Category Archives: resonance

A change to the scientific agenda

Many practitioners of science have uncritically sought to provide the view from nowhere. This, it is widely agreed, is not something that can be delivered.

An alternative and more attractive overarching ambition is to be the voice from no one.

Logos gives us the notion of an impersonal order, but never as far from us as the elements of the Grand Unified Theory sought in physics. Logos is word of law, both conventional and natural. Positivist science has failed to recognise our own involvement in its being.

Rhema is uttering. In the act, the subject arises, and the goal is to move from disjoint, local agents who bicker, towards the facilitation of joint uttering, jointly bringing into being. Rhema is an act of creation, as the appearance from nowhere of a positron and an electron. Being necessarily has a complementary character. It is not the insistence of one being over another.

And in speaking together, all the beauty of music lies before us as models.

Is the Pharisee Theist, or Athiest?

If you say you’ve got a church, people will quickly ask about your God. Most of my friends would describe themselves as Atheists. All of them grew up in a consensus that matter moves by mechanical force, and agency is something rather mysterious, but surely individuated, residing in (primarily human) individuals. If you assume all this, then you probably have an opinion about the God question.
If you can get away from the assumptions about mechanisms and volition, then the question of God or Not becomes meaningless.
So what if we recognise that it is impossible to adopt an unaccented, culture-free, standpoint.  From where I’m standing, I see some variation in how things are and how things are understood.  What are the kind of things that co-vary with Abrahamic faiths, and with those other things that we might (with due awareness of our biases) describe as faiths, in full awareness that we see this as Christians, from a Christian culture?

  • Creation: where does anything come from? Go to?
  • Death: meaning of
  • The relevance and dominion of scientific objectivity
  • Sin, Karma, Ethics, Oughts, and Lust, Desire, Intoxication
  • The mechanics of intentionality
  • Relation to direct ancestors
  • Division of responsibility between clerics, legislators, soldiers, and others
  • Embedding of the present in a historical narrative
  • Authority, in the most general sense
  • Revelation
  • Tolerance for the simple, the odd, and the eccentric
  • The relation of good to evil
  • Availability of altered states of consciousness
  • Manner in which pain is borne
  • The definition of “us”
  • Aesthetics, and the sensorimotor embedding of daily life (and of ritual)
  • Prevalence and status of monastic-like communities

The Pharisee is interested in all of these.

Of historical time

We subscribe to a belief that the past is more certain than the future.  The evidence for this is rather scant . . .

Nobody owns history. Those entities that seem to persist over historical time must be limited to that which we tell communally.  The fact that France invaded Russia is not a fact on par with the fact that two chemicals, treated thus and so-ly, will change thus and thusly.

To help us differentiate here, we need to interrogate the way measurement functions within a narrative domain. How is consensus arrived at?


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.

For whatever life is, we are.

A new theory of the person

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.

Wu Wei and Control

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.

Embodiment as a band-aid

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone says it well.  In “Putting Movement into Your Life: A Beyond Fitness Primer“, she correctly laments the ridiculous reverential terms in which brains are spoken about, as if brains experienced anything.  She notes the rise of ’embodiment’ as a tag in cognitive science.*

She says:

[T]he term `embodiment’ and its derivatives are in fact nothing more than a lexical band-aid covering over a still suppurating three-hundred + year-old wound: seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes’s division of mind and body.

Thank you Maxine!

*True story: I once had to write a review of a paper that extended the entirely disembodied, symbolic, architecture of the ACT-R model by adding a [+embodied] tag.  It doesn’t get much more ridiculous that this, folks! 

Non-specific variables

The idea seems to recur to me that good dynamical modeling needs to not only define its systems with care, and their dynamics, but it also needs to pick its variables with care. They should be as meaningless as possible. This is why we can see something interesting in the blinking of the eye, the twitching of the thumps on the video controller, the synchronization of eye movements in/as film… Being entirely non-specific, they might appear the same to everyone.

Don Norman had the notion of weak general interfaces. The keyboard and the video game controller are good examples. But so are the eyeballs. Are the hands acting as sensory devices as they play GTA? Why yes! Looking at it like this makes it clear that there is no ‘perception’ that is differentiable from action.

Susan Hurley said that the ecological approach was instrumental, and the dynamic approach was constitutive. Perhaps these two approaches see the same relation from different sides, as it were. The ecological approach points out the lawfulness inherent in the P/A relation. Lawfulness is boring. No information, because it behaves as expected. That is one view. Like looking at the single cell from the outside, knowing all about its metabolism, the glucose and the gradient. It looks mechanical.  It is too, given some very important presuppositions.  One of which is that there is something it is like to be the cell.

Dynamics ought to allow one to keep that in mind, while simultaneously acknowledging the view from the inside. Hence it allows the constitutive to appear.

 How might one investigate more specific instances, such as dance, in which there is more feeling, and sensory-motor skill is required?  We have meaningless ones of these too, in sport.

Thinking about Perception and Action

In my current draft of “On the Origin of the Phenomenal” [A manuscript elsewhere], I am at pains to claim that the P-world of present experience arises based on a bedrock of the perception-action relation, which is heavily mediated and embedded in time through the nervous system.

Part of the supporting argumentation stems from the good offices of Ecological Psychology, in which lawfulness in the Perception/Action relation is a major concern. The paradigmatic case of diving gannets seeks to relate overt action (wing folding) to the energetic flux on the receptor surface. Similar concerns arise in the entire literature on affordance, in Turvey’s pendulum work, Bingham’s hefting, etc etc. The swaying room of Lisker and Lee is my favourite illustration.

But this claim is not going to reach many people who are not already familiar with the kind of lawfulness uncovered in such circles. The terms “Perception” and “Action” are loaded, and induce all kinds of unwanted and unwarranted associations in most readers.

“Perception” is probably being misapplied egregiously, not least by myself. We talk of perceiving when we discover events, things, and contingencies in our immediate environment. We perceive chairs, car crashes, storms, the misery and joy of others, and in talking of these remarkable feats, we label them, making use of a rich categorization scheme populated with uncontroversial categories such as chairs, car crashes, storms, misery, joy, and others. All of these are uncontroversial because they do fine service in our daily intercourse. We have language precisely because we can then use such terms efficiently, facilitating our mutual behavioral coordination, and getting on with the more pressing business of reaching our several goals. But for my purposes, in which I am considering the epistemological position of an abstract organism, O, in an abstract environment, E, we can not rely on any such categorization scheme. As argued elsewhere, we see chairs, …., others precisely because of the kind of thing we are, and not because there are chairs and others in some unobserved, objective, world.

Furthermore, the lawfulness to which I allude, is not rooted in a rich category structure like this. Rather, the lawfulness obtains between the informative flux at the sensory surfaces of an organism, and its attendant (not consequent) movement. (We will get to action in a minute.) It would be tedious to write “the physical, chemical, energetic gradients and their derivatives expressed at the sensory receptive surfaces separating the spatial domain of the organism, O, from its surrounding environment, E” all the time. This information (predicated upon the constitution, organization and capacity to act of the organism) is the “perception” end of that lawful relation that is the bedrock of experience. Without this information, there would be no perception. Calling it “sensation” does not help, but instead threatens to drag the discussion back to the 19th Century.

May that stand as a caveat for the term “Perception”. Now to “Action”.

As with perception, the term “Action” has many associations, and the word serves many functions, not all of which are required here. Although not as problematic as the previous case, there are pitfalls to be avoided. The main one lies in the presumption of intentionality, agency and goal-directedness. None of these are required. By “Action”, I mean observable movement. Even calling it “behavior” buys into a huge set of associations of plans, goals, and other mental constructs that have no place yet in the emerging vocabulary. Agency is the most problematic of these lurking assumptions, and relinquishing the notion of agency will be difficult as the discussion proceeds.

But one can not remain divorced from every day usage for ever. Somehow, it is necessary to build bridges back to our terms of convention, and our familiar situation. As we consider more complex explanation of more complex organisms, with nervous systems embedded in time, we will find it increasingly seductive to think of sensory information as input, and behavior as output. No matter how much we may be convinced that this is suspect, it is ingrained in our language. And as we do, the story being told will morph gradually until the organism seems to acquire goals, plans, and a stubborn independence of will. With that, the separation of organism from nature is complete, and we have reconstructed the duality we set out to banish. But hopefully we will remain conscious of the imitations of any account couched in such terms.

One of my main goals is to illustrate how to conceive of man as inseparable from his world. Our conventional linguistic habits introduce the tragic separation, even in consideration of the simplest of animals.