The Relation between Formal Science and Natural Science

In 2006 I published this book for the first time, and I’m proud to say that this is the fourth edition of The Relation between Formal Science and Natural Science. In this book, I use Edmund Husserl’s philosophy of logic and mathematics, as well as his semantic doctrine, in order to understand the nature of formal sciences. It posits the existence of ideal meanings and mathematical objects, which are themselves a condition of possibility for any truth and any science whatsoever. It advocates for the search for a criterion to determine the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments, while rejecting Quine’s arguments against it. At the same time it rejects several antiplatonist options such as Mario Bunge’s fictionalism, and Karl Popper’s semiplatonism, while proposing Husserlian epistemology of mathematics as an alternative, which is essentially a sort of "rationalist epistemology" as Jerrold Katz suggested. Finally, the book criticizes the Quine-Putnam theses, especially the one which states that logic and mathematics can be revised in light of recalcitrant experience. Usually three cases for such revision are constantly presented in this debate: quantum logic, non-euclidean geometry and the general theory of relativity, and chaos theory. I show that none of these a posteriori matters-of-fact have revised any a priori formal fields such as mathematics and logic.

The book’s website has also undergone major surgery, changing it from plain HTML to a Drupal platform. This is how it used to look like:

Old Website

(Click for Larger Version)

This is how it looks like:

Website in Browser
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You can look at the new website by going to I hope you like it. Any comments or questions about it, please, let me know.

The book is completely available online under different formats. You can download it for free and copy it as many times as you wish just under two conditions: the original work will be preserved verbatim, and no commercial use of it is allowed unless you have reached an agreement with me. Additional to this, because the cover is a derived copylefted version of a GPLed wallpaper in, I released the cover and all of its new graphic elements under the GNU GPL as well, and allow people to download it and use it as they wish commercially or non-commercially as long as they comply with that license.

The book is also available for sale for now in

I hope that this book will help contribute to a clearer understanding about the nature and role of formal sciences such as logic and mathematics, and natural sciences such as physics and biology.

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This article is part of a series of articles on the subject of evolution, ethics and spirituality:

Parts: I, II, III, IV, V, VI (1), VI (2), VII, VIII (1), VIII (2), IX (1), IX (2), IX (3), X (1), X (2), X (3), XI (1), XI (2), XI (3), XII

Evolution, Ethics, And Spirituality: Part XIII — The Techno-Scientific Stratum

Introduction: A Peculiar Doctor

It is funny to see a comedy group like Los Rayos Gamma (literally "the gamma rays") make fun of politics. One of my favorite characters is one Dr. Rodas. He was an evil doctor, living like this evil scientist, speaking Spanish with an U.S. accent … with a very Dr. Frankenstein sort of appearance of his lab, damning all those damn Puerto Ricans to hell. And with him, there is a hunchbacked character called Igor (who does whatever Dr. Rodas says, but covertly he is pro-Puerto Rico). In Puerto Rico it was an instant hit, and when Los Rayos Gamma had their show on TV, they showed Dr. Rodas every now and then to criticize Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States.

Yet, what many people don’t know is that this fictional character was actually based on a real person. Let’s meet this person. TIME Magazine dedicated an issue to him. His name, Doctor Cornelius Rhoads:

Dr. Cornelius Rhoads

Why on Earth would Los Rayos Gamma create a character out of him? And why the heck is TIME Magazine showing an inverted symbol of medicine, used as a sword, to trespass one very ugly looking human skull? As it happens, like Doctor Rodas, Dr. Cornelius Rhoads was known for his plan to kill Puerto Ricans. He was a renowned physician who worked in the Presbyterian Hospital of Puerto Rico for a while. He had been sent by the Rockefeller Foundation to do some work here "healing" patients, and also do some research. At that time, it was pretty common for north American doctors to visit Puerto Rico and practice there. But Rhoads was special.

In 1931, when he was about to complete his research, he decided to write a letter addressed to "Ferdie", or Dr. Fred W. Stewart, and in that letter, "Dusty" aka Rhoads, said:

As far as I can see, the chances of my getting a job in the next 10 years are absolutely nil. One is certainly not encouraged to attempt scientific advances when it is a handicap rather than an aid to advancement. I can get a damn fine job here and am tempted to take it. It would be ideal except for the Porto Ricans — they are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. It makes you sick to inhabit the same island with them. They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work, but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting into several more. The latter has not resulted in any fatalities so far. … The matter of consideration for the patient’s welfare plays no role here — in fact, all physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects. Do let me know if you hear any more news.



According to later testimony, apparently "Dusty" wrote this when he was enraged at the fact that someone stole something from his car. When lab workers in the Presbyterian Hospital found the letter and photocopied it, all hell broke lose. The letter reached Nationalist leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, who displayed it for all Puerto Ricans to see. Rhoads had to flee to the U.S., but remained protected by the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as the U.S. government.

You will find more information about it in this book.

Scientific Problems

Science is itself a rational discipline, one of the great proud daughters of philosophy. Yet, some use it for evil. Nazi Germany used scientists extensively to examine and torture all sorts of prisoners in concentration camps. Science was also used against people in the gulags in the Soviet Union. Dom Hélder Câmara, a Catholic bishop in Brazil, thanked Pope Paul VI for his determination against artificial contraceptives in his encyclical Humana Vitae, or else foreign corporations would make all sorts of experiments with Latin Americans. Even in the United States, the government and corporations made all sorts of experiments on Native Americans, minorities, poor white people, among other groups, including members of the military. Eugenics was one of those instances where active discrimination against minorities was disguised as science, and left a very, very dark history. The effects of the nuclear blasts still torment people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Genetics was used to argue against marriage among races in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Science can be terrible in so many ways. It is an amoral discipline too, but its end is not money, it is knowledge of the physical world. In and of itself, science is neither good nor bad. It is good in so far it provides knowledge, but how do you use that knowledge will make it ethically good, bad or evil. Yet unlike CEOs, many scientists do restrain themselves from something they consider to be unethical. Some corporate scientists or some scientists working for the government are not so lucky, though. Many times they are asked to distort a lot of material to suggest the public that certain products are not really harmful, or that climate change is not really happening.

Yet, science in and of itself never asks itself ethical questions. That is not its field. What sort of problems do scientists deal with? They deal with scientific questions … Although this is the sort of truism that could make people stare at me and say "Duh!", it is not all that obvious. Recently there have been many authors such as Sam Harris who actually pretends to go around the naturalistic fallacy, and somehow infer truths of reasons (ethical norms) out of matters of fact. You cannot derive an ought from is, no matter what sort of thorough scientific reasoning you try to use. Science can inform us so that we can make informed ethical decisions, but from particular facts we cannot infer universal ethical norms.

As in the case of the so-called "business ethics", there is always the temptation to reduce the ethical level to another level. In business ethics there is an effort to reduce ethics to "whatever works for society" … especially "whatever works for business". In Sam Harris’ case, as in the case of other scientists who try to do the same, ethics is inferred from whatever operations happen in our brains, or whatever can be biologically "good" for us. Yet, all you will discover in the brain are neural impulses, how neurons and organs in the brain interact … nothing more. In cosmology you can study the special theory of relativity and know how Einstein reached through simple algebra the equation: E=mc². However, we will never find anything remotely resembling duty, honor, respect, dignity in the physical realm, nor do these form part of any scientific equation (physical, biological or otherwise). Again, all of this might be obvious to most of you, but you have absolutely no idea how many times I have argued with intellectuals and academics who want to establish a basis on good behavior on quantum physics. 😛 …

The problems dealt by scientists stimulate the curiosity on the scientist and enables them to research. Alas! Sometimes their research can involve inhumane treatment of animals, or even their abuse. It might involve things such as ruining forests and agriculture, as in the case with experiments with agent orange. It might involve the abuse of embryos. Although not properly sentient beings, there is a sense of offense or indignity to humanity with the fact that thousands of them end up in the trash can. Sometimes the research could involve experimenting on people without their consent.

Sometimes genuine and good research tends to give results which can have harmful consequences. For instance, recently the human genome was mapped, and many genes identified for what they do. We know that there are genes that predispose us to have cancer or other forms of illnesses. In the future, will we be dropped by insurance companies on that basis alone because of pre-existing conditions in our genes? What about being laid off because of a potential illness that a company or government knows will hinder you from being productive in the future? Should our genome be available to everyone?

Food for Thought: One particular scientist made his DNA sequence, his genome, available in the Internet. Some people have studied it thoroughly and have discovered that there is an 80% chance that during his adult life, this scientist will be bald. Well, this scientist is an adult right now, and practically everyone in the world knows how he looks like. Here is Steven Pinker … aka the scientist who rivals Einstein regarding hair:

Steven Pinker

Technological Problems

Last but not least, with the advance of science comes technology. Guns, computers, TVs, Nintendo, Wii, and so on are ethically neutral, and it would be drop dead obvious that these are all "good" in the sense that they can be useful. Yet, most people treat them as being ends-in-themselves, rather than means to an end. As in business ethics, and as efforts to reduce ethics to biology, some people define ethics in terms of a technique or a technical process that achieves a result. Yet, as with the economy, and as science, technological problems within itself do not include ethical problems. The matter of technological use is external or outside the technological realm. If your computer crashes, I assure you, no dignity or sense of duty will fix the problem, only a good technician with the right tools will do.

The Techno-Scientific Stratum

André Comte-Sponville conceived a stratum that is purely technical, which he originally wanted to call "economic-techno-scientific order". Yet, this name is too long, so he just called it the "techno-scientific order", or the tecno-scientific stratum. Essentially it is a set of sub-strata operating on their own, having their own problem-solving processes, and in many ways interacting with each other. We could represent our view of them this way.

Techno-Scientific Stratum

In this diagram, I essentially use a Popperian version of problem-solving scheme for each sub-stratum identified by Comte-Sponville as being part of the techno-scientific stratum. As we can see, these three sub-strata have their own problems, and their own ways to solve them within their own system. The techno-scientific stratum is solely composed of amoral fields, where their internal problem-solving process do not include anything about ethics or any other stratum. Notice that the way the economic, scientific and technological dynamics are not islands operating completely separately, but they all interact with each other. Each sub-stratum generates an external problem-solving process, which means basically that each sub-stratum can generate problems to other sub-strata.

An example of how one sub-stratum affects another is when scientists find some facts which could be inconvenient for a particular product by a corporation, which would later lead to banning the product and prospective loss of capital. Advances in technology can also affect the speed in which a corporation produces, hence generating more income. If a corporation does not adjust itself to new technologies, it will lose in the marketplace.

Also, this problem-solving relationship among sub-strata help us understand the way they interact. For example, the discovery of genes of the human genome has led to scientific processes to isolate them (through technology), and such way of extracting the genes are patented by a corporation (economy).

The model above implies that the whole techno-scientific stratum can also create external problems to other external strata, as we shall see in future blog posts.

At this stage of the discussion, the question is: should the techno-scientific stratum be limited? If we look at each sub-stratum as we have discussed here and in our earlier blog post, we can infer that the answer is yes. Not to limit the economy in any way, and leave it as a free-for-all sort of behavior will result in many forms of externalities which could seriously harm us and harm the ecosystem as a whole. If some limitations are not placed to the scientific enterprise, then the important sectors of the enterprise may result in researches which require experimentation on humans without their consent, animal abuse, contamination of an ecosystem, undignifying procedures, and so on. The same reasoning applies to technology, because we should decide which technology should be built and how it is used for the benefit of humanity.

The question now is, what will establish the limitations of the economy, science, and technology, in other words, the techno-scientific stratum. And here the laws and the state will limit it externally. This will be the subject of the next blog post.


Aponte Vázquez, P. (2005). The unsolved case of Dr. Cornelius Rhoads: an indictment. PR: Publicaciones René.

Comte-Sponville, A. (2004). El capitalismo, ¿es moral? Spain: Paidós.

Ferrer, J. J. & Álvarez, J. C. (2003). Para fundamentar la bioética: teorías y paradigmas teóricos en la bioética contemporánea. España: Desclée de Brower.

Popper, K. (1994). Knowledge and the body-mind problem: in defence of interaction. London & NY: Routledge.

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This article is part of a series of articles on the subject of evolution, ethics and spirituality:

Parts: I, II, III, IV, V, VI (1), VI (2), VII, VIII (1), VIII (2), IX (1), IX (2), IX (3), X (1), X (2), X (3)

Karl R. Popper

Returning to Popper’s Proposal

If there is a common denominator for memeticists is that they all, in one manner or another, thank Karl Popper for the idea of a Darwinian evolutionary growth. Darwin’s theory of evolution establishes that nature is a "blind watchmaker", as Dawkins would say. Yet, culture seems to be another thing altogether. Memetics doesn’t work, because memes are supposed to operate irrationally (blindly), they jump from human brain to human brain and create the illusion that humans have an ego, that they think, that they reason, etc.

But, did Popper actually propose a Darwinist epistemology? Actually he did not, even thought he actually thought he did. Popper is to be blamed for this confusion. There are three reasons for it:

  1. The first big problem which confused Popper has to do with the remarkable resemblance between the way organisms speciate, and the way that culture evolves or develops. In both cases, they both look alike. This is the Popperian diagram on how culture develops (left), and Darwin’s own diagram in The Origin of Species, as we have explained in a previous post (Popper, 1994, p. 62).

    Evolutionary CultureSpeciation According to Darwin

  2. This first problem leads to a second problem: the confusion was that he established a strong analogy (there is that problem again!) between the Darwinian way which living beings evolve non-progressively, and the way culture evolves (Popper, 1994, pp. 60-62). Popper is correct when he says Darwin’s proposal excludes the concept of "progress". Since nature is a "blind watchmaker", it is not trying to "perfect" organisms, rather what organisms do is to survive or die depending on their genetic makeup, behavior, and environmental factors. But this is not true about culture. Yes, there are some cultural aspects which are non-progressive, but this is not true in cases such as science, philosophy, theology, or even fields such as art and literature. In fact, Popper recognizes some of this as deviation from Darwinism (Popper, 1994, pp. 63).
  3. Finally, the third problem: Popper does not establish a clear distinction (although it is confusingly there) among kinds of problems. For instance, he does recognize that at the level of unintelligent organisms, we can talk about "problems" and "solutions" to these "problems". For example, organisms in general have problems regarding survival. Not being able to survive is a "problem", which gene-mutation and natural selection "solve" by predisposing the organism’s brain or its structure to overcome the "problem". Yet, these "problems" are unlike those like these: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or the problem of how Mercury does not behave according to Newtonian theory, i.e. problems with no survival value.

    This problem is aggravated by the fact that even when Popper recognizes a teleology in culture, both unintelligent and intelligent organisms create an abstract World 3 (see previous post on these details).

If all of this is problematic for Popper, it is because of one thing. As we have seen in our previous post on memetics, culture is not Darwinian. And by establishing important exceptions to a Darwinian view, Popper is actually denying that culture is Darwinian without realizing it. However "alike" are the process of speciation among living beings, and cultural evolution, in reality culture is Lamarckian. Why? Here is the difference between Darwinian and Lamarckian. "Lamarckian" means that whatever the process is occurring, it has a purpose, a goal. "Darwinian" means the most quoted passage ever from Richard Dawkins:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference (Dawkins, 1995, p. 133).

Of course, after those depressing words, there is a downer within us, but Dawkins has a point. Darwinism is an amoral process. We should not be surprised that we find instances of disgust when we look at nature and are puzzled at how much struggle and suffering can be engines for life and evolution. This is one of the reasons why Darwin could not conceive a Creator Who could be so cruel as to create a ichneumon wasp that would paralyze (but not kill) caterpillars, so that it could lay its eggs within them for its larvae to eat them alive.

Yet, there are many cultural aspects which are concerned with many rational and intelligent aspects of the problem-solving process: design of the economy to make it more effective, the best possible political process, concern with ethical acts, and so on. Nature may not be intelligently designed, but culture is.

This means that we have to understand the realm of culture in very different terms. Here is my suggestion, not exempt from problems, but I think it is the best philosophical direction to this discussion I can think of:

  • Let’s establish a difference between improper problems and proper problems. Improper problems are those which occur unintelligently in nature as "problem for survival" (be them genetic, environmental, or dealing with sexual appeal). Proper problems are those arising from culture, they are intelligently grasped, understood, and recognized, hence requiring intelligent solutions. Improper problems are Darwinian, while proper problems are Lamarckian.
  • Let’s assume, for our discussion Popper’s problem-solving scheme for culture, and avoid the misnomer "Darwinian".

From this perspective, I think that we can properly address the way we have culturally organized society.

Our Ethical Framework

We have already stated that the way organisms develop, and how Darwinian evolution works is essentially amoral. However, we, humans, are moral animals. Theologian John Haught, frequantly points out the difficulty of how amoral processes can give rise to moral beings. Yet, what do we mean by "moral beings" or by the term "amoral"? This needs to be clarified.

  • Amoral: a being or a process whose way of being or its operations are not concerned at all with the ethical values of "right", "wrong", "good", "bad", or "evil". The concepts of "virtue"and "vice" in an amoral being and in amoral operations are not determined at all by ethical values either.
  • Moral Being: a being whose way of behavior is determined by the values of "right", "wrong", "good", "bad", or "evil". The concepts of "virtue" and "vice" are determined by these values.

This is the consequence of being a rational animal, and also a result of the very complex way our brain is designed. When we discussed the way our brain developed as a result of the Darwinian process of exaptation, the article gives us a gist of how we became moral animals:

  1. The R-Complex is where all our basic and fundamental instincts reside. Without them, we wouldn’t have stimuli which are essential to every decision making.
  2. The limbic system is where primary emotions come in. As many labs and studies have shown extensively it is impossible to make rational decisions without emotions. The reason is that the limbic system gives the emotional twist to the instincts provided by the R-Complex, and it provides us with the faculty of empathy. Empathy lets us place ourselves in someone else’s shoes from an emotional standpoint. People without empathy are unable to have feelings of guilt or regret, which are psychologically necessary to develop a good and healthy moral sense.
  3. The neocortex lets us calculate, reason, and rationalize our behavior. It also processes higher level emotional processes. This helps us in the decision making, itself made possible by …
  4. The executive part of the brain, or the frontal lobes. This is the part of the brain where our consciousness (our "self" or our "ego") in the intuitive resides, where we make our decisions, where we actually project the consequences of our actions.

I’ve discussed this in more detail in another blog post in this series.

Without these parts of our brain originated through exaptation, we wouldn’t be able to be moral animals. We must not overestimate ourselves, though. We are not the only moral beings on Earth. Many other primates do share a lesser degree of moral sense: they can be predisposed biologically to be upset when they are lied to, or when there is adultery, or when a member of the group steals. There is a sense of "right" and "wrong" in them.

Of course, multilevel-group selection proposed by David Sloan Wilson and others can explain this perfectly: anything that erodes the trust of the group is rejected by that group. Also, moral behavior, especially with kin organisms within a group, is part of the whole system of solidarity and cooperation that makes a species survive.

For more information on this interesting subject go to

Now, I have mentioned this notion of moral sense, a term used by David Hume and other philosophers to refer to that feeling or intuition of what is "right" or "wrong". If other animals have moral sense, it would seem that humans are not unique in that sense either. Some people have stated that it is no longer plausible to establish a significant difference between humans and the rest of the animals in terms of reason and morality.

Yet, I beg to differ. The rest of the animals, even those acting with moral sense, are unable to rationally reflect on what they are doing. In humans we find the fact that our brain has a recursive quality: not only am I thinking, but I am also aware that I am thinking, and that I am aware that I am aware that I’m thinking. As Descartes would say: even if I denied that I’m thinking, I’m still thinking. The cogito (our thinking activity) is an essential part of human consciousness.

Due to this self-reflection, we are able to know that even our moral sense can be wrong from time to time. This is one of the great puzzles for those who wish to naturalize ethics. Dawkins said that sometimes we should go against our "selfish-genes" to do what is "right". Yet, he is unable to answer in purely naturalistic terms how do we know what is "right" and when to oppose our selfish genes. If we go to the multilevel group understanding of selection, not always the solidarity system established by organism can be said to be "right" regarding such and such individual. A behavior which alienates a member which a group considers the "odd" one can be beneficial in the amoral evolutionary process, but it is not said to be objectively good. Also, different forms of alienation within the groups (e.g. alienating either males or females, or the weak, or the less able) can be advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint, and yet it is not good from an ethical one.

Hence, we should distinguish between the moral and the ethical. An act is moral if it follows the uses and customs of a society. This might include uses and customs depending on biological dispositions, or adopted culturally by human society. An act is ethical, if it is inherently good. The field of ethics is precisely the one which investigates what is rationally which actions can be called good. This field is subdivided in three:

  • Metaethics: Imagine that some extraterrestrials from planet Melmac, the world of ALF (aka Gordon Shumway), sends a spaceship full of scientists and intellectuals … if that is possible in Melmac 😛 … to study and evaluate human behavior. Indeed they would use some rational principles to evaluate those behaviors (supposing that Melmacians are rational). These principles are the concern of metaethics. This is the field that investigates the rational principles which let us evaluate moral norms as being ethical or not.
  • Normative Ethics: This is the field which investigates ethical norms themselves, which should derive from principles investigated by metaethics.
  • Applied Ethics: Given that our experiences in the world does not lead us to "black or white" clear-cut decisions, applied ethics deals with the problem of prioritizing ethical norms in every day life. This can go from bioethics, to environmental ethics, to law, business, etc. Practically most ethicists are dedicated to this field.

There are also two different approaches to the subject of ethical behavior. One is called teleological ethics, that is, the ethical view that we should take a course of action due to the consequences in the long run. It is teleological because it has a goal external to our actions. Utilitarianism which is so praised in the Anglo-Saxon world is a form of teleological ethics.

The other approach is called deontological ethics, which is the ethical view that we should follow ethical norms because they themselves are good, they themselves are our only goal regardless of their consequences.

Each of these views has advantages and disadvantages. My approach from here on will be a deontological, that ethical norms should be followed because they good-in-themselves. This will give us the appropriate framework to discuss ethics within the complexities we find in every day life.

P.S. That you do not know about Planet Melmac???? That you have no idea who Gordon Shumway is (aka ALF)??!!! Here I post two videos to refresh your memory!


Dawkins, R. River out of Eden: a Darwinian view of life. US: Basic Books.

O’Hear, A. (1980). Karl Popper. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Popper, K. R. (1972). Objective knowledge: an evolutionary approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Popper, K. R. (1994). Knowledge and the body-mind problem: in defence of interaction. London: Routledge.

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This article is part of a series of articles on the subject of evolution, ethics and spirituality:

Parts: I, II, III, IV, V, VI (1), VI (2), VII, VIII (1), VIII (2), IX (1), IX (2), IX (3)

Abstract Cultural Reality

When Karl Marx Changed his Mind …

There is perhaps no other person in history who is more loved and at the same time hated and feared as Karl Marx. Sometimes he is loved for the right reasons, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. Those who hate him do so usually (not always) on mischaracterizations and misunderstandings, more often fueled by ideological considerations. Sometimes those who love him have a very distorted view of his philosophical and economic views, and many of those who hate him do also. Usually both parties have a very cartoonish view of his ideas, sometimes exaggerated either to favor some left-wing views, or some right-wing views.

But let’s be fair to him. In my opinion, Marx is one of the most important economists in history. You may love him, you may hate him, but there is something you cannot do, and that is to ignore him. As philosopher, though, he was not very good. He did understand Hegel’s philosophy and applied a modified and radicalized form of his dialectics, but one thing is understanding and applying a philosophy, and another is to do philosophy. According to a 2005 BBC Radio poll carried out in Great Britain, the public was asked who was the greatest philosopher of all time. Here are the three winners:

Karl Marx — 28%

David Hume — 12.7%

Ludwig Wittgenstein – 6.8%

The rest of the philosophers had lower percentages. The Economist magazine asked people to favor Hume, but Marx won nonetheless. I think that this is one of those cases where whoever wins in a poll is clearly wrong. Actually, Hume and Wittgenstein were better philosophers than Marx. (I have to say, though, that I strongly suspect that The Economist campaigned for Hume for reasons which have nothing to do with Hume’s merits as philosopher). For me, the five best philosophers of all time are Plato, Aristotle, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl. Now, if you asked me who are the three greatest economists of all time, I’ll say: Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Manyard Keynes. If you push me a bit, I would say that the first two are the two greatest.

Now let me clarify that I’m not saying that his philosophical background was not important in his economic views. Without it, an economic gem such as his greatest work, Capital, would not have been possible. Most people I hear on TV or radio criticizing Marxian views in Capital have either not read it, or not understood it fully. The problem is that much of these people have very poor philosophical formation or background.

Ever since Marx underwent his philosophical formation, he was not only an atheist, but a rabid materialist. His doctoral disertation was on Democritus and Epicurus, atomistic metaphysical theory, which established that all that exists is material. In his youth, we have his comments on Hegel and his criticisms of his spiritualistic and phenomenological works. In the economic and philosophical manuscripts (1844), Marx held a very rabid materialistic view of the world. He did think that everything in society was uniquely determined by the economy, and that human ideologies only exist to legitimize a situation where the burgoisie as a social class will benefit from it. As a result, he rejected all political economists. For Adam Smith, for instance, profit (or what Marx would call the surplus value) is the result of adding value to a commodity because of the labor activity. Marx’s response: Nonsense! Categories such as "exchange-value", "accumulated value", its measure, etc. are all abstractions, they are fictions! They are not real! These are pure ideological categories which serve to benefit the burgoisie! The surplus-value is nothing more than a way that the burgois cheats: he adds value to a price and THAT is how he obtains all the material wealth. Piece of cake!

Yet, several years later, Marx wrote a series of works including two classic works such as Salary, price, and profit, and Marx’s masterpiece Capital. If you see Marx as a rabid materialist you would say: "Ah! When I open these books to read them, he is just going to reject all sorts of categories of economic theory and state that we should only fix our eyes in material reality!" But, when you actually start to read these works, you realize something astonishing. He embraces these abstract categories! How strange! What the heck would change his mind?

For starters, it is impossible for the surplus-value to be a sort of cheating by the burgoisie class. The reason is that if it were true, we could not explain why much the owners of the means of production (the burgoisie) get rich in the first place. If what Marx said earlier were true, all of the cheating in the market would cancel all attempts for any sort of profit. Second, for any scientific theory to be possible, you have no choice but to abstract and find all categories ruling your object of study.

And when you start reading Capital, something more astonishing appears. In his dialectical analysis of capitalism you realize that this is a doctrine by Marx: all commodities have exchange value, which is equivalent to socially necessary labor time, when abstract labor is being accumulated in the commodity, and so on. His dialectics is sufficiently rich to link all of these abstractions to concrete features or objects (use value, concrete labor, etc.) But for Marx, all of these abstract categories are no longer fictions, they are objective. Marx still rejects much of what classical economists said, but validated the scientific categories they used. The basic difference between classical economists and Marx is that the former said "if you only follow our instructions, the economy will be OK". The latter researched enough to say: "Naaaah! Even if the economy behaved as you say, there would still be problems, and here is the reason why … read my work Capital." And what about the surplus-value? It is simply the wealth created by the labor force that is not paid to the proletariat as salary. That’s about it!

Also Marx recognized that this is not the only abstraction that is objective. He also recognized a sort of cultural realm, which is not uniquely determined by the economy (relations of production), but that also has a life of its own. He still believed that the economy predominated ultimately on culture, but he also recognized that culture can affect the relations of production, and social class structures. Not everything in culture addresses the economy. St. Thomas Aquinas’ question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin was intrinsically a theological question, not economic. Whether induction is the appropriate approach for science is a philosophical question on science, it is not an economic question on science. So, the economy predominates, but it is not everything. Culture, that abstract realm shared by many human minds, is also objective.

When Karl Popper accepted the Existence of Another World, He became Darwinian

Now, there was a real philosopher, not an economist, who also happened to have the name "Karl". He was called Karl R. Popper, perhaps one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. He is famous for many things. First, he was one factor in the end of a philosophical movement called logical empiricism, especially with his criticism against induction in general and their demarcation criterion for science. And yes, he is also known for upsetting scientists’ stomachs by criticizing induction and claiming that it doesn’t exist! I happen to agree with him though, and I explained earlier why. He is also known for his devastating critique of Plato, Hegel and Marx, especially in his work: The Open Society and its Enemies. I happen to agree with his notion of open society, especially as one of the most important philosophical foundations for free software, but I disagree with many (not all) of his statements against Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx. I think that he is one of those philosophers who try, in some subtle way, to present other philosophers disfavorably to see himself as superior.

However, what is less known about him is his World 3 philosophical view. He based his theory in part on Hegel’s philosophy, but mostly on Frege’s semantic views. Frege was a Platonist, and he believed that we should identiy three different realms if we want to preserve the objectivity of truth and the objective validity of mathematics and logic:

  1. First Realm: The physical realm, i.e. the material world as a whole.
  2. Second Realm: This is the realm of subjective thinking activity and mental representations. This is the realm of what cannot be shared among minds.
  3. Third Realm: The realm of objective abstract reality that can be shared by all minds, but is independent of our minds.

Popper would make the same distinction calling each of these "World 1", "World 2", and "World 3" respectively. However, he made a very important modification to Frege’s "third realm". For Popper, "World 3" is not an independent realm of abstract objects, but autonomous from the human mind. He is proposing a very constructivist point of view of this abstract realm. Everything in World 3 is created by the human mind, but that doesn’t mean that we can do with them as we will. Quite the contrary! For instance, we originated numbers, and we forged the concept of "prime numbers". As we know, prime numbers are those which are not the result of multiplication of other numbers other than 1 (except the number 1): 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 … Once we create this category, we cannot will that number 4 be a prime number, or that number 11 be a non-prime number. In this sense, numbers and concepts (categories) escape our will. In a sense they become knowledge without a knower.

This paves the way to an interesting fact about these abstract content. First, World 3 elements only exist if there is a potential for grasping them. Unlike a platonist like Frege, who considered abstract content to be eternal, Popper argued that the existence of this abstract reality is only subject to the fact that there is content embedded in books, tapes, etc. so that intelligent beings can grasp them. If they disappear, or are destroyed, so is destroyed the content along with them.

But more interesting still is that World 3 has a sort of life of its own, which does not depend on any rational mind (World 2). First, we must recognize that there is an interaction between the three worlds. Situations in life (World 1), make us think and reflect (World 2), and through a thinking process (World 2), we reach a conclusion (World 3). Also, this conclusion (World 3) can be applied to the physical world (World 1), because of us, the thinking agents (World 2). So our minds mediate between the physical world and the world of abstract content, or in Poppers language: World 1 and World 3 interact through World 2.

To understand better this interaction, we have to understand how our mind works. Mostly as a result of evolution, the way we respond to the world depends on the stimuli which comes from it. This is because animals’ minds in general are "programmed" to respond in a certain way given a certain stimulus. In humans’ mental processes this is far more complex, since what stimulates us as thinking beings are not just pure stimuli from the world, but problems. For instance, a problem could be the scarcity of food in a certain country, or the problem of how planets revolve around the sun. According to Popper, we propose solutions to these problems, then there is a process of discussion about these solutions, and finally we carry them out or assume one of these solutions as the best. We must notice, though, that from this new solution, new problems arise. The process can be described this way:

Simplified Problem-Solution Scheme

Where P1 and P2 correspond to the first problem and the new problem respectively, "TT" represents the propose theory or solution to the problem, and EE means elimination of errors. Of course, this is too simplistic, we could use a more accurate scheme to describe the sociological process of problem-solving.

Second Problem-Solving Scheme

Where CED is "critical exhaustive discussion" about the different given solutions. Even when this is closer to what really happens, it is still too simple, but at least we get the gist of what he is trying to say.

Yet, the fact that every solution yields another problem means that in all fields of endeavor, scientific theorizing, religious beliefs, etc., the process of problem-solving goes more like this.

Evolutionary Knowledge

There can be many solutions to a problem, or many problems generated by a solution, and this makes possible a diversity of ways of thinking, solving, or dealing with problems. Science operates this way. You can see how fields multiply as they specialize in different genres of problems about the world. The same has happened to religions, and other fields and practices in humanity.

Let us remember that these are abstract problems, and we give abstract solutions to solve them. Marx (in a limited way) would recognize that in many ways, the economy depends greatly on abstract and objective categories that shape the way wealth is distributed. Popper’s claim is no different, although not limited to the economy as ultimate determinant of society’s structure and culture: this ever-growing abstract knowledge is also objective. Knowers, in many cases, cannot will to change the truth or the true consequences of a statement if they want to. I can posit a series of geometrical axioms on triangles, and from them I can derive theorems such as the Pythagorean theorems, or I can derive the theorem that says that the addition of the angles of the triangle are 180?. But once I construct the abstract concept of a triangle (as understood by Euclidean geometry) I cannot will that the Pythagorean theorem be false, or that the addition of its angles are 250?, even if I wish it. Much of the solutions proposed by people, and much of the problems that arise from them are unintended consequences already existing in World 3, and that thinkers (World 2) need to discover. We know that pi is the ratio between a circle’s circumference and the diameter, and the result is an irrational number, the decimal expression is infinite. Maybe we still don’t know what is the trillionth digit of the number pi, but in a sense it is there, it exists somehow in World 3, and we must somehow discover it.

Now, look at that last diagram I placed. Doesn’t it look familiar? It looks a lot like these drawings.

Darwin's Drawing

Speciation -

The first illustration above is a historic page. It begins by saying "I think" and proceeds to describe what the author believes the way species evolved. This page was drawn by Charles Darwin to describe speciation. Below there is a large diagram in The Origin of Species where Darwin describes how speciation took place.

Is Popper saying that knowledge evolves a la Darwin? Yes and no. Yes, the way knowledge grows seems a lot like the process of speciation that we appreciate in all living things. There is also an aspect of "extinction" of a species, a sort of "natural selection" of hypotheses and theories. For instance, when a hypothesis is refuted by evidence, usually it "dies". Sometimes a better theory comes along that ends another one in the field, in this sense the former survives and the latter becomes "extinct".

And no, in the sense that in many areas of knowledge, such as science, there can be "speciation" regarding how problems are addressed as specific fields are created, but at the same time there is a convergence of knowledge. Take physics, for instance. We used to believe that the laws governing the heavens and those governing the Earth were different, until Newton came along and joined them together with his theory of gravity. We also used to believe that electricity and magnetism were different realms, until Maxwell joined them together with electromagnetic laws. Biology, chemistry and other fields have to agree in some level with physics. Physics integrates mathematics, which is itself a very different field. World 3 keeps speciating, and yet converging in some way, and we are the agents that make this possible. The same happens with other fields.

Welcome to the world of evolutionary knowledge.

Quantum Consciousness?

One of the very big problems we find regarding consciousness is that of the appearance of the ego and the fact that it has some sort of life-experience (as phenomenologists would say). This has been the holy grail of neurobiology for many years now, and we still has no adequate theory to address it.

Some scientists take an exotic path to solve this problem, like in the case of Stuart Hameroff when he tries to address this issue using quantum mechanics. Here is his explanation (an hour and 9 minutes interview):

I am no neurobiologist, so I will not criticize Hameroff on that basis, but I can do so on a philosophical basis. For instance, I noticed that he is positing the physical existence of a platonic realm where we have access to rational aspects of consciousness in the universe. In fact, according to the theory suggested by David Bohm, in order to avoid the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics, we have to recognize existence of hidden variables and non-local interconnectedness. Hameroff also used Roger Penrose’s proposal that when superpositions happen there is a split in reality, but these splits are unstable, so they end up collapsing. Hameroff and Penrose suggest that this platonic dominion is the realm of non-local interconnectedness at the Planck scale, where we find logical and mathematical truths, ethical norms and values, and the aspiration for a deeper meaning. And particularly in the microtubules in the brain at the quantum level, there is superposition being carried out all the time which actually connects to this platonic realm due quantum behavior (including the travel of quantum information backwards in time).

As philosopher, a realist (particularly a platonist), I am particularly concerned about this, because it starts from the premise that platonic abstract truths and relations are physical, hence reducing relations-of-ideas (as Hume would call them) to matters-of-fact. Philosophically speaking, this would still not explain why are logical and mathematical truths true in every possible world, while physical laws can apply to this world, but not necessarily to any other world.

It also has the problem of what can actually be the base to determine that such physical logico-mathematical laws or ethical values are indeed correct, the only way is to posit a non-physical and non-causal abstract reality, which would lead us back to square one. Since the physical platonic realm is based on the non-causal platonic realm, then how is the physical one legitimized or unconditionally valid in any way?

Second, many have suggested epistemological models to achieve the level of abstraction that would enable us to recognize abstract concepts or objects. Guillermo Rosado Haddock, my former thesis director and now friend, has proposed Edmund Husserl’s epistemology of mathematics (see Rosado, 2000), which is essentially platonist but whose epistemology can be naturalizable in principle. A similar proposal has been made by Jerrold Katz with his realistic epistemology, which can be naturalizable (Katz, 1998, pp. 45-51). I think that the Husserlian mathematical epistemology, in my judgment, is more satisfactory and complete, and the way it was formulated by him can show that it can be naturalized, neurobiologists could, in principle, discover the natural mechanisms of the brain that would let us perceive abstract structures and relations based on objects being shown to us. Much of Husserl’s view of "elementary experience" have been confirmed again and again in the realm of psychology and neurobiology. A "physical platonic" realm, or a platonic space embedded in the universe is not needed for this.

The same thing happens with the discovery of elementary ethics and values, which in reality can be explained through the diverse conflicts developed within human groups, which leads to the setting of several basic moral rules to be followed, the recognition of another person as a person, another rational being (here is a phenomenological aspect), and then universalizing it to all rational beings. And as we see in different stages of society throughout history, group morals limited ethical behavior to the group, and then this requirement was expanded to include larger groups, until we are able to empathize with humanity as a whole. We are going to talk about this in a later article, but the origin of our grasp of ethical values seems to be evolutionary. The same can be said about meaning values which serve as one basis of all religious beliefs and spiritual paths.

Finally, from the perspective of philosophy of science, perhaps the most serious flaw in Hameroff’s proposal is that it is non-testable. There is absolutely no way at all to show experimentally that there is a consciousness embedded in the universe, much less a physical platonic realm of truths and values. Unless there is a way to create an experiment that would confirm his theory, it will remain a metaphysical proposal (in the Popperian sense of the word "metaphysical").

At a personal level, I feel that quantum physics has become a sort of quick answer to certain mysteries of the universe. The reasoning is: if quantum phenomena look as weird as X, then in some way X and quanta are related. The quantum world is strange indeed, but the problem with always looking for answers in quantum physics is that in the end it does not explain anything. It just restates in the form of an extensive chain of equations that both X and quanta are weird. The same criticism goes to the holonomic view of the brain.

Memory Power: Sometimes You Have It All Over the Brain, Sometimes You Don’t

Sure enough, some of the holonomic view of the brain is valid, but not completely. Karl Pribram was busy trying to understand how the human brain works, specifically the faculty of memory. Is memory located in some part of the brain? As it turns out his experiments showed that memory is dispersed all through the brain like a hologram. When you use a holographic film and you shine a LASER beam through it, it will show you on the screen a three dimensional object. The funny thing about the film is that you can tear it up to pieces and still you have a complete image in each one of them. If you take one piece and shine the LASER beam through it, it still shows the three dimensional object. The whole information of the image is in each part of that film. Pribram figured it would be more or less like that, we could lose any part of the brain, and still the whole of memory would be retained. The brain, in fact, can store up to ten trillion bytes of memory, and the holonomic model seems to help us understand that.

However, the holonomic model does not explain everything in the brain, because, as we have seen before, our brain is a set of organs, producing higher level modules which interact with each other in order for them to work in coordination. The same thing happens with memory in a way. Have you seen this movie?

Fifty First Days

Awwww! Romantic comedy! Who didn’t like that movie? Drew Barrymore is this girl who has the peculiar thing: ever since an accident she had, she is only able to remember briefly all recent events, until the very next day when she wakes up and forgets completely the day before, or all of the days after the accident. The character played by Adam Sandler has to make a videotape to update her to the present every single day. Hollywood fantasy … right? Weeeelllll … maybe not too much! Yes, Goldfield Syndrome, what she was going through, does not exist at all. But, remember "ten seconds Tom"? That was hilarious! … Except something very similar (yet not the same) does happen. Meet Clive Wearing!

Born in 1938, he was a musical conductor and musicologist with an entire career ahead of him, until a virus basically affected a part of his brain. Ever since then, his only lapse of immediate memory is about 30 seconds. He does not remember anything about his life. He only has short-term memory. The reason is that although memory is spread all through the brain, immediate memory is not. Short-term memory is located in the hippocampus within the limbic system, the evolutionary inheritance from the earliest forms of mammals. Long-term memory is all over the brain. Wearing’s brain is not able to transform short-term into long-term, so he forgets everything in a short period of time. The virus severely damaged his hippocampus.

But still, Wearing’s case is illuminating regarding one specific thing. He never forgot how to speak. The reason is that apparently the memory that requires him to speak is essentially different from that which stores events of his life. It is possible that the memory of language and speech are located in the temporal lobes, where we find the Wernicke’s area, a key location for human speech and language. Oh, and he can still play the piano! His procedural memory is also unharmed, and it works extremely well (and in the case of his piano-playing, it works beautifully).

Even though we sometimes feel that memory works like a tape recorder or a super-hard drive that "records" everything we do, in reality that is not the way that our brain works. In reality it all works out because of the connections of events in our brain, and the way neurons arrange themselves in order for us to connect different events. In cases like Wearing’s, those who are Hippocampus amnesiacs not only are unable to remember anything, but also live in fragmented and disconnected moments. They do not have enough sense of continuity to project a possible scenario for the future.

Also we must keep in mind that recalling is not exactly rewinding our memory to a certain moment and playing whole events in our mind once again. What we do when we remember is to literally reconstruct an event from bits and pieces that we actually store in our brain. This is the reason why, for most of us, when we recall something it is more vague than what we are presently living an event on the flesh.

This is also the reason why we have false memories. Michael Gazzaniga, renowned neurologist and member of the Law and Neuroscience Project, often complains about how fragile are the memories of rape victims. There are many documented cases where the victims swear to recognize their rapists, but after making a DNA analysis or looking at other conclusive evidence, the alleged rapists turn out to be innocent. Yet, the whole legal system is made up on the basis that memory is more reliable than it really is.

People who try to recall lost experiences through hypnosis may not intentionally try to distort their experiences they are trying to recall, but their brain can do it. The same happens with people who use L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics to engage in auditing, most of the "recalled" experiences may not be genuine memories, but constructed memories during the whole auditing process, and this could lead to worsen memory rather than enhance it.

What Makes Consciousness Possible?

Memory is not merely our ability to recall, but it is an integral part of what our consciousness is. If we have an self at all, it is in great part because our experience of time is linear: there is a past, present, and future. If there is no memory at all, there cannot be any consciousness. Wearing’s case teaches us that at the very least there must be a minimum of short-term memory for a consciousness to be possible and a self to appear as the component of conscious mental acts that remains ideally the same despite flow of time.

Memory, short-term and long-term, are not the only components that make consciousness possible. What else is needed at a neurobiological level for it to exist? First, as we have said, there are different parts or organs of our brain that interact with each other, and functionally speaking produce modules, which themselves interact with each other too. So, we are at the problem of emergence, we are asking: which modular interactions or layers of mental processes are necessary for consciousness to emerge?

António Damásio is a neurobiologist whom, in my opinion, has proposed one of the best theories on the origin of consciousness. We should think consciousness as a multilayered building, much like the step-pyramids in Egypt, or like a Babylonian zyggurat, or like a Mayan pyramid. From the base upwards, the order is the following:

  • Proto-Self: According to Damásio, all animals have this basic trait, and it can be described as a sort of preconscious biological precedent to consciousness. He defines it this way: "The proto-self is a coherent collection of neural patterns which map, moment by moment, the state of the physical structure of the organism in its dimensions" (Damásio, 1999, p. 154). This does not take place in one part of the brain, but in multiple levels and multiple places, from the brain stem to the cerebral cortex (Damásio, 1999, p. 154). We are not aware of this proto-self, and the vast majority of animals have this proto-self, but without any consciousness at all. This suggests that the proto-self came up in an early evolutionary stage of our ancestors.
  • Core-Consciousness: "Core consciousness occurs when the brain’s representation devices generate an imaged, nonverbal account of how the organism’s own state is affected by the organism’s processing of an object, and when this process enhances the image of the causative object, thus placing it saliently in a spacial and temporal context" (Damásio, 1993, p. 169). What does this mean? It means that when we think, we use to think in images. Contrary to the dogmas that many people still cling to, we do not think in language, our primary form of thought is nonverbal imaging. As a result of processing images, we pay attention to an object (any object) that our mind considers somehow relevant. Core consciousness include two sorts of selves: Transient Core Self which lets us be aware of our existence and the effects of the world on us because of sensory experience; the Autobiographical Self which operates thanks to a certain memory capacity that we all have in order to create a "fleeting feeling of knowing" which is created anew in short periods of time.
  • Extended Consciousness: This part of our consciousness depends on the capacity of memory, especially long-term memory "for facts". Acts of knowing "objects" consists in attending objects according in our personal past. These objects understood within a temporal framework makes us able to substantiate our identity and our personhood (Damasio, 1999, p. 196). Extended consciousness is precisely the result of the ability to retain in our mind numerous sets of experiences, and being able to recall them at will, and to have a sense of obtaining knowledge by experiences (counting past experiences). This part of consciousness is one that primates have developed in general, and that humans have developed better than any primate. There is a reason for that, humanity is endowed with language and intelligence, which help us enhance extended consciousness.

A long time ago Edmund Husserl pointed out the importance of memory in phenomenology, without it there would not be consciousness nor any possible knowledge of anything in this world. Today neurobiologists basically state the same thing on naturalist foundations.

The Problem of the Self

Yet, as Damásio already knows, this does not explain everything about consciousness. For example, the phenomenon that philosophers have called "qualia" is one that represents one of the biggest challenges of both neurobiology and cognitive science. Qualia refers to our ability to experience sensations. All Damásio does in his theory is to explain how the self comes to be, but he never explains how we experience the world around us. Not only does my mind can perceive colors, sounds, etc., but also there is a self which actually senses them and is pleased by them.

Daniel Dennet has been one of those philosophers who tries to show that the problem of qualia is a pseudo-problem. In his essay "Quining Qualia", he practically denies its existence at all. Other cognitive scientists and psychologists are not as easily persuaded by Dennett’s arguments. They are very clever, but qualia is a real phenomenon, and contrary to what Dennett believes, Descartes was right in pointing out that "thought" (understood in the Cartesian sense) is the only fact that cannot be doubted. Whether the self is a substance that thinks is another very different story, though. Husserl, who many consider the last Cartesian, recognized the existence of the ideality (non-causal abstract content), and also did recognize Cartesian thinking (cogito) as the only matter-of-fact that we can be certain of. He also argues that because of the essence of the cogito, this matter-of-fact requires a thinking subject (a self) and an object (cogitatum). So the act of intending an object (intentionality), requires a self that intends.

What Husserl argues from the point of view of intentionality, Ramachandran argues from the point of view of qualia. For him, qualia evolved thanks to the fact that there are layers of neural processes of encoding sensory representations which are processed in the higher executive structure of the brain. Remember that our frontal lobes make up the Executive Brain (or as Michael Dowd would call it "The Higher Porpoise"). Ramahandran suggests that during this process we reach a metarepresentation from what were originally sensory representations, and that these metarapresentations create a more economical description of what we are sensing, and they "have" qualia so-to-speak. From the point of view of natural selection, qualia highlights what is important from the whole set of sensory representations and what is not. The most advanced process for metarepresentation is unique in humans, or at least different from other primates related to us: the case of the chimp, their metarepresentations are not as sophisticated as ours.

However, qualia comes with a price. What is qualia? They are experience. If they are, then that means that something or someone is experiencing it, since there cannot be experiences "lose floating in the air" so to speak. As qualia evolved, so did the self evolve. The self is the mind’s correlate to the development of qualia: the self has experiences.

Now, what is the self? Ramachandran does not define it, but he suggests five essential characteristics of what we mean by "self":

  1. Continuity or the sense of an unbroken flow in our experiences, with the rudimentary feeling of past, present and future.
  2. The experience of being one sole "self" despite all the disparity of experiences, beliefs, memory, thoughts and so on.
  3. There is a sense that the self is joined together with the body.
  4. The sense of agency, that the self is somehow "driving" or "managing" the body.
  5. In the very specific case of human, the self is also self-aware … it is aware of itself.

This does not mean that the self is a substance inhabiting the body, but the result of these brain processes.

Is the Self an Illusion?

Give me a nickle each neuroscientist who has got to the conclusion that the "self" is an illusion. Daniel Dennett, to Steven Pinker, to António Damásio, and beyond have stated that the self is a mere illusion, it is a make-believe made by the brain as a result of processes that the self is not aware of. Even Francisco Ayala, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch use Buddhist reasonings to deny the existence of the self, as if it dissolved in the midst of the argument.

I am no neuroscientist, but I beg to differ as a philosopher. I’m not going to defend the Cartesian statement that the self is a "thinking substance", since it is not a substance at all. However, I will argue that the self has an ideal reality, that is, an abstract unity that remains the same despite the flow of experiences. The fact that it comes to be from brain processes does not mean that it is less real. If it were pure fiction, it would be practically impossible to even talk about our selves at all, or how it comes to be, or how our brain and our mind relate to it.

I think that one philosopher can help us understand this is Karl Popper, who held a semi-platonist view of a non-causal abstract reality. He basically uses the Fregean distinction of three realms (or "worlds" as he calls them): the first realm (world 1) would be the world of physical objects, the second realm (world 2) being the world of psychological representations and subjective experiences, and the third realm (world 3) an abstract cultural realm that is filled with objective creations of world 2, including propositions, problems, numbers, information, theories, and so on.

For Popper, the self is a world 3 entity, it is something that is abstract, but real. Yet, in his philosophy, usually world 3 is created culturally by "selves", yet selves cannot create themselves. His view is that selves are language creations, that we acquire language, and then we start being selves. However, this cannot be the case, since, as we have seen, there can be core-selves without having developed language.

Also in his argument he confuses "self" with "self-awareness", he says that animals don’t have "selves" because they are not self-aware. However, as Fernandes (1985) has pointed out, you cannot be self-aware without having a self to be aware of.

It seems to me that the solution to the problem is that when we look at the processes in the brain, these processes go constantly from lower-level processes to higher more abstract processes. Remember, the mind is nothing more than a product of the brain, a network of modules that carry out all sorts of functions. Each module, even when it is processed by different parts of the brain, create abstractions. As we shall see in later articles, the brain is a conceptual, conjectural and theory making machine. So, the self is a form of an objective abstraction created by lower-level mental processes. This is its reality. It might well be that the self is a world 3 abstract and non-substantial being that can be generated by processes that happen in the brain (world 1), but mediated by different levels of mental abstract processes.

Those who deny the existence of selves or state that they are illusions usually do so on grounds of either physicalism or naturalism. Yet, even on a moderate physicalist view, like Quine’s for instance, it is consistent to think this way: abstract reality can come up of matter but cannot exist without matter. What a physicalist will never accept is the existence of abstract reality divorced from the physical universe, that would be platonism.

Denying selves carries also several dangers, one of which denies the self’s agency. Yes, there can be cases where a person thinks it is making a well thought decision when in fact is something at a deeper mental level. This is the case of anosognosia, a person’s mental refusal to recognize his or her problem, it is not a voluntary self-delusion, but instead something that happens at a deeper level in the mind. This also happens when, for example, a man approaches a woman supposedly to ask what time it is (and he may well believe he is actually doing this for this specific reason), but in reality it is because he is attracted to her, and his R-Complex is pushing him to mate in some way.

However, we are moral animals. With the exception of people whose brain are seriously affected in some way, in general we all make decisions that we know are good or bad, and we can control our bodies to a certain extent despite all the web of complex impulses our mind is pushing us to do. The R-Complex may be pushing me to mate with a woman, but that does not justify rape or sexual harassment. In fact, I can act against that instinct because I know it would be wrong to do so. It is not exactly that we as selves are not in control of anything! Our selves are just not in control of subconscious and unconscious processes.

And last, but not least, the denial of selves is also the denial of the inherent dignity of every human being as a rational being. Yes, the self is the result of processes in the brain, but it is not reducible to these processes. As Michael Dowd would say, this is a case where the whole is more than the sum of its parts … and I would add "and also the sum of its mental processes". Each self in each person can be viewed as a rational being, capable of making moral choices, not only with self-awareness, but also with an inherent sense of dignity: making a dignifying act or being degraded.

To deny the existence of the self just because there is a whole set of complex biological processes behind is a very big non-sequitur.


Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. US: Penguin Books.

Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: body and emotion in the making of consciousness. San Diego, US: Hancourt.

Dennett, D. (2002). Quining qualia. In D. J. Chalmers (ed.) Philosophy of mind: classical and contemporary readings. (pp. 226-246). NY: Oxford University Press.

Dowd, M. (2007). Thank God for evolution: how the marriage of science and religion will transform your lie and our world. US: Plume.

Fernandes, S. L. de C. (1985). Foundations of objective knowledge: the relations of Popper’s Theory of Knowledge to that of Kant. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Gazzaniga, M. S. (2006). The ethical brain: the science of our moral dilemmas. US: Harper Perennial.

Greene, A. J. (2010, July/August). Making connections: the essence of memory is linking one thought to another. Scientific American Mind. 22-29.

Hubbard, L. R. (1950). Dianetics: the modern science of mental health. CA: Bridge Publications.

Huston, T. & Pitney, J. (2010, Spring/Summer). Finding spirit in the fabric of space & time: an exploration of quantum consciousness with Stuart Hameroff, MD. EnlightenNext: the Magazine for Evolutionaries, 46 (Spring/Summer), 44-57.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Pinker, S. (2007, January 19). The brain: the mystery of consciousness. Time.,9171,1580394,00.html

Popper, K. (1994). Knowledge and the body-mind problem: in defence of interaction. London: Routledge.

Ramachandran, V. S. (2004). A brief tour of human consciousness. NY: Pi Press.

Ramachandran, V. S. & Blakeslee, S. (1998). Phantoms in the brain: probing the mysteries of the human mind. NY: Harper Perennial.

Rosado Haddock, G. E. (2000). Husserl’s epistemology of mathematics and the foundation of platonism in mathematics. In C. O. Hill & G. E. Rosado Haddock (eds.) Husserl or Frege? Meaning, objectivity and mathematics. (pp. 221-239). US: Open Court.

Talbot, M. (1991). The holographic universe. US: Harper Perennial.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: cognitive science and human experience. MA: The MIT Press.

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Material Educativo: Karl Popper (versión 0.1)

On July 18, 2010, in Philosophy, by prosario2000

Karl Popper

Por necesidad académica también escribí un material educativo sobre Karl Popper. Como es una obra funcional decidí liberarla bajo tres licencias libres. Este material consta de tres capítulos:

  • Capítulo 1: Una Breve Biografía
  • Capítulo 2: El Empirismo Lógico
  • Capítulo 3: La Propuesta Filosófica de Popper

El capítulo del empirismo lógico ofrece sólo una breve historia de la discusión filosófica en torno al proyecto y de la influencia de Bertrand Russell y Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Falta información sobre la propuesta de verosimilitud, la doctrina de los tres mundos que Popper adoptó en la etapa final de su filosofía, y su filosofía de la mente. También en las siguientes versiones quisiera añadir un glosario.

Este archivo está disponible en tres formatos (presione sobre el vínculo que le convenga):

De este material aún faltan algunos detalles en torno a la obra más técnica de Frege, aunque por motivos pedagógicos dejaré fuera la mayor parte de ellos. También pienso añadir un glosario.

Este material se libera bajo las siguientes licencias:

Estas tres licencias son libres y copyleft. Cumplen con las definiciones de obra cultural libre y de conocimiento abierto. Además, las tres prohiben el uso de restricciones digitales (DRM). Nadie les puede prohibir a mis estudiantes ni a otros profesores el uso o la modificación de este material.

El documento ODF puede modificarse con la ayuda de, o su versión modificada Go-oo. Está disponible para los sistemas operativos Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux, OpenSolaris, y los sistemas BSD (incluyendo a PC-BSD, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, entre otros).

El PDF usualmente se puede ver con Adobe Acrobat Reader, u otros programas alternativos y libres tales como SumatraPDF en el caso de Windows, Skim si se utiliza una versión Mac, o Evince u Okular en caso de sistemas operativos tipo Unix: GNU/Linux, PC-BSD, FreeBSD, OpenSolaris, etc.

El formato DjVu se puede ver en Windows bajando e instalando el programa WinDjView, y los que usan Mac pueden bajar MacDjView. If you use GNU/Linux or any BSD operative system you may either use Evince, Okular, DjVuLibre, or DjView4.

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What is Science?

(c) 2010 Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

The High School View of the Scientific Method

One of the most misunderstood aspects of science, and which is ill-taught in schools, is what people usually call “the scientific method”. No two textbooks agree completely on what it is or how it is done. There is a reason for that.

Before I discuss the reasons, let me make a rough exposition on the so-called “scientific method” that people think about when it is discussed. The “scientific method” is regarded as a set of steps which take you from observations to a theory or a law. In my seventh grade textbook, we see the following steps:

  1. The first step is a hypothesis: a possible answer or solution to a question or a problem, based on observation.
  2. The second step is an experiment: it verifies the hypothesis in question.
  3. The third step is a theory, which is what a hypothesis becomes if it continues to be successful.

Then look at my eigth-grade book:

  1. The first step is an observation.
  2. The second step is a hypothesis.
  3. The third step is an experiment.
  4. The fourth step is the conclusion derived from the experiment.
  5. The hypothesis becomes a theory, which means that it is the most plausible explanation based on repeated observations and experiments.
  6. If verified further by experiment, the theory becomes a law.

Both of these versions of the “scientific method” are simply incorrect. Let me begin by saying that observation is not the first step a scientist should take. With a simple example, Karl Popper explains why:

The belief that science proceeds from observation to theory is still so widely and so firmly held that my denial of it is often met with incredulity. I have been suspected of being insincere — of denying what nobody in his senses can doubt …

Twenty-five years ago I tried to bring home the same point to a group of Physics students in Vienna by beginning a lecture with the following instructions: ‘Take a pencil and paper; carefully observe, and write down what you have observed!’ They asked, of course, what I wanted them to observe. Clearly the instruction ‘Observe!’ is absurd … Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem (Popper, 1963, p. 61, my bold).

So, we never begin with observation, apparently we begin with “problems”. But what kind of problems? Everything we call a “problem” is always a problem from a point of view. From which point of view? In the case of natural science, all problems are in relation to one theory or world-view that is being held by science or by society.

As it turns out theory always comes first.

What is a Scientific Law?

There is perhaps another deep misunderstanding regarding what a scientific law is. The image that people have when they think about laws is: these theories have been “proven” again, and again, and again in a lab, so it is simply “impossible” that they be false.

However, as David Hume made clear in his criticism towards induction, scientific laws do not deal with relations-of-ideas, only with matters-of-fact. A logical or mathematical principle can be intuitively and self-evidently true, or proven true using logico-mathematical properties and axioms. Theorems and corollaries are examples of the latter. Logic and mathematics belong to the realm of relations-of-ideas.

But scientific laws have nothing to do with relations-of-ideas, it belongs to the realm of matters-of-fact. By definition, the negation of any of these laws is logically possible. In fact, there have been many times in history when scientific laws have been abandoned in order to adopt new ones. A classic example of this is Kepler’s laws on planetary motion.

As we all know, Johannes Kepler discovered that the orbits of planets are not circular, but elliptical, with the sun as one of their foci. He gathered data from his own observations and those of his teacher, Tycho Brahe, and discovered that planets obey certain laws in the heavens. These laws state roughly the following:

  1. All planets move in elliptical orbits with the sun as one of the foci.
  2. The distance between the planet and the sun sweeps out equal areas in equal periods of time.
  3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of a semi-major axis of its orbit.

k = (r³/T²) where k is a constant.

These laws seem to hold with slight discrepancy to all planets involved (possibly with Mercury as the most notorious exception). But later, came Isaac Newton and formulated the following law of gravity: The gravitational force between two masses equals the product of the gravitational constant and the two masses, divided by their square distance. If you applied this law to the orbits of the planets, the outcome of their orbits is almost exactly as those of Kepler’s.

You may say that you do not see any instance of change of law. Think again! Kepler had absolutely no idea why planets orbited the way they did. His laws did not assume at all the existence of gravity in the heavens. Furthermore, Newton developed calculus, which provided mathematical tools that Kepler did not have in his time. Kepler also supposes that these orbits are fixed and eternal. Newton’s gravitational law implied that these were not fixed orbits at all, but changed depending on the gravitational influence between masses in the universe.

To sum it up, Newtonian gravitational law contradicted Kepler’s laws. Furthermore, although Newtonian laws are all that are needed in practice (e.g. you want to send men to the moon), scientists know that strictly speaking, they are false. Albert Einstein did formulate a new theory which posited new relativistic laws that could explain all the gravitational phenomena explained by Newton’s theory, and even what those Newtonian laws could not account for, such as Mercury’s odd orbit, or the way that light “bends” as it is close to massive objects.

But in this whole story, notice a constant here: theory seems to posit these laws! It is not that “theories become laws”, but rather that scientific laws have their root in scientific theories. Some people point out that Kepler is an example of theory or laws forged starting from observation. Not quite! Kepler also had a theoretical framework at the time, where planets had fixed orbits, the sun was fixed in the heavens, and that there were trigonometrical mathematical models to determine if the orbits were circular or not. Then Newton came up with a kinematic theory along with a theory of force, and a theory of gravity. This made him possible to posit a law of gravity based on his theories. Einstein also formulated his general theory of relativity, and posited a new set of laws that, under most circumstances coincide with the outcomes of Newtonian laws.

Then What the Heck is a Hypothesis?!

One of the greatest discoveries made in philosophy, especially when logic was refined and mathematized by Boole, Frege and Russell, is that scientific hypotheses are never considered in pure isolation.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of the argument, that I have a metal ball whose mass is 120 kgs. I formulate the following hypothesis: if I throw it upwards at an angle of 60 degrees at 75km/s, it is going to land at 75 km/s. Now, this seems like a down to Earth, straight out, very clear hypothesis. How come it is not isolated? think about it. It supposes the theoretical concets of mass, velocity, time, gravitational foce, gravitational acceleration, analytic geometry, and so on. In other words, this hypothesis supposes from the outset an entire scientific theoretical body. So, when we test a hypothesis, we are not testing just that hypothesis, but an entire theoretical system.

This was brilliantly discovered by Pierre Duhem in the case of physics, also described by Edmund Husserl and Henri Poincaré, and somewhat grossly exaggerated by Willard van Orman Quine.

And What About Experiments?

Experiments are plagued with theoretical aspects. Even some of the instruments used in labs can only be understood from a theoretical standpoint. Let me quote Pierre Duhem regarding this interesting issue:

Go into this laboratory; draw near this table crowded with so much apparatus: an electric battery, copper wire wrapped in silk, vessels filled with mercury, coils, a small iron bar carrying a mirror. An observer plunges the metallic stem of a rod, mounted with rubber, into small holes; the iron oscillates and, by means of the mirror tied to it, sends a beam of light over to a celluloid ruler, and the observer follows the movement of the light beam on it. There, no doubt, you have an experiment; by means of the vibration of this spot of light, this physicist minutely observes the oscillations of the piece of iron. Ask him now what he is doing. Is he going to answer: “I am studying the oscillations of the piece of iron carrying this mirror?” No, he will tell you that he is measuring the electrical resistance of the coil. If you are astonished and ask him what meaning these words have, and what relation they have to the phenomena he has perceived and which you have at the same time perceived, he will reply that your question would require some very long explanation, and he will recommend that you take a course in electricity (Duhem, 1914/1991, p. 144).

Sometimes, not always, even instruments are built according to theories so they can be tested and observed by the scientist. The theory itself will dictate to you how it is going to be tested.

The Center of Science: Theory

As we are able to see, science is centered on theories. The contemporary problem with the word “theory” is that people take it as being synonymous with “speculation”. When the average person out there uses the word “theoretical” it means that it is just pure speculation, out of someone’s head.

In reality, the words “theoretical” or “hypothetical” in science mean propositions or conjectures that is have not been experimentally tested yet. But, the word “theory” means another thing altogether. A theory is an explanation for observed phenomena in science. Atomic theory is not just the statement that atoms exist, it also includes atomic structure, how atoms are attracted to one another, how do they bond, and so forth. The theory of gravity is not just the statement that gravity exists, but it states the way objects are attracted to one another due to the presence of mass, how it affects motion, centripetal force, and many other aspects.

It is in this sense that the Neo-Darwininan theory of evolution, pardoning the redundancy, is a theory. Evolution through natural selection is an explanation for the phenomena we find everywhere in the living world: from embryos, to fossils, to diversity of species around the world, to the structure of our DNA, and so on, are all explained by evolution through natural selection. This is the reason why people who say that “evolution is a theory and not fact” are simply confused. Evolution through natural selection is a well-tested theory that explains facts.

What Kind of Theory Qualifies as Scientific?

Obviously formulating a theory is not enough for it to be scientific. Of course, not only theory is what science is about, but also, as a field that deals with matters-of-fact, it has to be supported by experience. Natural science is an empirical field of knowledge.

Now, as a good Popperian that I am, I don’t find theories to be “verifiable”, i.e. determined to be absolutely true. If experiments determined that a theory is absolutely true, we would have a problem. Let us take gravity, for instance. The Aristotelian theory of gravity could be “verified” experimentally, since all solid objects tend to their natural place (down on the Earth), but it was later replaced by the Newtonian theory of gravity which was “verified” in this sense, only to be replaced later by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. So, an experiment cannot determine itself to be absolutely true. At best, it can only confirm a theory, but never verify it.

But confirmable theories are not enough to qualify as scientific theories. Rather theories need to be fomulated in such a way that it is possible to refute them. In philosophy of science we call this falsation. It simply means that experiments and tests are attempts to refute the theory in question. If the theory survive these tests, then we say that it has been corroborated.

Now, let us refine a little bit what we mean by falsation. As we have seen, a hypothesis or a theory is not tested in isolation. It supposes in general a whole theoretical system that is itself also subject to falsation. This means that a formulated hypothesis or theory, if refuted, may be wrong, but it also allows for the possibility that if it is refuted, probably the problem is not the formulated hypothesis or theory, but some hidden assumption we are not aware of within the whole logical web of the theoretical system.

Which theoretical system works best for natural science?

  1. These theories should be methodologically naturalistic. Since the whole idea of natural science is to find natural explanations for phenomena, it cannot admit supernatural or other sort of metaphysical explanation.
  2. The theoretical system must provide some sort of prediction to be tested. For instance, my hypothetical prediction about how the metal ball will land is one such attempt at predicting it in light of a Newtonian theoretical system. If it turns out to be not as predicted, there may be because of several possibilities: it may be that the experiment was not carried out well, or that there is a variable I have not accounted for, or that the hypothesis was not well-formulated, or even some component of the theoretical system is wrong. In any case the predictive value of a theoretical system should be taken in consideration.
  3. The more testable the theoretical components of a theoretical system are, the better. This has been neglected too often by philosophers of science. Every theoretical system has components that are confirmable but not refutable. For instance, in the Newtonian theoretical system, the Second Law of Motion is confirmable, not refutable. You can never design an experiment to falsate it. But combined with other aspects of the theoretical system that are indeed falsifiable, the system can be subject to be refuted in some way.One of the problems that Marx and Freud had with their views is that they formulated theories that in the outset were refuted by experience. One problems their followers had is that if the prediction did not occur as they hoped, then they would use unfalsifiable ad hoc hypotheses in order to dilute the predictive character of a theory. These made the theories more metaphysical (in the Popperian sense of the word) rather than scientific.
  4. The theoretical system must allow puzzle-solving. This is one of the few occasions I depart from Karl Popper, but I think it is necessary to make the point that scientific activity involves much puzzle solving. This puzzle solving must be at least consistent with the other principles I’ve made above, must be consistent with the theory being held, and must be consistent with the data gathered by researchers.We see this everywhere in science. When Newton formulated his theory of gravity in the Principia, many scientists tested them out. There were shortcomings, though. Saturn did not exactly obey the theory as it should have. To somehow explain this discrepancy, some scientists formulated a falsifiable ad hoc hypothesis: there must be a still invisible substantial mass, perhaps another planet, influencing Saturn’s orbit. As it turned out, that planet was Uranus. Uranus’ orbit though was also irregular, so they posited still the existence of another planet, and it turned out to be Neptune and so on.

    In biology, puzzle solving is the norm, and it rules everywhere. From neurobiology, to evolution, every aspect of biology depends greatly on puzzle-solving, but in a way that is very consistent with the evidence, which include: half-life of substances on Earth, well-known chemical reactions, genetic data we have of organisms, the laws of physics, and so on.

  5. Finally, the theoretical system must be the simplest possible. This is the famous Occam’s Razor. It must be pointed out that “simplest possible” does not mean that the theory should be simplistic. It merely means that the theoretical system must be formulated in such a way that it has all the elements it needs to account better for a theory, and not more than that. If we have two or more theoretical systems which can account for the same phenomena, we will only choose the one which is simplest.

There is no “scientific method”, there is no “first step” or “last step”. However, there is a scientific approach to phenomena, and these involve two very important things in scientific activity:

  • The scientific enterprise consists in formulating scientific theories.
  • These scientific theories must be self-consistent and must be founded on empirical evidence.


Duhem, P. (1991) The aim and structure of physical theory. US: Princeton University Press. (Originally published in 1914).

Gillies, D. (1993). Philosophy of science in the twentieth century: four central themes. Oxford & Cambridge: Blackwell.

Hempel, C. (1966). Philosophy of natural science. NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Poincaré, H. (1952). Science and method. Dover. (Originally published in 1908).

Popper, K. (1999). The logic of scientific discovery. London & NY: Routledge. (Originally published in 1959).

Popper, K. (2000). Realism and the aim of science. London & NY: Routledge. (Originally published in 1983).

Popper, K. (2002). Conjectures and refutations. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Originally published in 1963).

Putnam, H. (1974). The ‘corroboration’ of theories. In P. A. Schilpp (ed.) The Philosophy of Karl Popper. (pp. 221-240). IL: Open Court.

Quine, W. V. O. (1999). From a logical point of view. Cambridge: Harvard. (Originally published in 1953).

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