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 »
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)
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.
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”.
This little quote from Thomas Fuchs makes an important point:
The brain does not generate a mind. It mediates a relationship between organism and environment. This gives rise to the P-world. Phenomenologists call this being-in-the-world. But that domain is not co-extensive with the person. Those elements of meaning that contribute to the disparate facets of the person arise in many such relations, not only those of organism and environment, but among organisms, and in complex interactions among individuals and collectives at many scales.
Just as the cells in a liver lead very free lives modulo the constraint that they act in a manner suitable for maintaining the liver, so we too see ourselves as free, while we simultaneously constitute a dynamic reality at many scales, each with its own limited form of lawfulness.
How fast does time unfold? Silly question. It unfolds at one second per second. The tautology makes it clear that time, itself, does not have a rate. Rather, it is a coordinate system that allows us to label, order, and sequence events. This way of viewing time is called the B-series, and can be contrasted with the experience of time, the A-series, which is perpetually of a present moment, separating an established past from an indefinite future. These are radically different ways of conceptualizing time.
. . . of course. The Anthropologists (culture), the Linguists (language) and the Geneticists (nature) are all trying to provide detail to the word ‘we’. But they don’t talk much to each other.
One prominent characteristic of Wikipedia and the crowd-sourced self-description of the world, is that it allows disparate communities to engage in some kind of cross-disciplinary chatter, albeit at a fairly superficial level. Usually, each discipline takes itself far too seriously to even try to make sense to the unwashed.
The ascription of agency varies across the global population too. I don’t think too many people have pointed out that the psychological solipsist model has profound implications for spiritual doctrine too. Animists differ, and could not sign up to psychology. But this is not divvying us up by language, culture, or genetic inheritance. The way in which we construe the relation between experience and the world provides an orthogonal direction, putting economists apart from shamen, and phonologists apart from historians. And we can map this, not by the genome, but by analysis of the language of intentionality.
The P-world doctrine allows us to accord the experiential realm of a single organism a position in our ontology, without committing ourselves spiritually in one way or another. That has to be a useful thing.
There is a clash at the moment: two ways of knowing about ourselves are on offer, and they are very incompatible. From where I’m standing, it looks as if both grew out of psychology, but in fact one *is* latter day cognitive psychology and much attendant baggage, while the other looks Eastern, almost Taoist at times. The latter emerges from a consideration of the combined insights of the enactive tradition (both Noë and Varela), Harry Heft’s synthesis of Gibsonian Ecological Psychology and Barker’s Ecobehavioral Psychology, Coordination Dynamics and similar Dynamical approaches, Radical Constructivism, and more besides, I’m sure. Full Story »