Monday, December 6, 2010

What sees “change”?

If we conceive of our selves as a pack of neurons, ones which guide our thoughts, then even this conception of ourselves is itself a thought, one conjured up by the pack of neurons. Is thought an illusion? But how can one say that the very method by which you arrive at your conclusions is itself an illusion? Are conclusions an illusion? The all or nothing materialist must eventually take the entire world either as being an illusion or as being entirely comprised of thought, in which case the all or nothing materialist is now an idealist.

If one’s thoughts about being a neuronal structure is itself another thought, then thoughts seem to be primary for experience and any conceptions of reality that might happen outside of experience. What cannot be reduced to thought?

Some things cannot be reduced to thought. I have had times, such as when I got knocked unconscious, that I blacked out and had no thoughts. Another time, I was put under anesthesia and was completely in the dark for a good five hours. These seem to be experiences of inexperience, when all is black and nothing. But is it really nothing? It is true that there are no thoughts in such experiences, and yet are there experiences? Even this experience of darkness is seen later on as having been an experience of darkness, which was outside of thought, by a comparison with ongoing present experience.

How can this comparison with present experience be assessed? Can it be formalized or put into a model? The objective here is to lay the conditions from which precisely “change” of any kind could be assessed, from which a comparison between past and present could be made. This is where language gets tricky and mistakes are made. Are we saying that the past gets held up and examined, and then the present gets held up and examined, and the difference between the two is figured out? This must be the case, but the past must be understood properly as something taking place in and not desituated from the present itself. The experience of recalling the past does not take place in the past, but in the present. What, then, could be a distinction between the past and the present-- would they not be the same? We want to say that the present is a current experiencing. Many think that this easily solves the matter until the past is also realized to be a present experiencing, and that any further distinction between the two seems impossible. The past becomes yet one more aspect of human existence that must be an illusion, along with free will and the self.

One way to distinguish between the past and the present is to invite a dualistic conception. Any notion of the self that actually is a self and not an illusion and that is in a world that is actually a world and not an illusion, is necessarily dualistic. The dualism of a self in a world is that of an outer coming in and an inner going out. The world shows up as the coming in of raw sensory data at the same time that we ourselves show up as directing ourselves toward that sensory world. It is in this directing-toward that sensory inputs are internalized and show up as thoughts directing over that internalization. Thoughts never direct over the sensory world coming in, but only over senses already internalized. This internalization becomes indistinguishable from memory.

We look over our lives in this internalization as a changing of desires, reasons, callings, experiences, and so on. Yet, had we really existed, or experienced, as such a being and nothing more, we simply would have experienced one desire at one time and another desire at another time, without any ability to step back and assess that any change has occurred. This stepping back from where one could see one’s life as change is a crucial move, one that must be accounted for. For the no self theorist, this is easy--change is an illusion, or, is a vague mental faculty that gives a ‘sensation’ of having changed. Again, the whole world must necessarily become an illusion. However, if one looks at change as something knowable and reasonable, one arrives back at an immovable self as the one possibility for this knowledge.

For now, though, let's attempt the task of making a provisional model that can assess change. The following conception should be uncontroversial given recent breakthroughs in neurology. If we take the neuronal structure of the brain to be that accumulation of the outer coming in (the sensory neurons) as well as thought going out, reinforcing, and directing this structure (the motor neurons, which also coordinate and change the structures of the brain itself as studies in cognitive therapy and neural plasticity have recently shown), then the comparison, as far as it takes place within the brain, is a comparison between some inner going-over structures. In comparing any two aspects, there must necessarily be another aspect that does the comparing. How does this other aspect compare? Does it combine the two? This alone won’t do the trick. Combining the two aspects merely creates an averaging of the two aspects into one, which then becomes an average experience somewhere between what the two structures had while apart, and this cannot be reliable. To see how this cannot be reliable, imagine a comparison of event A that experienced surfing on the beach with that of event B that experienced jury duty. An averaging of the two would not be reliable at best and would be complete nonsense at worst. Yet, even given that these two come together and give a coherent account, what change has been experienced? Two events have become one event that is then streamlined into experience and this ability to observe that a change of experience has occurred is still unaccounted for. What model of experience could be made that prevents experience from becoming experienced as a mere fluid change that does not have the comparing vantage point from which one can say that indeed the experienced has changed?

Invoking any third aspect that can assess change as itself being a neuronal structure seems untenable. Given two aspects that do not combine, but hold their differences separate to a third aspect, how does this third aspect exist as something other than an a priori vantage point of taking the two, distinct aspects as they are themselves, while remaining unmoved by those aspects from which to aquire a relative view of change?

A common view might hold that computers are already able to do this task. After all, don’t computers change according to what’s on the screen and are always moving their memory around their stationary hardware? Even if computers were conscious of all the folders and tasks we perform on them, they would still have this very problem of seeing that they have ever changed--it would be a completely streamlined experience for them.

Take opening multiple folders on a desktop, for example. When I click on the web browser, the software of the operating system, which is on the hard drive and is in control of the rest of hard drive which it itself is not on, maps out which part of the hard drive will be read for the processor to move it on to the RAM and move the pictures on the screen to display the web browser. I now click on a folder, and a folder is opened in the same way and now covers the web browser. The conscious computer now feels its RAM becoming cramped and perhaps even feels pressure on the web browser from the folder on top of it. Does the conscious computer know that it has changed? No, the computer has only streamlined from one motion to another with no faculty for knowing its previous states. RAM is called, Random Access Memory, yet the computer cannot be said, even if it were conscious of our using it, to have remembered anything beyond a present happening.

It might be tempting to look to a super computer of the future and to see it as knowing that it itself has changed, but this temptation does not come from our knowledge of computers and their abilities as logical systems that move from one task to the next, but rather the temptation comes from our vantage point of already having the ability to assess change as change from a fixed vantage point of the self, and from our inability to step off of this vantage point in order to see what the difference is.


  1. I tend to distrust words when they are used to try and pin down reality in a linear fasion. One word follows another as one thought follows another. And we can find books with so many words and words about words about words about words. get the picture? ;))
    So it has interested me to look at the origin of words---the way we use words and the way words and thoughts--thinking words--use us.

    Several diverse avenues have I gone down to explore this, eg. heard of John Allegro? He wrote a book which has had a huge influence on my life. The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross he was a person chosen to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls, and being a Philologist he was deeply interested in looking into the origins of words.
    So for example---say we find a word, and the word has a god's name, and we look deeper, and we dis-cover that this god's name is really refering to a sacred plant name, and so we look deeper and find what this sacred plant is, and then we go looking for it, and we EAT it, and then we are not intellectually looking at a word now but experiencing *direct* reality!

    Another deep influence was reading the book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram where he shows who the phnetic alphabet more and more removed our sense of reality from the sensual.

    So I am wary of words when they can do that. Where their spell--if you like--is to keep you fixated on their glamour.


  2. Thanks for the post, muzuzuzus. I also distrust words that try and pin down reality because reality usually ends up being bigger than the small aspect that a word can pin down. I might make a post about just that topic.

    For your next point--the origin of words, I think that we must look to the source of words. This could also take up an entire post. There are words that reference words that reference words, and there are a few ways to think of this statement.

    That words reference one another could be a heuristic statement about meaning--how the meaning of a word comes from the meaning of a sentence and the meaning of a sentence comes from the meaning of the word. This, I think, gives a clue about the holistic aspect of language.

    What you are saying in that statement though, I think, is that there is an origin of words and that origin is other words, or perhaps a primordial word. I think this is correct if we understand this primordial word. The primordial word is not itself a word that represents what is pointed out, but is more basic than that. It is an underlying 'feature' of the world that it can be pointed out and shared by way of language. This is what Heidegger called discourse. Discourse is the underlying ability to be pointed out. It is 'underlying' because it is there whether any words are ever ascribed or not. It is always there with the possibility that words may be ascribed to it.

    As far as the "spell of words", that is another fascinating topic. As pointing out the world is an activity, it can become fixed and rigid so that "controlling the discourse", as postmodernists would say, allows one to control the activity of others.

    All for another time.

  3. Hi Aleksis

    In that book I linked you too The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram ,
    he shows how the phoentic alphabet tends to lose contact with the thing word points to. Ie., language starts out with pictures representing actual sensual reality. But as phonetic alphabet becomes the text there becones this distance as now the contact is the SOUND of the letter, and sylable and word

    So eg 'mushroom' or 'plant'---there is no little picture of shroom or plant but the sound. However, to somehow REVEAl the source of the mushroom---lets say a magic muchroom--we go into the words, and wordplay, all the way to the picture--that original picture and then we find where it ACTUALLY grows and we go and we pluck it eat it and then......