Notes toward a new foundation of knowledge

Daniel Alroy

2016, December 3





The three most basic assumptions that underlie present-day knowledge have recently been proven false.


The tabula rasa assumption. John Locke (1689) postulated the assumption that the brain of the newborn is like a blank slate (tabula rasa) and that sensations are imported into the brain – none innate. The direct opposite proved to be the case. Sensations are innate – none are imported into the brain.


Empiricism. David Hume (1745) extended the tabula rasa assumption to cognition, concluding that there can be no knowledge of the world prior to experience. That assumption has proved false as well. Evolution is a learning process that endows species, including humans with knowledge of the world prior to personal experience. Consider an example. Sweet and bitter are innate sensations. Also innate is that the newborn likes sweet and dislikes bitter. These preferences represent knowledge about the world prior to personal experience.


Physicalism. In their 1929 Manifesto, members of the Vienna Circle postulated that existence is physical implying that a non-physical mind would be causally inert. Recent development of brain-computerinterfaces (BCIs) makes it possible for persons paralyzed from the neck down to control servomechanisms with their mind. This proves that mental causation is a fact.


Reconstruction of the foundation of knowledge. It is now necessary to make explicit the implications replacing the outdated assumptions in the light of current empirical findings. That undertaking is likely to take decades. The current draft of this book first reviews the empirical evidence for the above-mentioned recent developments and then provides an initial glimpse of the new epistemological landscape.


The state of the world

2016 October 23

Climate change. The first industrial revolution replaced muscle power with machine power by burning fossil fuels, producing carbon dioxide (CO2) as a byproduct. The ocean absorbs 90% of this CO2, increasing itsacidity. In 2015, the accumulated CO 2 in the atmosphere and ocean’s acidity have crossed the highest level that has existed, which occurred some 3.5 million years ago when sea level was 30-90 feet higher than now. This trend cannot be reversed or stopped this century. The climate change problem exemplifies our routine failure to address the long-term consequences of our actions. In addition, our relativistic ethics deprive us of the common ground with other countries needed to decide decisive actions of what ought to be done.

Demography. With the end of colonialism in Africa, the United Nations sought to help African countries move towards self-sufficiency by providing, among other things, food and improved healthcare. The main result has been a decrease in child mortality and a population explosion: from 230 million in 1950 to 1.2 billion now. The rapid population increase has outstripped Africa’s food production capacity. As a result, most of the 65 million migrants in 2016 are Africans. It is projected that by the end of the current century the population of Africa will increase to between 3.5 and 5 billion. It is inevitable that most of that increase (2.3 – 3.8 billion) or more Africans will find themselves compelled to migrate. This would classify them as refugees. Europe has been the preferred destination. Several United Nation agencies have been exerting pressure on the European Union to increase the number of refugees they accept. If by the end of the century just one billion Africans migrate to Europe, then the half-a- billion Europeans will find themselves a minority of one-third in their home countries. Is this really the only way or the best way to address the refugee problem? The United Nations owes the world an explanation. More fundamentally, this crisis is another example illustrating the fact that we do not have at present a conceptual framework to effectively address the question what ought to be done.

Direct and imagined stimuli


Direct stimuli.



The direct stimulus is information-poor. Direct brain stimuli are devoid of the transformation that external stimuli undergo before reaching the cortical modality-specific area of interest. Direct stimuli are information-poor in another respect. The same type of electrical stimulus that evokes taste sensations in the gustatory cortex would evoke sound sensations in the auditory cortex and visual sensation in the visual cortex. This is true for all sensations.


Local anatomical specificity. Direct brain stimuli can be more specific than indicated in §F1 above. Consider for example, the visual motion direction cortical area V5/MT, which contains eight types of direction-specific cortical columns. The direct electrical stimulation of V5/MT would evoke the sensation of visual sensation of motion while the direct stimulation of rightward-specific columns would evoke visual sensation of movement to the right (Britten et al., 1992). The electrical stimuli do not contribute to the qualitative aspect of the evoked submodality element of sensation. Hence, the qualitative aspect of the evoked sensation is determined by the specific local anatomy that was stimulated.


Auditory prosthesis for the born deaf. In a typical case, 22 electrodes are distributed over the 3 centimeters of the cochlea where the location of stimulation determines the pitch. In some cases, the auditory nerve is dysfunctional (e.g. Neurofibromatosis II). In such cases, electrodes are inserted into the auditory brainstem (House WF & Hitselberger WE 2001) or the auditory midbrain (Lim HH & Lenarz T 2015). These facts constitute conclusive empirical proof that the sensation of sound is not received from the ears or from air-vibration through the ears. Positively stated, these facts prove that in conscious and awake persons the sensation of sound can be evoked by the direct electrical stimulation of hearing-related areas. Hence, the sensation of sound is innate. These findings support Sperry’s thesis and suggest that it applies to all sensory modalities.


Taste-specific cells. The Zuker group at Columbia University directly stimulated the taste-specific neural clusters in the gustatory cortex of mice that did not have prior taste experience of sweet and bitter. These mice elicited the expected behavior responses to sweet vs. bitter taste: attractive versus aversive behavior, respectively (Peng et al., 2015). This proves that the sensation of taste is innate and evoked by the brain and not received from the tongue or tastant, further confirming Sperry’s thesis that all sensations are innate.


Imagined stimuli.



Illusory or dreamed sensations. Seeing appetizing food selectively activates brain loci in the gustatory cortex that evoke taste sensations. Auditory illusions or hallucinations selectively activate the auditory cortex. Dreaming in color selectively activates the color-specific area V4a in the visual cortex.


Top-down attention. Similarly, top-down attention to a given submodality element of sensation selectively activates the neural clusters within the corresponding submodality-specific cortical area that evokes it.


Imagining a voluntary behavioral act. When a person performs a voluntary behavioral act, the related brain areas are selectively activated, including Brodmann areas 8, 6, and 4 (the planning, premotor, and motor areas). It was discovered that these brain areas are also selectively activated when that behavioral act is imagined.


Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs). The fact that imagined action activates brain areas that are activated when the action is performed is the basis for providing people paralyzed from the neck down with several interfaces to perform actions such as the activation of a mechanical arm or the control of a mechanical chair. A bundle of nearly one hundred electrodes is implanted in a cortical motor area. These electrodes detect the information that activates the muscles to perform the desired action. Then, a computer identifies the intended action and activates the appropriate servomechanisms (Anderson and Boswell, 2015).


Mental Causation. Exercise of the imagination is mental not physical. The activated brain is physical. Thus, the successful use of BCI by people paralyzed from the neck down proves that the mind affects the brain and behavior.


Some implications of direct and imagined stimuli



Epistemological consequences of Direct Stimulus



Sensations are innate and evoked in the brain. They are not received from the senses or from the outside world through the senses.


As such, sensations are private, or phenomenal.



The physical is inferred from the phenomenal. Consequently, our knowledge of the physical is inferred from the phenomenal. This confers epistemological primacy on the phenomenal relative to the physical. Consequently, the phenomenal is ineliminable in describing nature. Furthermore, it is no longer logically possible to reduce the phenomenal to the physical.


Epistemological consequences of Imagined Stimulus



Mental Causation. It is an accepted fact that persons paralyzed from neck down can use their mind to control activities such as the position of a cursor on computer screen or the action of a mechanical wheelchair. The brain/computer interface is based on the fact that imagining an action activates brain loci that are activated in actually performing such action. The reality of this technology is a conclusive empirical proof that the mind affects brain and behavior.


On the relation of mental causation and free will. Some philosophers and neuroscientists are seeking to determine whether humans possess free will. Most of those are Physicalists, assuming that the mind is causally inert. It is pointless to ask whether free will is possible while assuming that the mind is causally inert. The question of free will must be put off until after mental causation is recognized.


Present-day physics is incomplete. The causal efficacy of the mental points to the existence of a deeper level of reality that is a common denominator of both the phenomenal and the physical. Hence, present-day physics is profoundly incomplete.

Quote of the Week

Kurt Gödel

The a priori is greatly neglected. [1] 

The a priori is very powerful. [2]

[1] In Rudy Rucker’s Infinity and the mind. 1982. P. 181.

[2] In Rudy Rucker’s The lifebox, the seashell, and the soul. 2005. p.8.


© 2016 Daniel Alroy