Perhaps we could democratise not the jobs of authority (let them be done by competent people), but the selection of the sacred texts and objects.  I want to vote for the the Ghent Altar.  Media and screens as channels of engagement with the objects of veneration could become the sacred objects.  People might develop variants of potter’s nod, which would look remarkably like the bobbing found in prayer.  Let everyone’s world be real, might be our slogan.

On the outer panels of the altar, there are four figures in one row: the flanks are the patrons, all fleshy, very very real and present.  The middle two are saints and they are paintings of statues.  Representations of representations.  Because they are above mere humans in the neo-Platonic hierarchy, you cannot see them, which would be to be in their presence.  You must content yourself thus with a representation.

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.

The solipsistic stance is often compared to living in a soap bubble.  Von Uexküll even used this analogy in talking of the Merkwelt.  But consider the square soap bubble (  It might think that its squareness belongs to it alone.  But from the outside we can see that no part of it has any independent existence whatsoever.  The square bubble exists only as a relatively stable equilibrium among the many tensive forces that exist between the surrounding more-or-less spherical bubbles.  Its squareness is entirely relationally constituted.  So to with the P-world, or the solipsist’s bubble.

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.

Here, and elsewhere, I have tried to reify the concept of a first person point of view, introducing the P-world, or phenomenal world, which is all that properly belongs to the first person, and the R-world, which is noumenal, eternal, unknowable.  I did so, not to argue that these were terrifically real or accurate descriptions of things.  They weren’t, and aren’t.  Instead, they collectively constitute an interesting and useful stance to take with respect to a great many issues that can not have simple answers. Many grand themes in metaphysics, religion, and even mundane matters such as memetics and mental health, may fruitfully be discussed as if these were real things.  They are, however, concepts.  They are thus no more real than teapots or apples.  Useful.  Indeed we need to assume their reality for some levels of discourse.  But not possessed of any intrinsic essence; not ultimately real.  They are reifications of that which cannot be reified. There can be no such things.

With that, my entire philosophical inquiry changes direction slightly.  I don’t believe I ever strove for accuracy, or verisimilitude.  But I might have tried to be right.  Now, I see it is rather an exercise in dialectics.  This is not the (or ‘a’) right way to think.  This may be a useful way to think, just as doing biceps curls is a useful kind of exercise.

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.

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.


This post has some lovely things to say about the relation between cause and effect, derived from considerations of the frame of reference of a physical theory.  For a natural scientist from a past civilization to have the concept of conservation of momentum is astounding.  But his conception of weight is interesting.  We now differentiate between mass and weight.  He didn’t.  If you hold gravity constant, there is no difference.  His theory was completely consistent within its conventional frame of reference.  Science strives to expand that frame of reference, leaving old truths new in a new way, with more context.

With P-world theory, my goal is to provide a little more context.  A framework within what we know has its place, but it is a larger place, admitting of more kinds of truth.

Chomsky points out that we have lost all consensus and intuition about what should count as physical. That may be so for the theoretician, but for joe soap, when he bangs on the table and insists “this is real, this, this”, what does physical mean for him? If asked, he will insist that something is real if he can see it with his own eyes. But there’s a big haptic element too: Doubting Thomas had to dip his fingers into Jesus’s wounds. Presumably there is an acoustic element to it, as the big trio of vision/audition/touch are inseperable and almost interchangeable (haptic-visual sensory substitution is possible, but haptic-olfactory never would be). The evolving fake reality of the video game is a good place to look: there’s all three there, and no attempt to do smell or taste.

In considering the function of the nervous system, a basic fact seems to have gotten lost in the latter half of the 20th century, with the advent of cognitivism. Thus I’m encouraged to find, in a lecture from 1884, the following simple truth:

If the doctrine of evolution be true, all nervous centres must be of sensori-motor constitution.

The closely related pairs of perception/action and sensory/motor coordination (or constitution, if you will) are the bedrock out of which subjective experience arises. It is not wrong to say that brains give rise to minds, it is just wholly misleading. The bedrock itself is very real, but not directly knowable. Out of it arises both the phenomenal world, and ultimately, the subject/object split, that allows us to spin tales about ourselves and a world, and the relation between the two. Within those worlds, we find brains. They are part of the world revealed by Mind.

Some more thoughts on this nice article (how nice that a lecture from 1884 is available, and easily at that!):

Some years ago, I asked the question: ” Of what ‘substance’ can the organ of mind be composed, unless of processes representing movements and impressions? And how can the convolutions differ from the inferior centres, except as parts representing more intricate co-ordinations of impressions and movements in time and space than they do ?

Of course the concepts and language available to me are at some remove from this gem. But he here alludes to the elaboration (I have called it ‘mediation’ elsewhere) of the perception/action relation that gives rise to phenomenal time and space. I suspect the author would not go so far as to say that this relation gives rise to time and space, and yet, if we are careful with our words, that is what I contend. The caveat that needs to be applied is the usual one of keeping the reality of phenomenal experience directly in our sights. The P/A relationship gives rise to phenomenal space and time. Our linguistic abilities, broadly construed, allow us to compare measurements, which in turn allow us to infer a reference scale, which we then mistakenly take as an objective standard. We must always work from the phenomenal to the domain of interpersonal coordination, which in science is the simple act of measurement.

The Croonian Lectures on Evolution and Dissolution of the Nervous System, J. Hughlings Jackson, British Medical Journal, Apr. 12, 1884, 703–707.

Next Page »