Archive for August, 2009
Look at this phrase. Look at this phrase. Try to see it as black marks on a screen or page. I doubt you will be seing it as white condensation trails in the sky, but if that is the case, try to see it as white condensation trails in the sky. Try not to read it. Try to see just the marks, and not the language, as if it were written in an unfamiliar script in a strange and inscrutible language. Look at this phrase.
Unless you are illiterate, or have some very specific kind of brain damage, you will not succeed. Seeing through the marks (vehicle?) to the words (content?) is obligatory.
Admit the words, but leave out the sentential meaning. If you can’t stop reading words, try to stop there, and do not let the words work together to form a meaningful phrase. Again, it fails. The words (now regarded as vehicles) can not be attended to without also admitting their content (the meaning?).
How far does this recursion go? Are there first, second, and higher order meanings, each acting as vehicles for further content, each at a greater remove from the physical and momentary reality of marks on a page?
We might claim that there is a basic reality, a fundamental vehicle, of marks on the page, but is that not itself a reified and abstract description, dividing the continuum of the world up, as it does, into a page, regarded as a surface, and marks thereon. Perhaps we can infer back to a more fundamental level, that of a flux upon your retina, induced by the reflectant properties of the surfaces and substances around you, and by the darting and fixations of your eyeball, located in a wobbling head. Perhaps this is the nearest we can come to identifying a basic level vehicle. This is the level chosen by Ecological Psychology. Cognitive Psychology would start with different primitives.
But when we talk of marks, pages, words and meanings, we are talking about things in the world (for the most part), things that we perceive, or believe we perceive. We do not perceive the changing flux on the retina.
The Hard Problem? Really?
There is no “hard problem”. The language used to set up the hard problem repeats all the known and fatal errors that arise when dealing with experience.
The supposed qualia are experiential, not observable. As used in standard discussion within the field of cognitive science and its philosophy, they are an attempt to take the domain of experience and treat it as a thing – as something to be found in the world. Worse, they partition experience, until all that is left is the poverty of the notion of “redness” or “sweetness”. Experience does not reduce in this fashion. This is the persistent problem: treating of mind, or consciousness, or qualia, as something to be found in the world.
My preferred term, because it helps to get things straight, is experience. Mind, consciousness and qualia are all just confused ways of acknowledging the reality of experience in the first person. And experience is not to be found in the world. Experience is what gives us a world in the first place.
Let us digress, before this becomes bitter, and go back to a fictional Isaac Newton, sitting under an apple tree in rural England, looking at apples, perhaps picking one or two up, feeling them, hefting them, throwing one up in the air and catching it, then biting into one.
Crick’s amazing hypothesis states:
“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.
How might we demur? My suggestion is to question the simplistic use of the personal pronoun, “you”, to refer to the antics of a bag of meat. If you (jake) believe that this word (you) refers to the carry on of your body, then Crick is probably right. However, if, as seems clear to me, the use of the personal pronoun is anything but simple, and refers to stuff that is both individual and collective, then it unravels.
On Observables and Subjectivity
Paris, CDG Airport, 16th Oct
Geertz quotes Ryle as objecting to the view that a golfer cannot at once conform to the laws of ballistics, obey the rules of golf, and play with elegance. (Isn’t Ryle wonderful!).
The first constraint pertains, of course, to the familiar notion of physical law, in a Newtonian framework. The latter two speak of human interpretation and even experience. It is worth considering just what the limits of that which may be expressed within the Newtonian framework are, and how my present approach may help to shed more light than hitherto on the relation between that and the latter two observations.
A Newtonian account ought firstly to be separated from modern physical accounts. The former speaks of physics as we observe it at the human scale. Its regularities and concepts work well at everday spatial and temporal scales: they describe the movements of things as big as oranges and as fast as dogs. Happily, they continue to bear predictive fruit at some remove from the human reference point1. That we now have a physics that supplants the entire Newtonian framework need be of no concern, for those observations one can make that speak of an understanding at variance with the classical approach are all, without exception, to be made at removes impossibly distant from the familiar time and spatial scales of phenomenal experience. For our purposes here, Newtonian physics is, in fact, a human centered physics. The supposedly objective framework is none such, for it has a human center.
On my account, we are beginning to have a story to tell about what it is to come at the world from a specific point of view, with an understanding that is anchored in a specific spatial and temporal scale. We get this from the observation of the relation between perception and action as they generate the encountered world of an active organism. The essence of this relation can be seen already in observing the relation between a single cell and its environment, and the fundamental link between perception and action in generating immediate experience of a world does not change from the bacterium to the human. In observing the lawfulness of the relation between perception and action, we also see why the encountered world has the specific scales it has, and thus why all organisms meet the world from a specific perspective. No organism encounters a pre-made world.
What we see in this framework is the regularity in the relation between specific forms of energetic gradients that impinge on the sensory surfaces of an organism, and the attendant (not consequent!) motion, or action, of the same. In this picture, the very best physical account we may come up with of nervous system activity is limited to the observation that brains move muscles. There is not, and never will be, a Newtonian account of goals, plans, the rules of golf, or the elegance of the golfer. The Newtonian account is, of course, deterministic, but it is not, nor should it aspire to be, exhaustive.
It may be less destructive to our innate sense of agency, if we look at a cell instead, for there we can already see the strengths and limitations of a Newtonian account. We can imagine, I believe, a more-or-less fully “mechanistic” description of the processes of metabolism. We can describe in exhaustive detail the dynamics that capture the lawful processes of change, distinguishing those that are proper to the cell itself (endogenous dynamics) and those that arise from interaction between the cell and its environment. But the fullest account we may obtain in this fashion is incomplete. Therein lies one limit of empirical science as it pertains to human experience. We cannot observe the agency of the cell. Philosophers have guessed wildly here. What I refer to as agency has been called Will, Vital force, Soul, Spirit, and numerous other things. No observation will reveal this. There is a mystery here, in the emergence of a temporally extended form of organization that is self-sustaining. We need new mathematics to describe it. But it does not appear insurmountable, once we locate the mystery in the right place!
For many people, a Newtonian approach to understanding observables is co-extensive with a scientific approach. Science is larger that that, and the Newtonian account is by no means an objective account that trumps all others, for it does not make reference to experience.
 It is worth considering how the concepts and methods of Newtonian physics work beyond the domain they arose in: that of everyday experience. We can generate a magnification of the head of a mite. Enlarged a thousand-fold, we see a monster, but an interpretable monster, with parts that are solid, built of ratchets, hooks, armour plates, hairs. We then have a paradoxical reaction. The thing is ugly and if it were to be encountered at a human scale it would terrify us, yet we find it only curious. It is no more troubling than an artistic representation of an anaethema, as in a horror film. Some may lose sleep over it, but we can all see that our emotional reaction needs to be tempered, for we recognize that we have gone beyond the bounds of possible experience.
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