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.


As long as science treats consciousness as something that exists in the world, along with ducks, thunderstorms and gamma rays, it will find out nothing. Consciousness is not something to be found in the world, it is what gives us the world in the first place. Bah.

With wonder, I have stumbled upon the work of Jakob von Uexküll, who died in 1944.  His work is hard to find, out of print or never even translated into English.  One article is available (I have scanned it in below.  Enjoy!).  It is a translation of a 1934 original, and it appeared in the obscure journal Semiotica in 1992, almost 60 years later!  It is called “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”, and my copy tells me that it was originally published in English in “Instinctive Behavior”, trans by Claire H. Schiller in 1957.  It is the most charming academic article I have ever come across.  The discussion is helped along by no less than 53 figures, most of which are slightly fanciful attempts to depict the subjective experience of non-human animals, ranging from the humble paramecium up to the dog chasing a stick.  Each of these is an Umwelt, and they are amazingly close to my notion of the P-world!  In fact, von Uexküll even calls them “phenomenal worlds” that arise from the unification of a “perceptual world” and an “effector world”, or from the unification of perception and action.  How good is that!

But it gets better.  He pegs and discusses the subject/object distinction in many places.  He produces an early cybernetic model showing the reciprocal relations between subjective experience and environment, and says “the subject and the object are dovetailed into one another, to constitue a systematic whole”.  His beautiful description of the Umwelt of a tick has been reproduced in Andy Clark’s “Being There”.  He points out how each animal encounters an entirely subjective form of space and time, and how the activity of the animal is related to the experience of time.  “Without a living subject, there can be no time”. Mind you, he makes the questionable assumption that there is something like a quantum of experience that in humans is about 1/18 sec, and that is modality independent.  But that is more than compensated for by his delightful Fig 14 showing a snail held atop a large rubber ball carried by water.

This ought to sound familiar: “As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence.”

Where I speak of a “phenomenal bubble”, he says “We may therefore picture all the animals around us, be they beetles, butterfliesm flies, mosquitoes or dragonflies that people a meadow, enclosed within soap bubbles, which confine their visual space and contain all that is visible to them….Only when this fact is clearly grasped shall we recognize the soap bubble which encloses each of us as well.  Then we shall also see all our fellow men in their individual soap bubbles, which intersect each other smoothly, because they are built up of subjective perceptual signs.  There is no space independent of subjects.  If we still cling to the fiction of an all-encompassing universal space, we do so only because this conventional fable facilitates mutual communication”.

He has a view of nervous system activity appropriate to his time.  He considers central organization, and the relative independence of reflex arcs, when he says: “when a dog runs, the animal moves its legs; when a sea urchin runs, the legs move the animal”.  That’s a nice quote for later use in discussing agency!

Long before Gibson’s theory of affordances, we see von Uexküll saying: “How do we manage to see sitting in a chair, drinking in a cup, climbing in a ladder, none of which are given perceptually?  In all the objects that we have learned to use, we see the function which we perform with them as surely as we see their shape or color.”

There are limitations.  He reminds me of Dennett in his ability to drive a whole wagonful of arguments up to the edge of a cliff, but he then refuses to jump off.  Thus, at one point toward the end we read: “…Thus we ultimately reach the conclusion that each subject lives in a world composed of subjective realities alone, and that even the Umwelten themselves represent only subjective realities… Whoever denies the existence of subjective realities, has failed to recognize the foundations of his own Umwelt.”  And yet earlier, he commits just this error when he says: “The Umwelt of any animal that we wish to investigate is only a section carved out of the environment which we see spread around it-and this environment is nothing but our own human world.”  Aarghh, how did he not notice that error?

He comes across as a well meaning pantheist at the very end: “And yet all these diverse Umwelten are harbored and borne by the One that remains forever barred to all Umwelten.  Behind all the worlds created by Him, there lies concealed, eternally beyond the reach of knowledge, the subject – Nature.”

Thomas Nagel does not cite him.  Hang your head in shame, Thomas!

Here’s the article, in two scans: [Part 1] [

If the now is meaningless in the R-world, and if we don’t exactly live on a razor edge in the P-world (P-worlds have depth), then where is ‘now’?  And what the hell does the “here and now” of baba ram dass and others mean?  Is ‘now’ just a concept that is useful enough to be shared, but which has become attached to this narrative of the razor edge.  photo.jpg

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