I have written in the past about consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [see ‘Is there are real ‘you’ or ‘I’? on March 6th, 2019]. Our memory consists of fragments of images, sounds, smells and feelings from the past that we can re-assemble into a complete experience often triggered by something in the present that resembles a fragment of a past experience. We can time travel in our minds by thinking about the past. It is so ubiquitous that we barely stop to think about it. Yet, we are fascinated by the possibility of time travel into the future. However, our subconscious minds are constantly time traveling into the future [see ‘Predicting the future through holistic awareness’ on January 6th, 2021]. They are constantly making predictions about what will happen next, whether anticipating the path taken by a ball so that your hand can be positioned to catch it or picking up an umbrella as you leave the house so that you do not get soaked when it rains later in the day. The further we attempt travel into the future the less dependable our predictions become and I suspect the same is true for travel backwards in time. The reliability of our recollection of past experiences become less as time and entropy erode the connections between the fragments in our mind so that we struggle to reassemble all of the fragments in the correct order and our personal history is unintentional rewritten.
The philosophy of science has oscillated between believing that everything is knowable and that somethings will always be unknowable. In 1872, the German physiologist, Emil du Bois-Reymond declared ‘we do not know and will not know’ implying that there would always be limits to our scientific knowledge. Thirty years later, David Hilbert, a German mathematician stated that nothing is unknowable in the natural sciences. He believed that by considering some things to be unknowable we limited our ability to know. However, Kurt Godel, a Viennese mathematician who moved to Princeton in 1940, demonstrated in his incompleteness theorems that for any finite mathematical system there will always be statements which are true but unprovable and that a finite mathematical system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. I think that this implies some things will remain unknowable or at least uncertain. Godel believed that his theorems implied that the power of the human mind is infinitely more powerful than any finite machine and Roger Penrose has deployed these incompleteness theorems to argue that consciousness transcends the formal logic of computers, which perhaps implies that artificial intelligence will never replace human intelligence [see ‘Four requirements for consciousness‘ on January 22nd, 2020]. At a more mundane level, Godel’s theorems imply that engineers will always have to deal with the unknowable when using mathematical models to predict the behaviour of complex systems and, of course, to avoid meta-ignorance, we have to assume that there are always unknown unknowns [see ‘Deep uncertainty and meta-ignorance‘ on July 21st, 2021].
How is your negative capability? The very term ‘negative capability’ conveys confusion and ambiguity. It means our ability to accept uncertainty, a lack of knowledge or control. It was coined by John Keats to describe the skill of appreciating something without fully understanding it. It implies suspending judgment about something in order to learn more about it. This is difficult because we have to move out of a low entropy mindset and consider how it fits in a range of possible mindsets or neuronal assemblies, which raises our psychological entropy and with it our anxiety and mental stress [see ’Psychological entropy increased by effectual leaders‘ on February 10th, 2021]. If we are able to tolerate an optimal level of ambiguity and uncertainty then we might be able to develop an appreciation of a complex system and even an ability to anticipate its behaviour without a full knowledge or understanding of it. Our sub-conscious brain has excellent negative capabilities; for example, most of us can catch a ball without understanding, or even knowing, anything about the mechanics of its flight towards us, or we accept a ride home from a friend with no knowledge of their driving skills and no control over the vehicle. Although, if our conscious brain knows that they crashed their car last week then it might override the sub-conscious and cause us to think again before declining the offer of a ride home. Perhaps this is because our conscious brain tends to have less negative capability and likes to be in control. Engineers like to talk about their intuition which is probably synonymous with their negative capability because it is their ability to appreciate and anticipate the behaviour of an engineering system without a full knowledge and understanding of it. This intuition is usually based on experience and perhaps resides in the subconscious mind because if you ask an engineer to explain a decision or prediction based on their intuition then they will probably struggle to provide a complete and rational explanation. They are comfortable with an optimal level of ambiguity although of course you might not be so comfortable.
If you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. Although it is short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it. However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology. Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness. Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’. It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations. I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.