There, I said it. Perhaps I need to help find this quote a home in a story.
Some people love to hide behind facts, convinced that they are somehow inviolable truths. There are facts, but then there are interpretations of them. Therein lies the rub.
As my day taught me, there are three sides to every story. One side, the other side, and the truth. This truth is analogous to the fact of the matter, but it is never directly accessible, and so any started fact is necessarily a constructed fiction, no matter how committed we are to it. This includes tautological facts, which are simply whims of nomenclature.
The link between language and cognition is interesting though not entirely grasped.
“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”
― Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (probably not, but whatevs…)
In the West, we tend to be quite self-centric. We are the centres of our universes, and this has several implications. Firstly, we orient conversation around ourselves; occasionally, we orient conversation around others. Instead, some cultures orient themselves around their world.
Self as Centre
Ordinarily, if a Westerner is asked which is their dominant hand, they might answer left or right. If they are asked to describe where something is spatially, one might answer on my left or right or above or below me. If the person asking is present, they may simply point to the object as a gesture.
Other as Centre
In some cases, we might feel it necessary to orient relative to another? The answer to the question, “Where is the book?” might be, “On your left”, or “You’ve got something on your left cheek”.
Terrain as Centre
In the West, we have notions of cardinal directions—North, East, West, and South—, but we still tend to orient communication around ourselves or others. In some regions, the use of cardinal directions is more prominent than in others. For example, when I am in Boston, I didn’t find many people reference places by cardinal directions, but when I am in Los Angeles, much conversation is relative to head north or head east. I notice that Google Maps tend to employ this. It’s often confusing when I am in an unfamiliar place, and the voice instructs me to travel west toward Avenue X. If I happen to have remembered where Avenue X is, I might internally orient toward that. Otherwise, I head in some direction until Google reinforces my choice or it rather recalculates based on my bad choice, if even nonjudgmentally.
In some cultures, this cardinality includes the body, so in comparison with the aforementioned self-as-centre dominant hand query, the response would depend on which way the subject was facing. Were they a southpaw (lefthander) facing north, they would respond that their west hand is dominant. But if they were facing south, it would be their east hand. This may seem to be confusing to a Westerner, but to a native, they would explicitly understand because they would be intimately oriented. As Lera relates in the video, someone might point out an ant crawling on your southwest leg.
To be fair, this space is not entirely alien to some Westerners. For example, mariners can shift the conversation from themselves to their ship or boat. Rather than left and right, relative to themselves or another, they might refer to port and starboard relative to the vessel. Being on the vessel and facing front (the bow), left is port and starboard is right; however, facing the rear (the stern), left is not starboard and right is now port. So, if someone asks where the lifeboat is, landlubbers may say it’s on their left whilst a sailor might say it’s on the starboard side.
Time is another aspect we centre on ourselves. I won’t even endeavour to raise the circular notion of time. If an English speaker thinks about a timeline, we would likely configure it from left to right equating with past to future. This aligns with our writing preference. For native Arabic or Hebrew speakers, they might naturally opt to convey this from right to left in accordance with their preferred writing system.
For the Aboriginal Kuuk Thaayorre in Australia, their rendition of time was contingent on their orientation in the world. Essentially, time flows from east to west, perhaps in accordance with the apparent movement of the sun across the sky relative to Earth. Facing south or north, they rendered time left to right and right to left, respectively. When they faced east, time came toward the subject, with time moving away from the body when facing west.
So-called modern or advanced societies have developed number systems, but some cultures either have no counting or limited counting, having systems that might extend 1, 2, many, or 1, 2, 3, many. This means that tasks we learn like accounting, inventory management, or comparing counts of apples and oranges are not only not available to these people, they are irrelevant to them.
Lera tells us about the blues. Not B.B. King Blues, but the categorisation of blue, blues, and colours more generally. I’ve discussed this before in various places. As with numbers, some languages have a lot and some have few; some have only distinctions for light and dark, or equivalents of white, black, red, and so on. Colour names are typically added to a language in a similar order based on the frequency within the visual colour spectrum. I may have written about that earlier as well if only I could find it.
Different cultures and languages categorise colours differently, subdividing them differently. In many non-English languages, pink is simply light red. English opts to assign it a unique label. On the other hand, blue is basically one colour name in English whilst it is further broken down in Russian to goluboi (light blue, голубой) and siniy (darker blue, синий). This mirrors the pattern of pink (lighter red) and red (darker red) in English, a distinction not prevalent in other languages. Of course, we also have variations of reds and blues such as crimson or cyan, but this is rather second-order nuance.
Interestingly, in neurological studies, when measuring a person with a language that splits a colour, say a Russian looking at blues, the instruments capture the event of the subject having noticed the category shift. No such shift occurs in speakers without such a switch. I would be interested to know what the results would be for a bilingual speaker to be asked to respond in each language. Informally, I asked a Russian mate of mine if he experienced anything differently seeing blue whilst thinking in Russian versus English. He said yes, but couldn’t really provide any additional information. If a reader happens to be fluent in two or more languages, I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences.
One last note on colour, I’ve read studies that claim that women on balance have more colour names than men, which is to say where a typical male only sees shades of blue, the typical woman sees periwinkle, ultramarine, cyan, navy, cobalt, indigo, cerulean, teal, slate, sapphire, turquoise, and on and on. Of course, many English-speaking males may be defensive about now, arguing, “I know cyan. I know teal. Who doesn’t know turquoise?” Knowing is different to employing, and perhaps you’re not typical. You’re an atypical male. Let’s not get into gender challenges. Rather, let’s.
Yet again, gender rears its ugly head. I am wondering when people are going to start demanding fluidity among gendered nouns. Sticking with Lera’s examples, a bridge happens to be grammatically feminine in Germans and masculine in Spanish. When asked to describe a bridge, German speakers are more apt to choose stereotypically feminine adjectives, beautiful or elegant whilst Spanish speakers opted for stereotypically masculine terms, strong or long. I suppose she was reaching for laughter on that last reference.
Objects and subjective injection are other possible conventions. Lera mentions a tourist bumping into a vase. In English, one would be comfortable declaring, “The man knocked the vase off the pedestal.” In Spanish, the same event might more often be described as “The vase fell off the pedestal”. Notice the shift in agency and dispersion of blame. In English, we have some apparent need to inject not only a cause but an agent as a source of the cause. As I see it, one might have these several (possibly inexhaustive) options:
He knocked the vase off the stand.
Someone knocked the vase off the stand.
The vase got knocked off the stand.
The vase fell off the stand.
I decided to note the relationship between the case and the stand. I suppose this is not strictly necessary and might seem superfluous in some contexts.
In case 1, a specific agent (he) is responsible for knocking off the vase. This does not suggest intent, though even negligence carries weight in many circles.
In case 2, the agent becomes indefinite. The speaker wants to specify that the vase didn’t just fall over on its own.
In case 3, agency is not only indefinite, but it also may not have a subject. Perhaps, a cat knocked it off—or the wind or an earth tremor.
In the final case, 4, the agent is removed from the conversation altogether, All that is conveyed is that the vase fell from a stand.
One might want to argue, “So what?” but this is not simply a convention of language; it stems from perception—or perhaps perception was altered by language through acculturation, but let’s not quibble here. It determines what someone pays attention to. When an event was witnessed, people from cultures where agency is a strong component, the witness is more apt to remember the culprit, whereas a non-agency-focused witness, would not be as likely to recall attributes about the person who may have knocked it over. Practically, this leads to issues of blame and culpability. Clearly, a culture with an agent orientation might be quicker to assess blame, where this would be further removed from the conversation from a different cultural perspective. I am speculating here, but I don’t feel it’s a large logical leap.
In a retributive justice system, the language that assigns agency is more likely to mete out harsher punishments because he broke the vase, it wasn’t simply broken. The use of language guides our reasoning. This leads me to wonder whether those who are ‘tough on crime‘ use different language construction than those who are more lenient.
I just wanted to share my thoughts and connect language with cognition. I don’t think that the connection is necessarily strong or profound, but there is something, and there are more language nuances than noted here.
An online colleague published an essay on another essay (en français). The gist was to say that their ideas were the same save for whether a core foundation was reality or truth. I am going to stylise these and derivatives in capital initials, e.g., Real and Truth. I am not sure I see the connexion, and perhaps Lance will chime in here directly to correct any misunderstandings and fill in any holes.
At least in English vernacular, True and Real are close synonyms. I don’t feel they are as close as we may assume at first glance. I think each of these terms carries with it its own ambiguity and connotation, so a meaningful discussion may prove to be difficult.
I’m not sure if it’s a fair characterisation, but I feel that most people consider Real as what they can sense or experience. Some may not even allow for the experiential component. In my mind, metaphorically thinking, of course, a book might be real; an idea might be real; even the idea of a unicorn might be real, but unicorns are not real. If we want to claim unicorns as part of Reality or include it in the set of Reality, then it would be a second-order sort. Substituting Harry Potter for unicorns, the idea of Harry Potter is real, but Harry Potter is a figment. Of course, Harry Potter may be the name of a human or your pet otter, but this is not the manifest Harry Potter of the idea. And Harry Potter is not a unicorn.
I mention Harry Potter and, indeed, unicorns, because I have had people argue that these things are real. For me, they are off the table, whether real or imagined. I feel that some people may also reduce Real to material, so a Realist would be the same as a Materialist. That’s fine except we end up with obvious non-material stuff on the cutting room floor. What do we do with emotions and so-called qualia? Sure, some might equate emotions with biochemical reactions and some synaptic exchange in some parts of the brain, further articulated through facial and bodily expressions and gestures. For the Materialist, we may not yet know the mechanism, but it’s only a matter of time—in the same manner as atoms became protons and electrons, which became quarks with spins and colour, and this morphed into fields.
Being sympathetic to Analytic Idealism, I might argue that none of this is real because all we can experience is what we can sense, but what we sense is a second order of Reality. We can’t even experience the first-order variety. The usual analogy is to look at computer bits or the funky Matrix code, and it doesn’t reveal what we see or experience through the interface. In the case of the Matrix, the interface is their perceived reality. But perception isn’t Reality. At least Descartes suggests as much. If first-order Reality is unattainable, we can either consider this sensed and experienced world second order. This leaves our unicorns and Harry Potter to be third order. In this case, we might idiomatically consider the first-order to be understood to exist, but our use of Reality extends only to the second-order variety.
In any case, I don’t expect to resolve the mystery of Reality here and now, but it is a dialogue where accord is necessary to be on the same proverbial page.
But then what is True? What is Truth? I’ve written about this previously. Here, we are explicitly invoking the capital-T version of Truth, not the minuscule-t version where it’s synonymous with pedestrian ‘facts’ and tautologies. By True, are we asking what is objectively real—unadulterated by subjective experience, some universal and invariable condition? And is this Truth what is Real? Are there Truths that are not Real?
To sum it up, it is quite standard—although not universal by a long shot—to consider Real what we can experience whilst True is something that requires proof. A physical table might be real. Like unicorns, mathematic concepts may be true—I’d argue that this is tautological whilst others might defend some Platonic ideal—, but they are not real. They are an abstraction. I suppose my point is to not take these words for granted and presume they can be directly interchanged. I suppose in the adjective form, they are more apt to coincide—Is that a true Picasso? Is that a real Picasso? Clearly, when we are asking if it is real, we are asking if it is truly genuine rather than questioning its materiality.
It may be true that I am wittering away online in some masturbatory pseudo-intellectual frenzy, and the results may be virtually real, but I needed to let my mind wander for a bit. If you’ve gotten this far, bless your heart, and leave a comment.
This is my take on the fifth chapter of The Matter with Things. I suggest reviewing the previous chapters before you delve into this one, but I won’t stop you from jumping queue.
Chapter five of The Matter with Things is titled Apprehension, following the previous chapters, Attention, Perception, and Judgment. From the start, let’s clarify that apprehension is not meant in the manner of being nervous or apprehensive. It’s meant to pair with comprehension. More on this presently.
Whilst the previous chapters have been heavily focused on the importance of the right hemisphere, this chapter is focused on the left, which may be given the chance to redeem itself. Not surprisingly perhaps, given the relative function of the right hemisphere versus the left, this chapter is much shorter than prior chapters.
This chapter opens by asking what happens to a person who experiences left hemisphere damage. But let’s return to the chapter title. Apprehension is retaken etymologically and means to hold onto or to grasp. This is the function of the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere is about comprehension. The root ‘prehension’ is Latin for hold; the added ap prefix suggests holding on, whilst the com prefix suggests holding together.
Whilst conceptualising and abstract language is a right hemisphere function, spoken words are a left-brain function. It turns out that so is pointing and other gesticulation, reminding me of some ethnic stereotypes of people who speak with their hands. We need to keep in mind that the right hemisphere controls the left part of the body whilst the left hemisphere controls the right. What this means is that the right hand, being guided by the left hemisphere is marching to a different drummer.
Also, keep in mind from the previous chapters that the right hemisphere is holistic whilst the left is atomistic. Where right hemisphere damage is evident, a person has difficulty viewing the parts of a whole, whilst if the damage is on the left, a person has difficulty constructing a whole from its constituent parts. Namely, it may recognise that a body is constructed from an inventory of pieces—head and shoulders, knees, and toes—, but it can’t seem to grasp the cohesive orchestrated picture.
Apart from body continuity, when the left hemisphere is damaged, it might know all of the steps of a given process—McGilchrist shares the example of a person trying to light a smoking pipe—, but there may be difficulty in some of the instrumentation along the way. He cites an example by Czech neurologist, Arnold Pick, which I share here intact:
The patient is given a pipe and brings it correctly to his mouth, then expertly reaches for the tobacco pouch and takes a match from the box but when asked to light it, sticks the head of the match into the mouthpiece and puts the other end in his mouth as if to smoke it. Then he takes it out of his mouth, draws it out of the mouthpiece and sticks the other end of the match in the mouthpiece of the pipe, pulls it out again, holds it for a while in his hand apparently thinking, and then puts it away.
To underscore the apprehension, where there is damage evident in the right hemisphere, the right hand (under control of the left hemisphere) may just grasp at things for no reason, perhaps reaching arbitrarily out to doorknobs. In one case, a person when encountering a pencil would feel compelled to grab it and start writing nothing in particular. In each case, the right hemisphere was not available to contextualise the experience. This right hemisphere is opening and exploratory whilst the left is closing and instrumental. It seems one might tend to meander without the left to provide a certain will and direction.
McGilchrist makes some correlations between humans and other great apes, but I’ll just mention this in passing.
I am going to pause to editorialise on McGilchrist’s next claim. He argues that Saussure’s claim that language signs are arbitrary is false and gives some examples—sun, bread, and spaghetti—but I am not ready to accept this stance. For now, I am remaining in the camp with Saussure and Wittgenstein that language is both arbitrary and self-referential. Getting down off my soapbox.
Recall again that whilst the right hemisphere takes the world as presented, the left hemisphere can only re-present. This is why language symbols are handled by the left hemisphere. Coming back to Saussure, the right-brain experiences a ‘cat’ whilst the left-brain names that object a ‘cat’ and classifies it as a mammal, feline, quadruped, and whatever else.
The right hemisphere is about metaphor, prosody, and pragmatics whilst the left hemisphere, though not exclusively, is about syntax and semantics. The left hemisphere is about symbols. As such, lipreading and interpreting sign language are both left-brain activities.
An interesting conveyance is a case study of a person with left hemisphere damage reading a book who recites the elephant in place of the written word India, so making an association by not recognising the word itself. And there may be a naming problem, so if there was a problem related to an ankle, they would point to an ankle but substitute the name of the part.
Finally, to reiterate the holistic versus atomistic divide, some people with left hemisphere damage can articulate the parts of the body or a bicycle, but when queried can’t relate that the mouth is beneath the nose or some such.
To summarise, McGilchrist leaves with a comment, “The fabric of reality typically goes for the most part unaltered when the left hemisphere is suppressed.”
As I’ve been editorialising a bit throughout, I don’t have much to add at this point. Aside from my Saussure nit, I am still very interested in the concept that the right hemisphere constructs reality. I feel that I interpret this construction differently to Iain.
I believe that we agree that there is a world out there, and we interpret this world by interacting with it. Where I feel we differ is that he feels there is a world of objects that we interact with and perceive whilst I believe that we construct this world of objects by means of constructing the underlying material, from particles to fields. I think he’ll discuss this more in later chapters and I could be off base. Time will tell.
Having put Apprehension to bed, next up is a chapter on Emotional Support and Intelligence. I hope you’ll join me.
What are your thoughts? What did you think of this chapter? Were there any surprises? Anything of particular interest?
In this segment, I continue the journey through Iain McGilchrist’s masterwork, The Matter with Things by summarising chapter three, Perception, a followup to the previous chapters, respectively titled Some Preliminaries and Attention. I strongly recommend that you listen to these in turn, but feel free to play the rebel and cut queue. No one will even notice but you, and if you don’t tell, neither shall I. Come join me.
Chapter two of The Matter with Things is titled Perception. Following the previous chapter, Attention, it’s about how we perceive what we attend to. Without attention, there is no perception, but perception is not always correspondent with the so-called reality “out there”.
From the start, McGilchrist wants to assess which hemisphere is more veridical. Spoiler Alert: It’s the right half. But you already knew that because you’ve been keeping pace. And you also know that I feel he is leaving an option on the table, that neither is veridical to the actual terrain; rather, one just better maps the map. But the question essentially resolves to the same place, not as much verity as trust.
Sensory perception occurs in both hemispheres, but it is better in the right hemisphere than the left, as the left has been somewhat relegated to re-presentation over time—the same hemisphere that is better suited for codifying and mapping using symbolic language—something reserved for the brains of primates—which gives us a virtually inexhaustible way of mapping the world.
Perception is holistic, something better handled by the right hemisphere, being as the left hemisphere is more about focus and specificity. On balance, the right hemisphere is the arbiter of performance delegation, whether to perform a task or delegate it to the left hemisphere. About three-quarters of perception functions are right hemisphere processes.
McGilchrist is partial to the position advanced by Merleau-Ponty, that is “perception as a reciprocal encounter.” Perception is not a passive act. It is an interactive intercourse with the environment. What and how we perceive is affected by our experience and the situation.
Perception involves all the available senses—and by definition none of those otherwise unavailable. He starts with vision. The right hemisphere does a lot of heavy lifting here. It handles size, shape and pattern recognition, contour, shadows, distance and depth, for example, three-dimensional space, and motion and time as well as the ability to recognise objects from unusual angles or from incomplete information, which I tend to think of as playing some Gestalt role. The right also handles colour perception, though the left maintains the colour name mapping.
The left hemisphere is slightly faster at detection, but if what is detected has any signal degradation, the right hemisphere tends to be more accurate. And since the left hemisphere is, what I’ll call lazy, it may tire quickly and space out, so the right hemisphere may have to intervene, if even a bit more slowly. Paradoxically, if the left hemisphere is given more time, its recognition error rate increases. Incidentally, one reason the right hemisphere may respond more slowly is that it is deliberating to attempt to deliver the correct response whilst the left tosses out its first best guess and declares victory. Nailed it!
Recall from the last chapter that the left hemisphere is also a master of denial, so it is unapologetic when it guesses wrong. I imagine it signalling ‘that’s not a bus’ just as it hits you and then insists that it never was a bus; that injury must have been caused by something else. Perhaps it was an untoward wrecking ball.
Without delving into details here, McGilchrist points out that much early research might be invalid because it employed cathode ray tubes—CRTs—whose mechanisms present biased information to the visual field, thereby invalidating conclusions.
An interesting area for me is that the left hemisphere is better at recognising tools—hammers and spanners—, but not musical instruments, which it perceives more as living entities. And this is an apt segue to auditory perception.
Whereas the left hemisphere is better at symbolic language processing and “the processing of meaningless noises, such as clicks”, the right hemisphere pretty much handles the rest, from pitch, inflexion, tone, phrasing, metre and complex rhythm, and melody. The left keeps tabs on basic rhythmic patterns. It is assumed that rhyming relies on both hemispheres working in concert.
For most people, music processing is a right hemisphere event, but this is not true for professional musicians, who utilise both hemispheres, likely owing to the musical language translation processing unnecessary for the casual listener.
Interestingly, the acuity of the nose is orders of magnitude superior to that of the eyes and ears. Olfactory recognition and discrimination have a right hemisphere preference, but emotional reactions to scent may be stronger in the left hemisphere.
“Apart from five very basic tastes – salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami – which come from the tongue, all flavours come from the olfactory sense.” In general, gustatory perception is a right hemisphere function. However, there is an exception for professional wine tasters, who like professional musicians need to map experiences to words associated to rating and naming.
Remembering that the right hemisphere controls the left half of the body, whilst the left hemisphere controls the right, the sense of touch is superior in the left hand. Feelings of warmth, and temperature discriminations in general, are associated with right hemisphere activation. Interoception, the ability to perceive the internal workings of the body, is another right hemisphere process.
Local versus Global Perception
Recall that the right hemisphere captures the world holistically whilst the left hemisphere has a laser focus. This equates respectively to global and local perception. As it happens, the right can do both, but the left is limited to local. This means that if the left hemisphere is damaged, the right can pick up the slack, but if the right hemisphere is damaged, the left cannot compensate for the lost holistic perspective. In practice, the right runs the show and delegates to the left when it deems it to be appropriate for the circumstance. For some reason, normal adolescents have a bias toward local perception over global.
Pathologies of Perception
This leads us to abnormalities, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Deterioration of right hemisphere function leads to a sense of disorganisation and loss of sensation. This hemisphere is also responsible for constructing a sense of self and self-awareness. McGilchrist calls out that the term self has multiple meanings. Much of the notion of self is associated with the medial prefrontal cortex in both hemispheres, but the objectified self and the self as an expression of will (in the respect Schopenhauer spoke of) are left brain aspects.
Perception of a contiguous self over time is a right hemisphere function, the loss of which is not uncommon in cases of schizophrenia.
In discussing visual hallucinations and distortions, almost ninety per cent of these have been attributable to right hemisphere anomalies. McGilchrist shares examples over several pages, but I’ll summarise by description alone of what can be categorised under the umbrella term of metamorphopsia. These might lead to object impermanence, or viewing things as too large or too small, too close or too distant, skewed, or the wrong shape altogether. In some cases, only half of an object, including self-perception, was outsized. This might occur on a macro level or a micro level, which is to say that it may be entire objects or bodies or just faces, or just familiar faces or just eyes or just one eye. This might occur on a macro level or a micro level, which is to say that it may be entire objects or bodies or just faces, or just familiar faces or just eyes or just one eye.
Some of these cases involved motion, for example, the sense that some object is receding away from the observer as the observer draws nearer to it.
After a journey through Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll, and Alice in Wonderland, provides a plethora of examples in prose of some of these visual effects.
From visual hallucinations, we wonder through hallucinations of the other senses, though the data points on these are much sparser, but the left hemisphere does seem to be the culprit of most auditory hallucinations.
To summarise, I am again left to feel that the left hemisphere is a deadbeat hanger-on. It’s there in a pinch, but it’s an unreliable narrator and worker that falls asleep at the wheel. Psychology does have a position on what a normal person should see and hear and taste and touch, but normal doesn’t mean real.
I was hoping to see some information and perspective on synaesthesia, a condition where people perceive experiences through sense-perception organs different to normal. These people see music and hear smells or taste colours and so on. We consider this to be anomalous, but does it provide a fitness benefit, and are these people ahead of “normal” people or are they carrying excess baggage that creates a burden, even if the condition is otherwise benign.
Now that we’ve covered attention and perception, we’ll be covering judgment in the next chapter. I hope you’ll join me.
What are your thoughts? What did you think of this chapter? Have you experienced or know of anyone who has experienced any of these so-called anomalies. Are you familiar with any of the effects mentioned in Alice in Wonderland? Leave comments below.
Until now, I’ve considered myself to be a physicalist or materialist, but in adopting this position, I’ve had open questions. I’d tell people, “I’m a Physicalist, but I don’t understand how X, Y, or Z works.” As it happens, Analytic Idealism fills in most of these gaps. I’ve also been leery of Constitutive Panpsychism, and this theory addressed those shortcomings.
According to standard materialistic doctrine, consciousness, like space-time before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being considered just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my “green” exists, and my “sweet” exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions. This model of material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are only helpful for its description.
Firstly, it centres everything on experience. It divides the world into ‘out there’ and ‘perception’, what Bernard Kastrup calls ‘intrinsic view’ and ‘extrinsic experience’, what Schopenhauer termed ‘noumena’ and ‘phenomena’.
So how could I abandon material so quickly? The short answer is that I didn’t. It’s just that it’s not fundamental. One of the challenges I always had with the notion of materialism is the distance between perception and material. Analytic Idealism allows there to be a concealed nature out there and a revealed nature that our senses could perceive.
Before I get ahead of myself, I’ll lay a foundation. Our brains, among other things, are experience-perceiving machines—not experience-generating. Unlike some solipsistic theories, we don’t generate our reality. There is an objective reality, as it were. out there, but our perception of it is limited by our sense organs and cognitive faculties. Anything not accessible to these is imperceptible, pretty much by definition. It could be that there is nothing out there beyond perception, but I wouldn’t count on it.
I know that this invites paranormal and spiritual injections. I don’t have a propensity to make this jump, and absence of at least circumstantial evidence, I don’t expect to expend energy pondering this space. If this is your proclivity, feel free, and I’d love to see what you come up with. As it happens, Bernard Kastrup does believe in paranormal phenomena, so you’d be in good company. I’m just not ready to make that leap.
Humans do not view reality as it is. This conforms to correspondence theories of truth. In this theory, we interface reality through a virtual dashboard. Like an aeroplane with dials and gauges, our sense organs merely give USA representations of this reality in a manner suitable to our survival—fitness over truth. Just as the altimeter and speedometer are fit for navigating a plane, they are just symbols or icons representing the ‘out there’. Similar to the Matrix, the out there is unintelligible—save for Neo who is able to transcend and decode on the fly. But this is science fiction. We cannot see beyond the dashboard, and it wouldn’t benefit us if we could.
This instrument panel or dashboard, as Kastrup calls it, is all we have. And like a computer monitor that represents files and folders as beige, blue, and white rectangles, looking behind the screen isn’t going to yield you more information. At their core, these represent binary code, millions or zeros and ones that would not be useful to see in their native state. It is more useful to see the iconic representation.
It turns out that matter is simply a representation of reality through dashboard instruments. This means that physics is ultimately a science of perception, though it only has access to the map rather than the terrain.
It’s not my intent to articulate the entire theory. Besides, I’m new to it. There is much more for me to suss out. For now, it’s the best explanation for the way I perceive perception. And although I still have questions, I have fewer than before, so here’s looking to a long and fruitful relationship.
Following up on recent posts about Unknown Dimensions and Material Idealism, I was pondering the implication of the spaces between. Fundamentally, I consider myself to be a materialist or physicalist depending on which nomenclature you prefer. I don’t believe in metaphysics, but I am perturbed like Mr Potato Head, because if there exists phenomena not accessible to our senses—and the other senses noted in a prior post—we simply have no way to experience them let alone measure them.
There could exist many other physical phenomena that we not only cannot register, but we can’t even imagine what they might be. These don’t need to be metaphysical or spiritual, but they can exist in theory. Perhaps we can reference them as paraphysical.
As humans, we can extend our senses with instruments such as lenses on telescopes, microscopes, and cameras, with which we can register ultraviolet and infrared light, and so on. But I am not talking about this.
I’m not going to lose any sleep over this notion, but as ridiculous as this might seem, it is fully within the realm of possibilities. It’s neither testable nor falsifiable.
So what’s the deal?
We can’t touch this because it has no mass, but neither do sights or sounds or smells or tastes. In fact, we wouldn’t even know what we are missing. But imagine one day, a person through some genetic quirk could suddenly sense this new aspect of reality.
I imagine it would be like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, trying to convey the unconveyable to the masses. Synesthesia is odd enough for some people to wrap their brains around, but at least we can understand the concept as crossed wires or some such.
Now imagine a second and third person each aware of the others with this heightened ability. Could they exploit this to their advantage?
How might this work? What might it be? Although magnetoception, electroception, hygroreception, or echolocation might be interesting, we can already conceptualise and in some cases measure these phenomena. And we’ve already got infrared and ultraviolet covered.
The closest idea I can equate this to is that of Flatland, where higher-dimension objects interact with a lower-dimension world, but this doesn’t quite capture the essence.
Physics tells us there is no space for gods in current models, but do we need space? How much space do the molecules for ‘scent’ occupy? Could these same molecules carry the cargo for other missing sense perceptions? They may be already hiding among us.
Does anyone have any ideas—especially you storytellers and poets?
I mentioned in my last post about how Artificial Intelligence discovered a new variable—or, as the claim suggests, a new physics. This was a tie-in to the possible missing dimensions of human perception models.
Without delving too deep, the idea is that we can predict activity within dynamic systems. For example, we are all likely at least familiar with Newtonian physics—postulates such as F = ma [Force equals mass times acceleration or d = vt [distance equals velocity times time] and so on. In these cases, there are three variables that appear to capture everything we need to predict one thing given the other two that need to remain constant. Of course, we’d need to employ calculus instead of algebra if these are not constant. A dynamic system may require linear algebra instead.
When scientists represent the world, they tend to use maths. As such, they need to associate variables as proxies for physical properties and interactions in the world. Prominent statistician, George Box reminds us that all models are wrong, but some are useful. He repeated this sentiment many times, instructing us to ‘remember that models are wrong: the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful‘. But no matter how hard we try, a model will never be the real thing. The map cannot become the terrain, no matter how much we might expect it to be. By definition, a model is always an approximation.
In the Material Idealism post, the embedded video featuring Bernardo Kastrup equated human perception to the instrumentation panels of an aeroplane. Like the purported observer in a brain, the pilot can view the instruments and perform all matters of actions to manipulate the plane, including taking off, navigating through the environment, avoiding obstacles, and then landing. But this instrumentation provides only a representation of what’s ‘really’ outside.
Like mechanisms in the body, instrumentation can be ‘wired’ to trigger all sorts of warnings and alerts, whether breached thresholds or predictions. The brain serves the function of a predictive difference engine. It’s a veritable Bayesian inference calculator. Anil Seth provides an accessible summary in Being You. It relies on the senses to deliver input. Without these sense organs, the brain would be otherwise unaware and blinded from external goings on.
The brain cannot see or hear. It interprets inputs from eyes and ears to do so. Eyes capture light-oriented events, which are transmitted to the brain via optic nerves, and brain functions interpret this information into colour and shape, polarisation and hue, depth and distance, and so on. It also differentiates these data into friend or foe signals, relative beauty, approximate texture, and such. Ears provide a similar function within their scope of perception.
As mentioned, some animals have different sense perception capabilities and limitations, but none of these captures data not also accessible to humans via external mechanisms.
Some humans experience synesthesia, where they interpret certain stimuli differently, perhaps hearing colours or smelling music. We tend to presume that they are the odd ones out, but this assumption does not make it so. Perhaps these people are actually ahead of the rest of us on an evolutionary scale. I suppose time might sort that one out.
But here’s the point. Like the pilot, we can only experience what we are instrumented to experience, as limited to our sense perception and cognition faculties. If there are events not instrumented, it will be as if they don’t exist to the pilot. Can the pilot hear what’s happening outside?
This is the point of the AI experiment referenced above. Humans modelled some dynamic process that was presumed to be ‘good enough’, with the difference written off as an error factor. Artificial Intelligence, not limited to human cognitive biases, found another variable to significantly reduce the error factor.
According to the theory of evolution, humans are fitness machines. Adapt or perish. This is over-indexed on hereditary transmission and reproduction, but we are more vigilant for things that may make us thrive or perish versus aspects irrelevant to survival. Of course, some of these may be benign and ignored now but become maleficent in future. Others may not yet exist in our realm.
In either case, we can’t experience what we can’t perceive. And as Kastrup notes, some things not only evade perception but cannot even be conceived of.
I am not any more privileged than the next person to what these missing factors are nor the ramifications, but I tend to agree that there may be unknown unknowns forever unknowable. I just can’t conceive what and where.
The more I read about free will the more I feel that it is a modern invention. I don’t mean to claim that this is cut and dry, but as the image accompanying this post suggests, Sophocles’ story of Œdipus Rex is precisely about a man attempting to escape his fate. Without getting mired in a discussion about the distinction between fate and determinism, we understand that the plight of Œdipus is set in stone.
As I said, I am simplifying as I know there are authors debating free will before this, but it is also known that many people simply believed that their lives were governed. I suspect that in certain slave societies this might be a source of comfort. If Buddhist thought that life is suffering holds true, what better consolation than it was just meant to be, I might as well just make the best of it.
Enter Christianity and Aquinus. Their god may have set things up, but there can be no notion of growth or responsibility without free will, so we’d better create a narrative around this. How an omniscient creator can not know every possible plotline and twist remains a question, though rationale akin to retrograde motion has been suggested to accommodate it. Now, it seems that we’ve got a little less determined and a little freer if I think of it as a zero-sum game.
By the time Kant enters the picture, he rather spills the beans on the whole narrative. Perhaps riffing on Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him‘. Kant tells us that if we need to blame people and presume responsibility, then we need to assume free will. And so we did.
In this day and age, most people have been marinated in this worldview, so it’s difficult to see outside of this frame. The rhetoric of free will has been particularly effective. Though we have evidence of free will not being dominant in some cultural conversations, we have little idea in preliterate societies. I’d be interested to gain additional perspective from historians or anthropologists. Some may have already been published. I’ve already been so overwhelmed with the deluge of information and opinions to date. I’ve learned much and have been introduced to many new scholars. As I wrote the other day, this is somewhat daunting. I wish I were a grad student and could justify spending so much time trying to justify my position.
The Appointment in Samarra*
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
I love this story of fatalism. Originally from the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a, it’s a story about one attempting to alter their determined fate. An interesting side-comment on the original version. The last line attributes fate to the servant’s feet.
A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted
Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a
This interpretation would allow for the feet to be determined but in conflict with the intellect and reason of the head, much as is said about the conflict between the head and the heart. It could be argued that the only fate this accounts for is that of death, but that’s well beyond my scope of inquiry.
Some people seem to not quite grasp the distinction between constructed and unreal. Many things are human social constructs, from money to states and countries, to nations, to governments, to ethnicities, and to gender. Even sex. All of my favourite weasel words are constructs.
But there’s a difference between money and unicorns. No amount of money can buy you a unicorn. This is the difference between fiction and figment. We can say that money is ‘real’ insomuch as it affects our everyday lives. We transact. We buy things. We sell things. It’s an agreed-upon medium of exchange. Without going into details, long before cryptocurrency, most money is in the form of computer bits and bytes—rather it has no form. The currency and coins we can touch are a small fraction of the money that exists. The money behind your credit card or debit card is not banknotes—and it’s not gold. When a central bank wants to create money, it simply has to type a number in a computer register and press enter, and it exists.
So whilst each of these is pretend, some things are manifest in our ‘real’ world and have real-world implications. Not so much for unicorns and fairies.
* The Appointment in Samarra as retold by W Somerset Maugham (1933)
As I understand it—admittedly from a single BigThink article, so there’s that—Lanza is trying to one-up Descartes and jump into the domain of Wittgenstein’s many minds conundrum. I suppose that this is another dualistic theory, but I am not likely to spend many cycles on it in the near term.
My question is that if at Time0, a reality is projected—my word—by the many minds, and at Time1, You enter the picture, and at Time2, the Exiting Observer is leaving the picture. how is reality shaped by these events? And are they events, or are they merely imagined? Is this an entirely solipsistic endeavour? Is this like Star Trek’s Borg? You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.
This also feels a lot like Jung’s Collective Unconscious on steroids. I’ll stop commenting here for now and consider this nothing more than a distraction. And I am not ready to jump on a panpsychism bandwagon any time soon.