We seem to not be able to “explain” certain aspects like the nature of time, and not for lack of trying. Especially: We cannot explain a single subjective feeling in ways that satisfy many – not subjective sounding of sound, not the redness of the color red, not why pain “really” hurts. In spite of all the science we threw at them, something unexplained seems left about how feeling feels. Do we simply commit another ‘regress-error’ here?
Regress Error versus Recursion
Many so called “deep questions” are based on regress errors, pseudo-issues hanging from misconstrued recursions. The useless “flow of time” implies a time of time for example, self-consistency is misunderstood as consistent consistency, cosmic expansion often misinterpreted as space bulging out into space around space, quantum randomness as meta-fair random randomness, “free will” worshiped as some nebulous meta-free willing of will, and so on. In all these cases, something ill-defined is claimed to originate or be explained via hiding this very something on a meta-level and then pulling it back out of the hat. The audience gasps for the moment but is in the end more confused than before. With regard to feelings, it is subjective consciousness being portrayed as meta-awareness, as consciousness of consciousness.
This latter point of view may have become more popular also through Douglass Hofstadter’s Book “Gödel Escher Bach”, wherein recursion and self-reference take center stage. Modularity and recursion are important; they accelerate general emergence, for example the evolution of autopoietic systems when a biosphere bootstraps itself out of the dead surface of a planet. Darkness seems to light itself up somehow, growing brains, and similar is definitively involved inside brains, but how is it directly recursion that switches on or is somehow equivalent to the “light of consciousness”? Is something missing or is “light (consciousness) of consciousness” just totally misleading? It often seems as if a deeper reason is implied but only hinted at; perhaps recursion of recursion triggers an intrinsic explosion, a feedback loop that reaches all the way to internal infinity, finally “explaining” soul self-referentially. It feels as mysterious as ever, like the most important part remains unanswered. Is this self-referentiality fad another instance of the common regress error? Or can recursion of recursion answer satisfyingly how red feels so red; is our dissatisfaction based on regress-error thinking? For one, the feeling that it “often seems as if a deeper reason is implied but only hinted at” may be merely a misinterpretation brought on by being trapped in regress-error thinking.
The exponential function describes its own increase (see the "slope" in the picture) and thus the increase of its increase of its increase of … - it therefore describes self-referential feedback loops blowing up and has taken on a close to religious significance for many “transhumanists” and the like:
There are only two possibilities: Either Daniel Dennett is correct and “Consciousness Explained”, or something remains unexplained. Let’s see whether we can gain some insight from a very similar issue. Some may hold that pain and suffering is not science, but proper terminology is the vital ingredient to good science.
Suffering of Suffering
Either something remains puzzling about the hurting of pain, or not. Either pain just leads to us retracting and it is almost identical to us wanting to avoid it and so we do not like it and scream and all that, and that is already all there is, this is the full explanation of the feeling and why we talk confusingly about “feeling this feeling” rather than having it, or there is something left out, like why it “actually feels bad” or how it feels different from being a bat.
If all there is to suffering torture is that we want to run away, we in some sense quite irrationally desire stopping the torture in spite of that we cannot help the situation and our desire only worsens it. Why not enjoy instead? If the behavior is all, if there is no suffering of suffering beyond that, why not just stop all suffering by simply enjoying from now on - just do not run away? OK, somebody breaks my leg, there is pain, I just enjoy it for a change. But I cannot, probably not even after ten years of meditation, as my body is triggered to cramp and sweat and puke and I cannot help but scream and wanting to get away. But why not choose all of this together, pain and my suffering it, as a welcome and interesting experience, take a torture vacation, if it is “just suffering”, if there is nothing fundamentally negative about it?
Because there is no suffering of suffering! The suffering directly is almost identical (by definition) with being undesired, period! Subjective meta-suffering being unnecessary does not mean that there is no “real suffering” (if you do not see the relation to exact sciences: Unitary quantum determinism does not negate randomness). The issue is resolved by distinguishing pain and the suffering or enjoyment of it, by keeping them apart and being careful with terminology. Suffering of pain, yes, but suffering of suffering, no. Others’ suffering might trigger my suffering, but suffering does not suffer itself in order to be metaphysically existent. This point of view renders suffering less mysterious and more amenable: Yes we can simply chemically decouple suffering from pains without cheating baby Jesus. You may try to argue against the enjoyment of others’ suffering with ‘goes around comes around’, appealing to selfishness, but ethics is not our topic – clarity is.
Back to The Remainder: Evolved Feelings driving Scientists and Priests alike
As just discussed, you won’t betray the great personal losses of your beloved nation’s forefathers with chemically induced enjoyment. Such silly worries disappear together with the regress-error thinking, which is why we evolved to desperately defend such confused thinking. Regress-error thinking – we just do it again and again, all the time, we cannot stop it, because our brains have evolved to rationalize actions, to recognize intention and blame responsibility, so the feeling of “free will” emerged. We have evolved to feel comfortable with following social norms and morals; we therefore feel as if we understand them, as if we know reasons behind them, meaning we have evolved to seek and construct and accept these sort of circular regress-type argumentations; they seem fine while questioning them appears sick. Irrationally rationalizing and confabulating is the main task that distinguishes the primate brain. It is almost all “we” (persons) do, though this may be news to you, and for the same reason: we are evolved to not realize that we do little more than rationalizing a dream our bodies hallucinate, the evolutionary advantage of which comes about over timescales that are longer than seconds, i.e. they are as unconscious as processes whose descriptions require millisecond resolutions. If you do not know this as one useful description, new enlightenment has not reached you.
And so there remains lingering the feeling that something profound remains unexplained, say about the ‘flow of time’. Here it is once more important to become aware of the regress-error issue, which is not about rejecting all recursions and meta-levels, although pseudo-skeptics writing many a science blog sadly feel that way and worship Occam's razor. Stringtheory membranes are not foolish space in space proposals. One needs to understand in which cases stratification and self-reference could achieve what they claim to do.
There is a feeling of there being some issue left out, something missing, an aspect that remains unresolved. You are in merry company if asking “What remains?” without taking into consideration that the something-remains-feeling itself remains. Being aware of this fact facilitates considering that the something-remains-feeling may be the only issue remaining. To remove that last residue may transcend the field in which the particular question arose, say relativistic physics.
Complete Answers remove the Question completely
If the something-remains-feeling remains, something indeed remains “unexplained”. After all, answers are constructs that render us comfortable with some circumstance we previously felt in some way unfamiliar with. So if the feeling remains, the answer has not been fully given (this does not claim a pill removing all questionable feelings is the ultimate answer). However, explicitly realizing that the something-remains-feeling can be the main aspect remaining, this awareness opens an otherwise hidden realm which is most important when answering “deep questions”. It is the realm where logical positivists have gone before, the realm where we acknowledge that answers ultimately come from analyzing properly asked questions – the lock determines the shape of the key. Bad terminology with a helping of question marks trigger the something-remains-feeling much like LSD can bath you in this-is-the-profound-holistic-truth-feeling.
Many clever and educated people are proudly ignorant of earthly details like the extreme bias of social reproducer brains. Being hung up on your own something-remains-feeling does not sound like a sophisticated ivory league situation worthy of tenure. It is much easier to construct elaborate card houses that provide endless fodder for academia’s publish-or-perish culture, and so it is doubly selected for; any crackpot's conspiracy theory is only half as bad as the conspiracy of co-evolution. Here is an exercise: Take your favorite mystery and for at least one day seriously assume that your main problem with it is merely your evolved ‘something-profound-remains-feeling’.