• Counterfactuals

    Posted by sjahari hollands on February 15, 2023 at 7:47 pm

    I am interested in discussing the intersection between all of Iain’s work, and this new approach to the foundations of physics. The Science of Can and Cant, by Chiarra Marleltto, which is based on the original work of David Deutsch.

    It seems possible to me that the leap of reasoning by which we jump to counterfactual territory, arises from the RH. And this leap is what takes things beyond the tendency towards reductionism in the Biological and physical sciences.

    Any thoughts on this? I wonder if Iain has explored these ideas.

    Paul replied 1 year ago 5 Members · 20 Replies
  • 20 Replies
  • Christina Florkowski

    February 16, 2023 at 2:11 am

    <It seems possible to me that the leap of reasoning by which we jump to counterfactual territory, arises from the RH.>
    Care to say more about this right hemisphere leap of reasoning? This seems counter to my understanding of McGilchrist. Or perhaps I misunderstand the point you intend to make.

  • L.P. Koch

    March 1, 2023 at 8:22 am

    I haven’t read the book you suggested, but I would say that to the degree that counterfactual thinking jump-starts our imagination, cuts through some ingrained presuppositions, and is based on imagination and intuition, it can be helpful. Like: suppose there is no hard line between our minds and nature? Suppose that causality does not always require physical contact? Things like that.

    However, to my mind, analytic philosophy has entangled itself too heavily in counterfactual scenarios (“Mary has grown up in a black-and-white world”) and related ideas such as logical necessity vs. physical necessity. It really can get quite bizarre and often seems more akin to the hyper-abstract (and hyper-unreal) fantasy-world of the left hemisphere.

    • sjahari hollands

      March 2, 2023 at 2:45 pm

      Thanks for the replies Christine and L.P. Koch. For some reason I didnt get a note there were replies so this is a bit late.

      I dont think that the analytic philosophy is using counterfactuals at all. From how I understand them.

      A counterfactual statement is of two forms.

      One form of a counterfactual is something that is IMPOSSIBLE according to the laws of physics. An example of this would be a perpetual motion machine.

      Another form is to say that something is POSSIBLE according to the laws of physics.

      I cant go into a detailed discussion here but it is a fascinating area. And both Deutsch and Chirana are using this approach to find a way of arriving at a theory of entropy and the first origins of things that does NOT go back to the reductionist approach so prevalent – at least in Biology. And also in physics.

      In terms of the discussion on RH and LH, it seems to me that the LH’s specialty is to determine that things are impossible – based on the laws of logic and reductionist thinking.

      ON the other hand the RH can question that assumption and challenge the situation. Is this really IMPOSSIBLE? Is there some configuration in which such a thing becomes POSSIBLE?

      Here is a statement that in its present form seems to be a counterfactual.

      “It is IMPOSSIBLE for humankind at this point to reverse the inevitable progression of climate change. “

      Iain in one of his talks refers to Alice in Wonderland and the Red Queen who told her to practice thinking of 6 impossible things before breakfast.

      It’s a fascinating exercise.

      Like. I might think. “It’s impossible for such and such.” But after a little reflection I start to wonder – “wait a minute. Is it really impossible?”

      • Don Salmon

        March 15, 2023 at 12:36 pm

        I wonder (speaking from the RH I suppose) are there truly any laws of nature that can’t be “broken”?

        After all, what we call a “law” is simply a set of observations of patterns of nature.

        To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever established even a procedure for testing the invariability of these patterns. We see them consistently in our – what, millions, maybe billions of tests over a few centuries.

        What if there is some tiny region of space where the patterns are different?

        What if there are other universes where the patters are different?

        What if the patterns were different 1000 years ago (then of course, we couldn’t count it as 1000 years)

        What if the patterns are constantly changing, but changing so universally and in such a slow manner that the means by which we measure patterns makes it seem as if they are staying the same?

  • Paul

    March 16, 2023 at 11:58 am

    Interesting discussion!

    I find an association with Iain’s idea that to resolve our dissonance at living in a complex, paradoxical and deeply interconnected universe, we have to be able to embrace ‘either/and’: This strongly resonates for me Sjahari with Marletto’s point that current scientific thinking focusses on what is observable rather than on what is possible, meaning that we inherently limit our understanding of the universe.

    The basic point here is that we have a ‘measurement’ problem in that some phenomena are not currently (or may never be) measurable. It is striking to me that this is not even close to being new idea.

    At the moment I’m tending to formulate the RH as ‘inclusive’ in that it recognises that there is almost certainly an over-arching paradigm that can explain all phenomena (whether or not this can or could be articulated), whereas the LH is ‘exclusive’ in that it only models what is measurable (at present). In this formulation, the problem comes when the LH does not leave ‘space’ in the model/ map for what it cannot measure. In other words, it presumes a model that excludes all other possibilities and at this moment the Emissary becomes the Master.

    And the biggest problem here is that all the things that are really important to us as humans are hard or even impossible to measure.

    In practice the existence of ‘anomalous events’ are formally expressed as a ‘of low probability’ but when you look at real world discourse you immediately notice an expression of definite exclusion. Why? I suspect the nature of the discourse switches suddenly from open discussion to rhetoric rather than discussion when areas of disagreement are reached.

    Does that come close to what you were driving at Sjahari? I hope it makes sense.

    Weirdly, I think things like this are best illustrated sideways rather than head on. The example that always comes to mind from the film, “Contact” and I think it nicely illustrates the problem. Here’s the scene in question.

    Conversation between Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) and Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey):

    Palmer Joss: You’re Dr. Arroway, the one who’s been looking for signals from outer space.

    Ellie Arroway: Guilty as charged.

    Palmer Joss: [smiling] And you believe in little green men, too?

    Ellie Arroway: [smiling back] Only intellectually. There’s no proof yet.

    Palmer Joss: [serious] So, you have faith.

    Ellie Arroway: Faith?

    Palmer Joss: Yeah. You have faith that there’s life out there, somewhere.

    Ellie Arroway: No, I have evidence.

    Palmer Joss: What evidence?

    Ellie Arroway: [gesturing towards the telescope] That.

    Palmer Joss: [looking at the telescope] A telescope?

    Ellie Arroway: [nodding] Yeah. It’s a tool we use to gather data.

    Palmer Joss: And your faith is in the data?

    Ellie Arroway: [smiling] My faith is in the universe, in its vastness and its mysteries.

    Palmer Joss: [nodding] And you think you can uncover those mysteries with data?

    Ellie Arroway: [shrugging] We try.

    Palmer Joss: [serious] But there are some things science can’t answer, aren’t there?

    Ellie Arroway: [curious] Like what?

    Palmer Joss: [leaning in] Like why we’re here. What the meaning of life is.

    Ellie Arroway: [smiling] Ah, the big questions.

    Palmer Joss: [smiling back] Yeah. The questions that science can’t answer.

    Ellie Arroway: [leaning in] But maybe it can.

    Palmer Joss: [curious] How?

    Ellie Arroway: [leaning in further] By finding evidence of life on other planets. Maybe that would give us a sense of our place in the universe.

    Palmer Joss: [nodding] And what if we don’t find any evidence?

    Ellie Arroway: [shrugging] Then we’ll keep looking. That’s what science does. It keeps looking until it finds an answer.

    Palmer Joss: Did you love your father?

    Ellie Arroway: What?

    Palmer Joss: Your dad. Did you love him?

    Ellie Arroway: Yes, very much.

    Palmer Joss: Prove it.

    • Don Salmon

      March 16, 2023 at 12:46 pm

      Paul, you mention two things that I find fascinating, and both are quite closely connected.


      One of the research studies I did as a psychologist involved looking at the effects of mindfulness on reducing physical pain. It’s rather amazing that none of our advanced technologies have the capacity to measure the pain people experience.

      I did my research almost 25 years ago, but even now, the only way to measure pain is to ask: “What is your pain level on a scale of 1 to 10?”

      And people are notoriously bad at providing consistent estimates. How many times did I hear, “Oh, my pain is at least an 11 or 12!” And I’d say, “Well, how about on a scale of 1 to 100,” and they’d immediately say, “oh well then, maybe around 70.”

      The level of apparent control and prediction we have in regard to the material world (or rather, the objective aspect of our experience which we mistakenly label “Material” in the sense that it is completely self existent) is far less than we imagine – as is obvious from the excesses of climate change, and the nearly impossible task of replicating most psychological research studies.

      Then that gets us to so-called anomalous research. This is one of the terms people use for parapsychological research. If you are slightly open-minded about this, you realize that people are having thousands of psychic experiences throughout the day, every day.

      And somehow, the idea that these experiences are very hard to measure and reproduce in a lab setting – and the incorrect idea that these experiences are somehow contrary to the so-called “laws of physics” – makes them unacceptable to many in the religion of scientism who believe they’re being scientific!

  • Paul

    March 16, 2023 at 4:05 pm

    Hi Don. Thanks for replying.

    I wasn’t thinking about pain but it is a very good example of something we feel we need to measure but can’t objectively. There are so many examples I’ve run into like using the Beck Depression Inventory for tracking the efficacy of anti-depressant drugs or therapy for example.

    I am really interested in anomalous experience and worked on a lot of research with people with psychosis back in the day. I don’t think it is really deniable that all of human experience is almost indistinguishable from hallucination. We tolerate dreaming on a daily basis, myself and a lot of musical people I know (and possibly literally everyone) can experience hearing self-generated music without stimulus. What really seems to distinguish psychotic experience is that it is distressing to the individual- hearing a voice speaking to you might of course be a delightful spiritual experience of course.

    I wonder what Sjahari would make of this from the perspective of evaluating our collective tendency to counterfactual? Are the experiences evaluated identical in nature or are there pre-existing emotional components that ‘colour’ the interpretation? If the latter, I imagine this would strongly influence the self-report of pain you were discussing Don.

    • Don Salmon

      March 16, 2023 at 4:15 pm

      Hey Paul,

      are you a musician, psychologist, both, neither?

    • Don Salmon

      March 16, 2023 at 4:21 pm

      two more thoughts:

      one about pain. It’s SO interesting – it’s so hard to explain to people that ALL pain is psychological. They say “But my pain is REAL.” And I say, “Let’s say I have a knife in my hand, and the nerves to your hand are severed at the wrist. If I plunge this knife into your hand, will you feel anything?”

      Then they get it. “Oh, the pain depends on the brain.” (well, I don’t try and challenge their materialistic view of the brain but at least they get a slightly subtler understanding.”

      The general view of pain (back to Paul’s point) is that it’s a complex layer of interpretation, involving instinctive, emotional and cognitive responses.

      I love your other point, Paul, about dreaming. Stephen LaBerge, one of the world’s leading students of lucid dreaming, points out that we’re always dreaming – the brain constructing imagery based on stimuli whose nature we do not know (vibrations of some kind – physicists call it “physical’ Indian philosophers call it Shakti: the conscious energy or Force of the Supreme Reality of God or Brahman)

      Tibetan Buddhists have a wonderful practice to give you a visceral sense of this.

      Imagine you’re dreaming right now. What does that mean?

      Not that everything is vague and hazy, but that all the forms you perceive exist only in consciousness. If you’ve done preliminary Buddhist study and understand that “you” don’t exist as a defined, unchangeable entity, you can feel this as forms existing in a boundless consciousness.

      how to get a quick feel for this? Notice your experience right now – sensations, emotions, thoughts, images arising and passing away in an open, boundless space of awareness.

      If you put these 2 together – letting go of the sense of bounded self, and seeing all the changing forms as appearing in consciousness – it can lead to a profound, radical change of experience, beyond BOTH LH and RH.

  • Paul

    March 17, 2023 at 7:50 pm

    I play music and took degrees and worked in in psychology for 20 years, moving on to new things about 10 years ago Don. I earn a living otherwise now but continue with music and with psychology as a philosophical pursuit.

    Recently I suddenly realised that I’ve been thinking about consciousness and human experience since I was maybe 7, getting on for 50 years now. In some ways it seems the progress has been slow, with successive disappointments… But then I think of the magnitude of the mystery, its history and its tendency to sublimate suddenly into something else the moment you catch a glimpse of an answer out of the corner of your eye and I think maybe I’m doing ok 😄

    It is interesting that your formulation of pain chimes with how I think about psychological distress generally. When I had to comfort my son when he was a bit younger, having woken from a nightmare I would speak to him in a particular way, ostensibly providing an explanation for the experience but offering physical contact/ comfort and, most importantly, time for him to relax a little and for my mind to range into the poetic, seeking something overarching, something better than a simple explanation.

    After running your exercise just now, it put me in mind of these moments and I wonder if the cognitive/ verbal self that represents the embodied, comforting parent that is yet guided by something else, something working only in this moment; that needs time to formulate and find a beautiful resolution to the crisis in hand.

    This seems to me an example of the two parts of the self: the less responsive, explicit self is there with some immediate answers and some simple calming (having encountered the situation before) giving way as the more implicit, responsive self begins to germinate something better, tailored to the suffering it is encountering here in this moment.

    Maybe in this small drama we find the instinct for the counterfactual? Is it to risk speaking without thinking, to rely on ‘knowing’ rather than telling, dismissing or attributing as the overarching aim?

  • Don Salmon

    March 18, 2023 at 5:41 pm

    I think you said it quite beautifully toward the end.

    letting go of this ‘knowing” explicit self and allowing the simplicity, effortlessness of unknowing.

    I just heard a friend give a marvelous example of this, something we all know.

    When we were little children, and went outside in the late evening to look at the night sky, we were’t seeking self improvement, we weren’t trying to have some “experience,” we were just naturally, spontaneously, effortlessly THERE – absorbed in the wonder and beauty of that expanse.

    And we all have spontaneous movements of this – an example i often give is the one you cited, caring for a child in a way that calls for that deeper effortless intuitive knowing. Many have it playing music or playing basketball or walking in nature.

    The key, to me is to not depend on the person you’re giving your loving attention to, the sport, the natural setting, etc but to learn to shift in any moment into that effortless, spontaneously aware state.

  • Paul

    March 20, 2023 at 11:13 am

    Isn’t it remarkable Don, the traumatic loss of the child and the long and frustrating, socially denigrated attempt to recapture that mind?

    I think that’s one of the main attractions of Iain’s ideas for me: both an articulation of that loss and a reminder that this self hasn’t gone anywhere but, without words, must attempt to connect to others via this wordy intermediary (who then captures the whole). In that loss I see so much of the World’s suffering (and mine). Another thing Iain has helped me with is the confirmatory idea that the RH can oversee the subversion of language to express a fluid, dynamic and evolving vision, very much as an artist can use mere pigment to evoke depth, movement and emotion. It’s a beautiful notion and one that I had thought may times but doubted.

    Is this where the necessary settlement must be between the two selves?

    Side note: Interesting we have a different idea of the ‘two minds’, with you favouring unknowing/ implicit vs. knowing/ explicit and me tending knowing/ implicit vs. thinking/ explicit. I could go with either tbh.

    • Don Salmon

      March 20, 2023 at 12:30 pm

      regarding your last comment, I’m not sure I understand how you’re using the words knowing, unknowing, explicit and implicit.

      but you inspired me to try something. I was asked back in September to write comments in various groups to encourage activity here (it was quite quiet for the first few months). I’m glad to see it’s more active – somewhat – but my main interest in Iain’s work relates to contemplative practice.

      I’ve been trying to get a conversation started around practice but so far haven’t had any luck.

      I think in response to your question I’m thinking of trying again – starting a new group. The title at the moment is something like

      TMAHE and TMWT and the Kingdom of God (or Brahman or Allah or the Tao or the Dharmadatu or the Power of Now or whatever language you’d like to use!)

      The idea is, toward the end of TMWT Iain gives a lot of attention to God, but has been hesitant (surprisingly to me, in a very left hemisphere way) about suggesting any practices (assuming, from a LH hemisphere perspective and a very Protestant perspective, that “practice” is purely LH and therefore inappropriate for contemplative life).

      I thought I would just start by posting various practices from different contemplative traditions, without much (if any) analysis or explanation, and see if anyone is interested.

      If you have any ideas about what might be interesting for this group, please let me know. I’d much rather write about knowing and unknowing in a practice context rather than intellectually – if that makes any sense.

      Here’s a start:

      Practice: Turning Awareness Upon Itself

      <font color=”#674ea7″>Find a quiet space and notice the thoughts floating through your consciousness. </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>Notice that there are thoughts and the one who sees the thoughts. </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>There are emotions and the one who feels the emotions. </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>There is a body and the one who sees and feels the body and its sensations. </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>Who is it that notices the thoughts, emotions, sensations, and body? </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>Who or what is here that is beyond the movement of thought, emotions, and sensations? </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>Who is it that is here and inhabits this body? </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>Rest and experience what you are beyond the movements of mind. </font>

      <font color=”#e69138″>While sitting quietly, contemplate these questions: </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>Who am I when no thought is present? </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″> Who is it that observes thoughts? </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>What does this presence that I am, feel like? </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″> Can I feel and experience the spaciousness and silence of my own nature? </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>What is here that is already perfectly quiet and universally good? </font>

      <font color=”#e69138″> Allow awareness to notice the thoughts, emotions, and sensations floating through your consciousness.</font>

      <font color=”#cc0000″> Now, stop looking outward and allow awareness to turn inward and look directly at your own self. </font>

      <font color=”#cc0000″>Rest here, in this space of silence and luminosity. </font>

      <font color=”#cc0000″> If you find yourself lost in thought again, simply turn awareness upon itself again.</font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″> Become aware of awareness and rest here. </font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″>Smile and let go into the beauty and silence of your true nature.</font>

      <font color=”#674ea7″> When you have completed your formal meditation practice of turning awareness upon itself and you are walking forward throughout your day, keep these questions in mind: </font>

      <font color=”#d5a6bd”>Can I notice the quiet presence of awareness, right here, right now? </font>

      <font color=”#d5a6bd”>Can I notice that there is a quiet presence continually witnessing every moment of my everyday life? </font>

      <font color=”#d5a6bd”>Can I notice that this awareness requires no effort, no doing?</font>

      <font color=”#d5a6bd”>Do I realize that I am awake awareness already, right here and right now?

      Holliday, Craig. Yoga of Liberation: A heart-based path to spiritual awakening (p. 47). Kindle Edition.

      • Don Salmon

        March 20, 2023 at 12:33 pm

        not sure if my reply was clear – I was just apologizing for leaving the codes in (I copied this practice from an email where I used various colors). The code could be a nice part of the practice, taking it simply as more mind stuff that appears in Silence.

        By the way, if you want a Christian version of this, the Desert Fathers of the 3rd century used a wheel as symbolic of awareness. They placed Christ in the Center of the wheel, and that was supposed to turn the monk’s attention to the presence of Christ at the heart of our Being, an infinite, boundless Silence from which proceeds the Word which “creates” both our individual self and the entire universe.

      • Paul

        March 20, 2023 at 12:55 pm

        Hi Don

        Yes, I’m sorry- let me clarify..

        By ‘implicit’ I mean those aspects of consciousness (cognition, emotion learning, memory etc.) acquired via dynamic interaction with the world around us and is typically (although not exclusively) non-verbal. This I would align with what I think of as knowing or understanding.

        In contrast, explicit (learning, memory, cognition) is that which can be represented in language. I would align this with thinking (explicit, declarative cognitions) that is largely verbal in nature and would include rules, social conventions, systems of social expression and calculations.

        • Don Salmon

          March 20, 2023 at 1:28 pm

          Hi Paul:

          Thanks for the clarification, that’s actually what I thought you meant. In that context, yes, knowing – a much deeper knowing of the mind – is associated with understanding, non-verbal, direct experiential insight.

          I was talking about a knowing beyond the mind, and not sure how to get into that. Anyway, thanks again for the (implicit) inspiration. I’m going to try to start that new group and see if anyone here might be interested in contemplative/meditative/yogic practice. I don’t care what religion or any religion – atheists welcome too!

          • Paul

            March 20, 2023 at 3:56 pm

            Well, I think you raise an important point Don… how can we know what is knowing beyond the mind?

            Increasingly though, science and critical thinking in general is taking us away from this idea of the individual as somehow existing in splendid isolation and beginning to understand that we are intrinsically interconnected to the Universe and continuous with it. Can we begin to understand the individual as being a distributed, unfolding, dynamic process rather than a meat-based computer with an idiosyncratic operating system?

            I’ve just started a Group in here about Language AI systems because it seems to me that very modern phenomenon slips a knife between the meat and the bone of the verbal/ non verbal experience.

            • Don Salmon

              March 20, 2023 at 6:31 pm

              Interesting. My understanding of systems theory and other recent developments showing interconnectedness is that they remain within the materialist view (I think Iain mentions this in the closing chapters of TMWT). My sense is the same limitation occurs within AI. Interestingly, the leading Idealist (non materialist) thinker in the world, Bernardo Kastrup, has doctorates in both computer science and philosophy of mind, and has worked with some of the world’s leading AI specialists. Bernardo is as convinced as ever that (a) AI will never “understand” consciousness’ and (b) the question of whether AI is “conscious” is a moot point, since nothing exists but consciousness!

              In any case, one cannot “think” (either implicitly or explicitly) about such things and come to a conclusion. At least, I should say a bit more humbly, that’s my understanding of how the contemplatives of the world view it.

              I’ll definitely start that new group. Maybe “Practicing the Kingdom of Heaven, Yoga, Buddhism, Tantra, Kabbalah, Sufism, and more – inspired by TMWT”

            • Paul

              March 20, 2023 at 8:46 pm

              I look forward to joining your group Don 🙂

              I’ve heard of Kastrup but I must admit I can’t recall where at the moment.

              Well, you won’t get an argument from me about a very extended definition of consciousness. But arguments concerning whether computers can become conscious by this definition or that to one side, I think the in many ways this emergence of AI tools will I think provide some real world, implicit opportunities to explore the limitations and strengths of the LH in a self-generative, self-guided way.

              Anyone who has tried such a system… well, you need only take a straw poll of opinions online: frustrating, inflexible, answers sometimes wildly inaccurate, even ‘hallucinatory’ or ‘delusional’. Diligent, workmanlike answers that conform to style boundaries.

              Yes, can produce reams of accurate and grammatical text, more or less aligned to the prompt provided by the enquirer, can be shaped by further questioning or prompting but doesn’t really understand anything.

              Sounds familiar I think.

  • Don Salmon

    March 20, 2023 at 12:31 pm

    sorry about that last post – I copied it from an email where I used various colors. But actually, leaving the code in might be a nice part of the practice, letting go of the mind’s commentary or reactions and just allowing that also to point to that Silence underlying all thought and emotion and sensation!

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