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Context

I like to argue that, since we do not know what consciousness is, we can not specify what it can not do. Therefore we can not state we can't do something now, nor in the future. Up to the absurd; the laws of physics might prevent an apple from falling down, but the mind might realize that highly unlikely counter example in some moment/future.

Doubt

The line of argument strongly reminds me of the principle of explosion, where a contradiction is used to conclude any falsity to be true. Analogous, I use an unknown, the consciousness, to derive: consciousness might be able to do anything, by claiming:

  1. Since what consciousness is, currently is unknown, it currently is impossible to validly claim it has the property of: it can't do something. The critical bit in this logic claims: If you don't know what something is, you can't say it can't do something within this (current or future) universe.
  2. consciousness might be able to do anything is equal to the double negation: can't conclude our consciousness can't do something.

Question

Is the reasoning indeed invalid, and if yes, does this fallacy/concept/abuse of logic have a name?

Notes

  1. I am aware it is a provocative context, however I do NOT intend this to be a discussion about what consciousness is/isn't / can/cannot do.
  2. I intend this to be a discussion solely about the validity of the (conceptual) logic used in the argument.
  3. If there is a difference/issue between/in the translation from context and/to the essence of the logic argument as specified in the doubt, please point it out in a comment and answer based on the essence of the claimed logic in the doubt instead of the context.
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    "I like to argue that, since we do not know what consciousness is, we can not specify what it can not do". Don't. We do not know what aliens are like either, but we can be confident that they did not build a perpetuum mobile. We do not need to know what X is to rule out some of its behaviors with high confidence on general grounds. As for abstract "what ifs" beyond that, we can all be deceived by an evil demon about everything, so there is really no point arguing anyway. – Conifold Jun 8 '19 at 23:38
  • Thank you for your elaboration, it allowed me to place the deduction into perspective. However I currently have difficulties applying the evil demon concept to the question. I can understand how one could follow/negate/neutralize any "what if" with a "what if" of the/an evil demon, though I do not yet see how the "what if" pertains/applies to the deduction. – a.t. Jun 4 at 19:16
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It is common for beginning students of logic to read philosophical importance into the principle of explosion, but this is a mistake. The principle of explosion is merely a mathematical outcome of the way the connectives are traditionally defined in first-order logic. It doesn't reveal anything deep, however. It merely arises from the following proof:

Suppose our system somehow admits both P and ~P. By disjunction introduction, we have PvB, for arbitrary B. But we have ~P. So we have B. Formally:

  1. P&~P
  2. P (from 1)
  3. ~P (from 1)
  4. PvB (from 2 and disjunction intro)
  5. B (from 3,4 and disjunction elim)

This is all the principle of explosion amounts to. You can mathematically investigate perfectly coherent logical calculi that locally deny explosion, and this is what paraconsistent logicians do https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-paraconsistent/

Another problem with the argument is that the principle of explosion has to do with properties of mathematical calculi, not to do with physical or psychological systems. There is no obvious way in which it applies to anything other than the logical connectives. Moreover, the principle of explosion makes a calculus with a contradiction in it trivial, i.e., it proves everything. To that extent, it says nothing at all. Your argument is sort of like a logician pointing to a contradiction and saying, "Look, there's nothing my system can't prove." Indeed.

A more minor note, I think you mean to say "consciousness" instead of "conscientiousness"?

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The authors of forallx in section 15.7 describe explosion as:

We need one last rule. It is a kind of elimination rule for ‘⊥’, and known as explosion. If we obtain a contradiction, symbolized by ‘⊥’, then we can infer whatever we like.

In order to use that inference rule, we have to first derive the contradiction, that is, we have to derive a proposition P and also derive its negation, ~P.

This is not the same as a double negation which could be represented by ~~P. One can infer P from that using double negation elimination.

If we can derive a contradiction then we can infer by explosion "conscientiousness might be able to do anything" as well as "conscientiousness can do nothing" as well as any other statement.


P. D. Magnus, Tim Button with additions by J. Robert Loftis remixed and revised by Aaron Thomas-Bolduc, Richard Zach, forallx Calgary Remix: An Introduction to Formal Logic, Fall 2019. http://forallx.openlogicproject.org/

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  • Thank you for your more formal description of the principle of explosion in context of the question. It made me realize the title of the question conflicted with the explicit specified question, and that my argumentation was not explicit enough. I have adapted both to indicate the principle of explosion is used as analogy for conveying the concept and reason to doubt my reasoning, instead of it being the subject of the question. – a.t. Jun 8 '19 at 18:59
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Classical knowledge is based on how to apply certainty to arrive at other certainties. If you have doubt, classical logical approaches such as prepositional logic will fail because they have no concept of doubt built into them.

There are other systems of logic which use other approaches to address doubt head on (such as using Bayesian Inference).

One approach to resolving these things is to view them not as statement of reality, but statements within a hypothetical reality where the assumptions do indeed apply, and logic is consistent. Then, at the end of the reasoning, one can decide what to do with this hypothetical reality. One can decide that it is indeed our reality, and apply the logical results as truth within our reality, or decide that it is something else. If it is something else, it is up to you to decide what to do with the information you have collected.

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  • Prepositional logic or propositional logic? – Jonathan Cender Jun 14 '19 at 1:21
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In the comment by @transitionsynthesis, I think the essence of an answer could be contained:

We do not need to know what X is to rule out some of its behaviors with high confidence on general grounds.

The deduction made in the question:

Since we do not know what consciousness is, we can not specify what it can not do. Therefore we can not state we can't do something now, nor in the future.

might be correct (as long as we don't know what consciousness is), but it might have little practical use/bearing on reality. To illustrate this lack of impact, one can evaluate the context of the question. The context was what is possible for conscious beings. There are many ways to get practical insight in what is possible for conscious beings.

For example, a person might have:

  • A few hours of evidence in seeing apples not falling up.
  • Experience in not seeing an apple falling up whilst attempting to make an apple fall up with their mind.
  • A few centuries of (anecdotal/observational) "evidence" of apples not falling up.
  • Additional information such as theories of physics.

Hence, with that information one might be able to deduce that it is extremely unlikely that one will be able to make an apple fall up (without "cheap tricks"). This despite of also having the knowledge that the conscious being is not able to conclude the conscious being cant do that.

The analogy with the principle of explosion might be a bit misleading because there, I think, something which is not logically valid, a contradiction, allows concluding anything which have no meaning in reality. Whereas, I think, the question takes, under the assumption that we do not know what consciousness is, a valid deduction, which then also leads to a valid conclusion, which can* have an impact on consciousness. It just has almost negligible** impact on reality.

*The impact it can have on consciousness is that it could prevent the incorrect thought "I can't do X." to: "I might be able to do X.", however unlikely it may be. This appears to be slightly ironic, because:

** the deduction needs consciousness to be translated into an impact in reality, but consciousness is assumed to be unknown in the deduction. Hence I think one can not say with certainty that the deduction can have any impact on reality.

Hence based on the above, I think the answer to the question is: "no" (but it has little impact on reality).

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