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)


In stuffing knowledge into heads, we mischaracterise everything. Here is a nice illustration. This is one of the first moving pictures every shown, having among the suite of 10 films commercially screened by the Lumiere brothers in Paris in 1895.

Given the novelty of the technology, and the age of the child, we would confidently assert that the child does not know or understand that it is being filmed, and so we might attribute its motions or behaviour to itself alone.

But the child is embedded in a social situation that includes two caregivers, and it is responding sensitively to each and every thing they do. They know about the filming, and they are greatly affected by it. So the child’s behaviour is equally affected. Knowledge lies between us, not in heads.

It takes little effort to extrapolate from this to the laboratory of the behavioural psychologist.

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.

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.

There is a myth perpetrated by the non-discipline of cognitive psychology, that knowledge divides into (at least) two kinds of things: procedural knowledge and declarative knowledge.  The former, it is grudgingly acknowledged, is poorly handled by algorithms, and is evidenced only in the doing, as when I tie my bootlaces.  The latter, illustrated by the sentence “Paris is the capital of France”, is assumed to be free of any particular situation, and to be encodable.  It is the kind of knowledge folks in AI believe they are equipping their programs with. But this is nonsense.  There is no sentence in the computer, and the sentence “Paris is the capital of France” could index knowledge only in its use by a linguistic being who can skillfully cope with language.  Words are not fundamentally different from bootlaces, and we can not teach machines anything, for they can not know.

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 started working on a sketch today that links two ideas, and the combination is surprising.

On the one hand we have O’Regan and Noe’s take on sensorimotor correspondences.  This is actually not far from a lot of Gibsonian work within Ecological Psychology.  The basic idea is that in perceiving, we are skillfully engaging with the world, and that practiced and tuned action gives rise to a corresponding characteristic change in the sensory array.  Gibsonians would say this is the basis of direct perception.  Enaction-heads would say this is skillful coping, or some such.

On the other hand, we have the peculiar issue of sensorimotor synchronization, perhaps best illustrated by a group of people dancing or beating drums together.  In the scientific literature, this has withered to a laboratory situation in which people tap in time to a metronome. (The horror, the horror.)  This is a singularly human achievement, the very odd animal counterexample notwithstanding (yes, Snowball, I’m looking at you and the Gelada baboons).  A fuller account of the basis for sensorimotor synchronization would help us enormously.  It may underpin a burgeoning theory of memes; it speaks to Gibson’s intuition that the nervous system displays resonant properties; it fits with a range of specific situations, from air guitar to stuttering.  All can be described, in some fuzzy essence, with a conceptually simple model in which two processes enter into a coupled form of synergy which looks like resonance within and among coupled systems with many degrees of freedom.


Chomsky claims of late that recursion is the one formal property that singles out human language from sophisticated social signaling more generally.*   I think he may have a point. It is not that recursion is that great per se.  As we are well aware, we don’t make unlimited use of it – nothing that requires such an awesomely creative tool.  With center embedding, we get lost after about the third recursive element.

But recursion is a sign that we are free of the restrictions of the meat.  Animal “syntaxes” are, in fact, more akin to prosodic structures, with parts made out of the coordinative affordances of the vocal tract.  They do not have recursion, as it would make no sense to have a unit like the syllable inside another syllable, or a foot inside a foot.  These units are performative, and deeply engrained in the meat.

The recent work of Stan Dehaene, Liz Spelke and Susan Carey suggests something similar.  There, language is seen as a fluid vehicle for passing meaning around between domains of organization that have long phylogenetic histories, and that are, thus, special-purpose.  The emerging notion I am developing of the P-domain may help here.

*This has given rise to some discomfort with the claim that has recently arisen that the Amazonian Piraha tribe speak a non-recursive language – the jury is still out on that one.

The myth of the bacterium, I claim, provides us with a decent way of talking about the origin of subjective experience.  But this language needs to be wielded carefully.

From Weber and Varela:

The key here is to realize that because there is an individuality that finds itself produced by itself it is ipso facto a locus of sensation and agency, a living impulse always already in relation with its world.

Now that leaves much to be desired.  It uses the term ‘sensation’, which is not only mentalistic, it is positively Victorian!  It uses the term agency, and that argument is being made, it is not to be assumed.  The deep connection between self-production and subjectivity is not made at all.  My exegesis of the myth will hopefully help to restate that a bit more helpfully.

I am not alone in wondering what we mean by the term “physical”. Chomsky pointed out recently that the term is anything but simple or clear (ref lost: see articles sent around before his UCD visit in 2009).  I have previously pointed out that unreflective use of the term seems to confuse two senses.  The first is exemplified by the insistence of common sense, where one bangs on the table to emphasize its solidity and says “This, this is physical”.  That might be termed Phenomenal-physical, and the best known example is Doubting Thomas, who wants to put his finger in Christ’s wounds before he can accept the resurrection.  The Phenomenal-physical has time and space coordinates centered at the Now and the I, respectively, or with a spatial coordinate system centered somewhere behind the eyes, and a temporal coordinate system centered at the present.

We can contrast this with the more usual use of the term Physical to refer to a universe of kickable objects.  This universe depends on a naive understanding of Newton, and a physics of particles in motion.  Its temporal scale is measured in seconds, and has no center, but extends from minus to plus infinity.  This is the realm in which masses are acted upon by forces, and it provides the framework within which we can discuss measurements.  If we can build a meter, and can agree on what it is that that instrument measures, then it is probably a physical quantity.  Though this is problematic. We might measure enthusiasm using the intensity of applause as a proxy, but we would be reluctant to admit “enthusiasm” to the set of physical variables.  The relationship between the use of measuring instruments and the set of concepts assumed to underlie those observations is anything but simple.  Let us call this Newton-Physical.

Since the early 20th Century, we must add a third kind of Physical to this menagerie: the Theoretical-Physical.  This is simply the domain of theoretical physics. I have no desire to talk further about it, except to say that our best account of the Theoretical-physical is constantly changing, and it can be weird.  Interesting issues such as the role of the observer, the directional arrow of time, and such like arise here.

The Theoretical-Physical routinely violates common sense, and is very distant from the Phenomenal-Physical.  Interestingly, the domain of Newton-Physical can be understood as a bridge between the two.  Newtonian physics works best for mid-sized objects at moderate time-scales, where the reference scale for defining mid-sized and moderate is the phenomenal world, and its best known exemplar: the apple that falls on Newton’s head.  Theoretical physics originally strove to underpin our knowledge of the phenomenal world, and it did a fantastic job.  As Theoretical Physics has diverged from Newtonian Physics, so the kind of phenomenon to be accounted for has moved further and further away from the phenomenal, strictly considered.  The immensely huge and the very tiny, the extremely long and unimaginably short, these provide the realms of discouse for Theoretical Physics, and as we approach the mid-sized and mid-durational, so Newtonian Physics does a better and better job, at the expense of a proliferation of basic entities.  A simple and beautiful physical theory will be impossibly removed from the world of apples and teapots.

Theoretical physics thus approaches the R-world, albeit in terms that starkly drive home the distance between us and our familiar worlds, and the underlying Noumenal realm.

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