I have suggested the image of a square soap bubble to help in understanding how one can appear to be discrete, autonomous, separate, and yet be part of all that exists, unified with world and all that happens within it.  I find it helpful. The bubble is discrete, separate, has a distinct identity, yet at the same time, no part of it has an independent existence.


Here is Maturana on a similar theme:

Systems as composite entities have a dual existence, namely, they exist as singularities that operate as simple unities in the domain in which they arise as totalities, and at the same time they exist as composite entities in the domain of the operation of their components.  The relation between these two domains is not causal; these two domains do not intersect, nor do the phenomena which pertain to one occur in the other” (2002, Cybernetics & Human Knowing, 9:5–34)


Take some flat tiles. Arrange them together to cover a small area. If you live in a flat place, you can make the resulting surface quite large. As you are of human size, it will not be possible to notice that the local impression of flatness contrasts with the large-scale properties of the Earth, which is approximately spherical, and hence not flat.

Take some uncontroversial propositions as premises. Combine them and reason deductively to arrive at new propositions. If your starting premises are rich, you can generate a large set of related propositions related to the first by deduction. These, too, appear uncontroversial, and compel agreement. A recondite theorem by Kurt Gödel assures you that there are macroscopic properties of the set of propositions that are “uncontroversial” that you will not encounter in your purely local reasoning.

Reasoning is always local: from these propositions to those. Rationalists believe that reasoning delivers certainty, and is a fine basis for belief. But if we look at the application of reasoning in all domains, we find bizarrely incompatible belief sets. Where these belong to exotic others, we interpret them as superstition, religion, culture, anything but reason. Our reasoning, so it goes, should not be prey to such pollution. Yet in the most exotic and incompatible cultures, we still find the clothes of reason; arguments are built with premises and conclusions. The premises, we say, are no longer uncontroversial. Those others do not seem to be aware of the limits of their reasoning.

Within contemporary Western scientific discourse, every attempt is made to keep out the spooks of religion, the chimera of mere culture, and the fabrications of fantasy, we seem to detect in the exotic others. But in discussion of human individuals, or persons, there arises a peculiar entity, the psychological subject, to whom agency is attributed, and with which we identify. We quibble about its exact makeup and constitution, even its location, but it would be very upsetting to discover that it might be no more real than Krishna, Gabriel, Satan or Mary Poppins. For if it were to be banished, we should no longer be able to establish meaningful premises that referred to our valued selves.

Discussion of the person sometimes refers to a body, but more frequently, and importantly, it refers to the locus of feelings, sentiments, and experience. Attempts to naturalise the presumed domain of experience have led to such unstable suggestions as the equation of the activity of brain with “mind”. The presumption of a cognitive system that causally gives rise to actions is another such attempt. Phenomenological perspectives share the belief of neurophysiological reductionists that there is a one-person domain of lived experience that could, in principle, be naturalised.

Lurking underneath all such efforts is some kind of P-world assumption that is tied to the notion of the present moment, the here-and-now for a subject, in which qualia exist, arising from sensorimotor embedding in a world. Time, and the relation between subject and world, are inextricably intertwined. Furthermore, the P-world is conventionally held to be distinct from, and prior to, the fabric of conceptual structure required to imbue the human world with stable entities and forms of organisation.

But the agent with its P-world is, itself, a pre-theoretic assumption of a kind with the pre-theoretic assumptions of other cultures. It is a Protestant, post-Enlightenment creation, upon which we have founded legal systems, ethical systems, states, and our (not-so) modern world.

When we recognize this, and accept that some such assumption will always underlie our discussions about ourselves, we see that we need to place bounds on rationality. It does not extend everywhere. We will always have to have discussions with others whose beliefs, no matter how scientifically schooled, are radically different from our own. This requires diplomacy. We need to learn to speak with caution.

First, we recognize that we are committed, somehow, to the notion of the P-world: the domain of first person singular, the now, extended into the specious present.

Then we recognize that it is hard to find the borders of the P-world in space-time.  We can track the limits of the senses, but memory, feeling and emotion ensure that we have a hard time finding borders.

Then we realize that the specious present extends into the future through the (Bayesian) notion of prediction.  Most things in the P-world are utterly predictable if we adopt a sufficiently modest temporal window.

Agents, or other sources of action, in the P-world introduce limits to predictability.  They thus represent a border.

You are the border of me.

Addendum: If we engage in strictly synchronized behavior, then we become much more predictable for each other, and the border recedes.

PPS: The hell of solitary confinement in prison is the openness, not the fictitious boundaries.

The pharasaic artform, the resonator, is the experiential equivalent of the Newtonian three-ball problem.  There are three media elements.  Any two together will lend itself to the creation of a simple narrative.  But three at once, with no actual connection between them, becomes entirely unpredictable.  As you try to see the whole thing, to frame it in your view finder, and exert maximal grip, it defies a predictive analysis.  Micro-fluctuations become amplified, symmetry is broken by a random event one level down.  This lightweight structure, where meaning arises without effort, this is you-here-now-awareness-attention.  It is a tool, designed like a mantra.  And it must be allowed to run for at least 30 seconds.  Otherwise, that ain’t part of the game.

In my P-world musings, I am at some pains to avoid pinning down the P-world.  Indeed, the P-world is not an object, or thing of some sort, and considered as such, a P-world does not exist.  Husserl seems to have trodden a similar path in his later work, the Crisis of European Science.  In that work, he makes liberal use of the notion of the Lebenswelt, which, as far as I can see, is roughly co-extensive with the P-world.  Like any good phenomenologist, he clings rigorously to the centrality of lived experience, but with the Lebenswelt, he seems to move further from the silly idea that there might exist a technique that would allow you to capture, and then describe, experience in some raw form.  He also correctly points out the tragic consequences of ignoring the P-world/Lebenswelt by science.

So much blood and ink has been spilt trying to bridge the gap between something called mind and something called world. The gap I seek to bridge is instead between something called experience and something called language. This we can do. And with that the game is won.

So I’m reading Tecumseh Fitch (paper here) on the Biolinguistic Enterprise.  He asserts that there are 3 extremely hard problems that stand in the way of bringing biolinguistics to the stage of real science.  Oddly, I seem to have something to say about all three, and from the way he poses the problems, I doubt we are in any danger of reaching agreement any time soon.

The 3 problems are:

  1. We don’t know how brains generate minds,
  2. We don’t know how genes control development form single cell to complex organism, and
  3. We don’t have a theory of meaning.

My brief comments on each after the break.


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