Seeing ourselves

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.

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.

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.

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.


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