Some fellow bloggers have dusted off an old paper by David Chalmers Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness. Since there is almost always some obligatory homage paid to the Chalmers “hard problem” whenever contemporary discussions of consciousness arise, one of the posts is appropriately called Chalmers Again. The other post Chalmers’ theory of consciousness tries to glean the outline of an actual theory of consciousness from the paper. I am not sure Chalmers’s intent was to provide such a theory. Chalmers reveals his intent when he writes:
At the end of the day, the same criticism applies to any purely physical account of consciousness. For any physical process we specify there will be an unanswered question: Why should this process give rise to experience? Given any such process, it is conceptually coherent that it could be instantiated in the absence of experience. It follows that no mere account of the physical process will tell us why experience arises. The emergence of experience goes beyond what can be derived from physical theory.
Chalmers may think of himself as a materialist or physicalist but in that statement, he shows himself to be a closet idealist.
Is Chalmers Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness all it is cracked up to be?
Chalmers begins with his classic differentiation between the “easy” and the “hard” problems of consciousness.
The easy problems are per Chalmers explaining:
• the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
• the integration of information by a cognitive system;
• the reportability of mental states;
• the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
• the focus of attention;
• the deliberate control of behavior;
• the difference between wakefulness and sleep.
Of course, none of these problems are really easy. As a matter of fact, we are only beginning to understand how the brain and our neurological systems can do any of these things. Before recent decades we had almost no techniques to observe how the brain operates in real time and even the techniques we have now – functional MRIs, for example – are still relatively crude.
So these problems are not really “easy”. Let’s use a different word to describe them – “serious”. They are serious problems because they are problems we can research scientifically. We can make theories about them and test them. We can usefully gain knowledge and understanding about them. As it is with all science, we may never have a complete explanation but we can progress with them and understand more about them. This is actually what Chalmers means by the word “easy”.
Let’s contrast this with the Chalmers “hard” problem:
The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.
Chalmers goes on to dress up his argument with some science and an attempt to suggest the outline of a solution with tantalizing hints of “extra ingredients”. But his heart really isn’t into it.
If a problem is not “easy”, it is “hard”. If it is not “serious”, it is “unserious”.
The Chalmers “hard” problem is an “unserious” problem.
The “hard” problem is by the way it is framed unsolvable. It is restatement of age-old argument about the ultimate nature of reality, whether everything is matter or mind. No scientific progress can ever be made on the “hard” problem because it is a philosophical problem. No matter how many brain pattern correlations we make we can never derive “experience” from them. We can never prove the ultimate reality to be mind, matter, some combination, or something else we will never have a clue about. If I had to make a choice, I would pick the last but anyone should feel free to make any choice they want and they can never be proven wrong.
That is what we can call a “unserious” problem.
I tend to think that “experience” is an artifact of the mental power of imagination. Imagination is a potent force in survival. Imagine a small antelope being stalked by a cheetah. If the antelope sees no movement and smells nothing, then they go about their business. If the antelope had the power of imagination, it might imagine attacks from predators that might be there, there, or even over there and avoid those areas and thus be safer, and more likely to pass on its genes.
But where does imagination come from? Where do thoughts come from? There must be some sort of storage of those things that are important to construct the imaginings from. These may be what we call experiences (the experience of red, the experience of pain when not feeling pain, etc.) all of the things needed to make a fictional scenario that informs our possible futures.
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I have been thinking somewhat along those lines too. There is an article on Nautilus about remembering and imagining.
I am inclined to think that “experience” is closely related to remembering. For one thing, there is obviously a time lag between events and when we perceive them. There is also some evidence of a time frame relating to experience. Two lights flashed close together will be perceived as one. It is almost as if experience comes in frames and events happening in the same frame are merged together. So we are constructing the present much like we reconstruct the past but with more detail since we have more information in the short term memory. There is also the fact that experience is frequently tinged with memory as well as the fact that experience itself frequently consists of memories or imaginings which are almost like “future” memories per the article.
I agree that it’s an unserious problem. But it’s a problem many people feel. And I’ve been accused of not taking it seriously enough, which is what caused me to return to the old paper. It’s old, but the main issues haven’t changed appreciably in the last 24 years, which in and of itself says something about them.
While steady progress continues to be made on what you label the serious problems, progress on the unserious one, the problem of experience, has been nil. I think this is because the hard problem is a problem of intuition.
It’s similar to the angst people felt when first learning that the earth is not the center of the universe and moves, despite their deep intuition that it’s stationary, or that humans are animals and subject to natural selection, or that biology is molecular chemistry and electricity. Like those old problems, the hard problem will never go away completely, but over time, like vitalism, increasingly fewer people will talk about it.
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I’m not sure I feel any angst about the hard problem. Maybe I did as a teenager and maybe I will again as I get close to death. 🙂
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I don’t either. I’ve never felt any angst.
Nice article James. I share your pessimism in some ways, though remain an optimist in others. To begin, I like how you’ve put Chalmers back into substance dualism territory. He said:
Right. Other than by means of a second kind of stuff, what else could such a statement mean? You then cleverly converted a “hard” problem into an “unserious” one, and so maintained the quandary while avoiding the same fate. I’ve got another approach for you to consider as well.
To be clear, the only “hard problem” I see here, is the “How?” of phenomenal experience. I think that I’ve got some pretty good answers for the “Why?” and the “What?” of it. And even though I’m utterly clueless on the “How?” side of things, as a very strong naturalist I do still consider it “serious”. Theoretically scientists could build something that feels “pain” — I just don’t expect them to. (Or if they do, it may be that they won’t understand that they have done so given how private this stuff seems to be).
Thus my own approach is to note the orders of magnitude which separate our machines from evolution’s machines. Evolution has tremendous tools, tremendous time, and no need to ever “understand” anything. Conversely we have comparatively pathetic tools, little time, and are always constrained by the need to understand what we’re doing.
I hear you on the apparent futility of philosophy. Two and a half millennia of western study, and today we have a community of professionals with zero generally accepted philosophical principles to its credit. But I’m an optimist as well. I believe that a small community of professionals will develop certain philosophical principles that they’re all able to agree upon, and that soft forms of science will use these principles to harden up. Thus this small band of professionals should become a large community, and with effective principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and value, science in general should improve.
I’ve developed four such principles that I hope will help move this process along. It’s my single principle of axiology that pertains to this particular discussion however. It reads:
This comment was in spam and I’m not really clear why. I did notice what looked like a duplicate so not sure whether somehow posting twice got them both flagged. I also note you seem to be repeating phrases similar to my post that maybe some algorithm picked up as a bot throwing a bunch of parroted jargon into a post along with spam. Other than that, I don’t see why it would have been flagged.
“Two and a half millennia of western study, and today we have a community of professionals with zero generally accepted philosophical principles to its credit.”
I fail to see how this is true!
“I believe that a small community of professionals will develop certain philosophical principles that they’re all able to agree upon, and that soft forms of science will use these principles to harden up.”
I think this small community already exists, largely built around Easter Buddhist philosophy and its Western counterpart finding, perhaps, a relative zenith in Gilbert Simondon and Gilles Deleuze. But I don’t really see how you can “harden up” soft science in that it is so, so complexicated – to use a term from Ben Goertzel. To give an idea of what I am thinking about (I would read the papers in the order presented):
Open-ended Intelligence: The Individuation of Intelligent Agents, published in the Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence in 2015;
Complexity and the Philosophy of Becoming, published in Foundations of Science.
It would also help science of mind to progress if individuals would take seriously the full relevant data set . . . how many times must a phenomenon be replicated in the lab before “para”normal – read, “beyond normal,” becomes normal!?! 5 times? 15? 1000? Who decides?
Nice post James . . .
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I wouldn’t necessarily call it unserious James. It is serious because of the conflict that arises between the two philosophies. Wars have been waged and wars will continue to be waged, so relative would be a better descriptor. And that relativity is a direct correlation to an individual’s level of comfort with not knowing the true nature of reality. Like you said, it’s an age old paradox. Without an articulation of the ultimate reality there will never be a framework from which to solve the riddle of causation or consciousness, leaving both materialism and idealism in a lurch.
The war of words being waged between the two camps of materialism and idealism is serious and will continue, that is a certainty. There is one anecdote that I would like to add: Most people may not be aware that theism, and/or a belief in a god is a subset or a derivative of idealism. Theism falls under the same umbrella as idealism. One ontology that does not fall under the umbrella of either materialism or idealism, an ontology which is egregiously overlooked, is a model called transcendental idealism. The word idealism in this framework is not associated with the ideology of idealism. Transcendental idealism is a model which represents an “ideal” model. What makes the ontology “ideal” is that transcendental idealism has an explanatory power that transcends the explanatory power of both materialism and idealism, and yet, transcendental idealism accommodates isolated attributes of both materialism and idealism. So, there is another option available for those who seek to understand the true nature of reality. And that model is definitively outlined in Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”.
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Kant’s idealism is just another blend of mind/matter and as I said anyone can feel to make any choice they want on the matter without fear of being disproven.
To add one thing:
All philosophies are mental fabrications. There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things.
“All philosophies are mental fabrications.”
I couldn’t agree more and Nagarjuna is definitely on my short list of geniuses. Here’s my position in a nutshell James: Even though the noumenal realm and/or the ultimate reality is unknown and will forever remain unknown, it is “not” unknowable. This is where I part ways with both Kant and Nagarjuna. The empirically verifiable experience of having a meaningful relationship with the unknown is not transferable from one individual to another like mental fabrications are. The only way one can have a meaningful relationship with the unknown is through the direct experience itself, it cannot be transferred nor shared.
Our primary experience has no fixed patterns of punishments or rewards, the only perceived good is freedom. Keep hanging in there you old hippie……
If you took Nagarjuna to heart you would know there are no ways to part. 🙂
I mis-spoke James, so I stand corrected; thank you. Nagarjuna was a genius. i love the comment he made to the disciples when he was accused of nihilism because of his articulation of the ultimate reality being “emptiness”. It goes something like this: “If our
known world, everything that is within it, including the locus of consciousness itself came from emptiness, then anything is possible.” It is a comment worthy of an Eastern Indian Maharishi.
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“If it is not ‘serious’, it is ‘unserious’.”
But you’re the one who equated Chalmers’ “easy” with “serious” — to continue that, why wouldn’t Chalmers’ “hard” be “more serious”? You’re seeing “easy” and “hard” only as antonyms, but they can also be seen as on a scale from “easy” to “hard.” On such a scale, “hard” equals “more serious.”
Say it is idealism (which I’m sure it is). Okay, so it’s idealism.
Isn’t there still a question of how it is “there is something it is like” to be human?
You may not see that as a serious problem, but I think it’s something I’d like to understand given there’s no precedent for it in the physics.
Maybe it’s only such a big deal in virtue of the sharp divide it seems to create?
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I think more understanding of it can occur on the scientific and answerable sides of the problem but the way Chalmers has posed the ultimate issue is not answerable or approachable. You can’t get from matter to mind because mind and matter are in the philosophical realm and are by definition opposite.
If you want to equate “easy” with something that can worked on scientifically and “hard” something that can’t then that would align with my “serious” and “unserious”.
But doesn’t Chalmers hold that we can solve the problem of phenomenal experience (once we figure out the psychophysical principles)?
Which is why I don’t see this as idealism… doesn’t that hold that mind is the source of reality (in contrast with realism)? Chalmers calls himself a “naturalistic dualist” which seems to suggest he has at least one foot in realism.
If he does, I don’t see how, given how he has framed the problem.
Let’s say we have perfected brain scans to the point that we can map absolutely every scan to subjective experience. Does that explain experience? I think not in Chalmers formulation because “there is also a subjective aspect”. You can’t explain subjectivity from the outside because it is inside the experience.
He may think of himself as a naturalistic dualist or even a panpsychist but I think there are many who simply don’t want to go down the idealist path because they don’t want to be branded pseudo-scientific. They want to keep one foot in the door of mainstream science.
If we can’t explain subjective experience with science and can’t derive it from the physical universe, then the only real explanation left in this system is full-blown idealism. That in a nutshell is the argument of Bernardo Kastrup. Saying the universe is a little bit or this and a little bit of that only leaves open the whole question of how they mingle.
Or, you can go out of the system, beyond the dichotomies to something like the philosophy ( or maybe “anti-philosophy” is a better way of putting it) of Nagarjuna.
Would you agree that going out of the system is a philosophy of anti-realism? In a nutshell, anti-realism was Kant’s ontology. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was fundamentally a western version of Nagarjuna’s Two Truths Doctrine, a doctrine which postulated an ultimate reality and a conventional reality. Kant canonized the ultimate reality as Noumena and the conventional reality as Phenomena.
Utilizing Kantian vocabulary here, an ontology of anti-realism clearly resolves the dichotomies created by materialism and idealism. One doesn’t have to like the “color” I suppose, but it clearly gets us out of the corner we have painted ourselves into. Continuing: I can hear the wailing and self-flagellation going on over at Kastrup’s website when I post this: Idealism is a thing, nevertheless, idealism is “not” a thing-in-itself. In other words, mind is “not” the ontological primitive. The same is true of materialism. Materialism is thing, nevertheless, materialism is “not” a thing-in-itself”. In laymen’s terms, matter is “not” the ontological primitive. The only question remaining is: What is the “thing-in-itself”, what is the ontological primitive, and/or what is the true nature of reality if it is neither mind nor matter?
With this post, I have successfully insulted both camps of idealism and materialism. I certainly hope I have not offended you James?
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Like Chalmers (I guess) I am not an expert on Kant but I am looking forward to seeing you post over on the Kastrup forum.
I usually “pose” as something of a materialist over that if for no other reason than to correct some of the excesses in the other direction. I am also frequently pointing out that one monism is more or less the same as any other monism.
I used to post on Kastrup’s site well over a year ago, that is until I got myself censored by Bernardo himself. Kastrup takes himself way to seriously and the dude is hyper-sensitive to criticism. I used to correspond with him directly through email. When he chose to censor me he went so far as to post a personal correspondence between us on the website. That move was clearly under-handed and I did not mince my words when I told him what I thought of that move.
Anyway, I considered creating another account and posing as someone else, but getting censored was probably best. I have to chuckle because my posts clearly had an influence on the old guy Lou because he still brings up my name every now and then. Some of the shit that Lou comes up with is a little bizarre, but if you can get past the baggage, he’s the only one over there that has his head screwed on straight.
I agree about the site over there. Not just BK himself almost everybody else is hypersensitive to anyone expressing any doubts about the orthodoxy. It is almost like a religion to those guys.
I have ordered a book on Kant – a short introduction before I try to take on any actual works by Kant himself.
Critique of Pure Reason as a read is difficult, and most commentaries are skewed, so don’t put much credence in what the “experts” say even though much of there analysis is on target. If you’ve got a good understanding of Nagarjuna, you’re already ahead of the game and you will come to see the correlations to what Kant is doing. Essentially, his critique was to counter the prevailing paradigm of realism, the same model everyone is still struggling with today.
One more anecdote: Lou is an old hippie from the pacific northwest in his early eighties. He “thinks” he’s an idealist but really he isn’t, and he’s not a materialist either. His position corresponds to anti-realism by and large. Lee (myself) is the guy Lou refers to as the angry insulting commentator, the one who hammered on the genetic defect in the underlying form of reasoning and rationality.
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I personally like Bernardo Kastrup. Sure, they may be a little nuts, but their ideas are kinda interesting.
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I know Lou.
He seems to something of a peace maker on occasion trying to find middle ground. I sometimes engage with him on some of the more political, human history stuff, as well as anything relating to the Amazon.
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We are only now, in this epoch of humanity, beginning to approach a pathway for a greater understanding of the nature of human consciousness, defining our cognitive functions, developing a comprehensive picture of brain physiology, expanding the scope and depth of neuroscience, and figuring out how it all works. And in spite of all this progress, there are still huge gaps in our ability to explain how all of the neurological functions and synaptic activity and the electro-chemical balance of the brain and nervous system might be responsible for the richly diverse subjective experience of being alive. None of the science so far has been able to satisfactorily explain how these vitally important systems alone might produce our human version of the experience of consciousness.
One of the biggest roadblocks, in my view, is the reluctance to even entertain the notion that some form of non-material phenomena exist, which can have some degree of causal effect on the temporal. Obviously, figuring out a way to demonstrate an empirical cause and effect to a phenomenon with no corresponding physical existence is an equally vexing or “hard” problem for philosophers. I have noted repeatedly in my writing that whatever non-corporeal aspects of being might exist, that they will very likely resist all our attempts at empirical scrutiny, at least using any method of which we are presently aware, but I fail to see how this negates the notion that they may, in fact, exist.
In theory, we are in the process of making discoveries and broaching new frontiers in the world of physics as we speak, some of which suggest the existence of dimensions not currently observable in our three dimensional world. And yet, in order for what has been called “String Theory” to be correct or at least headed in the right direction, these “extra” dimensions must exist. No one is shouting about String Theory from the rooftops just yet, but there are a heck of a lot a smart people, empiricist all, working to figure out how to show that it is true. There are some who believe it is simply a matter of time before we do. This requires nothing short of a quantum leap of faith just to acknowledge!
It has been my contention all along that the richly textured subjective experience of consciousness involves so much more than simply being “conscious,” and “awake,” which describes the waking consciousness of a person “when the brain is fully connected.” Most of the mainstream thinkers on this subject would probably want to avoid such an oversimplification generally, although many can also get pretty bogged down in attempting a more comprehensive definition.
No one disputes the essential nature of neurological functioning in achieving an awareness of experience. All one has to do is observe the devastating effect of trauma to the brain to establish how vital brain function is to maintaining the ability to interact meaningfully with conscious awareness. Without a nominally functional mental organ, there can be no access to the world of experience. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the subjective experience of consciousness is created by the brain.
It would be a very narrow definition of what it means to be human to reduce us merely to the biological and cognitive processes that support consciousness. Our lives and our subjective experience of the world is dependent on a functional body coordinated by a functional brain, but what animates the organic material in our bodies and brains—what is essential to being human—cannot be comprehensively demonstrated by science alone. One of the most important differences between cognitive human creatures and any synthetically produced arrangement of circuits or data bits that might one day emulate brain function, is that none of them will be alive!
Chalmers has framed the problem well enough to support the notion that physical systems alone cannot account for the subjective experience which accompanies their complex functioning, but as a professional scholar and “serious” person, he cannot suggest anything too metaphysical without losing some degree of credibility. It is, in my estimation, a “more serious” problem than the other “serious” problems that you enumerated, Jim.
It is my belief that there must be a component to human consciousness, ascertainable by us, which is unrelated to any currently established physical laws. Any theory of consciousness cannot be truly meaningful, in my view, unless there is some element within the underlying explanation, which points to our existence being more than just the result of a totally random cosmic evolution. While we may not presently have the capacity to grasp all the implications of cognitive existence, or even to fully comprehend the broad scope of the processes which make it possible, I find it unavoidable to conclude that whatever constitutes the full explanation, it must encompass much more than neuroscience, and may cross over into realms which may not ultimately yield to empirical scrutiny.
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We haven’t communicated it a while.Hope things are well with you.
I think where you are going is exactly where Chalmers would go if he followed his arguments to their logical end.
I think our conceptions of the world are necessarily mostly wrong. They could be compared to hacks of reality. They may work to some extent but in the end they are still hacks, Science is just an effort to make the hacks better.
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Back in January I wrote about Chalmers views and posted a brief video of him explaining his position:
Great to see your post, Jim!
“I find it unavoidable to conclude that whatever constitutes the full explanation, it must encompass much more than neuroscience, and may cross over into realms which may not ultimately yield to empirical scrutiny.”
Being neither a materialist nor an idealist, I am in full agreement with this statement except for the last seven words. I agree that any meaningful discoveries will be made outside the field of neuroscience, and that research must include meta-physics. A renaissance in meta-physics will be able to solve the hard problem, and that rebirth will require dismantling the models we have inherited from the Greeks because those models are the very obstacles which stand in the way. Once a new meta-physics model has been reconstructed, that model will unravel the mystery, providing an explanation that will ultimately yield itself to direct empirical scrutiny.
I checked out the posting listed John. That is one beautifully precious little granddaughter you are holding. Congratulations…..
Be in Peace
It would please me greatly should we, one day, “dismantle the models we have inherited from the Greeks,” and then produce “a new meta-physics model,” whose explanation “will ultimately yield itself to direct empirical scrutiny.” It would be an extraordinary accomplishment to “solve the hard problem,” and your confidence in such an outcome is laudable, even if it ends up being overly-optimistic. I do not share your confidence that such an outcome will be forthcoming, but would welcome it should it be possible.
Many of my inclinations and ideas regarding the true nature of human consciousness have been encouraged by my study of the writings of Carl Jung, who wrote extensively and powerfully about the how his views were greatly influenced not only by his empirical approach to his every endeavor, but also by being open to potential explanations with a meta-physical component. In his reply to theologist Martin Buber in “Religion and Psychology,” Jung describes those with so many different opinions of him as “meta-physicians,” who “for one reason or another think they know about unknowable things in the beyond.” He goes on to say:
“I very much doubt whether our conception of a thing is identical with the nature of the thing itself, and this for very obvious scientific reasons…No empiricist in his senses would believe his models to be the eternal truth itself. He knows too well how many changes any kind of reality undergoes in becoming a conscious representation.”
This conversation here on Jim’s page is a tribute to his willingness to share the space with so many diverse and interesting views, and even though a variety of those participating hold starkly different positions on the subject, each of us welcomes the chance to learn and expand our understanding. I am clearly enthusiastic about such conversations and appreciate your comments very much. The arrival of my granddaughter into my current world and the development of our ever-increasing familial bond is, for me, a powerful affirmation of the existence of the human spirit. Holding her in my arms and gazing steadily into her eyes inspires and uplifts me in ways that make any suggestion of a materialist view being sufficient to explain consciousness simply…insufficient.
Thanks for responding John. I’m just a sixty-six year old hippie like yourself with shoulder length gray hair, a mustache and goatee. My enthusiasm and confidence is tempered somewhat by the fact that this old hippie has been to the brink of insanity and back. This is due to the fact that I’ve suffered from the debilitating disease of depression most of my adult life. As terrible as the experience was, (and I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy) it conditioned me to break from the discrete, binary system of rationality. Not many, if any of those who read my posts know that about me. That experience gives me an advantage that most people do not possess. I outlined that journey in my first book, “The Wizard’s Reign: An Inquiry into Acceptable Norms” which is a self-portrait.
My second book, “The Immortal Principle: A Reference Point” is ready to go to press, but to be perfectly honest with you John, I am reluctant to make what I have discovered public. My wife of forty-five years advises me against going public. I’ve successfully dismantled the Greek architecture of subject/object (SOM) and built a new model. The study of consciousness was not originally on my docket, it was more or less an adjunct to my research. But when my theories finally coalesced after nearly forty years of effort and research, consciousness fell into place and became a part of my overall thesis. I’ve successfully accomplished what I set out to do. Much of my participation in blogs such as John’s, as well as others, has been a testing ground for my theories.
At the end of the day I am compelled to consider: Does my theory account for causation; not some of the time, but every time? And the answer is yes. Does my model explain motion and form? The answer is yes. Does my model solve the hard problem of consciousness? And the answer is yes. Does my model define a core human nature? Again, the answer is yes. In short, my model works. Do I like it? The answer is no, because even though it has been thoroughly tested and can be both scientifically and empirically verified, I still don’t like because it is simply not what I expected the true nature of reality to be. So, I ask myself, what did you expect the true nature of reality to be? And the answer I have to offer myself is “I don’t know, all I know is that I didn’t expect it to be this.” So, if I don’t like it in spite of the fact that it works, sure as hell nobody else is going to like either.
In many ways, I think humanity is better off believing in the myths that sustain us. At the end of the day, nobody is really being harmed by those myths because they give us comfort in an uncertain reality.
From one old man to another, be at peace John
Hello Lee. I want to say this. You don’t have to agree if you don’t want to. But I think you should make your discovery public. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I grew up hearing “accept the truth, no matter how scary it may seem”. But I don’t think you should shelter others, or keep your discovery from going public, just so everybody can sleep at night.
Again, if you want to keep it from going public, then I won’t stop you. Like you said, nobody is harmed by believing in them.
I really wish I had your confidence.
Oh, and if/when your book gets published, I think I’ll be the first to read it.
This got caught in spam probably because it was just a link without comment.
Love the discussion and topic here. I’m fine with letting the mystery be, but would add that our knowledge is obviously limited by the very vehicle that poses the question. If our response to the question, on the other hand, didn’t have any influence on each of us, and the culture at large, I suppose we’d have less reason to want to know, or at least entertain reasonable notions of why our answers are meaningful.
The materialist view that there is no consciousness outside of the body is frankly irksome to me because I see that at root, it limits our ability to be sensitive to other forms of consciousness and sentience. We can much more easily pollute the planet, mistreat animals, children and each other when we are convinced of either their lack or deficiency of consciousness, or that the moral nature of their consciousness is somehow not worthy of out respect. For this reasoning alone, I will never place myself in the materialist camp.
Thank you, James!
(Always good to hear from you too, John)
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ptero9, I find the materialist view irksome too. But I know it’s not going away. At least not in the near future, I don’t know.
I also find it ridiculous how some materialists ( especially on YouTube comments ) keep saying, “if we could just get people to wake up, get rid of all religions, harmful eastern beliefs, and fantasies, the world would be a much better place.”
Whether everyone on earth became materialists or not, there would still be wars, suffering, illnesses, etc. So I don’t see how that would make a difference.
I could be wrong.
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I’m with you! As long as life brings death right along with it, and we humans fail to accept the terms of engagement, not much will change.
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” there would still be wars, suffering, illnesses, etc. So I don’t see how that would make a difference”
Sounds very Buddhist.
I think even the Dalai Lama has equivocated somewhat on whether consciousness is produced by the brain. I think he would say almost all of what we study regarding consciousness is produced by the brain but there may be some part left over that isn’t. He has probably made statements both ways.
In any case, I don’t believe Buddhism thinks the materialism/idealism argument is in any way useful to liberation. From that point of view, arguments over it are a waste of time and energy.
“I think even the Dalai Lama has equivocated somewhat on whether consciousness is produced by the brain.”
I don’t believe that to be true, James! From https://www.dalailama.com/news/2017/the-nature-of-consciousness-dialogue-between-russian-and-buddhist-scholars:
“His Holiness took up the question of consciousness and mentioned the Buddhist view that there are different levels—the sensory consciousness of ordinary wakefulness, the subtler consciousness when we dream and the subtlest consciousness that manifests at the time of death.”
The Dalai Lama is firmly grounded in the Bardo Thodol tradition, very firmly grounded! If you read the B. Alan Wallace book I have linked to on here, he discusses a bit the Vajrayana position on consciousness, but the entire book is an argument against the scientific materialist dogma! This is from the Encyclopedia Britannica, but it’s a pretty accurate summary:
“Bardo Thödol, (Tibetan: “Liberation in the Intermediate State Through Hearing”)also called Tibetan Book of the Dead, in Tibetan Buddhism, a funerary text that is recited to ease the consciousness of a recently deceased person through death and assist it into a favourable rebirth.
The Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism that emerged in Central Asia and particularly in Tibet developed the concept of the bardos, the intermediate or transitional states that mark an individual’s life from birth to death and rebirth. The period between death and rebirth lasts 49 days and involves three bardos. The first is the moment of death itself. The consciousness of the newly deceased becomes aware of and accepts the fact that it has recently died, and it reflects upon its past life. In the second bardo, it encounters frightening apparitions. Without an understanding that these apparitions are unreal, the consciousness becomes confused and, depending upon its karma, may be drawn into a rebirth that impedes its liberation. The third bardo is the transition into a new body.
While in the bardo between life and death, the consciousness of the deceased can still apprehend words and prayers spoken on its behalf, which can help it to navigate through its confusion and be reborn into a new existence that offers a greater chance of attaining enlightenment. Reciting of the Bardo Thödol, usually performed by a lama (religious teacher), begins shortly before death (if possible) and continues throughout the 49-day period leading to rebirth.”
I am referring specifically some quotes from Chapter 3 of Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being. An excellent book by the way that really tries to blend science and Eastern philosophy and practices.
In the first part of the chapter, the Dalai Lama specifically states all consciousness requires the brain except perhaps the clear light consciousness that occurs just after death, but that he is not even sure about that.
I posted a comment here yesterday but it obviously didn’t show up! This is a completely different comment . . .
With regards to serious and unserious, Chris Fields, et. al. express this with “what consciousness does” as opposed to “how consciousness does it.” The do/how distinction is valid in most of science, certainly in the quantum domain; we often invent stories which we tell ourselves and decedents to the point that they become reified, but that doesn’t mean the stories are true. I think Kevin Knuth gets at the heart of this with his work in the foundations:
Abstract: This essay considers a simple model of observers that are influenced by the world around them. Consistent quantification of information about such influences results in a great deal of familiar physics. The end result is a new perspective on relativistic quantum mechanics, which includes both a way of conceiving of spacetime as well as particle “properties” that may be amenable to a unification of quantum mechanics and gravity. Rather than thinking about the universe as a computer, perhaps it is more accurate to think about it as a network of influences where the laws of physics derive from both consistent descriptions and optimal information-based inferences made by embedded observers.
It seems the best we can do!
With regards to Nagarjuna and Kant, the Two Truths and Kant’s split are not by any stretch equivalent! Why? Well, primarily because Ultimate Reality is bodhicitta (see chapter 5), which is directly accessible and can actually be cultivated; this is the very essence of Buddhist practice! I fail to see an isomorphism here! I would go so far as to say they are anti-thetical! This is really what my comment yesterday was all about – the philosophies of Simondon and Deleuze, which correlate much more nicely with that of Buddha Shakyamuni and his direct philosophical successor, Nagarjuna. From the chapter 5:
“I would like to discuss the implications of the following Sanskrit verse: sunyatakarunabhinnam bodhicittam iti smrtam “The indivisibility of shunyata and karuna is termed bodhicitta.” Here we have two terms which are of key significance in tantra, shunyata and karuna. The terms are not restricted to the tantric level, but appear fairly early on in the development of the Buddhist tradition. Shunyata was originally an elaboration of the concept of anatman. The meaning of anatman was that there is no abiding principle in things. Later on, shunyata became one of the central concepts of the Mahayana. For the student of tantra, it remains a sort of objective reference of which he must be aware in order to pursue his practice onto further levels of subtlety. Shunyata is usually translated “emptiness” or “void.” These translations are thoroughly misleading, because shunyata is a highly positive term. Unfortunately, the early translators were not very sophisticated and allowed themselves to be misled by the sense of shunya in ordinary everyday language. In this popular language, if a glass had no water in it, it could be called shunya. But this is not at all the sense of shunyata in Buddhist philosophy. Shunyata can be explained in a very simple way. When we perceive, we usually attend to the delimited forms of objects. But these objects are perceived within a field. Attention can be directed either to the concrete, limited forms or to the field in which these forms are situated. In the shunyata experience, the attention is on the field rather than on its contents. By “contents,” we mean here those forms which are the outstanding features of the field itself. We also might notice that when we have an idea before our mind, the territory, as it were, delimited by the idea is blurred; it fades into something which is quite open. This open dimension is the basic meaning of shunyata. This openness is present in and actually presupposed by every determinate form. Every determinate entity evolves out of something indeterminate and to a certain extent also maintains its connection with this indeterminacy; it is never completely isolated from it.”
Know Kant’s noumena with the “thing-in-itself,” which is transcendental. In Nagarjuna, there is no “transcendental” like there is in Western philosophy; if you think otherwise, then you don’t understand Nagarjuna! Trust me, I’ve been practicing to the point of celibacy for well over 20 years! You can correlate Nagarjuna with Deleuze and Simondon . . .
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Your understanding of Nagarguna is seen through the prism of idealism. Nagarjuna was “not” an idealist. The very reason Nagarjuna developed the double negation architecture of the tetra lemma in the first place was to deter his disciples from attempting to create an articulation of the ultimate reality. Nagarjuna’s understanding of the ultimate reality mirrors Parmenides reality/appearance distinction. It is a distinction which state: The ultimate reality is separate and distinct from any appearance one might assign to it as well as separate and distinct from any opinion one might have of it. According to the current prevailing buddhist tradition, it becomes quite clear that Nagarjuna’s efforts fell upon deaf ears because the disciples began using the tetra lemma as an instrument to “justify” their articulations of the ultimate reality and continue to do so to this very day.
Further to the west, and in a different culture, the Hebrews developed a system based in syllogism in their attempt to accomplish the same thing Nagarjuana was attempting with the tetra lemma. The system is known as the ten commandment. Speaking from the first person, the first commandment states: You shall have no other Gods before me. Conforming to the discrete binary system of rationality, there is no way to garner meaning from that statement all by it’s self. There is no way to know what that statement means “until” it is contrasted against something else, and that “something else” is the second commandment. The second commandment states: You shall not make any images, which simply means the God of the Hebrews is separate and distinct from any appearance one might assign to it as well as separate and distinct from any opinion one might have of it. And again, it becomes glaring obvious that the efforts of the Hebrews fell upon deaf ears because human being continue to project their own ideas and perceptions of the ultimate reality onto the ultimate reality itself. It is what it is and it will continue to be so…
My understanding of Nagarjuna is through direct experience; I could most likely teach Nagarjuna a thing or two! The kundalini awakening is a prerequisite to this experience, see the final link below.
I am not an idealist; I practice Madhymaka Buddhism – the middle way between substantialism (theism, deism, transcendentalism) and nihilism, genesis of which IS Nagarjuna! I specifically practice Dzogchen; what you say immediately above is somewhat (but not entirely) true; this is in accord with your erroneous claim that Nagarjuna can be compared to Kant! Much of what you say is also in direct contradiction to the Prajnaparamitta or Perfection of Wisdom sutra; specifically, to the verse:
“. . . form does not differ from emptiness, neither does emptiness differ from form; form is emptiness, emptiness is form . . . ”
If this were not so then the Law of Interdependent Origination would not hold! Bodhicitta is not transcendent, rather, it is non-conceptual – and that’s a key difference. That Chapter 5 was written by Herbert Guenther and he tells it true; his is an attempt at an intellectual understanding, which is limited but very helpful if not necessary! I am not going to continue to argue with this, you have already revealed yourself as a caterpillar; I have been practicing a long, long time – and I don’t just mean this lifetime . . .
With regards to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Meister Eckhart once said, “The hardest leave-taking is leaving god for God,” i.e. leaving one’s concept for the actual experience. I understand this very well. Some time ago I wrote a Quora answer which you might find informative:
Is the serpent seed doctrine scriptural if so who or what are the other trees in the garden along with the tree of life
Look, I read your earlier comment and I’m sorry about your history with depression; I didn’t mean to be rude, but your lack of proper understanding of Nagarjuna is glaringly evident here:
“Here’s my position in a nutshell James: Even though the noumenal realm and/or the ultimate reality is unknown and will forever remain unknown, it is “not” unknowable. This is where I part ways with both Kant and Nagarjuna.”
I’m just trying to be helpful!
For some reason, WordPress is sending my comments to the spam filter and also messing up my hyperlinks! In my original reply to you, I linked to the Wisdom Publications page for Essence of the Heart Sutra, but the link goes elsewhere! Essence is a commentary on the Prajnaparamitta by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and I think you would probably find it very helpful. The Dalai Lama gives a nice summary of the history of Madhyamaka, from Nagarjuna to present, talking about the different schools, Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and the Madhymaka, as well as the divisions within these schools – technically speaking, I follow the Prasangika tradition and, even more specifically, the Great Perfection (Dzogchen). The Heart Essence lineage is my lineage, although I have karmic links to Tsultrim Allione, considered a manifestation of Magchig Labdron, mother of chod (probably why I have scars all over my body and engage in flesh suspension; – ). Here’s the link to Essence:
I would also highly recommend B. Alan Wallace’s book, Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge; I think you would especially appreciate his Chapter 8, Beyond Idolatry: The Renaissance of a Spirit of Empiricism.
Wes and Lee,
I’m not getting into a debate about Kant and Nagarjuna since I’m not an expert on either.
Regarding Kevin Knuth, I am not sure how what he writes relates to your other viewpoints but once I saw the math in the paper I stopped reading. I might be able to grasp a little of it if I persisted but I have other things to move on to.
His opening statement, however, before the part you quoted I disagree with. He wrote:
“I know about the universe because it influences me. Light excites the photoreceptors in my eyes, surfaces apply pressure to my touch receptors and my eardrums are buffeted by relentless waves of air molecules. My entire sensorium is excited by all that surrounds me. These experiences are all I have ever known, and for this reason, they comprise my reality”.
Actually I think the reality we know is many times removed from the universe that influences me. The reality we know is more like what we see when we look into a kaleidoscope and exists as much or more as properties of mind/brain as it does of the external universe. To me this accounts for much of the seemingly unsolvable problems of philosophy- subject/object, mind/body. the seeming “hard” problem of Chalmers.The problems arise as artifacts of the kaleidoscope.
“The reality we know is more like what we see when we look into a kaleidoscope and exists as much or more as properties of mind/brain as it does of the external universe.”
That’s an intriguing way of framing our experience James, and I cannot find any fault with that assessment. Not all, but in many ways this would correspond to what Dennett attempts to articulate, except for the conclusion he reaches that our experience is an illusion. It’s definitely not an illusion. It’s real enough, but that “real-ness” is contextual. So instead of calling our experience and illusion, I like to think of it as a condition, and corresponding to Nagarjuna’s philosophy, that “condition” would be a possibility.
Yes, of course, neither Kevin Knuth nor myself would disagree! Knuth is a Radical Constructivist same as I! Trust me, we’ve both read and integrated The Embodied Mind – Valera was instrumental in forming The Mind and Life Institute, which I link to below!
And this is what I find bothersome, a bit: what you say here is not in disagreement with the quote from Knuth you reproduce. Sure we enact our world, but that process of enaction is most certainly instigated by the influences assaulting our sensory system! Science is not completely disconnected from reality, is it? How could it be so useful otherwise? And this is exactly what Knuth is saying: we don’t really have access to the HOW of things, only to the do – the influence!
For some reason a lot of your postings keep getting blocked. FYI.
The problem with Knuth’s statement from my view comes particularly in the last statement: “These experiences are all I have ever known, and for this reason, they comprise my reality.”
This implies to me some very direct relationship between external reality and internal reality. I would say there is a relationship but it is so much more indirect.
Also, I find the notion of “influence” kind of vague. Is that used elsewhere in physics?
In general, I have learned to stay away from trying to use physics anyway to justify any views. However, if you want to go there, I would look at two things. One would be Rovelli’s relational QM which Bernardo Kastrup uses to argue for idealism. The other would be Donald Hoffman who thinks 3D space and time are products of our perceptual apparatus and not properties of reality.
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Yes, I am aware of both Rovelli’s work and Hoffman’s; in fact, if you follow the Chris Fields, et. al. link in my July 16 comment, you will see that Hoffman is one of the et. al.!
Knuth’s argument is entirely mathematical and you’re not into mathematics, so no real need to discuss further. He explains what he means by influence in the “Process of Influence” section, ending with, “Therefore we lose nothing by defining what we mean by an electron as being a particle that has only one particular way of influencing others. Now there are certainly other possibilities, but for the moment let us start with this simple idea and see what physics arises—adding complexity only when warranted.” And this is typical of work in the foundations; he’s trying to see what bare minimum, i. e. axioms and assumptions, is necessary for the derivation of physical theory. Knuth’s A Potential Foundation for an Emergent Spacetime is very much in line with the work of Hoffman et. al., but that paper is even more mathematical than the influence paper. I would point out, however, that Knuth uses really straight-forward mathematics – lattice theory and Cox’s method for generalizing an algebra of inference to a calculus, and if you read the history of mathematics, the humble lattice has a starring role.
I think perhaps you would be more interested in, Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge, by B. Alan Wallace. Wallace has degrees in physics and philosophy of science and his PhD in religious studies; he also spent 14 years as a monastic, ordained by the Dalai Lama. His chapter, Beyond Idolatry, is very nice:
“There are two worlds that are invisible to the third-person methodology of scientific inquiry: the absolutely objective world and the absolutely subjective world. What’s left over is the world in between: the world of experience, which is directly ascertainable with our six senses, including our five physical senses (enhanced and extended with the instruments of technology) and mental perception. Strictly speaking, when we observe subjective phenomena (such as thoughts, emotions, and dreamscapes) and objective phenomena (such as electrons, apples, and galaxies), all that directly appears to our senses are impressions generated in part by our brains. Those impressions do not consist of regions of space endowed with constitutive properties such as impenetrability and mass, nor are they constituted by the properties and relations, actions, and interactions of particles and fields. So none of the immediate contents of our experience conforms to any of the definitions of matter cited above. Matter, then, seems to be a conceptual construct that is superimposed upon the world of experience, which is immaterial.”
And this describes the very essence of what Hoffman, Fields, et. al. and Knuth are really about – attempting the first derivation of a Subjective Physics.
I highly recommend Wallace’s book, to both you and Lee Roetcisoender; it’s a really nice book, although it could make either a materialist or an idealist – those who generate idols, a bit uncomfortable! What he is really arguing for is the enhancement of mental perception, using yogic technologies, in a manner analogous to how we use physical technologies to enhance physical perception.
With regards to the blog post in general, I wonder, James, if you are aware of the fascinating research being conducted in the contemplative field? Specifically, there is this fascinating study which greatly clarifies the work of Herbert Benson, published in PLOS/ONE in 2015:
Neurocognitive and Somatic Components of Temperature Increases during g-Tummo Meditation: Legend and Reality.
In addition to and directly related is the work being done with Wim Hof and his people:
A Scientific Breakthrough, a free ebook; and,
I would also bring to your attention, in the event you are not already aware, the recently developed MindRxiv, a preprint depository dedicated to mind research, which is maintained by The Mind and Life Institute; you can read a bit about it on their blog.
I’m not sure why some of your posts are getting caught in spam or needing moderation. 🙂
Anyway I think they are all posted now.
I am familiar with Wim Hof and , although I consider some of it a little over-hyped, I don’t consider it to be anything paranormal or suggesting anything beyond normal range of human capabilities. Wim himself may have some genetic advantages but I am also convinced the mind/body can be trained to do things that seem almost paranormal and inexplicable except by appealing to abilities beyond the physical. I have done similar breathing exercises (his are really variations of yoga bhastrika) on and off for years and was experimenting with cold showers for a while.
Regarding the paranormal in general, I am skeptical but try to keep an open mind. Certainly there are numerous “runs” where people seemingly are performing far beyond chance. Usually these “runs” don’t last or can’t be replicated, frequently by the same researchers and subjects. Also, there are many experimental control issues in older studies.
I tried to suggest another explanation for some of this here:
I’m quite certain that Wim Hof is capable of anything anyone else is; he proved this himself by allowing the scientists to conduct the same experiments the conducted on him on, I think, 26 of his students – same result, with regards to the introduction of the bacteria and what not. And I don’t consider anything which can be demonstrated in this realm “para”normal – literally, beyond normal! But it’s quite difficult to explain what Hof and the g-tummo nuns do, thermodynamically speaking, with orthodox science; William Tiller has a good grasp of it!
What I was directly referencing in my comment above – thanks for posting it by the way, was the Pre-stimulus experiments:
Predictive Physiological Anticipation Preceding Seemingly Unpredictable Stimuli: A Meta-Analysis;
Predictive Physiological Anticipation Preceding Seemingly Unpredictable Stimuli: An Update of Mossbridge’s et al. Meta-Analysis.
Those experiments have been replicated over and over and with different protocols producing similar to same results, but I have personally had scientists tell me they won’t even look at them because they are “para”normal! We’re talking almost 50 years worth of experimental work here! Here’s Robert Jahn and Robert Park, in the New York Times:
“For 28 years, we’ve done what we wanted to do, and there’s no reason to stay and generate more of the same data,” said the laboratory’s founder, Robert G. Jahn, 76, former dean of Princeton’s engineering school and an emeritus professor. “If people don’t believe us after all the results we’ve produced, then they never will.”
Princeton made no official comment.
The closing will end one of the strangest tales in modern science, or science fiction, depending on one’s point of view. The laboratory has long had a strained relationship with the university. Many scientists have been openly dismissive of it.
“It’s been an embarrassment to science, and I think an embarrassment for Princeton,” said Robert L. Park, a University of Maryland physicist who is the author of “Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud.” “Science has a substantial amount of credibility, but this is the kind of thing that squanders it.”
There’s absolutely no truth to Park’s comment; today’s dogma was yesterday’s bleeding edge! And how is this relevant to your blog post? Here’s Princeton’s Global Consciousness Project:
“The Global Consciousness Project is independent of PEAR, and won’t be directly affected by the lab’s closing. Of course the lab has been a kindred spirit, so to say, and it is a loss. But it is time for other, younger people to take up the work at the edges of what we know scientifically of consciousness and human capacity. And there are many people on that path, some of whom have time at the lab as part of their experience. The GCP itself derives from my years at PEAR, and the project integrates the philosophy and approach developed over our quarter century at Princeton.”
In my humble opinion, it’s people like Park who squander the credibility of science; science is supposed to resist dogma. But then I’ve also read Feyerabend . . .
I just posted a reply to your last comment and it appears as though it too went to the spam filter; I don’t why, other than it had a couple of hyperlinks . . .
I may have figured this out. It looks like my settings only allowed two links before putting it in moderation. I upped the number to three but don’t want to go higher because I don’t want a lot of spam to deal with.
So try to keep to three links.
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The problem with your “Origin of Probabilities” attempt to dismiss “para”normal phenomena is simply that we use the same methods for “normal” science! I mean, the Sir Alister Hardy quote is obnoxiously absurd! And I’m being gentle . . .
That’s the whole point I’m trying to make: the situation represents the manifestation of a collective double-standard fallacy! We don’t have two different kinds of science, the science of the “normal” is also the science of the “para”normal; what we do have is two different standards for the acceptance of empirical results – a double-standard fallacy.
“I’m just trying to be helpful!”
I know that Wes, and there’s no offense taken. Nevertheless, the Madhymaka Buddhist tradition has to explain “why” they do not respect nor honor the original intent of the tetra lemma. The double negation architecture built into the tetra lemma is simple. In western syllogistic logic there are only two lemmas to any given proposition, either true or false. The tetra lemma offers another alternative or “lemma” to either true or false, and that third alternative is “neither true no false, plus it is neither not true and not false”; which in laymen terms means: “I don’t know”. Long story short Wes: Madhymaka Buddhism does not honor nor respect “I don’t know”. Now, don’t get all twisted up inside because other religious traditions both eastern and western in flavor don’t honor nor respect “I don’t know” either, so you are in good company.
“I don’t know” is the immortal principle which is outlined in my book, and I further develop that principle into a viable, working model which becomes “a point of reference”. Because as it stands right now, the only point of reference we have at our disposal is our own creative, vivid imaginations. Long story short Wes, our own creative, vivid imaginations cannot be trusted and neither can anyone else’s.
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Excellent Lee! Let me know when your book becomes available; perhaps I can learn something from you!
“I think even the Dalai Lama has equivocated somewhat on whether consciousness is produced by the brain. I think he would say almost all of what we study regarding consciousness is produced by the brain but there may be some part left over that isn’t. He has probably made statements both ways.
In any case, I don’t believe Buddhism thinks the materialism/idealism argument is in any way useful to liberation. From that point of view, arguments over it are a waste of time and energy.”
James, how come I can’t reply to you directly now? So weird.
But I agree with your response. And thx for the like. I didn’t expect that. 🙂
On the About page there is a contact form.
I don’t know of any other way you could contact from this blog. There might be ways of contacting on other sites and forums. Just note I seldom look at my gmail mail. I just use the Google login in various places so I don’t have to constantly sign up to comment.
Okay thank you. I understand completely, having to sign in EVERY time is annoying and gets old really fast.
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