Archive for the ‘World’ Category

Consciousness in the World

July 12, 2011

This post is partly a response to Sartaj’s post from a few days ago. He starts his post with a rather remarkable quote: “Colors are an artefact of perception.” This one line captures four hundred years of western investigations of the mind. One line of inquiry summarized in this quote goes as follows:

  1. If experiential states are indeed artifacts of our minds’ activities, then colour, shape, thoughts are all fundamentally subjective and not real, or at least not really real. In other words, ordinary experiences are no different from a fantasies or hallucinations.
  2. Our consciousness is inaccessible to others even in principle. Since there is nothing real “out there” about our experiences, we have no way of sharing the same experience. We can only infer the mental states of others. I can’t feel your pain; I can only infer what you feel from seeing you grimace.

An alternate line of investigation, which starts with the same assumptions about the artifactual nature of consciousness but ends up with the opposite conclusion goes as:

  1. I don’t have access to the world, only to my own experience. However, unlike 1&2 above, the accessibility of consciousness and the inaccessibility of the world leads me to conclude that experience is primary and the world secondary. In other words, “cogito ergo sum,” i.e., consciousness is the truest mark of existence.

 

In these schema, experience and consciousness keep shifting from one pole (consciousness is not real) to another (consciousness is the only real). I would like to contest the basic assumption though; is it possible for an entity to be truly real and also a product of the minds’ interaction with the world? Take colour: isn’t it possible that colour is real and a product of perception? The organism dependence of certain entities don’t make them less real. In terms of Gibsonian affordances, a smooth rock about two feet high and a foot in diameter is objectively sittable as far as human beings go. It is real and dependent on the potential presence of organisms like us.

Like probabilities, we can postulate both absolute and conditional existents.  An absolute existent is an entity that exists independent of other entities. A conditional existent is an entity whose existence depends on the mutual existence of some other entity. Chairs and table are no less real for being conditional existences. If we take the Buddhist’s seriously, all entities are really conditional existents. A rock is no more or no less an artifact than a colour. Underlying my argument is a desire to recover a fully-fleshed world, a world that hasn’t yet been divided into primary and secondary qualities. Galileo might have had a good reason to divide qualities into primary and secondary ones for his physics. However, we are not doing Galilean physics here. The world of organisms is needlessly divided into dualisms: primary and secondary, mind and body, consciousness and matter. While we need to understand why these dualisms came to dominate out ideas about the mind, we need not take them for granted.

 

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Consciousness in the World

July 12, 2011

This post is partly a response to Sartaj’s post from a few days ago. He starts his post with a rather remarkable quote: “Colors are an artefact of perception.” This one line captures four hundred years of western investigations of the mind. One line of inquiry summarized in this quote goes as follows:

  1. If experiential states are indeed artifacts of our minds’ activities, then colour, shape, thoughts are all fundamentally subjective and not real, or at least not really real. In other words, ordinary experiences are no different from a fantasies or hallucinations.
  2. Our consciousness is inaccessible to others even in principle. Since there is nothing real “out there” about our experiences, we have no way of sharing the same experience. We can only infer the mental states of others. I can’t feel your pain; I can only infer what you feel from seeing you grimace.

An alternate line of investigation, which starts with the same assumptions about the artifactual nature of consciousness but ends up with the opposite conclusion goes as:

  1. I don’t have access to the world, only to my own experience. However, unlike 1&2 above, the accessibility of consciousness and the inaccessibility of the world leads me to conclude that experience is primary and the world secondary. In other words, “cogito ergo sum,” i.e., consciousness is the truest mark of existence.

 

In these schema, experience and consciousness keep shifting from one pole (consciousness is not real) to another (consciousness is the only real). I would like to contest the basic assumption though; is it possible for an entity to be truly real and also a product of the minds’ interaction with the world? Take colour: isn’t it possible that colour is real and a product of perception? The organism dependence of certain entities don’t make them less real. In terms of Gibsonian affordances, a smooth rock about two feet high and a foot in diameter is objectively sittable as far as human beings go. It is real and dependent on the potential presence of organisms like us.

Like probabilities, we can postulate both absolute and conditional existents.  An absolute existent is an entity that exists independent of other entities. A conditional existent is an entity whose existence depends on the mutual existence of some other entity. Chairs and table are no less real for being conditional existences. If we take the Buddhist’s seriously, all entities are really conditional existents. A rock is no more or no less an artifact than a colour. Underlying my argument is a desire to recover a fully-fleshed world, a world that hasn’t yet been divided into primary and secondary qualities. Galileo might have had a good reason to divide qualities into primary and secondary ones for his physics. However, we are not doing Galilean physics here. The world of organisms is needlessly divided into dualisms: primary and secondary, mind and body, consciousness and matter. While we need to understand why these dualisms came to dominate out ideas about the mind, we need not take them for granted.

 

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Understanding Regularities 4: Some more groping.

June 18, 2011

The idea of a primeval order or design is central to Indo European cultures – it is there in the Rig-Vedic corpus in the notion of Rta, and it is there in Plato when he talks about ideas. Someone like Thomas McEvilley would argue that these notions have circulated within the ancient world for a long time. I think much of what we call logic, design and model come from elaborations upon this primal vision of a cosmic order. Regularities are nothing but a modern manifestation of this rather old insight.

The primeval intuition of a cosmic order has bequeathed many investigations, some in the abstract sphere and others in the concrete sphere. As far as I know, the most influential abstract technical treatment of the notion of order is in one of the following two sequences:
(a) Patterns of reasoning > logic > algorithms > computer programs.
(b) Patterns of motion > Calculus > Science of Mechanics > Unified Theory of Matter

Nevertheless, the older notion of order/Rta is both metaphysically and historically prior as well as being conceptually and aesthetically richer. In regularity theory I am interested in recovering some of the lost meanings of ‘order.’ Part of my motive is to bring about a closer relation between ethics, science and aesthetics. This too has a traditional grounding – especially in the Indian traditions where Rta is tied to Dharma: the early Buddhists use the term dhamma/dharma for both the causal and the ethical order. The other motive is empirical and scientific – I think that human life in particular and organismic life in general is regular but it is not mechanical. I see the older conception of order and regularity as our best hope of breaking away from mechanical thinking.

Now that we have this primeval notion of order in the back of our heads, we need to move to a more operational understanding of regularities in the context of living beings. For my purposes, a regularity in the living world can be defined as:

A regularity is a way of being with which we repeatedly engage the world

Some orders are wholesome, while others might be pathological. According to some parts of the Indian tradition, the pathology might run rather deep. It might be part of the human condition (our being-in-samsara so to speak) to propagate an unwholesome order. In this view, human beings have a tendency to reify something impermanent and incomplete into something permanent and complete.

Sense-Organs

June 10, 2011

In ordinary language, we use the word “sense” in three different ways: sense as in sensation; sense as in making sense and finally, sense as in being sensitive.  The first use of sense is about perception, the second use of sense is about conceptualization and the third use of sense is related to empathy and emotion. I believe that these three senses of “sense” are closely interrelated; in fact they arise from principles that cut across cognition, emotion and perception. One example of a common principle is figure-ground organization.

The Gestalt psychologists thought about the figure-ground dichotomy as an organizing principle of perception. Roughly speaking, the figure is what you perceive and the ground is the background against which you perceive, though the two entities can switch back and forth on occasion (you can see images here). Cognitive linguists such as Talmy have argued that the figure-ground organization works in language as well, so that spatial relations are usually conveyed with a figural object and a ground object. Consider the pair of sentences

  1. The red car is parked in front of the blue house.
  2. The blue house is situated behind the red car.

While the two sentences convey the same spatial relation, the second seems awkward, even though both of them are grammatically correct. Talmy argues that it is because figure objects are usually smaller and mobile and ground objects are larger and static. Sentence 2 flouts that rule. Talmy goes on to argue that these sentences show that spatial language also has figure-ground organization. I am just extending Talmy’s arguments to include emotion as well, that foreground and background emotions are nothing but the manifestation in affective experience of the general cognitive principle of figure-ground organization. This hypothesis would explain a common form of defensive behaviour.  I approach you and ask you why you are in such a bad mood and you reply that you are feeling perfectly fine. Both of us could be correct, in the following sense: I could be perceiving your background emotion using cues such as your general bodily stance, the tension in your facial muscles etc. You on the other hand, from your first person perspective, might be concentrating on the foreground emotion which might well be pleasure. The larger hypothesis is whether figure-ground is a principle of mental organization as such. Now a few words about the polar organization of our experience.

There are poles to our experience – the subject and the object poles being prominent polar opposites. Each pole represents a typical way of acting. For example, the subject pole is active while the object pole is passive. Perception is tied to the subject pole, for perception is about the mind actively going out and meeting the world. The mind, i.e., subject, is active and the world, i.e., the object, is passive. Hence the subject viewing the object. In emotion, on the other hand, the feeler takes on the object role; it is the world that is active and the mind that is passive, relatively speaking. Emotions – fear, anger, happiness, etc – are mostly responses to the world’s actions (think of the fear one might feel when hearing a lion roar in the African Savannah).  The object of an emotion – the roaring lion – is the cause of what we end up feeling. Therefore, perception and emotion, while having the same underlying principles (like figure-ground organization) might be dominated by different poles of experience. To conclude, polar organization and figure-ground organization are two principles that structure sensing, sense-making and sensitivity. The relation between the three senses of sense is part of a larger investigation of the self and its relation to all cognition, perception and effect.

Sense-Organs

June 10, 2011

In ordinary language, we use the word “sense” in three different ways: sense as in sensation; sense as in making sense and finally, sense as in being sensitive.  The first use of sense is about perception, the second use of sense is about conceptualization and the third use of sense is related to empathy and emotion. I believe that these three senses of “sense” are closely interrelated; in fact they arise from principles that cut across cognition, emotion and perception. One example of a common principle is figure-ground organization.
The Gestalt psychologists thought about the figure-ground dichotomy as an organizing principle of perception. Roughly speaking, the figure is what you perceive and the ground is the background against which you perceive, though the two entities can switch back and forth on occasion (you can see images here). Cognitive linguists such as Talmy have argued that the figure-ground organization works in language as well, so that spatial relations are usually conveyed with a figural object and a ground object. Consider the pair of sentences

  1. The red car is parked in front of the blue house.
  2. The blue house is situated behind the red car.

While the two sentences convey the same spatial relation, the second seems awkward, even though both of them are grammatically correct. Talmy argues that it is because figure objects are usually smaller and mobile and ground objects are larger and static. Sentence 2 flouts that rule. Talmy goes on to argue that these sentences show that spatial language also has figure-ground organization. I am just extending Talmy’s arguments to include emotion as well, that foreground and background emotions are nothing but the manifestation in affective experience of the general cognitive principle of figure-ground organization. This hypothesis would explain a common form of defensive behaviour.  I approach you and ask you why you are in such a bad mood and you reply that you are feeling perfectly fine. Both of us could be correct, in the following sense: I could be perceiving your background emotion using cues such as your general bodily stance, the tension in your facial muscles etc. You on the other hand, from your first person perspective, might be concentrating on the foreground emotion which might well be pleasure. The larger hypothesis is whether figure-ground is a principle of mental organization as such. Now a few words about the polar organization of our experience.

There are poles to our experience – the subject and the object poles being prominent polar opposites. Each pole represents a typical way of acting. For example, the subject pole is active while the object pole is passive. Perception is tied to the subject pole, for perception is about the mind actively going out and meeting the world. The mind, i.e., subject, is active and the world, i.e., the object, is passive. Hence the subject viewing the object. In emotion, on the other hand, the feeler takes on the object role; it is the world that is active and the mind that is passive, relatively speaking. Emotions – fear, anger, happiness, etc – are mostly responses to the world’s actions (think of the fear one might feel when hearing a lion roar in the African Savannah).  The object of an emotion – the roaring lion – is the cause of what we end up feeling. Therefore, perception and emotion, while having the same underlying principles (like figure-ground organization) might be dominated by different poles of experience. To conclude, polar organization and figure-ground organization are two principles that structure sensing, sense-making and sensitivity. The relation between the three senses of sense is part of a larger investigation of the self and its relation to all cognition, perception and effect.