I look at the relations among the current mainstream disciplines, and their mutual relations and differences, and I then project slightly forward into the future, say 50 years or so, and imagine how they might look then.
On many views, physics holds the foundation place in the structure of knowledge. It is closely related to the absolutism and rationality of mathematics, and it also grounds our consensus view of reality. Chemistry is mostly applied physics, with a few structural constraints thrown in, that are visible in the periodic table. But organic chemistry is different, by virtue of two things: on the one hand, the chemicals play a role in the alchemy of life – a process for which we have no fundamental understanding. Life arises, but that is a novelty of an unparalleled sort. Identity irrespective of materiality. Exchange all the atoms, but keep the processes, and you retain identity. On the other hand, the exchanges and processes in which the molecules partake are geometrically extended in three dimensions. The 3-D shape of the molecule determines its fit to another element, say as neurotransmitter to receptor, or body to antibody. Full Story »
We fret about first and third person perspectives. Some work on second person perspectives. Let’s stop this constricting tyranny of linguistic number and allow the perspectives to multiply freely. Let us encourage multiplicity of perspectives.
I prick my finger. The pain is tiny and intense and brief. It is small and focussed. It is all that is there, for just an instant. Then it abates, and the finger itself comes into focus. Tiny, trivial, and briefly, all that exists.
Billions of years from now, the Earth is a dead ball, to be consumed by a solar cataclysm. Nobody cares, because somewhere along the line, everyone died and nobody replaced them.
Between these two, there exists an infinity of perspectives, each with its own causal structure, its own rationality, its own story.
We wrestle, and fail to topple, hard questions of the other and the view of the other. We fight military battles, insurgent battles, domestic battles, political battles, all with right on our side, and not on the side of the other. The other does the same. Right, it seems, is everywhere.
Me against my brother. Me and my brother against my cousin. My cousins and brothers against our neighbours. Our family and neighbours against those from the next town. All the local townspeople against our more distant countryfolk. All the people of the country against the foreigners (near). Us and near foreigners against the distant foreigner. Where do we stop? Do we wait until the alien attack to talk some sense? Or do we recognize that this was ever so, and that the gradient goes further, beyond the species boundary. Limited human rights for Apes. Primates over mammals. Mammals over reptiles. Vertebrates over invertebrates. Animals over fungi and plants. Life over . . .
And there it ends.
I have thought for a while that the rational actor that is central to many economic theories might be an outgrowth of the psychological model of the individual mind. Adam Curtis of the BBC has a wonderful documentary post about the role of the rational actor model in the development of theories of counterinsurgency, from the Algerian civil war, through Vietnam, to Iraq and Afghanistan. In each case, the attribution of domains of significance to the individual only, and an impoverished individual at that, led to a complete failure to comprehend the webs of social meaning which were the fabric of people’s lives.
When I first heard cognitive scientists talk about thermodynamics, I was perplexed. I did not see what this arcane belief in physics had to do with cognition. It has taken a while to dawn on me. The second law is the one that says that entropy, or disorder, must increase in a closed system, such as, for example, the whole frigging universe. And it’s a peculiar law. There is no experiment you can do to test it, as the only closed system is, many believe, that which we call the whole universe. It is more of a belief. And it is a peculiar belief too. Scientists cling to it dearly, and it underwrites the distinction between far-from-equilibrium systems, like life forms, from the dead stuff, which has a tendency to fall apart. Believe me, I know. Most scientists, I fear, have no idea why they subscribe to this belief. It’s just taken to be the thing we know absolutely. But, if we hold our knowledge of it as true or false in abeyance for a moment, what exactly hangs on this issue? What does the question mean?
My own understanding of the relevance of the question came about thus: As I studied movement, and coordination, I came to see that we must understand time if we are to understand that which we are. Because the arrow of time–which is our favorite story about the eternal present–is the fabric upon which intentional behavior is woven. Things that are meaningfully coordinated provide scintillating, alternative operationalizations of the notion of time. Define lawful change, or a dynamic, so, and you see one kind of regularity. Define it another way, and different things come into focus. The locus of agency shifts as you redefine time, and questions of the locus of agency and our belief in ourselves as subjective agents, are two sides of the same coin.
The second law of thermodynamics is the belief that there is one way to measure the arrow of time. It is the only foundation stone of physics where time is necessarily directional, and the direction is given by the concept of order or structure. Here, too, we see a belief that that which deserves the appellation ”real” is that which is revealed if we get our notion of time right.
Heinz von Foerster seems to have a nice illustration that if we subscribe to the arrow of time, as defined by the Second Law, to be a description of the universe, then there can be no self-organizing system, no entity that is worthy of the name “real”. Here a link remains to be made to the experiential domain. The subject. For von Foerster, like I, does not buy into the notion of Mind, that is distinct from an outside world. As he says in his introduction to the book Understanding Understanding,
I am unhappy with this discrimination between objective and subjective: How do I know the objects? Where are they? Of course, I can reconfirm or establish a rich connection with an object by touching or by smelling it or talking about it, and so I had the idea to make the object a representation of the activity or behavior of the observer, instead of the passive being looked or just sitting there.
He speaks here of the impossibility of finding the subjective if you insist on one definition of time, or, equivalently, of objectivity. Of course self-organizing systems can be identified, but each requires a different definition of time. This relativizes their claims to be the origin of agentive cause.
Wei Wu Wei, as ever, is very clear about this:
As long as anyone tacitly accepts Time either as really existing, or even as the basis of consideration, he is only concerning himself with objectivity. (source)
We are witnessing the birth of a new theory of the person: the Non-Cartesian view. This view eschews solipsistic thought while paying respectful dues to the notion of the phenomenal. It is a fundamental shift in perspective that encourages us to read our own lives and world as collectively constituted out of the multiple patterns of coordination we live in. The notion of agency is reduced to an admission of ignorance and a recognition that the only possible agreement on this topic is one of consensus.
This view must be contrasted with the Cartesian view, to establish which frame of reference is being used. Neither may claim an absolute hold on truth. Only so can we harbour hopes of creating a Human Science.
Thoughts are like a laying down of paths. Each train of thought creates its own trail, influencing future thoughts, not of the same notional subject, but of the collective. The thoughts you experience are causally related to the thoughts others had in the past, that we see manifested in behaviors, and their mutual coordination.
David Bohm is truly remarkable. A brilliant physicist, with a command of both relativity and quantum mechanics, and yet he somehow always managed to relate the business of physics to concerns of human experience. Here is a little clip of him talking about his views on perception. It is part of a more comprehensive offering hosted at this blog.
If you believe in something called “motor control”, then the non-volitional action underlying the concept of Wu Wei will appear odd.
Imagine a busy road in which many cars manage to drive at high speed, without crashing. If now, one driver makes a very serious error, his car goes places it should not go, maybe turning over, and crashing. In a conventional account, we say he “lost control”. In the account suggested here, you might better say he “regained control”. For all those cars that do not crash, clearly they are not being controlled. Rather, they are integrated as components within a larger system, the trafic flow. The conditions that allow optimal traffic flow include clear road markings, good visibility, road-worthy cars, non-drunken drivers, etc. When one driver crashes, that system has collapsed, and the car is now acting independently. So the car+driver system has, in a slightly odd sense, reasserted its autonomy, made itself independent, and regained control. But with that, there is clumsiness, ineffectiveness, and a crash.
Wu wei is action without the clumsiness of a locus of control.
Postscript: This distinction parallel’s Terrence Deacon’s account of orthograde and contragrade processes. The cars that act as components within a superordinate domain of autonomy illustrate the former. The car that makes itself independent, and then collides with and threatens the domain of ordered driving, illustrates the contragrade.
The buddhists have a fairly well worked out description of 6 senses, which are (oddly) the 5 familiar in the West: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, and a sixth, which is thought.
First off, note that the familiar five provide a bad description of the sensory component of our being. Smell and taste are not separate. Touch is not one, but a whole host, of senses, including heat, vibration, pain and gentle touch, and then there’s all the proprioceptive and vestibular stuff. OK. But to Western eyes, the notion of thought as a sense is a bit peculiar. We actually don’t have a good account of what thought is, so this is interesting. How do we make sense of thought as a sixth sense?
Most notions of sense are predicated upon a split between organism and world. But everything we know about consciousness assures us that the domain of present phenomenal experience arises from the embeddedness of an organism in a world, without a dualistic, causal split between these two co-defining things.
In psychophysics, there is an old distinction between prothetic and metathetic features of a stimulus, or a sensory channel. Consider sound. Some features of sound are of the “how much” variety. Loudness, for example. Sound can be overly loud. But frequency of a pitched sound is not of this kind. There, the discriminations we make are of the “what kind and where” type. A note cannot be unbearably high pitched in the same way that it can be unbearably loud. The “too much” features are prothetic (brightness is another such), the “what kind” features are metathetic (color or hue belongs here).
If we reject the inner/outer distinction, and acknowledge the difficulty in trying to force a divide between subject and world, then much of thought appears as a primarily metathetic modality specific way of bringing forth a world, not really different from many aspects of vision or audition. Perhaps we should talk to the Buddhists.
Meister Eckhart, the 14th Century Christian mystic, spoke of the unity found in mystical experience, saying “The eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one and the same – one in seeing, one in knowing, and one in loving”.
When mystics from all traditions speak of the mystical experience, this unity that transcends any individual being is a constant – in both theist and non-theist traditions alike.
My friend, Wei Wu Wei, repeatedly says “The eye cannot see itself”, paraphrasing Francis of Assisi, who noted “That which you are looking for is that which is looking”.
The recurrent use of the notion of seeing, and the impossibility of seeing the spark of subjectivity with which we identify, speaks of a single insight, resistent to expression in dualist language. I frequently speak of experience, as if it were a thing. Experience is not that which is to be found in the world; it is that which gives us a world in the first place.
But perhaps my other friend Victor, curator of a wonderful Indian sculpture park, put it best thus: “A single point can not be grasped”.