Uncertainty

Uncertainty gets treated as a negative term, but it is our ground state. Learning to act in its presence is one of the most important things a person can do. Most simply choose to ignore or even deny it, resulting in random behavior. Lucky for us, homeostatic mechanisms permeate and surround us, so we tend to ping back and forth in a general direction and, with a little cognitive dissonance, we can even make a case for purposeful human behavior. How pervasive is our uncertainty, though, and how much does it matter?

Is a V-8 sitting on a desk an engine or a paper weight? How about a V-8 made of polystyrene? If you touch the engine, and take it apart, and you know something about engines, you will be able to make a good guess about whether or not it runs, and is thus an engine. If you don’t know much about engines, you might not be able to make as good a guess. All you could say is that the polystyrene engine is probably a paperweight and the metal one might not be. Imagine if you had never seen an engine of any sort before. Would analysis help you? If allowed unlimited resources and time, you could track the parts, shapes and relationships back to common origins. You could, in theory, reinvent the engine and then you could know with some certainty whether or not the example in front of you would run.  

How about a more difficult case? Most people would agree that  brain with no ‘stuff’ in it is not a mind, but is it, in that case, even a brain? How can you know? Without watching it work, the requisite process of reduction to determine whether or not the empty, static brain could work is daunting. In fact, it is reasonable only as a thought experiment and finally amounts to saying only that everything is made of the same, interconnected thing – a very, very important conclusion, but redundant.

The way out of the resulting tautology is conceptual. Concepts like mind are vague and squishy. So much so that they may be mistaken for an epiphenomenon called epiphenomena. But they delimit the reduction and account for the temporal element of our experience. We will always have to watch things in motion to make sense of them and our sense will always be fuzzy and incomplete, though we can endlessly refine it through analysis. We’re just lucky that way, too.

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