An end of an era and a dawn of a new day

Daniel Alroy

2016, May 1


Sensations are innate and thus phenomenal



The most basic assumption that underlies present-day knowledge is that sensations are imported into the brain, none innate. It was introduced by John Locke (1705), who concluded that the brain of the newborn is like ablank slate (tabula rasa). Recently, the direct opposite was proved to be the case: sensations are innate and are evoked by the brain – none are imported into it. Making explicit the implications of this fundamental factwould constitute the most profound change in the foundation of knowledge in the 300 years since Locke introduced the tabula rasa assumption.


The physical and the phenomenal

A2.1  Physicality criteria. The physical is said to be publicly observable, or observable from the third-person perspective. Put differently, the physical can be observed visually, or by other sensory modalities of exteroception, and it is locatable in space.

A2.2  The phenomenal. Your dentist can see your aching tooth, but not your toothache. Thus, the tooth is physical, your toothache is phenomenal, not physical. Or, consider the difference between a triangular tile and the concept of triangularity. The tile can be seen and is located in space. It is thus physical. The concept of triangularity is not accessible to any sensory modality of exteroception and it cannot be said to be locatable inspace. Thus, the concept of triangularity (like any concept) does not satisfy the physicality criteria.

A2.3  Innateness determines sensations as phenomenal. Children born deaf are made to hear by the electrical stimulation of the auditory brain, either directly, or via the auditory nerve. This fact proves conclusively that the sensations of sound are innate, are evoked by the brain, and thus not caused by air vibrations. Hence, sound is phenomenal, not physical.

A2.4  The physical is inferred from the phenomenal. Like sound, all sensations are innate and thus phenomenal. Consequently, our knowledge of the physical is inferred from the phenomenal.

A2.5  Revising the notion of what is publicly observable. Like all sensations, the sensation of light is innate, evoked by the brain, and is phenomenal, not physical. By way of analogy, the commonsense view is that a group can share the view of a large display screen. The fact, however, is that each person sees the external world on a private display. What is said to be publicly observable is ultimately based on the first-person observation of similarly situated individuals.


Conscious knowledge



The conscious power to control future human evolution. Evolution stumbled upon consciousness, and natural selection let it proliferate, especially in organisms with temperature homeostasis. Conscious knowledge led to the development of science and technology. Biotechnology now makes it possible to make heritable enhancements in health and well-being, thus wrests from nature the future human evolution. This development is, without compare, the most important event in human history. It also shows that history is unidirectional: the past can no longer be a guide to the future.


What ought to be done? The awesome power of biotechnology makes the question what ought to be done, central. Science and technology provide information about what can be, but not what ought to be done. Addressing questions of what ought to be done is within the exclusive domain of ethics, which is a field of philosophy.


Innate commonalities of human nature. Life on Earth is based on innate commonalities (e.g. the same five nucleic acids, the same twenty amino acids, and virtually the same triplet nucleic acid code for an amino acid). In humans, innate commonalities also extend to include sensations (see Section B. below), emotions and cognitions. These biological innate commonalities underlie human diversity, constituting human nature. Commonalities of human nature confer moral authority on commonalities of human conduct.


What went wrong?

B4.1  Epistemology. Some 300 years ago John Locke introduced an empirically false assumption that sensations are imported into the brain, none innate, concluding that the brain of the newborn is like a blank slate (tabula rasa). The tabula rasa assumption denies the innateness of any human faculty, thus denying the possible existence of commonalities of human nature. The tabula rasa assumption is the most basic epistemological tenet to this day.

B4.2  Ethics. The empirically false tabula rasa assumption is the implicit basic tenet of ethical and legal systems of the West, leading to the adoption of non-universal standards that vary from place to place and from time to time. These non-universal ethical and legal systems are inherently incapable of addressing long-term global issues such as whether or not to make heritable modifications of the genome.


Some consequences.

B5.1  The impending genetic bifurcation of humanity. The ethical outlooks of the East and West are divergent. The West has been taken aback by the awesome power of biotechnology, and it is likely to shun funding research in human germline modification and make illegal its application. In contrast, countries like China are pragmatic, atheistic, and are centrally controlled. There can be no better tool for the improvement of health and human well-being. Hence, it is inconceivable that China will agree with the West that this power for good not be applied. For the above reasons, unless something unexpected happen, the genetic bifurcation of humanity may begin as early as this decade.


B5.2  Why this issue cannot be resolved by negotiations. Long-term global agreements require the existence of common grounds. The tabula rasa assumption, and the consequent relativistic ethical and legal systems of the West deny the possible existence of such common grounds.

B5.3  Conclusion. The tabula rasa assumption has proved empirically false. The existence of innate commonalities of human nature is a fact. The time has come to bring the foundation of knowledge up to date and provide ethics with the universality, which confers on moral authority. Such reconstruction must and will take place in due course because of its far-reaching consequences in different fields of knowledge. But, the genetic bifurcation of humanity, which may be now in the planning stages, makes the matter urgent. Time is of the essence.


Sensations are innate



The issue is empirical; its implications are epistemological Sperry’s thesis. In ‘Neurology and the Mind-Body Problem’ (1952) Roger Sperry observed that input from different sensory receptors is qualitatively the same. Sperry therefore concluded that the qualitative aspect is determined by the stimulated modality-specific brain loci. Sperry’s thesis implies that the quality of an elementary sensation is innate and is determined by identifiable brain loci. It has taken half a century to discover that Sperry’s thesis is right. Here are some examples.


Synesthesia. Synesthesia is an innate neurological condition of ‘crossed wiring’ where the experienced sensation is triggered by stimulus other than the normal sensory receptors. For example, in colored-hearing synesthesia, persons report experiencing the sensation of colors elicited by hearing words. Brain imaging of such persons confirms that in response to hearing spoken words the color-specific area in the visual cortex is selectively activated (Nunn JA et al 2002). Synesthesia is consistent with Sperry’s thesis that it is not the origin of the stimulus, but it is the stimulated brain target that determines the quality of experienced sensation.


Phantoms of congenitally missing limb. People who lose a limb continue to experience it. This is also true for some of the persons born without a limb. Brain imaging of persons born without a limb who report having sensations in the limb they never had shows that the area representing that limb in the somatosensory cortex is selectively activated (Saadah & Melzack 1994; Brugger et. al. 2000). This fact proves that the sensation of the body is innate and is evoked by the brain.


Auditory prostheses.

The cochlear implant is, by a wide margin, the most common neuroprosthetic device, with over 300,000 in use. The cochlea can be viewed as a one-dimensional tonotopic map, where locations along it are pitch-specific. The electrical stimulation of a pitch-specific locus in the cochlear tonotopic map elicits the auditory sensation of that pitch. This is true for people who have normal hearing, those who have lost their hearing, and those who are born deaf (Waltzman et al 1992). In some cases, children are born with a dysfunctional auditory nerve. In such cases a child can be made to hear by the electrical stimulation of auditory-specific brain loci (e.g. auditory brain stem or auditory midbrain). The above facts conclusively prove that the sensation of sound:

C4.1  is innate and is evoked by the brain;

C4.2  does not originate from the ears, and

C4.3  has no necessary causal connection to air vibration.


Visual prostheses.

C5.1  Direct brain electrical stimulation. The electrical stimulation of the visual cortex of a conscious person elicits sensations of spots of light, called phosphenes, in the stimulated part of the visual field. Such visual response to stimulation does not require the presence of electromagnetic radiation in the visible range. William H. Dobelle (2000) developed cortical visual prostheses for the blind, providing rudimentary vision. At present, cortical visual prostheses are being developed that have a 10-fold increase in the number of electrodes (Lewis PM et al 2015). Initial implantation in a blind subject is scheduled for later this year.

C5.2  Application to the born blind. As demonstrated by auditory prostheses for the born deaf, the electrical stimulation of visual brain (currently, the primary visual cortex) of the born blind would elicit sensations of light. It would confirm that like all sensations, the sensation of light is innate and is evoked by the brain. Hence, the sensation of light does not originate in the eyes, and it does not involve electromagnetic radiation in the visible range.


An epistemological implication

Sensations are innate and are evoked by the brain. Hence, the world we experience by acquaintance is phenomenal. The physical is therefore an inference from the phenomenal. As such, the phenomenal has epistemological priority over the physical. For this reason, it is no longer logically possible infer the phenomenal from the physical. Vision and other sensory modalities of exteroception provide information about the world outside our skins. Physicalism, by denying the innateness of sensations, assumes that exteroception provides observations that are public, and it seeks to exclude from science observations that are made from the first-person perspective. However, we now know that vision, like all sensations, is innate and thus private. Hence, what is deemed publicly observable is, in fact, observation from the first-person perspective by similarly situated individuals.


Brugger P, Kollias SS, Muri RM, Crelier G, Hepp-Reymond MC, Regard M. Beyond re-membering: phantom sensations of congenitally absent limbs. PNAS. 2000, May 23. 97(11):6167-6172.

Dobelle WM. Artificial vision for the blind by connecting a television camera to the visual cortex. ASAIO Journal. 2000, Jan. 46:3-9.

Lewis PM, Ackland HM, Lowery AJ, Rosenfeld JV. Restoration of vision in blind individuals using bionic devices: a review with a focus on cortical visual prosthesis. Brain Res. 2015, Jan 25. 1595:51-73.

Locke J. An essay concerning humane understanding. 1705/1975. Oxford University Press.

Nunn JA, Gregory LJ, Brammer M, Williams SC, Parslow DM, Morgan MJ, Morris RG, Bullmore ET, Baron-Cohen S, Gray JA. Functional magnetic resonance imaging of synesthesia: activation of V4/V8 by spoken words. Nat Neurosci. 2002, April. 5(4):371-5.

Saadah ES, Melzack R. Phantom limb experiences in congenital limb-deficient adults. Cortex. 1994, Sept. 30(3):479-85.

Salzman CD et al. Microstimulation of visual area MT: effects on direction discrimination performance. J Neurosci. 1992. 12:2478-2402.

Sperry RW. Neurology and the mind-body problem. Am Sci. 1952. 40(2):291-312.

Waltzman SB, Cohen NL, Shapiro WH. Use of a multichannel cochlear implant in the congenitally and prelingually deaf population. Laryngoscope. 1992, April. 102(4):395-9.


Quote of the Week


Thomas Huxley

How is it that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just unaccountable as the appearance od Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.



© 2015 Daniel Alroy