Brain Prostheses and Epistemology

Daniel Alroy

2015, November 22


Sensations are innate. The most basic tenet tat underlies present-day knowledge was introduced by John Locke. Locke postulated that the brain of the newborn is like a blank slate (tabula rasa), and sensations are imported into the brain – none innate. We now know that the exact opposite is the case: auditory prostheses allow the born deaf to hear by direct brain stimulation. This fact proves that the sensation of sound is innate, is evoked by the brain, and not imported into it. The same is true of all sensations.


The mind affects the brain. Physicalism is the currently dominant theory of knowledge. The tabula rasa assumption is it’s basic tenet. Physicalism also postulates that only physical causes can have physical effects. Consequently, non-physical mental intentions must be causally inert. The assumption that the mind is causally inert is disproved by cortical prostheses that allow persons paralyzed from the neck down to control by thought alone external mechanisms, such as a mechanical wheelchair or curser on a computer screen. Imagining a voluntary action selectively activate some of the same brain loci as when the person can actually perform such action. Such selective activation is detected in any such area (e.g. the motor cortex), amplified, then processed by a computer program, which in turn regulate the imagined action using servomechanisms. The imagined act is mental; the activated motor cortex is physical. Thus, the exercise of the causal power of the mind is commonplace. Ontologically, it proves that present-day physics is profoundly incomplete.         


It is now necessary to make explicit the implications of the new state of affairs. However, the philosophic community needs a while longer before the facts are acknowledged and acted upon. It so came to pass that the most important (and most urgent) challenge in advancing knowledge is virtually terra incognita.


I intend to e-publish shortly a rough draft addressing the new state of affairs. If condition permit, it would be followed by a revised version.




A revised note about the epistemological priority of the phenomenal relative to the physical

2015, November 21

Physical entities are said to be ‘publicly observable’, or observable from the ‘third-person perspective’. The physical satisfies the twin criteria of being observable by sight, touch, and other sensory modalities of exteroception, and being located in space, In contrast, sensory modalities of interoception, such as hunger and thirst, are private and are not spatially localizable. They are said to be observable from the ‘first-person perspective’. As, such they do not satisfy the physicality criteria.

Recently, it has been found that sensations are innate. The qualitative aspect of an elementary sensations is determined by the stimulated brain loci, and not by the nature of the stimulus. As a consequence, the sensory modalities of exteroception, by which the physical world is observable are as private as hunger and thirst. For this reason, observations from the third-person perspective are ultimately based on the first-person perspective. Thus, our experience of the physical world is phenomenal: it does not satisfy the criteria of physicality. In conclusion, our knowledge of the physical is inferred from the phenomenal. This fact has epistemological consequences:

*It confers epistemological priority on the phenomenal relative to the physical

* The phenomenal is not eliminable, or reducible to the physical

* attributes such as color and sound are evoked, not produced, by the brain

* Spatial attributes are inapplicable (by definition) to the phenomenal

* Hence, the mind is not ‘in’ the brain, and for the same reason attributes of color and sound are evoked, and not produced, by the brain.

Ontologically, the above considerations lead to the conclusion that properties such as color and sound are nonphysical natural attributes, and consequently, the physical is an incomplete description of nature.


The Physicality Criteria

Daniel Alroy

2015 November 8

Objectivity and existence. The simplest notion of existence is persistence. An entity exists if it endures through the passage of time and survives over changes in location. Personal observations of such invariance are subjectively consistent, or intrasubjectively - consistent. When a similarly situated individuals express consensus on observing such an entity then such observation is intersubjectively-consistent. Observations are said to be objective if they are intrasubjectively and intersubjectively consistent. An entity is said to exist if it can be objectively observed. Veridicality is another manifestation of existence. For example, the appearance, manner and voice by which a familiar person is recognizable is veridical. Consider another example. If we have a number of identical small cubes arranged into a larger 3x3x3 cube, then we can determine that their total number is 27 in several different ways such as:

*Count the small cubes in the larger cube

* Count the number of cubes per dimension and raise it to the third power

* Divide the weight of the larger cube by the weight of a small cube

* Divide the displacement of the larger cube relative to a smaller cube when immersed in a water container

Physicality. Note the contrast between a triangular tile and the concept of triangularity. The tile is located in space while the concept of triangularity is not. Furthermore, the tile can be, while the concept of triangularity cannot be, seen, touched, or observed by any other sensory modalities of exteroception. For these reasons, the tile is deemed physical, while the concept of triangularity is not. Our capacity to apprehend concepts is innate and universal. Persons familiar with a given mathematical concept, such as triangularity, reach consensus as readily as the testimony of the senses in observing a triangular tile. Concepts can satisfy objectivity and existence criteria. Physical entities satisfy, in addition, the criteria of locatability in space, and accessibility to observation by sensory modalities of exteroception.


Some notes concerning the new foundation of knowledge

Daniel Alroy

2015, October 28


Innateness. One important property of the physical is that it can be seen or otherwise observed by means of sensory modalities of exteroception. That which can be so observed is said to be publicly observable. A sensation, such as fear, is not observable by means of exteroception; it is private and therefore subjective. Sensations are innate and are evoked in the brain. As such, they are private and not physical. Therefore, in order to decide whether sound is a physical property or not, the question is whether brain stimulation of a person born deaf would evoke the sensation of sound in that person. If it does then sound is a phenomenal property that does not satisfy the criterion of physicality. If, however, such brain stimulation does not evoke sensations of sound in the born deaf then it would prove that sound is imported into the brain. Then, there are three possible alternative origins of sound, as follows: 

* Sound is a property of the external world (Physicalism), or

* Sound is a subjective property originating from the ears (Locke), or

* Sound is a subjective property of the auditory nerve (Müller).

This issue has now been empirically determined. The sensation of sound is evoked by the brain and not imported into it. Children born deaf can be made to hear by brain stimulation. There are well over 100,000 persons who were born deaf who hear by use of an auditory prosthesis that electrically stimulates the cochlea. In case of a dysfunctional auditory nerved (e.g. neurofibromatosis type II) the auditory the locus of electrical stimulation is shifted from the cochlea to the auditory brain stem. Similarly, all sensations are evoked by the brain – none are imported into it. Consequently, our experience of the physical world is phenomenal. Hence, our knowledge of the physical is an inference from the phenomenal. This confers epistemological priority of the phenomenal relative to the physical: innateness of sensations constitutes conclusive disconfirmation of Physicalism. 


The tabula rasa doctrine. The central tenet of present-day knowledge is that sensations are imported into the brain, none innate. That tenet was introduced by John Locke some 300 years ago, postulating that the brain of the newborn is like a blank slate (tabula rasa). It is therefore now necessary to replace the tabula rasa doctrine by its direct opposite. This action is epistemological. It is therefore for the philosophic community to undertake. However, the philosophic community does not accept, as yet, the empirical fact of innateness. 


Some consequences of the tabula rasa doctrine. Beliefs have consequences. Therefore, the most basic tenet of knowledge would have vast consequences. The two examples below illustrate the grave harm caused by the empirically false current foundation of knowledge.

* The failure to develop effective medication for chronic pain. Pain, like all sensations is evoked in the brain – not imported into it from the body. Yet, the tabula rasa doctrine denies the fact. Instead, it postulates that pain is imported into the brain via C-fibers. This misconception led to tens of thousands of needless surgeries aiming to eliminate the presumed bodily origin of pain. Then, the issue of chronic pain continues to be a medical problem.

* Human nature and conduct. Humans possess some innate and universal sensations, needs, desires, and conceptual mechanisms. These commonalities of human nature are the basis for human conduct. Natural Law is the view that ethical and legal systems should be based on the commonalities of human nature. Current theories of knowledge are based on the rejection that there is innate human nature. This 300 year-old epistemological tradition has led to the selection of non-universal systems of ethics and law. Such systems cripple the ability to secure long-term cooperation in tackling global issues. 


What the mind can do that the brain does not and cannot do. On inspection, some of the furniture of the mind has no counterpart in the physical world. Concepts, for example, are not publicly observable and, consequently, do not satisfy the criteria of physicality. Yet, they are vital in mathematics and physics, and outside the exact sciences, notions of beauty, justice, and democracy are all useful concepts, but none are physical. It is therefore transparent that non-physical entities can be and are useful. The brain can recognize instances that qualify as a given concept, but this is distinct from the brain representing the concept. The issue is clarified in the binding of a percept. If a red ball is thrown toward you, then visual area V4 will process the color of the ball, visual area V5 will represent the motion of the ball, and the inferotemporal cortex will represent the spherical shape of the ball. For the brain to represent this situation, these three attributes need to converge to some brain location, but no such locus exists for the example given. While the phenomenal experience of a percept is signaled by temporal synchrony, such synchrony by itself cannot cohere into a unified percept. Thus the mind perform a vital function in visual perception.  


The mind affects the brain and behavior. Recent developments have demonstrated that persons paralyzed from the neck down can control the cursor on the computer screen, the action of a mechanical chair, or the control of a mechanical arm with their thoughts alone. In such systems the paralyzed person imagines carrying out the intended action and sensors detect the resulting activation of the motor cortex. That information is then used to control those devices. If the world were exclusively physical, then only physical causes could have physical effects. However, we now find that the non-physical mind affects the brain and behavior. This proves that the phenomenal is part of nature. Further, it points to the existence of a level of reality of which both the physical and non-physical are different aspects.


A revised note

Daniel Alroy

2015, October 21

The systemic failure to address long-term global problems. The conscious capacity of Homo sapiens to obtain and use knowledge has emerged in evolution because it increases the ability to manipulate the environment. In the short-term, such ability may improve survival; in the long-term, it may have the opposite effects. For this reason, short-term social action must be based on the expected long-term consequences, which in turn ought to be based on innate commonalities of human nature. Present-day moral and legal systems are inconsistent with this imperative. 

Consider the organization of knowledge. The foundation of knowledge, knowledge proper, and the application of knowledge, is also known as philosophy, science, and technology. These three knowledge areas can be viewed as levels of an inverted pyramid, where philosophy is at the base, science is the middle level, and technology as the top level. It shows that philosophy is the most basic, and that it has the widest scope. Another unique aspect of philosophy is this: science and technology provide information about what can be done, but not about what ought to be done. Philosophy is the only field of knowledge that can address the question of what ought to be done. Present-day science has shown that there exist innate commonalities of human nature. It provides the ground for commonalities of human conduct. Some three hundred years ago John Locke proposed the tabula rasa assumption that the brain of the newborn is like a blank slate and that sensations are imported into the brain, none innate. This empirically false assumption is the most basic tenet of present-day epistemology. It denies the fact of innate commonalities of human nature. These empirically mistaken notions have contributed to the fact that current systems ethics and law are relativistic rather than universal. Such systems of ethics and law cripple the ability to achieve long- term solutions to global problems. The three cases listed below exemplify the gravity of the problem and the consequent need to bring the foundation of knowledge up to date.

Global warming. Three million years ago the carbon dioxide  (CO2) in the atmosphere was 400 parts per million (ppm). The resulting warming climate melted polar ice and caused the sea level to rise some twenty meters above the current level. The first industrial revolution replaced muscle power with machine power by burning fossil fuel, which produces CO2 as a by-product. Electrification and the introduction of automobile transportation accelerated CO2 emissions, which recently reached the 400ppm level. It is projected to double by the end of the century. The warming trend cannot be reversed or stopped this century even if all CO2 emissions cease. Once we reject commonalities of human nature and conduct, we relinquish the ability to take into consideration and effectively act on long-term 

Migration of asylum-seekers to Europe. The United Nations projects that the population of Sub Saharan Africa will increase from the current 1.2 billion to 4.6 billion by the end of the century. Some Sub Saharan countries, like Gambia, are subject to oppressive regimes. Hence, persons who are emigrating from Africa can justly claim the status of asylum-seekers. Europe is subject to the United Nations’ law under which it may not arrest and deport asylum-seekers. It is therefore possible, and indeed likely, that perhaps one-third out of the 3.4 billion-person increase in the population of Sub Saharan Africa will end up in Europe. In such an event the current European populations will become minorities in their own countries. Most Europeans would be troubled by such a prospect. The question is what ought to be done. Would it not be better to provide financial incentives to families of Sub Saharan Africa to have fewer children?

Genetic enhancement. Biotechnology now makes it possible to identify and correct disease genes. Such cures are heritable. These techniques are the same as the ones needed to replace a non-disease gene by a better performing gene. The West recoils from such germline modifications and has prohibited doing it in humans. The more pragmatic East rejects the West’s reaction. These different moral perspectives cannot be expected to be resolved anytime soon. For this reason, each side is likely to follow their own moral guide. In that event, the current century would be the initial bifurcation of Homo sapiens into two divergent genetic populations. At present, the West is decidedly against germline modifications and against enhancement of the genome. Having moral and legal systems based on the denial of commonalities of human nature, the West has relinquished the grounds for urging the East to follow the West on this issue.


Quote of the Week

Semir Zeki

If, for example, one were to view an orange or banana in a room lit by tungsten light, and then in a room lit by fluorescent light and then, successively, in a daylight, on a cloudy day and on a sunny day, ans at dawn and at dusk, one would find that the orange would continue to look orange in colour, and the banana will continue to look yellow. There may be some changes in the shade of the yellow and orange, but the color will remain the same. Yet, if one were to measure the wavelength composition of the light reflected by these surfaces in the different conditions, one will find profound variations.  In natural viewing conditions there is thus no prespecified wavelength composition or code that leads to a particular colour and to that color alone. Indeed, if the color of objects changes with every change in the illumination in which they are viewed then colour will lose its significance as a biological signaling mechanism since the object could not then be faithfully recognized by its colour any more.     

A Vision of the Brain. 1993. Blackwell Scientific Publications. Oxford

© 2015 Daniel Alroy