Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What is infrareality?

            It is a word that describes everything that isn’t perceived. It is, 
therefore, a relative term; ‘infrareality’ is more inclusive with respect
 to an ant than, say, a human. This essay is a very brief exploration 
of the cosmos and our relationship with it. 

.:  introduction

We have experience. We see things. We hear, smell and touch. We sense pressure, vibration, pain, and so on. These sensory modalities each yield telemetry for highly specific, varyingly fundamental qualities of the world. All of these raw measurements are consolidated and cross-integrated in the brain to form a coherent perceptual world-model (Stein, B. E., et al. 2009). Our experience seems to emerge from this, though this process defies satisfying description. Two principles can be extracted from this. Firstly, it is more accurate to describe a brain as being actively engaged in the construction of an experiential reality rather than ‘merely perceiving’, and this fact has bounteous and often under-appreciated ramifications. One can begin to intuit this by studying multisensorial illusions, like the McGurk effect, where the illusion arises as a direct result of the specific mechanics of the brain’s integration of senses (Skipper, J. I., et al. 2007). Viewers of a video might perceive a "ta" sound while observing a face that is actually making a “ka” sound, if the video has been dubbed over with a “pa” sound, for example. A second, but related principle is that all of our realities are 'in our heads'. This can, theoretically, be demonstrated in as many ways as there are qualities of perception, but just consider the experience of slapping yourself in the face. Physiologically speaking, it must take longer for the relevant signals to travel from the hand to the brain than from the face to the brain. What happens is that our experience lags for some time, allowing the integration of all of these temporally disparate raw inputs and the manufacture of an experience of seeming simultaneity. (Eagleman, D. M. 2008). This ‘sensory buffering’, if you will, takes about 80 milliseconds (Eagleman, D. M. and T. J. Sejnowski 2007). Therefore, if your brain were to be obliterated over the course of, say, 10 milliseconds, you would stop experiencing some time before the event. If you were to fall from the sky at a high enough velocity, viewers would be able to calculate the altitude at which you stopped experiencing. Reality, as we are familiar with it, is ‘in our heads’. Sights, sounds, and all of the other easily nameable qualities of reality are ‘in our heads’.
Most people seem to agree that there is a 'real' world, on which all of our individual experiential worlds are based, given the commonalities in many of our experiences. That we share so many experiences with one another indicates rather strongly that these experiences causally depend on shared factors. If a hundred philosophers see their reflections in a window, it would seem that there must be conditions, somewhere, that reliably generate that experience. So we posit a real world, and we call ourselves 'realists'. There is, however, chronic disagreement regarding the nature of the relationship between the world of experience and the 'real' world. (Markie, P. 2015) Let's imagine a range of possible positions on the topic. At one extreme, one sees both worlds as coterminous, or otherwise indistinguishable. This is empiricism. I have heard first-principle seekers wonder about the 'true taste' of broccoli, were it excised of phenomenological impurities; adjacent tastants, contaminants, prior expectations of broccoli held by the taster, and so on. If you understand why that is problematic, then much of this essay will be obvious. At the other extreme, one might see no relationship at all between the world of experience and the 'real' world, and categorically reject the possibility of distilling any truth at all from sense experience (perhaps some names come to mind). This is fallibilism. Lets call this the left and the right extremes, respectively. One quick note; some see no evidence that any world exists outside of the perceptual world, and doubt that such a world exists. I'm not dealing with that here, but suffice it to say that I find that to be a farfetched position.
As far as I can tell, this controversy of how experience relates to ‘reality’ has a definitive and immensely important solution, as clarity on this topic would finally enable us to put some types of superstition to rest. I am often compelled to talk about the nature of the senses and their relationship to reality when I argue against the existence of things like ghosts, because personal experience is the most compelling extant motivator for these sorts of beliefs (barring the History channel). Other areas where this clarification may help is in the demystification of things like pheromones - and other strange forms of communication – as well as the seemingly magical technologies we will no doubt be getting. If we imagine this spectrum of possible relationships I mentioned, with the far right extreme representing the view that sense experience and the 'real' world are unrelated, and the left representing the view that sensory experience is indistinguishable or coterminous with the 'real' world, my answer will lie just short of the right end. Restated, sense experience and the 'real' world are almost entirely unrelated, with the details of the tenuous connection proving just sufficient to enable a laborious pursuit of truth through the systematic disproval of bad guesses. In that situation, most of your conjectures are going to be bad, so you have to set up institutions of criticism. And that was, as far as I'm concerned, the principal discovery of the Enlightenment.
Perhaps the most recognizable distillation of the problem lies in the following question: If a tree falls in the woods, and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? If this question seems open, intractable, or even to be of any particular interest, you are the center my intended audience here. At one level, sound is an experience rather than a quality of the world. More specifically, sound is an experiential representative for repetitive patterns of local oscillations in air pressure. These air pressure waves are, most often, conferred to the air by vibrating objects. Air pressure oscillations with a periodicity within an ancillary range are transduced to electrical impulses by inner hair cells. Many frequencies above and below the audible spectrum are excluded from experience, as they are simply not transduced. The impact of a tree in a desolate wood is certain to radiate vibrations and oscillating air-pressure waves, but sound can not exist without vibration within a certain spectrum of frequencies, air pressure waves resulting from those vibrations, ears transducing those air pressure waves, and a connected, attentive brain that developed properly. The unwitnessed falling tree exists in no experiential world as sound, but it exists in the 'real' world as patterns of oscillating air pressure waves and such. Clearly, the answer to the question is ‘no’.
But what if there had been a philosopher present? (That the presence of a philosopher always serves to complicate things is well-documented) The tree now exists in both the world of reality (infrareality, if you will) and the world of experience. Let's say our philosopher describes what she experiences. I'll let readers imagine for themselves the content of that description, but it should be clear that it would be utterly unlike a rigorously physical description of a falling tree, where we wouldn’t be obligated or tempted to mention phenomenology. An honest description about the nature of a tree will deal in quarks, ions, forces, wavelengths and a whole mess of other things, but it will not talk about sound unless we wanted to describe a physical system that included a brain capable of experiencing it. To talk about experience, we would have to pick out some quality of the world, such as the wavelength of a light wave bouncing off of a tree, and account for how it interacts with a nervous system. We can do this. If we went with sound, for example, we would have to talk about air pressure wave oscillations being emitted by the tree, the propagation of those vibrations through the relevant medium, contact with hair cells, and so on up to the auditory cortex and, presumably, experience.
At another level, everything I have just said is wrong. The experiential worlds physically exist as constellations of ion concentrations and patterns of electrical impulses in the real world. There seem to be two places to stand from which to describe reality, with one being constrained to mere experience and the other making no mention of it. Indeed, it seems that the scientific analysis may never need experience to explain anything. It also seems true to say that physics doesn't need experience to function. On the other hand, experience is all we have ever had, and will ever have, while discovering the irrelevance of qualia. The physical account of consciousness in the brain mirrors the phenomenology rather well, and it can only get better with time, but that doesn't seem to me to solve the 'hard problem', the question of how it can feel like something to be a physical system at all. The foreseen ways out of this are all pretty nutty; consciousness doesn’t exist, panpsychism, and so on.

.:  the senses are arbitrary, sensations are not

            Saturn’s rings, though often imagined as being a dispersion of highly distinct rings and gaps, are more serviceably described as being an annular disk of ice with concentric local maxima and minima in density. (Tiscareno, M. 2013). A couple of these minima are explained by the presence of moons, and many others are at locations of destabilizing orbital resonance associated with these moons. Others remain unexplained. This disk is made of ice and rock, with the particles ranging in size from micrometres to meters, and the disk is generally only about 10 meters thick. Imagine that there are creatures inhabiting Saturn’s rings. Suppose that our creatures simply orbit alongside and within these snowballs and extract water from them in some way. Let’s also say that they get light from Sol, and nutrition from impurities in the ice, or something. Perhaps they need to have sex, and therefore live in large colonies that have to move when the water in an area is depleted, thus explaining the remaining density minima. Let’s also say that these creatures have sufficiently complex nervous systems that they have experience roughly as rich and coherent as our own. These experiential worlds are not likely to be similar to our own, as they were not subjected to the same selective pressures. Their nervous systems might measure qualities of the world that ours do not, and may ignore some or all of those that we deal in.
            Suppose these creatures have organs that detect the gravitational footprint of potential mates. Just as humans assess potential mates according to the sensations that arise after pointing our eyes and noses at other humans (or their wealth), these creatures accomplish the same sort of thing with their organ. The differential reproductive success of these creatures would therefore be predicated on the raw sensation potentiated by the functioning of this organ, just as in the human circumstance. A certain gravitational profile would be considered sexy, just as a certain arrangement of reflecting photons is sexy in humans. Notice that I’m not talking about anything like arousal or emotional states, rather I mean some unimaginable raw sensation that is generated by this organ. This unnamed sensation would be the same sort of thing as seeing, hearing or smelling. Experience exists where an organ measures a particular quality of the world and a sensation, relevant to that particular stimulus, is constructed by a brain and promoted into an experience. I refer to these as ‘sensations’, or ‘raw sensations’. There are truths to be known about the way in which certain qualities of the real world reliably precipitate the relevant qualities of experiential worlds. We can draw lines between facts about a perceptual world and their analogues in the real world. Sensations, therefore, are not arbitrary.
            Senses, on the other hand, are arbitrary in a certain sense and at one level. This point is sometimes a bit more difficult to communicate, but I think it is made more palatable with the elucidation of this distinction between sense and sensation that we are undergoing. Consider those creatures living in Saturn’s ice disk again. These creatures have a sensory organ that detects gravitational influence. The sensation is the experience eventually resulting from the stimulation of the organ, while the sense is, of course, just the capacity to have those experiences. To port it back to humans, ‘hearing a sound’ is the experience eventually resulting from the stimulation of tympanic membranes and inner hair cells, while ‘hearing’ is just the capacity to have those particular experiences, or to be receptive to the relevant stimuli.
To wonder what facts about the real world result in the existence of certain sensations is more actionable than to wonder what facts about the real world result in the existence of certain senses. The former causal chain is short and straightforward, while the latter is long and messy. The former, again, has to do with brains and measurable qualities of the world while the latter has to do with evolutionary pressures and such. So senses are not arbitrary in they lack sets of reasons for existing; senses evolve along with the rest of life. The causes of these two things are varyingly obvious, but equally conclusive. The way in which senses are arbitrary, rather, has to do with the fact that senses other than those that we have can potentially exist. Many known creatures sense qualities of the real world that we do not. Their experiential worlds are directly influenced by qualities of the real world that have no direct effect on our experiential worlds. Examples of this can be subtle, like the fact that elephants supplement their hearing by conducting low-frequency seismic vibration through the bones in their legs up to their enlarged ossicles, and, less subtly, through the stimulation of corpuscles on their feet directly (O'Connell-Rodwell, C. E. 2007). But there are also perceptual modalities here on Earth that are totally unlike those humans possess. There are snakes that have thermal vision (Kardong, K. V. and S. P. Mackessy 1991), sharks that use high-resolution electroreception during attacks (Fields, R. D. 2007), fish that communicate socially through electricity (Ladich, F., et al. 2006) (Moller, P. (1995), and so on. Presumably, these things feel like something. More important for my point, though, is the possibility of imagining other senses, totally unlike our own, which we have already done. Given that it’s possible to conceive of as many possible senses as there are measurable qualities of the world, the senses seem arbitrary in this admittedly narrow sense. There are a functionally unlimited number of potential sensory modalities. Even so, our senses yield information that corresponds to specific quantities of the real world at an above-chance level. Assuming everything is functioning properly, the nature of a sensation is constrained, to some degree, by the instantaneous conditions of the world. This arbitrariness of sense perception is, therefore, not a challenge to its ability to distill truth. We simply have to work out what the senses actually do.

.:  infrareality
            The word ‘infrareality’, that I have proposed, might seem to want to replace the word ‘cosmos’ as our describer of objective reality. All things considered, ‘cosmos’ is the better word to do this. ‘Infrareality’ may be of use when explicitly distinguishing between qualities of the world that are accessible to experience and those that are not. There are two main implications that I want our describer of objective reality to have, the first being that the world is unintuitive. I’ve said that the nature of the real world is wholly dissimilar to our experiences. There is this strange disparity between, say, our experience of sugar and it’s composition in the real world, and we are generally constrained to using sense-language to describe the cosmos. That is a problem. Our experience of sugar is white, grainy, and sweet. In reality, a molecule of sucrose is 12 carbon atoms, 22 hydrogen atoms and 11 oxygen atoms, arranged in a particular way. In that ratio of materials, where is the sweetness? Is it in the shape? The bonds? Of course not. In one sense, sweetness exists as the interaction between the molecule, the mouth, and the brain. We wouldn't mention sweetness as a defining quality of sugar unless we were defining it in relation to ourselves. An intelligent alien race may not have the biological machinery required to build an experience of sweetness, for example. Instead, sweetness is a quality of the world that must refer to the sense, the sensation, and the sensed all at once. This same structure ports to much of our sense language.
            We now know that the universe is roughly 23% ‘dark matter’ and 73% ‘dark energy’. If you wanted to objectively describe the composition of the universe, you would spend almost no time at all on the things that are visible to us. ‘Ordinary matter’ constitutes a 4% bit of pollution resulting from local irregularities in the early expansion of the universe (Falk, D. 2011) (Panek, R. 2011). Stars, galaxies, molecules of sugar, brains, and everything else we have taken such care to learn so much about, are almost completely irrelevant in our modern understanding of the composition of the universe. Just consider how unintuitive the human body is. On average, it’s 50-65% water. (Guyton, Arthur C. 1991). Many, up to 90%, of the remaining cells are bacteria and other microbes (Hooper, L. V., et al. 2002)(Savage D. C. 1977), and about 65% of the remaining non-microbial atoms are oxygen (Frieden, E. 1972). All of these things mentioned are ’normal matter', the mass of which is something like 95% ‘empty space’ (Wilczek, F. 2012), which turns out to be a bubbling sea of ‘virtual particles’ that we call ‘dark energy. The figure for volume would be exponentially higher.
Dark matter and dark energy are not the only things that humans don’t perceive, of course. Human experiences of the progression of time proceed at what we might call a moderate pace, but some conditions of the present moment are dynamic in timescales so extreme that we are precluded from observing them through direct use of our ancillary sensory faculties. These changes over time exist in both directions from the fixed rate of our perceived passage of time; just as particles blink in and out of existence faster than anyone can imagine, change can occur so slowly that detection of it requires longitudinal datasets (Magnuson, J. J. 1990). The lack of intuitiveness in the world makes distilling truth from perception a remarkably indirect and tenuous affair, but makes it no less possible.
The word ‘infrareality’ captures this implication, while ‘cosmos’ misses it. But the second implication we wish our word to have is how vastly interconnected the machinery of nature is. ‘Cosmos’, of course, captures this elegantly. There’s a tendency –when you begin studying something complicated like a behavior– to expect the causal chains to converge on some point - the explanation. This is not always explicit, but it often is. Instead, these causal chains bifurcate infinitely and then form a möbius strip of contingency clauses and modulatory factors that make understanding seem impossible. In fact, closer inspection tends to make this progressively worse; the world seems fractal in this sense. The example I like to give is that you can’t fully understand the trajectory of a comet or a basketball alike without understanding the effect of the gravitational influence of the Andromeda Galaxy (not to mention all the others). The answer to the question 'why?' is always recursive; we have to arbitrarily decide that we are satisfied before every particle in the cosmos is brought in. My intuition is that this sort of thing is a corollary of ‘emergent complexity’, the gist of which is that natural complexity emerges from rules that are relatively simple and few. This can be intuited by spending about five minutes with John Conway’s famous cellular automata, a simulation to this effect where machines with periodicities in the tens of millions have been shown to copy themselves faithfully. I highly recommend checking that out, if you haven’t. The relative simplicity and spooky comprehensibility of the fundamental laws of physics seems to be in accordance with this. Perhaps more interesting, though, is the commonality in the ways that biological structures are arranged; namely that they adhere to the Fibonacci sequence. The complex structure of a tree or a neuron can emerge from a simple rule like ‘expand for X distance and then diverge’. The world is set up like an enormously complex machine with an absurd number of moving parts. The word ‘cosmos’ captures this implication, and it is decidedly the more important of the two. Still, though, ‘infrareality’ might be useful when explicitly distinguishing between qualities of the world that are accessible to experience and those that are not.

.:  learning

            Given all of this, how is it that we learn? The answer invokes both of the implications mentioned in the previous section. Since infrareality is so different from our experiences, neither prediction nor explanation can be derived from experience. Nature is not like a book, waiting to be read. Rather we jettison our bad guesses on the basis of structures that are designed to take advantage of the tenuous connection. We come up with tricks to make qualities of infrareality manifest in an experience in ways that disprove our conjectures about how the world works. This process works because the laws of nature are relatively simple, few, and universal; knowledge is scalable. We derive powerful, global explanations from modest experimentation. One more consequence of all of this is that explanations become like machines themselves, in the sense that they get many moving parts that must be correctly articulated. The explanation mirrors the reality. These parts can also not be interchanged without compromising the functionality of the machine. The important difference in the explanatory power between a myth and a scientific theory is that the elements of a myth can be exchanged without altering the explanation much. Why should it be one deity affecting the tides, and not some other? The role might be played by a functionally infinite number of ad-hoc entities. Once it is understood to be the moon’s gravitation, though, modular exchange of this kind becomes more challenging. Once we are on this path, furthermore, progress seems inevitable. Unless some unforeseen law of physics limits our understanding somehow, this path can potentially lead us past every problem we will encounter.
            As hinted earlier, I think that there is enormous explanatory power in this kind of fundamental clarification in the nature of the world and our relationship to it. Many popular ideas are so wrong that they really require this essay to come at the beginning of a response to them. Providing examples of this doesn’t seem possible without writing another essay for each one, so perhaps I’ll leave it with a promise to provide them in the future. At any rate, many of my positions seem to follow from the attitudes expressed in this piece, which can be adequately simmed up in the term 'realism'. There is one material world with one corresponding spectrum of explanatory knowledge.

-  Suggested Reading  -

Eagleman, D. M. (2008). Human time perception and its illusions. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 18(2): 131-136.

Eagleman, D. M. and T. J. Sejnowski (2007). Motion signals bias localization judgments: A unified explanation for the flash-lag, flash-drag, flash-jump, and Frohlich illusions. Journal of Vision 7(4): 12.

Falk, D. (2011). In search of the cosmic unknowns. New Scientist 209: 46-46.
Fields, R. D. (2007). The Shark's Elecric Sense. Scientific American, Aug 2007, pp. 75-81.

(Frieden, E. 1972) The Chemical Elements of Life. Scientific American, Jul 1972, pp. 52-60.
Guyton, Arthur C. (1991). Textbook of Medical Physiology (8th ed.). Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders. p. 274. ISBN 0-7216-3994-1.

Hooper, L. V., et al. (2002). How host-microbial interactions shape the nutrient environment of the mammalian intestine. Annual Review of Nutrition 22: 283-307.

Kardong, K. V. and S. P. Mackessy (1991). The strike behavior of a conginitally blind rattlesnake Journal of Herpetology 25(2): 208-211.

Ladich, F., et al. (2006). Communication in fishes, Science Publishers.
Magnuson, J. J. (1990). Long-term ecological research and the invisible present – Uncovering the processes hidden because they occur slowly or because effects lag years behind causes. Bioscience 40(7): 495-501.

Markie, P. (2015). Rationalism vs. Empiricism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Summer 2015. from
Moller, P. (1995). Electric Fishes History and Behavior. London, Chapman & Hall.
O'Connell-Rodwell, C. E. (2007). Keeping an "Ear" to the ground: Seismic communication in elephants. Physiology 22: 287-294.

Panek, R. (2011). The 4 Percent Universe. United States, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Savage DC. 1977. Microbial ecology of the gastrointestinal tract. Annu. Rev. Mi- crobiol. 31:107–33
Skipper, J. I., et al. (2007). Hearing lips and seeing voices: How cortical areas supporting speech production mediate audiovisual speech perception. Cerebral Cortex 17(10): 2387-239          

Stein, B. E., et al. (2009). The neural basis of multisensory integration in the midbrain: Its organization and maturation. Hearing Research 258(1-2): 4-15.      

Tiscareno, M. (2013). Planetary Rings. Planets, Stars and Stellar Systems. T. Oswalt, L. French and P. Kalas, Springer Netherlands309-375.

Wilczek, F. (2012). Origins of mass. Central European Journal of Physics 10(5): 1021-1037.


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