The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


The physical world is only one part of the scenario. There is also the "human" world, the huge mass of knowledge that humans tend to share in a natural way: rain is wet, lions are dangerous, most politicians are crooks and carpets get stained.

“Heuristics” is the proper name for most of what we call common sense. Heuristics is the body of knowledge that allows us to find quick and efficient solutions to complex problems without having to resort to mathematical Logic. Heuristics is, for example, the set of “rules of thumb” that most people employ in their daily lives. The intellectual power of our brain is rarely utilized, as in most cases we can find a rule of thumb that will make it unnecessary.  We truly reason only when we cannot find any rule of thumb to help us. A human being who did not know any rules of thumb, who did not have any heuristics, would treat each single daily problem as a mathematical theorem to prove and would probably starve to death before understanding where and how to buy food. We tend to employ heuristics even when we solve mathematical problems. And countless games (such as chess) are about our ability to apply heuristics, rather than mere mathematical reasoning.

The US computer scientist Douglas Lenat developed a global ontology of common knowledge and a set of first principles (or reasoning methods) to work with it.  Units of knowledge for common sense are units of "reality by consensus": all the things we know and we assume everybody knows; i.e., all that is implicit in our acts of communication. World regularities belong to this tacitly accepted knowledge. And “regularity” may be a key to understand how we construct and why we believe in heuristics.

Lenat’s “principle of economy of communications” states the need to minimize the acts of communication and maximize the information that is transmitted.

Another open issue is whether common sense is learned or innate, or: to what extent it is learned and to what extent it is innate. If it is learned, how is it learned?

In the 1940s the Hungarian mathematician Gyorgy Polya studied how mathematicians solve mathematical problems.  Far from being the mechanical procedure envisioned by the proponents of the logistic program, he realized that solving a problem required heuristics. Later, he envisioned  “Heuretics”, a discipline that would aim at understanding the nature, power and behavior of heuristics: where it comes from, how it becomes so convincing, how it changes over time, etc. One of the intriguing properties of heuristics is, for example, the impressive degree to which we rely on it: the moment we realize that a rule of thumb applies, we abandon our line of reasoning. What makes us so confident about the effectiveness of heuristics? Maybe the fact that heuristics is "acquired effectiveness"? The scope of Heuretics is, ultimately, the scientific study of wisdom.


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