Existential fundamentals vs Science

Existential fundamentals

Is it beyond the scope of science?

Is there anything beyond science? Can any aspect of our life and nature be subjected to the scientific process and be explained within the ambit of science? Or are existential fundamentals, the concepts like life, consciousness, thoughts etc, are beyond what can be understood through science? In this, we shall explore what we allude to when we refer to few concepts. Concepts I refer to as existential fundamentals because they are the most salient aspect of our existence. Concepts corresponding to our sentience and how they are different from most other concepts described in science

The glory of science

Before exploring what is beyond science, we need to recognize its marvel. Science is exceptionally extraordinary tool, the very foundation of modern civilization. Mathematics and Science are the platform that enables the technologies. Mechanization, automation have transformed the way society functions and they continue to transform it. We are accustomed to the modernization of our social infrastructure that expecting multiple transformative technological leaps within one lifetime has become the norm. Computers, internet, emails, mobile phones, online search, smartphone, instant messaging, internet calling, video calling, digital multimedia library, social media, voice assistant, virtual reality and AI based search and chat…

These are just few of the milestones of massive transformation in the last few decades. Just a few of the society transforming technological progress from just a single industry and specifically something that is available to practically everyone in the society. I have just referred to the few things among the ones that is accessible to almost everyone and part of our daily life immaterial of our careers, passions, residential status etc. There are other industries which are also part of our daily lives. There are many other innovations which are not part of our daily lives but they form critical part of our society and its modernization. Healthcare, robotics, military, transportation, construction and more… I do not have it in me to list all the globally transforming innovations are even the industries or even manage to evaluate them in any rationally consistent order.

Limitations of science

Science and technology deserve my gratitude and respect. I am humbled by how the pursuit of science has contributed to the transformations in our lives. But at what cost has it come? Is pursuit of science costing us our humanity? Have we progressed, ie transformed for the better? Or, are we losing our way in the name of scientific and technological progress? These are questions worth discussing. I can see benefits as well as the toll it takes. I am of the opinion that science is good and important. Science as well as mathematics are just a tool. Yes, there can be accidents while using a tool. Some may use the tool with malicious intentions. I do not blame the tool for the accidents and malicious usage. I will also not blame a tool if it was used in ignorance.

I have an immense respect for the scientific process and liking towards learning science as well as maths. As stated in the beginning, in my personal opinion, there are exceptionally extraordinary tool. Gravity explains astronomic motions and quantum physics explain the nanoscopic ones. Laws of motion along with classical mechanics and fluid mechanics explain most things in between. Metals weighing many tons can fly. The ultimate goal of alchemy of “converting lead or iron to gold” stands refuted (barring the currently impractical nuclear reactions), we can convert sand into glass and crude oil to plastic. We can see our own skeleton with X-Ray. We have landed on moon and we are exploring possibilities of establishing colony in other planets.

While whatever I have described is but a mere fraction, the extent to which I know is but mere fraction of that fraction. One could say that if the scope of science is the entire observable universe, what I have alluded to may amount to just the earth and what I know may not even correspond to grain of sand. In this context, can the title be explained by any but for audaciously presumptuous arrogance?

If my knowledge of science is so miniscule, how can I talk about the limits of science? By what basis can I tell that there exists something that is beyond the scope of science?

I shall take cue from the very methods adopted in the very esteemed tool I am planning to challenge. Science, in unity with mathematics, is capable of describing things well beyond reach. Even with all our advancements of the current age, how deep can we dig into the ground? It is negligible when compared to the size of earth. Yet, even decades ago, science could describe the composition of the core of earth. With science, we can describe what happens in the sun even though the basis of those conclusions are just a few lines from the spectroscope. We do not need a spaceship to take a thermometer to the surface of sun to measure its temperature. A conceptually backed, carefully curated model with diligent observations can help us understand even things beyond our reach.

The above is something of great inspiration to me. These are of excellent examples revealing the ability of human ingenuity to devise mechanism to understand the way of the world even if those do not seem possible. While it can be flawed and lead us to false conclusion, with rigorous validation, we can mitigate. Its flawed nature is not a cause for it to be abandoned but to be leveraged with caution appropriate to the context. Without it, we may as well abandon any intellectual activity (though I would challenge the feasibility of our ability to abandon our intellectual activity, let me stay away from that digression)

Science and the existential fundamentals

Before challenging the domain of science in any front, it is important to recognize its achievements as well as my limitations. Having said that, let me start with the following questions.

Can science define what is consciousness? Should we allow it to be subjected to the scrutiny of science?

Before answering it, let us ask ourselves the following question, “Am I alive?” My answer is a confident yes. I did not check my heartbeat. I did not observe my breath before concluding that I am alive. I have not used any devices to validate ECG and neural activity. I need not see something nor do I need hear something. Neither do I need to recognize touch or taste or smell anything. No specific feeling is needed for me to judge that I am alive. “I think, therefore I am” is a crude translation of Descartes’ statement “Cogito, ergo sum”. My scientific knowledge tells me that my heart needs to beat and pump the blood. My lungs need to pump air, and my neurons should fire for my body to function. Since I can perceive and observe that my body is functioning, based on my scientific knowledge, I can conclude that my heart is beating, neurons are firing etc. Of course, by carefully observing, I can feel the thumping of my heart, especially if I place my hands on the chest. When I tried, pulse can be felt near my wrist.

But am I alive because of those activities? Am I alive because my bodily cells are capable of reproducing?

Science is not perfect. There is always a degree unknown and incompleteness. Even the most careful experiments conducted have what is referred as “error rate”. When it comes to measurement devices like a weighing scale or clocks, they can measure only to a limited accuracy. For instance, with current technology, measuring the height of a building to the accuracy of a nanometer is not practical. But it is not just with measurement. Even the concepts accepted as standard have an extremely tiny chance of it being incorrect. For all practical considerations, that may be negligible and not considered a material in normal conversations. For example, Einstein initially proposed relativity, it was conflicting with the accepted concepts. Theory of relativity challenged the notion of simultaneity and universal flow of time. It is now an accepted concept that flow of time is subject to change. As per this, flow of time is not the same in low gravity area as it would be near high gravity like that near a star or blackhole. It is also subject to change based on relative motion, the speed at which the system moves. Prior to this, it was not a possibility by the then recognized concepts of science.

In this context, let me ask my question again.

But am I alive because of the blood flow regulation by my heart or the breath from ? Am I alive because my bodily cells are capable of reproducing? For reasons unknown to the current concepts in science, despite inactivity of my heart and lungs, if I am able to see, hear, smell, feel the touch and taste, am I alive? I am not saying the current concepts are wrong, but rather looking to understand the definition of being alive. If you are able to speak, walk and use your body normally, if you are able to think and perceive, would you consider yourself dead just because the heart is not beating or that you are not breathing? Sci-Fi may allude to zombies and undead, but my question is more fundamental. Personally, are you willing to consider yourself to be not alive even if you are physically, mentally and emotionally functional? Normally, when you use the word alive, do you mean to communicate aspects such as your beating heart or do you mean to communicate ability to function?

Personally, for me, it does not matter what machines show and it does not matter what the scientists claim. I consider myself alive in the case mentioned. Typically, that is how I have used the word “living” and that is how I understand that word in normal conversations. To my knowledge, all languages used by people for social communication have a word equivalent of life. Historically, has it not been used without knowledge of the existence of neurons and cells. So, while it is acceptable to say that aspects like “neural activity, beating heart etc.” seem like pre-requisite for life to exist (in a body), but by reframing that as the definition of life, we are bringing in a subtle change to our communication. A change that redefines an experientially fundamental concept – The concept of life.

By overlooking the possibility of unknown scenarios where we may be able to perceive and interact even in the absence of the factors being considered as prerequisite for life, we are distancing the word from the what it is practically intended to represent. If there is ever a material situation where a person (through their body) is able to perceive and interact, the interpretation that a dead person is able to do that does not seem right to me. I rather favor the interpretation that the person is able to live even absent the conditions we thought to be the prerequisite. I feel that to be the right interpretation as it maintains consistency with how the word life, living is used in general communication. Labeling it other way is not ensuring the correctness/accuracy of science but merely covering up its inadequacy.

In most practical terms, this difference may seem insignificant, but philosophically, it is very important. In my view, if science needs a word to refer to the conditions I mentioned as considered to be prerequisite for life, it should come up with a new word instead of re-writing the definition of the existing word(s) used in communication beyond the confines of scientific discussion.

Absent science, can we clearly define what life is exactly? I mentioned about “perceiving and interacting” but what about the case of someone who is paralyzed. Is that person not alive? Well, in terms of how we use it, we consider the person as alive. So, what can we construed to constitute as living? I can try to refine that definition to “perceiving and having the potential to interact”. So, what about a person who is in deep sleep? If I reflect back, I do not have any memory of my senses or thoughts when I am in deep sleep. However, does that mean I was not perceiving then? Lack of my memory is not proof that I was not perceiving. There are known cases of heavily drunk people who do not have memories of the time when they were drunk. While I can be fully confident that I am able to perceive and think now, I can also claim confidence of being able to think and perceive through my senses of the moments I remember. With respect to moments I do not have a memory, it could either be that I do not remember or that there was nothing to be memorized and I was not perceiving. Even if we follow neural imaging and we can demonstrate that neural inactivity, for reasons similar to the difference between living and the beating of heart, I cannot conclusively say that I was not perceiving and experiencing. Yes, I do not remember and yes, I did not display any indication of enjoying thoughts and perception. But it is not enough to conclude that I was not thinking and perceiving simply because we do not know to differentiate between absence of neural activity and the failure of the brain to register my thoughts vs absence of thoughts. Difference between correlation vs causation is crucial here.

If every time event A has happened, if I look for event B and I notice it as well as I notice absence of B every time A is absent, I can reasonably conclude on their correlation. Consider this example. Just before sunset, anticipating increase in consumption of power in the households, power company and electric board increase the supply of power. In this context, darkness always follows the increase in power supply. Even if there is predictable sequence, increase in power supply did not cause the darkness. It is the rotation of earth that caused the darkness. Indirectly speaking, rotation of the earth is also the cause for increase in power supply because the industry recognized impending darkness resulting from the rotation of the earth. Typically, if there is a strong correlation, it is likely that the earlier even is cause for the subsequent event or they share a common cause. We can practically validate the existence of causality (within reason) is if we are able to trace sequence of the chain of events (with understanding of the mechanics) that begin with the first event and result in the subsequent. Alternatively, we will have to force (or prevent) what we consider as the potential cause without interfering with what normally causes the event. In my example, if we do not increase power supply at the time we are supposed to or if we increase the power supply at times when it is not expected to, then we can get clear idea on causation. In this case, if we do not increase power supply when we are supposed to, darkness will still set in. Similarly if we increase power supply around the noon, darkness will still set in during its usual time. Hence we can conclusively say that increasing power supply is not cause of darkness. If the results were the other way, we would be able to say that power supply is the cause of darkness.

When it comes to our ability to perceive and neural activity, we cannot conclusively talk about causation. Based on what we know, our perception is influence by our memories, current mood and sensory inputs. That is to say that the content of our perception is influenced by these. If I am thinking of a tree now, I am conscious because of the content of my perception, as in the tree or am I considered conscious because of the act of perceiving. I would say that it is the act of perceiving itself and not the content of perception. Having said that, the act of perceiving can be observed only by the one who is perceiving. Rest can only infer its existence.

When I am thinking about something, I know that I am thinking. On the other hand, you may be able observe my neural activity and my reactions. While you can infer that I might be thinking, the act of thinking itself is not something that you can observe. Using modern probes, you may even be able to discern content from my brain and from my apparent memories, you may even get to know about what I was thinking. Rather, what you can conclude as the content of my thoughts. However, other than myself, no one else can observe my act of thinking or perceiving. Based on all the devices available to you, you may be able to come to a reasonable conclusion. But that is still subject to unknown. For unknown reasons, if I am able to think and perceive, but there is no neural activity nor do I express any indications, you may not know that I am thinking. You may falsely conclude that I am not thinking or perceiving, but only I would be able to experience the fact that I am thinking and perceiving.

Aspects like living, being conscious, thinking, perceiving, etc., they are fundamental aspects of our ability to experience, the reason we consider ourselves to be sentient. They are the reason we have desire, we pursue any objectives, the reason behind our ingenuity and even our pursuit of science. Can these fundamental aspects be subject to redefinition by science? But for the one who experiences these, none can observe their existence. Within the bounds and conventions of practical lifestyle, we can reasonably assume that others are also have this “experiential and perceptive qualities”, “thoughts” and a “life”.

For unknown reasons, even if the whole world is incapable of recognizing that you are alive, you are thinking, you can experience and you can perceive. For whatever unknown reasons, even if the whole world has concluded that these attributes are absent in you, are you willing to concede that those attributes are absent in you? Can you rationally and reasonable accept that you are not thinking even if you are presented with mountains of evidence stating otherwise. Given your understanding of consciousness and how you have used it, is it possible for you to reject the notion that you are conscious and accept that you are not a conscious being? Is there any experts or hypothetical devices and reports that can ever convince you that you are not sentient and you are not conscious and that you are not experiencing anything?

My answers to these questions is a simple no. What I think of as “my consciousness”, “my ability to perceive and think”, “my ability to experience”, these are notions that cannot be alienated from me. Even if you change the dictionary definition of the words, I can only agree that the way I have used these words and the notion it represented, those are not reflected by the new definitions. However, the validity of those notions are the most fundamental and inalienable aspect of my sentient nature. None can deny that, not even the esteemed science.

Hence, I am of the opinion that these are beyond the scope of science and science should stay clear of trying to define concepts like life, consciousness, perception, thoughts, experience and sentience. There is nothing more personal than these and it should not be subject to scientific redefinition. With advent of neural biology, cognitive sciences and the progress in AI, I would say that these terms are under threat from science. It is one thing for these notions to slowly evolve in how it is socially used as part of communication. After all, one of the key objective of the words is to be able to communicate with others. However, individuals should have the freedom to let these notions evolve and influence that evolution. Should Advanced AI be considered as sentient and alive? The answer to it should evolve from the society, from discussions and debates, from moral and ethical philosophies. The notions are outside the scope of science, and it should be the same for those words. Scinece should not be trying to answer these questions for it is limited by what can be commonly observed and not what can be observed only by the one to whom it is personal. I repeat. Only I can observe that I am perceiving, while others can only assume that to be the case. The assumption may be reasonable, but it is only as assumption as they cannot detect or observe that I am perceiving. They can only infer it from indirect observations. Those may are may not exist independently the actual ability to perceive. Hence, in my view, those existentially fundamentals notions are and shall forever be beyond the reach of what is today considered as science.

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