Category Archives: Meaning

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.

Everything Happens at Once

Everything happens all at once.  Inching forward, at a steady rate of one second per second. When we tell a causal story, such as describing the action of a machine, we pick out one strand in that whole, prioritising it over all others, and generating an artificial cleft between foreground and background. But everything is part of everything, all flowing together.  Heraclitus’ vision, I think.  Among that we pick out agents and the inanimate, and bring into being shitty gods, minds, subjects.  

This is not a moving slice through a 4-dimensional manifold, as Parmenides and Newton would have it.  This has very many more dimensions, for it must accommodate your unfolding locus of experience and mine.  The number of dimensions is not at issue, really.  Professor Bohm seems to assure us of that.  What matters more is how one treats the divide between subject and object.  How we apply the carving knife, for the image we are carving is our self portrait.  Like a mewling infant, we do not know what we look like, but we react anyway, sticking out our tongue at the world as it sticks its tongue out at us. 

Descartes, James, Latour, the Boys are all here.

If William James were a cartoonist, he would be xkcd.  He uses two bare intersecting lines to talk about the dual aspect of any situation indexed by a “now”.  Here is a famous passage:

The puzzle of how the one identical room can be in two places is at bottom just the puzzle of how one identical point can be on two lines. It can, if it be situated at their intersection; and similarly, if the ‘pure experience’ of the room were a place of intersection of two processes, which connected it with different groups of associates respectively, it could be counted twice over, as belonging to either group, and spoken of loosely as existing in two places, although it would remain all the time a numerically single thing.

Well, the experience is a member of diverse processes that can be followed away from it along entirely different lines. The one self-identical thing has so many relations to the rest of experience that you can take it in disparate systems of association, and treat it as belonging with opposite contexts. In one of these contexts it is your ‘field of consciousness’; in another it is ‘the room in which you sit,’ and it enters both contexts in its wholeness, giving no pretext for being said to attach itself to consciousness by one of its parts or aspects, and to out reality by another (Does Consciousness Exist, 1904)

Bruno Latour employs a much denser brush in his notion of many “modes of existence“.  Latour suggests that anything we wish to speak of, any speaking or agreeing that we do, we do at the intersection of many disparate strands, none of which can claim preeminence over the others.  He rejects the simple dualism of subject and object, and reaches for a richer set, which he calls crossings.  Crossings are just like the simple intersection of the lines in James’ story, though James stuck to the traditional pair of subject and object.  Where James has two sparse unadorned lines, Latour has dense, high-dimensional entangled manifolds.

Of course there are no Cartesian subjects in either view, but when we look at the “now” in each of these, we find only a point, utterly lacking in dimension.  At the single point of confluence the subject, or self, seems to vanish.  It is utterly lacking in extent, and seems too slight to support a self, with a memory, personality, and feelings. As my friend Victor said: “A single point can not be grasped”.

Enter Descartes, revelling in his sceptical asceticism, denying his senses, trying to shut himself off from the world.  But he cannot un-exist.  He hears himself say “Je suis! J’existe!”, and for the short time the voice utters, it brings into being what we can visualize as a sphere around the single point.  The sphere has extent.  Viewed from one angle, it is the specious present.  It permits narratives to be told, and the narratives determine the boundaries of the sphere.  But now we have effected a split in the nature of things.  We pretend the sphere is a point, and it is not.  So the Cartesian self, this transient creation of the inner voice, enforces its signatory dualism.  A transitory dualism that we spend all our efforts trying to make real in the sense of unchangeable.

Shoutout here to our Vedantic cousins, the Dvaita, Advaita and their lesser known cousin Achintya Bheda Abheda.  I believe this stuff is old hat to them. They represent alternatives to Cartesianism, but especially in the latter case, they are rather more flexible, I think.

The future structure of knowledge

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. Continue reading

Perspectives

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

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.

Prothetic-Metathetic and the sixth sense

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.

Causality and “one second per second”

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.

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