basic observable phenomena, which are all expressed in macroscopical concepts: space, time and causality.

Of course, one can say that in the last analysis every theory will explain and organize observable facts, and they always will be macroscopic facts, because we are macroscopic creatures. Thus a physical theory does not need the concept of ``real existence''; even if it is a micro-world theory it operates on macro-world observables. This is formally true. But the question is that of the structure of a physical theory. We still want our theory to give an answer to the question: what is REALLY existing? What is the ultimate reality of physics? This question is not meaningless. Its meaning is in the quest for a theory which would start with concepts believed to correspond to that ultimate reality, and then step by step construct observables from these ``really existing'' things. Somehow, it seems that such a theory has better chances for success. If we have such a theory, and the real existence is attributed to some things --- call them ex-why-zeds --- and the theory is born out by experiment, then we can say that the ex-why-zeds do really exist and that the world really consists of ex-why-zeds. Ontologically, this will be as certain as when we say that the apple is in a bowl on the basis of seeing it and touching it.

The contemporary quantum mechanics does not meet this requirement. It starts with space-time continuum, which in no sense exists. Since Kant we know that it is only a form of our perception.

Suppose we are determined to construct a theory which is built as required above. How should we go about the construction of such a theory? We must go further down in the hierarchy of neuronal concepts, and take them for a basis. Space and time must not be put in the basis of the theory. They must be constructed and explained in terms of really existing things.

This is where metaphysics should help us. The goal of metaphysics is to create world models which go down and down into the depth of our experience. The concepts of the higher level of the neuronal hierarchy are discounted as superficial; attempt is made to identify the most essential, pervasive, primordial elements of experience. But this is exactly the program we have just set for ourselves. Kant's metaphysics had served as the philosophical basis for the modern theories of physics. We see now that a further movement down is required. Thus let turn to the development of metaphysics after Kant.

Two lines of development became most visible: the German idealism and Hegel in particular; and Schopenhauer. The Hegelian line contributed to the development of the theory of evolution, but in terms of ontology and epistemology did not give much. It is not analytical. It is a romantic picture of a striving and struggling world. The basic entities and concepts are obviously made up, as if created by an artist.

Schopenhauer, on the contrary is analytical. He does not create a sophisticated picture of the world. He only gives an answer to the question `what is the world': it is will and representation.

Kant introduced the concept of the thing-in-itself for that which will be left of a thing if we take away everything that we can learn about it through our sensations. Thus the thing-in- itself has only one property: to exist independently of the cognizant subject. This concept is essentially negative; Kant did not relate it to any kind or any part of human experience. This was done by Schopenhauer. To the question `what is the thing-in- itself?' he gave a clear and precise answer: it is will. The more you think about this answer, the more it looks like a revelation. My will is something I know from within. It is part of my experience. Yet it is absolutely inaccessible to anybody except myself. Any external observer will know about myself whatever he can know through his sense organs. Even if he can read my thoughts and intentions -- literally, by deciphering brain signals -- he will not perceive my will. He can conclude about the existence of my will by analogy with his own. He can bend and crush my will through my body, he can kill it by killing me, but he cannot in any way perceive my will. And still my will exists. It is a thing-in- itself.

What then is the world as we know it? Schopenhauer answers: a 'Vorstellung'. This word was first translated into English as an `idea', and then a `representation'. Both translations are not very precise. In Russian there is a word for it which is a literal translation of the German `Vorstellung': `predstavleniye'. `Vorstellung' is something that is put in front of you. It is a world picture we create ourselves -- and put in front of us, so that to some extent it screens the real world. This aspect of Vorstellung is not properly reflected either in 'idea' or in 'representation'.

Let us examine the way in which we come to know anything about the world. It starts with sensations. Sensations are not things. They do not have reality as things. Their reality is that of an event, an action. Sensation is an interaction between the subject and the object, a physical phenomenon. Then the signals resulting from that interaction start their long path through the nervous system and the brain. The brain is tremendously complex system, created for a very narrow goal: to survive, to sustain the life of the individual creature, and to reproduce the species. It is for this purpose and from this angle that the brain processes information from sense organs and forms its representation of the world. Experiments with high energy elementary particles were certainly not included into the goals for which the brain was created by evolution. Thus it should be no surprise that our space-time intuition is found to be a very poor conceptual frame for elementary particles.

We must take from our experience only the most fundamental aspects, in an expectation that all further organization of sensations may be radically changed. These most elementary aspects are: the will, the representation, and the action, which links the two: action is a manifestation of the will that changes representation.

Indeed, is it not the physical quantity of action that is quantized and cannot be less than Plank's constant h, if it is not zero? Why not see this as an indication that action should have a higher existential status than space, time, matter? Of course, it is not immediately clear whether the concept of action as we understand it intuitively and the physical quantity that has the dimension of energy by time and called 'action' are one and the same, or related at all. That the physicists use the word `action' to denote this quantity could be a misleading coincidence. Yet the intuitive notion of an action as proportional to the energy spent (understood intuitively) and the time passed does not seem unreasonable. Furthermore, it is operators, i.e., actions in the space of states, that represent observable (real!) physical quantities in quantum mechanics, and not the space-time states themselves!

Even if we reject these parallels and intuition as unsafe, it still remains true that neither space, nor time, nor matter are characterized by constant indestructible quanta, but a combination of these: action. Is it not natural to take action as a basis for the picture of the world --- if not for a unifying physical theory?

But set aside physics. There is a branch of knowledge, cybernetics, where action ontology comes naturaly because of its approach to the description of the world. In cybernetics we abstract from matter, energy, space, even time. What remains is interdependence between actions of various kinds. Communication, control, information -- all these are actions. Taking action as an ontological primitive we come to an intuitively acceptable and logically consistent definition of its basic concepts.

Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

V. Turchin,

Sep 29, 1997 (modified)
22 JAN 91 (created)


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