What is Mysticism? – Part 1


In a comment on my previous post, I wrote:
“My working definition of mysticism is:
Any claim about reality (not just the self) which cannot be verified by another person.”

“If you say that your mind tells you X and my mind does not tell me X, and there is nothing in external reality that can validate X, clearly we are at an impasse. No further communication is possible, which, not surprisingly, is the core of all mystic claims”

To which Ajit Jadhav replied:
The matters of truth and falsehood are not established in reference to other people. It’s all between your own self, and reality, full-stop. The objective standard is (your grasp of) reality, not other people. And, note, “reality” also does include consciousness, i.e., “self” (and the selves of others). Primacy of existence doesn’t deny that fact. Consciousness is real.

the issue really is only with the qualifier: “external.” Agreed? If so, would you please tell me why you insert that qualifier? And, could you offer me a definition of the term “external?”

Main post:

The exchange above raises the crucial question: How does one evaluate claims related to consciousness- such as telepathy?

Quoting Rand:

A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something.

Directly or indirectly, every phenomenon of consciousness is derived from one’s awareness of the external world. … It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated.

Communicated, yes. But experienced, grasped and defined too? Can one not experience pain or pleasure without relation to the external world? What exactly does external mean here? Consciousness (mine as well as other people’s) is a part of reality. It exists too. Does the external world include the consciousness of other people but not one’s own? Does it exclude all consciousness?

All concepts are formed by a process of abstraction. One cannot form a concept from a single unit. That holds for the concept of consciousness too. Before a consciousness could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of other entities having consciousness. A baby raised in total isolation with no conscious entity around it, could not conceive of consciousness, could not conceive of any difference between the external world and the products of its own consciousness, could not achieve certainty about anything. It should be clear now that what one perceives and infers about other people’s consciousness is crucial to the concept of consciousness as such.

For instance, a child may see people walking around a table instead of colliding with it. This allows him to infer that the table exists external to the consciousness of these people and his own. The child sees (readily) that his mother does not understand what he wants. This allows him to infer that his desire is internal to his own consciousness and is not accessible to his mother. The child sees (readily) that he does not understand what his mother wants. This allows him to infer that her desire is internal to her own consciousness and is not accessible to him. Without such an understanding of what is internal and what is external, the child would not be able to develop the concept of consciousness at all.

The external world is those aspects of reality to which other people have access. Or, employing the concept of consciousness, the external world is those aspects of reality to which any consciousness has access. With this understanding of the external world Rand’s “It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated” makes sense.

That is enough for this post. I will pursue this later.


I have struggled with the concept of probability for a long time. Not with the maths but with the meaning. Does a probability number really mean anything at all? And if so, what? Recently, I have reached a definite position on this. Here it is.

In a metaphysical sense, it seems clear that the probability number is meaningless. Or, more accurately, that it is not a property of the event in question at all (I am using the word ‘event’ loosely to refer to anything for which a probability may be calculated). An event either occurs or does not occur. No fractions are possible. Probability therefore must be a measure of a person’s state of knowledge of the factors that determine the event in question. That is, probability is an epistemological concept rather than a metaphysical one. It originates because of the need to make choices in the face of incomplete knowledge. This is clear since probability is used not just for future events but also for past ones. A classic example of this is the use of medical tests in conjunction with statistical analyses to arrive at a probability of a patient’s having a particular disease. In reality, either the person has the disease or not. The probability assigned to the possibility of disease is merely a tool used to decide whether further investigation is warranted.

This seems to suggest that probability is a subjective rather than an objective. But the precise math used to calculate probabilities suggests otherwise. Is probability subjective or objective? To answer this, it would be useful to look at what the words subjective and objective mean. In a comment on an old post, Burgess Laughlin wrote (and I agree):

“Objective,” in my philosophy (Objectivism), has two meanings. First, in metaphysics, it means existing independent of consciousness. The redundant phrase “objective reality” captures this meaning. Second, in epistemology, “objective” refers to knowledge that is drawn (inferred) logically from facts of reality. (See “Objectivity,” The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

Subjective, as I use the word, refers to judgements or responses that cannot be traced back to facts of reality or the thought processes of the subject (A typical example is emotions).

Probability is not objective in the metaphysical sense. In fact, without consciousness, it would not exist at all. It is also not objective in the epistemological sense since it arises only in cases where the subject does not have complete knowledge of the facts of reality. And the fact that there are precise mathematical rules to calculate probabilities means that probability is not subjective either. If probability is neither objective nor subjective, what is it? Consider the case of a coin being tossed. Lacking any knowledge of the composition and weight distribution of the coin, the velocity with which it was tossed, the composition of air, the nature of the ground etc, the probability of a particular side showing up is taken to be 0.5. Where did this number come from? It is quite clear that this choice is purely arbitrary. The entire math of probability is based on a simple principle applied consistently. Given multiple possibilities and a complete lack of quantitative knowledge of relevant causes, each possibility has an equal probability. Clearly this is arbitrary, but it is the best one can do. And applied consistently, it provides a very precise framework for quantifying a lack of knowledge. It allows quantification of that which we do not even know!

Anyone who is familiar with Rand’s philosophy should note that my use of ‘arbitrary’ is different from (though related to and inspired from) Rand’s use of the word in the classification of the epistemological status of statements as true, false or arbitrary. To apply the principle of equal likelihood, one already needs to have identified all the possibilities. This means that probability cannot be applied to arbitrary (in Rand’s sense) assertions. What about the truth status of a statement involving probability? Such a statement can be demonstrated to be true (or false) subject to the equal likelihood principle. Without the principle, it is arbitrary (in Rand’s sense).

I think this classification – objective, subjective and arbitrary – might be useful in several other areas of math as well. For example (I need to think more about this though), it can be applied to Euclid’s axioms (in geometry). These axioms could be described as arbitrary and theorems could then be considered as true subject to the axioms.

In my next post, I will try to relate my position to statistics and randomness.

The scope of free will

I was debating the issue of anarchy and was directed to this article (pdf) by Prof. Moshe Kroy which highlights some fundamental differences between Rand’s philosophy and Rothbard’s including the scope of free will.

According to Rand’s theory of human freedom, man’s only fundamental freedom, the sole domain in which he is capable of being a “first cause”, the only realm where he can exercise absolutely unpre-determined choice, is his own consciousness. Man’s basic choice is between identifying the facts of reality through an act of consciousness, and evading the knowledge of these facts. This freedom does not extend to man’s decisions and actions: Your decisions and actions are the necessary product of your values and premises, Rand claims.

Rothbard’s theory of man, however, assumes another dimension of freedom in man: the freedom to make decisions, to originate action. For Rothbard values, and their hierarchy, are not the product of perception alone, though, clearly, his writing implies that awareness of the facts is highly relevant to your choice of values.

In Rand’s words (also look at the related concept of focus)

That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.

In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.

Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.”
(Emphasis mine)

I am not quoting Rothbard because I have not read his works. Aristotle The Geek has directed me to this article by Rothbard but the focus of that article is more on refuting determinism than the scope of free will.

How does one decide which theory is correct? The existence of a choice to focus or not (ranging from no focus to full focus) is immediately available to introspection. When I am solving a difficult problem, I am consciously choosing to be fully focused. When I try to go to sleep, I consciously suspend my focus. But does free will extend beyond that? Am I free to choose the object of my focus or the subject of my thoughts? Am I free to choose the outcome of my thoughts? I don’t think so.

Firstly, there are occasions when I get distracted. This is an indication – though not a proof – that I lack control over the object of my focus. There are occasions when I want to stop thinking about something but cannot. This is an indication – again not a proof – that I lack control over the subject of my thoughts. There exist such things as mental habits and character. These concepts would surely be meaningless if I were free to choose the outcome of my thoughts.

Secondly (and less importantly), one can apply Occam’s razor. The freedom of choice to focus is necessary to explain human behavior. It is also sufficient. Why assume a greater freedom without evidence – especially when free will sits uncomfortably with known physical theories? And until we discover physical theories that can explain free will, I don’t think this issue can be proved either way.

On these grounds, I agree with Rand’s position.

How is this relevant to anarchy? I will deal with that in a separate post.

Why should values be agent-relative?

Heumer’s critique of Ayn Rand’s “The Objectivist Ethics” begins with

…premise 1 [Value is agent-relative; things can only be valuable for particular entities] begs the question.
One of the central groups of opponents Rand is facing is people who believe in absolute value, and not just agent-relative value. The absolutist view is that it is possible for some things to be good, simply, or in an absolute sense; whereas agent-relativists think that things can only be good for or relative to certain individuals, and that what is good relative to one individual need not be good relative to another. (N.B., this should not be confused with what are commonly called “moral relativism” and “cultural relativism.”)
Rand bases her ethics on the agent-relative position, but she offers no argument for it, only a bald assertion.

Why indeed should value be agent relative? The answer lies in Rand’s claim that

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
(emphasis in original)

The clue to the answer is in the question “Why”. If X is an absolute value (not just agent-relative), one can ask “Why is X an absolute value?”. There are three possible responses:

a) God said so:
This is unacceptable to me since the existence of God is an arbitrary claim and I do not want to elaborate further in this post (especially since this is not Heumer’s response).

b) It is self-evident:
It is impossible to argue with someone who really means this. If a particular proposition seems self-evident to him and it does not seem self-evident to me, how do we argue? I can only say that apart from the axioms in metaphysics and epistemology (‘Something exists’, ‘I am conscious’, ‘entities have identity’ and ‘I have free will’) no proposition which is not a direct observation is self-evident to me. For example, ‘the sky is blue’ is self-evident because it is a direct observation. But I have no sense organ that senses value – no sense organ that tells me that the sky is valuable. If someone who gives this answers (It is self-evident) really means it, then we have fundamentally different natures – so that I do not even know what he means when he says ‘It is self-evident that X is an absolute value’. But I don’t believe this. To see why consider just one example of a self-evident value that Heumer cites – justice. Heumer claims that it is self-evident that “It is unjust to punish a person for a crime he didn’t commit.” It is obvious that different people have widely varying understandings of the concepts ‘crime’ and ‘justice’. For example, I don’t think it is just to punish or compensate people for crimes that their ancestors committed or suffered. But the whole concept of affirmative action depends on doing just that. Therefore even if the affirmative action advocates say that they believe it is unjust to punish a person for a crime he didn’t commit, they mean something very different from what I understand by it. The only way to say that justice is a self-evident value is to broaden the concept so much that it becomes useless. 

c) The question why is not appropriate:
There are some things about which really does not make any sense to ask why. For example, it makes no sense to ask “Why does anything exist at all?”. Is the question “Why is X an absolute value?” like that, atleast for some X? If so, then the why immediately turns into a how – “How do you know that X is an absolute value?” One answer to this could be that it is self-evident, but I have already dismissed that. Another answer could be that it is axiomatic (like the four axiomatic propositions I stated above). But just claiming that something is an axiom is not sufficient. Even axioms have to be validated. An axiom can be validated by assuming that it is not true and then looking at the implications. If the axiom is true, one immediately reaches a contradiction or an absurdity. I won’t actually demonstrate this for the four axioms I stated. Anyone should be able to see that this is so. For what X does the proposition “X is not an absolute value” lead to a contradiction or an absurdity? I know of no such X (and none of the supposedly self-evident principles that Heumer cites – more on them in another post – indicate the existence of any such X). Anyway it is not my task to prove that no such X exists. Obviously I cannot (just like the existence of God). It is upto someone who believes that such X exist to identify them. Even one example would be enough.

But if one actually wants to answer the ‘why’, one will have to say something of the form “because it [verb] [noun]” where noun is some purpose. And only agents can have purposes. Atleast I cannot think of any other way to answer the ‘why’. If one does give the “because it [verb] [noun]” answer, then X is a value relative to the agent who has the particular purpose and not in any absolute sense.

Science and philosophy – 1

A couple of days back, in a comment on this video, I wrote

Unfortunately because of the philosophy of logical positivism, most scientists today are afraid or unwilling to accept the necessity of metaphysics at all.

Today, I started reading a book “dreams of a final theory” by Steven Weinberg. Early on in the book, he writes

Speaking of a final theory, a thousand questions and clarifications crowd into the mind. What do we mean by one scientific principle ‘explaining’ another? How do we know that there is a common starting point for all such explanations? Will we ever discover that point? How close are we now? What will the final theory be like? What will it say about life and consciousness? And, when we have our final theory, what will happen to science and to the human spirit?

A few pages later, explaining what the pursuit of a final theory means, he starts with “Chalk is white. Why?” Some answers (light, wavelengths etc.) and then another “why”. Some more answers (atomic structure, energy levels etc.) and then another “why” and so on until he comes to a point where he does not know the answers. Finally, he writes,

Even so, it is a tricky business to say exactly what one is doing when one answers such a question. Fortunately, it is not really necessary.

and then, a few paragraphs later,

Ludwig Wittgenstein, denying even the possibility of explaining any fact on the basis of any other fact, warned that ‘at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.’ Such warnings leave me cold. To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is like telling a tiger stalking prey that all flesh is grass. The fact that we scientists do not know how to state in a way that philosophers would approve what it is that we are doing in searching for scientific explanations does not mean that we are not doing something worthwhile. We could use help from professional philosophers in understanding what it is that we are doing, but with or without their help we shall keep at it.

As an engineer, I can certainly sympathize with what Weinberg is saying. Philosophers such as Wittgenstein have betrayed science (and philosophy). But that is not a good enough reason for scientists to abandon philosophy. Proper science needs a solid base in philosophy. I dare say that without an explicit (philosophical) understanding of what “searching for scienific explanations” means, scientists will not discover a final theory. I think science has reached a level (based on some reading of quantum mechanics) from where it cannot proceed without answering some fundamental questions that are not just scientific.

Anyhow this is a fascinating subject, and I will return to it often. I have been fascinated by this subject for about an year now, and have been reading some books off and on when I find time. So far I have not written on this subject, because I do not like to write unless I have a clear idea of what I am writing. But it seems unlikely that I will find answers to questions like this without a lot of thinking. So I intend to think by putting my thoughts on this blog instead of doing it before going to sleep.

%d bloggers like this: