Friday, August 7, 2015

What does the brain do to ensure that contradictory truths are valid? Answer: it ensures that they never meet.

Contributed by Mikhail Filippov and Semir Zeki

Mathematical and physical theories constitute one means of acquiring knowledge about our Universe. We build models of the way the Universe is constructed through experimental facts. But what happens when they contradict each other. How do we accommodate them both?

In the sensory world, contradictions can occur in vision. This is commonly referred to as ambiguity or instability. We will discuss them first before addressing the question of contradictory truths about the nature of the Universe.

For vision, a good example of an ambiguous, though finished, work is Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. The painting is capable of many interpretations – of someone who is distant or inviting or resentful or approving. The important point is that (a) there is no clear solution because all solutions are valid (see Zeki 2008) and (b) only one solution can be valid and occupy the conscious stage at any one moment (see Zeki 2004), before ceding place to another, equally plausible, solution or interpretation, which then becomes sovereign until it, too, is replaced.

With bi-stable or multi-stable figures, the image transmutes perceptually from, say, a face to a house. Again, only one image – face or house – is possible at any given moment, even if one knows that the image is bi-stable.

The transition from one perceptual state to another is not generally under our control. The images flip over between two or more states with prolonged viewing and it is not evident that even the length of time when one state reigns can be controlled.

Thus the brain has devised a system where, when there is no certainty as to the solution, it will entertain two more solutions as equally plausible, even if these solutions are significantly different. But it ensures that the two solutions do not coincide.

The same general rule applies, we believe, to grander and more exalted cognitive states. One such example is to be found in the laws of gravitation and time-space, which are derived from what has come to be known as classical logic. These laws are different from quantum logic, though we would say that both are derived from brain logic, just as two contradictory images are derived from the brain's perceptual mechanisms.

Indeed, it can be said that classical logic cannot reach the conclusions reached by quantum logic. 

In their statement on Quantum Logic, Birkhoff and von Neumann put it like this,  The object …is to discover what logical structure one may hope to find in physical theories which, like quantum mechanics, do not conform to classical logic.”

We note that, in the above quote, they write of the logical structure of physical theories. We believe that the logical structure of physical theories is derived from brain logic.  We would therefore re-formulate what they say, as follows:

The object …is to discover what variations there are in the logical system of the brain that allows it to accommodate the facts that lead to quantum logic as well as to logic dictating classical Newtonian mechanics”.

In truth, quantum logic and classical logic, both of which are brain logic, are not in contradiction. They are just two different models of the physical reality and, like bi-stable images, only one can occupy the conscious stage at any given moment. Also, as in ambiguous stimuli, there is no correct solution, because both solutions are correct.

The overall conclusion that we draw is that the brain does not devise too many  different solutions to acquire (apparently contradictory) knowledge about the world. It uses the same general approach to sensory knowledge as to cognitive knowledge. It accepts even what may amount to contradictory facts, if these conform to its logic system and will reject them both if they do not.

If it accepts them both, it will however not accept them both simultaneously, just as it will not accept two contradictory interpretations of a visual image at the same time.

Hence, in addition to deriving knowledge about the world through its logical deductive system, the brain has another, intrinsic, logical system which allows it to separate out contradictory models as truthful, whether derived from the sensory or cognitive world, but ensure that they do not contradict each other because only one can occupy the conscious stage at any given moment.  This it does by ensuring that they do not co-occur.

This, in fact, is the solution, that the brain has adopted to deal with contradictory but equally valid facts: by making sure that they do not co-occur. In more popular language, it ensures that they never meet.

©Mikhail Filippov and Semir Zeki


Meerkat said...

This was very interesting. I have one reflection: Often have I wondered if the classical psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance is an effect of the brains architecture being primarily built for perception and action. The brain is built to chose the most likely model, and when it can't find an easy way to do this it becomes a strain, for some reason. Perhaps inconsistency between our attitudes and our behaviours is somehow seen as threatening; it is constraining to not have a clear path of action prepared. We don't like to be trapped.

Meanwhile, ambiguity in art is often seen as positive (like in the Vermer example you provided). It makes art interesting, stimulating, beautiful. Why is this? Why is one type of ambiguity good and another type bad? Though perhaps cognitive dissonance effects have less to do with it being uncomfortable than your average psychology textbook would suggest.

Margaret Bowker said...

I really enjoyed this blog, Professor. The Girl with the Pearl Earing was on the wall of the corridor to the art room at my school. She said many things, but on one occasion, she seemed to be saying as we trooped past - Actually, I'm doing something really ordinary, but Vermeer is going to immortalise me doing it; and on the way back, I mustn't smile, or he'll be cross, as we trooped along, one of us with a half painted face for flicking her brush about, a good example of ambiguity in vision. So on to the bi-stable image of the face, which I couldn't see as quickly as someone scientific passing by my computer; and I found it a little uncomfortable to look at. But oh how it helped with comprehending the co-existence of classical and quantum logic, one only being apparent at any one time, as they cannot co-occur. Another world, but thanks for a glimpse into it.

S.Z. said...

Thank you for your comment, Margaret.