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The root of our longing for truth

jonnymindNov 6, 2018, 7:26:11 AM

Truth is the perception that the mind map of our behaviour patterns match the surrounding environment; it has evolved together with the brain, and it's the most ancient and fundamental reality of any cognitive system. 

When we read Orwell's 1984, we suffer a constant uneasiness. Many feel disturbed, some even sick, at the idea that such a total control on what they think might even be possible. There are many disturbing sensations that stir within us, as we follow Orwell's plot, witnessing the dissolution of the family by the setting of the children against their parents, the criminalization of natural impulses, and even of love, the inversion of concepts like war and peace, slavery and freedom, ignorance and strength, the unpersoning of the inquirers, and the subversion of history, and finally, the eradication of our own memories and thoughts from the depth of our soul.

But there is just one factor underlying all these perversions, each of which able to keep us up at night in the terror that the signs we see during our daily lives, our daily jobs, might be exactly the prelude to the dystopia no one wants to come to pass. When O'Brien reveals the secret of the power of the Party to Winston, during his torture, or better, as a part of that torture, we feel a shiver in our spine, thrilling in the deep terror that the sole idea inspires in us.

The Party can create Truth. In O'Brien's words, two plus two equals four because the Party wants it; were it convenient to the Party, two plus two would give five.

That is when we scream inside, this can't be, this would never happen, this is the line between fiction and reality, or maybe, this is when we scream inside that, no matter what is done to us, we'd never bend into believing something so patently untrue -- and failing in that would be our deepest defeat, our ultimate demise.

What is truth?

The highest striving of the human endeavour, the work of the philosopher, the religious, the alchemist and then the scientist has been the search for the Truth with the capital T, or with the capital all, the TRUTH, as Nietzsche would have it.

I follow the work of  Gad Saad, an evolutionary behaviourist, and Jordan Peterson, an evolutionary psychologist. Their idea is that human behaviour in general, and the structure of our mind in particular, has been evolved through imperfect reproduction and natural selection of the fittest outcome, exactly as the shape of our body.

Dr. Peterson has recently refined the already majestic work he drawn in Maps of Meaning by exposing his theories to a large audience, and in having them attacked, and polished, by other intellectuals as Sam Harris. Their first interaction resulted in a two hours long podcast on the essence of Truth.

For Harris, truth is an ontological reality, which we can possibly discover, but that exists outside and without a conscience exploring it.

For Peterson, Truth is a psychological dimension, an experience, even a narrative, which happens to serve its host in its survival.

Harris's truth is the knowledge about the total collection of facts, since the beginning of time to the current instant. A statement is either true, if it matches a fact, or false, if it doesn't. 

Peterson's truth is what the conscience know to be true about reality -- a recursive definition, which is fine in this context. Peterson's truth is even past the Zen kohan of the sound of a tree falling in an inhabited forest (as defining a sound requires a listener that interprets it as such). Peterson's TRUTH is the ultimate meta-truth, even truer than true statements about facts: the TRUTH is the representation of the significance of facts as we experience them.

How many truths?

Instinctively, we know there's more to truth than being a binary property of a statement. In many stories, the Devil lies by telling the truth, and there are truths that don't match any fact: the story about a character in a novel has never actually happened, but in its essence, it might be more true than an imperfect statement about an observed event. 

Also, we instinctively know that there are degrees of truth. An ambiguous statement, as "today is cloudy" can be true, false, and a lot of things in between. Fuzzy Logic is the mathematics of the shades of truth, and is by now a well established science. It's what drives the camera of your phone, and it's currently the truest way we found to shot a photograph.

The simple truth

Modern machine learning is the next step. It's the part of AI that is concerned in discovering the rules that govern a certain phenomenon -- or extracting order out of apparently chaotic data -- or, said more simply, it's the part of AI that is concerned about finding the truth.

Talking about truth in this context is more than appropriate: it is exact. ML is not just concerned about finding facts, or finding true statements which match facts; it's actually about finding the significance of facts. It's about producing an interpretation of a certain set of data, which can then be used by the AI to perform some task. In other words, it's about finding a meaning.

We just begun to explore the world of automated thinking processes, and even the first, shiest and earliest tries couldn't help but reproducing the concept of truth as a form of meaning

The flatworm has one of the simplest nervous systems in the animal realm. It is simple enough for it to be entirely simulated on a modern neural network software. Through the simulation, an interesting fact has been observed: there is one neuron that is at rest whenever the worm interacts with the outside world (touches something, moves, and so on), and fires whenever it interacts with itself (regulates an internal function, receive impulses from the inner layers of its "brain" etc.). It's called "the self neuron", and its activity signifies "self". This is the simplest possible form of self-identification, and it seems an unavoidable, fundamental step in the evolution of neurological systems, as they evolve from simple layers of neurotransmitters (as in i.e. the flytrap plant) into what we define "animals". 

The identification of the self, the distinction between "me" and "something else" is the first necessary step to evolve a self-sufficient creature, which acts for its own survival rather than just being, existing as a mere vessel for its own genes. It is the first meaning. And also the first truth.

The truth within us

So, "Cogito ergo sum" is even more fundamental than even Descartes imagined. In it's essence, it's an all-or-nothing fundamental reality, it's a cognitive quanta. A creature is either able to tell itself from the environment, or is not. But here we meet a paradox.

The determination of the self is at the same time a quanta, a binary reality, an all-or-nothing ability, and also extremely fuzzy and approximate. The flatworm's self-neuron would be at rest even if an unnerved portion of the worm is removed, just like we would still consider ourselves to be fully "us", and complete at that, even if missing a limb, and feel suddenly incomplete were we to lose an important part of our cognitive sphere, as our home or a loved one. It is not clear at all what is "me" and what is "something else" -- and yet, sure enough, there is a "me" and a "something else". 

There is no observable fact or status that can fully account for the truth of the self, despite the fact that it is even possible to find a factual, atomic, quantized case where the determination of the self is binary.

The original, deepest and irreducible truth is the meaning of the self. Every other cognitive structure, every other meaning, and so, every other truth, originates from there.

The evolution of truth

As our ancestors evolved from their primitive state, their self-awareness grew with them, and so their truth. From the simplest possible form of meaning, "I am not something else", the ability to discern the truth, that is, to extract meaning from the environment, evolved into "I can eat it", "it can eat me", "I can mate with it", and so on. Even from these his stages, truth was already more than a fact: it was the true meaning of a fact

And that's the key. Because, the ancestor that didn't get those simple truths right died quite fast.

At a point, evolution didn't just select for correct behaviour. Some creatures begun to be able to extract the meaning of their behavior -- not necessarily to think explicitly about that meaning, as we do quite easily, but just to use that meaning in their rather primitive cognitive processes, just like a primitive AI blindly uses the meaning produced by the machine learning process.

The creatures that could extract the meaning of "food nearby" or "predator nearby" had an edge over those that just were reacting to food, as i.e. a bacteria. And they had an edge also on those creatures that could extract only the meaning of "me" and "something else". The more meaning extracted, the greater the evolutionary/competitive edge.

And, at a point, evolution must have preferred those creatures that could perform some rudimentary operation on that extracted meaning. A creature that could extract "maybe food nearby" would have an edge over the one able to extract just "food nearby", and one able to extract "maybe predator near food" would have an edge on everyone else.

Another key is that maybe. Because, now, evolution would start to favour those creatures that get that "maybe" right.

The fear of the untrue

Evolution has a powerful mean to shape the cognitive system of the creatures it selects into behaving correctly: it instils in them a distaste for unsuccessful behaviours: fear. The creatures that do not have such distaste die faster, those that have it have greater survival chances.

As fear developed, it started to be applied not just to the circuitry linked to immediate failure ("predator nearby -> fear"), but also to the secondary circuitry, that regulating elementary decisions on meanings ("maybe predator nearby -> fear"). 

And finally, the creatures developing fear linked to the tertiary circuitry started to have an advantage on the others: the ones able to fear the incorrect application of the "maybe" operation were driven to extract better "maybe" than the others, and had greater chance of survival.

This is where our deep-sited distaste for deception and lies and our striving for truth come from.

The Truth and the Self

Truth is meaning. We fear incorrect meaning, we fear untruth

We are driven to truth since before our ancestors became fishes. The striving for truth has been in our brains for more than five hundreds million years. It defines us, just about as our sense for the self does.

As we evolved, we were able to put more strata of operations between the fundamental meanings and the workings of our thoughts, but the necessity and irreducibility of the Truth is there, at the very bottom of our brain -- or the software it runs. Call it soul.

As such, twisting the Truth destroys our very soul. 

This is why we are uneasy while reading about the layer of deceptions, the untruth constructed by the Party in Orwell's 1984. And similarly, this is what we despise in ideologies, all of them, as they have no grounding in reality, but build themselves out of variedly made up axioms.

This is why it is so important to be true. Untruth and deceit destroy our cognitive system, as the psychoanalysts knew very well -- the Freudian concept of "repression" is nothing but a formalised description of a self-deception. 

This is why the Orwellian dystopia is so scary, and this is why a totalitarian regime is needed to keep it alive -- for as long as the human striving for the Truth allows it to exist. This is why it is so important to resist it, to resist untruth being spread with the intent of political manipulation and for the benefit and gain of certain political groups. 

Untruth leads to bad places, and we have been there too many times already.