What is? And what Matters?

what is? And what matters? Reality, mind. Observe, interpret, options, actions

A very useful perspective on life, philosophy and epistemology comes from asking these two questions: “what is” and “what matters”. These two are at the center of how we make choices.

The question “what is” we answer using good predictors, either by learning a statistical/behavioral model or by figuring out an underlying causal model.

The question “what matters” we answer by analyzing our desires and our goals, guided by stories, examples and narratives.

When we apply reasoning to the second question, we see that our short term desires sometimes conflict with our longer term goals; and that knowledge is required to reach our goals. Therefor, we do well to keep answers to the second question realistic by using knowledge of the first. However, what is does not dictate what matters.

  • “What is?” is sourced from reality and objective.
  • “What matters?” is sourced from our personhood and subjective.

Two mistakes easily made are focusing on explanations instead of predictions (see Proportional Skepticism) or to let what matters influence the answers to the “what is” question (see Knowledge, Belief, Attitude).


I wrote a paper on Consciousness From a Learning Perspective (https://psyarxiv.com/387h9)

The hard problem of consciousness is that we can only measure and observe the objective aspects of it. Only the conscious person can observe what it feels like to be that person.

One perspective that can give some insight on what generates consciousness is by looking at learning systems. Systems that react to different situations and can adjust how they react after feedback. Brains are such a system. They learn to recognize the world and learn to predict it, including internal brain states. Learning better predictions or better choices after negative or rewarding feedback.

To do so, a brain must be processing information and observing itself in at least a few different ways:

  • It has to scan its own predictions and judge if there are any dangers or ways to create a benefit;
  • It has to match the current situation to past predictions and choices, to see if it needs to learn from what happened;
  • To learn and evaluate more abstractly, more causally, it has to be able to reason, to have thoughts about thoughts.

Our brains are self-observers and observe even their own thoughts and observations. Why would that not be conscious? Why would that not be a mind? Enriched with aspects like episodic memory, identity, empathy and love; making it a uniquely human mind.

See also Entropy, Learning & Free Will and What is Understanding?


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