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.

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.

I’m reading Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence, about which more anon (if I ever figure it out).  Latour’s approach demands a bountiful almost unbridled metaphysics.  I like it, and fail to understand it, at the same time.

And I’m watching Kelso contribute to a debate about the origin of movement, or the notion of agency.  Kelso makes the surprising suggestion that the fundamental unit of analysis to understand animate movement is the synergy, and that that should replace the reflex arc, which should make John Dewey happy.

I’d like to join these two dots.  Latour’s menagerie is richer and more varied than the theory of coordination dynamics can ever reach, but it lacks any kind of rigour.  And yet, a problem I, and many others, have had with coordination dynamics is that the full rigour of the approach, with nice equations and quantifiable degrees of freedom and such, all that is only available for periodic components.  Oscillators, if you will.  And I have long ago objected to building a model up on the basis of oscillators.  For they are clocks, and biological beings have no clocks.


The immune system embodies a simple binary distinction: self or other.  When other appears where self should be, action is taken. We dramatize this with our talk of pathogens, antibodies, attack and counterattack, infection, and the like, but of course such epithets only make sense from the point of view of the immune system.  Pathogens are not ethically challenged entities, and antibodies are not little determined Terminators. 

As we understand ourselves better, we may find ourselves making a similar distinction.  For now, the issue of what “we” are seems to be undiscussed, leaving it in an odd schizophrenic state of both Mind and Body.  But our discourse is improving, and as we learn more, so the “we” that we identify with will necessarily change.  This is a good thing, as the only way to face the large questions of planetary husbandry will require us to be plastic and capable of learning here.

Looking at the display of mass synchronization of the North Korean Arirang festival (2011), I am struck how the display, including linguistic symbols, is visible only from one point, and that point is usually occupied by the little dictator.  It is thus an anamorph for the dictator.  

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 quaint notion of objective truth is on a collision course with the practice of science.  The former is without value or significance.  Yet science should, we believe, be in our own interests.  That requires agreement on what we are for resolution.