< Back
March 11, 2020 · Opinion Philosophy

On Duality

I remember hearing Dr. Jordan Peterson say something like "the mind is the interface between consciousness and experience (or reality), between order and chaos".

Think about that quote for a moment. Our minds sit in between our consciousness, which Jordan believes is order, and our reality, which he believes is chaos. The first time I heard him say it—and he said it with the casualness of someone who has thought through an extraordinary idea enough for it to be casual—I literally sat in awe. The idea itself is so simple, but it is layered with a cascading complexity that is only revealed the more you interrogate it. It makes sense too: reality does seem chaotic and the mind does seem to be ordered. In fact, that is exactly what the mind has afforded us as a species since we differentiated ourselves from animals; we carved order out of a chaotic world.

Chaos and risk, as terms, are actually very related. Regardless of what our individual or collective connotations are, they’re both actually describing uncertainty which, itself, is an attempt at describing the unknown. And the unknown is really at the crux of it all. It is the uncertainty of reality that creates risk, and our objective as humans has always been to demystify it. We have spent thousands of years tackling the unknown head on in an attempt to dissolve it with knowledge. We venture into the unknown, or take risks, in order to make new discoverues, or get return. That is what science is really: a method to at least attempt to describe the unknown in order to leverage it for its benefits.

The process of knowledge working upon the unknown is so that we can make sense of, or create order in, the natural Universe. And, so far, we’ve been really good at it. If we look at the world around us–the systems and organisations, religions and paradigms, even scientific methodology itself–it is all a function of that attempt. But it’s also completely made up. Now I am not suggesting that the observations that science describe are made up, or that society doesn’t actually exist, but rather that our understanding and descriptions of those observations, and society itself, are inventions with various goals; all of which culminate into one: making sense of the unknown in some way.

This led me to consider deterministic and probabilistic models in general, and once I had started, I saw them everywhere I looked. Deterministic models have repeatable determined outcomes. That is, if you do x in the same manner every time, you will get y. Probabilistic models, however, are not determined, if you do x you might get y, but you might get z, or b or c, with differing levels of probability. That is to say that the outcome is not absolutely known before hand.

Gambling is a great example of a probabilistic model. If there is a football match between Arsenal and Manchester City, judging by Arsenal’s less than stellar form, the odds are that Man City will come out on top, but there is no guarantee—no one knows for sure who is going to win; the outcome is not determined. This is represented with odds. By way of example, if it is 2 to 1 Man City will win, and 6 to 1 Arsenal will, hat means that if I put down a tenner on Man City, I will get 20 if they win. But if I put it on Arsenal, because the probability of them winning is so much lower, I will get a better return: 60. Furthermore, if I put Arsenal and Man City up against each other over and over, I will likely get different outcomes but with a relatively high probability of Man City taking the majority of the wins.

Deterministic models are found in concrete subjects like mathematics. If I add 1 and 1 together, no matter what, I am sure that I will get 2. It is a repeatable process with a determined outcome. This very powerful difference allows us to do a whole bunch of cool things. It allows us to make 200 tons of metal fly consistently over oceans or bake a cake over and over again with the same result; provided we meet some base requirements. This consistency enables us to can cure diseases, build software, make telephones, and so on. It gives us the power to carve out order from a chaotic world.

Where this dichotomy gets a little tenuous is with freewill. There are many people, really smart people I might add, that argue that freewill doesn’t exist because of determinism. Their argument is that given the exact same set of circumstances, all the way down to a chemical level, a person will make the same choice over and over.  What makes it difficult to prove is the high amount of variables wrapped up in even the simplest of decisions. How could we ever recreate exact circumstances of a decision considering a lifetime of experience that converges to the moment of choice? It’s very near impossible.

The other side of the camp argues that freewill does exist because humans are not guaranteed to make the same decision even if the circumstances are the same. That our consciousness is dynamic and capable of deciding something different even if all the relevant circumstances are the same; that we are independent sentient beings. This is an argument that is hard to deny because we are so close to the topic. We instinctively feel like we can choose differently, and therefore believe that we can.

The first thing I do when faced with a seemingly binary choice—in this case: freewill existing or not—is to take a step back and represent the choice on a spectrum. How does the nature of the choice change when gradients are introduced? What if freewill is something that occurs in degrees? It led me to realise that representing freewill on a spectrum actually reconciles both arguments quite nicely. We do have freewill, relative to our conscious capacity. As our awareness grows, so does our capacity for free will within that awareness. It is a dynamic state rather than static one. It’s a probabilistic model, rather than a deterministic one.

Of course this is only true relative to our own consciousness though. We experience this dynamic state of freewill within the capacity of our own awareness, but in reality, that is, outside of our own awareness, it looks deterministic. If we could get outside of our own awareness in order to be able to see all the variables that are involved in any decision, we will likely see the deterministic pattern that governs it. But we can’t. Does freewill then exist? The only real answer is that it depends on which perspective you’re examining it from.

The dichotomy between these two models can be found everywhere. Emotions are probabilistic—they are unpredictable and chaotic. Whereas reason is deterministic—it is bound by certain laws and has a definite structure. Individuals are deterministic, but groups are probabilistic. Which explains the irrationality of some of the collectivism arguments we are experiencing at the moment.

This even applies to creativity. Creativity is probabilistic; its very nature is rooted in probability. Think about how the creative process works: many options fly through the brain before an idea pops up, seemingly out of nowhere. Versus the execution of that idea. There is an order to execution, repeatable steps that exist—whether we know them or not—that will allow us to execute something in order to get a desired outcome. One could say that the process of deciding what to do is probabilistic, and the process of doing it is deterministic.

What really interested me about both arguments, and indeed the underlying friction between them, is the relationship between them. What’s more, if we take another step back and view consciousness and the Universe from a broader perspective, we see that the Universe is quite clearly deterministic. There are immutable laws that underpin everything and create order in nature. It’s all about execution. This is why life has mandatory criteria, why mathematics is reliable, why physics can be studied, and why humans can build societies.

And consciousness is probabilistic. It is all about creativity. Our minds are constantly processing the information we get from the outside world in different ways, creating new links between them and forming new ideas. There are hundreds of thousands of different thoughts that could potentially come up and, at least from our own perspectives, there is no real way knowing which will come when.

It is consciousness that creates endless possibilities of things to do, and the mind collapses those probabilities into something that is done. When something is an idea, it can probably change, but when something is done, it can’t be undone. And while quantum physics is argued to be probabilistic, is could just be a deterministic model that we don’t fully understand yet.

This is very similar (if not exactly) to how some quantum scientist believe reality works. They argue that reality is actually made up a waves of probability that collapse into reality when consciousness acts upon it. That no event is a sure thing until a force, in this case consciousness, acts upon it in order to produce something tangible.

Maybe this is what the ancient Eastern Yin Yang symbol is referring to. Maybe reality is Yin and consciousness is Yang. There are even clues that point towards this conclusion in literature written about the symbol. It is said that Yin is the space that enables Yang to work. If a house is Yang, then the space it creates is Yin. The house is determined, and the possibilities that reside within the space it creates are probabilistic. It is the space that a house creates that gives it its function. And it is consciousness that gives reality meaning. Reality could be the darkness that holds possibility until it is brought into the light of consciousness.

So when we look back at Jordan’s quote, we begin to see that it’s actually the other way around. From this perspective, it is actually the universe that is order and consciousness that is chaos.